Published 13th July 2012
LEEDS - The Middleton Railway may appear to be one of Britain’s smaller heritage lines, but it is a railway of huge historical importance. It was established (in 1758) by the first British Railway Act of Parliament, it is the world's oldest working railway and when steam locomotives designed by John Blenkinsop and built by Matthew Murray in Leeds were introduced in June 1812 it became the first railway in the world to successfully use steam locomotives in a commercial environment. These first locomotives were the catalyst for the development of the Leeds locomotive building industry which sent its products worldwide.
In post-industrial times it became the focus of the first standard gauge preservation group in Britain and was the first such to run a passenger service. It was also the first preserved railway to work commercial goods traffic. While the railway may be short in length, it has the magnificent ‘Engine House’ display building at its Moor Road terminus to showcase locomotives built in the city of Leeds.
The 200th anniversary was celebrated in grand style with seven locomotives in steam, including three guest locos. Early locomotives were represented by Beamish’s working replica ‘Steam Elephant’ - ironically, actually the youngest loco in steam over the weekend! While of comparatively recent construction, it more than looked the part as it shuttled along the yard road at Moor Road behind the station platform throughout the weekend offering arguably unique ‘driver for a fiver’ opportunities which drew a constant queue of takers.
The other guest loco worked on the main line. At the other end of the age spectrum the oldest working standard gauge locomotive in Britain, The Furness Railway Trust’s 1863-built 0-4-0 FR No. 20 was in action on the world’s oldest working steam railway. Perhaps surprisingly, it was also the first tender locomotive to visit the Middleton Railway in preservation.
The remaining visitor was ex-Kent Power Company Bagnall 0-4-0ST 2842/1946 from the Foxfield Railway which arrived as a late replacement for Vintage Carriages Trust-owned 1874-built Haydock Foundry 0-6-0WT Bellerophon, which has been receiving attention at Foxfield which could not be completed in time for the gala.
The array of railway steam was rounded off by Middleton based locomotives: NER H Class (formerly Y7) 0-4-0T No. 1310, Manning Wardle 0-6-0ST Matthew Murray (MW1601/03), VCT’s Manning Wardle 0-6-0ST Sir Berkeley and Slough & Windsor Railway Society’s Hudswell Clarke 0-6-0ST Slough Estates No. 3 (1544/1924). Mind you, the locomotives were not the only source of steam at the gala – steam road vehicles were in the yard at Moor Road while numerous models of railway and road engines were displayed in action within the Engine House building, not to mention pop-pop steam boats. The vendor took 25 to the event and sold the lot by the close of business on the Saturday, regretting not having brought more stock!
To provide a permanent museum display to record the line’s 200th anniversary a new full size replica of the rack wheel employed on Blenkinsop’s Middleton locos was produced and unveiled during the event.
Moor Road station was a hive of steam activity. In addition to the ‘Steam Elephant’, passenger trains to Park Halt were interspersed with freight train trips, including brake van rides, over the Balm Road branch. Moreover, locomotive layovers at the Park Halt and Balm Road termini ensured a continuous rotation of motive power.
Not so far away in West Yorkshire the weekend brought heavy rain and floods. Mercifully Leeds was spared and the weather ranged between sunshine and showers. Neither adversely affected the gala, although photographers had a slightly trying time as the juxtaposition of sun and approaching train tended not to fully align!