How it all Started: The Early Days
The Railway grew out of a visionary plan to cover Britain with independent steam railways as early as 1959!
Saturday 21st November 1959 saw a gathering of 16 men and lads at the former L&NWR Hotel, Stafford, for the inaugural meeting of the Railway Preservation Society - West Midlands District. The Railway Preservation Society (RPS) was a national organisation born out of an idea by Noel Draycott of Swanley, Kent. Noel, who sadly has not survived to see the fruits of his vision and labours, was concerned about possible fragmentation of effort by the handful of serious reservationists at that time and was keen on establishing district groups.
The RPS was to be organised on a district basis, each of which was to establish its own depot to enable as many members as possible to find a working site within easy reach of their homes. Once any acquired rolling stock had been restored, individual districts (or more than one district jointly) would then lease a branch line upon which to operate.
The West Midlands Branch was the first such district to be formed, with Noel working tirelessly writing letters to the local and national press, together with the railway periodicals, begging support. However, in those early days of standard gauge preservation, there was little interest shown. After all, British Railways were still building steam locomotives and Doctor Beeching's axe had yet to be sharpened. The lads of the day saved their pocket money to buy Ian Allan's reference books - not to make donations towards some old wooden coach.
How it all Started: The Hednesford Depot
The early members of the West Midlands Group stuck to their task, though, and by June 1960 had not only moved to a rail-connected site at Hednesford, but had also acquired by donation from the National Coal Board two, albeit derelict, 6-wheel coaches of Maryport & Carlisle Railway and Great Eastern Railway origins, dating from 1875 and 1894 respectively.
In April 1961, the ex-L&NWR Webb Coal Tank, preserved by private subscribers, arrived at Hednesford. The loco was to be a static exhibit pending removal in December 1963 to the National Trust's Penrhyn Castle. As history now reveals, this 0-6-2 tank was eventually returned to steam at Dinting, in time for the 150th anniversary celebrations of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway.
How it all Started: The Chasewater Site
The West Midlands District's members kept themselves occupied in the early 1960s by acquiring rolling stock (mainly on the cheap!), collecting small relics and surveying possible branch lines to lease. The three lines under serious consideration were the former L&NWR Coalport Branch; part of the former GNR Stafford - Uttoxeter line; and the truncated Midland Railway Aldridge - Brownhills Branch.
The Coalport Branch would have been too costly in respect of engineering works and the GNR line was too "derelict". However, the then Aldridge-Brownhills Urban District Council was at that time developing a pleasure park along Chasewater, a canal reservoir, and part of the former 1881 MR trackbed was available for lease at a reasonable sum. A 25-year lease was signed in December 1964.
Of the national RPS scheme envisaged by Noel Draycott, only two other groups prospered. Firstly the London Railway Preservation Society who acquired and restored stock at Bishops Stortford and then Luton, before moving to Quainton Road to form the Quainton Railway Society Ltd. Secondly, the Scottish Railway Preservation Society with their Murrayfield (Edinburgh) museum, then their Falkirk depot, before moving to Bo'ness to set up the Bo'ness & Kinneil Railway.
The West Midlands District had a couple of disappointments which at the time seemed major, but in retrospect now seem amusing. These included the theft by "tatters" of a gentlemen's cast iron convenience from the closed Stowe-by-Chartley Station and for which BR had been paid £12.
A venture which resulted in a financial loss of over £100 (a large sum then) was the hiring of "Flying Scotsman" for a return Sheffield Victoria - Marylebone excursion on 15th June 1963. This was probably the first hire of the loco by a preservation group. One unexpected bonus in Sheffield was the donation of one of the LNER stainless steel "Master Cutler" headboards.
An appeal on radio when the "Down Your Way" team visited Hednesford brought in several nice items of railwayana, and the Society often gained useful publicity when its members took part in the last rites of several axed lines, including Burton - Tutbury, Wellington - Much Wenlock, and Stafford - Wellington.
Sales of surplus railwayana at Stoke and Derby were attended and a fine collection of smaller relics grew, to be displayed at Hednesford in a Wolverton built TPO of 1909 vintage.
How it all Started: A Period of Change
The period 1965 to 1970 saw an increased concentration of effort at Chasewater on what was virtually a greenfield site. Track was laid with minimal manpower and equipment, a security compound and platform constructed, and facilities provided. All restoration work on the predominantly pre-grouping rolling stock and industrial locomotives was carried out in the open. Some incredible vandalism occurred, such as a GWR parachute water tank from Cleobury Mortimer which was cut up by "scrappies" before it could be erected!
The first steam open day was held on 29th June 1968 when Hawthorn Leslie 0-4-0ST "Asbestos" hauled a GWR 16 ton brake van of 1888 and an MR passenger brake of circa 1885.
By 1970, all the stock had been transferred from Hednesford and the depot there closed. From 1970, regular open days were held and by 1973 the number of steamings had increased, with the Chasewater Light Railway Company being formed to operate the line under licence from the RPS.
The members then decided on a name change, from "RPS West Midlands District" to "Chasewater Light Railway Society", which reflected more appropriately their aims and ambitions. Things had changed from the pioneering days of collecting to the now more obvious role of operating a light railway.
How it all Started: Suspension of Services
The Society had been proud to be represented at the Stockton & Darlington 150th celebrations in 1975 by the restored Maryport & Carlisle coach, but by 1982 things were not going too well at Chasewater. Vandalism and theft were rife, especially during the time when a Manpower Service Commission programme had been engaged on construction work for a new engine shed and some track work.
The Railway effectively closed in October 1982 when a miserable wet Saturday saw just two fare-paying passengers carried on the last train of the day. Although no trains were to be run for the foreseeable future, it was decided to soldier on behind the scenes as a Society. However, further problems occurred during a West Midlands County Council Task Force Scheme the following year when, after construction of a bay platform to accommodate the museum coach, the remainder of the platform was demolished by the Task Force - who then failed to return to rebuild and extend the platform as promised, for nearly 18 months.
It was not until 1985 that regular steamings began again, but in the intervening three steam-less years, membership had dropped by some 50 per cent. The Society deemed it necessary to prune its stock as it was realised that without an injection of cash, the whole affair might fold. The L&NWR Travelling Post Office went to Tyseley, a small "Planet" diesel went to Brian Roberts' Tollerton Farm Railway, while individual members purchased two steam locos and one diesel loco in order that they could remain safely at Chasewater.
Working membership fell to single figures, but that small band succeeded in rescuing this early standard gauge preservation scheme from the brink of extinction. Subsequently, as described later, a new company was formed in 1985 - the Chasewater Light Railway and Museum Company - and achieved status as a Reistered Charity.
Such are the Railway's origins. They are of considerable importance and interest in understand the early railway restoration movement. We owe a lot to our predecessors. The current members are continuing where their predecessors left off, to ensure that the Railway moves ever forward. How this is being achieved is described in the following paragraphs.
A Second Chance for Preservation
In 1985 a new preservation group, the Chasewater Light Railway & Museum Company, was formed to merge the assets and liabilities of the former Preservation Society and the operating Company back into a single group. This has proved very successful in that the group now has a growing membership and an expanding operational railway.
The new company has continued with the expansion of its collection of industrial locomotives, both steam and diesel and, most importantly, the unique collection of Victorian rolling stock, collected from the various colliery companies where they were employed in the "Paddy" trains that used to run across the coalfield system.
The Preservation Group Today
We are now a Registered Charity, trading as the Chasewater Railway, but our full title being the Chasewater Light Railway & Museum Company. We have just under 2 miles of operational passenger line between the station at Brownhills West and a terminal station at Chasetown (Church Street) - the latter opened in early 2004 - with intermediate stations at Norton Lakeside and Chasewater Heaths.
Chasewater is a man-made reservoir formed in the 1770's to hold water to supply an early "contour" canal, the Wyrley & Essington Canal - affectionately known as the "Curly Wyrley". The canal was built to take the Marquis of Anglesey's colliery products to the Black Country furnaces, very early in the Industrial Revolution.
The Railways in the Chasewater Area
In the 1860's with the coming of the Railway Age, a great number of collieries were in production all over Cannock Chase, and sought this new form of rapid movement for their products. The Cannock Chase & Wolverhampton Railway (CC & WR) deposited Parliamentary plans (we have the originals) for a railway from the north side of Chasewater to a junction with the Great Western Railway just to the north of Wolverhampton Low Level. However, the only section built was that which we now lease, which conjoined along the Reservoir's south shore with the Midland Railway and the London & North Western Railway.
However, the CC & WR forms only part of our present railway. The first five-eighths of a mile from our Brownhills West terminus were constructed by the Midland Railway. This section included exchange sidings, where the Colliery Company locomotives deposited loaded trains for onward haulage by the main line Companies, and the collection of empty wagons for refilling.
The line used to be busy with a wonderful mixture of Midland Railway and London and North Western Railway locomotives, alongside their industrial cousins.
Museum and Collection of Artefacts
The Railway is renowned for its collection of artefacts covering every aspect of railways and their operation.
The Railway's museum at Brownhills West is well worth a visit. It is normally open on Sundays and can be viewed on other dates throughout the year by prior arrangement. View the Railway Museum page for further details.