The Railway

Potted history by Maureen Dow

1844Survey for Eastern Union Railway Extension - Ipswich to Bury. See map.
1846Construction of Ipswich to Bury Line, including Lord's Bridge Official opening 7.22.1846 before all the stations, including Elmswell, were completed.
1862Amalgamation of the Eastern Union with four other Companies to form the Great Eastern Railway.
1874Two GER guards were charged with stealing 3 bottles of claret from a hamper destined for Elmswell. Two full bottles were found in the brake van's sand locker and the other was hidden beneath a coat. Staff was invariably sacked after such incidents. (Moffat 1987)
1880Derailment. (Moffat 1987)
1884Half Station Blown Down (BNP 21.1.1884)
1888Parish versus Woolpit Brick & Tile Co. (Vestry Minutes)
1892Parish versus Woolpit Brick & Tile Co. Dispute resolved.
1898Tramway from Elmswell to Woolpit Brickworks shown on GER plan.
1900Proposal to upgrade tramway. [Route]
1911Sidings to new Bacon Factory.
1942-1945Tons of munitions and hundreds of personnel destined for Great Ashfield Airfield pass through Elmswell Station.
1964Closed to Goods Traffic 28.12.1964. Siding to Bacon Factory closed. Introduction of Paytrains.
1967Station became an unstaffed halt. Mr Thompson was the last stationmaster. (BFP 1979)
1974The main station buildings on the downline were demolished.
1986Signal box dismantled after the Haughley to Bury re-signalling.
1990MP Michael Lord unveils a plaque. (EADT article 23.4.1990)
1991Travel Stop travel agent opens in the newly refurbished Victorian buildings.
1996John Spanton, who provided dazzling floral displays for the Station, receives an award.
2006Steam trains come through in celebration of 150th anniversary

Memories of the railway, from the oral history interviews

George Russell   –   Fred Buckle

Mike Seeley took this photo in 1967. Crown Mill and the former Crown beer house can be seen in the background. The signal box was demolished in 1986 after the Haughley to Bury St Edmunds re-signalling.

This was about the same time – Full size
Pictures, from the postcard and other collections


The Woolpit Brick & Tile Co. bought this Sharp Stewart 2-4-0 tank engine, Haro Haro, to add to the 0-6-0 saddle tank engine which they already ran on the standard gauge line into the sidings at Elmswell. Haro Haro had previously seen service both on the Jersey Railway and on the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal.

In these old photos of School Road you can just see the tram tracks running across between Rose Lane and Hawk End Lane.

School Road
Then and Now Towards the school: on the right No.1 Hawk End Lane, Chapel Row and the baker’s shop; on the left the sign of the Tavern

When School Road was resurfaced in October 2006, the old rails momentarily appeared at the corner of Hawk End Lane.
This old photo was kindly lent to me by Jim and Janet Baker. It shows the Woolpit Brick Co. railway bridge over the stream that runs parallel to Kiln Lane.  And here’s a route map too. [Click for route map of tramway]

Article by Maureen Dow in the Newsletter of May 1996

Our cover picture shows Elmswell station in the days of steam. Those days are set to return, if fleetingly, on 15th and 16th June when steam locomotives once again pass through the station – three times each day in either direction. This is one of the events marking the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Ipswich to Bury line.

The first ever train, a ‘special’ courtesy of the Eastern Union railway company, passed through Elmswell on 26th November 1846. In 1855 White’s Directory of Suffolk mentions 5 trains a day in either direction. The whole journey usually took 90 minutes calling at all stations, but the fastest trip knocked ten minutes off this time by only calling at Needham Market and Elmswell – and carrying no 3rd Class passengers.

When the line was built, it involved a great cutting 38ft deep through Norton Great Wood where the contractor had to resort to blasting the heavy clay with gunpowder. A narrow gauge tramway was laid to Woolpit Brickworks in the late 19th Century. This was upgraded to standard gauge in about 1901, and ten years later sidings were added to serve the Bacon Factory. In 1967, Frank Thompson, the last Stationmaster, retired when the stations on the line became un-manned. His memories were of 2 porters, 3 signalmen and a clerk – and of the importance of the station during the War in supplying Great Ashfield Airfield. The signal box, sadly, was demolished in 1986, but when B.R. tried to dismantle the remaining station buildings a year later, the Parish Council – with overwhelming popular support – managed to negotiate a unique deal which not only saved the station but allowed refurbishment and the development of the site for business use, adding another service to this thriving and growing community. A dramatically important element in the life and history of Elmswell is celebrated as the steam trains pass through next month. Don’t miss it!

And there are pictures taken by Paul Peachey (also shown and labelled in the image gallery at the bottom of the page) on that cheerful occasion…


“The Woolpit Brickworks Railway” (and its spur line to Elmswell Station), by Chris Fisher
Extracts from an article in Industrial Railway Record 169 (published in June 2002 by the Industrial Railway Society, ISSN 0537-5347). The History Group has a copy of this booklet which can be borrowed on request. (For the purposes of this website, the name Elmswell has been highlighted.)

It is believed that brick making in the Suffolk village of Woolpit began in the late 15th century. The earliest bricks are thought to have been made on the northern Elmswell side of the village and were red in colour, but as quarrying later progressed southwards into Woolpit, it was discovered that the clay here produced a hard white brick. Woolpit became famous for the excellent quality of its bricks, particularly its ‘Suffolk Whites’, and they were often fired in the same kiln as the red. Both clays were available within the brickfield and, in at least one case, could be dug from the same pit – a most unusual situation.

Narrow Gauge Railway

In 1883-84 a map of Woolpit was surveyed, but shows nothing relating to railways or tramways in use in the brickfields at that time. The Woolpit Brick & Tile Co Ltd was first registered on 2nd December 1880, and it was evidently well established when the following entry appeared in the 1892 edition of Kelly’s Directory of Suffolk:

“WOOLPIT BRICK & TILE CO LTD (John Berry, manager). Manufacturers of White & Red bricks, paving lumps & moulding bricks to any design and every description of Suffolk Ware, a large quantity of agricultural draining pipes always in stock: and at 57 Moorgate Street, London E.C.”

Having the advantage of a London office would have ensured that Woolpit bricks found a ready market in the many fine Victorian buildings being erected in the capital at this time. The transportation of these bricks would presumably have meant an initial journey of 1.25 miles by horse and cart to the Great Eastern Railway station at Elmswell on the Stowmarket to Bury St Edmunds line, which opened to traffic in 1846.

In 1898 an agreement was drawn up whereby George BORLEY, an Elmswell farmer, granted C.D. Lavington Esq the free right to lay and construct on his land a narrow gauge tramway on a 14 years lease from 24th June 1897. This tramway was 1.25 miles in length. Leaving the brickworks in a northerly direction, it followed the course of a footpath and a lane for much of its route, crossing a stream and forming four level crossings with public roads en route. It terminated alongside a standard gauge siding at Elmswell Station, where a narrow gauge siding enabled shunting to take place.

On 9th November 1899, Mr C D Lavington sold property in Woolpit to the now retitled Woolpit Brick Co Ltd, and it is likely that this sale was in anticipation of the replacement of the tramway by a standard gauge line, as the transhipment of goods must have been a time consuming and costly operation.

Standard Gauge Railway

The construction of the standard gauge railway began in 1900 on a more direct route to that previously taken by the narrow gauge line. This followed an agreement between the Rural District Council of Thedwastre and the Woolpit Brick Co Ltd dated 29th March 1900 which stated “Whereas the Company are now desirous of substituting a new Tramway or Railway constructed to the Standard Railway Gauge for the narrow gauge tramway now existing in order that the railway wagons and engines may pass and repass between the said Railway Station at Elmswell and the said Brickworks and proposed to lay down the line of rails thereof …………………. to make the necessary level crossings over and across the public roads in the said parishes of Woolpit and Elmswell ………………..”

A further legal agreement with George Borley, the Elmswell farmer over whose land both tramway and railway ran, has survived. It is dated 6th June 1902 ………………………, being an amendment to the 14 years lease drawn up on 24th June 1897 for the original horse tramway. It states “The Company shall be at liberty at all times during the continuance of the term of years granted to pass over the land with horses, or with steam or electric traction, to allow the haulage of all railway and other trucks to and from the works of the Company at Woolpit and the GER station or siding at Elmswell. The Company to pay George Borley (Farmer) 80 pounds following 20 pounds on the execution of and a further 20 pounds on the 29th day of September 1902 and a further ten pounds each succeeding quarter day until the sum of 80 pounds shall be fully paid. The Company shall further pay George Borley a yearly rent of ten pounds as from 24th June 1902 and at quarterly payments to be made on the 29th September 1902.”

The new standard gauge railway took about two years to construct, using employees from the brickworks. A report on its progress appeared in The Bury & Norwich Post of 5th August 1902 when it was stated to be nearly completed, mention being made of a siding at [Elmswell’s] Spong Lane which will be used for “empties”, and that traffic will consist of bricks out and coal in. The new railway left from sidings at the works and crossed [Elmswell’s] Kiln Lane in a northerly direction, but to the east of the original course. A second level crossing took it past Kiln Farm, following which it crossed over a small stream and ran across fields to Spong Lane. There was a trailing siding by the third road crossing, after which the line swung to the west of the old route and continued over further fields to run alongside Rose Lane to The Railway Tavern. Here it crossed [Elmswell’s] School Road into Hawk End Lane, and then went on to its terminus at Elmswell Station. There were two ‘station inns’ in the village [of Elmswell] – the Fox beside the GER station, whilst the Railway Tavern in School Lane [now Road] takes its name from the private branch line to Woolpit.

The standard gauge railway opened to traffic in December 1902, and at the Annual General Meeting held at the works the following March [1903] it was stated that there had been a marked increase in trade of £6,000 per annum over the previous year, so things were looking bright for the future. It was recorded that “The railway constructed to link the works with the GER at Elmswell has been completed to the White Yard and running some three months – a distance of 1.25 miles, and it is hoped that during the next month or two the extension to the Red Yard, a further 250 yards will be open and running.” The extension took the line across what later became the A45 [now A14] road, and added another level crossing to the system.


[There were mainly two locomotives used, i.e. the ‘Haro Haro’ and ‘Jeanie’.]

[The Haro Haro is shown on this webpage – the engine is shown on a road crossing with a load of coal from Elmswell Station in about 1915. Picture is from Mr R Jones’s collection at Woolpit Museum, and the two gentlemen are Alf DAVEY and Unknown (but thought by Pearl Rose, George Howlett’s grand-daughter, to be a member of an Elmswell Family)].

This locomotive [the Haro Haro] is believed to have been held responsible for setting fire to the thatch of a barn at Kiln Farm, Elmswell on 14th May 1909 at 11.30am, whilst passing with a train. Despite the efforts of Woolpit Fire Brigade, several buildings were burnt to the ground, a horse and poultry destroyed and nothing was saved from the house, the damage estimated at £1,000. (It was also rumoured that the owner was seen to throw a lighted taper on the roof as the engine passed by!)

[The Jeanie photo below is at the brickworks in about 1912, showing] the Works Manager, Sidney Charles CLAY, and footplate crew, Alf DAVEY and George HOWLETT.

The Later Years

Production seems to have continued at Woolpit without problems until 1911, when one of the clay pits flooded and machinery was lost. The 14-years lease on the railway would have expired on 24th June 1911, but it carried on, the lease evidently having been extended for an unknown period. The termination of operations on the standard gauge railway may have been the reason for an auction of plant at the works on 23rd September 1915, which included a locomotive, and the track is said to have been lifted in the following year [1916]. Unaccountably, the remaining locomotive was retained a further four years before disposal in 1920. One wonders how, during this period, the incoming coal and outgoing bricks were transported. It must be assumed that some sort of road transport was deployed between the works and Elmswell Station.

On 17th June 1931 the works were put up for sale. It was auctioned as a going concern and continued to trade with the same title. However, with the onset of World War 2 in 1939, in common with most East Anglian brickworks, it was ordered to shut down its kilns to comply with the blackout regulations. For the duration of the war, production was at a standstill, and the famous solid Woolpit “Unbreakable Whites” were never made again. The works re-opened in 1945, and in about 1948 the works had been acquired by the London Brick Co, which closed it for the last time in the early 1950s. The remaining chimneys were pulled down at this date, although several of the buildings have survived for other uses.

Elmswell Station still sees a regular passenger service, but its sidings have long gone. During the late 1970s it was still possible to detect traces of the brickworks line protruding through the surface of School Road in Elmswell. Unfortunately, resurfacing work [most recently in October 2006] has since reburied the evidence. Lanes and footpaths can be followed along the route south through Elmswell, but thereafter its approach to Woolpit has been obliterated by the very busy A14 trunk road.