Short History of the Canterbury-Whitstable (Crab & Winkle) Railway


In 1830, Whitstable was a small maritime town of 1900 residents with little industry outside the oyster, fishing and ship building trades. The only historical fact Whitstable was known for was that local oysters had gained some fame as the ‘Royal Native’ with support from England’s monarchy. Historical events which had occurred there were mostly minor events of little account on the national scene and largely overlooked by history books.

To emphasize the perceived insignificance with which the area was, and to some extent still is considered, the history of the Canterbury & Whitstable Railway is littered with authors quoting differing ‘facts’ about the line and the steam locomotive ‘Invicta’ eventually employed. The line opened on the third day of May 1830. The fourth day according to one author, nine years later according to another. A website states the line ran from London to Canterbury via Whitstable but one could never travel by train on the same line from London to Canterbury via Whitstable. Some authors have the 6 mile line as long as 10 miles and Invicta built in 1839, nine years after it ran on opening day!

Why then was a pioneering railway, recorded as the World’s first regular steam hauled freight and passenger railway built at such a seemingly insignificant place?
For centuries the people of Canterbury and district were serviced by a long, slow freight journey along the river Stour, the northern foothills of the undulating North Downs being obstacles to a shorter route using the horse drawn carts of the day.

The river Stour silted up becoming unusable for carrying freight. Despite several Parliamentary Acts to relieve the situation from as early as 1515, nothing was done. Among other proposals a canal through relatively flat country from a proposed harbour 15 miles east of Whitstable was approved by Parliament but, again nothing was done. The 6 mile long 1736 built Turnpike road between Canterbury and Whitstable annually carried 20 thousand tons of goods, mainly coal yet there was no harbour at Whitstable. Four thousand people per year traversed the same route by horse, carriage or walking. The people of Canterbury and district had long been dissatisfied with this situation.

A number of public meetings failed to solve the problem until finally a decision was made to construct a harbour at Whitstable the closest coastal point to Canterbury. The harbour would be connected to Canterbury by a railway with horse drawn wagons. A combination of rope cable and horse drawn wagons was also considered.
In 1822 notable engineer William James surveyed the area making plans for the railway utilizing cable drawn wagons, operated by steam winding engines. Two winding engines would haul the wagons uphill, gravity would provide power for the descent, horses taking over along the flatter sections.

The route chosen was a compromise between the most direct route and a route providing the least difficulties. The selected route followed part of the old Salt Way from Whitstable, the route by which salt from the salt pans along the coast had been transported to Canterbury in centuries past. The best alternative and flatter route was considerably longer with very little population to patronize a railway.

James got little further than surveying the line and laying out his plans for the railroad. In 1823/4 a group of local businessmen picked up the baton engaging George Stephenson as the Company’s Engineer. George Stephenson apparently spent little time on site eventually handing the project over to son Robert in 1828. Notable engineer, Thomas Telford, reputedly worked as Stephenson’s deputy, reports have him as supervising the Harbour construction. Several other notable Engineers worked on the project but still the project attracted little national attention.

The line would include all the ingredients which would become identified with future railways, cuttings, embankments, culverts, steep gradients, level crossings, pedestrian underpass, a half mile long tunnel and two bridges with a steam locomotive employed over part of the route. Total line length is recorded as 6 miles 1 chain or 9.85 km. Most importantly the proposal was accepted by Parliament, the necessary Act proclaimed, land acquired and finally the line was built.

The steam locomotive ‘Invicta’ was offloaded at Whitstable long before the Harbour was completed, had a brief trial run and within the week hauled its first train when the line opened on that third day of May 1830. The first train ran from Canterbury to Whitstable and returned later that day. Contemporary reports state that 300 people were carried in 20 wagons one of which was built like a stage coach, the other wagons were open like coal trucks. Reports also tell us the train left Canterbury in ‘two divisions’ of 10 wagons each. ‘Invicta’ hauled the train between Clowes Wood and the Harbour site. The Harbour would eventually open in 1832.

Overview of the Original Railway

The terrain traversed by the railway commenced with the flat sea level ground at Whitstable harbour rising up the Church Street embankment over a brick bridge, across the wide Bogshole ‘trough’ valley embankment with another bridge to the foot of the 200 foot high northern escarpment. Hauled ½ a mile uphill to the Clowes Wood winding engine the engineless trains crossed a culvert in another small gully to a relatively flat mile wide plateau through Blean. From that reasonably flat section ending at the railway’s maximum height above sea level of 230 feet the Blean and Tyler Hill winding engine lowered trains over 2 miles across a brook in a small gully, down the southern escarpment traversing through a cutting and half mile long tunnel and open country into Canterbury.

At the beginning the line incorporated a steam winding engine at the top of the two steeper inclines with rope ‘cables’ hauling the train uphill. Brakes controlled the speed of the free wheeling train downhill, a steam locomotive taking over the final 2¼ miles or so at the Whitstable end. Maximum speed uphill under the winding engines was reported variously from 9 to 15 miles per hour. Freewheeling downhill an exciting 25 miles per hour. Reportedly there were 6 return trips each day building up to a scheduled 10 at a later period. The first opening journey took I hour ‘due to the many celebrations along the route’.

By 20th century standards almost everything about this pioneer steam railway was very crude from the actual rails, rope cables and the passenger ‘carriages’.
Only one full width sleeper at the ends of the 24 foot long cast rails located them with any degree of certainty. Between the end sleepers the rail was supported on 2 foot long x 13” wide wooden blocks about every 3 feet. Although the rails were fastened to the end sleepers the gauge over the intervening 24 feet of rail was rather horrifyingly maintained by packing clay against the rail and wooden blocks! On each full width sleeper large wooden rollers supported the rope cable.

The Train

The engine driver stood on a narrow walkway, literally just a plank running alongside the locomotive boiler, totally exposed to the elements. The fireman had a more secure foothold on the two wheeled tender but was likewise totally exposed to the elements.

First class passengers enjoyed the only enclosed carriage which presented as a horse drawn carriage placed on railway wheels. Other passengers were in open coal truck like carriages with seats. Later a flimsy overhead canopy could be erected against inclement weather but that was little more than a sun shade giving passengers little comfort against rain and none against the wind.

That first locomotive, ‘Invicta’, although the first steam locomotive to haul a train beyond 1mile, was barely capable of pulling the early train from Whitstable Harbour station up the Church Street incline then across the Bogshole valley to the foot of the first incline at Clowes Wood. Eventually ‘Invicta’ was restricted to the level Bogshole section with horses taking over from the Harbour. A third and smaller steam winding engine installed at South Street replaced the horses hauling trains up the straight section of the Church Street incline.

The Railway Over the Years

The County of Kent did not have the massive industrialization of London and Northern counties so Kent railways developed at a slower rate. After the initial opening period, the C&W Railway was overshadowed by the opening of other early railways, especially in the more industrialized North. Rapid expansion of railways across the country soon followed as locomotive technology advanced with the experience gained from the first few railways. But little changed on the C&W until 1844 when the railway was leased by South Eastern Railway Company which had opened a railway passing through Canterbury from London to the Channel coast.

The whole railway line was upgraded in 1846, including a new station just inside the Harbour East gate, and a steam locomotive hauled the train the full distance between Canterbury and Whitstable Harbour. Passenger traffic was diverted from the original Canterbury North Lane station into the new Canterbury station. The railway continued operating under the South Eastern Railway banner for 55 years until 1899. During this period the C&W railway did progress to some degree with enclosed carriages for all passengers and on 28 January 1895 a new station built across the road from the Harbour East gate offered patrons a little more protection from the strong, cold Northerly winter winds. The earlier 1846 station remained in use for goods trains.

Two significant factors saw the railway fall way behind the development of most of Britain’s railways – lack of money and that pioneering railway tunnel
Without the massive industrialization mentioned above money was always in short supply. Improvements were made to passenger comfort but carriages were inevitably old and outdated. The other factor, the tunnel, was designed and built for horse drawn wagons and was forever a severe restriction to using better more modern steam locomotives. The restriction was the lack of height which necessitated modifying standard locomotives to accommodate it from about 1860 on. From the late 1890s on, Canterbury & Whitstable railway locomotives would remain obsolete and distinguishable by their squat funnels, cabs etc.

In 1860 The London, Chatham and Dover Railway opened a railway station on their new main North Kent railway partly using the new bridge over the Oxford Street/Canterbury Road at Whitstable. Plans were formulated to link the two railways east of that station with a loop from the Church Street embankment, west of All Saints Church to west of the present Whitstable station site. The proposal was approved by Parliament, work on the loop started but abandoned before any track was laid. Sadly if that loop had been on the east side of the railway, providing a long requested rail link connecting Herne Bay to Canterbury, the C&W railway may have survived much longer.

Finances were always a problem for the Railway’s directors. To boost the railway’s popularity Sunday services were introduced, prices reduced and it is said the very first Season Ticket ‘invented’. It is also said that the very first container, the forerunner of today’s containerization was introduced at Whitstable Harbour.
In 1899 the South Eastern & Chatham Railway took over. It was during the latter part of the 1800s under the South Eastern Railway Company and the early part of SE&CRs reign that visits to the seaside saw a massive rise in popularity which gave the local railway a much needed boost. Three new stations, or ‘Halts’ were opened. The first Blean and Tyler Hill Halt in 1908 was a bare platform devoid of any ticket office or passenger shelter. South Street Halt built in 1911 at least had a small shelter. In 1914 Tankerton Halt was built on the Church Street embankment immediately alongside where the 1860 North Kent Mainline passed under the C&W railway, on the east side of today’s Whitstable Station built in 1915.

In 1923 Southern Railway took over. The only significant development credited to Southern Railway was the closure of the line to passenger traffic on 1 January 1931. However there was still a continual healthy flow of coal over the branch from the Harbour and some optimism for future development as a new 1935 Thanet Way bridge over the railway allowed for an extra line alongside the original.

During 1935 additional harbour trade was secured with the introduction of a facility to produce ‘Tarmacadam’ the bitumen and gravel road surfacing media. Brett Sand & Gravel of Canterbury imported the aggregate (gravel) via the harbour so it made good sense to develop a complete facility there and rail the end product to Canterbury.

The second World War kept the line busy with the transport of munitions to the Harbour and military equipment from the Harbour being received for transportation to repair depots. When the war ended, loss of shipping, stringent rationing and general shortages meant there was insufficient traffic to justify keeping the line going.

The End

Eventual nationalization of Britain’s railways saw the Canterbury & Whitstable railway under the British Railways banner from1948 until the very last train ran over the line in 1953. In 1948 Whitstable Urban District Council requested the line be reopened for passengers to reduce traffic congestion in the town but the request was refused thus denying the Railway another chance for survival.

Passenger traffic had survived for 101 years, freight for 123 years. The Harbour, the very first harbour specifically designed to be serviced by a steam railway, opened in 1832 continues into this the 21st Century. But the now defunct Canterbury and Whitstable Railway remains of little account on the national scene and remains largely overlooked in railway history.

Nick Names

Whitstable was once renown for its penchant for nicknames so finally a few words on some of the nicknames associated with the Canterbury & Whitstable Railway. Local families in the past could be quite parochial, quite insular within their own small community. Even one railwayman’s family, familiar with one railway nickname could be unaware of that known by another railway family.

The late 1800s locomotive entering the tight confines of the tunnel was likened to a ‘bung’ being inserted into a barrel giving rise to nicknaming the locomotive ‘The Bung’. The nickname spread from just the locomotive to some knowing the complete train or even the whole railway as ‘The Bung’.

In the very early days the motion of Stephenson locomotives such as ‘Invicta’ and ‘Rocket’ were said to be ‘crab like’ due to the peculiar action generated by their high mounted inclined cylinders and flexible frame. In the mid 1800s it was written that action inspired ‘Crab & Winkle’ which naturally flowed from the ‘C&W’ initials of the railway company. To some 20th century railway workers one specific locomotive was known as ‘The Crab’ reputedly due to its motion when working.

Questioned about the nickname ‘Crab & Winkle’ when he was a boy in the early 1900s, one elderly resident responded with a terse “Always been that.” It was simply a case of what you knew something by so that’s what it was.

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