History of the Canterbury & Whitstable (aka Crab & Winkle) Line at the Harbour: Page 1


The history of the Canterbury & Whitstable Railway is well-documented and it is not the intention of this article to repeat in detail that interesting story. Indeed, elsewhere on the "Simply Whitstable" web site, Brian Smith has written an excellent summary of the railway's long career. It is the intention here to concentrate on the principal reason for the railway's existence which was the transhipment of goods between sea and rail at Whitstable, to discuss the nature of the traffic handled, and the part played by the railway in moving the goods to and from Canterbury and beyond. There will also be some consideration of passenger services which were a feature of the railway's history until 1930.

The Reasons for the Line's existence

Canterbury in the early 19th Century was East Kent's most important market centre and its main role was to facilitate the exchange of local agricultural products, mainly cattle, hops and fruit. There was also some output from local industry, which was largely confined to milling and brewing at this time, the textile industry by now having died out. That which was not traded locally was sent elsewhere in the country and coal and manufactured goods were brought in, the great majority of the trade being carried by sea and the River Stour. Indeed, it is fair to say that Canterbury would not have existed without the Stour. Before the 18th Century the most reliable form of transport was by water and the most important towns and cities either were by the sea or had good river communications. It was customary for goods bound for Canterbury to be sent this way to Fordwich, being conveyed by road over the last two miles to the city itself. However, the Stour was slowly silting up. In 1736, the turnpike road was opened between Canterbury and Whitstable and goods and passengers began to reach Canterbury via Whitstable, travelling on the road by cart, carriage or on foot. Attempts to improve the waterway access to the city were made in 1783, including the construction of a navigable waterway beyond Fordwich to Canterbury and Ashford. This project, like many since, failed owing to high capital cost.

Further attempts to improve matters were made in the 19th Century and another water scheme was put forward. Although an Act of Parliament was obtained, railways were beginning develop and the Canterbury & Whitstable Railway obtained its Act on June 10th 1825, some twelve days before the waterway scheme was similarly approved. The waterway required a journey of an additional sixty miles compared to transhipping goods at Whitstable and consequently failed as the age of the railway dawned.

The line is significant in railway history inasmuch as it was the first to use locomotive haulage regularly for both passenger and freight traffic, "Invicta" being used for a two mile section at the northern end. However, the railway was conceived before locomotives had proved to be a reliable and efficient form of propulsion and was thus laid out as a line to be worked by stationary engines. Indeed, if the use of locomotives had been intended, it is likely that a different route would have been taken as it would have been necessary to avoid the fierce gradients across the Blean and the resultant tunnel at Tyler Hill. With stationary engines, however, the railway could be built in a direct line, thus offering more effective competition to the turnpike road. As an aside, it should be noted that the steep gradients and the narrow bore of the tunnel, which were both relics of the pre-railway era, meant that the railway could never quite be fully integrated into the national network. The locomotives and rolling stock that could be used were always severely limited in size. It is interesting to speculate whether the life of the line would have been prolonged had these problems been absent. A far more important factor, however, was that the railway's role was almost completely local and thus became vulnerable almost as soon as reliable motor transport established itself.

Early Days

The railway opened on May 3rd 1830, predating by a few months the Liverpool & Manchester, which can probably be considered the first railway as we would understand the term today. The primitive harbour arrangements did not help the railway, which was also faced with the problem of the poor performance of "Invicta". The directors thus commissioned the building of the present harbour and it was opened on 19th March 1832. Celebrations included the arrival of a steamship from Greenwich and an enhanced service, with special fares, on the railway. Whitstable Harbour was the first railway owned harbour in the world and was followed by many of the major ports around the country. These included Southampton which was a key component of the London and South Western Railway and later the Southern Railway. Southampton remains to-day an important gateway to the country and a testament to railway enterprise, although the port is no longer in railway ownership. Indeed no ports and harbours in the UK remain under the control of the railways.

Whitstable Harbour could accommodate twenty sailing ships up to 150 tons and the rail sidings could accommodate 80 wagons. Lower harbour tolls were applied to traffic continuing to Canterbury by rail rather than road. This was a further blow to the operators of the turnpike road whose rates had already been undercut when the railway opened. The principal traffic handled through the harbour was Northumberland coal which was conveyed to Canterbury, at five shillings per ton, half of the tolls payable on the road and thus reducing the price of coal in Canterbury.

It is well known that the early years of the railway were not successful financially. The harbour was prone to silting and whilst the staple traffic was coal inwards to Canterbury, much still went by road. This problem was aggravated following a serious accident at Canterbury in 1841. This also checked the growth of passenger traffic, which was not assisted by the primitive passenger facilities at Whitstable. The railway by this time was in poor shape physically and financially and may well not have survived for much longer had it not been for the South Eastern Railway, who leased the line from 1844, and finally purchased it in 1853.

The South Eastern made some improvements including the building of the harbour backwater to eliminate the silting, but the most notable development was the rebuilding of the line to make it suitable for locomotive working, which was introduced from 6th April 1846. The South Eastern had reached Canterbury (now the West station) from Ashford earlier that year and on the 13th April 1846, the line was extended through to Ramsgate.

Immediately before conversion, coal traffic to Canterbury was running at around 50 tons per day (excluding Sundays) and passenger numbers were 40,000 per year. Perhaps not surprisingly, freight traffic inwards to Canterbury was approximately three times as much as that travelling northbound to Whitstable. The line re-opened with six passenger trains each way (five on Sundays). Locomotive working allowed, apparently, an increase in traffic to be handled and a reduction in costs. The railway company was pleased enough, but doubtless the views of the passengers, who now endured a sooty ride through Tyler Hill tunnel, were less favourable.

Freight traffic until 1918

Railways were generally built to carry freight and it is only in relatively recent times that passenger traffic has become the more important component. Closures of railways to passengers began in earnest in the 1930s and the Whitstable Harbour branch was one of the first to be reduced to freight only status, which occurred on January 1st 1931. Like many other branch lines, freight traffic lasted for many years afterwards and in the case of the Whitstable line ran for a further 22 years.

The first major new flow of traffic in the South Eastern period was coke. It was planned to erect coking ovens at the harbour, which would receive coal by sea and distribute the coke by rail. The railway's own works at Ashford and other locomotive depots could also be easily served from Whitstable. It is interesting to note that the inhabitants of Whitstable actively supported the proposals and the ovens opened in 1848. The pollution, of course, is legendary. By the mid 1870s over 20,000 tons of coal for coking was being landed each year but the days of the plant were numbered as improvements in locomotive design made coal more economic. The plant ceased to work in 1881, coal then being transferred inland to the railway's sheds and works. Whitstable became a more pleasant place to live in and visit as a result of the closure of the coking ovens.

Coal traffic continued to be the mainstay of the line, although around 1885 the South Eastern Railway reduced the amount of locomotive coal brought in through the harbour, preferring to use a facility at Erith. Some of this traffic lingered on, however, until 1888. Nevertheless, the average annual tonnage of coal transhipped at Whitstable around this time was said to be over 100,000 tons per annum. In the last quarter of the 19th century there were, however, complaints about high freight rates and the lack of rail wagons for loading. The London, Chatham & Dover Railway (L. C. & D. R.) arrived at Whitstable in 1860, opening a station by the bridge in Oxford Street but hopes that this line might provide competition were generally confounded by the lack of access to the harbour. However, the opening by the L. C. & D. R. of its branch to Faversham Creek diverted some traffic that previously passed through Whitstable. Other traffic carried on the Canterbury & Whitstable included fruit, grain, timber, fish (including oysters) and general merchandise. It is said that warehousing space was inadequate and that fruit traffic had ceased by 1880 due to poor facilities at the harbour.

The railways were, by the end of the 19th Century, approaching the complacent maturity of their power. The network was fully developed and there was no serious competition from other modes of transport. Even competition between the railways in the area was reduced when the London Chatham & Dover Railway entered a working union with the South Eastern in 1899. Overall, it should be emphasised that this was a beneficial move as the two railways had not compared favourably with the majority of companies elsewhere in the country. However, the new entity, the South Eastern & Chatham Railway, was slowly to improve its reputation. In the years before the First World War, the Canterbury & Whitstable remained successful in terms of freight carryings with coal and grain being the staple traffic flows.

The requirements of the First World War brought fresh traffic but of a sinister kind. The War Department made a great deal of use of Whitstable as wagon loads of ammunition, trench-building materials, and other supplies passed through to assist the war effort in Europe. Equipment was brought back for repair which increased the inwards traffic. Whilst the war, for all the wrong reasons, took traffic to unprecedented levels it was really the beginning of the end as motor transport, developed under wartime (including front line) pressures became significantly more reliable. As the soldiers were demobbed they frequently used their gratuities to purchase lorries which had by now become surplus to the army's requirements. Suddenly the railway network had serious competition. Whilst the effects of the motor age were felt sooner on the passenger service rather than goods traffic, nevertheless, a watershed had been reached; the war changed economic and social life in Britain irrevocably. This change took a little while to work its way through and in the 1920s the freight business carried on very much as before, once the wartime traffic ceased.

Passenger Services

Whilst there is evidence to suggest that passengers could previously board and alight at the winding engines, once locomotive working was introduced the only two stations served were Canterbury (later West) and Whitstable Harbour. The basic facilities provided by the Canterbury & Whitstable Railway in 1830 were replaced once the South Eastern Railway took over. The new station, just inside the eastern Harbour entrance alongside Tankerton Road, came into use on June 4th 1846, and, although an improvement, was still somewhat spartan. The service of trains was around half a dozen each way daily for many years although the Sunday service which ran during the summer months expired around 1860 and was not resumed until 1898.

The two early passenger stations at the harbour

The opening of the London, Chatham & Dover Railway's line to Whitstable in 1860 and subsequently onwards to Thanet provided significant competition to the South Eastern, whose circuitous route to London via Canterbury and Ashford was eclipsed by the newcomer's route via Chatham. However the Canterbury line continued to carry a useful volume of passengers, although the most significant number was of excursionists from Canterbury. It is perhaps difficult to see why this was the case, with the coking ovens churning out smoke and unpleasant odours which, no doubt, were mixed with the smell of fish from the harbour area. Whitstable, however, was the nearest and cheapest seaside destination which could be reached by rail easily. Despite various schemes, Herne Bay never achieved direct rail communication with Canterbury and by the time matters improved with the opening of Tankerton Halt, the First World War and the development of road motor services minimised any such railborne traffic.

Excursion traffic to Whitstable was nevertheless quite marked at certain times such as Regatta Day but there was growing dissatisfaction with the lack of Sunday trains. It should be remembered that at that time the working week was, at best, five-and-a-half days and so Sunday represented the best opportunity for a day out. Four trains each way on Sundays were introduced from 5th June 1898 and, on that date, it is reported that nearly two hundred passengers arrived on them. Bank Holidays also meant that the trains were busy and, on the fine Whit Monday of 1911, some 1,800 people arrived at Whitstable Harbour by train. It is interesting to speculate whether there would have been any "seaside" development around Beach Walk (including the amusement halls) had the railway not deposited its passengers nearby. Tankerton was also developing at this stage and those prepared to walk a little further found, perhaps, a more agreeable destination. Another flow of passenger traffic worthy of note that developed over the line's history was the carriage of children to school in Canterbury.

The 1846 station became problematical towards the end of the 19th Century. Situated just inside the gates of the harbour, any train standing at the platform blocked the entrance to the rail complex and delayed shunting within the harbour. A new station, on the south side of the Tankerton Road level crossing was opened on June 3rd 1895.

Location of the three Whitstable harbour railway stations

The building was an improvement for passengers and remained in use until the end of passenger services. Indeed, it remained standing for quite some few years after the line was closed to all traffic.

Had things turned out differently, the station might only have had a very short life. Plans to link the Whitstable Harbour branch and the main line via Chatham were unveiled in 1899, with land acquired and building works put in hand. In 1902, however, the Board of Trade indicated that they would not permit the new connection to open unless the Whitstable branch was extensively rebuilt. The scheme promptly died, but had it not done so the Harbour line would have been goods only at its northernmost tip with the passenger trains terminating at the Oxford Street station. Such a development would have been unpopular with the day excursionists who wished to visit the seaside.

In the first decade of the 20th Century, the motor vehicle began to make an appearance although it has already been noted that the First World War acted as the real catalyst for road transport to begin an assault in earnest on the railways. Nevertheless, some attempts were necessary to stimulate traffic. In 1906, cheap tickets to Canterbury were available at 6d return, which makes an interesting comparison with the 9d. each way on opening day. Another important initiative nationally, was the opening of small halts, frequently unstaffed, which enabled trains to serve smaller centres of population some distance from existing stations. It was this sort of traffic that the early road services particularly threatened. The Canterbury & Whitstable thus began to serve Blean & Tyler Hill Halt from 1908, South Street Halt from 1911 and Tankerton Halt from 1914. The last-mentioned offered interchange facilities with the main line via Chatham, once the new station on that line opened on 1st January 1915.

Train services in the years before the First World War were more frequent than hitherto; in April 1910 ten trains ran each way daily on weekdays. It is, perhaps, a reflection on our 21st Century lifestyle that the first train did not leave Whitstable until 8.2 a.m. From around 1900, it is likely that the railway was at its most successful with a good business, both passenger and freight and three intermediate halts. The effects of the First World War have already been described; by 1916 the Sunday trains had gone and the weekday service reduced to about half of its previous level. The number of special goods trains required in connection with the war effort was the main reason for the reduction although there was also a general need to keep travelling to a minimum.

On the cessation of hostilities, matters improved. In July 1922, Whitstable Harbour station was served by 9 trains on Monday to Friday, 10 on Saturday and five on Sundays. The Sunday trains had reverted to being summer only, although in some years the service was approaching that offered on weekdays. The competing bus services were now well into their stride, with the East Kent Road Car Company being formed in 1916 by the amalgamation of a number of small concerns. During the final years of the railway, around forty buses daily ran to Canterbury by what is now known as the A290, with other services running via South Street and Tyler Hill. The train had a speed advantage but the generally longer walk to the station at the Harbour (or Tankerton Halt), rather than the bus stop combined with more frequent road services, meant that any time saving was more than outweighed overall. Going by road was by then fashionable and the railway was poorly placed to compete with the modern bus. Tyler Hill tunnel forced the retention of small, four-wheel, compartment coaches of a design going back to the 1880s. Even these could only be used after having smaller wheels fitted in order to reduce their height. The prospect of being bumped along in a four-wheeler with the possibility of a dirty, choking ride through the tunnel doubtless encouraged many to turn to the bus.

Passenger traffic went into sharp decline falling from 51,000 passengers in 1925 to 23,000 in 1929. Services were reduced and, in the winter timetable for 1930, there were 6 trains with a seventh on Saturdays and none on Sundays. The Southern Railway had taken a 49% stake in the East Kent Road Car Company and so had little interest in prolonging the passenger service. The decision to close, taken in October 1930, was implemented speedily (there were no public consultation procedures in those days) and the last passenger trains ran on December 31st 1930.

Handling the Goods

Railways predated modern mechanical handling techniques and so goods, initially at least, were transhipped by hand between ships and rail wagons at Whitstable Harbour. To enable this to take place with a minimum of difficulty rails, were laid around all four sides of the harbour. The line from Canterbury crossed Tankerton Road at the level crossing and entered the passenger station before fanning out onto the East and South Quays. Needless to say, over the years the actual layout of the sidings varied according to business demands but this map shows the situation as it was in around 1900.

Plan of the C&WR tracks and sidings at the harbour - circa 1900

After construction in 1832, the Harbour had a tendency to silt up and so the South Eastern Railway was forced to make improvements to the Harbour which was, at that time, losing trade to Herne Bay. This prompted the construction of the backwater which filled up at high tide and then emptied at low tide flushing the silt in the harbour out to sea.

Beyond the passenger station a number of lines ran parallel with the harbour's edge on South Quay. The same lines also ran parallel with Harbour Street, with one siding passing beyond the western harbour gate.

The remaining lines terminated at a small turntable, suitable only for wagons, which permitted access to the West and North Quay.

Plan of the turntables on the west and north quays

On the West Quay there was a goods shed which would have handled, in the main, smaller items that formed loads of less than a rail wagon and would have required transhipment, doubtless to a horse and cart, for final delivery in Whitstable.

Similarly, small consignments would have been collected in the town (or brought in by the forwarder) and transhipped to rail wagons at the goods depot. Another wagon turntable allowed access to the North Quay with the sidings passing between the edge of the harbour and the granary, built for storing one of the harbour's principal traffics.

Locomotives worked onto the South and East Quay but shunting on the other two quays was entirely by horses and indeed much of this activity was carried out this way throughout the whole harbour area.

Locomotives were unable to use the wagon turntables which provided the sole rail access to the North and West Quay.

At the end of the East Quay, there were a number of sidings serving the coke ovens but these were gained by a reversal from the far end of the quay. These sidings were worked by locomotives and, to avoid trapping them against buffer stops when shunting' they needed to push the wagons into the sidings.

Map of tracks and sidings on the east quay

The locomotive at the head of a train from Canterbury, including wagons for the coke ovens, would thus pull them to the end of the quay before pushing them into the coking plant. After pulling out the loaded wagons, the locomotive would push them from the end of the quay towards the harbour entrance before running round the wagons prior to proceeding southwards. It seems impractical for horses to have been used near the coking plant.

The fact that the harbour sidings were, in the main, horse-worked goes back to the very early days of the Canterbury & Whitstable Railway. There was, of course, only one locomotive, the unsuccessful "Invicta" and so, even before the harbour as remodelled in 1832 was opened, horses were used at the Whitstable end, for shunting purposes. When "Invicta" was found unsuitable for working trains up the Church Street incline, horses were initially used before being, in turn, replaced by a stationary engine.

Even then, it was necessary for horses to haul the trains round the curve past the site of the 1895 station to enable the carriages and wagons to be coupled to the winding rope. When the harbour was officially opened in 1832 there were no locomotives at all at the Harbour and so the practice of using horses perforce continued. What was so remarkable was that horses remained the mainstay of shunting throughout the whole life of the line although doubtless they were a more satisfactory alternative than later trying to equip the whole harbour for locomotive operation.

Locomotives did shunt on the harbour to a limited degree, of course, and an important task would have been the making up of trains with the wagons brought towards the harbour entrance by the horses. A long siding, laid in 1894, ran parallel to Tankerton Road towards Tower Parade and this enabled a locomotive to shunt the wagons without having to cross the public road, thus minimising the number of times the level crossing gates were closed.

Map showing the Tower Parade siding and level crossing at Whitstable harbour

Shunting by locomotive appears confined to the periods when a train was in from Canterbury, unlike many larger dock facilities where locomotives were on hand for up to 24 hours a day. Near to the goods shed were the stables for the horses. These animals would have needed to have been fed and watered seven days per week whether there was shunting or not, thus requiring staff roles and employment patterns that are largely forgotten to-day.

Later, cranes began to appear around the harbour but the practice of unloading coal known as "whipping" lasted into the 20th Century. Coal was loaded into baskets in the ship's hold, which were hauled up onto the quayside using ropes and pulleys affixed to the spars on the ship. The "whippers" climbed onto a trestle on the quayside and, holding the rope attached to the basket, jumped down to the quay thus using their own weight to raise it. This process was then repeated in order to lift the bag into the rail wagon alongside.

Whilst the outlying sets of railway points on the harbour would have been manually worked, a primitive signalbox existed alongside the first South Eastern station for operating the points and signals near to the harbour gates. The demolition of the coke ovens in the 1890s gave an opportunity to significantly improve the layout of the railway facilities and a new signalbox was built inside the harbour gates. This also controlled the level crossing, although the gates were worked manually. As part of the same initiative, the 1895 station was erected and another signalbox was built opposite the platform to control the station area.

The provision of two signalboxes appears extravagant and did not, in fact, last long. In order for the locomotive of a passenger train to run round its coaches, the gates across the road had to be closed. Increasingly, this caused complaints from the townspeople and, in 1908, there were further changes. The signalbox that had been erected on Church Street incline, in readiness for the opening of the loop line, was moved to a position immediately south of the level crossing at the Harbour; the points at the north end of the runround loop alongside the station platform were also moved south.

Map showing the C&WR signal boxes and run-around loop at Tower Parade

This enabled a locomotive to run round its train without requiring the gates to be opened and the new signalbox replaced the two erected in the 1890s. The level crossing gates were henceforth worked from inside the signalbox.

Goods trains operated largely on an 'as required' basis, rather than in booked timings. It seems possible, however, that once the railway's own locomotive coal traffic ceased around 1888 that special goods trains became relatively rare until the First World War, freight traffic being handled by mixed passenger and goods trains. Some timetables of the period showed that two or three trains each way were so designated. In a mixed train, a number of goods wagons were coupled behind the passenger vehicles. The occupants would have had an even less comfortable ride as the unbraked wagons buffered up to the rear of the coaches, particularly on the downhill sections, although to comply with instructions trains would have stopped at the top of the steepest inclines to pin down the wagon handbrakes.

From the 1890s, the trains on the branch were worked exclusively by the "R" class 0-6-0 tank locomotives, modified and reclassified as Class "R1" from 1912 onwards. Only locomotives retaining the original cabs and cut down chimneys could be used owing to the height restrictions in Tyler Hill tunnel. These height restrictions also meant that covered vans could not be used on the branch (with the exception of what became very elderly brake vans). However, the staple traffics carried could be satisfactorily handled in open vehicles, sheeted where necessary with tarpaulins (the specially adapted grain wagons used from the 1930s were fitted with tarpaulins mounted on a central bar) and there is no evidence to suggest that the lack of vans prevented any significant flows of traffic.

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