This entry is about the building and opening of the railway through Wickford in the nineteenth century. The information is taken from a recent publication by Charles Phillips: “The Great Eastern Railway in South Essex: a definitive history” published by Pen and Sword Transport in 2019. The book covers the history of the GER in south Essex from its earliest days to the present and incorporates descriptions of the lines, details of the rolling stock and dozens of photographs.
The Act of Parliament authorising the building of the Great Eastern Railway from Shenfield to Southend was passed in July 1883. In the following months engineers were appointed and contractors engaged, routes surveyed and land purchased. Construction of the line from Shenfield to Wickford began sometime between June and early August 1885, dates vary. The estimates for the cost of the routes from Wickford to Southend, Wickford to Southminster, and Woodham Ferrers to Maldon came in at around £450.000.
The line from Shenfield to Billericay would be double tracked, the length from Billericay to Wickford single tracked. In fact the whole stretch was double tracked. The construction of the stretch from Shenfield to Wickford just outside Billericay would increase costs because of shifting sands and unstable embankments.
Much of the work had to be done by hand by navvies and around 600 to 1000 men, many of them Irish Catholics, worked on the Wickford to Shenfield section. A camp was constructed for them near Gooseberry Green and a large shed was provided in Southend where Masses were held. James Ruffhead, landlord of the Castle Inn, obtained a late licence so he could provide a late supper for the workers. It was not unknown for some of the workers to get drunk and become involved in fights. James Locock was tried for causing the death of another navvy, (Henry Francis) as a result of a fight in Wickford on June 28th, 1887. Francis had apparently started the row and Locock was acquitted having demonstrated his previous good character to the Essex Summer Assize Court.
Accidents were not uncommon though only one man and one boy died on the Wickford to Shenfield stretch. Contractors said that the loss of one man per mile was usual on such works. Common were incidents involving broken hands or fingers or collisions with moving machinery or wagons. Edward Collis, age 14, was found one morning lying badly injured by the side of the track. He had been working overnight greasing points and he died after being taken to the Billericay Union. His father, Robert, from Ramsden Crays, also laboured on the project.
Not all the work was done by hand. There were also several steam navvies at work, small mechanical diggers which were known as American Devils or Devil Diggers. They could move a ton of earth in 5 minutes, something it would take 50 men to do. These machines moved along temporary tracks and arrived by barge and horse and cart to wherever they were needed.
The first passenger train from Wickford was the 7.37 am on Tuesday January 1st 1889. The driver was Mr Pollock and the guard was a Mr Sparrow. Initially there would be 5 or 6 passenger trains each way on weekdays but none on Sundays. There was a speed limit of 25 miles per hour. It seems that the line was actually constructed all the way to Southend but not yet open for passenger traffic.
There were goods sidings at Mountnessing and Ramsden Bellhouse. A goods service ran on the Wickford to Southminster line from 1st June1889. Passenger services commenced on Monday July 1st. In Southminster locals celebrated the coming of the railway, some buying tickets to experience the thrill of riding in a train. The great and the good (politicians, contractors, GER and other officials) had a lunch, made speeches, there was a flower show, the bunting and flags were out, bands played, there were fireworks in the evening. Members of the Croxon family treated 500 children of Burnham between the ages of 5 and 12 to a return trip to Wickford. Some had to travel in the guard’s van because the train was so crowded; there were also 200 children from Burnham. The lines to Southend and Maldon opened in October 1889. The Essex Chronicle described the route to Southend as rather picturesque.
According to Charles Phillips “Wickford was in steam days, and still is to some extent today, the most important intermediate station on the line…” and by 1895 it had a new engine house, pump and tank, a goods yard and an engine siding with a turntable. The New Essex Lines as they were called opened up the links between London and Southend, Maldon and the Dengie peninsula. Both the population of the area and sales of season tickets mushroomed.
Wickford Railway Station has its own Wikipedia page.
The Wickford to Southminster route, sometimes known as the Crouch Valley Line, also has its own internet page.