Leicester and Swannington Railway

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Route of the railway

The Leicester and Swannington Railway (L&S) was one of England's first railways, being opened on 17 July 1832 to bring coal from collieries in west Leicestershire to Leicester.

Prior history[edit]

John Ellis by John Lucas

The industry of Leicester was dominant in the county and the region generally, but it was limited by poor transport links. The industry brought about a huge demand for coal. During the closing years of the eighteenth century, the opening of turnpikes, and improvements to the River Soar -- the Loughborough Navigation in 1778; the Leicester Navigation in 1791) and then in 1814 the completion of the Grand Union Canal towards Rugby -- were all supportive of Leicester's development.[1]

In the 1820s the Leicester Navigation was carrying 56,000 tons of coal annually for Leicester and 59,000 tons for other markets. There was good quality coal nearby at Swannington but no usable transport link, so it was cheaper to bring coal thirty miles by canal from South Derbyshire. William Stenson was part-owner of Long Lane Pit near Whitwick (close to present-day Coalville).[2] Frustrated by the situation, he visited the industrial north-east of England in 1827 and observed the success of the Stockton and Darlington Railway. Seeing that as a solution to his local difficulty, he enlisted the support of the wealthy weaver John Ellis, and together they travelled to see George Stephenson, who was engaged on the construction of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Stephenson and his son Robert Stephenson visited Leicester by invitation in the Autumn of 1828.[1][3]

Conception of the Leicester and Swannington Railway[edit]

Stephenson agreed to become involved in making a railway line from Swannington to Leicester; the first formal meeting to project the line was held at the Bell Inn in Leicester on 12 February 1829,[3] At a further meeting on 24 June 1829, Robert Stephenson stated that a sixteen mile line could be built for £75,540.[3] Subscriptions amounting to £58,250 were raised at this meeting.[3] The remainder of the £90,000 necessary for the construction of was raised through Stephenson's financial contacts in Liverpool. The Act of Incorporation for the line obtained the Royal Assent on 29 May 1830.[4][5][6][7] Authorised share capital was £90,000.[8] The Act prescribed that the Company might carry goods, that is, operate as a carrier and not merely as a provider of the route for independent carriers.[3]

The line was only the fifth such line to be authorised, opening six years before the London and Birmingham, and required techniques, particularly for the tunnel, that were then virtually untried. Its success led to moves by the Nottinghamshire miners towards a rail connection from the Mansfield and Pinxton Railway down the Erewash Valley which led to the formation of Midland Counties Railway.

A second Act was obtained for the Company on 10 June 1833 giving authority to increase the share capital by £10,000. There was a third Act of 30 June 1837, authorising a £40,000 increase in share capital, making a total of £140,000.[8][1]


The engineer for the railway was Robert Stephenson, with the assistance of Thomas Miles, while George Stephenson raised part of the capital for the line from businesspeople in Liverpool. The line was to run from West Bridge, in Leicester, at a location alongside the navigable River Soar; the intention was to be able to continue the transit of coal by water. The lien was to run to the northward end of Swannington village, together with three colliery branches, to Whitwick, Ibstock and Bagworth. In addition there was to be a branch in Leicester to the North Bridge, although that was never made. The colliery branches were authorised by the L&SR Act nut to be constructed by the colliery owners.[9]

The gradients were severe, although generally favourable to loaded trains; and there was to be one tunnel, at Glenfield, just over a mile in length.[9]

The incline-keeper's house at the top of Bagworth incline in 1985.

The original Bagworth station was at the foot of a 1 in 29 self-acting inclined plane[note 1] to the summit at 565 feet (172 m). Then the line passed through a cutting at Battleflat before reaching Bardon Hill and on to Long Lane where new collieries were opened. Beyond Long Lane the railway descended by a further inclined plane of 1 in 17, operated by stationary steam engine, to the existing coal mines at Swannington. The track was single throughout, except at stations.[5][9] The engine for the 1 in 17 incline was built by the Horseley[note 2] Coal and Iron Company, and was equipped with a very early example of a piston valve.[4][8]

The Bagworth incline had a passing loop at the half-way point and used three rails for the upper part of the incline.[9]

The line was single throughout, and of standard gauge, with fish-bellied rails[8] on half-round oak cross-sleepers, but longitudinal timbers were used in Glenfield Tunnel. Stone blocks were used in replacement of some of the oak cross-sleepers later.[9]

Construction began almost immediately, but soon ran into trouble, particularly with the tunnel. Initial boring had suggested that it would not need a lining. However, it turned out that some 500 yards (460 m) would be through sand, requiring much more expensive construction. During its construction in 1831 one of the contractors, Daniel Jowett, fell down a working shaft and was killed. Three separate contractors gave up their contracts and had to be replaced.[3]

Early operation[edit]

A formal opening of the first part of the line took place on 17 July 1832 from the West Bridge terminus in Leicester to the summit level at Staunton Road crossing, a distance of 11 miles 55 chains (19 km). Public operation started the following day. Trains were hauled by a locomotive named Comet.[4][3] The locomotive's 13 feet (4 m) high chimney was struck by the arch of Glenfield Tunnel, due to the track having been packed up too high. It is said that the train stopped so that the passengers could wash themselves in the nearby Rothley Brook.[10] Comet had been brought from Newcastle by sea and canal.[2]

The remainder of the line from Staunton Road to Ashby Road opened on 1 February 1833 or a few days before that. From Ashby Road to Long Lane, Coalville, was opened on 22 April 1833 for coal traffic and on 27 April 1833 for passengers, completing the intended extent of passenger operation.[3][10]

The usual train consisted of twenty-four wagons of 32 cwt each. The idea that there would be a demand from passengers came a something of a surprise to the directors, but a carriage was hastily built, and very soon the line was carrying about 60 passengers a day and their fares were repaying one per cent of the capital. In time, both first and second class was provided. On payment of the fare at the departure station, each passenger would receive a metal token marked with the destination. This would be given up on arrival and reused. Small four-wheeled wagons and coaches, painted plain blue, comprised the rolling stock.[4]

Passenger ticket

For many years facilities for passengers remained primitive, with local inns and tiny cabins serving as booking offices and passenger carriages being attached to goods trains. There was no platform at West Bridge until a new passenger station was opened there in 1839 to handle the passenger trains that had been introduced six years earlier.[2]

Glenfield tunnel was only the second tunnel in the World on a passenger railway, having shortly followed the opening of one on the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway. It proved an attraction for the inquisitive and had to be fitted with gates.[11]

Meanwhile, devastated by the loss of their Leicester trade, the Erewash coalmasters met at the George Inn at Alfreton and decided to build their own line to Leicester, down the Erewash Valley from the Mansfield and Pinxton Railway, a tramway which had been built in 1819. Though not completed along its full length until much later, this was the beginning of the Midland Counties Railway, which in turn, became a founding partner in the Midland Railway.

Private connecting railways[edit]

Mine and quarry owners were able to make their own connecting mineral lines from their workings to the L&SR.

Groby Granite Railway[edit]

This branch opened on the same day as the Leicester and Swannington Railway, joining the line about halfway between Glenfield and Ratby. The junction was made by a turntable into a loop siding off the LL&SR main line. The branch closed around 1843. After the L&SR had been upgraded by the Midland Railwat, the Groby branch was re-opened around 1866–1870. A proper running junction with sidings was put in place.

The branch ran northward for over three miles, to the Old Groby Quarry, close to the centre of Groby village. Later extensions linked to other quarries in and near Groby: the Castle Hill Quarry (after 1870), the Bunney Hill Quarry, the Sheet Hedges Wood Quarry (1890s), and the Dowry Quarry (1907 to 1916).

The wagons were not hauled by locomotives. There was a winding system at the summit of the hill beside the Ratby Road, powered by a steam-powered stationary engine. This drew the loaded wagons from the quarries; from there, they ran downhill by gravity to the junction with Leicester and Swannington, speed being controlled by a brakesman. Two horses were aboard for the downhill journey; the horses drew empty wagons back up from the junction to the winding station at the Ratby Road summit.

Other branches were built successively; they were the Bagworth Colliery branch, opened in July 1832; the Ibstock Colliery branch, opened in 1832; the Long Lane (Whitwick) Colliery branch, opened in 1833; three Snibston Colliery Branches, opened between 1833 and about 1850; the Nailstone Colliery branch, opened in 1866, and Ellistown Colliery Branch, opened about 1875–1876.[12]


Five locomotives were built by Robert Stephenson and Company for the line. The first was Comet, shipped from the works by sea to Hull and thence by canal, its first trip being on the opening day in 1832, when it is alleged its 13-foot high chimney was knocked down by Glenfield Tunnel. The second engine, Phoenix, was delivered in 1832; both had four-coupled wheels. Phoenix was sold in 1835 to work in the construction of the London and Birmingham Railway. The next were Samson and Goliath, delivered in 1833. They were initially four-coupled, but were extremely unstable and a pair of trailing wheels were added. This 0-4-2 formation was also used for Hercules, the next engine to enter service. These were the first six-wheeled goods engines with inside cylinders and, after the flanges were taken off the centre pairs of wheels, were so satisfactory, that Stephenson decided never to build another four-wheeled engine.


According to Clement Stretton,[13] on almost its first run, at Thornton crossing, Samson collided with a horse and cart on its way to Leicester Market with a load of butter and eggs. Although the engine had a horn, it clearly was not loud enough, and at the suggestion of Mr. Bagster, the manager, the engines were provided with the first steam whistles.

However, in C. R. Clinker's account of the Leicester and Swannington Railway it states that the Minutes of Directors' meetings record accidents, some trivial. There is no reference to this collision in the Minutes, nor to any payments made for claims for damages or to a "musical instrument maker". Trade directories of Leicester for the time do not include an instrument maker in King Street.[4]

0-6-0 Design[edit]

By 1834, traffic had increased to such an extent that more powerful engines were needed and the next to be delivered was Atlas, the first ever six-coupled 0-6-0 inside cylinder design. Although inside cylinders were more difficult to build and maintain, and, in the early days, prone to breakage of the crank axles, the engines were more stable than their outside cylindered counterparts. The design was so successful that it was the basic pattern for many goods engines over the next hundred years. The cramped space between the wheels, was a factor in the choice of a wider gauge in some railways overseas.

So far all the engines had been provided by Stephenson, but the directors decided to try one of Edward Bury's locomotives. Stephenson was, of course, extremely influential in the running of the line, but agreed provided the Bury engine was tested fairly. Accordingly, the Liverpool arrived in 1834. An 0-4-0, it proved unequal to the loads hauled by Atlas. The next engine bought for the line was Vulcan, an 0-6-0 by Tayleur and Company. The last two were by the Haigh Foundry, Ajax, 0-4-2 and Hector, 0-6-0. This last engine was so powerful that it became the pattern for engines built for the Manchester and Leeds Railway, the North Midland Railway, the Great Western Railway and the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.


Burton upon Trent line
Welford Road
Leicester West Bridge
Glenfield Tunnel
Kirby Muxloe
Merry Lees
Thornton (Stag & Castle)
Thornton Lane
Bagworth and Ellistown
Stud Farm Quarry
Bardon Hill Quarry
Bardon Hill
Snibston Colliery Railway
Coalville Town
Ashby de la Zouch
Woodville Tunnel
Gresley Tunnel

Coal and quarry traffic made the line profitable, but with increasing competition, various schemes were afoot, including incorporation into the Trent Valley line with a branch from Atherstone and Polesworth via Market Bosworth, for which Leicestershire Record Office has deposited plans, as a group of Leicester and Tamworth financiers had expressed an interest in buying the line. However, in August 1845 the directors sold out to the Midland Railway, which lost no time in improving the line.

Safety concerns prevented passenger trains using the Bagworth Incline. The practice was to provide separate trains for each of the level stretches and passengers would walk between them. A deviation on an easier gradient was therefore built, necessitating the closure of the original Bagworth station at the bottom of the incline and the opening of the new Bagworth and Ellistown station beyond the summit.

Moreover, the intention was to double the line and rather than widen the Glenfield Tunnel a deviation was built from Desford to meet the main line south of Leicester London Road station. The old line to West Bridge would remain mainly as a goods line.

The line was also extended westwards to Burton upon Trent, so transforming the isolated venture into a through route.

This left the Swannington Incline as a branch at one end, and the last few miles to the L&S terminal in Leicester as another.

20th and 21st centuries[edit]

A train loaded with granite chippings from the Stud Farm quarry (at Markfield) moves on to the former Leicester and Swannington Railway at Battleflat, just to the north of Bagworth.
A train loaded with granite chippings from the Bardon Hill quarry departs south from the exchange sidings on the former Leicester and Swannington Railway.

Passenger trains on the stub to Leicester (West Bridge) ended in September 1928, although coal and oil traffic continued until 29 April 1966.[14] Since Glenfield tunnel had limited clearance the Midland Railway built a batch of 6-wheel coaches of lower height and 4 inches narrower than normal to work through. They also had bars over their windows so that passengers could not lean out when going through the tunnel.[15]

For enthusiast railtours in later years over the line to West Bridge passengers were carried in brake vans; trains with normal passenger stock had to stop and reverse at Glenfield tunnel. The tunnel also limited the size of locomotives that could work through to West Bridge. In the latter years only Midland Railway Johnson 0-6-0 tender locos worked the trains.

The last three veterans of this class from the late 19th century were retained at Coalville until 1964 specifically for working this line. They were replaced for the last couple of years operation by two BR standard class 2 2-6-0 locomotives which had to be specially adapted by having their cabs cut down to clear the tunnel.[16][17] These were 78013[17] and 78028.[16][17]

The pits at the Swannington end were worked out by as early as 1875, but the incline found a new lease of life lowering wagons of coal to a new pumping station at the foot that kept the old workings clear of water, so preventing flooding in the newer mines nearby. The incline closed in 1948 when electric pumps were installed in the pumping station, but the winding engine was dismantled and is now at the National Railway Museum at York. The site of the incline now belongs to the Swannington Heritage Trust.

Passenger trains on the extended line from Leicester London Road to Burton on Trent ceased in 1964. Despite the end of coal mining in west Leicestershire in the 1980s, which resulted in the end of the coal trains, the railway continues to serve two granite quarries, at Stud Farm near Markfield and Bardon Hill, which produce regular heavy trains. A plan to reopen the line to passenger traffic as a phase of the Ivanhoe Line scheme has so far failed to secure the necessary funds.[18] Some campaigners now refer to the route as the National Forest Line, after the National Forest planted in the area since 1990.


This is a list of some of the historical remains that can be seen, most of which are on the closed sections of the line.

The wooden lifting bridge reconstructed next to the entrance to Snibston Discovery Park. Since removed after the closure of the Discovery Park in July 2015.
The, now sealed, western portal of Glenfield Tunnel.
A freight train crossing High Street/Hotel Street in the centre of Coalville with, on the right, the building where tickets were originally issued.

A short length of platform has been rebuilt on the site of the second passenger station (of 1893) at West Bridge in Leicester, and has track alongside it and a semaphore signal, grid reference SK579044. From here the trackbed is now a public footpath for about a mile towards Glenfield tunnel, to SK569056.

A wooden lifting bridge, based on a design by Robert Stephenson, originally carrying a short branch over the Soar Navigation at West Bridge in Leicester, had been reconstructed next to the entrance of Snibston Discovery Park in Coalville, after spending some years installed on a footpath outside the Abbey Pumping Station in Leicester. However, following the closure of the Discovery Park in July 2015 the bridge has been removed.

A public footpath in Glenfield passes close to the western entrance to Glenfield tunnel, SK544066, which has been bricked up. The eastern entrance to the tunnel has been buried, while the tunnel as a whole was sold to Leicester city council for the nominal sum of £5, though the council has never decided what use to make of it. The tops of several brick ventilator shafts can be seen among the houses of the estate above the tunnel, for example beside the A563 at SK558064; some are in the back gardens of the houses.

The tunnel itself underwent in 2008 a retrofit to install strengthening rings that are hoped to prevent a collapse of the extant tunnel shaft. The £500,000 reinforcement project was commissioned by the Leicester city council and was recorded by the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust and photographed by the Leicestershire Industrial History Society.[19] Occasional "open days" are held for organised groups.[20] From the centre of Glenfield, SK543065, the trackbed has been converted to a public footpath to Ratby, SK518054, where there is a commemorative plaque next to a short length of rail.

The remains of the engine house at the top of Swannington incline.
The Swannington incline winding engine preserved in the National Railway Museum, York.

Most of the incline at Bagworth, now bypassed by a deviation line, is a public footpath, SK444091 at top to SK453086 near bottom, though its profile has been affected by mining subsidence. Near the top was the bow-fronted incline-keeper's house, SK446091, see photograph near the top of this page. Although this was probably the oldest surviving railway building in the East Midlands,[21] and a grade-two listed building,[22] it was allowed to fall down to become an overgrown pile of bricks after, on a recommendation from English Heritage, the Department of the Environment struck Incline Cottage from the listed building register.[23]

At Coalville the original building for passengers to buy tickets is now a children's nursery beside the level crossing, SK426142.

The incline at Swannington is under the supervision of the Swannington Heritage Trust and the track bed down the incline has been opened as a footpath with information boards. The foundations of the engine house at the top of the incline, SK420156, have been uncovered and about 75 yards (69 m) of track laid have been relaid. The historic winding engine was removed from here after the inclined closed to the National Railway Museum at York.

The central part of the line from Desford to Bardon Hill, on the outskirts of Coalville, is still used daily by the stone trains and can be observed from bridges, level crossings, and footpaths.

Motive power depot[edit]

British Rail closed Mantle Lane depot at Coalville in 1990. Its "Category A" status was a clerical error, and was in fact a "Category C".[citation needed][clarification needed] This BR depot was unusual in having no fueling points, fitters or any other shed facilities. Locomotives would be taken in ferries[clarification needed] to nearby Bardon or Leicester for refueling, water and sandbox filling. This perhaps shows why it was a surprise to find it as an A listed depot. Little remains at the site which hints at its formerly busy railway past. Two tracks remain where once lay four 'on shed'[clarification needed] as it were. The Mantle Lane Sidings are overgrown with saplings that are now more than 20 years old and only a short stretch is usable from the points on the main line before the trees encroach the track.

FM Rail, shortly before its bankruptcy, leased the Mantle Lane Sidings to reduce costs. However, it had not properly assessed the state of the sidings or the work needed to bring them up to spec[clarification needed] so only one line was ever used, up to the edge of the trees. Only one tree was ever felled, to allow a wagon to sit a yard or so further in. Following FM's demise, all of its stock at Mantle Lane was taken elsewhere for scrap or further use.

Network Rail recently replaced point mechanisms on the loop and relief lines near to the sidings, which had been out of use for 20 years until FM arrived, and Freightliner now stables its stone wagons here between trips. The former Marcroft Wagon Repair yard is now a wood yard and currently[when?] for sale. Viewing on Google Earth shows some clear grooves in the site where rails once ran. All that remains at Mantle Lane is the signalbox, still in use.[citation needed]

Earlier proposed railways[edit]

The first mention of the term "railway" in a newspaper was in The Times and the Derby Mercury in 1790. At a meeting held in Leicester Castle on 12 July 1790 to discuss making the River Soar navigable to Loughborough, it was also suggested that a cut or a railway from Swannington to Loughborough Basin should be built.[24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Whishaw says it too was worked by a stationary engine, but he may have meant it was mechanically worked as opposed to locomotive operated.
  2. ^ Sometimes spelt Horsely.


  1. ^ a b c Robin Leleux, A Regional History of the Railways of Great Britain: volume IX: the East Midlands, David & Charles, Newton Abbot, 1976, ISBN 0 7153 7165 7, pages 83 and 84
  2. ^ a b c P Howard Anderson, Forgotten Railways: volume 2: East Midlands, David St John Thomas, Newton Abbot, second ediiton 1985, ISBN 0 946537 20 8, pages 39, 41 to 43
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Clinker, C R, New Light on the Leicester and Swannington Railway, in the Railway Magazine, March 1953
  4. ^ a b c d e Clinker, C.R. (1977) The Leicester & Swannington Railway Bristol: Avon Anglia Publications & Services. Reprinted from the Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeological Society Volume XXX, 1954.
  5. ^ a b Ellis, C Hamilton, The Midland Railway, Ian Allan Publishing, Shepperton, 1953, page 3
  6. ^ Grant, Donald J, Directory of the Railway Companies of Great Britain, Matador, Kibworth Beauchamp, 2017, ISBN 978 1785893 537, page 312
  7. ^ Legislation Gov Uk at https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukla/Geo4and1Will4/11/58/contents/enacted
  8. ^ a b c d Francis Whishaw, The Railways of Great Britain and Ireland, published by John Weale, London, 1842, pages 184 and 185
  9. ^ a b c d e Clement E Stratton, A Few Notes on the Leicester and Swannington Railway, read at a Technical Meeting, Leicester, 1867 and subsequently; Abstract published at "The Train" Offices, London, 1885
  10. ^ a b Leleux, pages 84 and 85
  11. ^ Wilson, B.L. (November 2005). "An Early East Midlands Adventure: Leicester West Bridge to Desford Junction". Railway Bylines: 586–595.
  12. ^ Principal sources: Clinker, CR The Leicester and Swannington Railway 1954 Leicestershire Archaeological Society Volume XXX page 106 (re-published by Anglia Publications 1977) and also McGrath, Annette The Quarries of Charnwood Forest 2006 Mercian Geologist 16(4) pages 254 to 256
  13. ^ Stretton, Clement Edwin, The History of the Midland Railway, 1901. pp26-7
  14. ^ Leleux R. (1976) A Regional History of the Railways of Great Britain: Volume 9 The East Midlands Newton Abbot: David & Charles.
  15. ^ Hurst J. and Kinder M. (2002) William Bradshaw: Leicester Railway Cameraman 1909 - 1923, The Historical Model Railway Society.
  16. ^ a b Gamble H.A. (1989) Railways Around Leicester: Scenes of Times Past Leicester: Anderson Publications.
  17. ^ a b c (1995) Railway Connections: Steam Days on the Leicester to Burton Line Coalville: Coalville Publishing Co. Ltd.
  18. ^ "A blow to Ivanhoe hopes". Leicester Mercury. 3 December 2008. Archived from the original on 16 June 2009.
  19. ^ "Stephenson tunnel saved". The Railway Magazine. Vol. 154, no. 1, 292. December 2008. p. 10.
  20. ^ Lyne, David. "Dark, dangerous, fascinating and now, accessible". News Letter. Council for British Archaeology (34): 6.
  21. ^ Palmer, M. (ed.) (1983) Leicestershire Archaeology The Present State of Knowledge: Vol. 3. Industrial Archaeology, Leicester: Leicestershire Museums.
  22. ^ Palmer, M. (1981) Bagworth Incline Keeper's House, Leicestershire Industrial History Society, LIHS Bulletin 05, September 1981.
  23. ^ "On This Day: 25 Years Ago". Leicester Mercury. 21 March 2016.
  24. ^ The Times Thursday, 22 July 1790, p4, Derby Mercury, Thursday 15 July 1790, p4.

Further reading[edit]

  • Lee, Charles E. "Swannington: One-Time Railway Centre", in The Railway Magazine, July 1939
  • Stevenson, P.S. ed, (1989) The Midland Counties Railway, Railway and Canal Historical Society.
  • Stretton, John (2005). No 47: Leicestershire. British Railways Past and Present. Kettering: Silver Link Publishing Ltd. ISBN 1-85895-198-4.
  • Twells, H.N. (1985). A Pictorial Record of the Leicester and Burton Branch Railway. Burton-upon-Trent: Trent Valley Publications. ISBN 0-948131-04-7.
  • Twining, A. ed, (1982) An Early Railway: A Car Trail to the Leicester and Swannington Leicester: Leicestershire Museums
  • Williams, R. (1988) The Midland Railway: A New History, Newton Abbot: David & Charles
  • Williams, F.S. (1874) The Midland Railway: Its Rise and Progress Derby: Bemrose and Son

Further listening[edit]

  • Peter Handford (Dir), (1964) The Glenfield Goods: A journey from Leicester, West Bridge, on a goods train hauled by a Midland 2F class 0-6-0, EAF 78, London: Argo Record Company Limited. An Argo Transacord, 7 inch, 45 rpm, extended play, vinyl recording of 2F 0-6-0 58148, built in 1876, on a train in July 1963. Side 1: between Leicester and Glenfield. Side 2: Shunting at Groby Quarry Sidings, leaving Groby sidings and arriving at Ratby, and the return journey between Ratby and Glenfield.

External links[edit]