Ipswich Icons: The Middy reached the end of its line... in a field
Rainhill, near Liverpool, December 15, 1830, the prime minister, the Duke of Wellington is watching as inventor and entrepreneur George Stephenson drives the engine hauling a passenger train travelling “inter-city”.
As Stephenson heads off towards Manchester the dawn of the railway age has begun. It wasn’t long before railway mania was sweeping the country and almost every major town and city was connected by at least one line. In 1846 the railway reached Ipswich and then Norwich (1849) by which time some 6,000 route miles had been constructed.
However, by the mid 1840s the bubble had burst and by 1850 railway building had all but ceased. There were only a limited number of connections required between the centres of population and the network couldn’t go on expanding. Economic recovery in the second half of the 19th Century did lead to further expansion, this time, for example, creating railways to serve almost every village and small town in Norfolk and Suffolk.
The rationale was the transportation of agricultural goods to the markets of London and other major local centres. Produce from the fields, and milk from the cows needed to be in the shops while still fresh. This expansion was partially made possible by the Light Railway Act of 1896.
Light railways are limited in both the weight imposed on to the track and the speed of the loco (25mph) thus they are considerably cheaper to construct. Additionally individual proposals did not need their own separate Act of Parliament.
Thus the Mid Suffolk light railway was proposed, shares issued and monies raised, from Suffolk farmers and from London businessmen. This was possibly the last railway to be built in East Anglia, for the obvious reason that there was almost no parts of the population that were not already served by a connection to Ipswich and London.
The 42-mile line from Haughley to Halesworth was designed to link the Great Eastern Railway’s London - Norwich line at Haughley with the East Suffolk line at Halesworth. There was to be a further branch North-South from Westerfield (Ipswich) to Kenton (Debenham) and the scheme was authorised by a Light Rail Order of 1900. As a passenger railway proposition it was set to serve a very scattered and sparse population, most of whom had never travelled beyond their own village. This was not destined to be a mass transit railway.
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There was a grandiose ceremony at Westerfield in 1902 when the Duke of Cambridge cut the first sod. Construction started that same year and a railway line was constructed from Haughley Junction to Laxfield, just 19 miles of single track. Expenditure was kept to a minimum with the railway, as far as possible, following the contours of the land, level crossings rather than bridges, wherever possible, little by way of earth moving, only small embankments and shallow cuttings.
Goods traffic was able to use this western section of the line from 1904 but unfortunately disputes with the contractor were the start of financial difficulties. The chairman, who had invested a considerable sum into the venture, was declared bankrupt, loans from the Treasury and from local councils were blocked. A receiver was appointed. The railway was declared bankrupt before it opened but sheer determination from the original agricultural gentry who saw the line as essential to their well-being meant it continued to operate, on a shoestring, for nearly 50 years.
Passengers were not carried until September 1908 and after this there were two trains a day in each direction, one from Laxfield to Haughley taking children to secondary school and workers to the factories in Stowmarket, and a similar return journey later in the day. By this time the track had reached beyond Laxfield, to finish somewhat unceremoniously in the middle of a field. Lack of finance meant the MSLR never went any further. Although there were ten stations they only served small villages and were often inconveniently situated a mile or two away. Freight was the main source of income with cattle, sheep, farmers’ produce and coal all being carried.
In 1924 the newly-formed London and North Eastern Railway took over the MSLR. Goods and passenger traffic slowly declined until the Second World War began. There were American airbases close to Mendlesham and Horham stations so the MSLR became an important means of transporting equipment and servicemen during the war.
British Railways became the owners of the MSLR in 1948 and in 1951 decided to close the line, the final train ran on Saturday, July 26, 1952.