In August 1853, the Portsmouth Times reported that the village of Buriton had been “frightened out of its peacefulness by a large accession of visitors from Portsmouth, Havant and London.”  The occasion was the official start of the construction of the railway line, providing a direct route between London and Portsmouth.

The Ceremony, with extracts from all the formal speeches, was reported in the Illustrated London News and sketches of the scene (showing the flags, marquees and Royal Marines Band) were made to record it.

It took about four years to build the line including Buriton tunnel which is almost a third of a mile long.  Two pairs of cottages in South Lane had to be demolished to make way for the railway and an embankment was built across the more southerly of the village’s two ponds (the Wooliffe or Wolves’ Leap Pond) cutting it in two.  It then became known as the Upper Wooliffe and Lower Wooliffe.  The embankment also continued across some Glebe land and the Rector, the Reverend John Maunoir Sumner, entered into a special legal agreement with the railway company to make sure that it was all properly landscaped.

Train near Weston 1889

Illustrated London News of 13 August 1853

After a bit of a dispute (see “The Battle of Havant” later on this page), trains started running on the line in January 1859.  For the first twenty years it was a single track although the tunnel and all the bridges and earthworks had been built for double tracks.  In 1878 the line was ‘doubled’.  It was electrified in 1937 which, quite literally, sparked new life into the line, with regular and more frequent stopping and fast trains at higher average speeds.

The building of the railway line has made many differences to the village.  In its early days it meant that coal could be brought to the area and the local limeworks could be established.  This brought new employment and new families to the parish and the railway took away enormous amounts of lime for the building industry.  Today, fast and frequent train services mean that people can live in Buriton but work many miles away in Portsmouth, Guildford, Woking and London.

For many years goods trains would call at Buriton Sidings every day.  There used to be a ‘coal club’ for manual workers living in the parish.  Two or three trucks of coal (at £1 per ton) would be ordered early in January and, when it arrived, a notice would be circulated round the village and the sexton would organise the distribution.

George ‘Sonner’ Legg can recall that “most of the materials for the school used to come in by rail into the sidings.  A communal trolley was available at the Five Bells to help carry things into the village, down Kiln Lane.  The library used to deliver a big crate of books every month and three boys would bring that down to the school.  A goods train would come to the sidings every morning and you would get a note if there was something to be collected.  You would then have two or three days to collect things; after that you were charged.  You had to sign a book to say that you had received things – in a glass shed, supervised by the signalman.”

There used to be a number of houses along the side of the track for railway workers but these, and the signal box, were demolished in the 1960s and 70s.

An article in the Illustrated London News of 13 August 1853 describes the commencement of the Portsmouth Direct Railway at Buriton Manor.

“To Mr Bonham Carter MP for Winchester was the graceful compliment paid of having the work begun on his land at Buriton near Petersfield and the first turf was cut by him on Saturday, August 6th 1853.

About 3.00pm a large party conveyed from London to Farnham by special train and from thence by other conveyances to Buriton about two miles south west of Petersfield.  It is delightfully situated at the bottom of the northern slope of the South Down hills whose chalky downs are covered with a soft, deep, verdure and stately trees which cloth steep banks up to their summit.

It was in the very heart of the scenery thus commemorated by Gibbon from the face of the bank immediately in sight of his manor house that the first turf was to be cut.  To this spot the company walked in procession from the house, preceded by the Royal Marines Band from Portsmouth.  The hill itself was covered with some thousands of persons assembled from all parts of the country.  When the procession came up, the various members in it had taken their places and silence had been obtained through Mr Harker, Mr Mowatt, the Chairman, addressed them on the advantages of railways and of the projected line.

Mr Errington, the engineer, also addressed the meeting and said that the line would require 100 bridges and that between 2,000 and 3,000 workmen would be employed on the work for two years.  Mr Errington then handed a handsome silver spade, having the Arms of the company engraved on it with the date of the commencement of the undertaking, to Mr Bonham Carter who, casting off his coat in true workmanlike style, manfully wielded both spade and pickaxe and speedily filled a handsome mahogany barrow with the turf intermixed with bouquets of flowers which were flung in by the ladies and then wheeled it along some planking and tipped it over into the bottom amid the cheers of the spectators.

He then addressed the audience in his working costume and after some graceful remarks on the pain which it gave him to be instrumental in breaking up and injuring the seam of soft and silken beauty which spread around, he added that he was sure that regret would be but for a short time while utility and the convenience would be permanent.  It would benefit the district through which it passed; it would facilitate the intercourse between the coast and the metropolis; and from the interest the Government has manifested in the undertaking, he believed it would strengthen the defences of the country.  For these reasons he had himself done what he could to forward the interests of the line and he now wished it and its directors every success.

The ceremony of the day was now concluded, the company filed off the ground and left the spot to the operations of the workmen who, setting to their work with a will, had opened a deep wide cutting in the breast of the hill.  While they were plying spade and mattock, the Chairman and Directors, attended by the invited guests, proceeded to a marquee which had been provided by Mr Crafts of Petersfield.  Mr Mowatt presided.  After the loyal and patriotic toasts and after drinking to the success of the undertaking which had that day so auspiciously commenced, the party broke up and returned to town by way of the South Western Railway.”

The Battle of Havant

The railway building boom had started in the late 1830s and by the end of 1848 there were two routes between London and Portsmouth, owned by different companies.  Both were, however, very circuitous routes.  The London and South Western Railway (LSW) route went via Basingstoke, Winchester and Eastleigh whilst the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway (LBSC) operated a line via Croydon, Brighton and Chichester.  As passengers had to pay for the mileage that they travelled, this long trundle around the Hampshire or Sussex countryside was highly satisfactory to both companies and neither showed any inclination to build a more direct route.

After much campaigning by the people of Portsmouth, with John Bonham Carter as one of their influential backers, royal assent was given to the building of a ‘direct line’ on 8 July 1853.  In spite of determined opposition from LSW and LBSC, powers were granted to build a line from Godalming to Havant which would connect with other existing lines and provide a much more direct London-Portsmouth service.  The new Direct Railway was to have ‘user’s rights’ over LBSC tracks between Havant and Portsmouth.

The new line was built by an independent company (the Direct Portsmouth Railway) on the speculation that one of the major companies would buy it out and absorb it after construction.  John Bonham Carter cut the first turf on 6 August 1853 on his own hillside in Buriton and the last rail was laid in the winter of 1857.  The new route cut the journey to Portsmouth by 20 miles on the LSW route and by 30 on the LBSC.  In view of this reduction, and the consequent loss of passengers and revenue from their other longer routes, neither the LSW nor the LBSC would have anything to do with it.  For a whole year the bright new rails lay rusting and grass grew between the sleepers…

Tired of waiting to be absorbed, the Direct Railway Company approached another company (the South Eastern Railway) to form a junction at Shalford (near Guildford) which would provide a link-up by another route.  Although earthworks and embankments were built for this junction, no tracks were ever laid as, seeing a threat from a rival company, the LSW decided to move in.  It leased the Direct Portsmouth route for £18,000 a year and publicised that the line would open in January 1859.  This upset LBSC who at once declared that the running powers over their line from Havant to Portsmouth granted to the Direct Portsmouth Company did not hold for the LSW.

While arbitration on the dispute between the two companies was proceeding, the LSW let it be known that they would begin running trains “to get the service in working order”.  A goods train was to run to Portsmouth over the new line on 28 December 1858 and daily thereafter arriving at Havant at 9.58 am.  On December 28th, however, the first train set off three hours early in the hope of finding the LBSC unprepared.

On reaching Havant the LSW train encountered a well planned LBSC reception.  The LBSC had chained an engine across the rails to block the route of the goods train and, just to make sure, they had lifted some of the track as well.  They were also reinforcing this obstruction with at least a hundred plate-layers and, it is thought, some specially hired thugs.  The LSW Company was not completely unprepared, having brought along some of their less refined employees as well as a policeman to observe the proceedings.

It did not take the LSW men long to re-lay the rails as, in those days, they were very light.  The engine was then captured by the invading LSW men and driven out of the way.  The LSW train could then move forward onto the LBSC lines but, a short distance further along, more rails had been removed.

It is at this stage that some suggest that all the navvies engaged in a pitched battle in the otherwise quiet town of Havant.  Certainly it would appear as though many local people turned out to watch the confrontations and an enterprising trader apparently stood on the line serving biscuits, oranges etc. from two baskets.

During the dispute, which lasted at least two-three hours, exasperated passengers wishing to use local LBSC services between Portsmouth and Chichester had to be shepherded onto waiting trains on either side of the ‘battlefield’ as the LSW driver had conveniently parked his engine in such a position that it blocked all the Portsmouth to Brighton lines.

Later in the day, having been unable to re-lay all the rails, the LSW train had to retire to Godalming “under protest”.

The ‘battle’ was transferred to the courts and, in January, it was ruled that the running powers that had been awarded to the Direct Company were vested in LSW.  The first train ran through from Waterloo to Portsmouth on January 24 1859 but a rather cut-throat price war ensued with both companies reducing their fares to absolutely uneconomic figures – perhaps in the hope that their rival would be ruined first!

Subsequent legal action by LBSC meant that, for a period, passengers on the new direct line had to use a replacement bus service (hauled by four horses) between Havant and Portsmouth.  However, with such low fares in the first few months of 1859, passenger demand soared, both rail companies lost a lot of money and until August when sanity prevailed and all the special ‘excursion’ fares were removed, an amused (and bemused) public were the clear-cut winners.

Although the story of the ‘battle’ and the drama of the occasion have probably improved with the telling, it would appear as though there was an impressive confrontation of opposing staff and a display of tactical obstruction by both sides.  Perhaps Railtrack and SouthWest Trains aren’t so bad after all ?

This information was written in 2001.

Do you know any more about the history of the railway line or about its effects on village life?

Do you have any information about any of the people who have worked on the railway over the years?

Do you have any old photographs of the railway or of Buriton sidings?

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