The Audley Branch Railway.
The first railway reached North Staffordshire in July 1837 when the Grand Junction Railway was opened between Birmingham and Warrington, which passed from Stafford through Whitmore, Madeley and on to Crewe. The Potteries and Newcastle area, which would have to wait until April 1848 for rail connection, made use of the station at Whitmore during that eleven year interval. However, Thomas Firmstone, a local industrialist[i], was anxious to use this new form of freight transport to move coal from his leased mines at Leycett, so he constructed his own three and a half mile railway through Madeley Heath to the main line station at Madeley. He has the distinction of operating the first private steam locomotive[ii] in this area by October 1838, and his railway eventually extended to the southern border of Audley parish.
The Audley coalfield had always suffered from poor lines of transport, which had limited its development to those markets which could be reasonably served by horse drawn carts. Its most lucrative traffic was to Nantwich for both onward travel by the Chester Canal or by the then navigable River Weaver, and for use locally in salt pans and in households. In 1806-7 Sir Nigel Bowyer Gresley had planned a horse operated tramway from his Podmore mines at Halmer End to the River Weaver at Nantwich. He was also hoping to connect with other coal producers in the immediate area to share in the construction cost. His premature death in 1808 took the enthusiasm from this scheme and it was abandoned. Talke mines sent their coal by rail through the Jamage gap below Red Street once the North Staffordshire Railway had opened in 1848. Prior to that they had used tramways down to the Trent & Mersey Canal. Audley production was confined to two groups of mines at Boyles Hall and on Bignall Hill, which relied entirely upon expensive road transport and served mainly local needs. Over the ridge Apedale mines, which were partly in Audley parish, had been supplying coal to Newcastle by Gresley's canal since 1776.
The potential mineral wealth of eastern Audley was no secret, and in the 1850s, with the Railway Mania well under way, various promoters cast longing eyes upon this coal rich area. The GWR, which hoped to invade one of its rival's territory from Shropshire found its scheme countered by the "Shrewsbury and Potteries Junction Railway" which was supported by the LNWR.[iii] Both hoped to enter this area by way of Madeley and Silverdale. After several years of applications to parliament by both groups, each of which passed in turn through deadlock, rejection and revision several times, the local NSR entered the fray with a scheme of its own. This received the Royal Assent in July 1864, and consisted of two railways; one from the GWR projected route at Market Drayton to an end on junction with Sneyd's railway (recently bought by the NSR) at Silverdale. The second railway would run from a junction with the first at Silverdale to Alsager (East Junction) by way of the mining areas of Leycett and Audley, with a branch to serve Jamage from the west. There would also be a short connection from Leycett to a junction at Honeywall (Keele) to link the Audley area mines with Shropshire by way of Market Drayton. This Market Drayton line was to be a passenger and goods route, but the Audley branches were for goods only. Honeywall Junction would face the Shropshire direction to satisfy the original intentions of the rival schemes of supplying coal to Salop and the Welsh Marches. Access to Silverdale and Newcastle would be from north of Leycett passing Silverdale Ironworks and would join Sneyd's original line by Kent's Lane Colliery. The exit at Alsager would carry coal to Crewe for locomotive fuel, and beyond, where customers included the Cheshire chemical industry and Birkenhead docks for steamship bunkering together with overseas exports.
Construction began on both lines in December 1865 as a single contract let to Thomas Brassey and his partner William Field of Shrewsbury. These new works soon became victims of the company's financial restraints and by early 1868 the directors were debating economies, which included laying both railways as single lines (instead of double track throughout as planned) and a proposal to ask parliament for a time extension so that the cost could be spread over a longer period. The original deadline was six years from authorisation, i.e. 29 June 1870. By June 1868 they had spent £72,732 on the Audley line alone, and the substantial earthworks to date had also cost at least five workmen's lives in three separate landslips in the cuttings
between Leycett and Diglake during 1867. But by October 1868 the company had decided to hasten construction, to the original plans, in order to open on time. This was achieved with just a week to spare, and the company's engineer had reported, just five weeks earlier, that 'some trains should run early in the month (of July) so as to comply with the Act '.[iv]
As part of the impetus to get traffic moving, the collieries at Leycett and Podmore had coal trains ready to move on opening day, 24 July 1870. There are no reports of an opening ceremony, these were usually reserved for passenger lines. By completion, the 8 miles 11 chains (including the Jamage branch) had cost £157,965, an average of over £19,000 per mile - the Market Drayton line, mostly through an easier landscape had cost just over £17,000 per mile. From its opening the Audley line was never able to use its intended path to Silverdale and Newcastle as the route of the line near Scot Hay and Crackley Gates, which has become known as "The Cuttings", was subject to constant subsidence and flooding during its construction, and must have contributed to the minor financial crisis already mentioned in the Spring of 1868. This area had been mined for coal for at least two centuries before the railway came, and was riddled with abandoned workings. Thus all traffic towards Stoke was obliged to reverse at Honeywall Junction, an expensive inconvenience[v] which was suffered for over eleven years. The Cuttings route spent a few years as sidings at both ends before being abandoned.
In anticipation of the railway arriving in the Audley area, a new deep mine was sunk at Diglake to replace Boyles Hall pit. This opened in 1870 with its own railway junction and extensive sidings. Later other new mines appeared making use of this new rail access. The Minnie shaft, an expansion of Podmore in 1883-4, and the new Rookery in 1901-2 were sited with their screens and loading facilities close to the new railway. At Leycett the Bang Up-Fair Lady and Harrison-Woodburn pits rearranged their internal railways, which were part of Firmstone's original line, to join the Audley branch. One noticeable effect on the local population came with the alteration of several roads within the district. At Audley the railway was to be carried across the turnpike road (Ravens Lane) by a viaduct of three spans. As this was at the intersection of Boon Hill and Briery Brook Lane, it was a complicated
scheme. Boon Hill Road was moved several yards at its northern end, much to the consternation of the occupants of the bottom four cottages. One of these was Sammy Brindley, who commented that his back door had now become his front! Further road diversions occurred at Black Lane (Miles Green) where a large bend was removed, to avoid building two bridges, and the lane to Halmer End was thus shortened. By the 1880s these new roads had been handed over to Audley Local Board for maintenance. At Leycett two parallel lanes were combined, with most of one of the lanes being abandoned altogether, the other being diverted over the only public level crossing on the route.
At least one of the many roving 'navvies' employed on the construction of the line decided to stay when his work was finished. Thomas Packer, a young man from Gloucestershire, married a local girl and settled on Boon Hill, working now as a collier. Later he moved on to become the farmer at Water Hayes, Chesterton. Several local youths were taken on as railway maintenance staff, or labourers in the goods yards. These were from Audley families and continued to live in their parents' homes where father and older brothers were miners. When the passenger station opened at Audley the resident Goods Agent became Station Master. He was Holland Stevenson, a Stoke man, who lived in the company house in Ravens Lane, which is now in private occupation. He held his post till his death in 1914 aged 64, when he was buried in Audley churchyard.
Mineral traffic soon grew on the line and numerous locomotives were employed shunting and moving coal wagons. Most of the mining companies had engines of their own which worked within the confines of the colliery yards, but NSR locos had powers to enter with empty wagons and collect trains for forward movement. By 1890 the NSR had so many of their locos at work on the Audley Branch that an engine shed was opened at Alsager Junction to save the many light engine workings to and from Stoke shed. Over a dozen houses were built for the depot staff close to Talke & Alsager Road Station, and these remain today, but in private ownership. This new locomotive depot had become, by 1913, the second largest on the NSR system (next to Stoke) with up to 30 engines stationed there. Most of these were large tank engines for work on the branch and its numerous colliery offshoots, but also more powerful tender engines were available to take over coal trains in the exchange sidings close by the engine shed, for their main line journey to Crewe and beyond. This shed allocation decreased after the NSR was absorbed into the LMS in 1923, and only 15 locos were stationed there a year later. During the 1930s as collieries closed the allocation dropped to single figures, but was still important in British Railways ownership when it became a sub-shed of Crewe North and continued to use its LMS code 5E. Alsager Shed closed completely in 1962.
In 1876, the recently formed Audley Local Board (forerunner of the Urban District Council) requested the NSR to run a passenger service over the branch for the benefit of local residents. The huge increase in coal output caused by the arrival of the railway had necessitated a big increase in the workforce and much new housing had quickly appeared in terraced side streets off Ravens Lane, and in Halmer End. These growing communities needed good transport to Newcastle and beyond. The railway company was reluctant at first to upgrade the line to Board of Trade standards for passenger working, besides building the required stations. They eventually agreed in late 1878, and decided on three stations at Leycett, Halmer End and Audley, but these were to be built as economically as possible with wooden buildings and platforms, which could be dismantled and reused elsewhere should the service prove to be unprofitable.[vi] Indeed, most minor new stations in North Staffordshire from then on were built to the same system. A Board of Trade inspector was reported as having ‘gone over and approved of the line from Keele to Harecastle ..... it will be opened for passenger traffic on Monday’ (28 June 1880).[vii] New signalling and track arrangements included £12,000 spent on the junction at Alsager alone 'so as to prevent any possible chance of accident to the main line trains'.[viii] When opened in 1870 there had been two signal boxes on the line to control mineral traffic. These were built by the signalling sub-contractors Mackenzie & Holland at Rookery Junction and at Halmer End, intervening sidings were then accessed by ground frames unlocked by train guards. Passenger services required two new boxes at Diglake, to control Audley Station, and at Leycett which also supervised the level crossing gates.
On the previous Saturday (26 June 1880) a special train had been run to celebrate the new facilities, and local dignitaries were invited. These included the members of the Local Board, led by their Chairman Robert Rigby, who was also proprietor of the Diglake pit, and the Audley vicar Rev. Pauli. After a journey from Audley Station northwards to Harecastle Junction (today known as Kidsgrove), the train continued down the main line to Stoke, where the NSR hosted a banquet at their North Stafford Hotel which included the inevitable speeches and toasts wishing success to the railway. The party returned by the same special train via Newcastle, Keele and the southern section of the branch back to Audley again. On the opening Monday trains were full with local people all day, especially youngsters, who were eager to experience the first day of travel. This enthusiastic interest continued all week. A fourth station was opened in July 1889 which was called 'Talke & Alsager Road', but this was hardly a convenient location for Talke passengers, and it is probable that the name was intended to indicate that the station was on the Talke to Alsager Road. The name became simply 'Alsager Road' in May 1902.
For the first fifteen months of the new service, passenger trains between Newcastle and Audley were obliged to reverse at Honeywall Junction, as coal trains had been doing since the line opened ten years earlier. This was now intolerable and powers were sought in August 1880 to construct a new east curve to give through running from Leycett to Keele. The new arrangement opened on 1 October 1881 complete with a new signal box called Keele Junction, and the old line to Honeywall was closed and lifted soon after. This must have cut up to ten minutes off journey times, and also shows that coal traffic to Shropshire from the Audley direction was much less than had been originally anticipated. For the fifty-one years of passenger services over the Audley line only a light service was provided. No more than four trains ran each way on weekdays, with two return trips on Sundays. The passenger rolling stock used consisted of elderly four- and six-wheeled coaches, which were relegated from other services in the Potteries. The timings of these services varied over the years, and Saturday trains were different from other weekdays, particularly in the twentieth century, but the basic number of runs remained constant. In later years one journey from Stoke terminated at Halmerend, to serve the shift pattern at the Minnie Pit. It brought miners from Newcastle (5.41) and Silverdale (5.57) to Leycett (6.14) and Halmerend (6.18), and a reverse working returned from the latter at 3.03pm.
In 1905 the NSR was concerned by the competition from the tram system of the PET in the Potteries and Newcastle area, and from associated buses, and although the latter were primitive, they were more direct and cheaper. The railway company estimated it had lost 175,000 passenger journeys on their whole system during 1904, and was determined to meet the challenge. It purchased three rail motor cars from Beyer Peacock of Manchester at £2,000 each, with a view to attracting workmen with low fares and cheap weekly tickets, serving new 'Halts' particularly in Newcastle at Hartshill & Basford, Brampton, Liverpool Road, and Knutton. The rail motors were a complete single unit of small steam engine and integral passenger coach which appeared to be an economical arrangement. They were not successful and failed to beat the flexible road competition which had grown considerably by 1910. One service by a rail motor ran from Leycett to Trentham Gardens and back, as nearly all NSR services avoided terminating at Stoke, where two through platforms handled an amazing volume of traffic.[ix]
Many stories have been handed down to the present day of operations on the branch. Pupils attending Newcastle Endowed Schools would travel by train and always arrive a few minutes late because of the branch schedule. The 'school' train left Audley at 9.12 arriving Newcastle at 9.35. The School often requested that the NSR should retime this train for the pupils' sake but were told that such a change, by even a few minutes, would disrupt every other train in the district!. By 1918 a more formal complaint was made to the Board of Trade whose subsequent enquiry was told 'if this train is to get to Newcastle earlier it must obviously start earlier from Harecastle and lose the connection from Crewe'. It did not help this school service that on certain days in the winters before 1914, it conveyed horses from Audley to Keele, the loading and unloading of the specially attached horse wagon added to its journey time. The horses belonged to Reginald Wood, the 'squire' of Bignall End, who rode with the Keele Hunt on these occasions.
In January 1923, as part of railway 'grouping', when nationally over a hundred companies large and small were combined into the 'Big Four', the NSR became the sixth largest constituent of the LMS Railway. The new masters were eager to standardise as much of their system as was possible in order to cut costs in the uncertain post-war years. Road and air competition was now making inroads into railway profitability, and uncertain economic conditions with labour disputes all made radical changes imperative. At first the Audley line saw improvements. The LMS quickly decided to phase out NSR locomotives as being non-standard, and thus enabled the closure of Stoke Locomotive Works within four years. Newer, heavier locos appeared on the branch, but their greater weight was a threat to the wrought iron Bignall End viaduct by the Plough Inn. So until this was renewed, the LMS locos were restricted to the Alsager - Jamage traffic. In the summer of 1925, with a demonstration of faith in the future use of the line, the whole deck of the viaduct was replaced with a much stronger steel structure which could take any load offered and which would last forty years until closure and demolition.
By 1930 the world wide slump was taking its toll on demand for coal, and the Midland Coal, Coke and Iron Co. of Apedale and Podmore closed, putting 3,000 local men out of work. Other pits were on short time and coal traffic halved. Bus services had gradually removed virtually all the passengers from the line, so in April 1931 these services were withdrawn, one of the first in the area.[x] Further economies included reducing most of the double track to single during 1933-34, with the junction at Keele being moved to Silverdale. There were now two single tracks running parallel through Silverdale tunnel and Keele station. Signal boxes were removed from Keele Junction and Halmer End, to be replaced at the latter by ground frames operated by train crews.
Coal traffic continued faithfully during the Second World War, though Jamage Pit closed in 1941, and its branch line was finally severed at Rookery Junction in 1947, after the Rookery Pit had closed. Opencast mining on Bignall Hill, started during the war, kept the Diglake sidings going until 1947, and these were lifted in 1953. Leycett, the first local district to be linked to the national system was the last to be closed. Coal working there ceased in September 1957, and the last scrap train left in 1959. From then on only occasional goods trains ran, though following an enquiry from an Audley Chapel Sunday School in 1961, British Rail offered to obtain Ministry of Transport permission to run a diesel rail-car excursion from Audley to Rhyl, provided at least 200 fare-paying passengers were forthcoming. Unfortunately they were not. So the last passenger working was a steam hauled enthusiast's special in 1958, which ran south bound along the entire branch as part of a tour of freight-only lines in North Staffordshire.
The end came during 1962 when the line was officially closed. The Keele to Audley section in June and Audley to Alsager from 1 January 1963. Thus it avoided the notorious Beeching 'axe' by a few months. Track lifting and salvage work was completed by late 1963. The viaduct by the Plough Inn was removed in a separate contract during 1965. Today much of the route remains in an overgrown condition, but the section between the former stations at Audley and Halmer End has been converted into an interesting public walkway and thus continues to provide a service to the community.
[i] Thomas Firmstone, originally from Sedgeley, leased Apedale Ironworks in
1824, moving to Madeley / Leycett in 1838.
[ii] This locomotive was an 0-4-0ST named "Tommy"; little else is known about
[iii] GWR (Great Western Railway); LNWR (London & North Western Railway -
the renamed Grand Junction Railway).
[iv] John C. Forsyth, engineer to the NSR 1848-65, Consulting engineer 1865-
79 (at a salary of £850 p.a.), reporting to the NSR Board 13 June 1870.
[v] This longer route, from the Audley pits to Stoke, added to the mileage
charges made to the mine operators and caused numerous complaints.
[vi] Keele Park Station on the Market Drayton line, served Sneyd's Racecourse
from 1896 to closure in May 1907, when the station buildings were
dismantled and re-erected at Tean on the Cheadle Railway. The
racecourse, incidentally, was laid out close to the present M6 service area.
[vii] Staffordshire Advertiser 26 June 1880.
[viii] Report of Chairman to the Board in August 1880, accounting for the
considerable expense of upgrading the branch to passenger standards.
[ix] NSR plans to enlarge Stoke Station were delayed by World War I, and
were later abandoned by the LMS.
[x] The first passenger service withdrawal was the Biddulph Valley line in
1927, followed by the Sandbach Branch through Wheelock in 1930; the
Audley line was next.