‘The Stratford Upon Avon & Midland Junction Railway’ (or S.M.J.) was a small independent railway company which ran a line across the empty, untouched centre of England. It visited the counties of Northamptonshire, Warwickshire, Oxfordshire and a little of Buckinghamshire, only existing as the SMJ from 1909 to 1923 . In 1923 the S.M.J.became a minor arm of the London Midland and Scottish (L.M.S.), then in 1948 'British Railways'.
The SMJ came into being from the amalgamation of 'The East & West Junction Railway' (E+WJR), 'The Evesham, Redditch and Stratford Railway' ER+SR), and changing its name to ‘The Stratford-upon-Avon, Towcester and Midland Junction Railway’ (ST+MJR), ‘The Easton Neston Mineral and Towcester, Roade and Olney Junction Railway’ (ENM+TROJR). In 1910 ‘The Northampton & Banbury Junction Railway’ (N+BJR) was amalgamated into the S.M.J. and as the S.M.J. the company ran services between Broom Junction and Stratford and Banbury to the west through Towcester to Blisworth and Olney in the east, fashioning itself as ‘The Shakespeare route’.
The S.M.J. was an insignificant railway company which many people would come to write about. J.M. Dunn in his 1952 book ‘The Stratford-Upon-Avon & Midland Junction Railway' from ‘The Oakwood Press’ wrote;
"Travellers from London to the Midlands and the North sometimes notice a single line railway, leading away from the main lines about 60 or 70 miles from London, at Blisworth or Woodford or Fenny Compton, and perhaps wonder where it goes to. This is the Stratford Upon Avon & Midland Junction Railway, a little known and little-used undertaking that traversed some of the least frequented parts of Central England. Its history, in places as elusive as the line itself, is a curious example of the survival of the unfit."
January 1st, 2009 was the S.M.J’s 100th birthday!
Railway lines were springing up right across the country in the mid 1800’s and Northamptonshire was no exception. A new line across the county was proposed which would run from Northampton, through to Banbury and on to Cheltenham. Nothing much came of the initial plan until iron ore was discovered in the Northampton area. With iron ore in Northamptonshire a direct line to the blast furnaces of South Wales was thought could be very profitable, independent of the other rail companies such as the London & North Western Railway (L & NWR)Back to the top The Bill for the railway was finally passed in July 1863 authorising: “The construction of a railway in the county of Northamptonshire to be called the Northampton & Banbury Junction Railway”. The Northampton + Banbury Junction Railways (N+B.J.R) board predicted that the connection of two such important towns as Northampton and Banbury would create a most significant line which in time would become a main line of communication. It was also anticipated that all that iron ore would form the bulk of the new lines traffic to South Wales. Northamptonshire had already been crossed by a new railway called 'The London and Birmingham Railway', under Robert Stephenson. The line had bypassed Northamptonshire’s capital town; Northampton due to the limitations of the technologies of the day at tackling the counties inclines. The company opened a station at Blisworth in 1839, Ford Lane, Blisworth becoming Station Road and the location of Blisworth station. Blisworth became a junction station when in 1845 a branch line to Peterborough was completed via Northampton, thus the opening of the N+B.J.R. was to make Blisworth into a cross-roads. Work on the N+B.J.R. set on a pace and despite requiring a deep cutting near Tiffield the 4 mile branch line from Blisworth to Towcester opened in May of 1866. Back to the top An act authorising an extension westwards to Chipping Norton and Blockley, Gloucestershire was passed, with plans, a further extension which would have taken the line to Ross-on-Wye. The company briefly changed its name to ‘The Midland Counties & South Wales Junction Railway’, but in a dire financial state and like so many plans of the time, the financial crisis of that year left the scheme high and dry. The N&B.J.R. reverted back to its original name and its original plan. Despite its finances, the N+B.J.R. was able; via a further act of parliament to finish the line to Banbury. The Towcester to Cockley Brake section had two stations, Wappenham and Helmdon, both of which were opened to goods traffic in August of 1871. On completion, the N&B.J.R. reached neither Northampton nor Banbury over its 'own metals'; having to obtain running powers from Blisworth to Northampton and from Cockley Brake Junction to Banbury. Whilst all this was going on another company, The East + West Junction Railway (E&WJR), appeared in the area, obtaining its Act in June 1864. The E&W.J.R’s plans were also to create a cross-country route for all this new found iron ore in the Northampton area, this time linking Towcester with Stratford-upon-Avon from a junction at Greens Norton with a 33 mile line. Back to the top Plans in hand and some capital being raised, a start was made in 1864 with the usual pomp, but the financial crisis of 1866 put pay to their plans. The lines promoters had to admit defeat and the plan was abandoned. The company didn’t give up though and due to a economic upturn in 1871 a small section of the E+W.J.R. was opened between Fenny Compton and Kineton. Two years later saw the line open fully, to Stratford in one direction, and to Greens Norton junction at the other, trains having to run through to Blisworth over N & B.J.R. metals from Greens Norton Junction. However, trouble was brewing. The Great Western Railway (G.W.R.) also had a station at Fenny Compton and were not happy with the prospect of losing mileage payments on goods traffic by accepting Birmingham bound E&WJR traffic at Stratford-upon-Avon; rather than at Fenny Compton. The E&WJR came up with a way round this problem by extending the line westwards from their Stratford Upon Avon terminus to join the Midland Railway’s Evesham and Redditch’ line at Broom Junction. This, they thought would cut further miles off the GWR’s route to South Wales from Fenny Compton. All this put a great financial strain on the E&WJR and after several court cases, in 1877 the E&WJR had to suspended its passenger service. For 8 years no passenger trains ran on the line, plunging the company into a desperate financial position. The E&WJR cast its eyes eastwards for a solution towards another connection with the Midland Railway (MR). The distance between Towcester and the Midland’s line from Northampton to Bedford was only 10 miles, surely a line here could lift the desperate financial position of the E&WJR The hope too was to tap into ironstone deposits at Showsley and Shutlanger and Easton Neston, and the limestone deposits at Roade. The grand aspirations of the new company manifested themselves in the official name given to the new company; on receiving its enabling Act in August of 1879. The new company was to be called “The Easton Neston Mineral and Towcester, Roade and Olney Junction Railway”. Many people have written that it was fortunate the new company never owned their own locos - imagine how that would have looked written on the side of a tender! Yet more financial problems meant the company undertook no construction on the extension for more than eight years. Another Act was needed in 1882 to enable the company to raise further finance enabling them to spend money on the E&WJR as well, which it would have to do if the much hoped for heavy goods traffic off the Midland materialised. Back to the top As luck would have it; the new act facilitated a name change, the company changing their name to “The Stratford-upon-Avon, Towcester and Midland Junction Railway” (ST&MJR). True to the fashion of the day the celebratory luncheon was lavish - six main courses, plus lobster salad and veal and ham pies! In December 1887 construction began. The opening of the line brought little relief for the company. Though space was optimistically left for doubling the line and land taken at stations to cater for expansion of traffic, the new line ran through sparsely populated countryside. It skirted Shutlanger, Stoke Bruerne, Roade and Piddington, to Ravenstone Wood Junction on the Northampton and Bedford line, over which running powers were granted to Olney in 1887. The two stations that were built were large substantial buildings for such a small branch line, one, Salcey Forest, in the middle of nowhere, about a mile from Piddington, and one at Stoke Bruerne, about halfway between there and Shutlanger. Passenger services started in December 1892, the first trip being a very low key affair. At Salcey Forest one passenger left the train and one joined and at Stoke Bruerne there were eight waiting, the train arriving at Towcester two minutes late. Alas passenger traffic never picked up and proved just as illusive for rest of the life of the branch. Receipts in the first quarter were about £5 against the £500 costs of hiring the trains. The line was to see several special trains, goods traffic and the odd excursion train sometimes called at the two stations but full passenger services were withdrawn on 23rd March 1893 - never to be restored. A little ray of hope for the branch came in the shape of the large ironworks adjoining the line to the west, and the brickworks and quarry near Showsley on the Earl of Pomfret’s estate. Near Towcester on the Easton Neston estate were the The Easton Neston Quarries which was connected to the N&B.J.R’s Blisworth to Towcester section by the Lloyds sidings. The Easton Neston quarries were operated by six owners during nearly 50 years of existence, although with many breaks in production. Back to the top Production began in 1873 in connection with the development & erection of Towcester Furnaces. These consisted of two rotary furnaces of around 4 ton capacity, that were the pioneers of the Siemens Direct Reduction Process of making steel. Dr. W.C. Siemens and Samuel Lloyd were partners in this venture and the sidings. The Furnaces were put in during 1875 and were close to the East side of the N &BJR about a mile north of Towcester Station. The land was leased from the Hesketh Estate for working ironstone, As it was a thick bed of clay discovered on the leased property provided the material for a brickworks. While the Ironworks was to the east of the Towcester-Tiffield road, the brickworks were situated about a mile away, on the west side of the Towcester-Northampton road. A standard gauge railway was built to mainline standards between the two sites that crossed the Northampton road on the level A ‘Hunslett Engine Company’ loco was delivered new in February 1874 and named ‘Forward’. The ironstone quarry on the east side of the Northampton road had a narrow gauge tramway to remove the ore to a tipping dock over the standard gauge line. By 1878, the Furnaces had fallen out of use. Samuel Lloyd negotiated to lease “his” land to the Easton Estates and Mining Co. Ltd, to include the Furnaces in 1881. Everything was to close in early 1883 and it is thought that the Hunslett was sold at this time. In 1889, a new company entitled the Towcester Mineral & Brick Co. Ltd took over the land and began removing ironstone. In April 1891, as mentioned, the Towcester-Ravenstone Junction railway line was opened and a connection was made at Easton Neston for shipment, the line crossing the Northampton road on the level. Back to the top It was at this time that the line from Lloyds Sidings to the brickworks site was lifted, a connection to the new Olney branch being installed in its place. In December 1894 a Hudswell Clarke loco was purchased. Business did not flourish too well and the T.M&B. Co. Ltd. went into liquidation in 1902. The brickworks closed and the Hudswell Clarke loco advertised for sale. In 1903 saw the quarries begin production again, under the leadership of Richard Harry. He signed the required documents on behalf of the TM&B Co. Ltd. Unfortunately, he was drowned in the flooded brickpit in 1908. His widow and her brother carried on the business with the same company name, installing a new tramway in 1912, running parallel to the S.M.J Railway to serve new workings, moving eastwards from the old Catchgate quarry, close to a new lime kiln. In late 1914, a second-hand Bagnall was acquired from A.C. Bealey Ltd of Radcliffe, Lancashire and named Ferrett II. It was around this time that the narrow gauge line was extended on the level over the Northampton road near the Showesley turn. A branch to the ironstone quarry on the west side of the main road was created. There was a square building at the southern end of this line which housed an office, the stores, a forge and workshops close to a corrugated iron loco shed with a water tank. The quarry to the north of the clay pit was known as the Russia Pit, the other side of the Northampton road was known as Canada Pit, the origins of these names are not certain. Back to the top With the onset of World War 1 plans were made for expansion in 1919. Advertisements were placed looking for a 7 or 8 inch loco of 2’6” gauge. No such loco was forthcoming, so another Bagnall was purchased new in July 1919 and named Ryder Gibson. This loco was used exclusively in Russia Pit, with the face being worked to both North and East. Prosperity did not last long and the post-war depression in the industry led to the quarries being closed before May 1920. The whole area, including parts of Tiffield, Gayton and Blisworth was put up for sale by the Blisworth & Towcester Estates Ltd. but it was not until 1935, when Richard Thomas & Co. Ltd took over the Blisworth & Gayton areas. In 1925, Ferrett II was sold to Blackwells of Northampton, removed by road. No restoration of the site was ever undertaken. The Olney branch also had to cross the L&NWR near Roade so a spur to join the L & NWR was laid to Roade in a north facing direction, a bay platform being constructed - although direct running to the L&NWR was not possible. It is believed the company considered running a passenger service from the bay platform from Towcester to Roade, certainly they hoped to develop goods traffic from the L & NWR at this point. The Roade spur, although equipped with a junction signal box and signals, was little used. A 1908 timetable shows three down trains on weekdays, all in the early morning and none on Mondays. Once again; 1897 brought yet more financial troubles, a receiver was appointed in May of 1898. Something had to be done. The two companies tried to sell out to the Midland, the L & NWR and the Great Central Railway (GCR), none of which were interested, although the arrival of the GC did bring welcome extra traffic to the two railways Back to the top The virtually bankrupt companies set their houses in order with another Act of Parliament in August 1908. On January the 1st 1909, 'The East & West Junction Railway', 'The Evesham, Redditch and Stratford Railway', and ‘The Stratford-upon-Avon, Towcester and Midland Junction Railway’, amalgamated to form the Stratford Upon Avon & Midland Junction Railway. All the while, the N&BJR had forged an equally, troubled, uninspiring, and stubbon existence between Blisworth and Cockley Brake via Towcester but by another act of 1910 it was agreed to amalgamated the N&BJR into the new S.M.J. The new SMJ worked hard, styling itself “The Shakespeare Route”. It worked on retaining custom, and generating new. They advertised connections with the Midland at Broom Junction, with the Great Central Railway at Woodford & Hinton and the L&NWR at Roade, Blisworth and Banbury. Through carriages ran to Stratford from Marylebone via Woodford and proved reasonably successful. The new broom swept clean, the track was thoroughly updated and cleaned up, the coaching stock was overhauled, but goods traffic struggled. The Midland withdrawing its banana traffic, which passed from Avonmouth to St. Pancras via Stratford and Olney, in September of 1912, lost the company revenue in the region of £1,100 per annum. These special trains also carried hardware from Bristol - this was to become a big problem. During the first world war of 1914-1918 the S.M.J. suffered like every company from staff shortages, the years prior to the war had not been very profitable for the S.M.J. either. The increased war traffic brought shareholders very little. For the larger companies like the L & NWR and the Midland this made difficulties - for the SMJ it was almost the final straw. Although the SMJ.’s men had not taken part in the 1911 rail strike (and were given an extra day’s pay as recognition for this) another nail in the S.M.J.’s coffin was the national strike which came in the war’s aftermath, in September 1919 The strike once again hurt the SMJ, they calculated that the awards would cost them an extra £6,600 per annum, plus overtime on top! What was to compound problems was the companies being restrained by law from increasing both passenger fares and goods rates, yet despite this, a miniscule dividend was paid in 1921 and half that again in 1922. Back to the top The end of the line for the SMJ was in sight and came on 31st December 1922. The SMJ had only lasted from 1909 to 1923 before becoming an arm of one of the ‘Big Four’. The London Midland and Scottish (LMS). With the other three new companies, The Great Western Railway (GWR), The London & North Eastern Railway (LNER), and The Southern Railway were created in 1923 during "The grouping", it was expected things would be better managed and more profitable. There was still to be an element of competition as many towns and cities were served by two or more of these large companies. Many of the SMJ’s passengers would have noticed little change. The L.M.S. withdrew several SMJ locos in an attempt to standardise stock and over the next few years yet another 'new broom' replaced and upgraded track with the view of increased goods traffic and to finally bring the Olney branch from Towcester into full use, the L.M.S. diverting some of its own goods traffic along the line. Ever keen to steal a march on the competitors, namely the G.W.R, the L.M.S. thought to tap into Stratford-Upon-Avon’s tourist potential. They bought a large house near the town and named it the ‘Welcombe Hotel’, introducing specials from Blisworth, they even ran evening specials to connect at Blisworth with the line to Stratford from London. In 1932 the LMS offered a unique service when they introduced the ‘Ro-Railer’. Built by Karrier Motors in Huddersfield, the ‘Ro-Railer’ was, on the outside an ordinary road going, single deck bus, but the ‘Ro-Railer’ had a hidden secret. Mounted on the buses axels; flanged wheels, raised and lowered as required allowed the ‘Ro-Railer’ both to run through the streets of Stratford and along the line to Blisworth. The ‘Ro-Railer’ ran from Blisworth to Stratford station, and via the streets of Stratford, on to the hotel but the experiment was withdrawn in June of 1932 due to the vibrations, mechanical problems and a lack of passengers. Back to the top The plunge into a second World War took another great toll on the railway and on the state of the national economy in general, despite the need for diversion routes along secondary lines. The former SMJ being remote and near no major towns or cities proved most useful as well as the lines position near important air fields like Silverstone, and RAF Hinton-in-the-Hedges near Banbury was advantageous; meaning the former SMJ stations could be used to supply the bases with provisions. Apart from there being a few more people in uniforms at stations, the line saw little change during the war years, save for the platform lamps being painted out and regular black-outs. July 1945 saw the end of hostilities in Europe. The elected Labour government promised reform pledging to nationalise the railways and on the stroke of mid-night, December 31st 1947, with whistles from steam locomotives across the land, ‘British Railways’ was born - no more would there be individual rail companies owning and running railway the lines of Britain! Changes were few and far between. A new logo appeared on some locos, a few new liveries appeared but the former SMJ. noticed little that was positive. The fact was the former SMJ went into stagnation and very little effort was made to run the line economically. Passenger numbers fell and talk of closures filled the air. July 1951 saw the withdrawal of the Blisworth and Banbury passenger service and April 1952 saw the end of passenger services between Blisworth and Stratford. Ironically; at the very end of its life, the former SMJ saw an ‘increase’ in goods traffic with 9F’s and ‘Black 5’s’ plodding along the line. With its connections with the G.C, the G.W.R and the L&NWR. plus new connections laid at both Fenny Compton and Stratford the original plan of running goods trains along the line came to fruition. – all be it too late. By the mid 60’s, the station at Towcester, the major junction station along the line was without tracks, was locked up and abandoned. The unusual, 3 tier signal box was being demolished.