Monday 21 June 2021

From the Parish Magazine - Eton Wick History Group Meeting - Celebrating the coming of the railway

The History Group met on the 10th, November to celebrate two anniversaries; one, was to recognise the 8th anniversary of the group's first meeting in November 1991. When the newly formed Eton Wick History Group met for that first time it was expected that about eight people might attend, in fact 46 people were at that inaugural meeting. Seven or eight meetings have been held every year since and the topics have rarely ranged further afield than Cliveden.

The other anniversary, the subject of the evening's talk and display of memorabilia, was the 150th anniversary of the railways coming to Windsor. Dr. Judith Hunter had kindly volunteered to tell the tale of the railways' coming, and to her own research had been added material provided by Renee and Tom Thompson of Tilstone Close. The fine display of railway memorabilia was provided by John Coke of the Slough and Windsor RailwaySociety.

Dr. Hunter began by showing a map of the Slough area dated c1830 when Slough was just a little village with two to three hundred people, Windsor had just half-a-dozen streets, and Eton (apart from the College) was barely more than the High Street. The main methods of transport were by horse, stagecoach or private carriage. But in 1830 the railway era had begun and merchants in Bristol and London were interested in having a railway connect the two cities. 

There were lots of proposals put forward from 1830 to 1835 until eventually the route for the line was agreed upon; going through Slough, Maidenhead, Didcot and on to Bristol - not yet, of course, branching to Windsor - but including Isambard Kingdom Brunel's nationally important 'Sounding Arch' at Maidenhead. Later he was to design the single-span (approximately 200 ft.) iron bridge over the Thames at Eton, linking the viaducts on the Slough to Windsor line. 

Work on construction of the main line began in 1835 and by 1838 it had got as far as Slough, but there was no station at Slough. The reason for this was that Eton College had objected most strongly to proposed routing of a railway close to the College; the Headmaster, Dr. Hawtrey, had talked about the difficulties for masters in preventing the boys taking the train to London (for vice!); it was also suggested the lively Eton boys might drop stones and bricks from the bridges onto the railway carriages. There was long and vociferous opposition and in 1835 the Lords' Committee added clauses to the Great Western Railway Act to prevent any station being opened within 3 miles of Eton College. (There was also some opposition from The Crown, but it was impossible to get a railway into Windsor without going over Crown land somewhere). 

A station was constructed at Langley, where there was a church, an inn and alms-houses, but it remained closed (for 8 years)' and trains stopped at Slough: where there were no platforms, where there was nowhere to buy tickets (so they were sold in The Crown Inn on Crown Corner; later the 'North Star' was built - nearer to the railway halt - and tickets were sold there). 

Members of the Royal Family would board the train at Slough for Paddington; and despite their own objections, Eton College hired a whole train to take boys to Queen Victoria's Coronation. By 1840, College objections had been withdrawn and Slough Station was built (with both the 'Up' and 'Down' platforms on the Slough side). The 'Royal Hotel' was built close by and had its own Royal Waiting Room. 

Cooke-Wheatstone Telegraph 
image courtesy of the Science Museum

Within 18 years of the railway coming to Slough it had grown into a market town - but still only half the size of today's Eton Wick. In 1842, the first terminus for the electric magnetic telegraph service from Slough to London was in-stalled, in a cottage on a small hill by Slough Station. In 1845 the telegraph was used in the capture of a murderer, JohnTawell, who had poisoned his former mistress in Slough, then boarded a tram for London. His description was telegraphed ahead; he was followed from Paddington to his lodgings and was arrested tried and hanged. 

Meanwhile members of Windsor Council were pressing for trains into Windsor, Henry Darville for GWR and James Bedborough for the Southern Railway. Apart from assuming that a railway terminus in Windsor would boost trade, it should also resolve the problem of full carts having to be half-emptied before horses could draw them up Thames Street hill - goods could come in by train instead. The Crown withdrew its opposition to railways crossing its land, after negotiating compensation; and two Railway Acts were passed, both in 1848 - first the Great Western Railway (opened 8 October 1849) and then the South Western Railway (which initially, from December 1849, had to stop at Black Potts and only came on into Windsor in 1851, to the Riverside Station with its 14 sets of doors which gave the Cavalry easy access and ensured the Queen's carriage was always stopped close to an exit. 

The GWR's original viaduct was constructed of timber and was replaced by the present brick-built structure between 1861 and 1863, and its Windsor Station was very modest; the present excessively large and 'Royal' station was built in 1897. In 1929 another station was opened, in Chalvey, but it only operated for 13 months before closure. The branch line into Windsor had crossed Lammas Land and the parish were compensated, but no-one knew what to do with the compensation until, in 1894, Eton Urban District Council and Eton Wick Parish Council agreed that it should be used for the Recreation Grounds we enjoy today.

During the 1990's the Parish Magazine of Eton, Eton Wick and Boveney reported on the meetings of the Eton Wick History Group. A member of the audience took shorthand notes in the darkened hall. This article was published in the December 1999 edition.

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