Victorian Wellington

King Street

Wellington Railway Station

When rail services arrived in Wellington in June 1849, both the station and the area that surrounds it looked quite different from today. The original platforms were much shorter and did not extend beyond the station buildings themselves, with passengers forced to cross the track on wooden boards, as a footbridge was not in situ at the time. A large goods shed was erected in the area now occupied by the northern car park, together with a coal stage, pump house and a 14,000 gallon water tank supplied by a well behind the shed itself, which was later converted to house locomotives in 1868.

Building the Network

In the second half of the Nineteenth Century, Wellington became an important rail junction and passengers could travel directly to many more locations than is now possible. When rail services between Wellington and Shrewsbury commenced, a new line to Stafford also opened, diverging from the main line to the north of King Street bridge. From just past that point, another branch opened in 1861 that was served by Wellington Station, running from a junction at Hadley southwards to Coalport, via Oakengates (which then had two stations). Earlier, in 1853, a line was sanctioned that travelled down through Ketley, Horsehay and Buildwas to Much Wenlock and Craven Arms over the Wenlock Edge. This route was opened in stages from 1857 onwards and was fully operational by November 1864, when a celebratory dinner was held at the Bull’s Head Hotel in New Street to mark the event. The final part of Wellington’s rail network was added in 1867, when the GWR opened a new route to Crewe, which left the Shrewsbury line at Orleton Lane, travelling through Admaston, Hodnet and Market Drayton before entering Cheshire.

Decline

Wellington’s new found prominence led to many of the facilities at the station being improved and extended and in 1868 new goods terminals were opened in Bridge Road. On the north side of the line stood the London North Western Railway’s Queen Street yard, which also served the new Smithfield Market. Although the LNWR was obliged to share passenger facilities on the through route with the Great Western Railway, this arrangement did not extend to freight and the GWR opened their own ‘Wellington Town’ yard directly opposite, sharing their sidings with Groom’s Timber Yard and the Gas Works. For over 100 years Wellington retained its status as a prominent rail centre but during the 1960s its engine shed and goods yard were closed, along with many of the local lines radiating from the town.

Although Wellington Station is still an important stop on the through route from Shrewsbury to Birmingham, the level of activity required to maintain current services is minimal in comparison to the manpower required during the Victorian era.

King Street

The Railway Age Begins

Early Schemes

When rail services arrived in Wellington in June 1849, both the station and the area that surrounds it looked quite different from today. A line connecting Shrewsbury to the West Midlands via Wellington was first proposed in 1839 by the Grand Junction Railway, but it was not until 1846, after a number of aborted schemes, that an Act of Parliament was successfully acquired by the Shrewsbury and Birmingham (S&B) Railway Company to build a route through the town. At the same time, the Shropshire Union of Railways and canals (SURC) was also given permission to build a line from Shrewsbury to Stafford, which shared the same track as the S&B route before diverging at Wellington.

As a consequence, both the town’s station and the line itself would be operated by joint agreement between the two companies and the London North Western Railway (LNWR) which owned shares in the SURC, with all the parties formally agreeing to divide the traffic along the route.The original platforms were much shorter and did not extend beyond the station buildings themselves, with passengers forced to cross the track on wooden boards, as a footbridge was not in situ at the time. A large goods shed was erected in the area now occupied by the northern car park, together with a coal stage, pump house and a 14,000 gallon water tank supplied by a well behind the shed itself, which was later converted to house locomotives in 1868.

As a consequence, both the town’s station and the line itself would be operated by joint agreement between the two companies and the London North Western Railway (LNWR) which owned shares in the SURC, with all the parties formally agreeing to divide the traffic along the route.The original platforms were much shorter and did not extend beyond the station buildings themselves, with passengers forced to cross the track on wooden boards, as a footbridge was not in situ at the time. A large goods shed was erected in the area now occupied by the northern car park, together with a coal stage, pump house and a 14,000 gallon water tank supplied by a well behind the shed itself, which was later converted to house locomotives in 1868.

The First Train at Platform 2

Rail services commenced between Shrewsbury, Wellington and Stafford on the 1st June 1849, although delays in the construction of Oakengates tunnel ensured that no through traffic reached Wolverhampton until November, when two locomotives, ‘Salopian’ and ‘Wrekin’, pulled 50 carriages of passengers from Shrewsbury to celebrate the event. Ordinarily, the price of fares for paying passengers would have ensured that many townsfolk only had limited opportunities to use the new facilities. At one shilling and four pence, a second class ticket to Shrewsbury alone would have been beyond the means of many Wellingtonians, while a ticket from Shrewsbury to London cost the equivalent of an average weekly wage for many workers!

Parliament had introduced laws that forced railway companies to provide at least one daily third class carriage in each direction, with fares costing no more than a penny a mile, but in practice these services were operated at such inconvenient times (in the middle of the night, in some cases!) that they were rendered all but useless to most potential passengers. However, a chain of events then unfolded that changed the situation in Shropshire dramatically.

War Breaks Out

When the ‘railway mania’ of the 1840s ended, confidence in rail investment faltered and many companies were forced to merge or make agreements to reduce running costs. Before their line had even been finished, the Shrewsbury and Birmingham Railway had signed an agreement with the Shrewsbury and Chester Railway, allowing both companies to operate a joint service between the Midlands and Merseyside. This put them in direct competition with the LNWR, which had previously enjoyed a monopoly in the area and, to make matters worse, the Shrewsbury companies then dropped their fares to attract new customers, sparking a price cutting war. Unfortunately, both the S&B and the S&C were obliged to deal with the LNWR, whose extensive network lay at the end of both their routes. Acts of physical violence and intimidation against the two companies employees followed, with their rival denying them any access over its rails at all. This course of events served only as a prelude to the LNWR poaching business over the Wellington to Stafford line, with the result of some incredible savings for local rail users. At the height of the feud, fairs between Wellington and Shrewsbury were slashed to a single penny and it was not unusual for trains heading in this direction to carry upwards of 1000 passengers at a time, as local people took advantage of the situation by flocking to the County town in huge numbers. Unlike the LNWR, the two small companies did not own a large enough network to sustain their inevitable losses and were forced into an amalgamation with the Great Western Railway in 1854, when the line through Wellington became the first standard gauge route on the GWR network.

Shaping Victorian Leisure

After the price war ended, it is difficult to judge exactly how these new rail services affected the every day lives of most Wellingtonians. The railway did allow large-scale industries to develop in the town in a way they had not done previously and would certainly have offered some employment opportunities in operating the local network. Although many people would not have been able to afford to take the train regularly, there is no doubt that rail facilities played an increasingly important role in shaping people’s leisure activities during the late Victorian era. The introduction of cheap fares and day returns helped many working families enjoy holidays and day trips for the first time, a trend that was also aided by the introduction of Bank Holidays in 1871. Many special trains ran from Wellington to events such as the Shrewsbury Flower Show, Craven Arms May Fair and the Wenlock Olympic Games. During the first week of September, trains were also put on to take people on working holidays to the Herefordshire hop fields, which was, for many, the only break from regular work they would get.