Rails In Wolverhampton - The Early Years

by Bev Parker

Wolverhampton like many of its neighbours benefited greatly from the arrival of the railways. Most of these arrivals were stormy affairs due to the intense rivalries and mistrust that existed between individual companies, which often involved a lot of legal wrangling. Wolverhampton was different to most towns because these rivalries got completely out of hand and resulted in a couple of battles taking place between rival companies. One of the most important dates in the early years was 3rd August 1846 when several important railway Bills were passed in Parliament, which allowed the construction of the majority of the local lines.

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                  The map shows the early railways around the town centre.
                       Click on the buildings or text for more information

The first railway to reach Wolverhampton was the Grand Junction Railway which opened on 4th July 1837. Its station was situated  at Heath Town behind the modern Culwell Industrial Estate, off Woden Road. It was called "Wednesfield Heath for Wolverhampton" station, and was about a mile from the town centre.

It was a first class station which meant that all trains stopped there. The company made no attempt to gain access to the centre of Wolverhampton itself, presumably because of the high cost involved. The station's opening caused much concern amongst the local canal companies who feared that their extensive trade could be threatened, but at this time they had nothing to fear because the initial goods services were both limited and expensive.

An intensive coach and omnibus service developed to take passengers to and from the town centre. Two coaches also acted as shuttles to ferry people to coaching inns such as the Swan on High Green, for connections to Worcester, Shrewsbury, Bridgnorth, and Stourbridge. Initially there were six trains daily in each direction, but the station was never popular being so far from the town centre. Access to the station was dirty, and often covered in sewage. One of the adjacent fields was used for the dumping of night soil, which was the waste from open toilets, and so the whole area was very smelly and unpleasant.

After a year or so the railway company tried to increase the number of passengers using the station by improving the facilities. They also pioneered the use of low fares, which were introduced from August 1841 on the racing trains that brought people to Wolverhampton races. In 1842 the station became a special low fare station with first class travel costing two pence a mile.

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A Grand Junction Railway train.

The second station in Wolverhampton was situated in the town centre but was only a temporary affair. It was situated on Wednesfield Road, in-between the railway embankment and what is now Broad Street canal basin. It was built by the Shrewsbury and Birmingham Railway who intended to run their trains into the High Level station, which at that time was not built. The Shrewsbury & Birmingham formed an alliance with the London & Birmingham Railway who offered them a lease. The London & Birmingham saw the Shrewsbury & Birmingham as an alternative route to the north, which interested them because they distrusted the Grand Junction Railway who at that time had a monopoly on the route.

By the time the Shrewsbury & Birmingham's Bill had passed through Parliament the London & Birmingham had joined forces with the Grand Junction to form the London & North Western Railway. They in turn were keeping a wary eye on the Great Western Railway who were perceived as a potential threat and were fast approaching Wolverhampton via the Birmingham & Oxford Railway, and the Birmingham, Wolverhampton & Dudley Railway.

The Shrewsbury & Birmingham's Bill gave them a half share in the High Level station, and when the temporary station was built they assumed that all was going according to plan. Things soon started to go wrong as the London & North Western quickly gained control of the Stour Valley Line, and then decided to lease the Shropshire Union Railway, which shared the first ten miles of the Shrewsbury & Birmingham's line. Initially this was opposed by the Shrewsbury & Birmingham but they soon gave in when the London & North Western offered them a traffic agreement in return for running powers over the Stour Valley Line, which would finally give them access to Birmingham. The agreement was ratified by an Act of Parliament in July 1847.

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Old Wolverhampton High Level Station.

The temporary station opened on 12th November 1849, but the relationship between the Shrewsbury & Birmingham, and the London & North Western soon became problematic.

The latter decided to reduce its fares on the Shropshire Union line from Stafford to Shrewsbury, so ignoring the 1847 agreement.

The Shrewsbury & Birmingham immediately sought, and got an injunction to prevent this practice, but the London & North Western successfully opposed it. A long legal battle and a price war commenced.

The London & North Western retaliated by further delaying the opening of the Stour Valley Line.

The Shrewsbury and Birmingham was getting increasingly frustrated because it still couldn't send its freight to Birmingham by train, and so it decided on a different approach. The Birmingham Canal ran alongside the track, and was seen as a convenient alternative. Work started on a canal wharf in April 1850. On Friday 12th July a group of workmen were fitting an access gate into the boundary fence when the London & North Western decided to stop them. Mr. Moore who was one of the Stour Valley's contractors sent a gang of men to halt the work. An argument followed between Mr. Moore and the Shrewsbury & Birmingham's engineer, Henry Robertson. Soon some 300 Stour Valley workmen, all armed with spades, pick axes or the tools of their trade descended on the scene to halt the work once and for all. They were soon followed by a Shrewsbury & Birmingham train which brought about 200 men to the scene, also similarly armed, and distinguished by arm bands made of red tape. Soon fighting began, and the Mayor, who summoned the police and army, read the Riot Act. The two factions were separated, and another series of legal battles began.

The London & North Western were now even more determined to delay the opening of the Stour Valley Line, and if possible prevent the Shrewsbury & Birmingham from using it. Angered by these tactics the Shrewsbury & Birmingham signed a traffic agreement with the Great Western Railway on 10th January 1851, which led to an offer to amalgamate in 1856 or 57. The London & North Western got to hear of this and decided that the Shrewsbury & Birmingham were in breach of their 1847 agreement, and so had lost their right to run on the Stour Valley Line.

The Stour Valley Line was completed on 21st November 1851, and the official opening was to be on the 1st December. The Shrewsbury & Birmingham was determined to start and run its trains on the line from that date, and openly
advertised the fact. On the fateful day, word that there might be trouble quickly got around, and a crowd of several thousand spectators arrived at Queen Street station to see the events. The Mayor was asked to attend, and as trouble was expected he summoned the local police, and the army.

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A London and North Western "Cauliflower" at the High Level.

The train from Shrewsbury arrived at 9 o'clock and started to Birmingham about fifteen minutes later. As the locomotive departed the crowd cheered and all looked well. A number of detonators had been placed at the beginning of the Stour Valley track, and these were ignored. The locomotive was quickly brought to a halt however when it reached a London & North Western locomotive called Swift, and a brake-van, both of which were placed in its path. It attempted to push the North Western train out of the way but failed because its brakes were screwed hard down. The North Western driver was asked to clear the obstruction but was ordered to do no such thing by the company engineer. Swift was guarded by 100 men, and about a quarter of a mile further along the track a locomotive was derailed, and several lengths of rail were taken up to make it look as if the line had been closed because of an accident.

The matter immediately proceeded to the local Magistrate's Court, where the Shrewsbury & Birmingham case was based on obstruction. The magistrate urged both parties to find a peaceful solution, and to avoid committing a breach of the peace. The London & North Western delaying tactics continued to work until a court order forced them to open the line. The line eventually opened on 1st February 1852, but for London & North Western goods only. On 1st July the line opened for London & North Western passenger services, and in a further attempt to keep the Shrewsbury & Birmingham at bay, they started a half hourly service on 1st May 1853, claiming that it would be dangerous to have any other trains running at the same time.

The Shrewsbury & Birmingham finally accepted an arbitration award that fixed a high rent for its use of New Street station, and it started running trains there from 4th February 1854. The London & North Western never allowed through ticketing for Shrewsbury & Birmingham trains, and no connections were made.

While this was going on the Great Western lines were rapidly approaching Wolverhampton, the first one opened on 1st July. As the Shrewsbury & Birmingham had been greatly weakened by its fight with the London & North Western it brought its amalgamation with the Great Western forward to 1st September. It was granted an extension to its running powers on the StourValley Line because of a collapsed bridge on the Great Western line between Soho and Handsworth stations. Its trains moved to the Low Level station when the GWR line to Birmingham opened on 14th November 1854.

This has been a very much simplified description of the early railway years at Wolverhampton. The legal battles between the different companies were extremely complex and a complete description of these would  require far more space than is available here. This was also a suitable time to end because by the mid 1850's all of the major lines were in place, the only important features missing were the building of the Great Western Locomotive works at the Stafford Road site in 1859, and the opening of the Midland Railway's line on 1st November 1872.


Rex Christiansen.  A Regional History of the Railways of Great Britain Volume 7. The West Midlands. ISBN 0 946537 00 3 
Rex Christiansen. Forgotten Railways: Vol. 10. The West Midlands. ISBN 0 946537 01 1
Rex Christiansen. Rail Centres: Crewe. ISBN 0 7110 2148 1
Richard K. Morriss. Rail Centres: Shrewsbury ISBN 0 7110 1571 6
Paul Collins. Rail Centres: Wolverhampton. ISBN 0 7110 1892 8
Paul Collins. Britain's Rail Super Centres:  Birmingham. ISBN 0 7110 2005 1
Geoffrey Body. Great Railway Battles. ISBN 1 85794 033 4

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