Woodford Halse Archive

Woodford Short History

Twentieth Century by Rail

The key to the transformation that took place in Woodford Halse at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is in the three words "Great Central Railway".

Whereas much of the country’s railway network was already in place (the boom time in railway building had been between 1830 and 1850) the competition between the railway companies of the day that owned both rolling stock and the rails it ran on meant that new routes were identified wherever a business opportunity presented itself. Even so, the route that ran through Woodford Halse became the last main line to be built in England until the advent of HS1 which opened just over 100 years later in 2003.

The Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway Company (later to be renamed the Great Central Railway) were keen to establish an extension of their lines to run from Nottingham through Aylesbury and on to London. In 1890 some of Woodford’s landowners received letters from the MS&LR that the company was applying to Parliament for approval of the route, allowing for purchase of the land for it.

The original route proposed through the parish would have taken the railway past the bottom of Scrivens Hill but a revised route proposed in 1891 was the one adopted with bill receiving Royal Assent in Parliament in 1893. Contracts were awarded in September 1894.

Work had certainly begun by May 1895 when the Parish Council was complaining to the developers that their men were creating a nuisance and danger by sleeping in barns and outhouses. The influx of workers was considerable. In 1898 when the construction work was finally completed, there were about 500 men working on the railway almost as many as the local population.

The large number of workers and the time they were in the village was the result of the scale of works being carried out. Not only was there the construction of the line but also the station, locomotive sheds for almost 50 engines, a wagon repair shed and sidings to take 1000 wagons. Woodford Halse was to become a major railway centre with a junction to another nearby railway line (the line from Stratford across to Towcester and eventually to London St Pancras) which resulted in the great triangle of railway cuttings that can still be seen to south of the village around Dairy Farm.

Although the presence of railway construction workers (“navvies”) initially caused problems, there were measures taken to help them. A Miss Adeline Pym started a reading room specifically for navvies who according to the Northampton Mercury of 17th July 1895 felt it was “the greatest boon and pleasure to them.” In August 1895 the Navvy Missionary Society opened a Mission Hut, an event attended by over 100 Navvies with their wives and children. Miss Pym also rented Banksia House on School Street and converted it to a home for navvies.

While the railway was being constructed the navvies were mainly housed in a camp of temporary huts in the Flax Farland field on the Eydon Road and Dairy Farm became a lodging house for some of the navvies and their supervisor (“ganger”).

More comfortable accommodation was available in two hotels that opened with the railway. The White Hart (later the Sir Winston, on the site of the present Winston Close flats) was a business hotel while the Hinton Gorse (now the Social Club) was intended to cater for those coming from London, with their horses, to hunt with the Grafton or the Bicester & Warden Hunt.

Permanent accommodation was needed for those that were to work in the yard and at the station more. In 1898, developers began the red brick buildings that line Sidney Road, Percy Road, Castle Road, Cherwell Terrace, Church Road and Station Road. Sidney Road and Percy Road are named for the sons on the developers, the Melcombe brothers. The development of 240 properties cost between £2000 and £2500 and included a parade of shops in Station Road – competition for the old village shops in Parsons Street and High Street.

Woodford Station started small but was expanded until it finally had three platforms (one for the Stratford-on-Avon and Midland Junction Railway), a refreshment room and a bookstall but it was the locomotive works, wagon works and train crewing that provided most of the jobs. At the peak of its expansion the railway employed some 550 men in Woodford, handling as many as a million wagons in any one year and 30 passenger trains stopping or starting at the station every day. Some idea of the distribution of labour can be gained from figures relating to 1956 when 184 staff were employed in the Operating Department (station staff, guards, shunters, signalman), 60 in the Carriage & Wagon Department, 200 in the Locomotive Department and around 160 in the Permanent Way Department responsible for keeping the track in order, ballasting and so on.

The impact of the railway was not only felt in local employment though. The railway made it much easier for Woodford folk to travel. The 1910 Bradshaw’s Guide shows 5 trains a day to Banbury for example, with the last train back at 10:30 in the evening. Before the railway arrived in Woodford, the disputatious Caroline Hunt describes leaving Woodford at two o’clock by horse and trap to catch the train from Banbury – travelling first class of course - and arriving in London at 7:30 that evening. In 1910, the 5:27 from Woodford and Hinton would have got you to London by 6:43. (Now you would do rather less well – you would need to catch the 16:40 bus from Woodford to connect with the 5:47 train from Banbury in order to get you to London at the same time).

What can be seen of the railway today? The original entrance to the station is still visible under the bridge that crosses the road between Woodford and Hinton and, on the left side of the road just past the bridge, is the red brick house that was the Station Master’s. The embankment between Station Road and the Co-op Store was the site of the goods-yard and the road from Station Gardens up to Mainline Timber follows the old line of the station approach road. The road from Woodford to Eydon crosses two bridges over railway cuttings and by walking through the Pocket Park it is possible to follow a little of the route of the line. At the far end of the Pocket Park a bridleway crosses a rickety bridge over the cutting. Of the engine sheds, carriage and wagon works, nothing remains except the name of the Great Central Trading Estate that occupies their site.

By kind permission of John Williams