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The History of Kent

Copyright Kent Past 2010

History of Canterbury and Whitstable Railway

Canterbury had always ferried goods on the river Stour, however, by the early 19th Century that was silting up at a rate that made dredging un-economic. It was decided to build a series of turnpike roads to the small port at Whitstable, and transport goods overland. This however, did not produce a long-term solution, due to the number of carts required compared to that of a barge.

William James, a man who had taken a keen interest in locomotives since the early 1800's, and had many projects in hand, one being a collaboration with George Stephenson to build a railway from Liverpool to Hull, applied for parliamentary approval for the construction of a line from Canterbury to Whitstable. The ambitious plan included a new harbour complex in Whitstable. Having surveyed the area, James decided on the most direct route, despite it involving three steep gradients and an 828 yard long tunnel. Unfortunately, James' many commitments had placed too greater strain on his finances and he was sent to debtor's prison, following bankruptcy, in 1823.

Despite James departure the project continued and having gained parliamentary approval on 10th June 1825, the Canterbury & Whitstable Railway commenced work soon after the act was passed, with George Stephenson as the engineer. The scheme began to run out of money and a further act of Parliament was passed in April 1827, allowing a further £19,000 of capita stock to be raised. The tunnel proved to be a very slow, arduous and technically, difficult task. It had been over a year and they were still not halfway through. The tunnelling was further hindered by earth falls and flooding. Upon completion of the tunnel, it was discovered to be only just big enough for the locomotive, with some redesigning of the passenger and goods carriages necessary. The project was proving to be at the cutting edge of technology, for that time, and a third Act of Parliament was required in May 1828, to secure another £21,000.

By 1830, the line had reached Whitstable, with both passenger and freight services commencing hourly from 3rd May. However, it would be another two years before the harbour redevelopment, under the direction of Thomas Telford, was complete, and the route could be extended.

The original plan allowed for two stationary engines, using a series of ropes and pulleys, for the gradients, with a locomotive named Invicta, purchased from George Stephenson's company, to cover the flat sections. It was soon found that the locomotive was not up to the job and, despite modifications; a third stationary engine was installed in 1832.

The company came under increasing financial pressure and in 1839, unsuccessfully, attempted to sell the Invicta, in an effort to clear some of the debt. In 1844, with the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway facing bankruptcy, the newly formed
South Eastern Railway took over the line. It was decided in 1846, to allow SER locomotives to run on it, although because the height of Tyler Hill tunnel was only 12 feet, modifications, in the form of shorter chimneys and lowered boilers, were necessary. The original C&WR terminus at 'Canterbury North Road' was closed and the line extended to the SER Canterbury West station.

The line was never prosperous, even under SER management, and there was a new setback when the
London, Chatham and Dover Railway opened in 1860 offering a better passenger service from Whitstable to London. At the turn of the century work started on building a spur line at Whitstable to connect with the Herne Bay to Faversham line and a bay platform at Whitstable & Tankerton station, although the work was never completed. In the early 1900s, halts were built at Blean & Tyler Hill, South Street and Tankerton, resulting in some increase of passengers.

In 1923, the line became part of the
Southern Railway and like many other lines, around the country, it suffered with competition from bus services. Passenger services were withdrawn on 1 January 1931. It continued to carry coal, grain and road stone, with munitions to the harbour during World War II. By 1948, when it became part of British Railways, Whitstable Harbour had fallen into disuse and what was left of the line's trade had disappeared.

The line closed with effect from 1 December 1952, albeit with a short reprieve during the floods of February 1953, when the line was reopened from 5 February to 1 March. Track was lifted almost immediately and the associated infrastructure removed. All trace of the halts and station at Whitstable Harbour were removed. The site of Canterbury North Lane station later became a goods yard until around 1980 when it was sold for housing development.


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