The Opening of the Railway in 1862
|Getting ready for the Grand Opening
At a meeting of the Directors on Tuesday 18th February 1862 it was agreed that the first train should run on Saturday 25th March as the line was nearly completed. R.P.Brereton himself travelled down the line from the Junction with the main line at Norton, departing at 2pm on Thursday 6th March 1862; this inspection train running straight through to Williton having no reason to be stopped on the way.
There the train was greeted by Sir Peregrine Acland and other directors, and then continued on to the terminus at Watchet where it arrived at about 3pm. Various dignitaries were accomodated in an open truck which must have been far from pleasant owing to the extremely wet weather. After this inspection trip all seemed set for the opening on the 15th. However, in the early morning of Friday March 14th a wagon load of ballast tipped over on top of four men who were working on the bridge between Bishops Lydeard and Combe Florey. The injured were dug out and taken to hospital in Taunton, three of them having serious injuries. They were part of a gang who had been employed all night on thes section of track making last minute preparations for the opening. The accident was serious enough to cause its postponement from 15th March until the 27th March
|The Grand Opening Day - 27th March 1862
Eventually the long awaited day dawned but unfortunately Thursday 27th March continued the wet weather typical of that Spring. At about 3pm the large crowd waiting at Watchet in the drenching rain saw the locomotive and three carriages of the Director's Special pull in to the platform. A great shout of welcome went up as the train arrived, and there were more cheers as the directors alighted accompanied by officials of the Bristol and Exeter Railway.
Despite the wet, the citizens of Watchet had spent much time decorating their town. The station itself was gaily decorated with flags and apt mottoes. There was a triumphal arch at the station entrance; whilst Swain Street looked more like a lawn; there were so many decorative evergreens as well as further arches. Particular banners honoured the Queen as well as Sir Peregrine Acland, the Countess of Egremont and Sir Alexander and Lady Hood. The ships in the harbour were also bright with flags. The band of the 9th Somerset Rifle Corps under the direction of Mr Henry Sparks was there to provide stirring music.
From the station the official party made their way to the Town Hall for a splendid repast at which about fifty persons were present. After the loyal toast, drunk with respect owing to the death of the Prince Consort four months earlier, several more toasts and speeches followed. Sir Peregrine mentioned that they had sought to reach Minehead but had not been able to do so. He paid tribute to the assistance of the Bristol and Exeter Railway and to the sympathy and support of the West Somerset Mineral Railway.
The celebration being over and all and sundry having been congratulated, including, happily, the navvies who had done the physical work; the special train departed for Taunton and 4.30 amidst renewed cheering. Those left behind continued the festivities with a Ball in the evening.
|The Official Opening Day - 31st March 1862
Monday 31st March 1862 saw the official opening to passengers. At Williton the Saturday and early Monday had been used by the townspeople to erect their own decorations rivalling the splendour of those at Watchet. An early morning special from Taunton brought down Mr Halliday, the Williton Station Master together with Mr Gibson for Watchet with the stock to form the first Up passenger train departing at 8.45am. This train arrived at Williton ar about 9 o'clock with many passengers who had taken the opportunity of making the short trip from Watchet. This day the 9th Somerset Rifle Corps Band was in attendance at Williton. The first Up train having departed for Taunton, the first Down train, the 9.45 from Taunton arrived at 10.35 very well filled. The next train was so full that the poor occupants were advised to form rows two deep in each carriage. By the afternoon an immense crowd had formed outside Williton Booking Office strugling to book for the 2.49 train, with people offering an extra 2d or 3d on top of their fare hoping to be served first! The reaction of the booking clerk is not recorded! About 550 passengers bought tickets to make the days total of passengers at Williton around seven hundred, the crowd greeting each train with cheers despite the drenching rain.
From the station and up Long Street, the main thoroughfare, men, horses and wagons had been employed in decorating the streets with fir trees, which the womenfolk made gay with variegated colours, as well as banners bearing various "mottoes". One decoration in particular was notred being a model of a train which projected from a window together with the motto "The Railway for Ever". Highly coloured triumphal arches were erected throughout the town whose shops were all closed in the afternoon; whilst peep shows and other amusements were provided for the youths. Williton's celebrations were completed by a Ball in the evening at the Egremont Hotel.
In Watchet the decorations remained the same as on the 27th but the heavy rain of the previous days left the streets inches thick with mud. However the joyful revellers seemed little concerned as they made their way about with their clothes bespattered by mud and water up to their knees. On this day the Band was that of the 26th Somerset Bridgwater Carriage Shed Rifle Corps who paraded through the streets, joining the Milverton Band on the Esplanade for more stirring music. In the afternoon a public dinner was held in a marquee for more than one hundred persons. The Rector of St Decuman's presided over more congratulatory speeches. Amongst appropriate mottoes displayed was one reading "As a father is to the son, so is Sir Peregrine Acland to the West Somerset Railway".
Apart from the appalling weather the opening ceremonies appeared to have passed off well and to the satisfaction of both the railway company and the populace. The West Somerset Free Press published a poem [see below] on the following Saturday which, although it may not aspire to the literary heights, sums up the public enthusiasm and excitement at the coming of their railway.
|"The Railway" - a poem written in 1862...
'Twas on a Monday morning soon,|
And I lay thinking of the boon,
Dreaming of wonders in the moon,
I nearly lost the Railway!
So up I got, put on my clothes,
And felt as you may well suppose,
Of sleep I scarce had half a doze,
Which made my yawns as round as "O's";
No matter; on my hat and coat;
And a cup of coffee boiling hot
I poured like lava down my throat,
And haste to catch the Railway!
Racing, chasing to the shore,
Those who fled from every door -
Never was such haste before,
To catch the Watchet Railway!
When arrived at Watchet quay,
What confusion - only see -
Each selfish wight so quickly flee,
And hope to catch the Railway!
High and low, and thick and thin,
Trying who the race shall win,
Leaking boots and hob-nailed shin,
All determined to get in;
People laughing at the shore,
Merchants smiling at each door;
Those running who ne'er ran before,
All to catch the Railway!
Fleet through Watchet's narrow streets,
Over mud and over stones,
Careless of their ribs and bones,
And all to catch the Railway!
See the rearguard far behind,
Out of temper, out of wind,
Out of patience, out of mind,
For fear they lose the Railway!
Last comes old Fatsides with his wife,
Waging a real hot-mutton strife -
Such scenes in Watchet sure are rife;
"It's very hard upon my life;
alack, there'll be no room for us
Let's get into the omnibus."
"O pray, my dear, don't make a fuss,
If we should lose the Railway!"
Blowing, glowing all the way,
Valing upon the train to stay,
We'll never get to Taunton Dean
Upon the Watchet Railway!
Now the crowded station gained,
Sore-footed and mud-bestained,
Melting-browed and asthma-pained,
Hurrying to the Railway!
The 'bus has just arrived before,
Which later left for distant shore,
And fills a full sized train or more,
Which is a most confounded bore;
But coach by coach are quickly joined-
Which surely is surpassing kind,
And off we fly as fleet as wind,
Upon the Watchet Railway.
Thus the sports of railway speed,
What on earth can now exceed,
Except my song which all must read,
About the Watchet Railway.
The moral of my song, I add,
To make you married ladies glad,
Who lately were a little sad,
Before the Watchet Railway!
So now dispel each moppish frown,
And don your most attactive gown,
For loving husbands can get down
In a few fleeting hours from town;
While vessels waiting at the quay
Conduct us swiftly home to tea,
Or to partake of joviality,
So certain is the Railway!
And let us steal a march on time
And echo forth this truthful rhyme
Sir Peregrine's actions are sublime,
About the Watchet Railway!
Williton, March 31st 1862 W.H.B.
(published in the West Somerset Free Press on 5 April 1862)
|Engineer's Report to the Directors
Because of the delayed opening, the half-yearly General Meeting of the Comapny was held (at Pattison's Hotel, Taunton) on the Saturday between the Directors' Special and the public opening. The Engineer, R. P. Brereton, successor to Brunel, reported as follows:
18 Duke Street, Westminster
Gentlemen, The works upon the entire length of the railway between Taunton and Watchet have at length been brought to completion. The permanent way has been laid throughout, not withstanding the wetness of the season, in good working order. The loop lines or sidings at the stations as well as the station buildings have been completed ready for traffic. The erection of the goods sheds will proceed at once. At Watchet new works of the harbour have been finished so as to admit of proceeding with the sidings which will connect the West Somerset Railway with the quays and wharves. These will be completed as soon as possible. A locomotive engine passed over the railway oin the 6th instant, and the Government inspection on behalf of the Board of Trade took place on the 8th. The report of the inspecting officer as to the sufficiency of the works was satisfactory. Some trifling operations connected with signals and some minor details were also required and have been carried out. The railway was formally opened on the 27th and will be opened by the Bristol and Exeter Railway Company for public traffic on Monday next.
I am, Gentlemen, yours obediently, R. P. Brereton
The Minehead Branch 1848-1971
For serious students of railway history; for local history and local geography enthusiasts and for anyone interested in the story of how a railway came to change rural West Somerset, there is no better recommendation than Ian Coleby's excellent volume "The Minehead Branch 1848-1971" published by Lightmoor Press in 2006. Ian is the Archivist of the West Somerset Steam Railway Trust and the Curator of the Gauge Museum at Bishops Lydeard.