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The railways arrive in Herefordshire

Transport in Herefordshire before the railways

Prior to the introduction of the railways much of the transport in Herefordshire had been via muddy roads only usable on horseback and goods could only be carried via groups of packhorses, which meant that transportation and communication were slow.

The only public transport that was available on the roads were the horse-drawn coaches. Thomas Burke described them as "long, lumbering, springless, six-horsed vehicles, which could take days on a journey from London to Winchester" (Thomas Burke, 16th Century Travel in England).

Stagecoaches were very uncomfortable for long journeys and although Hereford in 1774 had a twice-weekly stagecoach to London, known as Pruen's Flying Machine, the journey took 36 hours and cost the large sum of £1 5s. This coach later became the Royal Mail Coach and the ticket prices were reduced to £1 inside and 10s outside.

By 1795 the journey time from Hereford to London had been cut to 26 hours, and in 1815 the coach could leave the City Arms Hotel in Broad Street (now Barclays Bank) and reach London by 5am the next day. By 1821 it was possible to leave Hereford at 5am and reach London the same day.

In 1837 one London coach was taking around 15 hours to complete the journey one way. By 1841 the journey to London could be done by coach as far as Birmingham and then from Birmingham to London by train. The journey took 10 hours, but by 1844 passengers on this journey could catch the train at Gloucester, cutting the journey time down somewhat.

At the beginning of the 1850s the nearest railway station to Hereford was at Abergavenny, which again was reached via coach. The last stagecoach that ran in Herefordshire was the Hereford to Hay-on-Wye coach, which ran for the last time in 1863, 10 years after the railways had arrived in the county.

With all the traffic because of the coaches something had to be done about the condition of the county's roads. Since the 1780s Turnpike Trusts had been formed to improve the roads from their muddy state to proper surfaces of graded levels on foundations that helped to improve drainage. From 1816 John Loudon McAdam introduced the use of coal, tar and compressed stones to make durable road surfaces. This new road surface was known as Tarmacadam, taking its name from the man who invented it.

River and canal transport

Up until the arrival of the railways in Herefordshire the River Wye had been an important trade route for the county, however this was often hazardous and liable to flooding and fast-flowing water. By using the River Wye goods such as wool, cider, hops and timber could be carried in a south-westerly direction towards the Forest of Dean and the Bristol Channel, and coal and limestone could be brought in by the return route.

The canal age arrived in Herefordshire with the Kington, Leominster and Stourport Canal in 1796, which was an attempt to connect the limestone quarries at Kington with the Wyre Forest coalfield, via Leominster and then on to the River Severn. This canal system was never as successful as had been hoped and the arrival of the railways in the county signalled the end for this type of transport.

In 1838 the Gloucester Canal was extended from Ledbury to Hereford, but again this never really got off the ground before the railways were brought in.


At the beginning of the 19th century coal was being transported via horse-powered tramroads from the collieries to the nearest canal for distribution across Britain. It was the development of three of these tramroads in Herefordshire that really began the railway interest. Tramroads carried carts along tracks and rails very similar to those used in railways, but instead of having steam-powered engines to pull the carts they were drawn by teams of horses. The first tramroad to open in Herefordshire was the Hay Railway, which opened in 1816 and was extended west in 1818. The Kington Railway opened in 1820, which meant that Herefordshire was served by 36 miles of tramroad railway, bringing cheaper coal to West Herefordshire.

In 1829 the tramroad from Abergavenny reached Hereford, linking the county with the coalfields of South Wales.

By 1846, railway mania was beginning to sweep the country and tramroads were being forgotten as the new steam-powered railways were beginning to prove cost-effective and efficient.

Railway mania

By the middle of the 19th century the railway business in England was expanding quickly and over 6,000 miles of railway existed. By 1847 the railway industry was providing over 47,000 jobs. For a while the increase in railways caused a boom in stagecoach use as people were using them to get to the railway stations.

At the beginning of the 1840s Britain entered a spell of "Railway Mania" when plans were submitted for many new lines. The immediate success of the passenger line from Liverpool to Manchester made investment in the new railways attractive and there was no shortage of backers for the new ventures. In 1846, Parliament passed 246 Acts for the laying of new lines, requiring capital investment of £132m, however most of these lines did not get any further than the planning stage.

By 1852, over 7,000 miles of track had been laid and the backbone of the railway system in England had been completed.

The first train in Herefordshire

Herefordshire received permission to build its first passenger railway by Act of Parliament in 1846. The line was to be the Shrewsbury (in neighbouring Shropshire) to Hereford line that would finally be completed in 1853. To celebrate the coming of the railways there was a day of high spirits and rejoicing. Banquets and balls of various standards were held across the city and over 60,000 people crowded into Hereford to join in the festivities and welcome this exciting new age of steam. When the first train arrived in Hereford on the 28th October 1853 the passengers disembarked at the site of the station for as yet there were no buildings save an unfinished engine house and a water house. (Cavalcade of a Century, 1832-1932, 100 years of the Hereford Times: Hereford Record Office - BH74)

By the 1890s, there were over 10 different lines criss-crossing Herefordshire, linking the north and south, east and west and opening up the county to the rest of England. By the 1930s there were over 50 stations and halts enabling rural dwellers to visit towns, increasing the transportation of goods and people in and out of the county.

The beginning of the end

Just over 100 years after the first train rolled into Barrs Court Station in Hereford, all but three of the railway lines in the county had been closed down.

Some failed to compete with the local bus services brought in after the war but many were closed as a result of Dr. Beeching and Nationalisation. Dr. Beeching was the Chairman of the British Transport Commission who in the 1960s was invited to look at the railways of England and see which were still viable. Unfortunately for Herefordshire the passenger numbers were down and costs high, which combined to mean the death of the railways in this part of Britain.

Now only three railway lines survive in the county - the Shrewsbury & Hereford line, the Newport, Abergavenny & Hereford Line and the Worcester & Hereford line. These three were the first lines into the county and no doubt they will be the last lines out of the county.

The coming of the railways had heralded a new era for rural counties such as Herefordshire. Goods such as coal, iron and lime could be brought in more cheaply and improve industry, and goods such as corn, cattle and oak could be exported out, bringing increased wealth to the county.

The railways brought greater cohesion to Herefordshire, improved communication with the rest of England and brought communities together. The arrival of the steam age was a time of celebration, the like of which has not been seen since; today the construction of motorways, on which we rely on so heavily for our communication, rarely create feelings of celebration and joy.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2003]