Shropshire and Montgomeryshire Railway

A Short  History of the Shropshire and Montgomeryshire Railway

By Russell Mulford

Of the many passers-by from day to day, there are few who give more than a cursory glance at the former railway station in Abbey Foregate, Shrewsbury, once the terminus of the Shropshire and Montgomeryshire Railway – one of the last survivors of the smaller railway concerns that were once so numerous in this country.

Abbey Foregate Station Building

This line formed part of a grandiose scheme (which never materialised) to provide a through route from London to Ireland, involving a shorter sea passage by the use of Nevin, a small harbour on the Caernarvonshire coast, as the packet station instead of Holyhead.

The railway owes its origins to the scheme for an alternative route to Ireland providing a shorter sea passage, which was born in the mid 1800s. Nothing came of the scheme at that time, but in 1861 a Bill was introduced in Parliament to form a West Midland, Shrewsbury, and Coast of Wales Railway. The Bill was rejected, but in the next year the West Shropshire Mineral Railway was authorised to build a line from Westbury station on the Shrewsbury and Welshpool Railway to Llanymynech. This plan was altered in 1863, when a line from Llanymynech to Hookagate was sanctioned, including a branch to serve the quarries of the Breidden Hills.

Still with one eye on the London to Ireland scheme, the company changed its name to the “Shrewsbury and North Wales Railway.” But there was another project afoot for a line from Shrewsbury to Market Drayton and North Staffordshire, and this was known as the Shrewsbury and Potteries Railway Company. The two amalgamated, and the concern took the resounding title of “The Potteries, Shrewsbury and North Wales Railway” – the “Potts.”


The Route of the Shropshire and Montgomeryshire Railway

Click on map to enlarge

Beyond Llanymynech the line was actually built as far as the quarries at Nantmawr (about four miles further on), but this section was soon taken over by the Cambrian Railways*and incorporated in the GWR system.

The line had been constructed as far as Hookagate in the Shrewsbury direction, but if it was to become a through route to the Potteries it must continue into Shrewsbury and establish a station there. This was where one of the first setbacks was received. The existing companies, GWR and LNWR, refused to grant the new company admission to the general station – not unnaturally, as its promoters were seeking to establish a route that would work in direct competition with them and might kill some of their trade. So the Potteries line had to go to the considerable expense of erecting a new station on the site opposite the Abbey Church.

The line between Shrewsbury and Llanymynech, together with the extension to Nantmawr, was opened in August 1866. Between Shrewsbury and Market Drayton preparations for the Potteries extension had already been completed, and the work was about to begin, when the financial crisis came, and everything was suspended. The work was never resumed. The Potteries, Shrewsbury and North Wales Railway had to remain a small light railway serving a very sparsely populated district, instead of the hoped-for trunk route connecting a great centre of industry with Wales and Ireland.

The branch to the Breiddens was completed, the Severn being crossed at Melverlev bv means of a wooden bridge.

In 1880 the Board of Trade inspected the line, and decided that the track must be renewed. But the company could not afford to do anything of the kind. At first trains were restricted to 25mph, but as nothing was done to comply with the Board’s decision an order was made for the line to be closed on June 22 of the same year.

This was the end of the Potteries, Shrewsbury and North Wales Railway. Engines, rolling stock, station buildings and all equipment belonging to the line were left to rot where they stood. No train services were operated again for more than 30 years.

Derelict for three decades, the line was re-opened to goods and passenger traffic in 1911 with the more appropriate name of the “Shropshire & Montgomeryshire Railway.”

The engineer given the responsible task of re-conditioning the line was the late Colonel H.F. Stephens, under whose skilful leadership the metals that had been so long forgotten were once again made fit for traffic. Six engines were purchased from various other railway companies to work the trains, together with several passenger coaches and large quantities of goods stock. A new girder bridge had to be erected across the Severn at Melverley, to replace the fallen wooden one, so that the mineral traffic from the Breidden Quarry was not opened up until early in 1912.

The passenger service was operated for more than 20 years, during which period it steadily diminished in quantity. Only on Saturdays, which was market day in Shrewsbury, was it ever used extensively, while on bank holidays and special occasions there was a heavy traffic to the Breiddens when an old coach that had once been used by Queen Victoria was pressed into service. The last passenger timetable was published in February 1933, and it continued to be observed until the service was withdrawn on November 6 of the same year – although freight traffic continued.

Altogether the Shropshire & Montgomeryshire Railway operated about 24 route miles of track. The terminus at Shrewsbury consisted of a small platform and bay platform with waiting rooms and a goods yard.

Passengers on some of the last trains on the line had the unusual experience of travelling in a “Ford” on rails. This was officially known as a petrol railcar set, and it consisted of what were apparently two old Ford motor buses set back to back. It was rather a novelty for the passengers to see mile after mile of railway track disappearing beneath the bonnet of a motor bus. Strangely enough the running was delightfully smooth and the set was very popular with people who used the line.

WD austerity 0-6-0 No 125 at Abbey Station March

At the beginning of the war the railway was taken over from the S & M by the War Department.

On taking over the line the War Office scrapped most of the rolling stock then in use, but preserved vehicles of more than average interest. One of these was a saloon coach, formerly part of the Royal Train of Queen Adelaide, built in 1848. It was used to convey parties round the Army depots in the Nesscliffe area on tours of inspection.

Large yards were laid out for the reception and marshalling of ammunition traffic and most of the track was re-laid. In addition large “balloons” or circuits of line were laid in the various sub-depots, making the total length of track approximately 80 miles, compared with 18 in pre-war days. Two civilian goods trains per day were run by the War Department for the S & M Railway Company, which had representatives at some stations to handle the goods.

The last train shunting at Abbey Foregate July 1988

The line finally closed in 1960 but Abbey Foregate yard was used as an oil depot until the late 1980s.

Click below to view a BBC article:

The Potts Line – The railway that wouldn’t Die

Colonel Stephens and the S &  MLR

A key person in the development of the S & M as a light railway was Colonel Stephens. In the history of the railways in the UK, Colonel Stephens stands out as one of the most extraordinary personalities ever; his name is virtually  and justly synonymous with the British light railway and for that involvement, together with his idiosyncratic methods of operation, his memory is deservedly venerated by all lovers of such lines. To all intents and purposes, Stephens collected railways in the way that another might open grocery shops.

He was born in London in 1868, the son of Frederic George Stephens, a member of the Pre-Raphaelite school. He trained as a civil engineer, joined the Metropolitan Railway in 1889 but left the following year to go “independent” as builder and/or manager of a whole succession of minor railways, standard and narrow gauge, up and down the country. Among those narrow gauge and light railways that will always be associated with him are the Snailbeach and the Shropshire & Montgomeryshire.

By 1907 the Colonel (although invariably referred to by this title, Stephens was not actually awarded his rank of Lt. Col. in the Royal Engineers (TR) until the First world war) had his offices established in Tonbridge, Kent, and from here he managed his growing empire. An obvious and passionate believer in the effectiveness of light railways in rural areas, permitted by the 1896 Light Railways Act to promote and construct such lines cheaply, he decided to accept the challenge of resuscitating the old Potts and succeeded!

For further information about Colonel Stephens click on the links below which will take you to the Shropshire and Montgomeryshire Railway sections on the Colonel Stephens Society  and the  Colonel Stephens Museum websites.

Colonel Stephens Society website

Colonel Stephen’s Museum Website

Shropshire and Montgomeryshire Railway  articles

Suggested further reading:

  • Shropshire and Montgomeryshire Light Railway By Peter Johnson           (Published by OPC , 2007 )
  • Branch Line to Shrewsbury By Vic Mitchell and Keith Smith                       (Published by Middleton Press,2006 )
  • The Shrophire & Montgomeryshire Railway by Eric S. Tonks                       (Published by The Industrial Railway Society, 2007 )
  • The Shropshire and Montgomeryshire Light Railway by K & S Turner     (Published by David & Charles Ltd, 1882 )
  • The Griggion Branch ( of the S & MLR ) By Roger Carpenter                         (Published by Wild Swan Publications, 1990 )

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