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Westmorland’s railways: ‘essential to the continuance of our prosperity’

Thursday 1 April, 2021, by Karen Griffiths

By the end of the nineteenth century the Westmorland Dales was entirely encircled by railway lines. Their presence completely transformed the lives of the people who lived in the area but they came as part of a continuous process of transportation ‘improvement’ which was obvious for all to see. There were of course objections raised by those who feared the disruption or objected to the loss of natural beauty, but the loudest voices were those who saw the economic benefits.

First the turnpike, and then the arrival of the canal, had visibly improved Kendal’s prosperity and so the prospect of a line from Lancaster to Carlisle passing through the town was welcomed, as this 1837 article in the Westmorland Gazette explained:

“The Canal from Kendal to Lancaster and Preston was opened about twenty years ago, and that event (as was the case at Carlisle) formed the commencement of a new era in the trade of Kendal. It may be said, I think, that these twenty years have been as a century in the progress of improvement. Before that event, the manufacturers were listless and limited. There was little machinery in the town, and this of a rude and imperfect construction. Coals were 1s 6d per cwt. The children of the poor and middle class too, instead of being sent to school (as they now are, even to the very poorest of the poor) were employed in setting cards, or winding spools, or knitting hose. The streets were tortuous and ill paved. The houses were dark and out of order – presenting external decay and internal discomfort. The public conveyances were unfrequent and snail-paced. The weekly markets were thinly supplied and thinly attended. The public institutions (as they ever do) partook of the town, which was gloomy and apathetic. These general facts are to be regarded in a comparative sense, as contrasted with the present state of things, and they must not be considered as imputing to the inhabitants of Kendal greater slothfulness than was manifested at the time in most provincial towns of like magnitude. But the facilities afforded to trade by the opening of the Canal in a few years wrought a change so great in the general character of the town and the inhabitants – in the wealth and industry ,- so completely altered every feature of the place, that natives revisiting the town after an absence of half a dozen years, conceived it transformed by the power of a magician’s wand! If anyone thinks I am romancing, let him refer to well-informed persons old enough to recollect the change, and my statements will be confirmed. The Canal, then, was a powerful stimulant to exertion, and has been of eminent benefit to the trade, but it now fails to accomplish all that our manufacturers require, as I shall attempt to show. What we want, as essential to the continuance or extension of our prosperity, are – cheap and punctual conveyance of the raw materials of manufactures, and of coals, into the town, with the transport of manufactured goods and agricultural produce out of the town; and moreover a steady and certain mode of personal intercourse with the markets (distant as they are) on which we are entirely dependent.”
‘London and Glasgow Railway through Westmorland and Cumberland – the interests of Kendal considered’ Westmorland Gazette Saturday 9 December 1837

Wrangling over the exact route for the proposed west coast railway meant that finance became an issue. In 1843 the London and Brighton and the Grand Junction with other leading railway companies resolved to subscribe £500,000 toward the £1,000,000 required by the Caledonian Company to build the railway, on condition that £250,000 would be raised by the landowners and others living adjacent to the proposed line. It was proposed to issue shares of £50 each and the response was so enthusiastic that in one day 550 shares were taken up in Kendal and about 400 in Carlisle. The local landowning gentry embraced the opportunity to bring prosperity to Westmorland, as the list of provisional directors published in this 1843 share issue advert shows.

Westmorland Gazette - Saturday 16 December 1843. Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (
Westmorland Gazette – Saturday 16 December 1843. Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (

The Lancaster & Carlisle Railway was the first to be established through Westmorland. Alongside the manufactured goods and raw materials it was intended to transport, it was also expected to carry thousands of passengers a year. Its proximity to the ‘English Lakes’ was one of its many selling points.

Shap historian Jean Scott-Smith emailed us this remarkable fact about the cost of the Lancaster & Carlisle Railway: “The Lancaster and Carlisle Railway in the Shap section was commenced in July 1844, and completed and opened in December 1846 – an amazing achievement given the difficult ground they had to dig through, the cost was £1,200,000 – compare that with the cost when the M6 was built over a century and a quarter later at £1,250,000 PER MILE!

The South Durham & Lancashire Union Railway had no aspirations to carry a lot of passenger traffic. Instead, it was initially intended as a line for mineral transportation with minimal passenger trains, and was promoted and built by an independent company. The Stainmore150 website explains the economic background:

“In 1850 vast reserves of iron ore were discovered at Eston in Cleveland by the industrialist Henry Bolckow, close to the port site being developed by Joseph Pease and his partners. Within a few years the south bank of the Tees in the Middlesbrough area became a major international centre for the iron trade. At about the same time Henry Bessemer’s steel-making process was being introduced, but this required hæmatite ores of the kind that outcropped in Furness and in west Cumberland. On the west coast the local iron industry demanded supplies of quality coke already being supplied from east Durham by the circuitous railway route via Newcastle and Carlisle. There was also the possibility of coal exports to Ireland. The directors of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, many of whom were also heavily involved in steel and coal themselves, saw a major business opportunity if a line could be built from West Auckland to join the Barnard Castle railway and then west via the Stainmore gap to connect with the Lancaster and Carlisle Railway.”
From . Date accessed 1 April 2021

The Eden Valley Railway line was built soon after. It ran from Kirkby Stephen to Clifton near Penrith via the upper Eden Valley and connected with the Lancaster & Carlisle Railway. It was essentially a northern branch of the South Durham & Lancashire Union line and it had the same economic purpose, to carry industrial materials from east to west coast and back.

In spite of the obvious economic benefits of these railway lines and the willingness of the local elites to invest money in them, cash flow among the contractors seems to have been a little uneven as this newspaper report shows.

Westmorland Gazette - Saturday 25 December 1858. Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (
Westmorland Gazette – Saturday 25 December 1858. Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (

The Settle-Carlisle line was the last railway to be built through Westmorland and has the distinction of also being the last main line to be largely built by hand. Viewed today, its construction through some of the most challenging terrain in England doesn’t make economic sense. As it turns out, the Midland Railway Company who ended up building it, essentially lost a game of brinkmanship with a rival company and were pushed into the project pretty much against their better judgement. The story is explained on our Out of Oblivion website:

“Rivalry between two of the largest [railway] companies, the London and North Western (LNWR) and the Midland led in the end to the bringing of steam trains to almost impossibly remote parts of the Yorkshire Dales. The story began in 1846 with a proposal to build a branch line from Ingleton to Lowgill to complete a main line through route from London (Euston) to Scotland via Carlisle. 11 years passed while rival companies fought and schemed over the project. In the end, the line was built by a local railway company called the Lancaster and Carlisle, who quickly ended up leasing it ‘in perpetuity’ to the London and North Western who already controlled large sections of the London to Carlisle route.

“The Ingleton Branch Line opened to passenger traffic in 1861 but was never to fulfil its potential as a main route north. The Midland Railway owned the existing station at Ingleton but failed to reach an agreement with the LNWR about its joint use so the LNWR built a rival station at Thornton less than a mile away. Passengers joining connecting trains faced an arduous walk between the two stations. The situation was not helped by the LNWR who failed to lay on fast through trains to Carlisle, and whose timetabling deliberately prevented good connections with the Midland Railway trains. In the end Midland lost patience and began to plan an independent route to Carlisle starting from Settle. The LNWR realised it had gone too far and attempted to renegotiate a deal for the use of its line with Midland. Midland agreed but Parliament did not and the company was forced to construct the new line from Settle to Carlisle through some of the most difficult terrain in the country. The building of the Settle-Carlisle Railway line nearly bankrupt Midland, but it also resulted in the Ingleton route losing its main line status forever….James Allport, then General Manager of the Midland Railway Company walked the proposed route for the Settle-Carlisle Railway and was dismayed. He wrote afterwards: “I shall not forget as long as I live the difficulties that surrounded us in that undertaking. Mr Crossley and I went on a voyage of discovery – ‘prospecting’. We walked miles and miles; in fact I think we can safely say that we walked over a greater part of the line from Settle to Carlisle, and we found it comparatively easy sailing till we got to that terrible place, Blea Moor. We spent an afternoon there looking at it. We went miles without seeing an inhabitant, and Blea Moor seemed effectually to bar our passage northward.”
From ‘Canals & Railways’ Date accessed 1 April 2021

With thanks to Lily Mulvey, YDNPA Historic Environment Apprentice for contributing to the research for this blog.

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Karen Griffiths

Interpretation Officer for the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority


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