Isle Of Wight

This was once the northern terminus of the first railway to be built on the Isle of Wight, which ran parallel with its direct competitor, the River Medina. Alas, not a brick remains of the station: the site has long since disappeared beneath a supermarket, but a blue plaque at this location commemorates that platforms once existed here.

By an Act dated 8th August 1859, the “Cowes and Newport Railway” was incorporated to construct a single-track line, 4¾-mile in length, between West Cowes and Newport. The initial amount of capital authorised was £30,000 (£3,197,000 at 2021 prices) in the form of £10 shares, and loans amounting to £10,000 (ref: Bradshaw’s Railway Manual, 1879). By the end of the month, the company had put the works out to tender via the press; the plans were available to view at the office of engineer J. S. Burke, 6 Victoria Street, Westminster, London, and it was stated that the Directors were not bound to accept the lowest quote for the works (ref: Herepath’s Railway Journal, 20th August 1859).

It was reported that the “Cowes and Newport Railway” formally awarded the contract to build the line to one Mr Fernandez, for he offered the “lowest and most favourable [tender] for the interests of the Company.” The quote for the work was said to be well below the engineer’s estimate, and it was envisaged that the line would be opened to traffic by 30th June 1860. The contractor’s necessary plant had been forwarded to Cowes by this time and construction was scheduled to begin on Monday, 10th October 1859 (ref: Supplement to the Hampshire Advertiser, 8th October 1859). Operations actually commenced the following Thursday, the contractor having arriving on site the previous day (ref: Supplement to the Hampshire Advertiser, 15th October 1859).

Based on period newspaper articles, the contractor originally hired to build the line was replaced:

Cowes and Newport Railway.-Messrs. Jackson and Co., the eminent railway contractors, have taken the contract for completing the line of railway from West Cowes to Newport; and should the weather continue to be favourable, the line will be open for traffic by the middle of February. There are now seventy men constantly employed on the works. [The Hampshire Advertiser County Newspaper, 4th January 1862]

Could the replacement of the contractor perhaps have been the result of the original target year of opening, 1860, having long since passed and confidence being lost with the original builder? During April 1862, it was reported that progress towards opening of the railway was very slow, because slippery clay soil along the line was posing a great difficulty to the contractor (ref: The Hampshire Advertiser County Newspaper, 19th April 1862).

Ordnance Survey editions from 1939 appear to show the trailing crossover between the platform lines as disconnected at one end, leaving an isolated section of track at the buffer stops. Perhaps this was a temporary arrangement after platform lengthening saw the crossover shift to the other side of the footbridge; alternatively, a genuine error in the survey cannot be ruled out. © David Glasspool

On Saturday, 3rd May 1862, the first train — hauled by tender steam locomotive “Pioneer” and comprising a single carriage — made its way from the terminus at West Cowes to Newport and back again. The carriage was populated with employees of the company and their families; however, the formal opening date of the line at the time was still unknown, because there were still persistent problems with slippage of clay soil (ref: Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle, 10th May 1862). The Government’s inspector came down on Thursday 12th and Friday 13th June 1862 to survey the railway, and passed it for opening; however, recommendations were made in his report for improvements in the viaducts and crossings. Even at this stage, the approaches to Newport had still not been completed, and a proportion of the track work there was regarded as being of a temporary nature in anticipation of a junction with a proposed direct line between Ryde and Newport (ref: Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle, 31st May 1862).

Finally, on Monday 16th June 1862, the “Cowes and Newport Railway” opened to scheduled passenger traffic. There were eight trains a day in either direction and, after two weeks of operation, the line was reported to be succeeding far beyond what had been expected. 2,000 passengers were reported to have travelled on the railway during the first seven days of operation (ref: The Hampshire Advertiser County Newspaper, 28th June 1862).

The first Cowes station could not have been any architectural or engineering marvel, particularly in its later years. It was described in one newspaper — The Isle of Wight Observer — in 1891 as having “long borne the character of being the worst [station] in the kingdom”. The earliest of maps show a single, curved track entering Cowes, which appears to terminate under a roof. To the south of the station’s approach were once engine and carriage sheds; these were presumably of a rather flimsy construction — and the carriages they contained lightweight — because considerable damage was inflicted by wind in 1876:

A fearful storm, caused by a whirlwind, passed over Cowes, Isle of Wight, on Thursday [28th September] morning at about half-past seven o'clock, causing fearful destruction to property. Houses were unroofed and many torn down, and a number of trees and minor buildings were blow up into the air. The railway station sheds are blown down, and three or four carrages turned over and injured by the fearful wind. Farm sheds have been destroyed, and a vast amount of property injured. [Weekly Supplement to the Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 30th September 1876].

In 1891, the ball was set rolling on replacing the decrepit terminus with a station more worthy of the town:

THE RAILWAY STATION. — Travellers by railway in the island will be rejoiced to hear that a contract has been entered into by the Isle of Wight Central Railway Company with Messrs Ball & Son for a new station at Cowes. [The Isle of Wight Observer, Saturday, 11th April 1891]

12th August 1965

“O2” Class 0-4-4 No. W16 "Ventnor" is seen after journey’s end, upon the crossover linking the platform tracks, running round its train. The rails fell on a gradient towards the buffer stops; so, once the locomotive was out of the way, the guard would release the brakes on the carriages for a controlled descent towards the end of the line. Rather than linking the platforms, the raison d’etre of the lattice footbridge seen here was to carry a public footpath over the rails. In the background can be seen the spiked timber valances of the platform canopies and the pitched roof of the spacious, covered concourse. © David Glasspool Collection

The "Isle of Wight Central Railway" (IWCR, which succeeded the “Cowes and Newport Railway” in 1887) purchased cottage properties adjoining the existing station to permit widening of the approaches. Additionally, the engine and carriage sheds were taken down and replaced by sidings; locomotive and rolling stock facilities were concentrated at Newport, as were the IWCR's headquarters. A substantial main building of brick and stone construction, two-storeys high with a rectangular floor plan, emerged behind the buffer stops. The concourse, which included a refreshment room, was situated on the main building’s first floor, on the same level as the platforms, and was covered by a partially slated and glazed roof comprising a light metal framework. With reference to the refreshment room, the IWCR invited tenders to run this facility in the local press in 1892; however, it was remarked in newspapers in 1897 that the IWCR had actually supplied their own staff. Three curved platform faces were available for passenger services; a fourth was evident, but photographs suggest that the adjacent track was only ever used for goods traffic, the rails terminating at a dock. A lattice footbridge was installed upon the platforms to carry a public footpath over the tracks. The layout was controlled from a signal box situated immediately beyond the end of the northern of the two platform surfaces.

On the advent of the Southern Railway (SR) in 1923, the Cowes to Newport line was the busiest part of the IWCR’s network, which stretched to Yarmouth in the west, Ventnor (Town) in the south, and Bembridge in the east. The 1939 Ordnance Survey edition shows both platform surfaces to have been extended considerably in the south westward direction and the crossover between the platform tracks moved in the same direction, beyond the footbridge. This required the provision of a new signal box south west of the platforms, on the western side of the tracks overlooking the throat of the station. The signal box was a neat structure comprising a brick base supporting a timber cabin with casement windows and a slated pitched roof. The September 1932 edition of The Railway Magazine details a multitude of developments which had been made on the island by the SR since 1923, particularly motive power enhancements. The article refers to upgrades made at a series of stations during that period; Cowes is not specifically mentioned, but your author suspects that the aforementioned platform extensions and replacement signal box occurred during the first decade of SR tenure.

The Isle of Wight’s railways became early candidates for service withdrawal under the 1948-formed British Railways (BR). As soon as 1951, it was stated in the local press that all of the lines on the island were proposed for closure, as were a series of branch lines in rural Sussex. The first of the island’s railways to go was that between Merstone and Ventnor West, the last trains running on Saturday, 13th September 1952. Closure from Newport to Yarmouth occurred in September of the following year; the short branch between Brading and Bembridge ceased operation at the same time. The railway from Newport to Sandown via Merstone was closed in February 1956, but thereafter, no more closures were enacted that decade.

In March 1963 the infamous report, The Reshaping of British Railways, was published. Unsurprisingly, given the events of the 1950s, the remainder of the Isle of Wight’s railway network was recommended for closure. Eventually, the then Transport Minister refused consent for the closure of the route between Ryde Pier Head and Shanklin (ref: Coventry Evening Telegraph, 28th July 1965); the rest, however, could not be saved. Passenger services between Cowes and Ryde via Newport last ran on 20th February 1966, closure being effective from 21st. Goods traffic continued between Cowes and Newport until the following May, withdrawal being effective from 16th of that month. The closures since 1952 had reduced the island's railway route mileage from about fifty-eight to just eight.

After closure, it was reported that the Isle of Wight County Council was negotiating with British Rail to purchase the freehold of the Cowes — Newport — Ryde track bed (ref: Herts and Essex Observer Series, Friday, 7th October 1966). Once acquired, the Council would lease the line to the Ryde-based "Vectrail Society", the latter of which intended to operate services using a four-wheel diesel rail car produced by the "Sadler Rail Coach Company Ltd". The "Vectrail Soicety" formed an alliance with the founder of the coach company, Charles Sadler Ashby, and so "Sadler-Vectrail Ltd" was born. Reportedly, the scheme needed £40,000 (about £792,700 at 2021 prices) to get off the ground, which it was hoped could be raised through enthusiast subscriptions; it was realised that interest from within the island itself was not enough and support was needed from further afield. Sadly, the "Sadler-Vectrail Ltd" scheme never came to fruition. As for Cowes station, albeit overgrown, the buildings were still standing in September 1971 — your author cannot track down how long beyond that year the site remained intact.

18th February 1966

A roughly southward view taken from the public footbridge includes, in the background, the signal box, behind the last carriage of the train. The train could well have already come to a stop, so the locomotive can detach, run round, and allow the carriages to make their way towards the buffer stops by gravity. It appears that the platform track upon which the train sits is equipped with a check rail. All sidings, as marked on the diagram further up the page, are in evidence. © David Glasspool Collection