Dramway to Railway
As Our first local ‘railway’, the historic Dramway certainly deserves room in the history books. Its construction straddled that period between horse-drawn transport, such as carts and canal barges, and the newly invented steam engine.

Although there is no recognised origin of the word ‘dramway’, it is used locally to describe a narrow railway connected with, and used by the coal industry. Whilst not identified as such in a dictionary, the word ’dram’ appears to be a South Gloucestershire colloquialism or sobriquet for the coal carrying truck, but may just be the local mispronunciation of the word ‘tram’, which is used to describe the same type of vehicle in other parts of the Country. Locally, the dramway was constructed to convey coal from the coalfields at Coalpit Heath to the River Avon at Keynsham, having on its route connected up with other mines at Westerleigh, Mangotsfield, Syston, North Common and Oldland Common.

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Problems with coal transportation

In this day and age of modern roads, it is perhaps surprising that Mine Owners should have contemplated, not only the need, but were also prepared to meet the cost of , constructing such a railed track over so many miles, just to get their coal as far as the river, and for it then to have to be transferred to barges, before the coal could arrive in the market place of either Bristol or Bath.

However, the state of the roads at the end of the eighteenth century, and into the beginning of the nineteenth century, was so bad that the mine owners had little choice. The owners were, after all, business men with a constant eye for profit, and it was soon realised that the construction of such a circuitous route would not only ease the carriage of coal, it would also lower the cost of transportation.

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from the coalfields to the customer

As the nineteenth century developed, the demand for coal grew at an ever increasing rate, and many ideas were put forward to bring the product from the coalfields to the customer more quickly and, importantly, at less cost. In 1803, a proposal was put forward by the Wilts & Berks Canal Co. to build a railroad from Pucklechurch and Coalpit Heath to the Avon near Keynsham. Although this proposal was supported by the Kennet & Avon Canal Company, nothing seems to have come from it. Some 9 years later, a John Blackwell surveyed a route from Coalpit Heath to the River Avon, but was unable to recommend that a railway line should be built, on the grounds that the proposed route was too hilly, and it would mean that the line would have to be very crooked.

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A further 15 years were to pass before the matter of getting the coal to the river was resurrected, and with the increasing need to bring the coal to the customer, there was perhaps a greater urgency to get things done. After a number of frustrating delays, an Act of Parliament to build the line received the Royal assent on the 19th June 1828.

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From Coalpit Heath to River Avon

As Coalpit Heath is some 728ft. above the level of the River Avon at Keynsham, the railroad was carefully graded so that full trucks could "free-wheel" from the mine to either Londonderry Wharf at Willsbridge, for onward shipment to Bristol or, to Town Wharf for onward shipment to Bath and onto London.

The practice of the day was to collect a number of trucks together to form a train which would travel at around a walking pace. (ie 3-4 miles per hour) Each truck was about 9ft.long, and built on a railway standard gauge wheel base of 4’8" wide. It could carry 4 tons of coal in its wooden body which had sloping ends for ease of tipping, and ran on four – 30" diameter iron flanged wheels. The only motive power ever used on the line was that provided by the horse who pulled the trucks whilst walking between the rails, with the driver walking beside the wagons in order to operate the brake.



For the journey to the river, the hardest job for both man and horse was to prevent the wagons from over-running the downward gradient. On at least one occasion, a driver failed to apply the spragg (ie the long handle), to the brake lever on the wagon quickly enough, which caused the loaded vehicles to gather speed, pushing the horse in front of them. Before the driver was able to recover the position, the speed and force of the train was such that the poor unfortunate horse was tripped to the ground and killed as the wagons crashed into it. Almost certainly other instances of a similar nature took place but, this would appear to be the only time that the horse was killed whilst still on the track.

More often than not, the horse carried out its work unattended, although, with the majority of the route consisting of a single track, there must have been some form of control/signalling, so that the down loaded wagons could pass with safety, the up empties.

Each mine would have its own trucks, which under the conditions of the Act, had to have the mine owners name shown in 2" high letters on each side. In addition, the trucks had to display its relevant wagon number, and its weight. Almost certainly, a group of trucks from the same mine would, as they had left the mine together, stay together whilst traversing the dramway, but nevertheless it would have been an important part of the working day to ensure that each empty truck was correctly returned to the right mine.


Avon & Gloucestershire Railway

Although starting at Coalpit Heath, the dramway entered the north eastern boundary of the parish near Shortwood, passing the site of the first Mangotsfield Railway Station, where it officially became known as "the Avon & Gloucestershire Railway", branching off the main route (The Bristol & Gloucestershire Railway), which ran on through to Bristol, terminating at Cuckold’s Pill (now known as Avon Street Wharf), on the Floating Harbour.

Once beyond the Mangotsfield station, the dramway entered a narrow brick-lined tunnel under the road embankment, curving off to the right on its way to the Clay Pit and Syston Hill Colliery. During the construction, in 1869, of the Midland Railways’ branch line to Bath, the dramway was diverted into the railway cutting so as to avoid crossing the main line twice on the level. As the original curve of the dramway turned right, it passed a building originally used as a horse gin and, just beyond, the route was joined by the branch line from the lower Soundwell Pit.

This pit, which was situated at or near the junction of Chiphouse Road and Station Road, joined the main trackway by means of a small incline (still clearly visible today). The incline is therefore one of the very few stretches of track on the whole dramway system which would have required the loaded trucks to have been hauled uphill.

Having passed the old pump house, the dramway continued over the common on a sizeable embankment before being joined by a small spur from Syston Hill Colliery. Once past this colliery, the track crossed the road by means of a small bridge, (unfortunately no longer in existence) as the road level has been brought up to meet the trackbed. Continuing across the common, the track then ran under the bridge carrying Norman Road, passing on the left a brick and tile works which was later to have a short spur connecting it with the system. Beyond this point, the next obstacle met by the dramway was the London Road at Warmley which it crossed on the level, just down from the level·crossing to be built by the Midland Railway Company. In this section, the dramway was connected with Crown Pit Colliery, one of the largest mines in the area.


Oldland Common

Continuing south, the dramway ran through a cutting, and passed under a bridge near St. Barnabas Church, before entering an old sandstone quarry and on to yet another embankment. Passing under Poplar Road and Victoria Road, the track continued across North Common, meeting the High Street, Oldland Common almost opposite Weston Court. Crossing the turnpike the track entered a brick lined tunnel, beneath a house, and then went through part of Redfield Farm, where there was a branch which curved back, under High Street and over the Midland Railway, on a stone bridge, for a quarter of a mile to Bull Hall Colliery. There was also to be built at this point, a small spur to connect Hole (sometime referred to as Haul Lane Pit). Almost certainly the track bed at this point was well below the natural ground-level, as upon leaving the farm area, it passed under Redfield Hill, along the backs of the houses facing the High Street, (probably in a cutting)passing the bottom of Castle Road to a short tunnel which took the dramway under Barry Road. It then continued, in a cutting just south of School Lane, which was becoming progressively deeper, before bearing left to enter a 73 yard long tunnel to take it under the Midland Railway line and Cherry Gardens Lane. It is said that most of this tunnel was bored out of solid rock which meant that the rails could be pinned straight onto the rock floor, without the need for using the customary stone sleepers. Having passed through the relatively short rock cutting found immediately south of this tunnel, the track emerged on a high embankment overlooking a steeply sided, picturesque valley some 30-40 feet above the meandering stream.


California Pit

Sweeping around to the right, the dramway was in later years to meet at this point the track from California Pit, to become known as Tramway Junction. To get the coal from the California Pit by rail, meant that there would have to be built an incline to bring the colliery wagons down to meet the lower dramway, as well as bridging the Warmley Brook. Having done so, the engineers then had to ensure that any rogue trucks in the system which might run away down the incline, would cause the least amount of damage possible. Accordingly, the track was laid so that having descended the incline, the rails turned to the left, running along side the dramway for a short length, before using a trailing point to connect with the "main line". By taking this course of action, any run away wagon from the incline would, (provided it remained on the track) be made to run uphill and thus slow it’s speed to a stop, rather than turn straight into the descent, and cause all sorts of havoc in either the tunnel or over the un-manned level crossing or, at Willsbridge wharf.


Willsbridge Tunnel

Having passed what was to become, some 50 years later, Tramway Junction, the line curved left, and entered yet another stone-line cutting, although this one was at around 50ft. deeper than the others. Through this cutting, the track was then swallowed up by one of the most difficult engineering projects on the whole line, the 150 yard Willsbridge Tunnel. Beyond the tunnel, the track ran through a grass-lined cutting, complete with a passing loop, before crossing the Bath Road at an unguarded level crossing. South of the crossing, the track divided into wagon sidings for use as storage and, for the purpose of collating of owners wagons, and was fully equipped with its own weighbridge. The main track continued passed this storage area, and just before reaching the lane which led down to Clack Mill Farm, the track entered a further small tunnel (just 65ft long) to take it under the Keynsham Road and on across the fields in a cutting to Back or Avon Wharf.


Towards the end of 1830, and after a number of inspection trips had taken place, the Committee was told at its November meeting, that the Willsbridge tunnel had a mistake in its level which would involve the need to deepen it, and that two bridges had not been built to plan. It was also highly recommended at that meeting that, for safety reasons, and also to minimise future maintenance costs, that a maximum speed limit of 6 mph, should be laid down, and rigorously enforced, with offenders liable to instant dismissal.

1830, the first train of 6 loaded wagons left Hole Lane Colliery

By December, the Committee were informed that rails were shortly to be laid at the Backs (Avon Wharf`), whilst the crane to be used there was already in situ. Work proceeded so well that on the 30 December 1830, the first train of 6 loaded wagons left Hole Lane Colliery and travelled through to Avon Wharf, despite the fact that Hole Lane did not have, at that time, a rail connection with the dramway, and thus to make the journey, the loaded wagons had first to be dragged across the road, and then rolled on to the lines.

By the middle of January 1831, the dramway was usable for more than 12 miles from the river, and although Hole Lane stopped sending down any coal for the time being, Syston Hill Pit was properly connected, and able to send coal through. Thus, for the first time ever, coal from that pit, inquantity, was able to reach the river in less than an hour from leaving the pit-head.

The winter of 1831 was quite severe, with heavy rain and deep frosts causing the newly formed cuttings, and embankments to move and slide. Work however continued on the northern section, and repairs were carried out to the damage caused by winter weather so that by the first week of May 1831, Hole Lane was able to send through 60 tons of coal in 15 wagons, despite the problems of the previous weeks when, damage had been caused to a number of its wagons, after vandals had released the trucks and sent them rolling down the dramway.


The cold wet winter was followed by a hot dry summer, which, when combined with the pounding of the loaded wagons, brought just the right recipe for further, and more alarming settlement of the earthworks. Concern was expressed about the movement of the embankment at Warmley and stout timbers had to be used to restrict further movement. However, the Oldland embankment overlooking the Southwood Valley was found to be so unsafe, that it was necessary to build a massive stone retaining wall to keep the earthworks in position.


maintaining the dramway

Throughout 1831 work continued, to improve and maintain the dramway, including, at the cost of £80.37 for materials, the construction of the branch line to Hole Lane. When completed, that colliery was able to fully use the line, and loaded wagons were dispatched to the wharfs on at least 5 days per week. By November 1832, the line was fully operational, and around 3,000 tons of coal per month in around 750 wagon trips, was being shipped out of just Avon Wharf. This involved considerable logistic problems in ensuring that the empty wagons did not foul the running line and cause delay in the loaded wagons arriving at the wharf whilst, at the same time, ensuring that the empty trucks were at the correct pit-head ready to receive the coal, as and when required. Such was the effect of the dramway in easing the transportation of coal to the market place, that the price fell by 3/- to 4/- (l5p—20p) per ton.

new branch-line added

Partly to ease the traffic, and partly to avoid the cost of using the Keynsham lock, it was decided to construct a branch to a new wharf, to be built on the river at Londonderry Farm and locally known as Jacky Whites. Work on the branch started in December 1832, and the wharf became operational in October 1833, with two berths, one for large and one for small coal.

The amount of coal shipped out over the dramway had probably reached its peak by March 1836, but a substantial decline started later that year, and continued over the next, 14 years, so that by 1850, only around 204 tons of coal per week were being taken over the route. A year later, the owners of the Avon & Gloucestershire Railway – The Kennet & Avon Canal Company, were taken over by the Great Western Railway, but by then there was very little traffic using the line, particularly from the northern section, with pits having been worked out, flooded, or abandoned. By 1865, the GWR had obtained powers under the GWR (Additional Powers) Act to abandon the whole or part of the dramway, and during January 1867 Hole Lane Pit sent through the last revenue earning load of coal to the river.

For the next 10 years or more, the dramway remained unused

For the next 10 years or more, the dramway remained unused, whilst nature continued to reclaim that which was hers. However, with the re-opening in 1876 of California Colliery, plans were made to lay a connecting branch with the dramway in order that coal could be taken out in bulk. To do so would involve the need to construct an incline, and the building of a bridge across the Warmley Brook. Eventually in 1881, the line from Oldland was repaired, and coal was taken to Londonderry Wharf.

By then a wharf had been built at Willsbridge for coal to be taken away by road, whilst the sidings had been considerably enlarged. During 1892 it was recorded that over 100 tons of coal was being shipped out through the three wharfs per day.

As was the pattern of the local coalfields, success was not to last, and within 14 years the California Coal Company was in financial difficulties. The amount of coal dispatched over the dramway in October 1903, had fallen to 1,164 tons, or less than 40 tons per day, and it was becoming less and less economical to send coal out in this way, especially as the maintenance of the infrastructure was increasing all of the time. Matters came to a sudden and dramatic end in March 1904. when a considerable amount of water burst in from old workings and, totally closed down the production of coal. According to an entry in the wharfage book, the last load of coal to-be sent through to Willsbridge wharf, occurred on the 30 January 1904, when 66 tons left the pit-head.

Whilst it is possible that coal was sent through to the river wharfage during February, there is a suspicion that, due to the financial difficulties being experienced by the owners, the production of coal, and the maintenance of the coal face, was neglected during February, and that very few, if any, miners worked underground after the last week of January 1904.

all traffic on the Avon Tramway has now ceased

On the 9 July 1906, the Traffic Committee of the Great Western Railway, were informed by it’s General Manager that, "all traffic on the Avon Tramway has now ceased" Thus for the second time in its relatively short existence, the line lay abandoned, whilst nature again tried to reclaim that which was hers.

Although the track in the colliery yard and along to the incline was sold as an asset of the California Coal Company, the bulk of the track on the dramway remained until it was removed as salvage during the First World War. However, some of the rails ended up locally as fence rails and some can still be seen at Londonderry Farm.


Midland Railway Company

In 1845 the Midland Railway Company took over the broad gauged Bristol & Gloucester Railway, and in May of the following year gave notice that it intended applying to Parliament for an Act to enable a line to be constructed from Mangotsfield to Bath. Had their first proposal not been withdrawn at the time of the second reading, then it is quite probable that Oldland would never have been on the railway map, as the original intention was to build a branch line north of Wick, through Freezing Hill, before descending into Bath via the Swainswick Valley, and onto a terminus to have been built at Bathwick.

Whilst the Act was dead and buried, the idea was not, although it was to lay dormant for a number of years. It was not until 1862 that the idea re-surfaced, when serious consideration was given to the report of a survey which took the new 9 mile long proposed route through to Bridgeyate, Upton Cheyney, Kelston and on into Bath, to terminate at Queens Parade. However, this proposal did not suit everyone, particularly wealthy landowners at Kelston and at Bath. Many influential objections were raised, resulting in the plan being subsequently abandoned in October 1863.

At this time the Midland Railway were even more determined to get to Bath, and a new route was chosen to take the line along the now familiar route through Warmley and Bitton. With less objection, this new plan was presented to Parliament, and on the 21 July 1864 the "Mangotsfield and Bath Act received its Royal Assent. By May 1866, well over 600 men were employed on the construction of the route, which continued for the next three years, the line being officially opened on the 3 August 1867, even though the Bath terminus was at that time not complete and the trains had to stop just short of the river, the eventual terminus being built on just the other side.

During 1874, the Somerset & Dorset Railway Company their extension to Bath thereby connecting with the Midland Railway at their Bath Green Park Station. This meant that instead of the branch being no more than a long spur culminating in a dead-end, trains from the north could now continue on to the south coast and the holiday town of Bournemouth.

Throughout most of its existence, the work of running the branch line was mostly mundane, probably reaching its peak during the the 1930’s and l940’s. A station at Oldland Common was opened in 1935, whilst another station, the one at Kelston was closed in 1949.


Beeching Cuts

Following the infamous Beeching Report the writing was on the wall with regard to the well-being of this line, and in 1953 the Bristol terminus at St. Philips was permanently closed, with trains now starting and finishing at Temple Meads. In the same year the station at Weston (Bath) was closed to passengers. The end came quite quickly, with the closure in 1965, of the goods yards of Warmley, Bitton and Weston plus the closure of the Bitton signal box. Just four passenger trains per day were left to keep the line open, but on the 7 March 1966 these trains succumbed to the pressures of the railway hierarchy, and Warmley, Oldland Common, and Bitton, together-with the other stations on the line, closed completely.

Bath Gasworks

All that remained was a daily service of coal being taken to Bath Gas Works. However, with the introduction of North Sea Gas, the need to produce town gas from coal became unnecessary, and in July 1971, gas production at Bath ceased, and so did the need for the line.

This should have been the end of line and, for most of it, that is precisely what happened.

However, part of the line, and in particular that part which runs through the area covered by the-village and the parish was resurrected. More of this later, but first a general description of the local route.


Warmley Station

When built, Warmley station gave the appearance of being a temporary structure with the platform buildings being constructed of wood, although the Station Master’s house was, and still is, a solid stone construction. A goods yard was set out, and contained three roads, plus a large goods shed built of brick and stone. In 1899, a timber foot-bridge was built at the London Road end of the station, which not only enabled passengers to cross the tracks but, also enabled pedestrians to continue with their journey when the level-crossing gates were set for the movement of the trains.


Odland Station

This bridge was eventually replaced by one built of plate girder around 1929. From Warmley, the line descends towards Oldland Common, but the village had to wait until the 2 December 1935 before its name was added to the Railway Gazetteer, with the opening of its own station. Although by all standards, the station was a very poor example of those built on the branch, it was the only one on the line to be connected to the mains electricity, and thus, had the sleeper built platforms and the modest waiting rooms lit by this power. The decision to build a station at Oldland proved popular, and generally the trains picked up more passengers here than at Bitton.

Although parcels could be collected and left at Oldland, the station, being in a cutting, had no sidings and, thus, there were no facilities for goods traffic. With the run-down of the branch, the station was no longer manned after 7 December 1964.


Bitton Station

After leaving Oldland station the route continued through a series of cuttings for a mile before reaching Bitton station. Here the main building on the down platform was built of local stone whilst, opposite there stood a shelter also built of local stone. Just north of the station, there was built a four road goods yard, one of which ran through a substantial goods shed, where up to six or so wagons could be unloaded under cover.

The goods yard was well patronised, and handled a variety of materials ranging from chemicals to locally dug moulding sand (from a quarry in Ryedown Lane), raw and finished materials re the Bitton Paper Mill plus, sheet steel, coal, machinery and farm implements and, animal hides. Within the yard there existed a fixed crane with a lifting capacity of 4 tons. Flowers, fruit and vegetables from nearby garden nurseries were dispatched by passenger train, with some of these products going as far afield as Scotland. To deal with this traffic, there was, at the turn of the century, a station master plus, 4 porters; 2 clerks and, 2 signalmen, employed at Bitton station.


The End from rail to road

As already stated, having built up the traffic and importance of this line by the 1930/40’s, there then occurred a decline in the use of railways, with both passengers and goods being switched to the roads. This manifested itself when the line was closed to passengers in 1966 and, to goods in 1971. By then the branch line had, during 1969, been reduced to single track working and was basically treated by the railway authorities as being nothing more than a long siding which stretched all of the way from Yate to Bath.

By brizzle born and bred on 2011-06-22 13:06:46


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