The East Kent Railway

1911 - 1948

Ken Elks Copyright © 2001

The East Kent Light Railway had its beginnings at the end of the 19th Century when test borings near Dover for a Channel Tunnel discovered a seam of coal. This led to further trial borings inland that revealed deposits rich enough for a number of collieries to be built and in 1911 the East Kent Light Railways Company was promoted (which grew out of the proposed East Kent Minerals Light Railway of 1910) with the intention of exploiting these developments. With additions the original Order envisaged a network of lines mostly concentrated in the triangle formed by Canterbury, Sandwich and Dover, serving no less than seven collieries, including lines to new port facilities to be built near Birchington on the north Kent coast and Richborough, just north of Sandwich.

Work commenced the same year, starting with a new EKR station adjacent to the SECR mainline at Shepherdswell. Progress was fairly rapid and, by 1912, the first section, to Guilford Colliery, was completed. The remainder of the line from Eythorne to Wingham Colliery soon followed, together with branches to two other collieries, Tilmanstone, near Eythorne, and Hammill, near Woodnesborough. With the outbreak of war in 1914 work on the development of the collieries at Wingham and Hammill immediately ceased and another, at Stonehall, near Lydden, to which the EKR intended to extend the Guilford branch, was abandoned shortly afterwards.

In the original concept of the line, lip service had been paid to its use by farmers along the route; now they had to provide the mainstay of all traffic beyond Tilmanstone, the only colliery in operation. Instead of concentrating their efforts on Tilmanstone and gradually divesting themselves of the uneconomic remainder of the line, the directors decided that the answer was to open the line for passengers. The first train service commenced 16 October 1916, following the transfer of a suitable locomotive, "Walton Park" from the Shropshire and Montgomeryshire Railway.

Stations had been constructed at several points along the route, all of them primitive structures with the bare minimum of facilities. From Shepherdswell, to line ran northeastwards, via a tunnel though Golgotha, to reach Eythorne. At Eythorne the line split into three, with the mainline continuing to Eastry and branches back to Guilford and into Tilmanstone Colliery yard. The next stop was Tilmanstone Colliery Halt, renamed Elvington in 1927, which served the nearby mining village then being built. Next came Tilmanstone Village and Knowlton, renamed Knowlton circa 1920-22. Both these halts were unmanned. On reaching Eastry the line divided again, the main line swinging north westwards to Woodnesborough and Hammill, Ash Town (another unmanned halt), Staple and finally Wingham, terminating on the road between Staple and Wingham. Initially there were three trains a day in each direction, plus additional trains for the Tilmanstone mineworkers.

They had also hoped to open a passenger service on the branch to Richborough, now being constructed as a military port for the movement of troops and munitions to France, but the line had not been completed and, in the event, did not finally reach Richborough until 1925. Passenger services on the Richborough branch as far as Sandwich Road commenced in April 1925, with intermediate stations at Poison Cross and Roman Road.The Board of Trade refused to allow passengers to be carried beyond Sandwich Road because of doubts over the safety of the bridge that spanned both the river Stour and the main railway line between Sandwich and Ramsgate. These passenger services were short-lived, abandoned in November 1928 as uneconomic. As a consequence the station built at Richborough was never used by passengers.

In the years after the end of World War 1 the line was extended from Wingham Colliery Halt to reach the village, with a new station called Wingham Town and then just a few hundred yards further to the main Canterbury-Sandwich road to another station, called, appropriately, Wingham Canterbury Road. Beyond that there was considerable expenditure on the trackbed towards Ickham and Stodmarsh but no track laid.

In 1926 the prolonged miner's strike that followed the General Strike led to a collapse of revenues from the one remaining colliery at Tilmanstone, further hit by a world-wide recession. What money that was available was diverted into another extension, from Eythorne out towards Deal, but only a few miles of earthworks were completed.

In 1925 passengers services on the EKR reached their zenith, with five trains a day in either direction between Shepherdswell and Wingham, plus those between Shepherdswell and Eastry and those for miners, as well as the new Saturday only service which commenced on the Richborough branch. On 13 April a new station was opened at Eastry South, better placed for the main part of the village, and Wingham Town, which since 1919 had become the de facto terminus of the line, was downgraded to a halt and the buildings and staff moved to Canterbury Road. Most of the trains were mixed passenger and freight and the nominal 40 minute journey from Shepherdswell to Wingham often took twice as long because of shunting at intermediate stops in which the passengers would be unwilling participants.

In 1921 Guilford Colliery was closed due to persistent flooding, the branch being finally abandoned in 1927 and the track lifted. Another setback was the construction of an aerial ropeway to convey coal from Tilmanstone to Dover, which began working in 1930. Although this proved unreliable and closed after only a few years it nevertheless diverted vital coal traffic away from the EKR when it could least afford it. Receipts plunged dramatically after 1926 and necessitated several cutbacks. The miners trains which had provided the bulk of the passengers (80%) were discontinued after 1929 and the EKR was forced by the aerial ropeway to accept a much lower rate for conveying coal, always the main source of freight (e.g. 241,000 out of a total of 250,000 tons carried annually).

By 1930 the EKR was heavily in debt and dealt a further blow by the death of Colonel Stephens the following year. Despite stringent economies by his successor, W.H. Austen, it was the outbreak of World War 2 in 1939 that gave the line a new lease of life. The line was taken over by the military and some new track laid. A large munitions dump was set up near Staple alongside the station and the line also became the home for some of the large calibre railway guns intended as part of our defences against possible invasion, a very real threat in 1940. One of these guns was kept at Staple and the other at Eythorne, the latter parked down the partially rebuilt spur towards Guilford. Despite this military occupation the line carried on as normal throughout the war.

After 1945 the line reverted to the EKR and traffic immediately fell away to pre-war levels. In 1948 the line, together with all the others in the country, was nationalised, becoming part of British Railways, and became an immediate candidate for closure. Passenger services ceased on 30 October 1948 and the Richborough branch closed for freight in 1949. The rest of the line above Tilmanstone closed in stages, finally ceasing in March 1951. Only the two and a half miles to Tilmanstone Colliery remained, operated as a mineral line. This continued in use for another 30 years, proving, if proof were needed, that this was the only part of the line that was truly viable. Coal continued to sustain the line until the miners' strike of 1984. The closure of Tilmanstone Colliery in the aftermath of the strike led to the closure by BR in 1987. Since then the line has been used by a railway preservation society, operating trains between Shepherdswell and Eythorne.

The EKR is often referred to as Colonel Stephens' biggest disappointment. Whether he actually uttered those words in not known but there is probably some truth in that statement. The initial high hopes and ambitious plans of the EKR were engendered by the false expectations concerning the development of the Kent Coalfield itself. It was the failure of the coalfield to develop as predicted that left the EKR without a secure economic basis for its grandiose schemes.

Further reading:

"The East Kent Light Railway" by Matthew Beddall
Price 3.00 plus postage.

"East Kent Railway Tickets 1916-1948" by Ken Elks.
71pp colour, listing all known surviving tickets with dates of issue.
Price 10.50 plus postage.

Order your copy of these books

Last updated: 12 January 2010