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Transport records railways

Railway Engines

Ref. X291/239/11 (c.1877-8)

The records available for the study of railways are extraordinarily diverse and are mostly held by the National Archives (TNA) Kew and in county record offices. In view of this diversity, it is essential for the researcher to discover which records are held by the various repositories. TNA holds the official records of the railway companies, which, after various amalgamations in 1923, combined to form nationalised British Railways in 1948. The archives include company minute books, legal agreements, maps and plans, locomotive and rolling stock records, along with the papers of the Board of Trade Railway Department (see PRO guide no. 32, August 1990). Two guides in our searchroom (pamphlet box 60), although dated, are worth reading; Railway History in English Local Records by J. Simmons, 1954, and Railway History ... by C.R. Clinker, 1969, The Railway Age in Bedfordshire by F.G. Cockman [BHRS Vol. 53, 1974] is an essential survey, drawing as it does on a wide range of local records.

So much for TNA - what can the searcher expect to find at Bedfordshire Archives Service? The card index in the searchroom is the starting point, to be found under TRANSPORT: Land, followed by a section for each railway line by date for construction. The last section deals with railways which were not built. The bulk of official records are at TNA, so the searcher has to rely heavily on estate records, family papers, solicitors' archives and newspapers for information. However, there are a few exceptions. The shareholders minute book of the Bedford Railway, 1845-1848 [Ref: AD565],the present Bedford and Bletchley branch, survives locally because Clerk of the Peace, Theed Pearse, was also company secretary.


This brings us to an important class of records. Railway companies were obliged to deposit plans of proposed lines with the Clerk of the Peace of the county. The plans and reference books [Ref.PDR] show the route, field boundaries and nearby built-up areas, together with the names of owners and occupiers of adjoining land and the acreages involved. There are also plans of the many railways which were never built, as well as schemes for proposed light railways [Ref.PDL] and tramways [Ref.PDT]. It is often useful to compare these plans with the later 25 inch series Ordnance Survey maps.


In the 1960s British Rail disposed of some duplicate buildings and track plans and some of these have found their way to the Record Office. There are various plans of station buildings and cottages [Ref: Z229/3-22], track plans [Ref: X410/1-19] and plans of Shefford viaduct [Ref: Z680/1-6]. There are virtually no plans in the archives of the former Urban and Rural District authorities because these records post-date the construction of most railway buildings. The plan of alterations to Cardington station in 1947 is an exception [Ref: RDBP3/912].


Operational records of the railway stations, where they have survived, are mostly at the TNA. However there are some records of Potton station [Ref: X480 and X719] which provide valuable information about the types and quantity of traffic carried, as well as an insight into the variety of administrative papers created by a busy station.


Most solicitors' papers contain at least a few deeds and papers relating to railways among their clients' files, but some solicitors made railway business a speciality. William T. Nash of Royston was appointed by the Great Northern Railway in 1847 to negotiate terms for the purchase of land from the landowners along the Sandy-Hitchin section of the line. The archives [Ref.RR] reveal the tortuous negotiations for the purchase of each parcel of land and the disruption caused by the railway. Notices were first sent to landowners asking them to treat for the sale of their land [RR1-2] or provide access for construction work [RR3]. Claims were made for compensation [RR4] and agreements drawn up for the sale of land [RR5], while unresolved cases went to arbitration [RR6]. Nash's in-letters show that there were disputes not only over purchase money, but the loss of crops, timber and wells, damage by contractors and severance of fields by the line [RR8].


Many landowners were affected by the coming of the railways and estate archives can be a useful source. The Russell Estate archives (Dukes of Bedford) are particularly noteworthy, in particular the lucid correspondence of the estate steward Thomas Bennet [Ref.R3]. There are comments on proposed new lines, railway navvies and employment opportunities, increased demand for timber, reduced meat prices, and the rise in property values near the railway routes. The estate maps showing the land taken for railway construction [Ref.R1/443-456] and the Steward's papers (especially R4/190, 705, 880) are also useful.


At a more personal level diaries and letters show what travel by rail was like in the early days. The diary of the Rev. R.A. Williamson of Kempston Manor, 1840-1853 [Ref: M3/5) is quoted extensively by Mr. Cockman [BHRS vol. 53] while the diaries of John T. Brooks of Flitwick, 1829-1858 [Ref: LL17/280-283] have been published in The Diary of a Bedfordshire Squire [BHRS Vol. 66, 1987].


Newspapers, printed ephemera and photographs must not be neglected. Newspapers contain advertisements for share issues for new railways, accounts of railway openings, closures and accidents, the local timetables. Printed ephemera ranges from the notices advertising omnibuses from St. Neots to Bedford station, 1848 [Refs: X67/622-623] to the first class Midland Railway season ticket issued to a Mr. Lightbound to travel between Bedford and Birmingham in 1877 [Ref: X106/230]. Photographs provide valuable information about locomotives, rolling stock, railway architecture and railwaymens' uniforms. Our photographs of the old Bedford Midland station before demolition in 1978 [Ref: Z298/11-40 & Z 50/9/485-517] are increasingly used by searchers.


The sources for railway history are do diverse that it is impossible to identify a `core' of essential records for any particular study. Most individuals and institutions were affected by the railways in some way. For example, the Woburn Poor Law Union minutes of 1836 [Ref: PUWM1 p.225] record that the halving of local poor rates is caused partly ` the demand for labour on the London and Birmingham Rail road now in progress near this district.' This is the kind of information that you can really only find by chance.


Finally, our general advice to students is not to make any intended area of study too narrow, and this is certainly true when the topic is railways. Assessing the impact of railways on a single village or town is inadvisable because it is difficult to draw any firm conclusions from the often scanty information available for such a limited geographical area. The Impact of Railways in Bedfordshire. 1840-1890 [book Ref:160] gives some useful ideas for areas of study, and of course searchroom staff are always on hand to help.

Since the 1950s the railways have suffered increasingly from under-investment and competition from road transport. All the Bedfordshire branch lines, with the exception of the Bedford-Bletchley line, were closed in 1962-1967. By contrast the waterways have undergone something of a renaissance, while commercial air travel since its development in the 1920s and 1930s, is more popular than ever.