Rothwell’s Railway

An ageing saddle tank locomotive climbing away from Newmarket colliery with loaded wagons in 1960. Photo by Derek Rayner.

Put simply Rothwell’s railway was built to move coal. Millions upon millions of tons of it.

The grandly named East and West Yorkshire Union Railway was first proposed in 1881 to run from a junction with the existing Great Northern Railway at Lofthouse. Plans showed a route north of the centre of Rothwell following a line roughly parallel to Park Lane before turning south in a cutting in the direction of Holmsley Field Lane in Oulton.

Crossing Aberford Road, close to today’s Lidl supermarket, the line was proposed to go under the Midland Railway between Woodlesford and Methley. It would have then continued about 22 miles to Drax to join a new line from Barnsley to Hull docks.

The intention was to provide a cheaper route for coal from the Rothwell pits as the existing railway companies were charging what were considered to be exorbitant rates which suppressed trade. In the end not enough capital could be raised to build the long section to Drax and it took ten years before a goods station in Rothwell was opened. After that a U shaped section was built connecting to the main line at Stourton in 1895.

The guard looks back as his train passes the sidings of Robin Hood coke works in 1960. Photo by Derek Rayner.

By 1900 there were three branches – to Newmarket colliery via Patrick Green; to Beeston pit at the end of Wood Lane; and to the Armitage quarries to the west of Robin Hood from where stone was sent all over the country. The company used “railways” in its official name because the various sections were built under different acts of parliament. After being absorbed into the London & North Eastern Railway in 1923 the line was nationalised as part of British Railways in 1948 and eventually closed in 1966.

Coal mined locally was hauled by horses on wagon or tram ways to wharves on the Aire and Calder Navigation from about 1735. Old maps show many lines crossing Rothwell Haigh and another network on the other side of the river to the south west of Temple Newsam.

Originally the lines were made from wood but as technology improved iron was used for the rails. To the west the Middleton Railway to the centre of Leeds opened in 1758 and to the south, from 1798, the Lake Lock Railroad ran from Outwood across to the Navigation near Bottomboat.

Rose Pit close to Rothwell station was sunk between 1847 and 1853 and was in production until 1925. After that the shaft was used for ventilation of the Fanny Pit workings. It’s believed the buildings were demolished in 1947. The body of an 18 month old baby girl from Leeds was found on the pit’s slag heap in 1955. Clarence Walter Ward who had connections to the area was sentenced to death for her murder but was reprieved by the Home Secretary three days before he was due to hang.

Despite all these routes the town of Rothwell was bypassed by two major railways into Leeds from the south – the North Midland through Woodlesford opening in 1840 and the line from Wakefield through Lofthouse in 1857. A proposal by Rothwell business owners was made in 1839 for a branch from the town to connect to the North Midland near Fleet Mills. It would have run roughly parallel to the Rothwell/Oulton beck.

The idea was discussed in parliament but because of opposition, most likely from John Calverley of Oulton Hall who didn’t want noisy and smoky steam trains spoiling his view, the plan was dropped. It took another 50 years before the town was connected by rail to the national network.

A passenger train from Leeds arriving at Rothwell in 1904. The 0-6-0 loco was built by Manning Wardle in Hunslet.

In the early 1900s the railway’s directors went to great expense to equip the line with a safe system of signalling to enable a passenger service to Leeds. It started with much fanfare on Monday 4 January 1904 with four trains a day in each direction including Sunday.

The advent of the passenger trains was chronicled in the Rothwell Times which published a short poem celebrating the occasion. It was penned by Charles Gibson, a native of the town who had migrated to work as a carpenter at Lambeth in London. He regularly sent back his thoughts on local history to the paper and the long awaited service had caught his attention: 

A new era for Rothwell is hopefully launched, Its striving for progress is further advanced, From a hut to a hamlet, a village, a town, The place of my birth has a widespread renown. The era in question, I stoutly maintain, Is wholly and solely the passenger train, Years of expecting are over and past, And hours of suspense have been broken at last.

The trains departed from the station at Robin Hood situated on an embankment between Leadwell Lane and Matty Lane. It took them about five minutes to reach Rothwell where the departures for Leeds were at 8.13 am, 12.28 am, 4.13 pm and 9.23 pm. After calling at Stourton station, an island platform just before the Rothwell line’s junction with the main line as it crossed the Pontefract Road, they then stopped at Hunslet station before terminating at the Midland’s Wellington station in the city centre. From Rothwell they were timetabled to take 17 minutes for the journey to the terminus. The return journeys started from Leeds Wellington at 9.30 am, 1.5 pm, 5.20 pm and 10.20 pm.

The trains normally consisted of five compartment carriages with wooden seats leased from the Midland Railway whilst the locomotives were the East and West’s own saddle tanks. An additional service was later added on Leeds’ market day.  

Initially there was a great deal of enthusiasm for the service and it was “well patronised.” On the first Saturday there was such a heavy demand for the 12.28 pm and the 4.13 pm that four extra carriages had to be added. Three carriages of the 4.13 pm were already full when the train left Robin Hood. At Rothwell there was such a last minute demand for tickets that departure was delayed by ten minutes. 

Many of the passengers stayed in the city through the evening drinking in pubs or visiting the music halls. As the Rothwell Times reported “a record number” returned to Wellington station for the last train home.

“Soon after ten o’ clock “Rodillers,” and Robin Hooders too, began to crowd into the station for the Rothwell train, the nine coaches of which were soon filled. Two other coaches were speedily added to accommodate the latecomers and with loud voiced comments on the “new experience” and mutual congratulations on the opening of the new line the numerous passengers sped homewards at a rapid pace. Eleven coaches, well filled, made a bold show, and if such a traffic is kept up the service of the future, I should think, is well assured.”

The optimism was misplaced. For generations those wishing to go into Leeds had either walked or taken uncomfortable rides in horse drawn “wagonettes” along the rough unmade roads. At Thwaite Gate, from 1874, they had been able to jump on a horse drawn tram to the city centre. That line was electrified in 1900 and was connected to a new line via Lofthouse to Wakefield in August 1904. A branch along Wood Lane to the Black Bull was also being built.

Very soon after it started the novelty of the train ride into the city wore off and the East and West began to lose about £200 a month with only about a dozen or so passengers on each train. The coal trade was also depressed in 1904 so the directors decided to cut their losses and abandon the “disastrous” passenger service after only nine months. The trams ran until 1932 when they were superseded by buses.

Excursions by train to the seaside, organised by a friendly society of miners working for J. & J. Charlesworth’s Rothwell Haigh and Newmarket collieries, had become annual events by 1880. The men and their families walked all the way to Woodlesford to catch specially organised trains to go to places like Blackpool and Morecambe.

Mrs Cotton’s excursion in August 1961 loading the all important crates of ale at Rothwell station. Photo by Derek Rayner.

Then, after the stations opened at Robin Hood and Rothwell, it was possible for the excursion trains to start from nearer to home. One of the first of these ran on Saturday 1 October 1904, the day after the short lived daily timetabled service ended. It was for the Carlton Temperance Band, their conductor Joseph William Stamp (see below), and their supporters to visit London for the annual brass band competition at the Crystal Palace. The first part of the journey, using carriages from the scheduled service, was into Leeds where the excursionists joined a Midland Railway express to London St. Pancras. 

Between the wars Bridlington and Cleethorpes became popular destinations. In the 1950s and early 1960s the tradition was carried on by Alice Cotton, wife of the Rothwell stationmaster.

Over the years there were several accidents on the line. One of them near Robin Hood station in May 1952 resulted in a dramatic photograph looking like a scene from a Thomas The Tank Engine story. One of the locomotives was named “Joe” after one of the owners of the Charlesworth company which in 1947 had been taken over by the National Coal Board.

The accident in May 1952. Joe is the loco on its side.

Joe’s driver was Sylvester Todd who lived on Butcher Lane in Rothwell. He was born in Rothwell in 1899 but both his father and grandfather came from Oulton. His father, Dixon Todd, worked as a bricklayer’s labourer and married Mary Elizabeth Farrer, the daughter of a miner from Methley, at Oulton church in 1894. By 1911 they were living at 5 Whitworth Yard in the Mill Hill area close to the centre of Rothwell.

At the age of eleven Sylvester was delivering newspapers for a Rothwell newsagent. Later he joined Charlesworths and by 1939 was employed as a shunter dealing with the railway coal wagons leaving the Rothwell and Robin Hood pits. In 1931 at Woodlesford church he married Lilian Doris Weale, a miner’s daughter who came from Gloucestershire. After the crash in 1952 he scrambled out of his cab unhurt. The driver of the other engine was William Farnsworth from Ardsley. 

Sebastian Meyer

Sebastian William Meyer was a manager and director of the railway between 1884 and 1923. A Quaker, he was born in London in 1856, moving north in 1881 to join the Hull and Barnsley Railway. He was also involved with a number of “light” railways which operated with less stringent rules than those of the main line companies.

Issac W H White

Isaac William Hewitt White was a director of the railway and its civil engineer. Born in Somerset 1852 he came to Yorkshire in about 1870. Living at Highfield House in Woodlesford he became the manager of the Waterloo and Woodlesford Colliery Company before moving to be the engineer at the Bower pits near Swillington and owner of a quarry at Kippax. He was also a director of Bentley’s Yorkshire Breweries.

Click on the links below to read more about Rothwell’s railway.

The Making of A Modern Mineral Railway August 1900

East & West Yorkshire Union Railways by D. L. Franks

Map of the line through Rothwell in 1905

One of the East and West Yorkshire Union Railway locos near Robin Hood.

A poster advertising the Charlesworth collieries and coke works.

(The brass band conductor, J. W, Stamp, was born at Leaholm near Whitby in 1866 where his father was an ironstone miner. After his family moved to Lofthouse he became an engine driver and then a coal miner. He conducted a number of bands from the West Riding in competitions between 1896 and 1925. After moving to Castleford he lived with his married sister and in November 1924 performed in the first ever radio programme from a working colliery. It took place from the bottom of the shaft at Whitwood where he conducted the colliery’s silver prize band. The programme was heard nationally via the Leeds studio of the British Broadcasting Company. It also also featured mining expert Professor James Ritson from Leeds University and Yorkshire comedian George R. Lister.)