Charles Wells & Prentice Webb
Kent Local History Papers No.6
It is a little known fact that the Bredgar & Wormshill Light Railway was only part of what was to be a very extensive narrow gauge railway linking various agricultural centres in mid Kent.
Unfortunately, as this brief account will tell, the only section actually built was that which exists today, and the grand plans of the founding fathers were to come to nothing. If it had come to fruition then the Mid Kent Light Railway might now be as famous as it’s Welsh counterparts.
I hope that you enjoy this account of a great 19th century enterprise and will join with me in thanking those who have ensured that part of our national heritage has been preserved for our enjoyment and education.
A Railway is Planned
Anyone familiar with Bazallan’s 16th century ‘Survey of Kentish Agriculture’ will know of the importance of the village of Bredgar near Sittingbourne. For many years this was a thriving market dealing in both produce and livestock. The weekly market drew people from all over Kent and it was not unusual for the lanes leading to the village to be completely blocked by drovers and their flocks.
Although the importance of the market lasted well into the 19th century the popularity of the market began to wane as communication and transport began to open up the County. Weekly or monthly markets began to spring up in even the smallest of villages and the local economy began to suffer as a consequence. With the situation now reaching crisis point the Bredgar Village Council met on May 1st 1895 to discuss possible solutions. In charge of the meeting was the Leader of the Council Mr. B.G.S.Phead, who had recently visited several of the new ‘light railways’ which were finding favour in other parts of the country.
His report as to the efficiency of these new lines in bringing communities together was listened to with rapt attention. Mr. M.Esday, a local craftsman as well as an elected representative, said that he had recently completed some work for the new railway which ran from Headcom to Robertsbridge and he had been impressed as to the speed with which livestock and goods could be transported around the railway. He also noted that the railway seemed to be carrying an increasing number of items that would otherwise have been sold at Bredgar market. Mr J.Poole, a local fruit grower, said that he had recently been approached by the railway to see if he wanted his apples transported to Tenterden market by train. Even taking into account the expense of transporting his produce to Headcorn the rates were still far cheaper than any other means at present available.
The general consensus of the meeting was that the construction of a light railway to link all of the important villages allied to Bredgar market should be considered seriously and quickly. To this end it was decided by the meeting to appoint a surveyor and engineer to plan, in conjunction with the Bredgar Village Council and other local parishes, a new light railway to be called ‘The Mid-Kent Light Railway’.
Plans Are Laid
The firm appointed as Consulting Surveyors and Engineers was S.D.Thom & Son of Maidstone. They had recently completed the construction of several narrow gauge railways in the tropics and had forged good links with various suppliers of narrow gauge railway equipment. Therefore it is no surprise to find that Thom recommended that the gauge of the line should be 2 feet.
The proposed railway would be in the form of a single line from a new jetty on the River Medway near Lower Halstow to a connection with the mainline railway to London at Charing. At Lenham a branch would leave the main route and run to Sutton Valence. The total length of the railway, including the branch line but excluding any short spurs to serve individual farmers, was 28¾ miles. The main construction site was to be located at Warren Farm, about a mile from the centre of Bredgar, where the farmer, Mr William Lesbest had given permission for the first lengths of track to be laid across his land.
From Bredgar Station the line would strike an almost south easterly route via Wormshill (1 ¼ miles) and Ringlestone Halt (2½ miles) to Lenham Junction (4¾ miles) and then to a connection with the mainline at Charing (7¾ miles). At Lenham a triangular junction was proposed to allow trains to run direct from Ringlestone Halt or Charing to Harrietsham (7¾ miles), Hollingbourne (for Leeds) (9¾ miles), Langley (12¾ miles) and Sutton Valence (14¾ miles). All mileages shown are from Bredgar Station.
Northwards from Bredgar the line would run to Oad Street (2 miles) before taking a fairly erratic course via Stockbury (3¾ miles), Queendown Warren (5¼miles), Rainham (6½ miles), and Lower Halstow (for Upchurch) (9miles), to a new jetty and landing stage sited at Bedlams Bottom (1 lmiles), which lies at the southerly end of Stangate Creek off the River Medway.
Because of the proposed type of traffic and the possible weight that might be carried a rail weight of 45lbs per yard was settled upon with a maximum axle loading of 6 tons. Passing loops would be provided at Bredgar, Hollingbourne and Rainham, and all stations except Ringlestone Halt would be provided with a storage siding. The main works and locomotive sheds would be on Warren Farm at Bredgar with a smaller single engine shed at Charing and Bedlams Bottom. A local cabinet maker, P.Hils, had been contracted to build four 4 wheel passenger carriages and several wagons, and various locomotive manufactures had been approached about supplying, at a suitable price, four steam locomotives.
Thorn’s report was received enthusiastically by the Council, with the proviso that Bedlams Bottom should be renamed Port Medway – a rather grand title for what was no more than a small jetty and landing stage – and the drive to finance the ambitious project was started with a donation of £100 from Lord Howard of Langley who would benefit from the presence of a new station adjacent to his dairy farm at Stoneleigh Woods.
Triumph and Disaster
Just after the presentation of his report to the Council S.D,Thom & Son received a communication from their bankers giving details of a problem with the income due for the work they had undertaken on the Freetown and Monrovia Railway in west Africa. A period of civil unrest had caused enough friction between the two countries to almost bankrupt them and they now had no money to pay for Thom’s work. Not anticipating this shortfall in income Thom suddenly found himself on the receiving end of final demands from some rather irate suppliers. Following a visit from Chief Inspector Beaumont of the Kent Constabulary S.D.Thom & Son went into receivership.
This left the Council with rather a large problem as they had already given the go-ahead to the main contractors, Best of Borden, to start laying the track at the Warren towards Wormshill. The Council Leader, Phead, decided to press on regardless with further sections of the line being added when finances permitted. The first carriages were delivered to the Warren in February 1897 during a particularly nasty snowstorm. Best of Borden had been unable to progress very far due to the poor weather and costs were now mounting. By Easter 1897 about half a mile of track had been laid and ballasted to a point just inside the parish boundary of Wormshill. The actual end of the line coincided with an ancient Saxon burial site named Stony Shaw, and a small station was built in an attempt to show prospective investors that the Mid Kent Light Railway meant business.
A grand ceremonial opening of the first section of track was arranged for July 13th 1897. A steam tram type locomotive was hired for the occasion and all of the available rolling stock was assembled to take the invited guests on a tour of the line. Before setting out on the first journey Mr. Phead made a stirring speech describing the line in some detail and making a plea for financial assistance to realise the Council’s dream. Amongst those present were Lord and Lady Braithwaite, the Lord Lieutenant of Kent, the Mayors of Maidstone and Sittingbourne, and councillors from most of the parishes through which the Mid-Kent Light Railway would eventually run.
Following the speeches the invited guests boarded the train and travelled to Stony Shaw where a sumptuous buffet luncheon was served. Unfortunately, the day following the celebrations many of the guests fell ill with food poisoning. Phead, who it is recorded ‘ate enough for two men’ was particularly stricken and never really recovered to full health.
With the main promoter now out of the picture the efforts to raise sufficient finance to finish the project gradually fell apart. The remaining funds were now so low that no further work was possible. The tram engine was returned to Alford and the carriages and wagons were padlocked into a siding at the Warren. Soon nature took a hold and the track became overgrown. Best of Borden removed all their equipment from site and the project was eventually officially declared dead.
The market at Bredgar lingered on for a few more years but by the start of the Great War the local trade directory makes no mention of it. The decline in the market mirrored the decline in the local fortunes of Bredgar, which, by the 1930s, was just another attractive Kent village with no economic value at all. As time progressed some small housing developments proved useful in attracting some new people to the area but it was really a case of too little too late.
In 1941 a detachment of troops descended on the Warren in the drive for scrap. The remains of the 4 wheel carriages and wagons were taken away, but surprisingly enough the rails were left in situ. This was probably because they were so covered in undergrowth that it was deemed too much of a chore to remove them. The body of one of the carriages had been removed by Mr Lesbest and he used it as a summer house at Stony Shaw.
In the 1970s the Warren was purchased from the Lesbest estate by Mr W.G.Best (no relation to the Borden Best) who decided to refurbish the house and woodlands While grubbing out he discovered the remains of the old line running through the woods and set about restoring it to running order. The old coach body was taken by tractor and trailer to the barn, where it was rebuilt and mounted on a 4 wheel chassis acquired from the War Department. He also managed to borrow a Ruston diesel from a local quarry company, and these two item formed the basis for the current Bredgar & Wormshill Light Railway.
Bredgar Village Archives
Kent County Records Office
The Medway River Authority
The Lesbest Estate (Southend)
National Railway Museum
Mr. Daniel Phead
and all those who have given their time to make the
Bredgar & Wormshill Light Railway what it is today.
First published privately in April 1997