Talyllyn Railway

Published Mon, 2015-07-27 11:54

The weekend of Friday 3 to Sunday 5 July saw the Talyllyn Railway celebrate the 150th anniversary of the company receiving the Royal Assent to construct the line. It was on 5 July 1865 that this auspicious event occurred.


One of the original two Talyllyn Railway locomotives, Dolgoch, is seen during the special photographers’ charter on Sunday 5 July 2015. © Peter Waller

The weekend of Friday 3 to Sunday 5 July saw the Talyllyn Railway celebrate the 150th anniversary of the company receiving the Royal Assent to construct the line. It was on 5 July 1865 that this auspicious event occurred.
Although slate quarrying had been undertaken in the hills to the east of Tywyn since the 1830s, it was not until the 1860s that commercial pressure resulted in the necessity of constructing a railway line to move the quarried slate to the coast. One of the consequences of the American Civil War (1861-65) was that the cotton mills of Lancashire were starved of raw cotton from the Confederate states and thus faced potential ruin. The threat to the British cotton trade was such that the country almost went to war in support of the slave-owning south. Certain Lancashire mill owners sought to invest in other businesses as a consequence; one of these was William McConnel (1809-1902) who, in January 1864, formed the Aberdovey Slate Co and acquired the lease of the slate quarries at Bryn Eglwys.
With the construction of the standard gauge line along the coast proceeding, the construction of a seven-mile long narrow gauge line to Tywyn offered the most sensible route to move the quarried slate to customers. The Act, as passed, permitted the railway to operate both freight and passenger services. Following the passing of the Act, the company moved quickly and appointed James Swinton Spooner (1816-84) as the line’s engineer and work proceeded quickly.
In September 1866 the new line was ready for inspection. However, the inspecting officer, Captain Henry Tyler (1827-1908), discovered a problem: the loading gauge of the 2ft 3in gauge line was too small. The carriages were 5ft 3½in wide and the internal width of the overbridges was 9ft 1in. In theory, the minimum required clearance required was 2ft 6in on either side; on the Talyllyn, however, Tyler discovered it was less than 2ft. As a consequence, he refused to pass the line. McConnel came up with a solution; this was to slew the track slightly to one side through the overbridges and to secure the doors on the non-platform sides so that the carriages only had operating doors on the line’s northern side. Tyler approved this arrangement and unofficial passenger services commenced, at the passengers’ own risk, in October with the line’s first public timetable being issued in December 1866, following Tyler’s successful second inspection the previous month.
The line commenced operation with two locomotives — No 1 Talyllyn and No 2 Dolgoch — both of which were supplied by Fletcher, Jennings & Co Ltd of Whitehaven in 1866, one carriage and various wagons. The early years of the railway were prosperous, with public passenger services running between Tywyn and Abergynolwyn and with workers’ trains going further, to the bottom of the Alltwyllt incline at Nant Gwernol. Additional stations were opened at Rhydyronen in 1867 and at Brynglas and Dolgoch (both in 1873). Freight traffic, particularly of slate, was heavy, with the quarries at Bryn Eglwys producing more than 8,000 tons of slate per annum by the 1880s.
By the following decade, however, slate production was in decline and this had an inevitable effect on the railway’s finances. Although there was a brief revival in 1896 as a result of a labour dispute at the Penrhyn Quarry, this was to be short-lived and, at the expiry of the company’s lease at Bryn Eglwys in 1910 the quarry closes. It was reopened the following year under the ownership of Henry Haydn Jones (1863-1950), who therefore also became the owner of the Talyllyn Railway. Under his control, the rail continued to operate through World War 1 and the interwar period.
Both slate and passenger traffic was to operate through until World War 2. In the 1942 the lease on Bryn Eglwys quarry again expired; it was renewed on an annual basis thereafter until 1946 when there was a collapse in the quarry workings. Deemed unsafe, the quarry closed immediately, resulting in the loss of the final slate traffic over the line.
During the 1930s the winter passenger service was reduced to three days per week and, during World War 2, the passenger services were operated intermittently. After the war (with services finally suspended from 16 March 1945 until the spring of 1946), passenger services operated generally during the summer months only from 1946 through to 1949. The pattern was the same in 1950s, with passenger services introduced on Easter Friday, then Easter Monday and Whit Monday before a three-day a week services was reintroduced in early June. This was to operate for the last time on 5 October 1950.
At the time this seemed to be the end of the line’s history as Haydn Jones had died on 2 July 1950 and, with his death, the line seemed to have no future. However, Haydn Jones had vowed that the line would survive and, with the involvement on Tom Rolt (1910-1974), who had written to the Birmingham Post advocating the line’s preservation, and the support of Haydn Jones’s widow, the preservation society took on the line’s lease and started its operations in 1951 — the first preserved railway in the world.
Preserved operation commenced on 15 May 1951 initially between Wharf station in Tywyn and Rhydyronen. Full services were introduced on 4 June 1951. The line’s final extension, over the section from Abergynolwyn to Nant Gwernol was formally opened on 22 May 1976.