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Captain Peels Railway in Sandy

Portrait of Sir William Peel May 2010
Portrait of Sir William Peel May 2010

The Sandy and Potton Railway opened on 9th November 1857. It was more commonly known as Captain Peel's Railway after its creator Captain Sir William Peel VC. It was the fifth railway to be built in Bedfordshire and ran for just three miles between, as the name suggests, Sandy and Potton. Captain Peel was third son of Robert Peel, the former Prime Minister, and had an estate between the two towns. When the Great Northern Railway, which ran through Sandy opened in 1850 he decided to build a branch line to connect his estate to it. Construction began in 1855.

By that time Captain Peel was serving in the Black Sea as the Crimean War was raging. During this war he won the newly created Victoria Cross. The medal itself, with an unfamiliar yellow ribbon, is at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. The medal was awarded for three separate acts of gallantry. He was present at the siege of Sebastopol commanding a Brigade when a live Russian shell landed among the Brigade's ammunition wagons. Peel picked up the shell with the fuse fizzing and threw it over the parapet - the shell burst as it left his hands. He was also at the battle of Inkerman on 5th November 1854 where he helped some officers of the Grenadier Guards retreat by warning them of a Russian advance and finally on 18th June 1855 (the fortieth anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo), he led the first scaling party to attack the fortress of the Redan at Sebastopol where he was severely wounded.

At the end of the war Peel was given command of a frigate, HMS Shannon, and ordered to China. Captain Peel's mother opened his new railway in his absence and its locomotive was named, inevitably, Shannon. Peel never used his railway, en route to China he was diverted to India as the Mutiny had broken out and he died of smallpox in 1858.

The text on the base of Sir William's statue in Sandy church reads as follows:

In memory of
Third son of the Right Honourable Sir Robert Peel, Bart.,
the illustrious Statesman

He was born November 2nd 1824,
entered the Navy at the age of 13,
and gave early promise of future eminence
which, though he died at the age of 33,
he lived long enough to achieve

After serving with distinction in many parts of the World,
he commanded a battery at the Siege of Sebastopol,
rendering himself conspicuous among brave men,
by acts of daring and chivalrous courage.

In command of H. M. S. Shannon,
on the outbreak of the Great Indian Rebellion,
he organised and led the famous Naval Brigade,
which dragged the 68 pounders of the ships
hundreds of miles, from Calcutta to Lucknow,
and co-operating with the Army,
contributed in a most signal manner
to the success of our arms.

The services which he rendered during that great crisis,
were regarded wit hadmiration by his country;
And his death in the midst of success and honours
was lamented as a national loss.

He died at Cawnpore, April 27th, 1858.

Remarkably, the locomotive Shannon survives at the National Railway Museum at York. The journey time from Potton to Sandy was ten minutes. Captain Peel's private railway, however, did not long survive him. His brother Arthur acquired it and put it up for sale. It was bought by the Bedford and Cambridge Railwayin 1861 for £20,000, being £5,000 more than it had cost to build. The railway was immediately closed to allow the track bed to be rebuilt and to go on from Potton to Cambridge. The London North Western Railway took the Bedford and Cambridge Railway on lease in 1865 and doubled the track. The line closed just over a hundred years later, in 1967, the bridges being demolished in the following year.

The steam train Shannon
The steam train Shannon