North Walsham & District Community Archive


North Walsham Past and Present. Published 1975.


North Walsham remained one of the last important market towns in England to lack a railway. This was not for lack of efforts to build one. From 1845 onwards a variety of plans were conceived and presented to the Board of Trade, but the first three were turned down "because of the dearth of traffic" which might result in an unprofitable line being built. Landowners were at first indifferent and often hostile to railways, especially those which cut their estates. After the middle of the 19th century it became evident to them that landowners near to the railways were getting cheaper transport for coal, fertilizer and lime and would make more profit on the crops going to market. The cost of horse transport from Norwich made bulky goods dear in North Walsham and lost local producers markets in other parts of the country. Droving costs of lean cattle from and fat cattle to the Norwich market made the district less competitive.

Stracey of Coltishall held a meeting in 1859 to suggest a further scheme for railways through the district but this came to nothing. There was not enough pledged financial support and no driving force for the project.

Things changed radically in 1863 when Lord Suffield of Gunton Hall held a meeting in Norwich to propose the East Norfolk Railway. Two things had happened to change the prospects of success. Lord Suffield had set the Gunton Park estate to rights after a period of neglect by his half-brother. Secondly, the main railway in East Anglia, the Great Eastern Railway, had come into existence the previous year and was willing to render all aid, including finance, to railways which would open up hitherto rail-less areas. The GER also promised technical help and promised to run the line for 50% of gross receipts.
At last there was a firm basis for a railway from Norwich to North Walsham. A renowned engineer, George Bidder, was called in to lay out the line. After objections from landowners and from the North Walsham to Dilham Canal had been overcome an Act was passed in Parliament to allow construction and permit the raising of £80,000 capital - a vast sum in an area where workers - the majority of the working population - earned 10/- (50p) a week or less.

The people who contributed mainly lived in North Walsham or to the north of it, Lord Suffield being a major shareholder.

All was not well even at the start; Samuel Morton Peto.the first contractor to agree to build the line, failed in the financial crash of 1866. His successor, W. S. Simpson of Ely, had alreadyrrianade a bad name for himself in Hertfordshire;to compound difficulties he died shortly after starting the line at the Norwich end. Finally in 1872, shareholders were getting very worried, being unwilling to pay calls on their shares. The citizens of Aylsham were so desperate for modern transport that they supported a plan for an independent tramway from Norwich along the turnpike,to be worked by a horse! At this juncture Lord Suffield met the directors of the GER and one of them, Charles Parke*, who was also Lord Suffield's deputy on the East Norfolk Board,put out a circular which showed how to raise the extra cash and with the promise of an extension to Cromer(another Scarborough, he hopedi )showed how the line could be made profitable and attract new capital. Lucas Brothers, the London and Norwich contractors who built the London District line, were engaged and although they lagged behind their deadlines, they completed the line for opening on the 20th of October, 1874. A green arch was set up in the field on the other side of Norwich Bead and celebrations were held.

The single line branch was not overwhelmed with traffic, some trains' carrying only 2 or 3 passengers. Goods traffic varied seasonally, but the line was contin ued to Cromer after a break of a year and by 1877 North Walsham was the most important intermediate station on the new Cromer line. The line was busiest on market day, when the bank pay-in slips show that half the week's takings were banked on Friday mornings. At first, North Walsham looked like being a placid and barely remunerative station on a modest branch line, but this was not to be.

Sir Edmund Lacon, the Yarmouth brewer and banker, proposed a little railway from Great Yarmouth to Stalham in 1875. He had the idea, admitted later under Parliamentary questioning, of extending it westwards, first in the hope of linking it to the East Norfolk line at Worstead;when this was refused he proposed an independent link to North Walsham under the title of Yarmouth & North Norfolk Railway. This idea was firmly supported by Ezra Cornish, of Cornish & Gaymer, Randells, Cubitts and other leading businessmen in the town. They hoped for reduced rail costs with more competition and also cheaper transport towards Yarmouth.
The Yarmouth & North Norfolk built its line through to North Walsham in 1881, parallel with the East Norfolk, to a terminus of a temporary nature between the old Town and the present Main stations. It had been clear since 1879 that it was intended to link the line with the Lynn & Fakenham Railway then being extended towards Melton Constable. The lines shared offices, bankers, directors and contractors, needing each other to make a through east-west route. The East Norfolk objected strongly to this invasion and delayed matters for over a year but eventually permission was granted for a link from Melton Constable to North Walsham. No junction was built at North Walsham and there was great hostility between the two parallel lines with their two entirely separate stations, the Town from 1883 serving the Midlands and North as well as west Norfolk.

The final stage of North Walsham's 19th century railway development started soon after the completion of the main lines and amalgamation in July 1883 to form the Eastern & Midlands Railway. A branch was proposed to Mundesley and an Act was passed in 1888. The chronic financial problems of the E&M made postponement of this essential and the fortunes of the company were only restored in 1893 when it was taken over by two main line companies to form the Midland & Great Northern Joint Railway. This new system saw the folly of competition and together with the GER formed the Norfolk & Suffolk Joint Railways Committee to run the branch to Mundesley, which opened in 1898, and to extend that branch in a loop to Cromer in order to develop seaside resorts in Poppyland. At first there were 17 trains a day from North Walsham to Mundesley, 8 from Town and 9 from Main station, but the service was later rationalized. Rivalry between the two companies became friendly but keen, the Cromer Express from London 1 started to run non-stop from London to North Walsham. In 1907 it was superseded by the faster and mortl luxurious Norfolk Coast Express which divided into 3 sections at North Walsham, for Cromer, Sheringham and Overstrand. On the M&GN it was quicker to travel from North Walsham to Leicester or Nottingham in 1899 than it is today, such is progress.

The majority of passengers were summer seaside visitors, but North Walsham benefitted greatly from these services and became a major railway junction. Over 100 trains passed through or started from North Walsham stations on a busy summer Saturday, many of them excursions. The blue GER engines and the golden gorse' M&GN engines, always spotless, hauled trains of teak carriages, the latter also often mixed with Midland Railway red carriages. Including track staff, over 50 men were employed at the two stations at the start of this century. Friendly relations existed between townsfolk and railway staff. One lady knitted socks, pullovers and scarves each year to present to those who had served her well.

The granary, now a potato sorting shed, was very busy in the season unloading farmers' carts through one set of doors and loading rail trucks on the other side. All grain was in sacks and manhandling required many porters. There was a choice of coalyards and goods sheds for local merchants. Almost all traffic to and from the district came by rail in 1900, the canal traffic having seriously declined by this date.

Rail services continued at a high density until 1953 when the Mundesley to Cromer line closed. Thereafter express trains on the Norwich-Cromer line decreased in number, the M&GN line was totally closed at a stroke on the 28th of February, 1959. The Mundesley branch followed in 1964. On the 1st of January 1967 the Main station was reduced to an unstaffed halt, served by paytrains and goods services were run down, although special services for Crane Fruehauf containers and North Sea condensate compensated. The line to Wroxham was singled and closure proposed, but to date a subsidy of £179,0.00 a year (1973) keeps it running.