Our archives reveal the 'crackpot' idea to re-open disused rail lines

Historic images from Fen newspapers archives

Historic building in Ely (left) Soham station and 'Turkey' Smart all feature in our weekly round-up of news from the archives. - Credit: Archant

Conservative councillors said it was a “crackpot” suggestion by the county council to spend £27,000 on looking to open long-disused rail lines.  

But that was in 1987, as our weekly trawl through the archives reveal.  

We also cover a royal visit, a fire at Ely Sailing Club, and the increasingly challenged notion of walking long distances to schools.  

And, thanks to Mike Petty and his Fenland History on Facebook, we can discover why the town of March said no to foreign electricity! 

But we begin with a royal visitor. 

Duke opens Tail Sluice – Cambridge News, October 24rd 1959 

Duke of Edinburgh pressed a button on one of the gates of the Tail Sluice near King’s Lynn.

Duke of Edinburgh presses a button on one of the gates of the Tail Sluice near King’s Lynn. - Credit: Cambridge News

Duke of Edinburgh arrives to press a button on one of the gates of the Tail Sluice near King’s Lynn. 

Duke of Edinburgh arrives to press a button on one of the gates of the Tail Sluice near King’s Lynn. - Credit: Cambridge News

The first part of the Great Ouse Flood Protection Scheme was inaugurated when the Duke of Edinburgh pressed a button on one of the gates of the Tail Sluice near King’s Lynn. 

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The construction of an eleven-mile-long relief channel parallel to the tidal part of the river began in 1954. 

In his speech the duke mentioned the great tidal surge of 1953 when over 1,000 acres of the Sandringham estate were flooded. Now a great anxiety had been lifted from many minds. 

The next stages involve deepening 19 miles of river as far as the Cam and the cutting of a new 28-mile-long channel around the edge of the fens.  

This will involve the building of 23 road bridges, three railway bridges and eleven other bridges. Work is expected to be completed by 1965.  

Soham Station may reopen - ‘Crackpot’ Railway survey – Cambridge News, October 9th 1987 

Soham station

Soham station and the debate from over 30 years to re-open it - Credit: Archant

Long-disused railway lines throughout Cambridgeshire may be bought back into use in a link-up between the County Council and British Rail. 

Councillors have voted to spend £27,000 in a survey of the lines to see if it is worth trying to persuade British Rail to put them back into use.  

They hope to reduce the growing county-wide traffic chaos by persuading motorists to use local railway stations to travel into Cambridge 

They hope the survey will show the link between Cambridge, St Ives & Huntington can be restored and study the idea of building a new station to serve the Cambridge Science Park off Milton Road. 

Councillors also want disused lines in the March, Wisbech and Peterborough areas to be revived.  

They would like a new station at the village of Chippenham and the long-disused Soham station reopened. 

But Conservative councillors say the survey is a waste of public money and a crackpot idea flying in the face of common sense.  

British Rail says it will be a very costly exercise and a great deal would need to be done if such a scheme were carried out. 

Ely’s new Pru - Ely Standard,  October 22nd 1920 

New Prudential building for Ely was warmly welcomed

New Prudential building for Ely was warmly welcomed - Credit: Archant

The new offices of the Prudential Assurance Company have made an imposing corner at High Street and Minster Place, Ely.  

The imitation stone on the exterior makes the most imposing frontage of any business established in Ely and the suite of offices are second to none.  

March wants no Foreign Electricity - Ely Standard, October 11th, 1929 

March Urban District Council have acted in the manner we thought they would. 

They have sent to the right about any thoughts which may have been lingering in the minds of some that the installation of electric lighting in the town by, a private company would for a moment, be sanctioned.  

Even when the time it did arrive for an installation, let it be home made, and the pockets of the ratepayers be the receptacle for the profits, not the coffers of a company which is composed of persons foreigners to the locality. 

At present March has no money to spend on undertakings of any magnitude.  

When such an enterprise as electricity is absolutely needful for its commercial prosperity, we are sure that March ratepayers will not begrudge the expenditure and the necessary sum but until such time we must stand firm and say to all outsiders, ‘Hands off’.  

Ely Sailing Club burns - Cambridge News, October 24rd 1955 

Ely Sailing Club fire

Ely Sailing Club fire - Credit: Brian Lane

Ely Sailing Club’s timber-built headquarters on the Prickwillow Road was completely destroyed by fire. 

This is the second time the club has lost its building.  

During the bad weather of 1949-50 it disappeared through the subsidence of the bank on which it was standing overlooking Roswell Pits. 

The club secretary said “We are in a really tough spot just now, but we shall be sailing again”.  

Whittlesey Ballast Pit Inquest –Ely Standard October 24rd 1919 

Ely Standard October 24rd 1919 inquest report

Ely Standard October 24rd 1919 inquest report - Credit: Archant

An inquest into an accident in a ballast pit on the Great Eastern Railway at Whittlesey. 

One March man was killed or two others were injured by a heavy fall of earth. 

The inquest was told they were members of a gang engaged in loading trucks with gravel, and they were caught by a fall of many tons of earth that had been undermined 

The man in charge said deceased was instructed to load ballasts into trucks standing in the siding. There was plenty of gravel to shove in.  

At the outset, there were seven trucks and a brake, and all the 18 men were engaged in filling the trucks. 

The men had their dinners, on the spot. They did not have any beer. Every man was absolutely sober. 

The quantity of stuff that fell was about 30 or 40 tons. 

Cheap travel for councillors, January 25th,1889 

A meeting which may be said to mark an epoch in the history of the fens took place at the County Court House March, when the elected members of the new Isle of Ely County Council assembled for the first time. 

As the results were being tabulated, the chairman suggested an application should be made to the railway companies to allow the councillors to travel at reduced fares when going to the meetings.  

They were doing public business, and cheerfully gave up their time for it.  

He thought the railway companies would accede to the request. 

Welney, Nursery of English Skating, Wisbech Standard, January 25th,1889 

It was about 1850 that 'Turkey' Smart, of Welney, came to the front

It was about 1850 that 'Turkey' Smart, of Welney, came to the front - Credit: Archant

Skating honours have gone to the little village of Welney, which has produced the fastest skaters in England, perhaps in the world, for the last forty years. 

It was about 1850 that 'Turkey' Smart, of Welney, came to the front, being ably seconded by Witham See, a native of the same village, whose great power of endurance gained him the sobriquet of ‘Gutta Percha.' 

In 1875 the veteran began to fail, and ‘Fish' Smart, a nephew of 'Turkey,' then took the position vacated by his uncle of Champion of England, and maintained it up to this year. 

To the present Champion, as he did to ' Fish,' George See stands in the same position as his father did to ‘Turkey,' while Isaac See and Jarman Smart are the next best men.  

Never before, however, has Welney held the honour of claiming both the Professional and Amateur Championships." 

Little Downham a Village of Darkness – Ely Standard, October 23rd 1925 

The light go on at Little Downham

The light go on at Little Downham - Credit: Archant

Little Downham is a village of darkness, and if its 2,000 inhabitants maintain that present apathy, it is likely to remain such. 

Standing in the positions in which they were erected on the occasion of the coronation of King George about 15 lamp standards, all of which from that date distributed a flare of light, provided by acetylene gas, which enabled residents to move about in safety during the dark winter nights. 

The coming of the war bought about the end of the lights and the acetylene, equipment, costing somewhere about £85 to install, has now fallen into this desuetude 

But darkness has no terror for the inhabitants of Little Downham.  

They move about with a facility born of experience. If one should chance to collide with a disused lamp standard, they take it for granted it is part of village life.  

A public meeting was called to test the feelings of parishioners in regard to light. The villagers displayed an old-time apathy and the meeting had to be abandoned without a word, being uttered. Not more than a dozen ratepayers attended. 

When in 1911 the Parish Councils endeavoured to adopt the lighting Act, they were outvoted by the inhabitants of the fen who did not see why they should be called upon to contribute to a lighting scheme from which they were to derive no benefit.  

As three-fourths of the ratepayers reside in the fens their point of view can readily be appreciated. 

When it was decided to install the lighting system in celebration of the coronation of King George the necessary money was forthcoming by voluntary subscription and until the war the people voluntarily subscribed the necessary money. 

Now some residents have volunteered to pay the cost of a light apiece if others do the same. It would cost between £13-£20 a year to light the lamps with oil and spare Downham from remaining a village of darkness. 

County War Memorial Dedication, Ely Cathedral – Ely Standard, October 23rd 1953 

3,000 at war memorial dedication in Ely

3,000 at war memorial dedication in Ely - Credit: Archant

The Ely streets were thronged and the great Cathedral sheltered over 3,000 people for the dedication of the County War Memorial Chapel.  

The Roll of Honour to those who fell in the 1939-45 war, consisting over 1,700 names engraved in a book, was handed to the Dean by Lord Tedder, Marshal of the Royal Air Force 

Walking to School – Ely Standard, October 22nd 1937 

School children who have to walk about two miles to and from school every day are to have their claims to be transported by ‘bus, a privilege at present only enjoyed by those residing three miles or more from their school, considered by the Education Committee 

The Education Committee considered the conveyance of children from Mepal to the Chatteris Council Schools.  

A tender from the Eastern Counties Omnibus Company was too high. It was the only tender received.  

There weren't no private bus owners in the district and Eastern Counties had a monopoly. The children would have to be bought to Chatteris somehow until Sutton school was finished. 

A petition was received from the parents of a number of Wentworth children, aged from five to 12 years, asking for arrangements to be made for them to be conveyed to Witchford School by bus, instead of having to walk the two and a half miles.  

It was decided not to provide a conveyance as the children resided within three miles of the school. 

One councillor said if the children were his, they would stay at home; it was unfair to expect youngsters to walk that distance in the winter.  

But another believed they could do too much carrying; it would be a help to the health of older children if they walked.  

A child of nine or 10 walking two and a half miles to school would see and learn a great deal more than he would ever see in a bus.