The Railway Age

Stapleford History Society 8 October 2013


Talk by Helen Harwood

Stapleford History Society members and visitors heard a fascinating talk by Helen Harwood at their October meeting about the impact of the railway age on our villages. A historian in Great Shelford, Helen has published a book on the development of the railways and the changes they brought about in Shelford and surrounding villages.

Before the railways, London was already demanding huge quantities of grain from Cambridgeshire’s arable fields: wheat for baking, barley for brewing. Increasing quantities of coal were required too. One proposal was a canal to link river systems from the Wash to the Lea Valley. This would enable coal from the north to be shipped more directly to London, cutting out the voyage round the East Anglian coast, as well as conveying agricultural produce. The canal was never built, but the railway followed a similar route, taking advantage of the low gradients of the river valleys.

Shelford station opened in 1845. Extensive goods yards developed. The Headley family, who owned some of the farm-land traversed by the railway, were able to build up a substantial business – Shelford Corn and Coal – shipping grain and coal and malting barley. The Railway Tavern was also part of this enterprise. There was a connection to Haverhill, as well as London and Cambridge. The railway companies also attracted passengers, particularly by offering cheap excursions. For the first time, there were large numbers of non-agricultural jobs in the area. Shelford and Stapleford expanded rapidly, becoming commuter villages.

In the early days accidents were common. Helen recounted some tragic events, and described memorials erected to the victims that can still be visited.

The audience included several people with railway connections and reminiscences. There were lively interventions and discussions as information was shared and debated. Ron Gooch, who looks after Shelford station as a volunteer, provided a small exhibition of artefacts.

A big thank you to Helen and to everyone who made it such a stimulating and enjoyable evening.

[report by John Street]