September 2011

Treacle Mines, Tragedies and Triumph – September 2011

As this was the first talk of the sixtieth anniversary year of the formation of the Society, it was, not surprisingly, given by the President Jude James His talk, supported by a power point presentation, was entitled ‘Treacle Mines, Tragedies and Triumph’ and discussed the building of the direct railway line between Brockenhurst and Bournemouth.

Jude, in his introduction, summarized the advent of railways in the area which started in 1840 with the building of the main line between London Nine Elms and Southampton. Thereafter the development of the railway system was generally by local entrepreneurs seeing the commercial opportunities offered by this new means of transport. Reception by the local communities was mixed, with Bournemouth, a new and generally wealthy town having no empathy with railways, ensuring that the railway station was sited as far away as possible from the centre of the town. Other towns including Poole and Christchurch, seeing the advantages of a railway, clamoured for a line to be brought to their area: but the development of the railways was slow.

It was not until 1883 that permission was sought from Parliament to build a direct railway between Brockenhurst and Bournemouth which would also connect the rural communities of Sway, Milton and Hinton. About 2 kilometres of the railway would run through the New Forest heathlands. Conservation of grazing was important and the Verderers insisted that access for the free movement of the commoners’ animals should not be jeopardised. As a consequence, three narrow bridges and one underpass (‘cattle creep’) were built for the sole use of animals.

The building of this line faced huge and unexpected challenges. It took over four years to complete; employed hundreds of men, mostly labourers (‘navvies’) who came from all over the country but with a fair number of local men. The problems were mainly in the nature of the geology which is largely composed of clays interspersed with sandy deposits all requiring different approaches when, for example, preparing foundations for the railway lines, viaducts and bridges. In the Sway area, particularly following rain, men were working in several feet of water-logged clay which resulted in them becoming covered in sticky, cloying, yellowish and bluish ‘goo’, giving the impression of them having been working in a treacle mine. The work was extremely heavy and tiring and not surprisingly several accidents occurred resulting in serious injuries. Tragically, a number of navvies were killed during the work and of these at least eight lie buried in Sway churchyard.

But the men’s time was not all work and they could often be found in the local hostelries. Nor were their lives necessarily unblemished for there are records of them breaking the law and appearing before the local magistrates, mainly in courts held in Lymington.

Jude regaled the very well attended meeting with many anecdotes and his talk was enthusiastically received.

The next meeting of the Society is on 28 October 2011 and is entitled ‘The Great Fire of Wareham’ and will be given by Anne King. The meeting will be preceded by a short Annual General Meeting.