‘To be or not to be, that is the question’ – a line from Hamlet and given to the world by Stratford’s most famous son, William Shakespeare is a quote that would be apt in summarising events affecting Stratford-upon-Avon and its railway service and that came to a head 50 years ago between Easter and the beginning of May 1969.The story started around 1894 when the pressure and demand from businesses and the communities of Stratford-upon-Avon, Henley-in-Arden and Shirley led to the Birmingham and North Warwickshire & Stratford-upon-Avon Railway (BNW&SR) company being formed. This is why the railway between Stratford upon Avon and Birmingham via Henley in Arden is known as and called the North Warwickshire Line (NWL).
In 1900 the GWR absorbed the BNW&SR. The work of building a railway between Tyseley Junction and Bearley Junction was awarded to C J Mills, a Henley contractor who began construction in 1905. In effect, the GWR completed an even bigger project, a direct railway between Birmingham and Cheltenham, unlocking access between the Midlands, South Wales and the South West.
On 9th December 1907, the line opened for goods traffic with the first passenger service operating on 1st July 1908, a Wolverhampton – Birmingham Snow Hill – Stratford-upon-Avon – Penzance express. Stratford had been placed firmly on the railway map with a daily service between Penzance, Plymouth, Exeter, Bristol as well as express services to and from Cardiff and Swansea.
In 1963 Dr Richard Beeching published his ‘Reshaping British Railways’ report which presented a railway system reduced by over a third of its then 18,000 or so miles. The report suggested that over 1,900 stations be closed and added to some 435 stations already under threat. Dr Beeching did not list Stratford-upon- Avon or the NWL for closure – that said, the devil was in the detail. Consequently, it came as a tremendous shock to the communities along the NWL that on 13th May 1966, the British Railways Board formally published its intention to discontinue all passenger services between Birmingham Snow Hill – Birmingham Moor Street and Stratford upon Avon via Tyseley and Bearley West Junction. Notice was given that pending no objections being made train services would cease from 3rd October 1966. Twelve railway stations would be closed: Spring Road, which at the time was close to a large Lucas Automotive factory, Hall Green, Yardley Wood, Shirley, Whitlocks End, Wythall, Earlswood, The Lakes, Wood End, Danzey, Henley-in-Arden and Wootton Wawen.
The prospect of a severe diminution of train services with Birmingham now loomed. Many business people lived in Stratford-upon-Avon, South Warwickshire and along the route of the NWL. These people did not accept the case to close the line nor the suitability of the so-called alternative bus services. The North Warwickshire Line Defence Committee (NWLDC) was formed with Alderman Geoffrey Kohn of Henley and Derek Mayman, a Birmingham business owner and train user at Danzey both taking leading roles. Despite no less than 23 alternative bus services local rail passengers were determined to fight the closure proposal. Over 1,000 people objected at a Transport Users Consultative Committee (TUCC) Inquiry.
The result of this was announced in November 1966. The TUCC considered the line’s closure would cause severe hardship. Objectors were jubilant as in some of the other cases across the UK where a TUCC had confirmed severe hardship the Minister of Transport had gone on to reprieve the railway line concerned. Eighteen months had gone by when the Minister of Transport, Richard Marsh, stunned everyone by consenting to the closure of the railway line between Bearley Junction and Tyseley. It was a hammer blow to the NWLDC and also a savage disappointment for the Stratford-upon- Avon Transport Action Committee (STAC) that had also been formed and had fought alongside the NWLDC. The secretary of STAC, Michael Brockington, said the decision was “diabolical – the findings of the TUCC have been completely ignored.”
The Herald reported in June 1968: “An all-out battle is going to be waged to keep the North Warwickshire railway line. Substitute bus services will be rejected; an appeal may be made in the High Court that the Minister was misdirected, and the Ombudsman may be invoked”. There was just one opportunity left. That was to object to the Traffic Commissioners who had to consider and approve planned ‘alternative’ bus services by Midland Red.
An appeal hearing began in the autumn and went on to the end of 1968. Despite considerable concern that the alternative bus services would be unable to offer anywhere near the same level of service, speed or capacity, the Traffic Commissioners approved the bus services on 17th January 1969 but said ‘not without some misgivings’. It was just before Easter that a twist to what now looked to be the almost inevitable fate of the NWL happened. It’s unique in all of the cases where a railway was proposed to be closed, and it all came down to the dedication and meticulous attention of one person. As well as being secretary of STAC, Michael Brockington was the accountant at the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald. In 1969 the Herald was published every Friday. In the week preceding Easter, this meant that the Herald was published a day earlier on a Thursday. Early in the week prior to Easter, the British Railways Board (BRB) reserved a large space in the public notices section for what would be the 3rd April edition. However, the BRB had not provided any copy for the space.
Michael Brockington was alerted by the Herald’s advertising staff, and he chased up British Rail for the copy so the paper could ensure that whatever BR wanted to appear could be typeset and make the 3rd April edition. After a third telephone call and an ultimatum, BR reluctantly sent the copy over. The copy was a schedule of the alternative bus services and formal confirmation that the NWL would close to passengers on Monday 5tth May 1969. The closure now seemed real. Michael Brockington knew that BR was trying to jump the gun and this was one of those times that called for rules to be broken. The NWDLC’s solicitor was the late Douglas King of Wilmcote and who practised in Birmingham. Realising the importance of the issue Michael Brockington got the Herald’s typesetters to pull out all the stops and produce the plate and print a copy of the embargoed public notice off.
Michael boarded a train at Stratford and took the copy direct to Douglas King in Birmingham enabling him to act. Of all the journeys made by passengers throughout the NWL’s history, Michael Brockington’s trip to Birmingham that day must rank as being the most critical for Stratford’s railway service.
Douglas King argued that no appeal against the Traffic Commissioners’ decision had been heard. Faced with no response from BR Douglas King knew he had to get before the High Court before the Easter Holiday as the High Court sessions in Birmingham were due to go into
recess for three weeks. If he waited until after the Easter recess it would be too late as the train service would have been withdrawn.
The High Court heard King’s case but dismissed it. However, there was Leave to Appeal. With the NWL due to close on Monday 5th May, the Court of Appeal sat on Friday 3rd May to hear Douglas King’s appeal.
It was the final throw of the dice for the NWL campaign. The hearing was presided over by the Master of the Rolls, Lord Denning with Lord Justice Sachs and Lord Justice Phillimore and they lacerated BR’s con-duct.
Lord Denning explained that although the Traffic Commissioners had approved the alternative bus services, they did so with a crucial qualification that stated: “This decision will not be effective until the NWL is closed, and the time for appeal against this decision has expired.”
Lord Denning said he considered this had not happened. Lord Justice Sachs stated that British Rail’s conduct since the Traffic Commissioners’ decision ‘seems singularly unattractive’. “They knew not only that an appeal was likely but that it must have a reasonable chance of success. If one has to look at what their tactics were, they were clearly designed to frustrate the objectors’ right of appeal – and to deny the fruits of any success that appeal may have.”
At this very last point, and in the very last hour possible on that Friday, 3rd May, the Court of Appeal upheld the North Warwickshire Line campaigns’ case. An injunction was placed on BRB preventing them from withdrawing rail passenger services between Tyseley via Shirley and Henley-in-Arden to and from Stratford upon Avon on the following Monday, 5th May 1969.
As news got out from the court, it wasn’t long before boards were put out by station staff along the line stating ‘Trains will now be running on 5th May, closure put off’.
In 1997/98 the NWL attracted around one million passenger journeys, in 2017/18 it drew more than three million passenger journeys a year. If Michael Brockington had not intercepted the public notice before Easter 1969 and by his actions enabled Douglas King to go to court, there is little doubt Stratford-upon-Avon and the NWL would have been lost.
It’s a unique story, a local newspaper that comprehensively covered the events about the proposed railway closure over a period of some three years ending up indirectly playing a critical part in saving the railway, albeit through its tenacious accountant.
Little can demonstrate more effectively the value and benefit of local newspapers and why all of us of every opinion need to support them.
This article has been written for the Herald by Fraser Pithie, rail campaigner and features writer for The Railway Magazine. A full-length and detailed feature charting the background and events surrounding the closure attempt is published in May edition of the magazine, which is out on 1st May.