Our first railway – ‘Castleman’s Corkscrew’

By the early decades of the nineteenth century the Industrial Revolution was having an accelerating influence on the commercial and economic development of the nation. The canals and the rapid spread of turnpike trusts was having an increasing impact on communication and the movement of goods but all was subject to the limitations imposed by horse power (wind power for vessels). The invention of the steam engine and its later application to transport, first tentatively indicated by the work of Richard Trevithick (1771-1833), was to bring changes of quite exceptional importance to civilisation leading directly to the steam-powered engine running on rails. Undoubtedly one of the greatest events in the history of mankind.

South-west Hampshire was very much off the beaten track by the time Queen Victoria came to the throne. The New Forest itself was an exceptional area, much extolled by William Gilpin in Forest Scenery: it contained many private estates and fine homes for wealthy families but was not much visited by the general public. In 1841 (census) the forest towns of Lymington  (3,813), Christchurch (4,072) and Ringwood (3,700) were relatively small and the total population for the whole New Forest, including the three towns, was just under 35,000 (Southampton at the same date about 27,000). But there were stirrings for improved communication following the completion and opening of the Nine Elms (London) to Southampton railway in 1840. As always there has to be an individual to kick-start the event and this was realised in the person of Charles Castleman, a scion of a Dorset family and a solicitor, born in Wimborne in 1808. He owned property in both Wimborne and Ringwood, where also he had offices. His initial proposal was for a railway from Southampton to Exeter (later modified), running through the New Forest with stations at Ringwood and Wimborne. He invested £5,000 in the scheme and his older brother Edward chipped in with £3,500. Promotional meetings were held in Dorchester, Wimborne and Ringwood particularly aimed at securing support from the landed class and business interests. These meetings were well-attended and generally with wide acclaim.

England was the first nation to develop a railway system and from the outset it was promoted and financed by private enterprise. What Castleman had to do was to obtain financial backing from the wider populace and an important part of this was by holding meetings promoting the proposals in the local towns. After initial overtures to individuals and communities he arranged for a key meeting to be held in Southampton on 9th May 1844. This met with great success and a committee was formed comprising prominent landowners, including James Edward Harris, 3rd earl of Malmesbury (1807-89) whom we met in the last ‘Reflections’ article. This committee appointed Capt. William Scarth Moorsom (1805-63) as the surveyor and civil engineer for the work. Moorsom immediately recognised that a great deal of the proposed line, linking Southampton to Dorchester only, passed through thinly populated territory and therefore would need to be built as economically as possible.

The bill for the line presented to Commons met with a single voice of dissent in the person of Henry Coombe Compton, one of the Conservative MPs for the South Hampshire constituency. He voiced his opposition on behalf of the verderers and commoners stating that such a line cutting through the forest would dissect the commoners’ grazing lands. However, the strongest voice of support came from William Mackinnon, one of Lymington’s MPs (also Conservative) who responded by stating, “If they admitted the principle that no royal forest was to be cut through, half the railways now projected would be abandoned. What was the New Forest?” he asked rhetorically, “It was public property under the control and management of the Crown…Public property must be subservient to public good. It would be contrary to common sense if the House said you shall cut through a man’s private grounds…because his private convenience must give way for public good and after this you should not pass through public property for public good and general benefit, through a tract of land nearly useless and not productive.” Compton on finding no support withdrew his motion and the Bill received its second reading on 21 April 1845 without a division. [Parl. Report, Hants Advertiser & Salisbury Guardian, 26 April 1845] It is difficult for us today to appreciate the public enthusiasm generated by the passing of the bill but the contemporary press reports capture the popular mood and we find a report of 19 July 1845 [Salisbury & Winchester Jnl] stating that the town of Ringwood “exhibited a scene of bustle and excitement” when Charles Castleman returned from his railway campaign to his home at St Ives, Ringwood. “Early in the day preparations were made to give him a hearty welcome and to congratulate him” on his “indefatigable exertions in obtaining the Southampton and Dorchester Railway. The houses of the tradesmen were ornamented and an arch of evergreens was erected across the street by the Crown Inn and the decorations in the Red Lion were most attractive. A well-attended crowd gathered in the afternoon around the time of Castleman’s expected arrival with “a cavalcade of horsemen and a long train of gigs and other vehicles” met his carriage on the Southampton road “and accompanied by a good band of music, escorted that gentleman into town where he was greeted with deafening cheers. A short distance from the town the horses were taken out, and the carriage drawn by a number of men. On arriving at the market place the procession halted to allow the address to be presented”. On conclusion of this “Mr. Castleman ascended the box of his carriage to acknowledge the gratifying reception in an animated address, in which he briefly reviewed the principal circumstances of the struggle.” The Ringwood townsfolk responded with three hearty cheers.

Building the line

In carrying out the construction engineering works were kept to a minimum: wherever possible the line followed stream and river valleys to minimise cuttings and embankments. In due course connecting branch lines were to add considerable significance to the Corkscrew by linking to Lymington from Brockenhurst (1858), to Christchurch from Ringwood (1862) and to Salisbury from West Moors (1864) and, rather belatedly, to Fawley from Totton (1925).

The construction of the railway presented a few engineering problems in the forest because of the treacherous nature of the slippery clay strata but it was ready for opening, as a single track, throughout its 60½-mile length between Southampton West and Dorchester by 1847. Eventually the stations in south-west Hampshire were at Millbrook (opened 1861), Redbridge, Totton (originally called Eling Junction), Lyndhurst Road (later Ashurst, New Forest), Beaulieu Road, Brockenhurst, Holmsley (originally Christchurch Road), and Ringwood.

The connection to the Southampton-London line was not made until the tunnel linking the Corkscrew line with the London route was completed and operational in August 1847. Being only single track proved a limiting feature as there were only double-tracks for trains to cross in the main stations. The problem was clearly stated in a report by I. Coddington, Inspector of Railways, in a report he submitted on 22 May 1847, a month ahead of the line’s opening. He stated, “This railway is (I believe) the longest, which has ever been constructed in England with a single line.” So work for doubling the line was put in hand and carried out piecemeal so it was not completed throughout its length until 1865.

Level crossings and a tragedy

One of the consequences of building a line with minimal gradients was that level crossings were a feature being much more economical that constructing over or under bridges. There were well over 40 on the entire line and each crossing gate had either a hut or a neatly built keeper’s lodge, the one at Brockenhurst, No. 8, still surviving in its original condition. The gates were operated, day and night, by the crossing  keeper.

A tragic accident occurred at Lyndhurst Road on the night of 23 December 1878 when the gate-keeper, Charles Shave, aged 41, was struck and killed by a train. The inquest was held in the Ashurst Union Workhouse before the County Coroner, Mr. R. Harfield, on Boxing Day. In evidence it was stated that Shave went on duty for a twelve-hour shift at 8 pm on the 23 Dec. But his body was not discovered until the following morning. He was “cold and stiff and had apparently been dead for some time” it was stated in evidence by George Edwards, the station master. Shave had last been seen alive at 11.30 pm on the Monday night by Frank Browning, a parcel porter at the station, “when he was quite well and sober.” The verdict was “accidental death.” [Hants Advertiser, 28 Dec. 1878].

A curious corollary to this tragedy was recalled 32 years later in the Colbury parish report in the New Forest Magazine (July 1910): “Our new burial ground has just been used for the first time. The grave is that of Mrs. Shave, whose husband was killed by a train when on duty at the Lyndhurst Road Crossing thirty-two years ago.”

What about Lymington?

Lymington councillors and business interests as early as 1844 tried to persuade the promoters of the Corkscrew to  modify the proposed route so that Lymington would be included—but this proved a loop too far and what was on offer initially was a station at Latchmoor (about where Lymington Junction now is) but after some deliberation it was decided it would be more convenient to build the station alongside the Lyndhurst to Lymington road (now the A337) which, of course, became the present day station of Brockenhurst. Amongst other things this provided us with the level crossing which has remained as a popular feature for road users for 170 years! However, Henry Hapgood (1810-90), was smartly off the mark by being appointed the LSWR delivery agent, with his ‘Railway Office’ in the Angel Hotel in Lymington, in order to convey parcels to and from Brockenhurst. To his printed promotional poster he has appended in his own hand ‘A Wagon to Brockenhurst every morning at 8 o’clock to meet the Goods Train.’ It is dated June 1847 the month the line was opened. I will tell the story of the Lymington Branch railway in the next ‘Reflections.’

For 15 years (1847-62) Christchurch was to be served by a station at Holmsley (Christchurch Road) and did not receive a direct connection until the branch from Ringwood was completed in November 1862. Interestingly, Captain William S. Moorsom was engaged as surveyor and engineer for this river valley line.

The Southampton and Dorchester Railway Company leased the running of the line to the London & South-Western Railway (LSWR), which had operated the Nine Elms to Southampton line since its inception and had greatly assisted with much of the financing of the Corkscrew.

Accounts of the Corkscrew line

Many histories of the building of the Southampton and Dorchester Railway have been published and I take this opportunity to thank them all for their well-researched and scholarly accounts. The fullest is Brian Jackson’s Castleman’s Corkscrew (two volumes, The Oakwood Press, 2007 and 2008). The first volume provides a very comprehensive and well-written account of the building and early days of the Corkscrew line. The early years are the subject of J.G. Cox’s, Castleman’s Corkscrew 1844-48 (City of Southampton, 1975). Len Tavender’s Southampton, Ringwood, Dorchester Railway (Ringwood Papers, No. 3, edited by Ted Baker, 1995), is a meticulous piece of work particularly valuable for its many detailed plans of the Southampton Tunnel, gatekeepers’ lodges, including a large scale plan of the Lyndhurst Road level crossing, bridges and so forth all carefully traced or copied from the original plans. The Corkscrew is well described in Lawrence Popplewell’s Bournemouth Railway History (Dorset Publishing 1973) and set in its wider context.