Saturday, 02 July 2022

Wargrave Local History Society

WARGRAVE Local History Society began its new programme year with an illustrated presentation by Richard Marks on the arrival of the railways in Reading, drawing on the research for his PhD.

The first line built to serve the town was the Great Western. Construction had begun from both the Bristol and Paddington ends, reaching Twyford from London in 1839 and Reading in 1840.

The next was the Reading, Guildford and Reigate Railway, which (unusually) served all the towns in its name.

The line opened in 1847 and was actually operated by the much larger South Eastern Railway rather than directly by its promotors.

Next to serve the town, from 1856, was the Staines, Wokingham and Woking Railway, which was operated by the London and South Western Railway, using the tracks of the Reigate line from Wokingham to reach Reading. Both became part of the Southern Railway in 1924.

The next major change was in 1948, when the Southern and the Great Western, together with the LMS and LNER, were combined to form the nationalised British Railways.

In 1996 the railways were privatised again with Thames Trains, First Great Western and South Western Trains serving the Reading area.

The commonly held view is that when the navvies built the early railways there was a lot of destruction of property and slum clearance and that when the railways opened there was economic growth, leading to population expansion.

While true in some areas, such as London and Manchester, Richard said it was not so everywhere and depended on which industries were affected.

Charles Dickens appears very anti-railway in Dombey and Son but his opinion was probably influenced by having been involved in a railway accident at Staplehurst shortly before he wrote the book.

In more modern times, Dan Snow, in his television series Locomotion, said that the railways caused massive destruction, ploughing through the countryside. Sometimes this was the case — the approach to Waterloo, for example, was built on viaducts through a densely populated area.

There was also a lot of slum clearance to create the London and Birmingham railway. In Birmingham, the council provided the site for New Street station as it contained many “less salubrious” properties, such as gambling dens and houses of ill repute.

The railways, however, did not evict people — they just bought the properties. The landlords often then moved the occupiers into other property they owned, leading to even more overcrowding.

The original plan for the railway from Staines towards Windsor was for it to continue to Clewer, taking away a corner of Windsor Castle.

Queen Victoria was not amused and the line terminated alongside the river.

Richard explained that construction of railways required an act of

A route would then be surveyed and every property to be built on was detailed in a book of reference as to who owned it, who leased it and what business was undertaken there, all annotated on a map.

If the railway did not already possess it, the owner did not have to accept their offer.

Arbitration would be binding on the parties with a valuation by a land surveyor, who was often a local friend of the landowner.

Compensation might also be needed if the railway would separate two parts of the owner’s land and bridges or other suitable crossings made at the railway’s expense.

In Reading, only 97 properties were demolished and 47 people displaced. Most of the buildings were cowsheds.

Unlike in some city locations, the railway made a gesture to the farmers concerned and built them new cowsheds.

There were no catering facilities or toilets on early trains but there were many refreshment facilities around the station.

The railway built the Great Western Hotel (now Malmaison) opposite.

Local biscuit maker Huntley and Palmer saw the potential in supplying passengers with its produce, realising that if the travellers liked them, they would ask theirf local grocer to stock them.

As a result, Huntley and Palmer grew to become a major Reading business.

The Wargrave branch line opened in 1857 but the village had to wait until 1900 for a station, GWR expecting villagers to walk to Twyford for a train. Originally with two platforms, a footbridge and a goods shed, the line was singled in 1961 and the original station building demolished in 1988.

Wargrave did not grow as a result of the station but the railway did invest in the branch with through trains to London — 14 trains per day each way (just six on Sundays as none ran during the time of morning church services).

It was also where GWR trialled its pioneering automatic train control system, the forerunner of today’s fail-safe signalling systems.

For more information about the society and its programme, visit

Peter Delaney

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