How the railway transformed Essex?

PUBLISHED: 11:09 15 December 2014 | UPDATED: 11:09 15 December 2014

Steam Engine

Steam Engine


From fun at the seaside to fast-paced changes in industry, the shape of the railways has helped to transform Essex, writes Stephen Roberts


The advent of a dynamic railway network criss-crossing the country revolutionised life in Great Britain. Similarly, it is no exaggeration to say that our own county of Essex was transformed by railways, due in many respects to its proximity to both the capital and the coastline, opening up access to what became popular Victorian seaside resorts. In fact, it is not going too far to say some parts of Essex were even created by the railway.

It began with the Eastern Counties Railway (ECR), bringing London to Brentwood and Colchester by 1843, and by 1856 opening a branch to Loughton, which ultimately reached Ongar.

That Colchester railway was designed by famed Robert Stephenson and was built at the time of the ‘Railway Mania’, as the county’s first lines coinciding with a national frenzy for railways.

The only problem was it started with a gauge of 5 feet, against the national standard of 4 feet 8½. Stephenson intervened in 1844, advising a change

of gauge, with work completed in two months over September and October. Small wonder the ECR ran out of funds after completing just 52 miles of track

and was absorbed by the Great Eastern Railway (GER).

Some embellishments didn’t last either. Colchester’s Italianate Victoria Hotel, built by Samuel Peto in 1843, would fail and by 1850 was converted to an asylum. Peto was so wealthy he employed a workforce of 14,000, as railways pushed through Essex on the backs of ‘navvies’ and agricultural labourers. The Industrial Revolution may have occurred, but most of the effort involved in building the railways remained manual, the only consolation being the relatively smooth terrain. Essex pioneers didn’t have it easy with landowners like Lord Petre, of Ingatestone Hall, exerting influence over locations of stations and even their design. Money talks.

The Maldon to Braintree line was built by the Maldon, Witham & Braintree Company, which would also fall to the ravenous GER. It would initially have

two tracks, reduced to one in 1854 to support the Crimean War, where steel was urgently needed. In the same year the Eastern Union Railway (EUR) reached Harwich, a last hurrah before it also fell to the GER, which would hold sway in these parts until 1923. The GER (1862) would be vital to the economy of the region with goods traffic, but its greatest impact would be passenger services as East London’s suburbs exploded in the later 19th century.

In 1883 the GER opened Parkeston Quay, named after chairman CH Parkes, as the company envisaged continental steamship services. By 1884 the London, Tilbury and Southend had reached Shoeburyness. Along with Clacton and Frinton, Southend had almost been made by the railway for the leisure industry.

Not all Essex communities got their railways. The London and South Essex Railway planned to reach Burnham on Crouch, but the scheme was wound-up as enthusiasm for railways was tempered by financial reality. Burnham finally got its railway, but not until 1889, by when it was relegated to something of a backwater. Some towns boomed where railways came early, others stayed still or declined in its absence. Another late arrival, Tollesbury, didn’t get its railway until 1904; the ‘Crab and Winkle Line’ only carrying passengers until 1951.

Some lines were designed for freight, whereas others had passengers in mind. The spread of railways between 1837 and 1869 connected Chelmsford, Colchester, Maldon, Braintree and Harwich with London and the Midlands. Raw materials came in and finished products out.

Chelmsford and Braintree were among the beneficiaries as engineering firms were boosted, becoming world famous. Chelmsford grew in size and importance. Companies set up, often to the north of the railway, where private sidings were constructed for goods. Marconi came to the town in 1884, making Essex the birthplace of radio. Expansion led to a new factory with railway access in 1912 and a company installed in the town for more than 100 years.

Chelmsford became a busy commuter station too, with people responding to London’s population expansion availing themselves of lower house prices and fast train services. Chelmsford’s station is certainly worth a visit, as it is unusually sat atop a viaduct and makes for a charming architectural ‘hotchpotch’.

Braintree also benefited. Without access to rivers or sea, raw materials and finished goods from the likes of Courtaulds came in and out on horse-drawn carts. When the ECR reached Witham in 1838, pressure grew for Braintree to get a station, although it would take another ten years. A goods depot was established and private sidings headed into industrial enterprises. One company with a siding into its factory was Crittall, the famous manufacturer of steel-framed windows.

Braintree had a line through Dunmow to Bishop’s Stortford by 1869, but in a foretaste of the future, this closed to passengers in 1952, as paying customers dwindled. The Woodham Ferrers line was another early casualty, mothballed during World War II, never reinstated and killed off in 1953. It was a pattern repeated throughout the country as increased car use and Dr Beeching did their worst. Maldon-Witham saw its last passenger in 1964. Braintree could have lost its link to Witham too, but, though recommended for closure, it was saved by locals. Well done them. n


1836 Parliamentary approval for Eastern Counties Railway (ECR)

1839 First section of ECR opens to Romford

1840 ECR completed to Brentwood

1843 Line opens to Colchester, with timber station at Chelmsford

1844 Robert Stephenson advises change to standard gauge, which is completed

1847 Construction of Maldon-Braintree Railway commenced

1848 Braintree’s first station

1854 Eastern Union Railway (EUR) branch to Harwich opened

1856 Chelmsford Station rebuilt, Manningtree-Harwich line opened, Southend reached

1862 ECR and EUR taken over by Great Eastern Railway (GER)

1864 GER buys land for Liverpool Street Station, which finally opens in 1874

1869 Braintree-Bishop’s Stortford line opens through Dunmow

1883 Opening of Parkeston Quay. Steamship services to Holland

1884 Line to Shoeburyness opened

1889 Maldon to Woodham Ferrers line opened

1923 GER becomes part of the LNER on ‘Big-4’ grouping

1948 Eastern Region of BR becomes responsible for Essex railways

1952 Braintree-Bishop’s Stortford line closed to passengers

1963 Witham-Braintree line recommended for closure, but saved by protests

Find out more

The following websites contain further details of the how the railways influenced Essex…

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