Some bits of history

The Abingdon branch

Whilst it is not intended to give an in-depth history of the Abingdon branch, it is interesting to have a brief look at it and to learn about some of the frustrations suffered by Abingdon when seeking a railway connection. Abingdon is sometimes portrayed as having been anti-railway, but our research has led us to believe that Abingdon really wanted to be put on the railway map. Anti-railway company sentiment arose when implied promises and abortive schemes left the town without a railway until the Abingdon branch was finally opened in 1856.

Early expectations

Abingdon believed that it would be served directly by the proposed line between Didcot and Oxford. The very first idea, dating from the early 1836, was for an Oxford and Abingdon branch to pass by Abingdon before heading towards Oxford. This would have seen the line pass close to the town centre, with initial perceptions that it might pass on the western side, and was strongly supported by many people who undertook to subscribe to the line. Sadly this route never really got very far and by late 1836 was superceeded by one bypassing Abingdon to the east. Many in the town believed that the GWR had gone against previous understandings and sought to withdraw their support and financial backing whilst lodging objections to the amended route. Documents are held in the archives of the Houses of Parliament relating to the Oxford and Great Western Union Railway - with a branch to Abingdon. The oldest of these date from as early as 1837, being signed by Brunel himself, and show the line to Oxford going through Iffley village close to the river. Other variations involved the final destination in Oxford and the type of junction between the Abingdon branch and the main Didcot to Oxford line.

This extract from a letter written by Brunel and dated October 25th 1836 adds some background to the above. Mr George Francis Davenport is the local engineer for the GWR

...'I have this morning seen Mr G.F.Davenport and in reply to the enquiries made through him as well as to your letter of the 20th instant I beg to say that as regards the choice of the two lines which have been surveyed consider that it is become a question of considerable importance and that the decision of the Committee must depend upon many considerations quite distinct from the mere engineering question of comparative cost or length of the two.

Originally and I allude particularly to the line which was stated to the Inhabitants of Abingdon that the line would be brought "as near" to that town "as practicable" the measure was justly considered rather as an Oxford and Abingdon Branch to the Great Western Railway and the approach to Abingdon was a condition necessary to the General Character of the Line and as such was unhesitatingly promised. Circumstances have very much changed since then not only may this Branch now be considered as likely to form part of a main line but in consequence of the numerous other links, which whether likely to be eventually carried into execution or not will will in various shapes be brought under the Notice of Parliament or the Public as competing Lines it becomes very important to the Company and indirectly to those who like the Inhabitants of Abingdon are interested and deeply so in the success of the measure that the direct line which leaves Abingdon to be approached by a short Branch should be now adopted.'...

An aborted scheme

Being rather put out by being left off the route of the line to Oxford which opened in 1844, Abingdon enthusiastically supported a proposal in 1845 for the Oxford and Salisbury Direct Railway. This would have passed to the west of the town centre, with a station in Ock Street, and formed a junction with the GWR main line at Steventon before proceeding via Wantage. Progress was regularly reported in Bradshaw's Railway Gazette amongst others which, in early 1846, carried a small notice placed by Z.Hubbersty, the Company Secretary, stating that '... requisite notices have been served on the landowners and occupiers, and that the plans, sections, and books of reference have been regularly deposited in the Parliament Office, and Private Bill Office ...' It goes on to state that '... the committee are proceeding with all the necessary preparations to enable them to present their bill in the ensuing session.' All did not go to plan however and the scheme was abandoned in the June, possibly being under subscribed. A number of people were left exposed financially as a result and the repurcussions rumbled on for several years. A speculator had actually built a substantial hotel in Spring Road in Abingdon, close to the planned station, in readiness for the coming of the railway. This venture was of course doomed, but the building still stands having been divided into dwellings.

During this period of 'Railway Mana' fierce competition existed between companies large and small who tried to either promote new schemes, or protect their interests from the schemes of others. To illustrate the point we include this handbill taken from an article in the April 1933 edition of the Great Western Railway Magazine which looked at various items held in their collection at Paddington. The Cheltenham and Oxford Union Railway which was seeking to protect itself was just one of many abortive schemes involving Cheltenham.

Handbill warning of GWR opposition to the Cheltenham to Oxford Railway
Handbill from December 1852
Great Western Railway Magazine, April 1933

Eventual connection

Although Abingdon missed out when the Didcot to Oxford branch was built, it did eventually get a rail connection when a short branch was built by the independant Abingdon Railway Company in 1856. The eventual line of this branch closely followed that originally proposed almost twenty years previously.

Abingdon in broad gauge days
Abingdon Station in the 1860s
Courtesy of the Great Western Trust

The 1¾ mile Abingdon branch opened on 2nd June 1856. It was built to the broad gauge and joined the line between Didcot and Oxford just north of the bridge over the River Thames at Nuneham where a simple junction station was provided, there being no intermediate halts. There was no road access to this station and, having spartan facilities, it served merely as an interchange. Sadly, there is no known photograph of this station, but it is shown on this OS map published in 1883 based on a much earlier survey.

Abingdon junction
Reproduced with the permission of
the National Library of Scotland

The Click or tap to see a map of Abingdon Station from 1912station at Abingdon was built on land acquired from the Mayor and Aldermen of the Borough of Abingdon at a cost of £472. Seven properties were demolished to make way for the station and yard, including the Plough Inn which was subsequently rebuilt at a different location. Services on the branch were provided by the Great Western Railway who supplied locomotives, rolling stock and staff, but line maintenance fell to the owners. All went well financially with all bank loans being paid off by 1870. Both the main line to Oxford and the Abingdon branch were converted to standard gauge in November 1872. The Abingdon branch was closed for a day on 26th November with a rail replacement omnibus service running from Culham. The branch line was later extended alongside the main line for ¾ of a mile to the new Click or tap to see a map of Radley Station from 1912station at Radley which was opened on 8th September 1873. The station at Abingdon Junction was closed and the site cleared, although its timber station building was removed to Radley where it remained in use as a platelayer's hut for many years.

Radley Station
Radley Station circa 1950
Courtesy of the Great Western Trust

Abingdon Station 1900
The first Abingdon Station in about 1900
Courtesy of the Great Western Trust

The opening of the branch line meant easier and cheaper shipping of goods and coal, and from the outset Abingdon was posessed a substantial goods yard on the south of the station with five sidings serving a goods shed and cattle dock with a further siding into a stone built engine shed at the east end of the station. The latter was built on land not actually owned by the company. Extra sidings and buildings were added over time. In 1886 Click or tap to reveal our hidden page about Abingdon GasworksAbingdon gasworks was resited from beside the river Thames where it had been supplied by coal barges, to the north of Abingdon station to be served by a short siding. Another short siding led into a Click or tap to reveal our hidden page about the Vineyard Maltingslarge maltings.

Rebuilt Abingdon Station
The rebuilt Abingdon Station
Undated postcard, unknown publisher

There was growing friction between the Abingdon Railway Company and the GWR and after protracted negotiations, having secured a favourable deal, the local company was taken over under the Absorption Act of 1904. Despite promises by the GWR to improve both the services and the infrastructure nothing was done until 1908 when, early in the morning of 22nd April, a freight train failed to stop and ran into an empty passenger train standing in the station. Although there were no serious injuries the station building was badly damaged and was completely rebuilt in 1909, evenually being demolished by British Rail in the 1970s.

Abingdon was a busy market town and at its peak three goods trains a day served the station with the nearby cattle market generating extra traffic on market days. The passenger services were generally locomotive hauled but steam railmotors were tried out for a short period. At its peak in the 1930s there were 18 passenger trains a day in each direction. There were some through passenger trains to Oxford and beyond, mainly specials, but the line generally operated a short shuttle service between Radley and Abingdon. In the late 1940s the MG Car Company started using the railway to transport its sports cars which were built at a factory on the other side of town, and during the mid 1970s there were several car trains every week, each carrying up to 70 vehicles on special CarFlat wagons. Passenger numbers continued to decline however and the branch was listed for closure by Dr Beeching. Passenger services were withdrawn from 9th September 1963 and all the station buildings were demolished in 1971 leaving only the platform, track, goods office and the stable block but freight traffc kept the line in operation for some time after.

Langford's private owner wagon
Courtesy of Julian Langford and Ian Pope

Coal traffic was always important to the line with several coal merchants operating out of Abingdon. Some of these, notably R.S.Langford & Son Ltd., John North & Son and Pemberton & Co., had their own Private Owner wagons. With both the regular coal and MG car traffic the branch looked to have a reasonable future as a freight only line, also seeing the occasional enthusiasts' special. However, in 1980, came the news that the MG car factory was to close. Coal trade had diminished and for the next four years, the only traffic was a weekly coal train. By 1984, Charringtons’ coal depot in the station yard was shut and traffic ceased on 27th March.

The branch line was officially closed in the July of that year but was used for a while by BR to train permanent way staff before eventually being lifted. Gradually the station at Radley lost its sidings and buildings with the old Abingdon bay area being redeveloped into a car park.

The Queen visiting Abingdon in 1956
British Railways Magazine, January 1957

Royal visit

The branch was used on many occasions as a stabling point for the Royal Train, even after passenger services had ceased to operate. On Friday 2nd November 1956 the Royal Train brought the Queen to Abingdon where she opened the refurbished 17th century County Hall before continuing by car to Wallingford and finally R.A.F.Benson where the Queen's Flight was based at the time. Abingdon Station was decked out with floral displays and given a good tidy up and lick of paint for the occasion. In January 1957, the Western Region edition of the British Railways Magazine carried a small illustrated report on the Royal visit. The first photograph, carried on the cover, shows the frontage to the station and inset the Station Master, Mr E.E.Crook, being presented to Her Majesty. The second picture shows the Lord Lieutenant of Berkshire, Captain H.A.Benyon, greeting the Queen with the Royal Train in the background together with several senior rail staff. Until 1974 Abingdon was within the County of Berkshire when local boundary changes moved it into Oxfordshire.

The Queen visiting Abingdon in 1956
British Railways Magazine, January 1957

The very last train to Abingdon

Final swansong

Ticket for the very last train to Abingdon

On 30th June 1984, what was left of Abingdon Station saw the very final rail traffic when two enthusiasts' specials ran from Oxford to Abingdon and back, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. A petition was raised in an attempt to keep the branch open as a heritage line for it to be operated by a preservation group, but it came to nothing.

The very last train to Abingdon
Courtesy of Martin Loader

Broad gauge rail post

What remains of the branch

The site of the station building at Abingdon was built over by a large care home operated by the Orders of St John Care Trust who named it 'The Old Station House'. The footprint of the main goods yard can still be imagined as it is occupied by a Waitrose store and its car park which tapers towards an approach road, itself following the old branch line trackbed. The next bit of trackbed has been built over but it can then be picked up running through trees alongside the path in Barton Fields nature reserve, after which it has been converted into a public footpath and cycle way. These veer off to the north having passed Thrupp Lake, but the ballasted trackbed can still be traced from that point to where it joins the line towards Radley. The whole route, and the site of Abingdon Junction Station, is easily seen on the Google maps satellite view of the area. Keen eyed visitors to the public footpath will spot several pieces of old broad gauge 'bridge rail' still serving as fence posts, and even the base of an old signal post.

Part of the old trackbed

Radley Station in 2020

Radley station is still an important stopping place for both local and longer distance trains, although it has lost all its facilities and was relegated to unmanned status when passenger operations ceased on the Abingdon Branch. Some refurbishment took place in 2008 when a new footbridge and shelters were installed, and in 2019 the platforms were lengthened to accommodate longer trains. The Station Master's house built by the GWR in about 1899 still stands alongside the station access road, and an information board celebrating the 175th anniversary of the Didcot to Oxford railway (although not of Radley Station and the Abingdon Branch of course) was unveiled in June 2019 by the Radley History Club.

Radley Station Master's house