Report of General Monthly Meeting - Tuesday 14th May 2019
The Watercress Line – talk presented by Dr Becky Peacock
Becky Peacock is Project Manager for the Mid-Hants Railway Line, otherwise known as the Watercress Line, and gave us an entertaining talk on its history and development. We learned that official permission for a freight railway line connecting Alton, Alresford and Winchester was given in the Act of 1861, and the railway line opened in 1865 running four trains a week. The main reason for building the line was for the moving of watercress from beds around Alresford first to London and then all over the UK.
By 1869 the impressive list of shareholders included Edward Knight who was a nephew of Jane Austen and in spite of many difficulties trains were operating between Alresford and Alton, with intermediate stations. But by 1884 the company had gone bankrupt and the line was sold to South West Trains (SWR) who kept the line operating. During the two world wars, the railway line was also used for moving prisoners of war, although the POWs were unfortunately put on the same trains as school children giving rise to forceful objections.
The Watercress Line was notable for its employment of women staff in a wide range of jobs including signalmen/women and porters at the stations at Itchen Abbas, Ropley, Medstead and Four Marks and Alresford.
But during the 1950s and 60s, with the increasing use of roads for moving freight and the consequent decline in freight on the railways, revenue was down and staff were laid off. The report of the Beeching Commission led to the death of the Watercress Line, and the last day of passenger services was in early 1973.
In 1975, however, a local group of railway enthusiasts bought the ten miles of railway and the following year bought rolling stock from British Railways. A large number of local volunteers worked to get the railway running again and the Mid-Hants Railway was re-opened to visitors as a heritage railway in 1977. Volunteers continue to make a huge contribution to its success and enable it to provide services between Alresford, Ropley and Medstead throughout the summer months.