The story of Hadleigh's railway
The Eastern Union Railway and Hadleigh Junction Railway were authorised to construct a single track 7.5 mile line from a junction in Bentley to Hadleigh on 18th June 1846. The line met the mainline between Ipswich and London. It was envisaged that the Hadleigh branch could be an important cross country link between Harwich and the Midlands.
The EUR purchased the line outright before the work began on the line and £51,700 was paid for the work, including the supply of the rails.
The first sod of the railway was cut on 5th September 1846 at Kate's Hill Farm where the line was to be carried over a tributary of the River Brett, creating a 50 foot high embankment. During the construction the Kate's Hill culvert collapsed. The VIPs at the sod cutting ceremony enjoyed a meal in a marquee whilst hundreds gathered outside to mark the occasion.
The formal opening took place on 20th August 1847. A special train hauled by a locomotive named Hadleigh, and consisting of three saloons, two first class and four second class carriages with a truck carrying a band, travelled from Ipswich to Hadleigh.
The station buildings at Capel, Raydon and Hadleigh were still not completed. The train's arrival was greeted with flags and guns being fired. After a splendid dinner at the Town Hall and a fireworks display, the train returned to Ipswich.
The line opened for goods traffic the following day and for passengers on 2nd September with five trains each way on weekdays and three on Sundays. There was no direct line to Ipswich.
On 16th September, the station was still incomplete but an excited crowd had gathered to travel to Ipswich for the annual regatta. There was a violent gale and a newly constructed wall collapsed at the back of the platform. Of the 100 people waiting, 65 were injured, including a woman who had her leg amputated.
The plan to extend the line to Lavenham was abandoned before the opening.
Passenger traffic on the route was always light and by the early 1930s with the advent of bus services between Hadleigh and Ipswich the route was no longer viable. Services ended on 29th February 1932. The milling, malting, coconut matting, clothing and manufacturing in the town ensured that freight continued until a complete closure on 19th April 1965.
There is a terrific account of a journey on the "Hadleigh Express" in Simon Dewes' A Suffolk Childhood which tells of a journey in 1915/16:
"Looking forward I could see the straight single line of track that ran the eight miles to Bentley Junction. Looking back, already a part of the past, I could see in the valley the tapering spire of Hadleigh Chruch, the broad single thread that was the High Street and the winding narrow thread that was the sleepy River Brett.
The engine gave another prolonged whistle and the driver told me he always did that when he passed the top of Cranworth Road, to let his wife know he had got away safely. And looking out, sure enough, I saw what looked like a white flag being waved in reply.
We trundled on. We travelled over the bridge which crossed Hook Lane and under which, on oru walks, we children would stop and shout the most fearsome war-cries for the delight of hearing the terrifying echo.....the train slowed down and finally stopped and I saw that a level-crossing gate was closed against us....at last we came to Raydon Wood Station where we stopped and hung about for I remember seemed to me to an unconscionable time, for passengers who did not appear."
The adventure continues on to Capel and Bentley Station where the author and his family get on the mainline train to the capital.
"I suddenly realised that, with its moving out of Bentley Station, all our individualities had gone, were, with the grinding wheels, being swept away from us, and we were becoming just another anonymous lot of passengers in a cold, unfriendly train that could not, I was sure, be a match in speed for the "Hadleigh Express"."