A most remarkable survivor!



The Wisbech and Upwell Tramway in its heyday.
G15 loco and two coaches. Photo BTWT archives

Although the Wisbech and Upwell Tramway closed in 1966, most English schoolchildren would immediately recognize the steam locomotive above, thanks to the Rev W Awdry immortalising one of the line’s steam engines as Toby the Tram Engine.

The line opened to Outwell Basin in 1883 and was completed to Upwell opened a year later. The trains were operated by three distinctive looking 0-4-0T tram engines, which looked like brake vans with cow catchers! These were the Great Eastern Railway G15 class (LNER Y6) designed by Thomas Worsdell. There were six passenger trains a day in each direction, and with an initial speed limit of 8 mph (13 km/h), the journey took one hour. The tram competed with a canal that ran between Wisbech and Upwell. At first the tramway benefited the canal. Coal would be carried to Outwell Village where it was loaded into barges for transport deeper into the fens. But the canal was in a poor financial condition and was abandoned shortly after the start of WW I. Freight traffic boomed and in 1903 the GER started to replace the G15s with the more powerful 0-6-0T C53s (LNER J70).

The Wisbech & Upwell Tramway entered the ownership of the LNER in 1923. The speed had been raised to 14 mph (24 km/h) and the journey time reduced to only 39 minutes, but this was insufficient to compete with the motor buses that had started to operate. Passenger services were withdrawn in 1927. Freight traffic, however,  continued to flourish. By 1949, eight trips were scheduled to leave Upwell on weekdays, and three on Saturdays during the fruit season.

In 1952, two Drewry Shunters (BR Class 04) were introduced to replace the J70s, and gave the Wisbech & Upwell the distinction of being Britain’s first all-diesel line! Lorries started to steal the freight traffic during the 1950s, and only one daily service each way was operated in the 1960s. Beeching listed the Wisbech & Upwell as one of the lines to be closed, but it won a reprieve and survived until 1966.

After passenger services on the Wisbech and Upwell Tramway had ceased, two bogie tram coaches Nos. 7 and 8 were transferred to the Kelvedon & Tollesbury Light Railway. Here they worked until that line closed in 1951. By this time passenger coaches which had seen continuous service since 1884 were pretty rare in Britain. (In fact, only the Talyllyn Railway operated older passenger rolling stock. Its passenger coaches dated back to the line’s opening in 1866.) Nos. 7 and 8 were then stored at Stratford Depot together with the sole surviving G15 tram engine. No 8 was used as the buffet coach during the filming of Titfield Thunderbolt and was returned to Stratford when filming ended, but sadly plans for the preservation of the W&U rolling stock came to naught and the G15 and coach No. 8 were broken up in 1953 or 54.

No 7’s story was more fortunate. It was sold for scrap in 1957 and the body ended up being used as an onion store. In 1973 the coach (by now without its chassis) was rescued and moved to the Cambridge Museum of Technology. In 1983 it was acquired by the Rutland Railway Museum at Cottesmore. In 2002, the coach was purchased by the Midland & Great Northern Railway Society to be rebuilt on the North Norfolk Railway. A new steel frame has been constructed and mounted on new bogies. The restored coach had its inaugural run in September this year. Our congratulations to everyone involved.

Wisbech and Upwell Tramway coach No 8 starring in The Titfield Thunderbolt

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4 Responses to “A most remarkable survivor!”

  1. Gavin Whitelaw Says:

    Its a Y6!! Only an 0-4-0 so a Y classification in LNER terminology. J’s were 0-6-0s.

  2. Robert Hall Says:

    Great Britain had few non-electric rural tramways; but those that there were, were absolute gems.

    One slightly odd thing about the Wisbech & Upwell: according to the “L & NER Encyclopedia”, (found via Google), it was from its inception, a branch of the Great Eastern Railway (though an unconventional one), fully owned by same. Some works re line ownership — including the Ian Allan Pre-Grouping Atlas and Gazetteer — however show it as an independent line pre- the 1923 “Grouping”. Does anyone have any info on this? — is it simply a mistake?

  3. dyspozytor Says:

    Gavin, as always you are 100% correct. Although I admit that I had to look very carefully at the original print to make sure. How you spotted the difference from the fuzzy reproduction on BTWT beats me! I have updated the references in the article to give the original GER classifications of the Y6s and J70s.

    Robert, I used the LNER Encyclopaedia to research this article. This states clearly that although originally parliamentary powers were obtained by an independent group to build the line, these powers lapsed and new powers were obtained by the GER. Does any BTWT reader have access to a copy of Colonel Cobb’s Atlas? This I think would be the definitive source.

  4. Robert Hall Says:

    I consulted LNER Encyclopedia rather hastily: looking at it again, now see the part about original — abortive — independent concern, and GER obtaining new powers for line. Usually, in any instance like this — including those where a line started its working life as an independent concern, but was subsequently absorbed by a big company — the ownership atlases “go for simple”, and just show status as on the eve of Grouping.

    I note that “Jowett’s Railway Atlas” shows the tramway ( a thing it does nowhere else , re the Great Eastern’s system) as “W & UT (GE)”, in a slightly different shade of blue from “bog-standard” GE lines. Perhaps the atlas-makers just find the W & U irresistibly odd…

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