"The Chronicles of a Country Parish" - A village appraisal of Sulgrave published in 1995

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The Great Central Railway was begun in 1894 and opened for passenger traffic in 1899. It was the last of the main London lines to be built and was never a commercial success. It ran from Marylebone station in London to Annesley junction to the north of Nottingham. The line passed through Brackley, Rugby and Leicester before reaching Nottingham. Although Rugby was an important railway centre, the line passed through no large urban centres between London and Leicester, so local passenger traffic was never very heavy. The line was driven through the thinly populated area because the other main lines to London had taken the better routes.

Manning Wardle & Co. 'K' class 0-6-0 saddletank, TRAFALGAR, No. 911 of 1884.
Locomotive used in the construction of the Great Central Railway during the 1890s.
Bert Branson with pipe.

It was a difficult line to build because it crossed the central watershed of England where the rivers Nene, Great Ouse, Cherwell and Leam have their sources. The construction by Walter Scott and Company involved building many viaducts, tunnels, cuttings and embankments. Of the two viaducts which were built in this area, the one at Helmdon with twelve arches still stands but the enormous twenty-three span one at Brackley has been demolished. The vast embankment that cuts across the Tow valley in Sulgrave contains 486,000 cubic yards of soil, is 43 feet high and 340 feet wide at the base and covers a land area of seventeen acres!

Brickworks at Great Covert Wood, Sulgrave 1890

Just to the east of this embankment at Great Covert Wood was sited a vast brick making plant. It covered seven acres and twelve million bricks were produced here during the 36 months of construction. These were used to build the hundreds of bridges and viaducts along the route.

Many Irish navvies came to the area at this time. Some were housed in huts in special camps. There was one at Helmdon, but others resided in local villages. In Sulgrave where Bengairn, Magpie Cottage and Lark Rise now stand was a continuous terrace of eight two-up and two-down cottages. These housed railway workers and their families, many Irish and many with ten or more children! It is significant that the village school records the highest number of children on role at the exact period of the line's construction.

Lunchbreak for the Navvies on the embankment near Manor Farm, Sulgrave

The arrival in rural villages of gangs of men with a reputation for drunkeness and fighting made a large impact on the population. Indeed it was said that no local villager dare go down Manor Road on a Friday night after payday and thus risk getting involved in the many fights that would inevitably be going on!

Despite the fact that local villagers said you could set your watch by the 'Master Cutler' as it sped across the Sulgrave embankment, the line was doomed. It never made money and was finally closed under the Beeching Plan in 1966.

Helmdon Viaduct on the Great Central Line between Sulgrave and Helmdon

The following poem was composed by Mr. L. Wills, the last signalman on the Brackley line, on the morning when the last signal was pulled.



The Marples axe has fallen
And Beeching's rammed it home,
Brackley signal Box is finished
The Grand Central line is doomed,
'Tis the 13th day of June now
And the signals are crashing down,
Whoever would have thought it
That this should be my lot.
My reference book is clean
And I haven't got a blot,
If this is what they call progression
Then I'm glad I'm getting old.
Why, for the next generation
Oh Lord!What will unfold.