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Letting Off Steam

Michael Hasted investigates the early days of the railways and steam locomotion in Cheltenham. crack

There was a time not so long ago when the railways were a viable and comfortable way to travel; when it was possible to travel from Cheltenham to London at speed and in comfort. In fact, one of the trains that made that journey was the Cheltenham Spa Express, better known to the world as The Cheltenham Flyer.

Cheltenham has never really been thought of as one of the great railway towns or junctions but up until the 1970s vast areas of the town were great sprawling goods yards and sidings. There were three stations in town and some fairly significant railway events took place here.

When the railways really began to take hold and change the world for ever, Cheltenham was a significant player. Of course the railways were privately owned in those days and Cheltenham lay at the intersection of two of the great companies - Birmingham & Gloucester (later the Midland) Railway and Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Great Western Railway.

GWR’s original St. James’ Station opened on 23 October 1847 more or less where Waitrose stands today and was the first station with Brunel’s controversial broad gauge track. In 1872 the track was converted to the new standard gauge and in September 1894 a replacement station was opened nearer to the town centre in the appropriately named St. James’ Square. The new station was built on part of Jessop’s Gardens. It was a beautiful terminus with an ornate wrought iron and glass canopy reminiscent of St. Marylebone station in London.

The original station was demolished but the whole area from St. James’ Square to what is now Waitrose, below St. George’s Road was sidings. There was also an enormous coal yard in the Square. St. James’ satellite station, Malvern Road, was also the centre of an enormous area of siding which is now the Travis Perkins building supplies yard on the Gloucester Road.

And that was not all. Between Lansdown Road Station, which had opened in June 1840 and the Tewksbury Road, there were huge yards. As well as the various sidings there was a sizeable factory making railway carriages in Cheltenham as well.

By 1850 Shackleford’s Carriage Works was established in Albion Street and during the next decade the works expanded to produce railway carriages, trucks and horseboxes for the Great Western Railway. The noise and smoke drew constant complaints from the town, but in 1857 the firm acquired a site next to St James’ Station. A large contract for Post Office railway carriages was completed in 1861 and by 1864 the company employed about 400 men. During that time Shackleford’s went into partnership with a Swansea firm, becoming the Cheltenham & Swansea Wagon Co. In 1869 the Cheltenham branch was closed and the work transferred to Swansea.

The Cheltenham Flyer operated out of St. James’ Station from 1923 and for a time was the fastest train in the world. It ran in the afternoon and was known as the “tea car train” calling at Gloucester and Stroud en route to Swindon where it joined the superb line that had been laid by Brunel in the 1830s.

Once it got onto this stretch of line the train was able to let fly and in 1923 it covered the 77 miles in an hour and fifteen thereby snatching the high speed title of fastest train in Great Britain from the North Eastern. In 1929 the introduction of the new Castle class locomotives enabled the speed to rise to an average of 66.2 mph and the claim that the train was the fastest regular service in the world. On the first day of the new schedule the locomotive pulling the train was the Launcesion Castle, number 5000, which covered the distance in exactly 68 minutes.

In June 1932, with a new timetable in place, an attempt was made at an all-out record.

With speeds consistently in the 90s or high 80s throughout most of the journey, the train took 56 minutes and 47 seconds to reach Paddington from Swindon and in doing so set up the world record for a steam train of 81.7 mph.

The Cheltenham Flyer ran until the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 when the train disappeared from the timetable. St. James’ Station finally closed for business after the arrival of the last train on 1st January 1966.

But Cheltenham had operated a much more sedate form of steam travel long before the Flyer took to the rails. On Sunday, 20th February 1831 Bell’s Weekly Messenger announced the inauguration, the previous Tuesday, of Sir Goldsworthy Gurney’s steam carriages which ran between Cheltenham and Gloucester. The Messenger reported:- “The first carriage left the commissioners’ yard about 12 o’clock, and was propelled several hours through the principal streets and roads in and about Cheltenham, apparently to divide, as much as possible, the people, and at the same time to gratify their curiosity.

The carriage is elegant and light in appearance, and constructed to carry or draw, or both. On the steam-carriage were ten persons, and in the vehicle attached to it eight more. It continued running through the streets and Montpellier drives until three o’clock, when it returned to the commissioners’ yard.

The crowd by this time was divided, and after taking in water and coke, the carriage immediately started for Gloucester; it made the distance, nine miles in forty-eight minutes; the motion were steady and uniform, the rate scarcely varying perceptibly the whole distance.

After taking in a fresh supply of water and coke at Gloucester, it returned again to Cheltenham, accompanied by several private carriages and gentlemen on horseback.

The carriage was regulated, stopped, and turned, with most extraordinary facility, and although it would have been difficult to have driven quiet horses safely under similar circumstances, it is most satisfactory to observe that not the slightest accident occurred during the day.”

The steam coaches made four round-trips daily, and in the course of the project travelled 4,000 miles and carried some 5,000 passengers. It was abandoned after only four months as there was considerable local opposition about the noisy equipment and damage to the roadway.