Gauge: 3ft (915mm)
The ancient Suffolk port of Southwold declined in importance during the 18th and 19th centuries in favour of Lowestoft, twelve miles to the north. It supported some fishing but needed tourists and trade. In the 1850s the East Suffolk Railway was built from Lowestoft to Ipswich. It passed through Halesworth and Darsham, but left Southwold nine miles from a railway line across marsh and heathland. A daily horse-bus service was woefully inadequate. Both the East Suffolk and Great Eastern railways refused requests for a branch line and by 1875 local opinion had reached a peak. The Southwold Railway Company was formed with the support of local people who bought many shares. A 3ft gauge was chosen.
The Halesworth-based Board had difficulties raising finance and was replaced by another Board. It transferred meetings to its new Chairman’s London office resulting in much ill-feeling among local supporters. This continued even when the line had opened on 24th September 1879, despite the objective having been achieved.
The 8.75 mile single track line proceeded from the edge of Southwold over common and marshes, and taking in intermediate villages to Halesworth, whose station was next to the GER/LNER main line station. Trains were almost invariably mixed, with shunting at intermediate stations. With a 16mph speed limit, the shunting added to the length of the journey which took around 35 minutes. It was possible to cycle the journey quicker!
When opened, the Southwold Railway had three Sharp Stewart 2-4-0 tank locomotives, named Southwold, Halesworth and Blyth. Loco No 1 Southwold was returned to the makers in 1883 and replaced with a 2-4-2 tank in 1893, also called Southwold. In 1914, a much larger Manning Wardle 0-6-2 tank loco was obtained. Rolling stock included six 6-wheel coaches, 6-wheel coal trucks, including some privately owned, two goods vans and a selection of 4-wheel trucks.
In 1900 the Southwold Railway carried 100,00 passengers, 90,000 tons of minerals and 6000 tons of general merchandise. Expansion was considered, including a mile-long harbour branch, and branches to meet the GER and mid-Suffolk Light Railway. Priority was given to conversion to standard gauge. This proceeded slowly and eventually lack of finance led to its abandonment. The harbour branch was built, but the fishing trade was already in decline.
Although it provided an important link with the outside world, the Southwold Railway became rather a joke locally, with its eccentric coaches, locos and gauge and its noted unreliability. Up to 1925 the line showed a profit, but the next year buses began a rival service. The railway responded with more trains and reduced prices, but even harsh cuts did not save the line. The directors decided to cut their losses by closing the line rather than investing in an out-dated railway. On April 11th 1929, after a week’s notice, the line closed.
Two separate plans to quickly reopen the line split the support available. An abandonment order was applied for and was only eventually granted in the 1990s! Because of this, the company existed in limbo for many years and the line was just left. Scrap metal recovery during the Second World War provoked an unsuccessful last-ditch attempt to save the line, and in July 1941 the line and locomotives were cut up.
1 Southwold Sharp, Stewart; 2-4-0 tank. Returned to maker 1883
2 Halesworth Sharp, Stewart of 1879; 2-4-0 tank
3 Blyth Sharp, Stewart of 1879; 2-4-0 tank. Purchased 1890. Scrapped 1942.
1 Southwold Sharp, Stewart of 1893; 2-4-2 tank. Withdrawn 1928. Scrapped 1929.
4 Wenhaston Manning, Wardle & Co. of 1914; 0-6-2 tank