Celebrating 150 years of St Albans branch railway

On October 16 1855, 150 years ago this week, the Hatfield and St Albans Railway Company (HSAR) opened its branch with modest celebration - the 8.30am train to Hatfield “being gaily decked with flowers”.

The branch was the result of several schemes to link the county town of Hertford with west Hertfordshire by rail, and thereby connect the railways radiating north from London.

Because St Albans was bypassed by early railway schemes such as the GNR (Great Northern Railway), horse omnibuses had been run to connect with passenger trains at Watford and Hatfield.

However, the businessmen and Corporation of St Albans wanted their own railway to open up markets in London and the Midlands, so they petitioned the London and North Western Railway (LNWR) for a branch line to Watford, which was eventually opened on May 5 1858 with great celebration.

This included a day’s holiday, a procession from the (Abbey) station with the Town Band up Holywell Hill, and a public dinner in the Town Hall.

Immediately afterwards the GNR noticed a sudden decline in passengers on the Hatfield omnibuses, and revived the idea of a branch line to St Albans, but did not have sufficient funds to build a branch. Eventually the Hatfield and St Albans Railway Company was incorporated by Act of Parliament on June 30 1862, which saw the GNR investing £20,000 with an agreement that they would operate the line in return for half the gross receipt.

But after the Midland Railway (MR) opened a line from Bedford, through Luton and St Albans, to St Pancras on July 13 1868, the HSAR recorded a substantial decline in receipts and it was noted in minutes that the company was unable to pay the full amount of interest due on its mortgage debt of January 1 1869.

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Subsequent shareholders’ meetings were poorly attended and manywere postponed. The financial situation did not improve and in 1870 the company was found insolvent and a receiver appointed. In November 1883 the GNR bought the line from the receiver.

The only income for the HSAR was 50 per cent of the passenger and goods receipts from St Albans and Smallford stations, and the dozen or so industrial sidings and passenger halts were not installed along the line until the mid-1890s.

In 1910 the GNR offered to build a station and widen the bridge in Sutton Road, Fleetville, if St Albans district council would take away the surface water which flooded under the bridge.

Dumbwells were dug but the problem was not solved and pedestrians were forced to clamber up the embankment and over the line to get to and from The Camp when the road was flooded.

The branch struggled on until 1951 when British Railways announced the withdrawal of the passenger service, and the goods service continued until 1964.

There were three deaths in the construction of the line. On August 22 1864 Edward Weston, 22, from Adstock, Buckingham, was crushed on the station site when the sides of a 12ft trench collapsed.

Then on August 25 Richard Cummin, 20, also from Adstock, was crushed between two wagons on the embankment near the Vanda Crescent crossing. On September 3 Thomas Dredge from Shepton Mallet was run over by wagons on the embankment near the Riverside Road watercress beds. The navvies were regular worshippers at St Peter’s and all three were buried in the churchyard by vicar the Rev HN Dudding.

The vicar suggested the navvies get up a subscription and erect a stone to the memory of their brethren. The subscription was obviously successful as the stone can still be seen in the churchyard today.