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Sonning Cutting

A challenging two-mile long excavation. . . . . . .

A location much favoured by railway photographers. This photograph by Maurice Earley shows “Mallard” heading west in the unfamiliar surroundings of Sonning Cutting during the 1948 Locomotive Exchanges.

The original 1833 plan for the Great Western Railway (GWR) line from London to Bristol was for a terminus which eventually was located at Paddington after earlier plans were dropped. The line would run through Acton and Ealing, on to West Drayton and head west to Reading. The Sonning Hill area of Berkshire, 31 miles from London was to have got a tunnel just under ¾ mile long near where the cutting now is. This was land below Holme Park, owned by Robert Palmer, the Member of Parliament for Berkshire, although he didn’t normally live there and was generally against railways. However, the GWR Engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel decided to take the line slightly further south and excavate a cutting up to 60 feet deep in places instead. This would help to keep gradients to a minimum on “Brunel’s Billiard Table”. A contractor named Ranger was appointed to manage and undertake the work, but bad weather, a legal dispute, labour and money shortages resulted in a navvies’ protest march to Reading and threats of disorder. Ranger was sacked and the GWR took over the work.

A freight train headed by a 61XX “Prairie” tank engine in early morning sunlight on the up relief line in Sonning Cutting in April 1962. Photo: Mike Peart.

The winter of 1838/9 was a very wet one and there was still 700,000 cubic yards of cutting to excavate before the opening planned for the following spring. Work in muddy conditions with frequent landslips caused by the mixture of sand, gravel and clay didn’t help. However, thanks to the efforts of 1,220 navvies and over 190 horses in constructing the cutting, the Twyford to Reading section of the GWR line was opened on 30th March 1840. This coincided with the installation of one of the first GWR fixed signals, in this case at Reading. The instructions written by Locomotive Superintendent Daniel Gooch read, “A signal ball will be seen at the entrance to Reading station when the line is right for the train to go. If the ball is not visible the train must not pass it.” However, within a year, the disc and crossbar type of signals had taken over. The fares between Paddington and Reading weren’t cheap. The single fare first-class in a closed carriage was eight shillings – around £29 at today’s values. Second class in a coach with a roof and no windows was 5/6d, or for 3/- you could travel in third class in a vehicle open to the elements. This cheap form of travel was to prove deadly.

On Christmas Eve 1841 there was a serious accident in Sonning Cutting – the GWR’s first. The 4.30 a.m. third class slow train from Paddington hauled by 2-4-0 “Leo” class locomotive “Hecla” struck a landslip caused by heavy rain which had covered the track to a depth of four feet for thirty yards. The accident occurred after 6.40 a.m., shortly after the train had called at Twyford ten minutes late. The train consisted of one six-wheeled third-class carriage, one four-wheeled third-class carriage, a station truck and 17 wagons. Some of the wagons contained 800 barrels of oysters and baskets of fish, and the total train weight was heavier than usual because of Christmas traffic. The carriages, which had been converted from luggage trucks, were open to the elements, the seats were eighteen inches off the floor and the sides and ends were only two feet high. This resulted in all 38 passengers being thrown out. The wagons behind the third class vehicles were thrown forward onto them. Nine people died and 16 were seriously injured. The driver and fireman were uninjured.

Third class lack of safety or comfort in 1841 – more wagon than carriage by the look of it.

As a result of the accident, the Board of Trade Inspecting Officer, Lt Col Sir Frederic Smith, recommended that the sides and ends of all railway companies’ carriages should be four feet six inches from the floor, that all locomotives should have a white reflective light on their buffer-beam and that all vehicles should be fitted with spring buffers. The coroner’s inquest also recommended that passenger trucks should be placed further away from the engine. Mr Brunel told the inquest that he had discovered a piece of stone about two feet square which had fallen during the landslip on the track, and it was this which had caused such a sudden stop for the train. He assured the court that the railway vehicles were safe and that he had used them himself on many occasions. The coroner remained concerned that a landslip at night would be hard to see in time for the drivers, and that it was possible that a train stopped in this way could be run into at its rear. As a result of the accident, the GWR was later ordered to pay a deodand (forfeit) to the Crown of £1,000 to be distributed to charity, but the Company appealed and got the amount substantially reduced. The affair led to improvements for third class travellers such as roofed vehicles as protection from the weather and minimum speeds. It also influenced the Regulation of Railways Act 1844 so that less affluent passengers had opportunities to travel cheaply in “Parliamentary Trains” run on every line every day.

A photo taken by Maurice Earley soon after the 1948 nationalisation of 5964 “Wolseley Hall” working an empty coaching stock train in a location where banking took place, probably at Hemerdon in Devon.

Celebrated railway photographer Maurice Earley lived in Reading, and Sonning Cutting was one of his favourite locations. He was granted a lineside permit by the GWR in 1925 and he was able to take the majority of his pictures around the Reading area. He did, though, stray further afield around Britain and France in a quest to capture as many locomotive classes as possible. He had started taking railway photographs in 1921, and in the following year co-founded the “Railway Postal Photographic Club”, later known as the Railway Photographic Society which continued operating with a well-known membership until 1976. His first photo to be published in the “Railway Magazine” in 1925 was of the GWR Royal Train. In the early days, the club’s members circulated their pictures by post to get constructive criticism from fellow members. Earley was certainly a perfectionist. He died in November 1982 at Reading at the age of 82. His early photos on glass negatives numbered over 3,000, and much of his collection is now held by the National Railway Museum.

Southern Region “Merchant Navy” class 35020 “Bibby Line” shown working a test train after its rebuild in 1956. The GWR Dynamometer Car is the first vehicle. Photo: Maurice Earley.

Mike Peart

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