At the south eastern tip of Yorkshire is the Spurn Peninsula, inhabited now largely by birds. Apart from the wildlife, there are a few lifeboat families who reside permanently, and the Humber pilots who work round the clock in one of the busiest shipping lanes in Britain. In fact, one fifth of all U.K. trade (by value) passes this point. It seems an unlikely place for a railway, but from 1915 to 1952 one did exist on this inhospitable spit of sand and marram grass
There has been a full time lifeboat crew stationed there since 1819, (incidentally, the only full time crew in this country), but regular lighthouse keepers in residence pre-date that. It was the outbreak of the First World War that brought this location into national significance. Because of the perceived threat of German forces to the east coast in general, and in particular to the rapidly expanding ports of Hull, Grimsby, Immingham and Killingholme (newly established as an oil terminal), the War Department decided to fortify the Humber Estuary. Two river forts were to be built, and Spurn Point was to be heavily fortified. A large part of the work was conducted by water transportation, but it was decided to build a railway, under WD control to give ease of access for both men and materials to the new fortress at Spurn - Green Battery. Up until this date, access was purely by walking three miles over sand dunes to the Point!
C.J. Wills, a Manchester and London concern, was awarded the contract for all, or most of the above work. They brought with them five tank locos to assist in this endeavour, and indeed, one stayed on to operate the line for a number of years. The track used was second hand bullhead rail laid on cast iron chairs obtained from the Great Central Railway, with many of the chairs initialled M.S. & L.R. (Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway).
Timber sleepers were used, and when completed, the line measured three and three quarter miles, with a northern terminus at the Kilnsea terminal, the fort called Godwin Battery. Also included in the contract was the construction of a railway pier near the tip of Spurn Point, to provide for a useful interchange for materials brought in by river. To assist in this, there was a steam crane located on the pier.
The rolling stock used was small in number, although no one seems to be exactly sure of the items. It consisted of one (though some reports suggested more) coach, which originated from the North London Railway, and is reputed to have had a murder committed in it prior to its transfer to the Spurn Railway!
Amazingly, the coach still survives at Kilnsea in the grounds of Cliff View bungalow. It has lost its underframe and wheels, but is still readily recognisable, despite being adapted for a private residence.
Apart from the coach, there were in the early days two open wagons, but they were supplemented (or replaced) in the Second World War by three box vans and three open wagons, at least one of which was adapted to carry a gun. Finally, it has been reputed that there was another steam crane at the Kilnsea end of the system.
The motive power during construction consisted of three Hudswell Clarke outside cylinder 0-4-0 saddle tanks called; Somerton, Frances and Lord Mayor. They were of 1903, 1895 and 1893 vintage respectively. The last one has survived to this day, having been based at the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway since 1968. Also used was a Manning Wardle inside cylinder 0-6-0 saddle tank named BOMBAY, built in 1906. Last, but not least, was Kenyon, a Vulcan Foundry inside cylinder saddle tank that was built in 1888 and acquired by the War Department (WD) in 1916, staying on to provide motive power until 1929.
However, it was obviously purchased with the intention of being run into the ground, for it became a 2-4-0ST after a handful of years when bushes wore out, and a 2-2-2ST when the next set gave up the ghost! It must have been a sad sight indeed in its final years, as not only was it running as a 2-2-2ST, but having suffered a cracked cylinder cover, it was only operating on one cylinder! Kenyon was scrapped in situ at the Kilnsea sidings about 1929 or 1930 by a Hull scrap merchant.
During the Second World War, the importance of this remote location was again realised, and to assist in the war effort, an L.N.E.R. class Y8 0-4-0 tank, No. 559 was despatched from Hull (Dairycoates) depot to Patrington station in early 1940. Here it was placed on a low loader behind an L.N.E.R. Scammel truck and hauled to Kilnsea, where it was re-railed, and nicknamed Black Sapper.
Next in the menagerie of motive power was an Itala racing car! Adapted to run on rails, this monster was reputed to be capable of sixty miles per hour along the very precarious track. However, it must have been reliable, for despite gradually losing parts (including the radiator during a hard frost - it was replaced using artisan ingenuity with a large water tank!), it survived until at least 1940.
Finally the railway owned over a period of years the following petrol-engined railcars. Firstly, in 1920 it obtained from the Drewry Car Co., a railcar (Works number 1119) to seat twelve people. Two other Drewry railcars followed, a ‘B’type which was converted to a light four wheel wagon prior to 1930, and a smaller type ‘C’ railcar which caught fire and burned out. This railcar was scrapped prior to 1930.
It appears that no two Drewrys operated at the same time. In 1929, a larger and brand new Hardy railcar with a 55 horse power motor was purchased.
It seems that this railcar was not entirely successful, partly due to bolt-on wheels. It suffered a cracked cylinder block and radiator in the 1940 freeze-up, and after this date it ran as a coach, finally being scrapped in 1947. The final railcar, and apparently the most successful, was the Hudswell Clarke delivered in June 1933. It ran until closure of the railway, whereupon it was transferred by the WD to the Bicester Royal Engineers depot for conversion to a runner truck, and in this final form existed until at least 1972! It is interesting to note the use of the internal combustion engine on the line from as early as 1920, and that steam power played little part after 1929.
The engine shed was a two-track affair that was located at Spurn Point, just north of the lighthouse. It was of stone construction, being approximately 28 feet long and 37 feet wide, with a maximum height at the clerestory of 21 feet. The steam loco (when used) was housed in the central road. To its right (east), behind an internal partition was the road for the railcar. The roof was steel framed, and there was another partition on the west side for a workshop. This was equipped with a 3 inch screw cutting lathe with gap bed; a 6 inch screw cutting lathe also with a gap bed; a one inch Morse taper pillar drill; and finally, an emery wheel.
There was a separate blacksmith’s shop near the Lifeboat Inn, located about two hundred yards north of the engine shed. It would appear that the building was designed to house exactly the early inhabitants, the steam locomotive Kenyon and the railcar, as it was not unknown for collisions with the end walls to occur. Outside the shed, immediately in front of the workshop, was a coal store made of stone, measuring 17 feet long by 10 feet wide. This structure was roughly 10 feet high, and upon it was originally placed three large water tanks. This was latterly reduced to one after the big freeze-up, when two of the tanks were used to replace damaged ones elsewhere.
The turn-out to the engine shed faced north, branching to the east from the ‘main line’. The railway pier was approximately half a mile south of the depot, with a passing loop en route. The system possessed two other passing loops, one in mid-section, and one near Kilnsea. Originally, there were also three sidings, all at the Kilnsea end of the line: The ‘Sand Siding’, located beside the beach; another siding to the rear of the Bluebell Inn; and the ‘Water Siding’, located within the military establishment at Kilnsea terminus.
With this brief description of the railway in its heyday, now let’s move on to its closure and dismantling. During the Second World War, work was started on a concrete road to the Point, a task in which, ironically, the railway line involved. However, at this stage, most of the traffic on the line was related to the Royal Engineers, who were engaged in fortifying the sea defences along this vulnerable stretch of land. It is not uncommon for the peninsula to be breached, and indeed while the railway was in operation, this occurred more than once. The end for the railway came in the winter of 1951-52. Thomas W. Ward Ltd of Sheffield was awarded the contract to dismantle the railway, dispatching the materials from Patrington station. The rails went to Derwenthaugh-on-Tyne for re-rolling, and the good chairs to Ideal Boilers & Radiators of Hull for reconditioning by sandblasting. Broken chairs were dispatched to the Appleby-Frodingham Steelworks at Scunthorpe.
The War Department subsequently ran down its operation at Spurn, with decommissioning of the military establishments in 1956, a task that was complete by 1959. The peninsula was then sold to the Yorkshire Naturalists’ Trust (now the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust) in 1960 for use as a nature reserve, a use which has continued to this day. The engine shed and workshop, and adjacent fuel and water buildings were unfortunately removed by troops in a demolition exercise between August 1966 and April 1967.
What remains to be seen of this unique line today? At three places, the track embedded in the concrete road exists, often slanted at bizarre angles to the road due to the coastal erosion and subsequent repositioning of the thoroughfare.
At the Kilnsea end, the terminus and two of the sidings now lie under the sea, or at least well onto the beach. The ‘Sand Siding’ did reappear in 1973, 1979, and again in 1981, as the sea regurgitated what it had claimed several years earlier, but it has not reappeared since. The site of the siding at the back of the Bluebell Inn (which is now a visitors centre), is now a car park. A few yards of the Kilnsea platform remain behind the caravan site, precariously perched on the edge of the shallow cliff. At the other end of the line, there is a short section of track just inside what was the entrance to the Spurn Fort. The railway pier was gradually dismantled in the 1970s. Today, only the portal and some charred and decayed timbers exist at this location. The constantly encroaching sand and vegetation is gradually burying the extensive fortifications that remain near the site.
What of the engine shed itself? The turn-out to the shed is clearly visible, embedded in the road near the lighthouse. A short concrete path takes you into the shed area, where the two tracks into the shed entrance are clearly visible, but the site of the shed and the water and fuel store are now under a layer of sand and vegetation.
The above information, and much more, is contained in the excellent publication The Spurn Head Railway - The History of a Unique Military Line, written by Kenneth E. Hartley & Howard M. Frost. Originally published in 1976, it was subsequently revised in 1981 and 1988. Even more details are included in Howard Frost’s more recent publication Sailing the Rails: a new history of Spurn and its military railway, published in 2001, ISBN 0-9540308-0-X.
Phil Mathison, January 2007
A most unusual feature of the Spurn railway line was the sail bogies or trolleys, which ran upon the line from about the end of World War I onwards. These strange vehicles were powered by sail and were basically just wooden platforms with flanged wheels, although there were a number of variations on this basic design so that not all were alike. They were fashioned and used by the lifeboatmen and the men working for the War Department. Because they were so unusual and distinctive these vehicles were very much noticed by visitors, and trips on them were greatly appreciated (see Sailing the Rails, pp. 41-50 for many photographs and stories). Ronald Kendall, the son of a lifeboatman, who lived on the Point as a child in the 1930s, remembered the bogies well:
"On one occasion a gang of us, without notifying anyone, lifted the bogie onto the line and began pushing it along, running and jumping on. As we came up to the bend near the chalk bank and going down a slight incline we came face to face with the Kenyon. It was a case of all jumping off and collecting a few bruises as the bogie crashed into the train. The bogie was in a mess of course. We were reported to our fathers who read us the riot act and so forth. Over the years there were quite a number of incidents with bogies, such as the one where a new man was bringing some people to Spurn, but lost control. He lowered the sail but hadn’t the brake to hand. He told the couple to jump off. The two men jumped but the lady was too frightened to move for a while, but eventually she rolled off cutting parts of her face etc. Although hazards could always be attached to this type of transport it was on the other hand just as safe as trains, cars, horses or any form of transport."
The photo below shows one of the sail bogies near the lifeboatmens’ look-out hut on the Point, in the early 1930s.
Jan Crowther, 2007