Tovil Goods Siding

Long since closed and having disappeared under a supermarket and collection of industrial units, this goods station was once the rail head for a series of paper mills. Whilst only ever serving a collection of freight sidings throughout its entire existence, the Tovil spur's origins in fact lie with a much grander scheme to link Maidstone with Headcorn.

On 2nd August 1877 the "Loose Valley Railway" (LVR), backed by the South Eastern Railway (SER), was incorporated by an Act of Parliament. This was for a railway, nine-miles-long, leaving the Medway Valley Line just south of the SER's Maidstone station, passing beside the village of Loose, before eventually approaching Headcorn from the west. Loose resided about 2½-miles south of central Maidstone as the crow flies and was situated amongst hop fields on a hillside in the appropriately-named "Loose Valley". This had not been the first scheme to directly link Maidstone with Headcorn: in 1856, the SER unveiled plans for a main line connecting the two as part of an alternative trunk route between London and Dover to that via Reigate Junction (Redhill). This was at a time when the 1853-formed East Kent Railway was at an advanced stage planning a shorter route between the capital and Kent Coast via Chatham and Faversham. The cost of the Maidstone to Headcorn link was priced at £200,000 (£16,860,000 at 2015 prices).

The Maidstone and Headcorn scheme of 1856 was subsequently overtaken by the completion of the Tonbridge Cut-Off line via Chislehurst and Sevenoaks in 1868. As for the LVR of 1877, the SER submitted another Bill to Parliament in 1880 to renew powers, including land compulsory purchase orders. This was soon followed by the construction of a single-track branch, not even ½-mile-long, to the hamlet of Tovil. This diverged from the Medway Valley Line about ⅓-mile south west of Maidstone SER's platforms, crossed the river on a substantial lattice girder bridge, and terminated in the form of a trio of sidings. A signal cabin was positioned at the point where the sidings fanned out from the single branch. The short line, which was curved for most of its length, came into use in about 1886, by which time the SER had sold its interest in the LVR scheme. By an Act of 16th July 1885, the powers for building the LVR were transferred to the "Lydd Railway Company".

Tovil had for long been well known for industry. As of 1839, it was host to three paper mills, two flour mills, and an oil mill. The hamlet comprised a population of about 700 at that time and crossed three parishes: Maidstone, East Farleigh, and Loose. In conjunction with the works to build the single-track goods branch across the Medway, the SER opened a "Tovil" passenger station to serve the locality's inhabitants. This formally came into use on New Year's Day 1884, but unlike the goods line, which terminated south of the Medway in the heart of Tovil, the platforms were located on the northern bank of the river. However, since 1871, a light iron footbridge had been in place across the Medway at this point to provide a direct link with the paper mills.

The paper mills at Tovil were divided into two areas: "Upper" and "Lower". Upper Mills were located on Tovil Hill, on the opposite side of the road to the railway sidings' buffer stops, and dated as far back as 1680, when they were first brought into use for papermaking. In 1894 they were bought by Albert E. Reed, who was already well established in the papermaking trade, and used as the base for his newsprint manufacturing business. The Reed company expanded its papermaking interests in Kent over subsequent decades: new premises were brought into use in Aylesford in 1920 and, in 1952 and 1961, existing mills were taken over in Greenhithe and Gravesend respectively. With reference to Tovil Lower Mills, these were situated further north, towards the Medway, close to the point where the single-track branch widened to three sidings.

In about 1905, the yard at Tovil was greatly expanded by the SE&CR. The number of sidings grew from three to eleven and a two-sided platform, in addition to a goods shed, was brought into use. The latter comprised an iron frame clad with timber, had a slated pitched roof, and provided cover for when finished products were transferred between the paper mills and railway wagons.

On 10th May 1906, the "Headcorn & Maidstone Junction Light Railway" (H&MJLR) was formed. This was a scheme by Holman Stephens, of Kent & East Sussex Railway (K&ESR) fame, to revive plans for a line through the Loose Valley. Ten miles in length and single track, it was planned that this would make a connection with the SE&CR's Tovil Goods Line to the north and, to the south, join the K&ESR at Headcorn station. Unlike the earlier 1856 scheme of the SER, the line was to be built to light railway standards. This meant that the infrastructure could be constructed to lower, therefore cheaper, standards, with relaxed criteria on lineside fencing, signalling, and track curvature. However, this came at the cost of severe speed restrictions and the requirement that comparatively lightweight locomotives and rolling stock had to be used.

The H&MJLR never left the planning stage and, as a result, the K&ESR went no further north than Headcorn. Indeed, the Lydd Railway Company, which had earlier assumed the powers for a line to Maidstone in 1885, completed a branch between Appledore and Dungeness in 1881. This was followed by a spur between Lydd and New Romney in 1884, but any push northwards to Headcorn and Maidstone was never pursued.

In the fork of the diverging Medway Valley Line and Tovil branch, on the northern side of the river, existed a signal box. This probably dated from the opening of the station there in 1884 and stood immediately adjacent to a level crossing at the eastern ends of the platforms. The cabin was closed by the Southern Railway on 29th September 1929, which prompted a Parliamentary debate in the Commons that year claiming that the company had not made adequate provisions for safety at Tovil Crossing. As touched upon earlier, another signal cabin also existed on the goods branch itself, where the sidings south of the Medway branched out from the single track. This, too, was taken out of use by the SR, followed on 15th March 1943 by the closure of Tovil station.

Raw materials for paper mills in the Maidstone area were brought down the Medway by barge. Indeed, on the south bank of the river at Tovil were moorings, where vessels unloaded their supplies of pulp. Reed's large paper mills in Aylesford received pulp from Scandinavia, which arrived in ships at Strood and Rochester, and was subsequently sent down the Medway on barges.

As part of the Kent Coast Electrification Scheme, an initial order was made for thirteen electric locomotives to take over from steam traction on South Eastern Division freight trains, in addition to "Golden Arrow" and "Night Ferry" continental passenger services. On the main running lines the fleet, which was soon increased to twenty-four locomotives after a second order in 1960, ran off the standard third rail electric supply. However, exposed conductor rails were deemed unsafe for freight yards, where staff would regularly be walking across the tracks. As a result, a novel solution was found whereby freight-only lines and yards were equipped with overhead wires, for which these locomotives (classified Type "HA" and in the E5000 number series) were fitted with pantographs. Overhead catenary was installed along the Tovil branch, this of which extended down the third reversible running line into the goods yard at Maidstone West. Electric locomotives departed the sidings hauling 10-ton box wagons loaded with paper from the mills, and these trains were worked to Tonbridge West Yard for onward dispatch.

In 1976, the wires over those freight lines on the South Eastern Division were taken down, but many of the supporting posts remained in situ for years later. The advent of the Electro-Diesel (Class 73) meant that it was no longer necessary to support a separate electric infrastructure. The Tovil branch remained in operation little longer, formally being closed to traffic on 3rd October 1977. In 1981, it was reported that the goods yard site was being developed by firm "R Bailey & Co", but the huge lattice bridge across the Medway, complete with rusting rails, remained in place for another five years before going for scrap.


Tovil Goods Siding: 1967

1967 track plan, showing the connection with the Medway Valley Line and proximity of the paper mills. There was once eleven sidings, but one of these had been lifted by the late 1950s. Click the above for a larger version. © David Glasspool


1970

Wearing pre-TOPS number, Type "JA" No. E6016 (latterly Class 73 No. 73110) is seen fronting a train of vans, likely to be bound for Tonbridge West Yard via a reversing manoeuvre in the goods yard at Maidstone West. © Roger Goodrum


1977

A southward view, around the time of closure, shows that seven sidings on the left had already been taken up, and ventilated vans flanked either side of the platform. The chimneys and most of the buildings in the background belonged to A. E. Reed's "Upper Mills". © Roger Goodrum