How it all started
Most passenger cliff railways were built at seaside resorts and the first appeared at Scarborough in 1875. The zenith of cliff railway construction was in the 1890s and 1900s. The pre-eminent of the cliff railway engineers during this period was George Croydon Marks.
In 1890 a public meeting was called to discuss a new means of communication between the High Town and Low Town of Bridgnorth, avoiding the need to scale the 200 or so steps. The meeting was reported in the local press, and the matter came to the attention of Mr. George Croydon Marks. Marks and Mr. George Newnes, M.P. subsequently laid a proposal before the town council for the erection of a Patent Cliff Railway, or inclined lift.
Plans were finally accepted for a route from the bottom of the Stoneway Steps to the end of the Castle Walk and consequently a company entitled The Bridgnorth Castle Hill Railway Company Ltd was registered in 1891.
The actual start of the construction work began on 2nd November 1891. Initial work was much hindered by the discovery of caves set into the cliff-face – one cave was so large it was necessary to support the roof to avoid slippage and subsidence. Another problem facing the construction work were the many houses built into the cliff face around the site – in some cases, the effect of excavating the cutting was to remove supporting walls from the poorly constructed dwellings. At either end of the track station buildings were constructed.
The original patented design of the railway was for a single track with two cars, with a crossing point mid-way between top and bottom, but this was abandoned in favour of a double track. When finished, the track measured 201 ft long, with a vertical rise of 111ft. This gave the railway an incline of 1:81, or 33.52°, the steepest in inland Britain.
The rails were secured to sleepers which were themselves bolted into solid rock. At the upper end of the track, the hauling pulley was built on solid concrete foundations, the supporting buttresses of which carried a considerable distance down the track. Flat bottomed rails were used and the entire line was ballasted with concrete to avoid any slippage. Horizontal rollers were set into the track at regular intervals to support the steel ropes.
Each car was mounted on a triangular frame of steel girders which housed a 2,000 gallon water tank. The method of power was simple – the tank on the car at the top was filled with water from a 30,000 gallon tank mounted on the roof of the top station. When the tank was full, the total weight of the car was more than 9 tons, easily enough to counterbalance the bottom car with its 18 passengers.
As the top car was being filled, the tank on the bottom car was being emptied, and the water pumped directly up to the top station tank by means of a pair of pumps driven by independent Forward Gas Engines.
The cars were linked by a pair of steel ropes, the breaking strain of which was calculated to be 15 times the normal working load of the cars. In addition, the cars were fitted with rapid gripper brakes which automatically engaged should the rate of descent become too great. A second manually operated brake was the responsibility of the brakeman who rode on the bottom platform of each car.
The railway opened on 7th July 1892. The ceremony was performed by the Mayor, John Anderson, a boot and shoe dealer born in Paisley, and in celebration the local townspeople enjoyed a public holiday. Between July and September 1892 over 50,000 passengers used the railway. The railway ran continuously for the next 41 years, until April 1933. In May, 1934 it was re-opened by Frank Myatt, a brewer and hotelier who had been Mayor of Wolverhampton. His family continued to own the cliff railway for another sixty-two years.
The drivers were eventually dispensed with, in favour of a hand operated brake operated from the top station. The brake on the cars were made to operate only in the event of a rope failure. In 1943, the gas engines were reaching the end of their working life, and this prompted a major rebuild of the railway.
The hydraulic system of counterbalanced cars was replaced with an electrically operated mining type motor of 32 hp. The haulage system consists of 2 main ropes – one winds onto the one drum as the other winds off. In addition, a safety rope connects the 2 cars via the original head wheel. The original emergency brake was retained, hence in the event of a rope break the car would grip the rails until they came to a halt. The speed of the cars was regulated by air brakes acting on the haulage drums, and proximity devices which would act to slow the cars as they approached either end of the track. In addition, further safety improvements included interlocked loading doors at top and bottom, and a dead man’s pedal speed controller. The conversions were carried out by Messrs. Francis & J.S. Lane, with electrical gear supplied by Metropolitan-Vickers Electrical Co. Ltd. The effect of the conversion was to double the speed of the railway, up to a maximum speed of 250 feet per minute. The railway reopened in December 1944, and showed an immediate increase in traffic. In 1955, the passenger cars were replaced with a more modern type, with improved lighting.
In 1996 the entire share capital of the company was acquired by Jean and Allan Reynolds, who spent the next fifteen years investing vast sums of money in restoring and improving the cliff railway.
By a strange twist of fate, the cliff railway has come full circle and is now owned by cousins of George Croydon Marks. George had been born into engineering at the Woolwich Arsenal, where his father had worked. His parents had moved there from Somerset in their early twenties to escape rural poverty. His father had been the son of a poor farm labourer in the Blackdown Hills adjacent to Exmoor. They had family bonds with the north Devon Jones family. Bridgnorth Cliff Railway was purchased by the Tipping family in 2011. Two years later it was discovered that one of their maternal great-grandfathers, who came from Parracombe, north Devon, had been third cousin to George Croydon Marks. Marks was also a distant cousin of the branch of the Jones family which had founded another cliff railway at Lynton four miles from Parracombe. George Croydon Marks, who was knighted in 1911 and ennobled as Baron Marks of Woolwich in 1929, was Bridgnorth Cliff Railway’s first managing director from 1891 until 1901. His brother, Edward, another engineer, became its second managing director from 1901 until 1924.
The cliff railway remains a constant in the town of Bridgnorth. Its current owners and staff are very aware of that and its proud heritage.
© 2018 The Bridgnorth Castle Hill Railway Company Limited.