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The Hereford, Ross and Gloucester railway

(Historic Environment Record number 21729)

On 1st June 1855, Hereford celebrated as the Hereford, Ross & Gloucester Railway was completed. It used Isambard Kingdom Brunel's broad gauge system.

The line was 22.5 miles long from the Grange Court Junction in the Forest of Dean. On 11th July 1853 the line opened between Grange Court Junction and Hopesbrook, and the Hopesbrook to Hereford section opened on 1st June 1855.

Four tunnels were built on this line. The tunnel at Lea was 771 yards long, that at Fawley 540 yards, the Ballingham tunnel was 1,210 yards and the Dinedor tunnel 110 yards long. There were also four viaducts over the River Wye, each one made of timber on stone piers with six openings 44ft wide.

The first train enters Ross

The official opening day of this line was 1st June, but the line had been vigorously tested the day before by an engine weighing 50 tons that ran from Gloucester to Hereford and back. On the opening day a special train was run from London, which carried representatives of the Great Western Railway and which picked up local directors at Gloucester. One hundred and fifty passengers left Gloucester Station at 8am and the train arrived in Hereford at 9.25am, having made a brief stop at Ross at 8.50am.

The engine of the train carried the Union Jack on its funnel. Five thousand people came to meet the train when it stopped at Ross, and although it stayed only a few minutes the children of Ross were paraded to catch a glimpse of the train. The procession was headed by the Ross Band and eight boys carried an enormous tea urn beneath a canopy of evergreens and flowers. On top of this were the flags of the allied countries in the Crimean War: Britain, France, Turkey and Sardinia.

Nearly 2,000 children sat down to a celebratory tea, which was provided in the goods station. In half an hour more than one quarter of a ton of plum cake was eaten and 180 gallons of tea were drunk. The tea was finished by the singing of the National Anthem. A public tea was held in the Town Hall for 200 people, followed by a ball for 150 couples who danced until the early hours of the morning.

There was also a ball at the Swan Hotel for 60 couples, and a dinner at the Royal Oak Inn for 50 navvies who had worked on the railway line nearby. During the evening three balloons were sent up, cannons fired and fireworks let off.

The train arrives at Hereford

The train eventually arrived in Hereford at 9.25am. The city had been decorated with flags and banners celebrating the opening of the new line. In the morning the church bells rang and crowds assembled to see the procession.

A notice in the Hereford Times of 25th May 1855 had announced that the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the partners of the new line - Mr. Thomas Brassey, Sir Morton Peto Bart. MP and Edward L Betts - would be present at a public dinner in the Assembly Room of the Green Dragon. The dinner was to begin at 3pm and tickets cost 10s 6d. Unfortunately letters of apology were sent from Brassey, Sir Morton Peto, Betts and Brunel, so none of the partners or engineers was actually present on the day.

At the dinner there were the usual speeches and toasts to the Queen and her family and the prosperity of the railways. At the same time that the public dinner was being held the navvies were being treated to a dinner in the large carriage shed at the station, and the band was given a meal at the Kerry Arms. Other pubs and hotels in the city advertised their services for the travellers and those who had come to celebrate the opening of the new line.

There was a full dress ball in the Shire Hall, which was catered for by Messrs. Bosley of the Green Dragon and a Mr. Smyth of the City Arms Hotel in Broad Street (now Barclays Bank) supplied the wine. The ball went on into the early hours of the next morning. Another ball was held in the Old Town Hall where the upper middle classes could mix and celebrate.

Gauge conversion

On July 29th 1862 the line was amalgamated with the Great Western Railway who agreed to work it for 60% of the receipts. In 1869 the line was used as a guinea pig for its programme of gauge conversion.

The Hereford, Ross & Gloucester line was one of the first to adopt a gauge conversion from broad to standard gauge in 1869. It took five days to convert the 21.5 miles of track, with the lines closing on 15th August, but coaches were run to ensure passengers could still get to their destinations.

The track was divided up into four-mile sections and then subdivided into quarter-mile sections, each entrusted to a gang of about 20 platelayers; most sections were completed in under four hours. A broad-gauge train would drop the gang off at the various points along the line and then travel to the end of that day's section. At the end of the day a narrow-gauge train would pick the men up and travel to the point where the broad-gauge train had stopped, ready for the next day's work.

Eventually under the Beeching Plan (Dr. Beeching was the chairman of the British Transport Commission in the 1960s) the Gloucester to Hereford line was closed on 2nd November 1964, which meant that the line from Hereford to Ross closed entirely. The goods line from Grange Court Junction to Ross to Lydebrook Junction closed on 1st November 1965.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2003]