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WGC Light Railway

Cover of Industrial Railways Record No.62 October 1975

The Trust has been given a copy of the Industrial Railway Society's Industrial Railway Record No. 62 dated October 1975 containing a fascinating article on the WGC Light Railway written by Alan M.Clarke which is reproduced below.

Our thanks go to Bob Darvill of the IRS for donating the item above to the Trust.

"The Welwyn Garden City Light Railway

Alan M.Clarke

Welwyn Garden City has its origins in the year immediately after the First World War when Sir Ebenezer Howard, founder of the town, purchased at auction on 30th May 1919 part of Lord Desborough's Panshanger estate. This was land around the junctions. of the Hertford and Luton branch lines with the Great Northern Railway main line just over twenty miles from London (King's Cross), and included the farms of Upper & Lower Hanside, Brickwall, Digswell Lodge and Digswell Water, together with Digswell House and Park. A provisional company, the Second Garden City Ltd, was registered and further land obtained from Lord Salisbury's Hatfield estate, comprising Peartree and Woodhall Lodge farms.

One of the first jobs after moving on site was to carry out a survey of the area proposed for the town, both geographically and geologically. Captain W .E. James, formerly with the Royal Engineers, was appointed Resident Engineer to the Company and this work was carried out under his direction. Good deposits of sand, gravel and brick earth were found at several locations, and this was to be extensively exploited for use in construction work. lt was immediately apparent to James that the roads in the area were inadequate for transporting the materials to be quarried locally or brought in from outside. Most were little more than narrow farm tracks, nearly always muddy, and given to flooding in wet weather. As an easier and cheaper alternative to laying good roads Captain James decided to use a 2ft 0in gauge light railway for transporting materials. This was quite common in the days before the widespread use of tractors, dumpers and similar plant. No doubt James had had experience with this type of railway in France during the Great War, when a network of 60cm gauge lines was used to supply the front line.

The nearest railway goods yards where materials could be received were at Ayot and Hatfield GNR stations. However, there was a small five-wagons length siding for farm produce traffic at Upper Hanside on the Luton branch, named Horn's Siding after the occupants of the nearby Hanside Farm. This was adopted by Captain James, cranes installed and the siding lengthened so as to accommodate forty wagons. The first traffic to arrive was a consignment of fifty scullery sinks, and this was quickly followed by bricks, pipes, scaffolding, cement and lime. Horses and carts were used for transport at the very beginning as the light railway was not ready until about the time the first bricks were laid at a housing site on Hanside Lane on 26th April 1920. Four days later the permanent company for developing the Garden City was incorporated under the title of Welwyn Garden City Ltd: it took over the provisional company, Second Garden City Ltd.

The London firm of Trollope & Coils Ltd, appointed contractors for the first developments, had moved in early in 1920 with a camp of 200 ex-Army huts. Equipment brought along by them included two former War Department 20hp "Simplex" petrol locomotives (Motor Rail works numbers 856 and 867) purchased as surplus stock after the first World War. 856 saw little service at Welwyn and I understand it was this locomotive which suffered a damaged crankshaft when driven at high speed by one of the sons of the Garden City Chairman, Sir Theodore G. Chambers, KBE. A replacement 20hp "Simplex" locomotive (Motor Rail 1985), ordered on 6th May 1920 by Second Garden City Ltd, was despatched new to Horn's Siding on 19th May 1920 and thereupon became the property of Trollope & Coils Ltd. Wagons and track were ordered by SGC from Motor Rail in March, May and July 1920, but the business was sub-contracted out to William Jones Ltd of Deptford, London. The first order called for twenty 1 cubic yard double-side tip wagons and four wagon turntables which were delivered to Welwyn between 22nd and 26th April 1920.

Locomotive at Horn's Siding 1929

The first two locomotives were used initially to take materials from Horn's Siding, where the narrow gauge lines ran alongside the standard gauge sidings, to building sites in the Hanside Lane, Brockswood Lane and Delcott Close areas, as well as sand and gravel from two small pits which had been opened in Brockswood Lane and Valley Road. A small brickworks and pit were in operation on the opposite side of the Luton branch to Horn's Siding, whilst a washer for sand and gravel was set up at the yard near Horn's Siding as soon as a borehole and pump had been installed to provide water. With the increase in building work after the formation of Welwyn Garden City Ltd and greater quarrying activity, more locomotives were required. Three (works numbers 1995 to 1997) were ordered from Motor Rail on 20th May 1920 and despatched to Horn's Siding just over a month later.

Map showing Light Railway in WGC

New sandpits and a brickworks were opened up in the vicinity of Tommy Dell's Bridge, later called Sandpit Bridge, which crossed over the GNR main line. Good building sand was present on both sides of the line between Sandpit and Twentieth Mile Bridges, with a supply of good clean gravel beneath. The largest pit worked at this location was on the west side of the main line and known as "Twentieth Mile Pit". Washed sand available for sale was taken from this pit in narrow gauge wagons to a tipping dock on the east side; here the narrow gauge ran on top of a concrete wall above a line of standard gauge wagons into which the sand was tipped direct. Also on the east side, but south of Sandpit Bridge was a deposit of brickearth extending over seven acres and up to thirty feet deep. A brickworks complete with clay-washing plant was set up here and produced many of the bricks used in the construction of the town. These pits and brickworks were connected to Horn's Siding by a more permanent light railway, leaving the pits and running up Stanborough Lane to Twentieth Mile Bridge. From here the line followed the GNR boundary fence, cutting through Birdcroft Road, Youngs Rise and Valley Road to reach Horn's Siding. The route of this connection changed over the next few years as building progressed along its route, until eventually it ran all the way alongside the main line, crossing Bridge Road and running through the woods to reach Horn's Siding. Originally all sand was taken from Twentieth Mile Pit to the washer at the yard by Horn's Siding, but the people who had but recently taken up residence in this area complained about the noise and a new washer was installed at the pit. By 1923 the bulk of the sand, gravel and concrete material in use was being drawn from Twentieth Mile Pit.

Apart from the connections between the pits and Horn's Siding, a large amount of the track in use was purely temporary, staying in place for the duration of building work only. When a new road was projected the first job was to lay lengths of light railway track across the field and connect it up to the nearest convenient existing line. This could be done across a ploughed field in a matter of hours and much more quickly than laying a firm road. The line would then bring in all the materials for drains, sewers, roads, footpaths and finally the houses. When all work had been completed the track would be withdrawn for laying elsewhere. Curves of 20ft radius and gradients of 1 in 20 could be used. These temporary lines were used during the 1920's for most developments on the west side of the town, and for the earliest houses on the east side. Rail was 14 lb / yd, much being portable track, whilst the more permanent lines were laid with heavier rail.

At various times during the early 1920's more stock and track were ordered, again from Motor Rail but subcontracted out to William Jones Ltd . This included 30 flat bottom steel deck and frame wagons, 3 platform wagons, 8 second-hand one cubic yard steel tipping wagons, 33 one cubic yard double-side tip wagons, 50 turnouts and two miles of track.

In 1922 Welwyn Garden City Ltd formed two subsidiary companies - Welwyn Builders Ltd and Welwyn Transport Ltd . Responsibility for operating the railway passed from Captain James to Welwyn Transport Ltd which was managed by Mr. H. Halls. lt seems likely that by this time the five locomotives had been numbered 1 to 5, to avoid confusion. To give an impression of the work being undertaken by the system during this period, in 1923 some 2,000 tons of materials were being carried each week over some eight miles of track . During the construction of Valley Road on several days 200 tons of material were carried for this work in addition to the normal traffic from the sidings and pits.

The first stage of the development of Welwyn Garden City's industrial area, on the east side of the GNR main line, was the construction of the factory for making "Shredded Wheat" breakfast cereal. This was to be a large concrete building with several tall grain silos and consequently large quantities of gravel and stones from the pits were required. Although the factory site was quite close to existing light railway tracks at Horn's Siding it was not possible to build a direct link across Hunters Bridge, due to the weight limit on the old brick bridge (not replaced by a stronger structure until1928/9). Consequently a line had to be laid crossing the GNR at Twentieth Mile Bridge and running via Peartree Lane to the factory. This was convenient for running trains from the pits, but traffic from Horn's Siding to the factory had to make a long journey to cover a short distance. However, the new line was useful later for further developments and the building of homes in the Peartree Lane area in the mid-twenties.

Trollope & Coils' contract was completed in 1923 and from then on all construction was undertaken by Welwyn Builders Ltd. During 1923-25 Welwyn Transport Ltd purchased three further locomotives which were numbered 6, 7 and 8 . Two were standard 20hp " Simplexes" required urgently to replace the Trollope machines (sold back to Motor Rail on 1st May 1924) whilst the third was a 40hp "Simplex" . No mention appears in Motor Rail's records for them and so presumably they were second-hand ex-WD locos.

The 40hp locomotive was needed for a new gravel pit opened up in 1924 in the Mimram valley at Digswell Water. This was a long way from the building work of the time, and produced gravel for road-making. The 40hp locomotive was used to push wagons up a steep gradient out of the valley to higher ground known as "the plateau", now the site of the ICI Plastics Division factory. Here 20hp locomotives took over, running on a line passing under the Hertford branch at the Tewin Road Bridge to join the existing light railway tracks at the Peartree Lane / Bridge Road junction. The gravel was taken to the Twentieth Mile washer, from where it was distributed for road construction work.

Three more 20hp locomotives (Motor Rail works numbers 3760, 3762 and 3765) were obtained in 1925 to cope with the increased traffic brought about by the opening of Digswell Pit and also further residential development particularly in the Peartree Lane area. These were completely new locomotives and not rebuilds like many in Motor Rail's 3000-3999 series. The order specified that the following inscription should be painted on the bonnet covers - Welwyn Transport Ltd Welwyn Garden City Engine No. 9/10/11 (respectively).

Motor Rail 4027 was ordered on 26th March 1926 and despatched five days later to Welwyn Garden City Station: a similar inscription was specified, but with "Engine No.13". The No.12 locomotive obtained between these two orders was a further second-hand 20hp " Simplex". After delivery of No.13 in April 1926 the fleet was at its largest, comprising eleven locomotives (Nos.3-13) - ten 20hp and one 40hp.

By 1929 the light railway system was in decline. Welwyn Garden City station had been opened in 1926 and the goods yard began to take over from Horn's Siding as the arrival point of rail-borne materials. The better road system that had developed meant that lorries were used much more for distributing materials to the work in progress. By the early 1930's only the Digswell Pit to Twentieth Mile Pit railway was in use, carrying Digswell gravel for washing at Twentieth Mile. Most of this, and the sand from Twentieth Mile Pit, was then taken away by lorry. Digswell Pit was closed in 1936/7 and with it the last section of light railway. Only the line within Twentieth Mile Pit continued to be used, taking sand up to the washer and on to the gantry for loading into lorries. This ceased when the pits closed completely around 1940. No details of the disposal of locomotives are known, but later locations for some are given in the accompanying list. lt is likely that they left Welwyn progressively through the 1930's up to the final closure.

WGC Light Railway Locomotives List

Today little remains to indicate that a narrow gauge railway once opened in the town, although until a few years ago some odd pieces of track still existed, principally in the yard at Horn's Siding, across the entrance to a factory in Peartree Lane, and set in the concrete road leading from Stanborough Lane to Sandpit Bridge. The Horn's Siding and yard area has been used to build the "Campus West" amenities centre and blocks of flats, whilst Twentieth Mile Pit has been landscaped to form the bowl of the Gosling Stadium. The remainder of the pit area and brickworks around Sandpit Bridge has been levelled, with football pitches on the west side, and a school and industrial estate on the east, although the site of the old standard gauge siding and tipping dock is still visible. Sandpit Bridge itself has recently been demolished in conjunction with electrification works on the GNR main line. This produced some remains of 2ft Oin gauge portable track which had been buried beneath the road surface. The site of Digswell Pit is still clearly visible with two steep faces still intact, as is the much smaller pit in Brockswood Lane.

Throughout its existence the Welwyn Garden City Light Railway system was used almost entirely for building work and the associated quarrying. However, in the 1920's there was another line running from Twentieth Mile Bridge to the New Towns Agricultural Guild's Model Dairy in Hanside Lane (the old Hanside Farm, now the Barn Theatre), its function being to take away manure which no doubt ended up on the town's own nursery garden at the end of Brockswood Lane. Captain James held great store for the future of the railway for agricultural and industrial uses. Writing in the "Welwyn City News" in April 1923 he said that "Even when the town is completed, a useful and permanent future may be predicted for it [the railway] in the scientific development of the Agricultural Belt and in connection with the detailed requirements of the Factory Area". With the rapid development of road transport by the end of the 1920's, this was not to be.

In conclusion I would like to thank all the people who have helped me in the preparation of this article - in particular Mr M.P. Burgoyne of Bedford for detailed information regarding locomotives from Motor Rail's records, Mr R. Richardson, Editor of the "Welwyn Times", for allowing me to study old files of the "Welwyn Garden City News", and finally Mr J.C. Rodgers, of Lemsford, one of the first two drivers on the line, for much information on routes and operation as well as providing a photograph taken during the line's early days in 1920. I regret that I have been unable to locate the old records of the Company which are understood to have been handed over by the Commission for the New Towns to the Library and Records Office at County Hall, Hertford."

Alan M.Clarke.