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Canterbury and Whitstable Railway

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The Canterbury and Whitstable Railway, sometimes referred to colloquially as the Crab and Winkle Line, was an early British railway that opened in 1830 between Canterbury and Whitstable

From the beginning it was a public railway, intended for passengers as well as freight. The world's first season ticket was issued for use on the line in 1832, to take Canterbury passengers to the Whitstable beaches for the summer season.

Unlike the public Liverpool and Manchester Railway which opened four months later, however, it used cable haulage by stationary steam engines over much of its length, with steam locomotives restricted to the level stretch.

Until the early nineteenth century Canterbury's line of supply had been along the River Stour which flows to Pegwell Bay, near Ramsgate on the eastern cost of Kent. This, though only seventeen miles distant "as the crow flies", flows for around seventy miles. It was continually silting up, and the cost of dredging such a length was prohibitive. Although turnpikes had been built, four or five carts were needed to carry the load of a single barge.

Whitstable, on the coast about seven miles due north, was at that time a small fishing village and port with a trade in iron pyrites from the Isle of Sheppey. The idea for the line came from William James who surveyed the route and produced plans for improving the harbour. The immediate problem was that the land between Whitstable and Canterbury rose to a height of two hundred feet. The only alternative would have been a much longer route through Sturry, Herne and Swalecliffe and a major cost was the purchase of land and the right of way.

The direct route was chosen with three steep gradients, two of them to be worked by ropes from stationary steam engines. Leaving Canterbury, there was a steep incline to the top of Tyler Hill, an 828 yard tunnel, then a descent through Clowes Wood to Bogshole Brook. From there the final two miles were substantially level apart from a small incline down to Whitstable.

1824 November 2nd. Meeting of the 'Canterbury Rail Road Company' committee with John Brent in the chair and proposing a railroad from Canterbury to Whitstable. [1]

1825 February 17th. Business in Parliament. [2]

1825 The line received its Act of Parliament.

1828 Construction begin with George Stephenson as the engineer, with the assistance of John Dixon and Joseph Locke.

The line cost far more than predicted and the promoters returned to Parliament three more times to authorise the raising of funds.

The construction of Whitstable Harbour, under the direction of Thomas Telford, was completed in 1832.

1830 The line finally opened with a single track throughout and passing loops at Clowes Wood and the entrance to Tyler Hill tunnel. The track consisted of fifteen foot fish-bellied rails on wooden sleepers at three foot intervals, the more usual alternative of stone blocks (of Kentish Ragstone) being too expensive. Initially Stephenson had recommended the use of three stationary engines for the inclines, with horses for the level stretch. The promoters insisted on a locomotive and Invicta, the nineteenth engine produced by Robert Stephenson and Co, was shipped to Whitstable by sea.

1832 The short gradient from Whitstable proved too much for Invicta, and a third stationary engine was installed

1844 The line was bedevilled by financial problems and was facing bankruptcy when the South Eastern Railway, which had received the Royal Assent in 1844, agreed to take it over, operating it in isolation from their own line. Invicta by now was virtually useless and horses were being used.

When the South Eastern did reach Canterbury, it decided to run the line with its own locomotives throughout, after upgrading the track. Under George Stephenson's influence the track had been built to standard gauge, but the loading gauge was small, the height of Tyler Hill Tunnel being only twelve feet (indeed the smallness of Kent's tunnels have been problem even into British Rail days). Consequently the South Eastern locomotives were modified with shorter chimneys and lowered boilers.

1860 The line was never prosperous, even under South Eastern management, and there was a new setback when the London, Chatham and Dover Railway opened in 1860 offering a competitive service from Whitstable into London.

In 1923 the line became part of the Southern Railway and like many other lines around the country it suffered from competition from bus services. It still, however, carried coal, grain and roadstone, with munitions to the harbour during World War II.

By 1948, when it became part of British Railways, Whitstable Harbour had fallen into disuse and what was left of the line's trade had disappeared.

The line closed in 1952, albeit with a short reprieve during the floods of 1953. Track was lifted almost immediately and the line has almost completely disappeared apart from the tunnel portals, some embankments and various oddments. The engine Invicta has been preserved in Canterbury, though not in its original form, since various modifications were made around 1836 in an effort to improve its performance.

Part of the Tyler Hill tunnel collapsed at the beginning of July 1974, causing severe subsidence on some buildings at the University of Kent at Canterbury that had been built on the hill above. The resulting voids were filled over the next year, supposedly with fly-ash from Richborough power station.

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. The Times, Monday, Nov 08, 1824
  2. The Times, Saturday, Feb 19, 1825

[1] Wikipedia