Leicester and Swannington Railway

Speaker: Bill Pemberton

19 February 2019

The Leicester and Swannington Railway Today: a Photographic Journey was the subject for the Feburary meeting of the Thurcaston and Cropston Local History Society.   Speaker Bill Pemberton, treasurer of the Leicestershire Industrial History Society addressed the history of this first coal-transporting railway in Leicestershire and took us through a fascinating photographic tour of what can still be seen today.

Coal from the Swannington area was mined from the 13th century.  With Leicester’s 19th century population explosion, however, demand rapidly increased.   Packhorses along muddy tracks were no longer good enough.  The Leicestershire mine owners competed with the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire miners, who had the advantage of transport along the 1779 Erewash Canal and the River Soar.  The Charnwood Forest Canal (built 1794) enabled Leicestershire mine owners to remain competitive, at least until the collapse in 1799 of the Blackbrook Reservoir Dam that fed the canal.  In the late 1820s, Swannington coalmine owner William Stenson and colleague William Ellis approached George Stephenson, the famous railway engineer.  He said ‘Yes’ to the Glenfield Tunnel project, putting it in the hands of his son Robert.   Construction began in 1830.   The Leicester and Swannington Railway line opened in 1832.  Other coalmines along the route benefitted, such as Stenson’s mines at Whitwick.  Furthmore, passengers could travel with the coal.  Hence the various Railway Inns en route.

The rail route from Swannington to its West Bridge terminus in Leicester passed through Coalville, Bardon, Bagworth, Merilees, Desford, Ratby and Glenfield.  Engineering challenges included the Swannington incline, the Bagworth incline and the hill between Glenfield and Leicester.  The Swannington incline required a stationary steam-powered winding engine to lift the coal wagons to a train system at the top.  The Bagworth challenge required a system of lowering full wagons of coal down the incline to join another train at the bottom.  The Glenfield Tunnel, opened in 1832, allowing rail transport of coal into Leicester’s West Bridge Station.  In 1846 the Midland Railway bought out the L&SR and used its middle part, now double-track, as part of their Leicester to Burton-on-Trent line.  The Swannington branch line closed in 1948.  The pumps at the former Calcutta colliery were kept operating until 1947, to prevent deeper mines elsewhere from flooding.  The Leicester branch from Desford to the West Bridge Station closed in the mid 1960s.

The second part of Bill’s talk was a fascinating photographic record of those historical remnats of the old line still visible to walkers exploring the old track today.  He ended with images of that part of the Glenfield Tunnel that is still open for organised group visits.   Those wanting to visit the Tunnel should contact the Leics. Industrial History Society (via its website www.lihs.org.uk).  Visits are organised in July and September.  Advance booking is essential.