The battle to ensure the East Coast Line came to Morpeth

The Morpeth Curve.
The Morpeth Curve.

THE first suggestion for a railway to Morpeth came in March 1836, in a letter to the newly formed Town Council. After considering it, ‘It was proposed by Dr Hedley and seconded by Mr Blakey that petitions be sent in favor of the railway to both houses of parliament. A majority voted against it.’

At that time the Royal Mail still stopped at the Queen’s Head twice a day, southbound in the morning and northbound at night, for horses to be changed and passengers and mail picked up or set down. But its days were numbered.

The Newcastle Journal of January 7, 1837, carries a requisition for a county meeting to discuss a railway from Newcastle to Edinburgh. The signatories included C.W. Bigge of Linden, Lord Carlisle, Bertram Osbaldiston Mitford, Isaac Cookson, and most of Morpeth Town Council.

The meeting duly took place. Then, rather oddly, a separate one was held, about a railway from Newcastle to Morpeth. The occasion for it was the threat from an alternative line going via Hexham and Carter Bar, known variously as the ‘Western’ or ‘Midland’ line.

The Newcastle Courant of February 10 says: ‘On Tuesday last, a public meeting, called by R. Blakey, Esq, Mayor, at the request of 160 inhabitants of Morpeth, was held in the Town Hall …..

‘Mr Charlton rose and spoke as follows: – Mr Mayor and Gentlemen, – The object of our meeting here is to take into consideration the propriety of having a railroad communication between this town and Newcastle upon Tyne. …

‘You are aware another line is projected, taking a westerly direction, and intending to leave Morpeth at a considerable distance. Now should that be carried into effect, it must be obvious to every one connected with this town that its interests, and that of the surrounding neighbourhood, will be materially affected.

‘The supporters of this western line are using every exertion to carry it through Northumberland, notwithstanding the great difficulties that the face of the country through which it has to pass naturally presents. It behoves us, therefore, to be upon the alert, in order to secure the great line of traffic which this town has so long enjoyed.’

The chief promoter, the mining engineer Matthias Dunn, spoke on the respective merits of the Eastern and Midland lines. Following the success of the Carlisle railway, he had published a prospectus in 1835, for a railway from Newcastle to Edinburgh via Cramlington. His plan now was for a local line closely following the Morpeth turnpike, but with enough land for four tracks.

Alderman Thomas Bowser moved the resolutions, seconded by Mr Blair:

‘I. That this meeting consider it necessary that measures should be forthwith adopted to secure a Railway Communication between Morpeth and Newcastle upon Tyne.

‘II. That the sum required for the purpose be raised by public subscription, in shares of £50 each ….

‘III. That the Mayor, Andrew Robert Fenwick, John Moor, William Clark, Thomas Jobling, George Hood, Arthur Shanks, and Thomas King, be appointed a committee to carry these resolutions into effect; … and that a prospectus be issued, showing the expected costs and receipts of the undertaking.’

I’m not sure it was seriously meant. The object was perhaps only to put down a marker, and we never hear of this railway again.

In September 1838, George Stephenson published his survey for an East Coast Line from Newcastle to Edinburgh. It began at the Town Moor in Newcastle (a wise choice since nobody knew where or how the Tyne was to be crossed), then turned off eastwards and ran through Bedlington, with a branch to Morpeth. It also cut through Earl Grey’s pleasure grounds at Howick.

In October 1840, the council woke up to the implications. At a special council meeting, Mr Edmund Bowman, Civil Engineer, presented a report entitled Railway from Newcastle to Edinburgh.

It was really only about the section from Newcastle to Lesbury, at which point his line joined Mr Stephenson’s. It showed a saving of up to two-and-a-half miles, depending on which route Mr Stephenson took to Bedlington:

‘With respect to the Lines North of the Wansbeck, they both pass through a favourable Country, and at unexceptionable Gradients, but the upper Line taking the Rivers where they are not so broad, the Arching may be less; also from Mr Stephenson’s Line running so near the Coast for so great a Distance, it will be liable to be destroyed in Places, in time of War, by an enterprising Enemy’s Vessel …and thus interrupt the Communication when most needed.’

He was a little biased. He makes a saving by not having the branch from Bedlington to Morpeth, but ignores the need for one from Morpeth to Bedlington. And while it may be true that you need fewer arches upstream, he omits any reference to them being higher. But the council were well pleased and resolved: ‘That the Thanks of the Council be given to Mr Bowman for the Plan, which appears to this Meeting to be superior to the other projected Lines in point of Distance, Economy, Facility of Construction and Utility when made; and that the Report be printed in the local Newspapers.’

Morpeth Town Council meetings were only normally reported if it didn’t cost anything. But the railway question was altogether more serious.

Whereas other European governments decided what lines should be built, here the private sector took the initiative. Parliament either granted the necessary private Act of Parliament or it didn’t. In an attempt to introduce a degree of planning and save too many people from losing their money, the House of Commons now appointed a Railway Committee.

In August 1839 the Committee retained Sir Frederick Smith and Professor Barlow to report back on all the proposed lines not already authorised. Part of their remit concerned Morpeth closely. The Committee thought the traffic between England and Scotland too small for an adequate return on capital if two competing lines were built, and asked the commissioners to make a recommendation. If so, there might never be a line, either through Morpeth or Bedlington. But the Town Council ignored this possibility. They wanted the East Coast Line to come to Morpeth. Whether it would ever be built was immaterial.

In 1844 George Hudson, the Railway King, adopted George Stephenson’s line for the Newcastle to Berwick Railway. Finding his father’s wishes ignored, Lord Howick promoted the rival Northumberland Railway. It was to be an ‘atmospheric railway’, powered by a vacuum tube. More to the point, it crossed the Wansbeck at Morpeth Banks and ran well away from Howick Hall.

In 1845, the House of Lords Railway Committee dismissed the atmospheric railway in favour of George Stephenson’s line. At some point in the proceedings, however, William Woodman, the Town Clerk, brought pressure to bear through Lord Carlisle and Earl Grey.

Not only was the line taken west of Howick, it was also diverted to Morpeth, with the result that to this day express trains have to slow down for the Morpeth curve, and Bedlington isn’t on a passenger-carrying line at all.