Willey, Ridings & Swinney

Extract from Savage R.F. and Smith L.D., The Waggon-Ways and Plate –ways of East Shropshire, Birmingham School of Architecture thesis (1965)

The first rails were laid between 1757 and 1759 to provide a link between the new Willey furnace and the Severn.  In June 1757 the Willey Company, whose old furnace was situated about 21 miles south of Broseley, made an agreement with George Forester involving coal and ironstone for the new furnaces and ironworks “soon to be erected at Dean Corner”.  Permission was granted to them to lay rails between the coalworks, ironstone works and the furnaces and also to and form the River Severn and to lay branches from any of the coalworks or ironstone works to the main rails.  This amounts to a line from Dean Corner, passing just north of Upper Ridding Farm to the wharf in Swinney estate.  A lease two years later, dated 10th May 1759, in which William Bromley granted to the Willey Company the right to lay and run rails, refers to the rails already laid down:

with full power to the said partners of their own Costs and Charges to lay new Rails and make a double Railway adjoining the said railways so that the whole double Railway does not exceed in breadth ten yards(sic) with liberty of passage with Horses and all other Cattle and with Wagons and all other Carriages whatsoever.”

The extraordinary width allowed for the railway is unexplained.  Timber railways were generally larger than iron ones, but even so T.G. Cumming in “ The Origin and Progress of Rail and Tram roads”, page 14 says:

“ the distance between the rails varies from three to four and a half feet, hence from nine to twelve feet broad will be quite sufficient for a single road, and it will require from fifteen to twenty feet for a double one.”

The indenture gives permission for branch line to be laid:

liberty to lay Rails and make a Railway for the carriage of the said Coals from the Pitts to the Railway herein before mentioned.”

There is no evidence in these leases for any other branches of any consequence.  Coals were mined in pits near the main line:

Flint Coal Best Coal Middle Coal and Clod Coal which the Partners shall get in Swinney and Upper Ridings Farms”

and William Bromley’s tenant William Milner, who had the use of the rails, had his works near the main rails:

privilege for William Bromley to carry on the said railway already laid in Swinney Farm all the Quarry Stone the said William Milner shall get in any Quarry on the estate”.

Three maps prepared in 1780 and 1790 give us the precise route of the main line and a clue as to the location of the branch.  Some time before 1790 Robert Bromley presumably the son of William Bromley who granted the leases to the Willey Company in 1757 and 1759, sold the Ridding and Swinney estates to George Forester.  In October 1790 the surveyor Vickers drew up a plan of these two farms and also a separate plan of the estate on their west, between them covering almost the whole distance from New Willey to the Severn.  The main line of the railway is marked, but no branches at all.  The branch line referred to in the 1759 lease must have been removed, but there is a mention of a branch on a map of Caughley Estate on which a “Rail Road from Willey Furnace” has been roughly sketched in.

Caughley Estate is immediately to the south of Ridding and Swinney estates and this line is shown entering by the north edge and going to a field known as Pitt Leasow.  The main line is, of course, off the map.  There is nothing to show when this line was sketched in.  It does not appear on a similar map of 1795.

We next turn back to 1759 to examine the provisions made in the original lease for the taking up of the lines ate the end of the term.  The lease was for forty one years and would therefore, expire in 1800.

“ Partners at the end of term can remove all rails. sleepers and timber belonging to the railway on Ridding Farm and all other rails and sleepers laid by them leaving land which railways are level and in repair and leaving rails in Swinney Farm and dwelling house on meadow in good order and repair for the use of William Bromley”.

By 1805 all the equipment had been removed leaving simply the last part of the line from Swinbatch farm to the wharf and this line is shown on an indenture dated 10th August 1813, in which the landlord Forester leased rails to:

“John Langley and his workmen with Jenny Waggons and horses to pass and repass on the said road”.

A short length of rail was added at the Swinbatch end to serve the two pits there.
It appears that soon after this a new line was built, from pits on the south of Swinbatch Farm to Upper Riding farm by a route south of the old line and from Upper Ridding Farm to Broseley.  If this line did not join up with the Tarbatch Dingle remnant, there is no reason to suppose it will have been built on the traditional wooden pattern; the 1” ordnance survey of 1833 is difficult to interpret in this case and Greenwood’s map, 1827 show the two sections joined.  The map of the ‘Shropshire railway’ in 1836 shows the upper section only.



The authors of this work were fortunate in having access to the Forester Papers, access to which has since become restricted.  M.J.T Lewis in Early Wooden Railways used their work a source of much of the information for his book.  A copy of the thesis is held in the Ironbridge Institute Library.

Early Wooden Railways (Routledge & Kegan Paul 1970), although long out of print, is still the work with the most comprehensive details of the railways of Broseley and is well worth searching out.

In the early 1990’s, Tony Mugridge found a number of wrought iron billets in the Severn near where the railway is shown terminating on the above map.  It seems likely that these were from the New Willey Works.

There is an article called The Trial Enigma by Ray Pringle Scott which was published in Vol15 of the Journal and reprinted in the Wilkinson Studies Vol2 1992 (Merton Priory Press) which claims that Willey Wharf was actually at Apley Forge and that a tramway ran south from New Willey past old Willey furnace and the Smithies to the Severn.  Unfortunately, although this is an excellent piece of lateral thinking it contains a number of omits much contradictory evidence, both documentary and in the remaining features.  As such the conclusions should be treated with some caution.  ( I hope at a later date to publish, in more detail, my concerns about the conclusions drawn)

S. Dewhirst