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The “Marlow Donkey”

The “Marlow Donkey” auto-train at Marlow station in summer 1961. Photo: Mike Peart.

On 28th June 1873 the Great Marlow Railway Company’s line opened for passenger traffic. At two miles and 61 chains long, it became the branch from Bourne End to Marlow, Buckinghamshire. Marlow station was then named Great Marlow and Bourne End was Marlow Road. Marlow Road became Bourne End in 1874 and Great Marlow stayed as such until 1899 when the “Great” was removed. The Great Western Railway (GWR) absorbed the line in 1897 with services running to High Wycombe and Paddington. Motive power used on the branch ranged from conventional passenger and freight workings, railmotors (steam-powered single vehicles used from around 1905), auto-trains (a locomotive with a trailer(s) that could be driven conventionally or from a driver’s cab in the trailer with the fireman remaining on the locomotive footplate, again from around 1905) and GWR streamlined diesel railcars from around 1936. Marlow was increasingly promoted by the GWR as a destination for cycle tours, ramblers and rail/river excursions jointly with Salter Brothers steamers on the Thames, all of which boosted passenger traffic. Increasingly in its later days, the service which is still with us, became widely known to locals and enthusiasts as the “Marlow Donkey”.

From the opening until 1899, Guard Janes was the regular guard for the Bourne End to Marlow service. He had a proud boast that he had made the short journey no fewer than 150,000 times during his service, and had called out “All Change” at least once at every stop!

In 1898 the GWR planned to connect Henley-on-Thames with a direct line to Marlow which would roughly follow the valley of the River Thames. A Bill was presented to Parliament which had a lot of local support. But the Leander Rowing Club which had boat houses on the proposed route protested fiercely about the “desecration” of the Thames Valley and the GWR’s scheme was deferred and never taken any further.

During the nine-day 1919 railway strike, the “Marlow Donkey” was being worked by volunteer members of the public. However, on one day they were taking a meal break and strikers boarded the locomotive, threw out its fire and opened the blow-down valve to empty the boiler.

The “Marlow Donkey” resting between runs at the Marlow engine shed by a pile of ash and clinker. The notice reads “ENGINES OF THE RED AND BLUE CLASSIFICATION MUST NOT PASS THESE DOORS” (i.e. larger engines). Photo: Mike Peart.

The “Marlow Donkey” was popular with the film industry. In 1953, Hammer Films released their new fantasy drama “The Four Sided Triangle”. This film includes three short scenes shot at Marlow station with platform scenes and the “Marlow Donkey” leaving. When the film was shot, the train service was suspended for half a day and a replacement bus service was provided. Driver Vic Hoare, renowned for his high-speed departures from the station, had to drive the auto-train into and out of the platform several times and he was given £10 by the film company for his trouble. Stationmaster Freddie Funnell is also seen on the platform along with an unnamed porter. The Marlow branch also featured in a 1948 comedy thriller called “Meet the Duke”, “The Miniver Story” in 1950 and the RAF comedy “Nearly a Nasty Accident” with Jimmy Edwards and Kenneth Connor in 1960.

At court in November 1961, three men were each fined 30 shillings (£1.50) after pleading guilty to holding up the “Marlow Donkey” operating the 8.12 p.m. Bourne End to Marlow service which was carrying just one passenger. The men had spent some time celebrating in the Railway Hotel at Marlow on the day it had been renamed “Marlow Donkey”. They had then walked half a mile down the railway line, placed three detonators on the track which exploded under the passing train and stopped it. The men boarded the train and told the driver it was a “stick-up”. Two of the three did not help their case by wearing cowboy outfits and carrying toy six-shooters. The three men were found guilty of “entering a carriage other than on the side of a platform”, “Unlawfully and wilfully stopping a vehicle on the railway” and “wilfully obstructing the driver in the execution of his duty”. I know from personal experience on duty that on the day of the annual Marlow Regatta, things got pretty busy on the “Marlow Donkey” (train) and “Marlow Donkey” (pub) – and got wilder as the day progressed.

The “Marlow Donkey” running into Bourne End (Bucks) station in summer 1961. Photo: Mike Peart.

In the days of steam, there was no block telegraph and the single-line branch was worked by train staff (an oak square staff fitted with an Annett’s Key) and one engine in steam at a time or two coupled together. Heavier and larger “Red” group engines were limited to 20 mph on the branch. The 14XX 0-4-2 tank engines used in the last days of steam and pictured here were unclassified and could be used anywhere on the system. The last steam-hauled “Marlow Donkey” from Marlow to Bourne End ran on 8th July 1962. Goods traffic on the branch ceased in July 1966 but the passenger service remained well-used. Marlow station building was closed in July 1967 and a new platform was built on the site of the former station goods yard. Services now shuttle between Bourne End and Marlow and Marlow to the main line at Maidenhead.

Mike Peart

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Aug 06, 2023

We are organising a group challenge walk on October 1st that we have called the Marlow Donkey. Could we please use some of your photos on the completion certificate ?


Jul 18, 2023

Hi, I am re-calling my memories of the Marlow Donkey in the 1950's/1960's.

Do you have any recollection of the steam train being involved in an accident at Spade Oak crossing near Bourne End station? If my memory serves me correct the Marlow Donkey being driven by Driver Tom Burton collided with a small boat that was being towed by a car. Any details you can provide would be very much appreciated.

Mike Peart
Mike Peart
Jul 18, 2023
Replying to

I do recall from conversations in the 1960s that one driver on the route was involved in several incidents but I don't have any details unfortunately.

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