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Railway Battles

The story of two ‘battles’ to prevent railways being built in the East Midlands in the nineteenth century.....

Image: Stapleford Estate. Courtesy

Perhaps you have been out and about on the rail network recently. Perhaps you have travelled between Melton Mowbray and Peterborough and glimpsed through the trees a fine country house just before the railway disappears into a short tunnel not far from Melton Mowbray. The house is Stapleford Hall and park, now a rather up market hotel complex, and the tunnel is ‘Cuckoo Tunnel’. Nothing remarkable in that you might say, except this was the scene of quite a famous ‘railway battle’ in the 1840’s.

Image: courtesy Sidetrack online

I heard this story some years ago, listening to actors performing a short play about it on Radio Leicester. The narrator was ‘Alice’, daughter of the gamekeeper at Stapleford Hall whose owner was Lord Harborough. In 1844 his Lordship was the owner of the Melton Mowbray to Oakham canal when he got wind of the intention of the Midland Railway (MR) under the ‘control of that odious Mr Hudson’ to build a railway line through the park and, in effect, sink the canal. Despite the MR seeking authority for the line, the ‘aging aristocrat’ Lord Harborough would have none of it and instructed his gamekeeper to be on the lookout for MR surveyors.

Image: courtesy Sidetrack online

On 13th November 1844 surveyors were spotted and after an exchange of words with the gamekeeper, they withdrew (I would like to have heard that!). Silence for a few weeks but, then, on 28th November came ‘three days of bedlam’. Reports suggest over 100 navvies arrived, possibly 150, ready for battle. His Lordship responded with his own army of servants, estate workers and even lock keepers and barge owners on the canal. There were gunshots and fisticuffs, leading to minor casualties. After an inconclusive outcome, both parties withdrew to lick their wounds, so to speak. The press had a field day.

The BBC programme gave it the full treatment too – plough horses enlisted as ‘cavalry’, canon mounted on the canal banks. His Lordship charged a railway engineer’s gig with his, and ran over – a goat.

Eventually, the MR agreed to a small diversion around the park, and so finished the line in 1846, albeit with a 10 mph speed limit. His Lordship died in 1859 with no male heir. In the passage of time, the route was absorbed into the Melton Mowbray – Peterborough line in 1889 and, in a twist that must have had Harborough turning his in grave, the new owner of the Park, Lord Gretton, agreed that the line could be ‘straightened’.

Meanwhile, a few decades later, discussing the Midland and Great Northern Joint route, the radio scene is a fictitious dinner party given by ‘Algie’ who is riding the next day with Lady Wickham in the estate which forms part of the picturesque Vale of Belvoir.

‘Duke of Rutland says there’s a proposal to build a confounded railway right across the Vale of Belvoir. Just think. It will disturb all the foxes, cuttings will obstruct the hunt.’

‘Tenants of the estate have an alternative view, something about ‘doubling the size of the dairy herd and sending the milk to London for a better price. What a difference the railway would make.’ Pass the port please, dear….’

‘I’m in favour,’ the Duke says, to a hushed gathering around the fireplace. ‘There’s ironstone on this estate. The railway may dig up the estate and totally ruin the hunting, but think of the rewards. I shall not vote against the railway bill.’

The Bill did pass and a railway built in 1879; Twyford was renamed John O’Gaunt station in 1883. The fox hunts arrived on special trains for the meets, there was a special milk train to Euston on Sunday nights, then seaside excursions passed through on their way to the Lincolnshire coast at Skegness and Mablethorpe.

Several railway men I spoke to remembered John O’Gaunt. It was a tricky place with a significant gradient to overcome, all the way from the outskirts of Leicester. A stop at the station meant an awkward restart. More than one case of stopping to ‘brew up’ occurred, leading to delays on what was already a lengthy journey to the coast. One man described in detail his memories of the route all the way from Leicester Belgrave Road to Bottesford South Junction on a ‘Skeggy special’. ‘We knew there’d be trouble because we slipped on the Catherine Street bridge coming out of the city and coal dropped off the tender. Percy used so much coal we thought we wouldn’t make it. We were shovelling slack by the end.’

Today the railway lines are fewer but those that remain glide through a picturesque landscape while passengers read their papers, fiddle with iPads, occasionally look up at the scenery. Few know what a battle it was when the railway came to the Vale of Belvoir.

And ‘John O’ Gaunt’? Said to come from the name of a fox covert nearby but then there’s an iron age camp too. Another history puzzle to solve …..


John Swanwick

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