The opening of Jersey's first railway

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Jersey's first railway opens


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Ready to leave St Helier


This article by Ian Ronayne was first published in Town Crier, St Helier’s parish magazine

Loaded with the island's great and good, the first train from St Helier to St Aubin crossed the beach at La Haule on stilts

A 40-year wait

Engineering advances in the later 19th century helped transform Jersey and change Islanders’ lives forever. Among the most anticipated and celebrated was the arrival of trains, which first officially steamed from St Helier on 25 October 1870.

Did early steam pioneers ever dare to dream just how much their cranky, clanking, hissing engines would go on to change the world? Did they begin to grasp how profoundly, and quickly, their inventions would come to revolutionise mass transit – forever.

Just one year after Robert Stephenson demonstrated his famous Rocket steam locomotive in 1829, a commercial railway was running between Manchester and Liverpool. Within 10 years of that milestone, nearly 1,500 miles of track connected many of Britain’s major cities. Two decades on and the country possessed a network of more than 10,000 miles of railway lines.

Ten years after that, and just over 40 after Stephenson demonstrated his Rocket, Jersey opened its first railway. The age of mass transit had arrived in St Helier.

Military demand

There had been a clamour for Jersey to have a railway at least 25 years earlier – for the mass transit of soldiers. Writing in 1845, influential Colonel John Le Couteur, of the Jersey Militia, wanted a means of transporting troops around the Island in view of a perceived French invasion threat. His proposed line would run along the coast between St Catherine’s Bay and St Helier and then on to St Aubin.

‘If these were connected by a railway on which a force of 10,000 troops and 40 field pieces could be moved to any point in half an hour,’ Le Couteur stated in a letter to the Lieutenant Governor, ‘Jersey should surely be deemed safe from sudden capture.’

In the end, the Colonel’s proposals – and his worries about French intentions – came to nothing. Jersey would have to wait for its railway.

Mindful of the need for progress, the States of Jersey passed a law in 1864 authorising the construction of a railway in the Island. It just needed a company to carry out the work and operate the line. Not until the spring of 1869 did one step up and seize the opportunity.

The terminus at St Aubin

Edward Pickering

The Jersey Railway Company received permission to lay a line along St Aubin’s Bay. Its 41-year-old managing director, Edward Pickering, had been connected with railways since his childhood when he recalled walking to school along the pioneering Newcastle and Carlisle Line. He was convinced it was possible to run a profitable enterprise in Jersey – despite warnings

‘When I first came to the Island, many gentlemen seemed to think a railway was unnecessary and would not pay,’ Pickering elaborated, whereas he was confident, having, ‘thoroughly examined the Jersey scheme before he ever put a shilling into it.’

That Jersey scheme was a standard gauge single railway line running between stations in St Helier and St Aubin, with three stops along the bay at First Tower, Millbrook and Beaumont (further stations and halts were later added).

On 29 September 1870 it was ready to conduct the first trial run. After waiting expectedly for some hours, the crowd of interested onlookers gathered in St Helier were treated to a spectacle few Islanders would have witnessed before.

At half past five in the afternoon, the engine emerged into view. The ‘iron horse’, as one local newspaper labelled the engineering marvel, then ‘puffed and snorted and screamed, to the immense delight and wonder of hundreds of persons, some of whom had come from remote parishes’.

Under admiring gazes, the trial train ran to St Aubin before returning to St Helier Station one hour later.

St Helier Station stood on land reclaimed from the sea several decades earlier. Its entrance and ticket office faced modern-day Liberation Square, with a spacious arched train shed behind, covering the platform.

Dignitaries

On 25 October 1870 a large and excited crowd gathered outside and along the nearby Esplanade to witness the railway’s grand opening.

The breadth of invited dignitaries accepting invitations underlined the importance Jersey attached to its new railway. The Lieut-Governor, the Bailiff, the Dean and the Constable of St Helier, Mr Josue Falle, all advanced through the crowds to join States Members and assembled clergy waiting on the platform.

Representatives of the Island’s military were present as well, including Colonel Le Couteur, the Militia officer who first called for a railway 25 years earlier.

The timetable had grown by 1896, but not by very much

The military also provided a smartly turned-out guard of honour, along with a band and battery of cannons that unlimbered on the Albert Pier ready to fire off a 13-gun salute.

The accompanying weather was mercifully good – after several days of stormy conditions the rain had ceased and sky cleared, permitting a thin sun to shine down on the occasion.

Inside the station, bedecked with flags, banners and elaborately arranged evergreen garlands, the dignitaries took their seats in the train’s pristine carriages. Last to board was the Lieut-Governor, General Sir Philip Guy, who paused briefly on the platform to declare in a loud, solemn voice that the railway was officially opened.

Then they were off, accompanied by a cacophony of cheering crowds, stirring music and banging cannons. The train had come to town – and was leaving again.

It took just nine and a half minutes for that inaugural train to reach the station at St Aubin. There the enthusiastic passengers climbed into horse-drawn carriages for conveyance to a sumptuous celebratory lunch at Noirmont Manor, the magnificent home of railway managing director Edward Pickering.

After many congratulatory toasts the dignitaries returned and left for St Helier with a spectacular firework display bursting overhead. It had been quite a day.

Timetable

The commercial timetable for the following days scheduled 15 return journeys on weekdays and Saturdays, each taking 18 minutes to travel from town to St Aubin, and the same time back again. The first train left St Helier Station at 8.10 am, the last return back from St Aubin departed at 10.40 pm.

Sundays featured a reduced service of just 10 return journeys between 9am and 10pm. The price per ticket was set at 9d for a first class return, 6d to experience the same journey in second class. It appeared to be a perfectly good plan.

Edward Pickering’s calculations, as he boasted at the inaugural lunch, had never failed. At first all seemed to be on target – the train service was well-used, especially on the weekends. There were new stations added and a third engine arrived to supplement those already in service.

But while the railway may have been steaming straight ahead, the finances were going off track – unfortunately for Mr Pickering ,who was the main shareholder.

Unable to pay its debts, his Jersey Railway Company would go bust in 1873. The railway may have come to town, but an uphill climb would be needed to keep it there.

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