Reprinted from Newsletter 100, dated 2001 August–September

1854: triumphant opening of the Somerset Central Railway

Adrian Pearse

A black-and-white drawing of a large crowd in the Abbey Ruins. Many of the crowd are holding banners and flags.

The festivities for the opening of the Glastonbury Canal in 1833 (as described in newsletter 99) were followed just 21 years later, on August 17 in 1854, by equally triumphant celebrations to open the canal’s successor — the Somerset Central Railway (which in 1862 became part of the Somerset & Dorset Railway). Banners in the engraving read “railway and civilization” and (sic) “where thers a will ther’s a way”.

The railway was of course a major contributor to the canal’s demise. Who, one wonders, could have imagined amid the three hours of procession, speeches and feasting marking this triumph of technology that it too was doomed, just over a century later, to a similarly ignominious end — and that, like the canal, almost all traces of its very existence would be expunged from the landscape?

The ceremonial of the opening of this line, which carries a road of iron into the very heart of pastoral Somerset, took place on Thursday (last week), under very interesting circumstances. It is a single line, and about twelve miles and a half in extreme length, connecting the port of Highbridge on the Bristol and Exeter line with the ancient and picturesque town of Glastonbury; and it is contemplated, at no distant period, to extend the line to Wells and Castle Cary on the one hand, and on the other to Burnham, a port at which it is proposed to establish a line of steamers to ply daily to and from Cardiff on the Welsh side of the Channel.

The existence of the railway is due to the landed gentry of the district. The entire capital of the company was £90,000. Out of this £8,000 was paid for the purchase ofX the Highbridge and Glastonbury Canal, [and] £82,000 for the work, including costs of surveying, enineering, Parliamentary, and all other expenses or £6560 per mile. It is, therefore, one of the cheapest lines in the kingdom.

There are neither tunnels, nor costly bridges, nor viaducts through the sea, nor other engineering works of magnitude perceptible to the eye; but the project was, nevertheless, beset by engineering difficulties of no ordinary kind. The district through which it runs for miles is a reclaimed waste from the sea — a peat moor. When the works were commenced, the “navvies” could not walk upon the bog to use their spades without sinking knee-deep into it. But Mr Gregory has succeeded in fixing across the quagmire a substantial railway. The course of the rail having been dug out, layers of bushes, with gravel and clay, were placed in the holes, and upon these again were used layers of trunks of trees. Wherever the bog was particularly soft, floating frames were provided, upon which the rails may be said, in some degree, to float.

The directors having invited the directors and officials of the Bristol and Exeter Railway to be present at the opening, those gentlemen proceeded by early train to Highbridge, where they were met by the Hon. P. P. Bouverie, Chairman of the Somerset Central Company; Mr. Gregory, the engineer-in-chief; Mr. Slessor, subengineer; Mr. Rigby, the contractor; and others.

The country through which the line passes is exceedingly level. The canal, the course of which the rail to come extent follows, is overhung by willows, and crossed every here and there by Flemish-looking wooden bridges; the marshy soil is covered with tall rank weeds; the few cottages to be seen are small and slightly built. For some distance, the rail runs through a regular peat moor, rendered somewhat picturesque by the grotesque shapes of the black mounds of cut peat which are piled preparatory to removal. After passing some distance beyond Shapwick station, the country begins to assume a more cultivated and fertile character, and the traveller soon finds himself at his journey’s end, and amidst the rich pastures of Glastonbury.

The station at Glastonbury was gaily decorated with flags and banners. Upon the directors of the Central Somerset Railway alighting, the Mayor of Glastonbury (Mr. Porch) congratulated the Chairman, the Hon. P. P. Bouverie. A procession was then formed of the railway officials, clergy, and gentry, and the Mayor and corporation, accompanied by banners and music. Having halted for awhile at the back of the Abbey-house, the residence of H. D. Seymour, Esq, M.P., the procession wended its way through the ruins of the Abbey, from which it crossed by a temporary bridge to a spacious tent, in which a splendid cold collation for near 500 persons had been provided. The beings of whom the procession was composed looked pigmies when contrasted with the gigantic remains of the Abbey. “One part of the scene (says the Bristol Mercury) alone bespoke a harmony between things present and past — it was the kitchen-garden. On one side, the abbot’s garden, an octagonal building of stately dimensions, raised its pyramidal form, and with its vaulted dome and quaint old lanthorn, recalled stories of ‘the monks of old’, when sleek abbots and portly friars spent jovial hours in the refectory, discussing capon and pasty, and draining flagons of wine with epicurean gusto. On the other side stood the more light and fragile form of the marquee, with its ample spread of fare.”

At two o’clock the trumpets sounded, and the company sat down to the repast. The Mayor of Glastonbury presided; and was supported, among others, on his right and left by the Right Hon. and Right Rev. Lord Auckland, Bishop of Bath and Wells; Sir Ivor Guest, Bart, the Hon. P. P. Bouverie, &c. A number of elegantly dressed ladies graced the festival with their presence. The repast was admirably served by Mr. Bailey, of the George and White Hart Hotels. A long list of toasts followed. Eloquent and appropriate speeches were also delivered by the Right Hon. and Right Rev. the Bishop, by Sir Ivor Guest, the High Sheriff, the Hon. P. P. Bouverie, Major Reed, and the Mayor of Wells; and by Messrs. H. D. Seymour, J. W. Buller, Ralph Neville, Rocke, Naish, Gregory, Warry, Toogood, Rigby, Crawfurd, Castle, Dennison, and others, and the company rose at five o’clock.

About 800 of the working classes of Glastonbury were entertained at dinner in another large tent. Some thousand or more operatives of Street were afterwards regaled with tea, besides which the committee, previous to the festival, distributed cake and tea to upwards of 1500 females. The day, which will be long remembered by the inhabitants of Glastonbury, closed with a brilliant display of fireworks, by Gyngell.

The railway will be opened for regular traffic on the 28th inst.

In the course of the proceedings the Bishop of Bath and Wells presented to the directors a memorial from the inhabitants of Glastonbury, in which he said he entirely concurred, praying that they would not allow the quiet of the town to be disturbed by excursion-trains. The Chairman of the Bristol and Exeter Company, Mr. Buller, subsequently stated that it had ever been the practice of his board to run on the Sabbath-day such trains only as the Post-office and the public convenience absolutely required.