Toffs and Trains

A unique feature of Woodlesford station for the first century of its life was its proximity to a number of large country houses belonging to the landed gentry and local elite. Within a couple of miles there were no less than six of them including Eshald House – Bentley; Oulton Hall – Calverley/Blayds; Methley Hall – Savile and Sir Titus Salt; Swillington House – Lowther; Leventhorpe Hall; Temple Newsam – Ingram.

All of them at one time or another would have used the railway for their own travels and that of their VIP visitors, including members of the Royal Family. Right up until the Second World War horse drawn carriages, or landaus, with liveried coachmen were seen passing long local roads on their way to the station. 

The station may also have been deliberately sited for the convenience of the landowners close to the only nearby crossing of the River Aire at Swillington Bridge. The “toffs” were even supplied with a ramp at the end of the Down platform so their carriages could easily be loaded onto wagons to be attached to passenger trains. 

If they were travelling to London the wagons could be manoeuvred across the main line using a track which was at 90 degrees to it with turntables at either end. The Midland Railway had special carriage trucks which were designed to run in passenger trains. They could be either open flat bed wagons or closed in. The last ones were delivered in 1920. Stations that could accept these carriages were indicated in the timetables and the Railway Clearing House list of stations shows Woodlesford could accept them in both freight and passenger trains.

Some of the stonework for the ramp and around the turntables survives today although most of it was destroyed when a new footbridge was built by contractors for Network Rail in 2010. The linking track would have been roughly along the alignment of the old foot crossing as shown on the plan below. 

A plan of the original track layout at Woodlesford showing the station building and wagon turntables.

One occasion featuring the local gentry at the station was recorded in the Rothwell and Methley Free Press in 1901. It was the triumphant return from the Boer War of Sir Charles Lowther, the 4th Baronet of Swillington. After serving for just over a year with his regiment, the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars under the command of General French at Capetown in South Africa, Sir Charles had been invalided home suffering from the after effects of enteric fever.

He arrived at Southampton on a hospital ship, the Dunera, just after Easter on the morning of Tuesday 9 April 1901 and immediately set off by train for Woodlesford, arriving in the evening.

According to Midland Railway historian Peter Witts, it’s possible he travelled in a through carriage all the way from Southampton Town and Dock station to Woodlesford. He could have gone via London Waterloo with a choice of express trains to Leeds from St Pancras or Kings Cross but he would have had to cross the capital in a cab with his luggage so it’s more than likely that he chose not to change. 

A check on Bradshaw’s General Railway and Steam Navigation Guide for 1901 shows the most likely service was the Midland and South Western Junction Railway’s 10.10 am train from Southampton. It ran over the London and South Western to Andover, then the Midland and South Western Junction’s own line via Swindon to Andoversford followed by the Great Western Railway to Cheltenham. There the through carriage was attached to an express from Bristol which ran on the Midland via Birmingham and Derby to Sheffield where the carriage was shunted onto another express which had run from St Pancras via Nottingham. 

A word with the guard at Sheffield would have prompted a message to the driver who stopped the train specially at Woodlesford at about 7.20 pm. 

Forewarned by a telegram home a large crowd had gathered on the platforms and in the station yard for the 20 year old captain’s return. The Rothwell Temperance Band was there to play martial music to entertain them as they waited. As Sir Charles’ train steamed into the station they struck up with “Auld Lang Syne.”

The welcoming party included Sir Charles’ mother and his sister Emma along with his uncle, Colonel Bingham. As he climbed into the waiting horse and trap “hats and sticks were waved and loud cheers were given. The bells of All Saints Church also rang out a merry peal.”

In an address the Reverend A J Irvin said the inhabitants of Woodlesford and Swillington believed Captain Lowther had upheld the noble traditions of his family and there was cheering as he said they hoped he would recover his health and live long to serve the country as he had done in the past. 

Sir Charles was then driven in the horse and trap down Station Lane. Turning left under the railway bridge it went along Aberford Road past the brewery towards Swillington House which was on the other side of the River Aire. As he approached Swillington Bridge tenants and workers from the estate unhooked the horse and dragged the trap by hand up to the house. 

The Free Press reported that a Union Jack “floated in the breeze” on top of the house and many friends welcomed Sir Charles “in a right royal manner.” No doubt the large crowd of locals which had followed from the station were also rewarded with a few pints of Bentley’s fine ales!  
Sir Charles Lowther had been educated at Sandhurst and went on to serve in the First World War. He sold the house along with local collieries in 1920 and moved to Northamptonshire. He died in 1949. During the Second World War soldiers from Somerset were billeted at the house. One of them, Fred James, stayed on to become a porter at the station. The main part of the house was demolished in 1952. 

If he were to make the same journey from Southampton today Captain Lowther could also travel via London where he would have to change three times, or via Birmingham with two changes. In both cases he would however beat the 1901 timing by three hours. 

An 18th century “bird’s-eye” view of Swillington House with the River Aire in the foreground. It was drawn by the Dutch artist Leonard Knyff and featured in a book of engravings of country mansions by Johannes Kip published in 1708.