The October meeting of the Society was held on Monday the 18th of October 2021 when Mr Bill Ridgway presented the illustrated talk “Down Memory Line: Personal Recollections of the Whitfield-Longport Mineral Railway” with readings by Mr. Adrian Lawton.
Bill Ridgway was born in London but was evacuated during the Second World War and came to live in Tunstall, Stoke-on-Trent. His childhood was spent with the Chatterley Whitfield Railway line as a backdrop to his life - providing the playgrounds and early noise of locomotives and wagons filled with coal moving past his home. With all the regeneration work in the Biddulph Valley it is now difficult to image the miles of sidings, the constant clanking of small locomotives and grime that this rail created. The line was built to link the investments in coal and iron of Mr. H. H. Williamson who had recognised the value of the Biddulph Valley Railway and a connection was made from the Colliery shortly after it opened in 1859.
This eventually proved to be a burden because in order to feed the blast furnaces at Chatterley, vast quantities of coal were sent on the Biddulph Valley Railway via Milton to Stoke and thence by the N.S.R to Chatterley Junction to the North of Longport which proved to be very costly to the Company. With the coming of the N.S.R. Loop line to Tunstall by 1874 and the branch from Tunstall to Longport by 1875, a solution to the problem was sought.
A decision was made to construct a Railway from Chatterley Whitfield Colliery to the Pinnox area of Tunstall. Work commenced in 1874 and was complete by 1876, but the connection with the Biddulph Valley Branch remained. The savings in both cost and time to the Company were tremendous and the line continued in operation until April 1964, when following the closure of the Branch from Tunstall to Longport, it ceased operation. If you would like to read more about the railway the definitive book “A History of the Chatterley Whitfield Railway” by William Jack III was published as the History Society’s Transaction No. 13 of December 2018.
The readings by Mr. Adrian Lawton to illustrate each element of the talk are taken from Bill Ridgway“s book “Potteries Lad.” The journey in Mr. Ridgway’s talk began at the pit with its mountainous pit waste heap.
1. The Pit: The site of Whitfield Colliery with its tall smoking chimney was criss-crossed by railway lines to connect it to the Biddulph Valley Line, the Loop Line, lines to Milton and Pinnox. Hundreds of owner operated coal trucks and little local made copies of steam engines like ‘Edward VII’ shunted about the site .
View near the Tunnel mouth from the footbridge looking towards the pit.
Picture Source: Staffordshire Past Track
Adrian: “From our front garden the eastern skyline was pierced by the chimney and spoil heap of Chatterley Whitfield Colliery. I often wandered through the coal sidings, lingered by ‘Roger’ or ‘Edward’ hissing steam in readiness for the climb to Chell, and listened to the clank of a cage as it spun between winding house and pit. The tip grew higher be the day, the spoil-loaded hopper and counterweight simultaneously ascending and descending as it reached the summit and noisily discharged another load of dross.”
2. The Wasteland: An area of rough land between the pit and the tunnel mouth on High Lane. Bill and his brother Michael now lived in a new home on Chell Heath and this was there playground.
Adrian: “It was 1947, and with spring came the thaw. I was seven, and my days were bright with possibilities. No land was safer than my land. The coal trains’ comforting chunter, the pit-hopper’s distant clang and the roar of the Port Vale crowd defined my world. I crossed the footbridge and found a pond. You didn’t have to wait long for the first newts to appear, or the electric blue damselflies which sparked among the reeds. My old Tunstall home lay discarded on the edge of memory.”
3. The Tunnel: this was under High Lane and was just over 400 yards long but the landscape at each end remained one of railway sidings and trucks to feed the voracious smelters. There was a castellated steam vent just west of High Lane which remains in the garden of a bungalow built on the roadside.
The Tunnel from the east side - when you walk the Greenway you can still see the detached house on the skyline.
Adrian: “It wasn’t only the coal trains that went through. Local youths also did the trip, and those who hadn’t done it were treated with disdain. My brother was invited to add his name to this illustrious list. He’d tagged on to an older gang who’d made the trip before. At the entrance they peered into the dark interior. Far ahead, a glimmer of light marked the end, with Little Chell Lane and the park a stone’s throw away. In a quest for glory, they plunged in while I stayed at home with that week’s Eagle. I’d done it all before.”
4: The Schools: Chell Primary School was on the site of the Care Home on High Lane and Hanley High School is now an Academy. At Hanley High School Bill Ridgway took and passed his 13 plus exam and after Grammar School became a teacher. He was to find out later that his future wife Margaret, who also was a teacher, had attended the girls class at Chell Primary School.
Chell Primary School, now demolished but similar to the school at Black Bull.
Adrian: “My Junior School classroom at Chell was a high-raftered cube of dingy plaster. Rows of desks faced a blackboard and easel, and an assortment of cupboards had their places by the walls. Headmaster Quinton was rarely seen. We were taught by Polly Rubberneck who occasionally used a cost-effective stick if the need arose.”
5. Little Chell Crossing: This features on the cover of Bill Ridgway’s book with the quote “It was 1947, and we’d just been to see our new house being built in Chell. When we reached the crossing at Little Chell Lane we had to wait for ‘Roger,’ one of the pit tankers, to chug back to Chatterley Whitfield.” We see him sitting on the fence waiting for the engine with his mother pushing Michael in the pram.
Adrian: “When the mood took me I went down to Little Chell Lane, where the line crossed the road. Here the engine would halt while the shunter made sure the way was clear before proceeding. Between Tunstall Park and Mill Hill estate was a sprawl of sidings, which the train would negotiate before disappearing under a concrete bridge below the Catholic Church in the direction of Scotia Road.”
6. Tunstall Park: It is now hard to image the coal wagons going past the end of the park towards the site of Pittshill Station but the park with its lake and boathouse, tennis courts and cafe stood in the shadow of the Catholic Church.
Tunstall Park Postcard
Adrian: “The line ran alongside the children“s playground at Tunstall Park where there were two slides and a lethal device we called a witch’s hat which rotated on a cone and flung the unwary across the red ash. On the lake, all the boats would be on the water. And the boatman really did shout: ‘Boat number three, your time is up.’ The clock tower still guards the main gates, with the glacial boulder we slid down a few steps away.”
7. Station Road: Once again this hive of railway activity including Tunstall Station is only marked by a signal left in the grass behind the block of flats built on the site of Barber’s Picture Palace on the Boulevard which was originally Station Road.
Tunstall Station and sidings
Adrian: “Barber’s Picture Palace seemed out of place amid the worthy buildings along Station Road, the Railway Station, Jubilee Buildings and Market Hall bore the confident stamp of their Victorian planners. But Barber’s was an interloper in a world of pit heaps and shraff tips. Once the music crackled and the curtains parted, unreality became the new reality. Then it was back home on Wells’ bus, a penny each way.”
8. Pinnox and Scotia Road: A large number of people lived on Pinnox Street surrounded by railway bridges and cuttings which ran through the Dudson’s factory or builders merchants.
Pinnox Sidings looking towards Brownhills
Adrian: “In the last year of the war we were living in Pinnox Street. The Loop Line viaduct spanned two streets and a timber yard. An alley separated my aunt’s back yard from a range of sheds and sidings, part of the Whitfield mineral line serving Silvester’s and a large pottery at the bottom of High Street. The shunters plodded like ponderous beetles from point to point as I watched.”
Pinnox Street off Scotia Road, Tunstall
9. Brownhills: A branch line took the mineral line past the Girl’s High School and linked Chatterley to the Canal and the Westport Lake.
Adrian: “I first discovered girls at the jazz club in Burslem. And they all seemed to have come from Brownhills this famous school for girls built in the grounds of an old hall and skirted to the north by the mineral line, which by that time had survived the complexity of the Pinnox sidings en route to either Greenhead or Longport. My wife to be Margaret, then Warburton, was one of this illustrious band. Dr Bright ruled the school with a rod of iron.
Brownhills was a place of note on the Mineral Line’s route. After passing under a couple of road bridges just below the school gates, it’s destination was near at hand, and the engines could give a brief pant of relief before a journey back to Whitfield with the empties.”
10 Westport Lake and Longport: Mr. Ridgway illustrated this part of his talk with recent pictures of the rail bridge over canal; the line by the lake; and, views of lake and route of the railway including remaining buffers and discarded wagons.
The line at Wesport Lake (before the track was removed)
Adrian: “The mineral line followed the Scotia Brook around the school, passing under the road we always called the Sytch. An overgrown branch ran close to the Trent and Mersey Canal, at one time serving Brownhills Colliery. The rest skirted Westport Lake. The trains ran into a final complex of sidings before handing over to main line engines bound south to Stoke or north to the Cheshire towns and Manchester.”
The next meeting of the Society will be held on Monday the 15th of November 2021 when the Speaker will be Mr. Peter Durnall will show a series of photographs to show the changes in the Biddulph Valley in the last 200 years. The Meeting will be held at 7 p.m. in Biddulph Victoria Chapel, Station Road, Biddulph.