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A fine Eton mess

Trusting Eton College boys under a “Star” class locomotive at Swindon Works in 1927. Photo: Great Western Trust

The Great Western Railway’s original application to build a line from London to Reading with a branch to Windsor was opposed by Eton College as early as 1833. The Provost of Eton College wrote that year that “no public good whatever could possibly come from such an undertaking”. In 1834, Eton College then took formal action against the GWR to try to prevent the new line from London to Reading with a branch to Windsor coming anywhere near the College. The GWR offered to withdraw the idea of a branch to Windsor provided that Eton College didn’t object to the route of the main line through Slough.

In 1835 the Provost of Eton again vigorously opposed the building of the GWR and insisted on amendments to the Great Western Railway Act. These included asking that no diversion, branch or station should be built within three miles of the College and that the GWR should employ staff to prevent Eton boys from gaining access to the railway. The Provost feared that Eton College would be ruined. “London would pour forth the most abandoned of its inhabitants to come down by the railway and pollute the minds of the scholars, whilst the boys themselves would take advantage of the short interval of their play hours to run up to town, mix in all the dissipation of London life, and return before their absence could be discovered.” However, the Act received the Royal Assent on 31st August 1835. Conditions were set in the Act so that the railway was not to be used by boys from Eton College and that it should have a wall or fence on both sides of the line where it passed through the nearby length of what is now between Langley, Slough and Burnham.

It was pressure from the Royal household that finally brought the railway to Windsor. When the line of just under three miles from Slough to Windsor was finally approved to be built, Eton College insisted that two constables, paid for by the GWR, should be provided to keep Eton boys away from the construction works. Thus, Constables Bott and Dickins, duly approved of by the College, started work in 1848. The College relinquished the right to the services of what was by then one constable in 1886 with the proviso that constables could be re-appointed if necessary. Additionally, Eton’s authorities demanded the right to be able to search Windsor station for fugitive boys and receive the full co-operation of railway employees in doing so. Screens or planting was also required to ensure privacy of those using the College’s bathing place by the Thames at Cuckoo Weir. There were complaints about work taking place on Sundays, that work strayed into College property and fears that the works could cause the River Thames to flood.

The GWR's first special trains ran in June 1838 between Paddington and Maidenhead for the Eton Montem ceremony held at the Montem Mound at Salt Hill, by the Bath Road at Slough. The tradition had originally started in the 16th century as an initiation rite for boys at Eton College. With the coming of the railway, it is said that “large, rowdy crowds from London” came down and this finally persuaded the Eton College authorities to put a stop to the ceremony a few years later.

Despite years of vigorously opposing the railway, Eton College relented somewhat and ordered a series of GWR special trains to take Eton boys from the temporary station at Slough for the coronation of Queen Victoria in June 1838. The temporary station, which didn’t have a platform, was a way round the College’s objections. By 1840, the College had given in and had finally allowed the construction of a permanent station at Slough. The GWR had bought a field next to the North Star pub in Slough, a ground floor window of which was already being used as its booking office. The more permanent Slough station didn’t open until June 1841. This was due to provisions in the Act of Parliament which prevented the GWR from building any station or depot within three miles of Eton College.

Had Eton College finally given in? Not quite. Despite a party of a hundred pupils from the College visiting Swindon Works in February 1927 to learn more about railway engineering, there was another protest. A new halt at Chalvey very close to Eton was proposed on the Slough to Windsor branch. There was a strong letter from Eton College who didn’t want their pupils to be distracted by the railway or given an escape route from the College to the fleshpots of London. Nonetheless, Chalvey Halt opened in May 1929. The GWR hoped it would attract new passenger traffic, but it didn’t and the halt was closed after a year. Eton College remains open after 581 years…..

Mike Peart

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