Building of the South Eastern Railway track through Leigh 1840

The South Eastern Railway was incorporated in 1836 to build a railway between Redhill and Dover and William Cubitt was appointed Chief Engineer (see Biddle p. 64).

The permanent way passes east through White Post tunnel, 192 feet in length, and then through a cutting, passing under bridges at Cinder Hill Lane (Blackhoath) and at the Penshurst Road in Leigh until emerging south of Donkey Field and continuing on an embankment with a road bridge over Lower Green just before Leigh Halt and above a bricked foot at the end of Greenview Avenue towards Lower Haysden. The line between Redhill and Tonbridge was opened on 26 May 1842.

Lawrence Biddle explains how the raw materials were largely brought up the Medway to Tonbridge (p.65)

The National Archives at Kew include minutes of the railway company between 1836 and 1845 but explains that these contain only ‘brief formal statements of business conducted’. The following information has been gleaned from the Maidstone Journal and Kentish Advertiser (MJ).

On 29 January 1839, the MJ records that the Tonbridge Priory building has been acquired by the SE Railway and that it is in danger of demolition. The 31 March 1840 issue confirms that this has been done. The purpose is likely to have been the provision of space for building materials while the line is built and preparation for the eventual construction of sidings as well as the provision of the permanent way down towards Paddock Wood.

Earlier on 19 November 1839, at a half year meeting of the company, it was reported that it was intended ‘to commence operations without delay on ‘Junction Line’ in order that railway may be open as far as Tonbridge, simultaneously with the first opening of the Brighton Line’.

On 21 April 1840, it was reported that ‘a boy employed on the railroad at Leigh, stole some powder last week, and secreted it in a manger, afterwards when smoking near the place a spark dropped on and exploded the powder; although the boy is not seriously injured yet his face is severely scorched. We hope this will render all connected with the railroad more cautious for it is no infrequent occurrence to see a man with a lighted pipe in his mouth and a barrel of gunpowder at his back, which perhaps at the next beer shop serves for a seat, the smoking still continued’.

Then on 28 April: ‘The railroad works at Leigh are carried on with great activity; powder to the amount of 100lbs is used daily on blasting’.

By 5 May 1840 it was announced that the railroad had reached the Hastings turnpike road in Tonbridge, though it is clear that there was still much to do in the Leigh cutting and, by inference in the construction of the embankments towards Tonbridge. It was reported that ‘Three men employed at Leigh were seriously injured … by the shattered fragments of stone which had been exploded by gunpowder. We hear that one man’s life has been despaired of.’

The next week, it was reported that the man had died. ‘The accident happened in a singularly unfortunate manner , the deceased was charging the bore with powder, and had nearly finished, when a man who stood on a ledge about fifteen feet above him carelessly threw down some lighted touch(paper) he had in his hand because it burnt his fingers. It fell exactly on the charge and the result was fatal.’ A report on 2 June explained that ‘the blasting works at Leigh are of no trumpery character. A bore, a foot in circumference, ten feet deep, and as many pounds of powder does some execution.’

On 2 June it was reported that work was taking place to underpin a bridge over the river Medway at Walters. A week later it was announced that ‘the great Rothschild has purchased all the procurable shares’ in the S.E Railway company.

Then on 28 July came a headline: Expeditious mode of amputating the finger. The article explained that ‘a few days since a man on the railroad beyond Leigh lost his finger in the following manner. Whilst leaning with one hand on the buffers, as they are termed, for the purpose of adjusting some part of the waggon, the horses moved suddenly forward bringing the waggons in contact, and in doing so completely severed the man’s fore finger’. From this we deduce that numbers of railway waggons would be joined together, presumably so as to move soil and rock down the line.

The danger of the work was illustrated in an edition dated 6 October 1840. ‘A boy employed on the railroad at Leigh, met with an accident whereby he lost the toes on one foot. Whilst driving his horses he fell and his foot coming across the rail was completely severed by the wheels.’

The speed of construction is shown by a report on 27 October 1840 saying that ‘considerable progress has been made with the railroad during the summer months which now make a pretty good show from the town both right and left’ . The route was nearly finished from White Post to Tudeley and should be open in about 12 months.

In reality, the rail road took a little longer to complete and the line from Redhill to Tonbridge was opened in May 1842. Curiously, this was done with almost no fuss. There were advertisements giving times and fares and a comment in the MJ that ‘we hope not’ in response to the announcement of the low key launch. After the event there was no reference at all.

The census return for 1841 gives some of information about the men who built the railway and who were lodged all over the Parish but particularly in the High Street cottages. (Lawrence Biddle p. 64-65 gives additional information about the route of the line; the brickworks in Leigh, the timetables in 1842 and 1851 (one hour from Penshurst to London) and a further accident in 1846.

Leigh did not initially have a station – it was not built until 1917 when it was called “Lyghe Halt”. A description of Leigh as seen from the railway around 1846 was given on the “Travelling Chart for Perusal on the Journey”. It reads ‘The village of Leigh lies so contiguous to the railway that it illustrates itself. Indeed it looks better from the railway than on the spot . . . ‘.

John Stevens, 2013

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