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Amblecote Viaducts

Geoff Longmore

The OWWR and its Timber Trestle Viaducts

The “Murder Bridge”, as it was known locally, was situated approximately 340 yards from the north side of Vicarage Road Bridge. It took a wide farm track under the railway line at the southern end of the Coalbourn viaduct/embankment, near to what is now Blyth Close.

Clive Butcher’s book “The Railways of Stourbridge” [page 160] suggests that this grisly name owes it’s origins to the events of June & July 1906. On 26th June 1906, Enoch Cox visited The Birch Tree Inn accompanied by a Caroline Pearson. Caroline left the pub at about 9-30pm and was not seen alive again. Cox then travelled to Cradley Heath where his estranged wife Amy was living and stabbed and shot her and then killed himself. Caroline’s badly decomposed body was found in a field of rye located near the Murder Bridge [MB] on 10 July. The cause of Caroline’s death could not be determined but it has never been disputed that she died at the hands of Enoch Cox.

Unfortunately one important detail later in the same chapter is incorrect. Clive describes the bridge as being a footpath l under the railwaythrough a small tunnel. He has confused the locations. There was a small concrete tunnel through the embankment on the approach to the Amblecote side of Stambermill Viaduct. The footpath that ran through that small tunnel would have been diverted to pass under the Stamford Road railway bridges when the housing estates on both sides of the railway were built. Clive also regretted that the MB footpath through the embankment was not re-instated after the opencast was finished in the 1970’s. However, on the 2008 Explorer O.S. map, a foot path is shown in the area where the MB had been. The path appears to go up one side of the embankment, crosses the tracks and goes down the other side. Was this footpath ever provided?

I was born at 13 Vicarage Road, Amblecote - long since demolished. Withymoor was our playground. I remember both the embankment and MB well. On most Sunday mornings in the late 40’s and early 50’s there would be a loco and a long rake of open wagons with men shovelling out ash or sand to stabilise the embankment. A photo of the MB from the early 1960’s shows the western side of the bridge. It consisted of two massive brick abutments with an iron trough spanning across the top carrying the double track railway. Underneath the iron trough was a latticework of large wooden beams fixed between the abutments. The area under and around the MB was isolated and with the lattice of beams it looked somewhat like a gallows. Not a place to be near in the dark.

ridge from the west

From this photo (above), the minimum dimensions of the bridge can be reasonably estimated by assuming that the sides of the iron trough are 5ft tall [though they may be taller]. From the underside of the iron trough to the ground is 21ft and width between abutments is 20ft. The beams are fixed in three tiers below the trough giving the height from the ground to the bottom of the lowest beam of 11ft. The beams are, at least, 12inch square and about 19ft long as there were 6inch timbers fixed across the abutments. It is difficult to judge how many 12inch beams there were in total between the abutments, but I would guess at least 18 and possibly up to 30. The right abutment supported the track bed, on solid ground, coming from the south. The left abutment was the southern end of the viaduct that spanned the Coalbourn Valley across to the bridge over the Stourbridge Canal. The beams under the MB were to help to stabilise the nearly 800ft long and 95ft high [max] viaduct structure.

albournbrook ValleyWe need to go back to the 1840’s and the time of the first “Railway Mania” and “The Battle of the Gauges” between George Stephenson’s narrow [standard] gauge of 4ft 8½ in and Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Broad gauge of 7ft 0¼ in. Coalbourn Viaduct was built as part of the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway [OWW]. The Act of Parliament authorising the building of the OWW received royal Assent on 4th August 1845. The Great Western Railway [GWR] had connected a broad gauge branch to Oxford off their main line from London to Bristol in June 1844. The OWW Act had also authorised the GWR to subscribe half the capital to build the OWW and have six directors. I K Brunel, at the age of 27, had been appointed Engineer-in-Chief of the GWR in March 1833. In 1835 Brunel persuaded the GWR directors to adopt his much wider broad gauge instead of Stephenson’s narrow [4ft 8½ in]. The GWR board saw that gaining control of the OWW would be a major advance in their goal of reaching Manchester & Liverpool via Wolverhampton with broad gauge. By 1846, there was only 374 miles of broad gauge in use, all on the GWR, but 1901 miles of narrow [standard] gauge had been laid over the rest of Britain. The August 1846 Gauge Regulation Act severely restricted the GWR ability to expand its Broad gauge network.

Brunel seems to have been appointed to be the Engineer of OWW by default so that the line was to be built for 7ft 0¼ gauge. Unfortunately, Brunel’s designs of wooden trestle viaducts were also used. His viaducts were quicker and cheaper to initially build compared with bricks or masonry but maintenance costs were higher. Brunel specified the use of yellow pine from Memel in the Baltic which became scarce and expensive. The structures were elegant but only fit for 1830’s light weight and relatively low speed trains. Longer, heavier and more frequent trains would, within 30 years, require all the wooden trestle viaducts and bridges on both the OWW and the GWR lines, most of which were in Cornwall, to have to be replaced or rebuilt. The saga of Brunel’s trestle viaducts, especially Coalbourn and Dudley’s Parkhead viaducts will be told later.

Mixed gauge trackBuilding the OWW Railway was to be a slow and complicated process. The cost of building the line far exceeded Brunel’s original estimates. Raising more capital in the midst of the “Railway Mania” when many other lines were being promoted all over the UK was difficult and caused delays. Relations between the GWR and OWW were strained as the OWW did not want broad gauge. The unsatisfactory compromise of mixed gauge was agreed. Three rails were laid for mixed gauge, a common rail and the two others to the appropriate gauge distance away. The point work was very complicated and increased the risk of derailment. Brunel resigned as Engineer of the OWW in March 1853 and John Fowler took over. The line was built with a mixture of double and single track and broad and narrow [standard] gauge lengths and opened in sections as and when the Board of Trade Railway Inspectors passed them as safe to carry passengers. Evesham to Stourbridge and on to Dudley was opened to traffic on 20th December 1852 but as double track only to Brettell Lane. It was then single track on to Dudley where an engine turntable had been installed as tender-first loco running was not authorised. Captain Dalton, the Railway Inspector was most anxious about the safety precautions in use at Round Oak where the Pensnett tramway crossed the OWW on the level.

d gauge locomotiveFrom “Brunel’s broad gauge in the Black Country” by Michael Hale. On 13 April 1854, an OWW Director’s special train consisting of a broad gauge engine and two coaches was organised to run from Oxford to just north of Wolverhampton. Brunel arrived at Oxford station to travel on the train but John Fowler, much to Brunel’s disappointment, refused him permission. The train left at 11-30am stopped at Worcester for lunch and arrived at Wolverhampton at 6-30pm. The train arrived back at Oxford at 5-30am next day. As not all the broad gauge rail had been laid, the journey was only possible with some “wrong line running”. By running this one and only Broad gauge train between Wolverhampton and Oxford, the OWW had complied with the letter of the 1845 Act but in practice the OWW was a standard gauge railway. Brunel died in September 1859. In the GWR [further powers] Act of 1866 the GWR took powers to adapt their railways to narrow [standard] gauge. Broad gauge on the GWR finally ended in May 1892 when the last 213 miles were changed to 4ft 8½in. The Broad gauge had very nearly bankrupted the GWR.

Ironically, because broad gauge track had required more clearance under bridges, tunnels etc [a more generous clearance or loading gauge], the GWR were then able to use that extra clearance to build their new express engines and carriages a bit bigger than the other railway companies. “What the GWR did with the Broad Gauge, they are doing better with the Narrow and will do the better yet” commented W J Gordon in “Our Home Railways” published in 1910.

 Viaduct in CornwallTimber trestle viaducts were constructed for the Broad gauge GWR to cross the valleys and river estuaries of southern Devon and Cornwall. The GWR had subscribed half the capital to build the OWW and as I K Brunel was the Engineer in Chief of the GWR, the same basic design of timber viaducts was also used on the OWW, a fact that the historians of I K Brunel and the GWR have never seemed to have known – or wanted to know.

The GWR could not afford to construct their viaducts with brick, masonry or iron. They also anticipated that much less heavy traffic would use their Broad gauge lines and structures in Devon & Cornwall as would be the case in more populous parts of the country. A Broad gauge GWR meant that narrow gauge trains, especially freight - coal and China clay etc, could not run through to and from the Midlands and the North. The OWW from Worcester via Stourbridge, Dudley & Tipton to Wolverhampton went through the heart of the Black Country and consequently carried large amounts of heavy freight and passenger traffic - all on standard gauge. The timber trestle viaducts on the OWW would soon prove to be unfit for purpose and require expensive replacements – where possible. Timber viaducts would initially be cheaper and quicker to build but the 30 year maximum anticipated life of the expensive timber used would require regular maintenance and eventual rebuilding. On the GWR, but not on the OWW, highly skilled bridge gangs of 17 men were employed to examine each viaduct four times a year. Repairs and replacements usually required the workmen to lower themselves down from the rail deck on ropes – at 100ft or more above the ground. Until the turn of the century a large number of these gangs were kept constantly at work. By 1931 only 3 timber viaducts remained which were replaced soon afterwards allowing the last surviving gang to be disbanded. At least 15 men are known to have been killed working on these viaducts.

The viaducts were classified into types A to D. Type A was for viaduct being built on firm ground with support pillars in either brick or stone being built up to the height 34 ft below the proposed rail level. The pillars were topped by cast iron caps from which sets of 4 timbers on each side, like outspread fingers of a hand, supported the main longitudinal timbers. The main platform for the track was carried on these main timbers. Other sets of fingers supported the centre of the track. The support “fingers” were standard lengths so that they could be changed without interrupting the rail traffic. On the GWR, the spacing of the fingers was at 50, 75, 105 and 125 degrees from the horizontal thus giving a tall, elegant but spindly look. Heavy trains going over these viaducts at speed would have put excess sideways force on the “fingers” causing fixings to the pillar tops and main platform to move and wear. Passengers complained about the creaking, swaying and vertiginous drop when crossing the viaducts.

Stour at StambermillA photograph of Stambermill [Stourbridge] viaduct [190yds] shows construction similar to type A except that the “fingers” were spaced at 35, 75, 90, 125 & 145 degrees to the horizontal. This made the track platform less spindly and structurally stronger than the Brunel/GWR design. It is reasonable to assume that Coalbourn 264yds, Churchill [Blakedown] 173yards and Kidderminster [Hoobrook] 371yards were of the same construction. John Fowler was appointed resident Engineer on the OWWR after Brunel resigned from the post in March 1852.

Type A - Hoobrook [Kidderminster], Churchill, Stambermill and Coalbourn Viaducts.

In the London Gazette of November 23 1858 [pages 5044&5], the OWWR proposed a multipurpose parliamentary bill to included taking powers to remove any obligation to have anything to do with broad gauge. They also asked for full powers to get rid of the four timber viaducts and replace them in the best way they thought suitable. Hoobrook, Churchill and Stambermill were all at locations that it was possible to build a new masonry or brick viaduct close to the existing one without needing to close the railway for long periods. After completing the new build, the track at each end would be diverted onto the new structure and the old viaduct removed. The OWW, owned by GWR since 1863, depended on the GWR to finance the building of the new viaducts as the originals were becoming life expired.

Construction by Messrs Kellet & Bently of the new Stambermill viaduct started in September 1881. It cost £13,835, and was brought into use on 10 May 1882. The same firm also constructed the new Churchill viaduct.

Some evidence of the wooden viaducts still exists, at the north end of Hoobrook the sandstone abutment is still there alongside the abutment of the new viaduct. At the south end of Stambermill the brick abutment – in good condition- is alongside the new structure. At the north end the last pillar, brick made, still stands at what looks to be full height. The remaining pillars, not as tall, can also be found hidden in the undergrowth at the same spacing as the present brick pillars. Brick viaduct over River Stour at Stambermill

Coalbourn Viaduct.

The line from the Amblecote end of Stambermill viaduct climbs steeply and continuously up the bank and also curves to the right most of the way to Round Oak. There was no space to build a new viaduct alongside the existing and also the line has to go over the Stourbridge Canal Bridge. In the early years of the line Coalbourn viaduct was filled in with cinders and other waste material transported via the Kingswinford branch from Pensnett Chase. The work took 30 men a year to do the job at a cost of £4,000 and the contractor was Dixon from Worcester. The “Murder Bridge” at the southern edge of the new embankment would have been built at the same time to retain access for railway staff and the farmer. The reinforcing timbers described above were probably added some time later. The viaduct and embankment were a problem throughout its existence.

Spontaneous internal combustion would have quickly started. Clive, a friend who walked the line for BR in the 60’s, advises that there were many holes under the tracks and a stone dropped down would take a while to hit the ground inside. The Stourbridge to Wolverhampton passenger service was withdrawn on 30 July 1962 but freight continued. Coalbourn viaduct was demolished in the early 1970’s to allow opencast mining to take place. Our members Dennis & John saw original viaduct piers and timberwork being exposed during its demolition. After the opencast, track diversion and final reinstatement had been completed the present embankment was built. The line north of Round Oak was closed on 22 March 1993. Steel trains still run to and from Round Oak. Looking from the canal bridge towards Stourbridge there is now a distinct dip in the double track rails over the embankment.

The official report of the Brettell Lane railway disaster [Google that to access it] written by Captain W H Tyler RE gives a detailed account of an excursion train that ran from Wolverhampton to Worcester and back on August 28th 1858. The excursion left Wolverhampton with 35 adults and 37 children on a train with one locomotive, 24 carriages and 2 brake vans. At Brettell Lane station a second loco was added to the train which now composed of 32 carriages, 567 adults & 470 children. The train proceeded to Worcester, but on the journey problems were had with coupling chains between coaches breaking. For the evening return, the train was split into two separate parts leaving about 12 minutes apart. The 1st part stopped at Round Oak where the rear 17 coaches, containing about 450 passengers, broke away and ran out of control down the 1 in 75 incline for 2/3rd of a mile before colliding with the 2nd part. 14 people were killed, 50 seriously injured and over 170 passengers applied for compensation. After tests, Captain Tyler calculated that the runaway was travelling up to 18mph when it collided. He also noted that it was a dark night, visibility was poor and the rails were damp due to smoke from numerous adjacent manufacturies.

If the 2nd train had been running a few minutes later, the collision could well have happened on Coalbourn viaduct – about a mile farther down the incline. Casualties would have been much higher due to a greater impact speed and the probability of passengers falling/jumping off the viaduct. Would the timber structure have withstood the forces of the collision? Britain’s railways were being built in a free market without any central planning and such a disaster and loss of life should have forced Government to get much more involved in all aspects of the Railways. Legislation requiring all passenger trains to be fitted with continuous automatic brakes was eventually passed in 1889 mainly due to public pressure after the Armagh disaster in which 80 were killed & 260 injured. The chain of events for both the Armagh and Brettell Lane disasters were very similar.

Type C.

These viaducts were used when a viaduct crossed a tidal creek. Wooden piles were driven into the mud until firm ground had been reached, timber vertical timber trestles were built directly on top of the piles, horizontal timber tresses were then built across to make the track platform. Parkhead viaduct [164yds] was built over the 1779 Parkhead locks and canals. The restricted solid ground area for piles dictated that Type C construction be used. Park Head viaduct started to sink early in its working life. The GWR board minutes of 19 March 1877 record the authorisation to spend £7,000 to encase the original wooden structure with a million bricks. A tender for £9,400 from C J Smith of Westminster Chambers was accepted, the bricks were provided by Phillips & McEwan of Dudley, the work being finished by December 1878. The GWR also agreed to purchase the mines under the viaduct for £250. The viaduct continued to sink. Parkhead ViaductThis area of Dudley had been used for the extraction of limestone for very many years. Parkhead viaduct has continued to sink and, by my estimate, is now about 12ft lower than when built. In the 1980’s the ballast and track could be seen well above the viaduct parapet which would have been one of the reasons for its closure to all railway traffic.

The future of the OWWR.

It is planned to extend the Midland Metro from Wednesbury to the Merry Hill Shopping complex at Brierley Hill - over Parkhead Viaduct. The viaduct would certainly start sinking again with any form of railway running on it – even the relatively light Metro. The 1840’s bricked in piles will need stabilising without affecting the 1779 canals and locks. Solving the problem with the sunken viaduct will be a difficult engineering and financial challenge.

Coalbourn Viaduct.

If there is ever to be a modern passenger railway – metro or heavy rail - across the Coalbourn Valley the existing viaduct would have to be removed. The replacement would need to be the modern equivalent of the sturdy viaduct that should have originally been built in the 1840’s. The close proximity of the housing at Lakeside, Clock Fields and Old Hall Close etc would make it politically impossible to even remove the existing embankment. The OWWR between Stourbridge, Dudley & Walsall should still be in use as part of a heavy rail north/south main line carrying both through freight and passenger services. Sadly, it will probably never happen.