A History of White Colne Station and the C V & H Railway

















The original building, which today forms part of the Village Hall, was built in 1858/9 as Colne Station. It was later extended to provide accommodation for the station master, and later still some parts were demolished and removed.   It was the smallest of the seven stations built specifically for the Colne Valley & Halstead Railway, and was operational, with a break of nine years (1899-1907) from the opening of the line in April 1860 until its closure in April 1965.  It is also one of only three of these stations to survive in more or less original condition, the others being Earls Colne and Hedingham, although the latter has been taken down and rebuilt. Hedingham, the headquarters of the Colne Valley Railway, now houses the crossing-keepers ground frame hut which formerly stood adjacent to the crossing at White Colne Station.


The station building itself and the hut are all that remains of White Colne Station, the platform, sidings and gravel pit have all been removed. The land surrounding the Hall, the car park and recreational areas to the rear are on the site of the former goods yard.   The platform area, across the road from the station building, is now part of a private residence.   The former station and surrounding land was made available by Essex County Council to the local community in 1976.   The track bed from the Hall westwards is designated to be developed as a linear park connecting White Colne and Earls Colne.


In this section, we will take a brief look at the story of the railway and at the development and role of White Colne Station.   Several books and articles have already been published covering the history and operation of the CV&HR (listed below).  We are indebted to those and to the current Colne Valley Railway for much of the information herein.


Construction of the Railway.

The early to middle years of the nineteenth century were a period of substantial investment in a new rail network across the UK.   In our region, the main lines London to Colchester and London to Cambridge were opened in 1843 and 1845.   By 1848, Braintree had been linked to the main line at Witham, and in 1849 the branch line from Marks Tey to Sudbury was opened.  The Sudbury line was built by the short-lived Colchester, Stour Valley, Sudbury & Halstead Railway, who had Parliamentary approval in 1847 to build a spur from Chappel to Halstead.   This plan was never implemented and the permission lapsed when the company was absorbed into first the Eastern Union Railway, and subsequently into the Eastern Counties Railway in 1854.


By an Act of June 1856, a group of local businessmen secured approval to construct a railway connecting Halstead to the Eastern Counties line at Chappel.   Initially they had considered a route from Halstead to Braintree, but due to engineering difficulties and the opposition of several other interested rail operators the route from Halstead to Chappel was chosen.   Competition between railway companies to build and operate new lines (or at least to gain approval for planned new lines thus pre-empting other potential developers) was quite intense and resulted in lack of cooperation over such matters as timetables and physical connections between different operators' networks. This was the environment in which the Colne Valley & Halstead Railway was established and which proved difficult to overcome at almost every stage of the development of the line.


Construction of the line began in February 1858 and, with the exception of the junction with the existing line at Chappel, was completed by the end of 1859.   The Act of Parliament had not specified exactly where the two lines were to be connected and the Eastern Counties Railway refused to agree to the junction for a further year delaying the opening of the CV&HR until April 1860.


At Chappel, the CV&HR used the existing station; at the opening there were no station facilities at Halstead and the only intermediate station on the line was at Colne.    A station at Earls Colne was not opened until about 1898 - initially called Ford Gate, then Colne, then Earls Colne.


Prior to the opening of the first 6 miles of line, the railway company received Parliamentary approval to extend the line to Haverhill. Construction started in June 1860 and the line was opened to Hedingham in July 1861, to Yeldham in May 1862 and to Haverhill in May 1863.   Further plans to extend the line to link Cambridge and Colchester were contested in Parliament and a rival scheme put forward by the Eastern Counties Railway was approved. The last development on the CV&HR line was the short extension to connect to the Great Eastern station at Haverhill, which provided an indirect link to Cambridge.   The CV&HR was denied the important development of a through service between Colchester and Cambridge, which could have had significant benefit to the company.


The route starts north of Chappel station and swings westwards, joining the Colne valley at White Colne, then following the valley to Halstead and beyond.   It is believed that other routes along the valley were studied, one in particular running to the south of the river, within the parish of Earls Colne. The chosen route, with its gradual incline from White Colne to Halstead, would have posed few engineering problems and relatively little earth moving/gradient work.


At the outset, the main purpose was to connect Halstead to the rail network and only one intermediate station was planned between Halstead and Chappel.   Looking at today's map, it would appear odd to site the only station in White Colne, when the larger community and the area's only real industry was next door in Earls Colne.   Looking at the area as it would have been in the mid 1800s, however, (Figure 1) the logic becomes a little more obvious.  At that time, Earls Colne was essentially a linear or ribbon development spread along the main Colchester-Halstead road, either side of the Church, and extending along the South side of Colchester Road as far East as the junction with Bures Road.   White Colne was, and remains today, divided between the area around the Church to the North and the development from Colneford Hill eastwards along the Colchester road.  The decision to build the station on land at Bures Road would have reflected its closer proximity to the existing populations of the two villages than the site north west of Earls Colne which was later to become Ford Gate station.   Only subsequently has Earls Colne expanded northwards along what is now Station Road to meet the railway.



























Ford Gate station, later Colne and Earls Colne, was built as the result of pressure from Hunts, the Earls Colne foundry, although there is no mention of any involvement by Hunts with the original construction of the railway.


Colne Station

The line drawing reproduced below is derived from the plans shown in ‘The Colne Valley and Halstead Railway’ and ‘From Construction to Destruction’.   These differ from each other in some respects - not least in scale and date - but it is hoped a combination of the two gives a reasonable view of the station area as it would have been during its working life. When built, the station had a single platform serving the single track.  This was typical of the entire railway - only at Chappel and Haverhill North, where CV&HR trains used other companies' existing stations, were there more than one platform.




























                                  

White Colne was unusual in having the platform separated from the station buildings by a public roadway (today's Bures Road).  The platform was long enough to accommodate three or four steam hauled passenger carriages and the later diesel multiple units. Today, nothing remains of the brick and concrete platform or the old carriage body and box van which were the passenger waiting room and goods lockup, all visible in the photo below taken in 1954.


















Of the station buildings, the original booking office and station master's accommodation remain, although much altered.   The crossing keeper's hut, visible in the 1947 photo to the right of the gates, has been removed and rebuilt at Hedingham, while the small brick extension to the rear of the station has also been demolished. The tracks forming the sidings remained in place until 2005, and were then removed.


It would be difficult to describe the station as an elegant building. It was small, especially as originally built, provision for passengers was extremely basic and provided at low cost. The original building itself shows some signs of architectural style with the use of pale stone, red brick and moulded glazed brick detailing. This style was used on several stations, including Halstead and Hedingham.





















The later addition to provide accommodation for the station master, although more than doubling the size of the building, was built in a much plainer, utilitarian style, no doubt at lower cost. The plan above, drawn in 1975, has been amended to show the two stages of building.


The working life of White Colne Station

Life for the railway, and hence the station, was never easy. Having overcome substantial opposition to build the line in the first place, operating the line and planning for expansion in an age of great competition was an ongoing struggle for the owners.   Probably the greatest obstacle was their inability to provide a through service between Colchester and Cambridge in the face of entrenched rail operators protecting their own investments at either end of the CV&HR track.   This meant that the line could never be more than a single track branch.


For (White) Colne station, a promising start serving both Earls Colne and White Colne' s populations and industry, did not last beyond the end of the nineteenth century, as the new station at Earls Colne was built and later expanded.   The White Colne Station closed in 1899 once Earls Colne was in operation but, somewhat surprisingly, reopened in 1907 for goods traffic and for passengers in 1908.  This was probably the period of greatest prosperity for the railway company, prior to the first world war and before the increased competition from road passenger services. The line's main strength was its goods traffic, and it continued operating independently until 1923 becoming part of the Great Eastern section of the LNER and finally in 1948 part of state-owned British Railways.


From 1923 onwards the railway, in common with many similar branch lines, was in decline, finally closing to passenger traffic in 1961 and to goods services in 1965.


White Colne Station in World War II

The CV&HR and White Colne Station were important parts of the war effort, not just in transportation of people and foodstuffs which would be expected of a small rural rail line.   Because of its position in north Essex and the proximity of a number of wartime airfields, White Colne was a vital link in the supply of munitions. Precise details of the frequency, size and nature of cargoes moving through White Colne are not known, but they were significant and highly risky.   In one 3 month period, for example, 100,000 Ibs of munitions were shipped through the station.  There are no records of accidents here but this extract from an account of a fatal accident at Soham in Cambridgeshire illustrates the scale of the movements and the potential for disaster. This records the fate of a shipment of bombs, detonators, fuses and ancillary equipment from Immingham (on Humberside) to White Colne, for the US Army Air Force.


‘ 2nd June 1944 - Train Explosion - Station Road, Soham


On May 31st 1944 a consignment of bombs and components for the United States Air Force was taken off ship and on to sixty-one railway wagons at Immingham on the Humber, destined for White Colne, in Essex. This long train left Immingham Sidings at 2.55 a.m. on June 1st, travelling so slowly that it took seven hours to cover the eighty-nine miles to March in Cambridgeshire.

It arrived at March Yard, which was a subsidiary to the nearby marshalling yard at Whitemoor. Here the wagons were, as always, carefully inspected. The ten leading wagons were then detached to be worked forward by convenient services later, leaving the fifty-one wagons and the guard's van in Number One Siding Coal Yard. These remained in the yard for fourteen-and-a-half hours unaltered in formation until they left at 12.15 a.m. on Friday June 2nd as the delayed 11.40p.m. (June 1st) train from Whitemoor to White Colne.


Forty-four of those wagons were laden with 250-pound and 500-pound bombs, unfused, amounting to approximately four hundred tons in all and another six with detonators and primers, fuses, wire release gear and bomb tail fins, all firmly stacked under tarpaulin sheets of low combustibility with the care that had prevented any major crisis in the transportation of weaponry on British railways throughout the war, one wagon remained empty.


This train was about 390 yards long and there were no gradients between March and Soham to unsettle such loads. For the four-and-three-quarter miles from Ely Dock Junction to Soham the line was, and is, single, while from Soham it was, and remains, double. The train stopped at Ely twice where observers saw nothing unusual aboard. All the Soham signals were clear for the train's approach when it was moving at between fifteen and twenty miles per hour with the engine steaming lightly along the level line. Then, a few yards beyond the Up signal, the driver, Benjamin Gimbert, noticed some steam issuing from the left-hand injector and looked out of his cab window and saw flames rising some eighteen inches from the bottom.


The flames were spread rapidly. The train was stopped some ninety yards short of the station platform ramps where the burning wagon was uncoupled from the rest. The burning wagon was then being towed away from the station into the countryside when it exploded killing Jim Nightall, the fireman, and throwing the driver, Ben Gimbert, 200 yards away. This was about 1.43 a.m. Forty-four general purpose bombs each weighing five hundred pounds, in total containing 5.14 tons of explosive content, had exploded as one, reducing the station to rubble.


The streets of Soham were littered with glass, shop goods were blown into the streets and the station was replaced by a crater fifteen feet deep and sixty-six feet across. Only a buffer and a socket casting were left of the wagon, the rest being driven downwards, there to stay so that the lines could be restored quickly at that time of acute national emergency. The tender was a twisted mass still attached to the engine which was wholly derailed yet received no serious structural damage other than to the cab, its light plate-work, boiler and cylinder lagging. The larger part of the train disconnected by Jim Nightall lethal in its content, was hit by no worse than minor splinters and thus the town of Soham was saved from utter destruction..."

Extracted from 'But For Such Men As These' by Anthony Day, Published by S.B. Publications, ISBN 1 85770 060 0.



The principal destination for these shipments was Earls Colne airfield, which was the home of the 94th and 323rd Bombardment Groups of the 8th and 9th  USAAF between May 1943 and July 1944. After unloading at White Colne, munitions were distributed for storage at various locations, including Station Road, now Bures Road.   The photo below, taken three years after the end of the war, shows stores of bombs in Station Road just a few hundred yards north of the station building.





















Today's Village Hall

For about 10 years after the line closed in 1965, the station building was unused and gradually fell into a poor state of repair. The ongoing efforts of local residents have seen the building renovated and converted into our Village Hall, its gradual refurbishment, and the addition of play facilities on the former railway land adjacent to the building.


Today, it is used by local organisations providing a playgroup, dance classes, weekly religious services, history group and parish council meetings, and by individuals for parties, dances, quizzes and other social events.   There is a continuing programme of further improvement to the fabric and facilities, intended to increase its appeal as the centre for all ages of our village community.



Sources:  ‘The Colne Valley and Halstead Railway’ by R.A. Whitehead and F.D. Simpson, Oakwood Press, 1987

              ‘From construction to destruction : an authentic history of the Colne Valley and Halstead Railway’

                        by Edward P. Willingham. Halstead and District Local History Society, 1989.

                 ‘Colne Valley Album’, Apex Publications 1983/Colne Valley Railway

In this section you can read about the railway. There is also a Brief History of White Colne Station and the CV&H Railway which includes references to more definitive books and articles.

Earls Colne

Station

Colne

Station

White

Colne

Earls

Colne

Hunt’s

Works

CV & H Railway

Mile markers (distance from Chappel junction)

Roads

River Colne & tributaries

Residential, mills & farms

Industrial

Church

Heights above sea level

> 200ft

150-200

100-150

<100ft

Railway



The Colne Valley and Halstead Railway carried passenger and goods traffic through White Colne for just over 100 years.  Although it was only a rural branch line, it had an interesting and troubled history, it served an important function during the Second World War and was the single biggest man-made impact on our landscape.


Today, much of the route has been absorbed back into the countryside, but some evidence remains – our Village Hall is the former station building and the footpath westwards into Colne Engaine follows the track-bed.



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