The route of the Great Central
A new era in the life of Helmdon commenced on the
1st June 1872 with the opening of the railway from Blisworth to
Banbury for passengers. Freight had been conveyed between Towcester
and Helmdon in August of the previous year.
Parliamentary powers for a line from Northampton to Banbury had
been obtained as long ago as 1847 but the inability to raise sufficient
capital had led to the winding-up of the original Company in 1852.
Until the opening, the nearest railway station would have been Brackley
on the Buckingham Railway, opened in May 1850, with trains to Banbury
and Bletchley with onward connections to London Euston from the
latter. From September 1850, it was possible to travel to Oxford
via Banbury and from 1852 to Birmingham.
Three trains per day were run from the start and
the opening announcement spoke optimistically of an improved service
being advertised shortly, but this didn't happen. On Thursday (Market
Day) an additional return train ran through to Banbury.
Receipts from the start disappointed, and income
and expenditure were very closely matched throughout the life of
the line. The railway ran through purely farming countryside and
generated very little passenger traffic. The service was reduced
during the First World War to two trains each way and this basic
service remained until the end. Journey times did improve slightly
over the years from an hour or more to an average of 40 minutes
by the 1930s. Goods traffic was catered for by a single daily train,
although cattle vans were attached to passenger trains on market
With the growth of the motor car and van, an early
demise was inevitable with the limited service. The line closed
for passengers in July 1951, quickly followed by freight at the
end of October in the same year.
The Great Central passes over the LMS Railway
The Great Central Railway which opened in 1901,
almost thirty years later than the Banbury - Northampton line, was
a much grander concept altogether. From being a purely provincial
line, the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway - its former
title - had long harboured ambitions to bring their line south in
order to carry coal to London instead of handing it over to other
lines in Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire and thereby greatly increasing
profits. A channel tunnel and railway was also contemplated by the
chairman, Edward Watkins.
After the initial abortive attempt, the appropriate
Bill was passed by Parliament in 1893 to bring the railway south
of Nottingham. Work commenced in 1894 and involved several viaducts
and much in the way of earthworks to keep a reasonable maximum gradient
for the locomotives, enabling the climb to be no greater than '1
in 176' south of Nottingham except for a short stretch of half a
mile at '1 in 140' at Leicester.
A large camp was built, together with various
sidings, underneath the viaduct at Helmdon and many navvies lived
here for some time during the construction. The construction work
provided much needed traffic for the Northampton and Banbury Junction
Railway. There was also a small brickworks beyond the Sulgrave Road
bridge which provided many internal bricks for the structures although
bridges, viaducts, etc. were faced with blue bricks from elsewhere.
The line was opened on 15 March 1899 for passenger
traffic after consolidation by goods trains which had commenced
on the 25th July the year before.
There was great feasting at Brackley and a holiday
was pronounced and although no records of any celebration can be
found for Helmdon, no doubt many people would have gathered at the
"Top" station to watch the first passenger trains pass.
Sheep in the cutting at Helmdon
There was now a much greater frequency of trains
from Helmdon directly to places of importance such as London, Rugby,
Leicester and beyond, and many people, including school children,
would have used the line as far as Brackley on a daily basis, particularly
in the early years. However, the combination of limited stopping
services and the spread of the motor again hastened the demise of
the last mainline railway built to London. Helmdon Station closed
in March 1963 when stopping trains, together with the through expresses
were withdrawn, leaving semi-fast trains calling at the limited
number of stations still open (including Brackley) until September
1966, when the line as far as Rugby closed completely.
A move to re-open the line from near Daventry
down to join the old Great Western/Great Central joint line at Ashendon
Junction, principally for freight traffic on lorries bound for the
Channel Tunnel and beyond, was proposed in 1994, the Great Central
being built to the continental loading gauge, but it was almost
unanimously opposed and failed to get Parliament's approval in 1996.
J M Dunn Stratford, Midland Junction Railway Oakwood Press 1952
Arthur Jordan Stratford on Avon Midland Junction Railway O.P.C. 1982
First published in Aspects of Helmdon no 1