The Foxearth and District Local History Society
The Building of the Railway to Sudbury

By Andrew Clarke

Building the Eastern Union Railway-
Colchester-to-Ipswich at Brantham Bridge

Sudbury had expanded considerably as an industrial town in the eighteenth century. As well as its central position in the productive agricultural  lands of East Anglia, its continued importance in the more specialized types of weaving, and its extensive chalk mines and quarries, its success was indebted to the canal, which transported countless barges of bricks and lime to London to meet the demand of the raw materials for London's expansion. 

London’s booming economy depended on East Anglia and Kent for supply because the Thames was still the most practical way of shipping bulk goods into the metropolis, and of exporting bulk waste.

Kent and Essex had the advantage of being able to ship heavy and bulky goods into London around the coast and up the Thames without any trans-shipment. By the 1830s, however, there was agreement amongst the entrepreneurs of Sudbury that to make full use of this London trade, it needed a direct railway route to the coast, preferably the Hythe at Colchester.

Whereas the canal could transport bricks and mortar to the Thames-side developments of the early nineteenth century, it didn’t help with the transport of perishable goods or to serve the near continent. Also, the prosperous brickyards of Sudbury needed to be able to use the new railway system to carry railway wagons full of the fashionable red and white facing bricks to the new goods-yards of London out in the suburbs away from the river. The lime and bricks had been easy to deliver by barge when all the building development had been on or near the Thames. Now, the suburbs were beginning to open up with the arrival of the railways and Sudbury had to have rails to run brick and lime wagons all the way to these new London building sites.

The transport of passengers was considered a great bonus, but it wasn't the primary reason that drove the backers. All the detailed plans for the railway concerned the logistics of  transporting goods

Cheffins Map showed several wild schemes around East Anglia
after the completion of the line to Colchester and Cambridge.

There had been several Railway schemes raised since 1830, but  nothing that was practical. There was a scheme floated by John Wilks junior - a notorious Sudbury attorney, swindler and forger, born in 1793 who served as a Whig MP for Sudbury, and nicknamed "Bubbles Wilks" because of his scandalous stock market tricks.  As early as 1824 he promoted a company called The Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex Railroad Company. It failed. However, in 1843, the economics of a railway to Sudbury changed completely when the first goods trains  ran between Colchester and London, on the Eastern Counties Railway.  There was a direct line to London that could be joined-to. This railway had been a hugely-expensive undertaking, especially the viaduct across the low ground of the Thames valley and the cutting at the Brentwood Ridge. Once this was completed, The railway building activity in East Anglia stalled briefly while many schemes were promoted to extend from the railhead across East Anglia. This included the Sudbury line. Even then, nobody was thinking of a line with a terminus at Sudbury: it was planned as part of a through route built to main line standards to open up East Anglia. As originally envisaged, the Sudbury line would be just one part of a grand new railway driving across East Anglia via Stowmarket to Norwich, with branches to Ipswich and Bury.  By the time the proposal was first published, an alternative, and straighter route had been proposed by a rival company between Colchester and Sudbury via Lexden and Bures. This propelled the supporters of the Stour Valley Railway into action. They, instead, proposed a route  between Sudbury and Colchester's port, the Hythe that would run partly on the new Eastern Counties railway between Marks Tey and Colchester. It would then head toward the easy gradients of the Stour valley by going over the Colne and then burrowing below the Mount Bures Ridge in a  deep cutting. Once beyond Bures, the last few miles to Sudbury would be easy going. It was a more expensive route than the direct way to Colchester, but it made the journey to London much quicker. The proposal included a  grand triangular junction at Marks Tey that would allow traffic to head for London without any reversal of the train and allow trains in either direction to take the branch line. It had an ambitious twelve-mile double track line that crossed the Colne at Chappel on a vast 70ft high wooden bridge before traversing the Mount Bures ridge. The line would be double track throughout. When the proposal went through parliament in May 27th 1846, an amendment was made that in all cases where the railway crosses the road to compel the Company to erect a lodge at such crossings.  The proposal also included a spur or branch line from Chappel for the six  miles to Halstead. The Stour Valley Railway Bill received the Royal Assent on Friday July 1st 1846

Construction work on the Eastern Counties Railway in Essex
 (actually Ilford, but the scene would have been similar)

There was some trepidation from the shareholders of the Stour Navigation about the scheme, due to the tolls, the river dues and the high price of coal. However, the general feeling was that the two modes of transport would not be in competition. There had been talk of the two concerns amalgamating but a plan for the railway to purchase the Stour Navigation failed to get Parliamentary approval. The board of the Navigation shrugged and decided to carry on regardless. It turned out to be a good decision.

The Colchester, Stour Valley, Sudbury and Halstead Railway Company was incorporated 26th June 1846 under the acts 9 and 10 Vic, cap.76, which were later re-constituted by an act of 25th May 1855. The company was under the chairmanship of Mr Thomas L'Estrange Ewen of East Bergholt, with George Bawtree as secretary, and William Warwick Hawkins doing much of the work. Peter Bruff was the Engineer. Hawkins, of Alresford Hall, Essex, was an energetic entrepreneur who promoted several railway lines, and who later was returned to parliament as a conservative politician. The proposal enshrined in the 'The Stour Valley Railway Line Bill' was for two new lines to be built, one from Colchester Station to the docks at the Hythe, and another, 11 3/4 miles long, from Marks Tey to Sudbury. 

The contractors in Essex carried the soil along the line on a temporary
horse-drawn railway by the side of the line. These caused some accidents
due to the lack of brakes. The worn rails were eventually re-used for fencing

It was said at the time that the ambitious decision for a double track was taken not so much from the expected traffic, but from the greater simplicity of the signalling. This wasn't so. Within weeks of the work starting, the directors had come to an agreement with the Ipswich and Bury Railway that they would lease the line from this company once it was completed.  This assumed that this latter company would be able to build a line from Sudbury to Ipswich via Stowmarket, and the two lines would then meet somewhere near where the Sudbury terminus was subsequently built, so that the Sudbury to Marks Tey line would sweep in from the valley and curve away to the east towards Stowmarket. From here, the passenger would have, via the Ipswich and Bury Railway, straight and direct lines to Bury and Norwich. The line as envisaged represented a direct route from London to Ipswich and Norwich, far more direct than the railway that they eventually got.

The first part of the line, the short line from Colchester Station to the Hythe was completed by March 31st 1847. Meanwhile, work had started on the difficult route north of Marks Tey

There was great excitement in Sudbury about the coming line. On the large meadow behind the gardens of the houses that lined the Market Hill, the road later called 'Great Eastern Road' was built.  This was to be the site of the new Railway station, built as a terminus. Several plots were laid out 'for the erection of Maltings, Mills and Manufactories and all buildings calculated for mercantile purposes’. These plots were auctioned at the Rose and Crown Inn. The rest were reserved for the new terminus of the line. This station wasn't built as a terminus, but on the alignment of the junction between the railway from Marks Tey and the proposed line from Stowmarket. It was built conveniently close to the Market Hill, 'The proper terminus and station will be not more than 200 yards from the Market Hill and the entrance will be opposite the Bear Inn'. Sadly, the new terminus was fated, within twenty years, to  be abandoned for passengers, and converted into a Goods Depot.  Already, by 1847, things were looking less than hopeful for the grand scheme of the direct Norwich route, and so  further acts of parliament were obtained allowing the company to extend from Sudbury to Clare with a branch from Melford to Bury St. Edmunds. Bruff, the engineer proposed a tunnel around Sudbury anti-clockwise to get to Long Melford, but the idea was abandoned due to the curve required. The line would have to take the route of the valley through to Long Melford instead. The idea was shelved for a decade and the railway to Clare and Haverhill became reality only in September 1865, taking the graceful route above the water meadows on an embankment. 

The entire construction of the line was contracted to George Wythes for 190,000 and work commenced in August 1846, and the section of track from Marks Tey to Sudbury was started early in 1847. The two major constructions were the Chappel viaduct and the cutting at the Mount Bures ridge.  At first,  Peter Bruff had decided to build the bridge from laminated timber on brick piers, which was a method advocated by Brunel. However,  the team who had commenced with the foundations of the bridge in July 1847 discovered that the valley floor was not silt and peat-seams but good solid clay that could take the weight of a brick bridge. Unfortunately, the contractors were familiar with the hard bricks made from london clay and were unimpressed by the 'soft reds' used in East Anglia. However, the contractor Weston, whose men were starting work on the long Mount Bures cutting, came across  a large seam of clay that would be ideal for bricks and set to work constructing temporary kilns. Within three months that had managed to make two million bricks and, at the same time, solving the problem of how to dispose of the clay in the deep cutting of the Bures Ridge.

At the time, the Colchester and Stour Railway Engineers Report spoke of the difficulties involved with the work between Chappel and Bures. 

"The large embankments at Chappel are closed, and a road laid over the viaduct; a continuous tine of rails is now, therefore, laid nearly from Marks Tey to Mount Bures At the summit, at Mount Bures, about 25000 cubic yards have yet to be removed to obtain a single road, out of nearly 400.000 cubic yards originally contained in the cutting. The completion of this  cutting is the measure of time for opening your railway, as until this is done, and a continuous road laid, the ballasting the line up to the junction with the Eastern Counties' Railway, and which ballast must be brought from the Stour Valley aide of the summit level, cannot be proceeded with. The material in this cutting  proved so difficult to remove that the contractor has been obliged to retort to blasting to expedite the program of the works ; and, he is at work on both sides, removing the earth towards Chappel and towards Bures, I am  in hopes that he will have the gullet through so as to enable him to proceed with the ballast in a month from this time.”

The method of making the shallower type of cutting

“At Bures, about 3,000 cubic yards of earthwork have to be removed to embankment, but this cannot conveniently be done until the embankment is made up from Mount Bures, when two or three weeks will suffice for its completion”

In the summer of  1848, a young man named William York was buried under a fall of earth in the Stour Valley Railway cutting at Lt Cornard and died the next day.

By January 1849, the works of the Colchester and Stour Valley Railway Line were  within ¾ of a mile from Sudbury, and the Railway company confidently announced that the line would be open in June,

With all the excavation going on, it was no surprise that some fossils and archaeology were found. On February  1848, the labourers employed on the Stour Valley line in the parish of Lamarsh uncovered, 14ft under the surface, the head and tusks of a mammoth. The teeth measured 10", the tusks broke when being removed but measured 11ft in length. The following year,  as railway workers were excavating the line at Gt Cornard, nearly opposite the Five Bells Inn, they discovered, 12 ft from the surface, a large tooth and a tusk, 4ft in length of the mammoth or fossilised elephant. at the end of 1848, labourers upon the line at Mt Bures discovered about 5ft below the surface, three amphorae about 3ft high and very small at the neck, one was taken out perfect and another with a handle and spike broken off, the other two were broken. ( Greek or Roman Jars) . Another implement was found with two outer prongs and having double points “upon which are knobs of brass similar to which are placed on the horns of cattle.”

The Marks Tey to Sudbury section of the line opened in June  1849 at a temporary terminus near Clovers Mill. To meet the first passenger train to Sudbury carrying an official party from Colchester ran on July 2nd, full of civic dignitaries and officials of the railway company,  a wooden triumphal arch was created at Marks Tey, decorated with garlands of flowers and foliage. Unfortunately, the arch was too small. As the train entered the branch line at Marks Tey, the engine's chimney struck the  triumphal arch, causing it to crash onto the boiler of the engine. Thus garlanded, the train continued on its way to Sudbury, being greeted en route by a band at Bures and bells at Sudbury, where a great crowd awaited it. Because the permanent  station was still unfinished, and the train had arrived early, the honoured guests had to  walk into the town and cool their heels at the Bear Inn for a couple of hours before sitting down to a celebratory banquet at the town hall.

The opening week was an auspicious one, far exceeding the expectations of the directors. The general opinion was that the line was excellent, superior to  many. Among the goods sent was the novel one of 50 sacks or more of fresh green peas for the London market. This was a sign of things to come, with a huge transport of fresh produce overnight to the metropolis, arriving at Covent Garden by the early morning. The railway also transported a great quantity of flour to London on that first week.  Sufficient coal arrived via the railway to depress the going rate from 22s 6d to 19s a ton. The terminus near the market hill opened in July. 

By October a great traffic was being carried on in both passengers and goods on the new Stour Valley Railway. To everyone's surprise, there as a great increase instead of a decrease in the coal trade on the river Stour barges at Sudbury. Although great quantities of coal were being sold at the railway station, the trade of the coalyards connected with the navigation were increasing so much that  barges could not keep up supply, and other places had to be fixed up at the Quay for receiving coal. The downstream traffic also increased, with quantities of heavy goods such as corn, flour and malt which were sent down the river Stour  to Mistley,  The Stour Navigation  was able to transport via the Thames in increasingly large quantities right into the heart of London, near the river where development was then taking place. The cost-per-mile by barge for bulk goods was cheaper than the railway despite the need for trans-shipment from river barge to the larger estuary barge at Mistley. The  negotiations that had been proceeding for the merger of the Stour Navigation and the Railway  fell through when it became apparent that this increased trade was going to be long-term. This  increased trade, together with the fact that the Stour Navigation had just expended several thousand pounds in the previous few years in improving the river, decided the company to continue in competition with the railway.

The  extension to Bury St. Edmunds and Clare was abandoned for lack of funds, as was the spur to Halstead. In 1862 the Eastern Union Railway and Eastern Counties Railway were amalgamated into the new Great Eastern Railway. The Stour Valley Railway company lingered on until 1900