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This is a history of the railways at Olney incorporating what is currently published and understood and make some points about what remains to be discovered. It does not deal in detail with the station buildings or the sidings, nor with the construction of the line and the navvies who built it.
Olney station, on the Bedford & Northampton Railway, which linked Oakley Junction on the Midland Railway main line north of Bedford with St John's station in Northampton, opened on 10 June 1872. At Northampton trains to and from Bedford shared St John's terminus with Midland Railway services from Wellingborough, which the company operated under running powers that the company enjoyed from 1866 over the LNWR route from Blisworth and Northampton to Peterborough. The B&NR amalgamated with the Midland Railway with effect from 1 January 1886. The line was always closely linked to the Midland company and at first sight its route of Seventy one and three quarter miles from Northampton to St Pancras might appear competitive with the Sixty five and a half miles of the London & North Western route to Euston via Roade, but although double track, the branch was cheaply laid with gradients that were severe for lowland England. Trains leaving Olney for Northampton had to climb One and three quarter miles at 1 in 70 and then Two miles at 1 in 75.
The passenger service in 1887 consisted of five trains in each direction. It appears that push-and-pull trains (known on the MR as Motor Trains) were introduced on the lines from Bedford to Hitchin and Northampton from about 1908. Each train consisted of an 0-4-4T locomotive coupled between two driving trailers. Push-and-pull operations of this kind ceased in 1917. There were six trains in each direction on the eve of the Grouping in 1922, and six, plus a late night train in each direction on Saturdays, when the line was in the charge of the LMSR in 1938. After 1917 it is likely that trains between Northampton and Bedford were hauled by tender engines until they ceased to use St John's station in 1939. One surviving photograph portrays a tender engine with a train of six-wheeled carriages crossing the Ouse bridge at Olney and another shows Bedford-based MR 2-4-0 No.256 waiting to leave St John's in the early 1930s. In 1939 the LMSR closed St John's station, after which Bedford and Wellingborough trains were diverted to Castle station, calling at Bridge Street station en route. It was probably at this time that two-coach push-and-pull sets comprised of new steel-bodied non-corridor coaches were introduced, similar to those deployed in the late 1930s on branch trains and suburban services from Bletchley.
The passenger service through Olney was busiest under British Railways, when it was operated by push-and-pull trains, most of them worked by Ivatt 2MT 2-6-2Ts (introduced in 1946) from Bedford shed. They included No 41272 which carried a plaque recording that it was the 5000th locomotive built at Crewe. A few trains were worked by other types of locomotive. A photograph taken on 23 July 1951 shows ex-MR 0-4-4T 58071 heading a Bedford train out of Northampton. Some workings in the late 1940s were handled by ex-LNWR Webb class 1P 2-4-2Ts from Northampton (4B) shed, and it is possible that some trains were worked by Stanier 3MT 2-6-2Ts of which 40141/45/46/65 were shedded at Bedford in 1950. A photograph of 8 February 1958 shows 3MT 2-6-2T, No 40182, a long-term Leicester engine, on the 15.08 Northampton-Bedford train. In the early 1960s the Ivatt engines were joined by the similar standard class 2MT 2-6-2Ts, of which 84005/6 were photographed working Northampton-Bedford trains on 15 February 1962. In the summer of 1961 there were nine trains in each direction on weekdays and ten on Saturdays. Park Royal four-wheel railbuses were tried on the line in 1958 and in subsequent years a few workings were handled by diesel multiple units, but until closure most trains were steam-operated. Services on 3 March 1962, the last day of passenger train working, were handled by Ivatt 2MT 41225 and Standard 2MT 84005.
While similar locomotives and rolling stock were used on services between Bedford and Hitchin, as far as is known, trains were never timetabled to work through from Northampton to Hitchin, nor to any other destinations beyond Northampton and Bedford.
The Midland Railway had a large freight depot in Bridge Street, Northampton, from which trains could have accessed the Bedford line at Hardingstone Junction. A regular freight working the 00.20 (later 03.30) ex-Somers Town depot, adjacent to St Pancras, to Northampton used the branch. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, it was always worked by a class 4F 0-6-0 from Kentish Town (14B) depot, but subsequently it might be headed by a 'Black Five' class 5MT 4-6-0 or an Ivatt class 4MT 2-6-0. There was a modest freight depot at Olney, with cattle docks, a 'coal road' and a goods shed.
Olney would have remained a wayside station on a not particularly important branch line were it not for the opening of the Stratford-upon-Avon, Towcester & Midland Junction Railway (formerly the Easton Neston Mineral & Towcester, Roade & Olney Junction Railway) from Towcester to Ravenstone Wood Junction on the B&NR on 13 April 1891. At Towcester the line joined the East & West Junction Railway which ran through Woodford (where from 1899 it was linked with the London Extension of the Great Central Railway) At Fenny Compton it crossed the Great Western main line running north from Banbury, to which it was linked only by a reverse crossing, and continued through Stratford-upon-Avon (where there was a junction with the GWR line towards Birmingham) to Broom Junction on the Midland Railway. At Towcester the line was joined by the Northampton & Banbury Junction Railway from Blisworth, which continued from a junction at Greens Norton to Cockley Brake Junction on the L&NWR's route from Bletchley through Buckingham and Brackley to Merton Street station in Banbury. From 1908 the E&WJR enjoyed the charismatic leadership of Harry Willmott (1851-1931), as chairman, and his son Russell Willmott (1879-1920), as traffic manager. In 1910 the Willmotts brought about the merger of the ST&MJR with the E&WJR and the N&BJR to form the Stratford & Midland Junction Railway, which became part of the LMSR in 1923, and of British Railways after nationalisation in 1948. When Russell Willmott left to manage the Isle of Wight Central Railway in 1912 it was remarked that he and his father had raised the SMJR from a poverty-stricken company to one with a Two and a half per cent dividend, and that 'no day was too long for him'.
The E&WJR and the ST&MJR both had links with the Midland Railway, which included running powers over the Three and a half miles from Ravenstone Wood Junction to Olney. As soon as the line opened the Midland began to work freight trains from Bristol through Broom Junction, where they had to reverse, to Olney and thence through Bedford to Somers Town. Initially these trains were powered by Midland locomotives but when they proved too heavy E&WJR locomotives were used from 8 December 1891. It appears that most trains in the Towcester direction were banked out of Olney as far as Ravenstone Wood Juction.
The ST&MJR and SMJR were able to use the station and other facilities at Olney. The Midland Railway built a small running shed, opened in 1892, with a water tank on its roof and a 50 ft turntable. The shed was formally closed by the LMSR in 1928, which probably meant that it no longer had an allocation of locomotives or permanent staff, but its facilities continued in use until the late 1950s, probably because engines were usually changed at Olney on through trains between the SMJR and London.
A passenger service between Towcester and Olney over the ST&MJR began on 1 December 1892, but it was not well-supported, taking only Five pounds sterling in revenue in some weeks, and it ceased on 30 March 1893. From that date the only passenger trains using the section between Olney and Towcester were special workings, particularly excursions to the Easter Monday race meetings at Towcester. In the 1930s there were also special trains to Stratford from places on the Midland Division of the LMSR, and occasional excursions from Stratford to Southend. The ST&MR was linked at Roade to the main line of the L&NWR by a spur opened on 13 April 1891 which remained in use only until 24 May 1917 although the bay platform on the down side of Roade station never used for passenger trains,was not filled in until 1936.
The Midland Railway supposedly ceased using the SMJ line for through freight workings in 1913, but overnight goods trains from Broom Junction were still scheduled in the working timetable of October that year, with eastbound workings arriving at Olney at 00.47 and 02.53. A freight train from Woodford was due at Olney at 00.03. The Railway Magazine remarked in 1924 that the MR's banana trains from Avonmouth to London via the SMJR had run 'for many years past'. The LMSR made considerable investments in relaying track around 1928. During the 1930s the line remained open through the night for through freight trains, particularly for the banana workings. Freight trains in the 1930s appear to have been handled by ex-Midland Railway 2F and 3F 0-6-0s from the shed at Stratford-upon-Avon (3256, 3551, 3615, 3677, 3695, 3726 were identified in 1931), together with some ex-Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway 0-6-0s, of which 12105/07/09 were shedded at Northampton in 1930.
Much remains to be discovered about workings on the line through Olney during the Second World War. Evacuees from London were probably brought to the area by train, although no details are currently known. The wartime ordnance depot at Yardley Chase, accessed from sidings near Piddington station, certainly brought traffic to the line, as did a NAAFI depot at Turvey which consisted of Nissen-type huts close to the station. Further military traffic might have come from the Royal Ordnance Factory at Elstow, south of Bedford, the depot that remains open near Kineton, known in wartime as Marlborough Farm Camp or Burton Dassett and the depot at Ashchurch on the ex-MR Birmingham - Gloucester line south of Broom Junction. Troop trains and some ambulance trains would certainly have passed through Olney. On 29 May 1946 Maurice Jeyes fired 4F 4362 on a special numbered M885 to Byfield. This may have carried German prisoners-of-war from Colchester, one of whom recalled making such a journey in a special train in 1946.
Nationalisation of the railways in 1948 initially made little difference to workings in the Olney area. Through workings across the SMJR continued. It appears that such trains were limited to 26 loaded wagons westbound, but up to 45 empties were permitted eastbound. These workings probably included banana trains once imports were resumed after the war. A notable event, recorded in several photographs, was a tour of the SMJR lines by officials in an ex-LMSR inspection saloon in June 1950, headed by the 4-4-0 40672 'Engineer Watford'. Photographs taken at Stoke Bruerne and Salcey Forest stations have been published in several collections. The same locomotive also passed over the line with an inspection saloon on 4 October 1944, and on 29 April 1952 a 'district officers' special to Piddington was worked by Stanier 3P 2-6-2T No 40160.
While the push-and-pull passenger service between Northampton and Bedford in the 1950s was more frequent than at any time in the past, a decline in freight workings was reflected by the singling of the track in 1952. All trains in the Turvey direction used the up line, while the down line was used for carriage storage. A photograph of 1962 shows ex-LMSR non-corridor coaches stored in the sidings at Olney.
In the 1940s and 50s (and perhaps earlier) coal trains were regularly worked from Wellingborough to Olney via Bedford where they must have reversed. They then changed engine and travelled westwards on the SMJR. They were usually hauled to Olney by Stanier Class 8F 2-8-0s, and on the SMJR by Fowler 4F 0-6-0s, sometimes double-headed. Sometimes 8Fs were used west of Olney. Maurice Jeyes made his last trip on the line on 28 December 1955 when with 48362 he and his driver signed on at Bedford, ran light engine to Olney, and then took 38 wagons of coal to Clifford Sidings near Stratford. Since the turntable at Stratford could not accommodate a 2-8-0 Jeyes and his driver took 48362 to Broom where they turned on the triangle before returning eastwards. The turntable at Olney was similarly too short to turn a 2-8-0. There were similar eastbound workings of coal empties.
There were local freight workings between Ravenstone Wood Junction and Towcester until 31 May 1952 when the sidings at Stoke Bruerne were closed. The working timetable in September 1951 showed three daily freight workings that crossed the SMJR line eastwards to Olney, arriving at 09.03, 13.20 and 14.57, the latter normally consisting of 'empties' (of what kind is not specified) for Turvey. There were four workings in the opposite direction. Most of the freight trains were handled by 0-6-0s from Stratford (21D) shed until it closed in February 1953 following the withdrawal of passenger trains to and from Blisworth the previous April. The last allocation at Stratford consisted of 3Fs 43520/68 and 43873, and 4Fs 44043, 44186, 44242, 44524 and 44567. Subsequently most trains were worked by engines from Gloucester or Bedford.
The line from Ravenstone Wood to Towcester remained open to through traffic until 22 June 1958 shortly before it was cut during the construction of the M1 Motorway, after which freight traffic at Olney was confined to local workings, which continued after the cessation of passenger traffic but came to an end on 6 January 1964. Traffic to the Yardley Chase depot was subsequently worked from Northampton. Maurice Jeyes, who worked on the line as a footplate man, recalled that traffic was busy until the SMJR link was closed. Nevertheless the singling of the track in 1952 suggests a decline in freight working. From 1952 trains in the Turvey direction used the up line while the down line was used for carriage storage. A photograph of 1962 shows non-corridor coaches stored in the sidings at Olney.
A photograph taken on 6 February 1951 shows a 4F 0-6-0 working a train of more than 17 wagons towards Bedford through flooded meadows near Olney. Another, taken on 17 July 1957, shows a long eastbound train of four-wheel vans headed by 43873 crossing the West Coast Main Line at Roade. Tony Foster recalls that in the mid-1950s trains from the SMJR almost always changed engines at Olney. Usually a 4F 0-6-0 from Gloucester (22B) or Bristol (22A) gave way to a similar locomotive from Cricklewood (14A). Riley and Simpson provide a photograph which makes it possible precisely to replicate an SMJ line freight train of the 1950s. It shows the 10.35 class 'H' from Clifford Sidings to Olney near Byfield on 5 April 1958. Headed by 4F No 44491 it consisted of a BR standard 16-ton steel-bodied loaded coal wagon, 3 wooden-bodied ex-private owners' coal wagons, also loaded, two LOWMACs (or equivalents), two 12-ton vans, the second of them probably ex-Southern Railway, three or four further coal wagons, and a standard ex-LMSR brake van. No 44491 was a long-term Northampton engine, and appears to be carrying a 2E shed plate. Its smokebox was tarred over suggesting a recent overhaul at Derby.
Local pick-up goods trains served Olney and other intermediate stations in the post-nationalisation period. Maurice Jeyes worked on 3Fs 3474 and 3729 and 4F 3967 in 1947-49. A photograph of 25 July 1959 shows 3F 0-6-0 43665 on a short goods train near Newton Blossomville bound for Bedford that included some Presflo hopper wagons, used to convey cement for building the M1 Motorway. Such wagons were carried on the pick-up goods for some years, but we do not currently know where they were unloaded. The pick-up goods also delivered coal wagons to local coal agents. Ellis & Everard were the only coal merchants to have a hut carrying their name in the coal yard. Other merchants were small-scale local operators who might take many days to unload a wagon. Tony Foster recalls that cattle traffic in the late, 1950s was infrequent and that cattle would be loaded or unloaded at the dock only about six times a year. Traffic for the NAAFI depot at Turvey doubtless continued and it remains to be discovered whether this was carried in distinctive vehicles. Some traffic to Yardley Wood continued, although Tony Foster who worked at Olney station suggests that it was modest in scale, and usually consisted of a few ordinary vans each containing a small amount of cordite.
Some larger engines appeared at Olney during and after the Second World War. From 7 April 1945 workings by Stanier 8F class 2-8-0s on military specials are recorded in the registers of Ravenstone Wood signal box, and a Stanier 'Black Five' 5MT 4-6-0 No 5269 handled the 03.05 Bedford-Stratford freight train on 15 May 1945. Maurice Jeyes fired 8F 2-8-0 8006 on a freight train from Bedford to Stratford on 16 May 1946. Another 'Black Five' No 4840 was observed at the Burton Dassett WD sidings on 29 January 1946. Three munitions trains from Yardley Chase were headed by Class 8F 2-8-0s on 18 June 1952. Locomotives crossing the bridge over the West Coast Main Line at Roade on 11 August 1954 included Bristol-based 4Fs 44317 and 44355, and 8F 2-8-0 48699 from Wellingborough. A 'Black Five' No 44691 was photographed at Turvey in March 1962 with a brake van heading towards Oakley Junction. The line from Ravenstone Wood to Towcester remained open to through traffic until 22 June 1958, shortly before it was cut during the construction of the M1 motorway. Freight traffic at Olney was subsequently confined to local workings.
In the late 1950s and early 60s there was a regular working on Fridays of trains of track with concrete sleepers carried on bogie wagons. They were usually headed by pairs of class 8F 2-8-0s, but in the last years of the workings some class 9F 2-10-0s were used. An 8F No 48616, was heading such a train when it crashed into stored passenger coaches near Turvey on 31 July 1960. Local freight services continued after the cessation of passenger traffic, but came to an end on 6 January 1964, after which traffic to the depot at Yardley Chase was worked from Northampton.
In the post-war period the line was certainly used for specials carrying recently-recruited National Service RAF personnel from the base at Henlow to Bridgnorth or to West Kirby in the Wirral, some of which passed through Olney to Hardingstone Junction and Northampton, although others appear to have travelled along the SMJR to Broom Junction en route to Bridgnorth. The regular train carried the reporting number M785 and in 1951 was almost always headed by Bedford-based 4F 0-6-0 No 43876, but 'Black Five' No 44888 worked the train on 11 September 1951. It was the usual practice for 4Fs from Bedford to be replaced by 'Black Fives' at Northampton. In later years troop trains were often double-headed and locomotives used included Standard Class 4MT 4-6-0s, 3F and 4F 0-6-0s, 'Black Five' Class 5MT 4-6-0s, and Fowler, Stanier, Fairburn and Standard Class 4MT 2-6-4Ts. One 23 October 1955 a 4P class compound 4-4-0 No 41186 from Southport worked an RAF special from Henlow to West Kirby after it had spent the previous day at Northampton shed. On 27 August 1957 the 11.20 ex Henlow to Bridgnorth passed through with Stanier 6P5F 2-6-0 No 42951 from Aston shed, and on 16 September of that year the same working was headed by 'Crab' 6P5F 2-6-0 No 42854 from Nuneaton.
The line through Olney was regularly used in the mid-1950s by summer Saturday trains from coastal resorts to Coventry the 11.11 ex-Portsmouth Harbour (M969) and the 09.33 ex-Hastings (M970). The trains were usually hauled by 4F class 0-6-0s and were not booked to call at Olney, running non-stop between Luton and Northampton.
Excursion trains continued to use the line through Olney in the post-war years. Trains from St Pancras for Towcester races ran regularly on Easter Mondays. Class 4F 0-6-0 No 43876 was photographed on such a train (reporting number M779) waiting to leave Towcester in 1949 or 1950. There were occasional excursions from Luton to Stratford and from Stratford to London. A football excursion from Luton to Birmingham on 25 January 1954 consisted of 12 well-filled coaches including a cafeteria car, and was headed by 4F No 43935 and 4MT No 43019. On 14 September 1957 3F 0-6-0 passed Ravenstone Wood Junction in the Bedford direction with a return excursion carrying Luton Town supporters from a match at Villa Park. It may well have been assisting the train engine. Another memorable occasion was the passage on 7 January 1961 of a Northampton-Luton football special of at least eight coaches double-headed by 45533 Lord Rathmore and 4F 44219. A particularly notable event was the passage of ex-Great Western diesel railcar No W16 on 23 October 1953 carrying members of the literary section of the Solihull Society of Arts to St Pancras via Stratford-upon-Avon, Olney and Bedford. A second working by an ex-GWR railcar apparently took place on 24 July 1954. The railcar was booked to run from Paddington to Olney carrying the 'City Opera Club'. By repute it arrived at Blisworth from the SMJR line (it could not have arrived from the Banbury direction, but only from Woodford, Fenny Compton or Stratford). It then proceeded through Northampton to Hardingstone Junction and Olney.
Several railtours visited the line in the 1950s including one carrying the reporting number W710 organised by the Birmingham Locomotive Club on 14 July 1951, which was photographed at Salcey Forest with Class 4F 0-6-0 44057 hauling four LMS coaches. The train left New Street station at 08.23 and travelled through Coventry, Warwick and Weedon to Northampton for a visit to the engine shed. The train then travelled to Olney where it had to await the arrival of the push-and-pull service from Bedford to Northampton. A report on the excursion (see article bellow) mentions 'the utter amazement of the local inhabitants awaiting their train'. Presumably the engine was turned, and the train then went via Ravenstone Wood Junction and Towcester to Woodford, where the engine shed was visited, and tea was taken in the station refreshment room. After leaving Woodford and passing Fenny Compton a stop was made near Burton Dassett to enable inspection of the railway installations at the military depot, and a final halt was made at the engine shed at Stratford before the train continued to New Street via Broom Junction.Sources:
Map showing routes West of Olney pre the grouping of 1923. Click for a larger view.
The following is an account of a special train journey on the line in the summer of 1951. With thanks to Barrie for researching the original article.
It is a pity that international politicians seem to be incapable of imitating the harmony and co-operation which exists between the different railways societies, and which was once more exemplified in the most successful tour of the former Stratford-on-Avon & Midland Junction Railway, organised on 14 July by Mr E S Tonks and his associates, and generously made available to members of the RCTS, SLS and others. Special train No W 710 consisting of four LMR corridor coaches drawn by Class 4 0-6-0 44057 left New Street, Birmingham, punctually at 8.23 am en route for Northampton the first port of call.
It had originally been intended that the train should travel to Kenilworth by the direct line from Berkswell, but, probably owing to Saturday working arrangements, this was found to be impossible, and the normal line through Coventry was used instead, after which came the picturesque and largely single line from Warwick to Weedon, and so to Northampton (Castle) via Blisworth. There a most courteous representative of British Railways met the train and without delay appointed a guide to escort those of the party who had chosen to visit the loco shed, others visiting the electricity station and its locos; while a few who had left the train at Blisworth to observe the Saturday traffic made their own way to Northampton, and the ladies explored the shops. The inmates of the shed were mostly Class 2, 3 and 4 0-6-0s and class 7 0-8-0s, with a sprinkling of 2-6-4Ts and 4-4-0s and one forlorn Webb 2-4-2T (46666). One of the 0-6-0s, 43568, bore the inscription "last train to Banbury", thus recording the end, a few days before, of the passenger service from Blisworth to Banbury via Towcester. The walk to the shed and back, and then on to lunch, gave members a good appetite for the excellent meal provided, and it was characteristic of the meticulous arrangements made by Mr Tonks for the comfort of the party, that a special bus was provided to take the older and more jaded members back to the station.
Retracing its course as far as Ravenstone Wood Junction, 44057 showed its paces along the little used line to Towcester, past the handsome but long disused station of Salcey Forest, and a less elaborate one at Stoke Bruern, and then on to the junction with the Woodford Halse spur just before Byfield. Here another reversal was made and the train proceeded to Woodford Halse where a visit was made to the ER shed, largely containing Austerity 2-8-0s, and its workshop which contains at least one machine dating from the days when the SMJR engines, all of which have long ago disappeared, were repaired there.
Tea had thoughtfully been arranged in the tiny refreshment room at the station, and the efficient attendant probably dealt, in one hectic half hour, with more tea drinkers than ordinarily come her way in a week.
From Woodford Halse to Burton Dassett, the next stop was a comparatively short way, and there the military authorities had kindly permitted the inspection of the smartly kept Austerity 0-6-0Ts. A walk along the line to the shed revealed an astonishing variety of "chairs", probably inherited from the Edge Hill Light Railway, including some from lines as far removed from one another as the Neath & Brecon and Hull & Barnsley railways. A final stop was made at Stratford-on-Avon (LMR) to visit the shed, where a number of 0-6-0s were seen. Here also one of the few ordinary trains, now apparently reduced to one coach only, was passed, and rumour has it that even this meagre service may not last after the summer.
From Stratford the train entered another stretch of line now closed to passengers, as far as Broom Junction, where the Evesham-Birmingham line was joined. Along this, the last lap of the journey, excellent running was made; and the arrival at New Street at exactly the advertised time of 7.22 pm ended a most delightful day, blessed by fine weather, and made the more interesting by the provision for each member of the party of an outline history of the S&MJR, compiled by Mr C R Clinker, and notes of the points of interest on the journey.
Railway Observer, vol 21, Sep 1951, 200.
This page was last updated on 6 March 2018.
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