The Meltham Branch Line

I’ll likely blog a bit more about this subject, but the Meltham Branch Line — which operated for nearly a century before closing in the mid-1960s — has left an indelible mark on the local landscape and holds a particular fascination for me as our house would have been a good vantage point to watch the trains go by on the other side of the short valley which runs from Netherton village down the hill towards Big Valley.

The line was built by the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway (L&YR) company in the 1860s, taking nearly 5 years of construction before it was deemed safe to carry passengers, despite only measuring 3½ miles. The build was beset by numerous problems — from unstable ground and landslips to collapsing tunnels and opposition from landowners — but would become a vital and lifeline during the Second World War.

The Huddersfield.org site has an excellent overview of the branch line and I’ll try to avoid repeating anything from there.

For those curious where the line went, here’s a description including some relevant portions of an 1892 map of the area…

The line ran from Lockwood to Meltham and branched off to the right from the Penistone Line (Huddersfield to Sheffield) just before it passes under the Hanson Lane bridge. If you’re travelling out of Huddersfield, you can see the old trackbed if you look to your right after pulling out of Lockwood Station. It appears as “Meltham Junction” on the old maps:

If you peer over the side of Hanson Lane, you can see the start of the old track bed (overgrown with trees) as it heads off into Dungeon Woods. In this photograph, the track bed runs horizontally across the middle, with Lockwood Viaduct in the background:

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From there, the track follows the contour of the valley-side through the lower edge of Dungeon Wood, running below what would become eventually Beaumont Park a couple of decades later. Much of the ground here proved unstable and required some serious engineering to make the trackbed safe from landslips. In February 1866, the Huddersfield Chronicle reported that heavy rain was suspected of contributing to a landslip which caused nearby properties to become unsafe — in particular the toll-house at Dungeon bar had developed alarming cracks and the toll collector was steadfastly refusing the enter the building.

The line passes over the eastern lower entrance to Beaumont Park:

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Particularly impressive is a deep cutting with buttress walls which can now be accessed by foot thanks to the efforts of the Friends of Beaumont Park:

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As you can see from the photograph, the walls of the cutting slope inwards to the ground, but this wasn’t originally the case — originally they rose nearly straight up to a height of nearly 40 foot.

On the morning of Monday 1 October 1866, when it was noticed that the upper side of the cutting was beginning to collapse at the base, workmen spent the day carefully clearing the cutting of tools and equipment in fear of an imminent collapse. Below the cutting lay Woodfield House, at the time owned by Bentley Shaw, a vocal opponent of the branch line, and it seems he heard what was happening and ordered his servants to empty his outhouses which were sited between the cutting and Woodfield House. At 7:45pm, the walls caved in over a length of 40 yards, completely filling the cutting and causing part of the hillside above to collapse. Huge boulders were loosened by the slip and rolled down the hill towards Woodfield House, but their momentum was slowed by a large stone wall at the edge of the property, which was demolished over a length of 50 yards.

Three weeks later, a further landslip caused part of Meltham Road to collapse, leaving a large hole in the road. Understandably, local residents began to fear parts of a nearby embankment, which was apparently only being propped up by wooden railway sleepers that were already warping due to the weight, might collapse and destroy their houses.

The outcrop of land around Big Valley and Daffy Wood necessitated the first of three tunnels on the line and it’s possible (with suitable footwear!) to walk the track up to the northern tunnel end:

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Butternab Tunnel runs for 768 feet and passes under Butternab Road (not named on the map below, but shown as the boundary road between Huddersfield and South Crossland):

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The southern end is now on private property and inaccessible, but the Forgotten Relics web site shows how it’s been converted by the owners.

On 13 April 1864, construction began on this end of the tunnel with the symbolic removal of the first mound of earth by John Worth, manager of a dye works in nearby Armitage Bridge. The positioning of the tunnel had proved contentious, as a Mr. Tolson was the owner of a natural spring (which you can see in the photograph on the Forgotten Relics site) which ran close to the tunnel entrance and presumably Tolson received income from channelling the water down to the dye works. After the railway company guaranteed the water would not be contaminated by the construction work, they invited Mr. Worth to the ceremony where he was presented with a new spade by Jesse Kaye, owner of the nearby Big Valley Hotel, which he used to cut the first sod.

The local newspaper covered the event and reported that a large number of spectators watched the ceremony, “attracted there by the novelty of the occurrence, as well as the fineness of the day” and that Mr. Worth “removed the soil like one accustomed to such work”. The event complete, apparently everyone then went to the Big Valley Hotel where “refreshments were plentifully provided, and a merry evening was afterwards enjoyed by all who partook of the same.”

The Huddersfield Chronicle later reported on an accident which occurred on the afternoon of Friday 11 August 1865, during the latter stages of the construction of this end of the tunnel. A local sub-contractor, Joe Marriott, had been working with a group of men to remove some of the wooden supporting beams which had propped up the tunnel roof. Apparently he felt his colleagues were slacking and, “in a state of excitement”, grabbed an iron bar and began prizing out one of the beams which suddenly gave way, bringing down more of the beams and a section of the surrounding framework. Joe was buried under much of it, crushing his body. His was still alive when his co-workers dug him out, but the newspaper reported “the principal injuries being internal there is little hope of his recovery”.

It seems almost certain that this was the Joseph Marriott who was born in Huddersfield, the son of local cordwainer John Marriott and his wife Harriet (I suspect her friends joked about her becoming Harriet Marriott!). Joseph was baptised at St. Peter’s parish church in the centre of Huddersfield on 4 February 1833. By 1851, aged 19, he was working as a joiner and living with his widowed grandmother, Susy Ellis, on Swine Market in Huddersfield. In 1855, he married widow Ellen Smith of Heckmondwike and they had at least one child together, Joseph, along with two children from her first marriage.

The good news is that Joseph seemingly made a full recovery from the accident and the 1871 and 1881 Censuses report the family living at 80 Northumberland Street in the centre of Huddersfield, with Joseph continuing to work as a joiner. He eventually died in 1884, 20 years after being dragged barely alive from Butternab Tunnel. His wife Ellen passed away on 8 October 1887, leaving an estate worth £392, which implies Joseph did well for himself — that’s the equivalent of around £45,000 today.

I’ll blog more about the injuries and deaths associated with the branch line in a future post.

The line now swings south-westwards, running almost parallel to the modern-day Meltham Road but on the western side of the valley, passing by houses at Delves. This necessitated the building of a small bridge to provide those houses with an access route onto Nether Moor Road (the bridge is shown to the left of the “330” near Delves) and I’ve included a photograph taken on the bridge, which has an excellent view over towards Castle Hill:

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From the bridge at Delves, the tracks runs on towards the 1,000 foot long Netherton Tunnel. Just before the northern tunnel entrance, it passes over Nether Moor Road:

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The bricked-up tunnel entrance isn’t easily accessible without trespassing or clambering up an embankment, but I did once venture up there a couple of winters ago:

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The tunnel passes under the village of Netherton and emerged almost immediately into Netherton Station, where the platform edge ran right up the tunnel.

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This photograph by James shows the unusual shape of the tunnel. During its construction, there had been partial collapses in October 1864 and August 1865, due to the shale rock running at an angle rather than horizontally, which had left the vertical side walls of the tunnel unstable. The latter collapse caused subsidence in the village above and the Huddersfield Chronicle (26/Aug/1865) reported that house of Jonathan Lund1 had to be demolished as it had become dangerously unstable.

To help better distribute the weight of the tunnel — and the village above! — the side walls were rebuilt to curve inwards.

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In late November 1866, heavy prolonged rain led to floods throughout the north of England and the Huddersfield Chronicle (24/Nov/1866) covered the extensive damage but reported that, amazingly, there had been no known local loss of life. An area around the southern end of Butternab tunnel was washed away, blocking the existing stream which exacerbated the flooding below Netherton. At the station end of Netherton Tunnel, a landslip buried a part of the station, which was currently under construction.

The line now swings south-west and runs along the Holme valley towards Meltham, running parallel to Huddersfield Road. Once you know what you’re looking for, the line is very easy to spot in the valley as trees have grown on the raised embankment. A good vantage point to view from is Wood Bottom Road, on the other side of the valley.

This photograph, taken from Huddersfield Road, shows the old trackbed running across the middle of the image. Whether it’s possible to get down there and walk along the line, I’ve yet to find out!

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The line then crossed over what is now (and may have been back then) Crosland Factory Lane, and the bridge abutments remain in place:

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The small Healey House Station appears to have been built primarily for the benefit of the owners of Crosland Hall and Healey House, and apparently the families of both houses would hire a train every August and head north to Scotland for the grouse shooting season. Shortly after the station, a false 90-foot tunnel was built so that the trains would not spoil the view from Healey House.

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From Healey House, the line pushes on straight for the end of the line in Meltham, crossing once over Huddersfield Road near at Hall Heys. As can be seen in this photograph from 1910 (from the Kirklees Image Archive), the approach to “Iron Bridge” was fenced in as apparently horses on the road were too often spooked by the trains. After the line closed, the embankment was levelled and the bridge abutments mostly pulled down, although the bases are still there at either side of the road if you have a keen eye.

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This last section of the line is now known as the Meltham Greenway and provides a pleasant walk into Meltham village. Should you ever find yourself on the Greenway, be sure to listen out for the sound of the waterfall and seek out the side footpath which leads you up to Dolly Folly Falls:

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One final note, as detailed on Huddersfield.org, Meltham Mills was one of the few places in the country to manufacture and repair vital gears during the Second World War. Whereas the factories in Coventry and Birmingham were repeatedly targetted by the Luftwaffe and put out of action, the Germans seemingly knew nothing of the little Meltham Branch Line and its steady stream of repaired armoured vehicles and supplies of new gear boxes.

Footnotes

  1. This was actually Jonathan Lunn (1798–1869), a local “beer retailer and road repairer”. He married Margaret (née ?) and they had at least 8 children. He died aged 71 and was buried at Holy Trinity, South Crosland, on 10 December 1869.

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