, , , , , , , , , , , ,

  • The story behind the building of the York & North Midland Railway – and how it was originally planned not to run through Castleford at all.

No sooner had the pioneering Liverpool & Manchester Railway, which opened in 1830, demonstrated the practicality and financial viability of city-to-city passenger train operation, than promoters around the country rushed to draw up plans which would quickly lead to a web of railway lines linking the commercial and population centres of Britain.

On 2 October 1834, a meeting of the city fathers and principal businessmen of York appointed a committee to promote a railway between there and London. To begin with, their hopes were pinned on lines proposed by London-based engineers, notably a Grand Northern Railroad put forward by civil engineer Nicholas Wilcox Cundy which was to connect the English and Scottish capitals. It was planned to run via Cambridge and Lincoln to York, then cut across the Yorkshire Dales to Carlisle en route for Edinburgh. However, when these projects stalled – probably a case of over-ambition given the financial and manpower resources they would have required – attention turned to the potential offered by a connection to the North Midland Railway, which was to run from Derby to Leeds.

Although the route from York to London via Derby (and thence Birmingham and Rugby) would be considerably less direct than the Grand Northern, the lines concerned were at a more advanced – and financially sound – stage of development, while journey times would still be infinitely faster than anything offered by the stagecoaches plying the Great North Road. Consequently, at a meeting on 13 October 1835, the working committee’s recommendation to build a railway linking York with the North Midland Railway was adopted. Shares were issued in a company entitled the York & North Midland Railway.

From York, the Y&NMR’s projected line of route ran in a south-westerly direction to Church Fenton, then turned more-or-less due south as far as Burton Salmon. From here it was intended the line would continue in the same direction as far as Ferrybridge, where it would cross the River Aire and turn westwards along the valley of Fryston Beck, passing midway between Castleford and Pontefract, then south of Cutsyke and north of Whitwood to join the North Midland Railway at Altofts Junction, just before Normanton. A decade previously, this same line of route from Ferrybridge westwards had been surveyed for a Wakefield–Ferrybridge canal, plans for which were later abandoned.

Had the canal proposal got beyond the drawing board, it might well have run into the same problem as the railway, which was that the section immediately past Ferrybridge ran across land owned by Richard Monckton Milnes (later to become Lord Houghton) of Fryston Hall – and, like many members of the gentry, Milnes was not willing to have one of these new-fangled, noisy railways running through his estate, frightening his livestock and filling the air with smoke. He objected to the Y&NMR’s plans and so, at a meeting of its shareholders on 24 November 1836, a new route was announced. From Burton Salmon, it swung away in a westerly direction, passing beneath the Great North Road at Fairburn in a short tunnel, then running parallel to – but around a mile-and-a-half north of – the originally-devised course.

The company’s directors thought this route would be “a great improvement, not only in avoiding Mr Milnes’ property … but … it is decidedly preferable to the Parliamentary Line [i.e. the route originally proposed in the bill presented to parliament], only having to cross the River Aire at a very favourable spot instead of having to cross both the Aire and Calder at places where the expense of building either of those bridges, they feel persuaded, will far exceed in amount the one across the Calder [sic] at or near Allerton Bywater. They also find the proposed line will go through a Coal Country soon after leaving Fairburn, an advantage which the Parliamentary line does not possess”.

Of more significance in the context of this article is that the new northerly course of the line would bring it right past Castleford, whereas the nearest approach of the originally-planned route would be several hundred yards to the south of Glasshoughton. Incidentally, this latter route did eventually become a transport corridor, as it is now followed by the M62 from Ferrybridge to Glasshoughton, where the motorway then adopts a line slightly to the south owing to part of the projected canal and railway course from there to Altofts being blocked by the Glasshoughton Colliery spoil tip, which was still in use at the time the road was built.

The contract to build the two-and-a-half mile section of line through Castleford was won by the contractor John Waring with a quotation of £14,662, which was accepted at a Y&NMR board meeting on 14 March 1839. Waring was also awarded the contract to build the village station at a cost of £971 18 3 – though this, for some reason, excluded “joiners and painters work” which was to be carried out by a W H Pole, of York, at a cost of £133 4 4.

The sheer scale of railway construction work, the great majority of it comprising manual labouring tasks, was beyond locally-available manpower resources so, like most other contractors, Waring brought in teams of labourers, known as navigators from their predecessors’ role in building the canals. These were the infamous ‘navvies’ whose reputation for hard working, hard drinking and hard punching preceded them and whose presence was seldom welcomed by the communities on which they descended. That their reputation was well deserved is borne out by an incident involving some of John Waring’s navvies at Castleford in November 1839.

On Saturday 16 November, a group of miners from Methley had been at a meeting of the Ancient Order of Foresters, one of the many friendly societies which existed at the time to help their members in times of financial need, held in the Mexborough Arms, opposite the church. That same day, many of the Y&NMR navvies had been to a ‘treat’ at Fryston Hall given by Richard Monckton Milnes, the politician, poet and socialite: the ‘treat’ would, no doubt, have involved several barrels of ale – although probably not a viewing of, reputedly, nineteenth century England’s most impressive collection of pornography, which Milnes had amassed. Consequently, reported the following Saturday’s edition of the Leeds Times (this was an era long before Castleford or Pontefract had newspapers of their own), they arrived at the Mexborough that evening “much intoxicated”.

The entirely predictable result was that “a regular fight” broke out. Nineteenth century colliers, of course, were seldom pacifists after a pint or four and thus, reported the newspaper, “the miners being the strongest party beat their opponents from the house”. They probably thought that was the end of the matter and shortly afterwards left the pub to walk back to their home village. However, refusing to take defeat on the chin, the outnumbered navvies had gone to gather reinforcements and, lying in wait along the Leeds road (most likely somewhere along what are now Wilson Street or Methley Road, at that time still not built upon), they ambushed the miners and “commenced beating them most unmercifully”. One of the colliers, by the name of John Arundall, was grabbed by their assailants and thrown into a roadside hedge.

Unfortunately for his soon-to-be victims and, in the longer run, himself, Arundall was carrying a knife and, in a frenzy, attacked and stabbed four of the navvies – “one of them so severely that his life is despaired of” according to the newspaper report. Whether he was arrested at the scene of the crime or later is not recorded but, nevertheless, he appeared before Pontefract magistrates the following Monday morning and was remanded in custody for trial in a higher court. What became of John Arundall and the navvies he injured is not known, but it can be imagined the pubs and lodging houses of Castleford would have been a hive of gossip – and no little tension – for some time afterwards.

Returning to the legitimate results of the navvies’ exertions, Castleford station was situated on an embankment where the railway crossed the Castleford–Pontefract road some 150 yards south of Castleford bridge. This was the originally planned location but – probably due to the cost of building and providing access to platforms in an elevated location – the company later changed its mind in favour of a site to the west, where the line was at ground level (and where the present station is situated). This, however, caused much disgruntlement among the aldermen and businessmen of Pontefract, who complained to the railway’s directors that to bring their goods to this second site would require their carts “to travel up a very inferior road nearly three quarters of a mile to the station”. The road to which they referred is now Carlton Street but at the time was an unmade, rutted track with few, if any, buildings along its length. In particular, it was predicted that much of the 20,000 quarters of malt (around 3,000 tons) transported by cart from Pontefract to the breweries of Leeds and Wakefield would transfer to the railway at Castleford. Support for the original site also came from within the village itself, it being pointed out that “there are numerous inns and ample stabling for the accommodation of the public”. Clearly (outside of Y&NMR circles at any rate) the station was being envisaged as serving a hinterland well beyond the immediate environs of Castleford. Consequently, after representations from Pontefract Corporation and the Rector of Castleford in January 1840, the decision was taken to revert to the easternmost of the two possible sites.

Castleford station was designed by the company’s architect George Thomas Andrews. It comprised a two-storey brick-built entrance block with Andrews’ characteristic Italianate-style architectural details in stone, notably three square-section columns at each side of, and separating, two doorways. The station entrance faced on to the road, at right angles to the railway, but was set some way back and was accessed by two flights of four steps separated by a wide landing. Inside the entrance block, a flight of stairs led up to platform level. A wooden waiting room was provided on each platform, with access from one platform to the other by means of a plank crossing between the tracks. Alongside the entrance was a three-storey building comprising the stationmaster’s house and offices: in style this was very similar to Andrews’ designs for stations and associated buildings across the Y&NMR network, many of which survive albeit no longer in railway ownership. However, the specific arrangement of the entrance block was very much unique to Castleford.

The entrance block survived for a century after this original station was closed in favour of one on the current site in 1871. For many years one doorway was bricked up but the other remained open for access to Castleford Old Station signalbox, which stood on the site of the former platforms and controlled the junction with a a later line to Allerton Bywater, Kippax and Garforth. In later years, with both doors blocked, the building survived because it would have been too complicated and expensive an operation to have removed it. Not until Bridge Street was widened and a new bridge built in 1976 was it demolished.

The first section of the York & North Midland Railway, from York to a junction with the Leeds & Selby Railway at Milford (Monk Fryston), opened on 29 May 1839. From there, the line was gradually extended southwards until, after “considerable anxiety” was expressed that difficulties and delays in constructing the bridge across the River Aire at Fairburn would hold up its opening, the final stretch of the railway through Castleford to Altofts Junction was brought into service on 1 July 1840: see A View from the Train for details of the opening festivities and a contemporary description of the route. By the end of July, a branch from Whitwood Junction, a mile or so west of Castleford, to Methley Junction also opened, allowing trains to run from York, via Castleford, to the North Midland Railway’s station on Hunslet Lane in Leeds, avoiding the previous necessity to change trains at Milford Junction.

To begin with, the passenger train service along the full length of the line comprised four southbound trains from York, departing at 7.30am, 9.00am, 12.30pm and 4.00pm, and four northbound arrivals at 9.45am, 1.30pm, 4.30pm and 7.15pm. The earliest timetables, published in the Leeds and York newspapers, did not show times for intermediate stations such as Castleford, nor where the trains originated or terminated at the other end of their journeys to and from York, but these trains would initially have run as far as Normanton, which from the day it opened became a major railway crossroads with lines radiating to Leeds, Manchester, York and Derby.

In these early years, trains were made up from numerous short four-wheeled coaches – little more than road coaches mounted on a railway chassis – which were divided, shunted and rejoined to other trains at junction stations to provide through services to a range of destinations. Consequently, from the start of the Y&NMR’s operations it would have been possible to board a train at Castleford and (via much stopping, shunting and starting again) reach Manchester, Derby and, within the day, London. Once the Whitwood–Methley link was opened, trains to Leeds left York at 7.30am, 10.00am, 12.15pm, 3.00pm and 7.30pm, with services in the opposite direction departing from Hunslet Lane at the same times. There were three Sunday services, departing at 8.00am, 12.15pm and 7.00pm from each terminus. These trains stopped at all stations on the Y&NMR (heading south from York these were Copmanthorpe, Bolton Percy, Ulleskelf, Church Fenton, Sherburn-in-Elmet, Milford Junction, Burton Salmon and Castleford) and probably took around an hour for the twenty-one miles from York to Castleford, with perhaps another thirty minutes from Castleford, via Methley and Woodlesford, to Leeds.

By the time the second edition of Bradshaw’s Railway Companion was published in 1841, trains for Normanton and the south departed from York at 8.45am, noon, 3.00pm and 6.19pm. These were express services and called only at Castleford between York and Normanton (albeit reflecting the role of the station as a railhead for Pontefract and Knottingley, rather than for the custom to be gained from Castleford itself). York–Leeds trains ran at 7.35am, 9.30am, 1.00pm, 3.00pm and 6.00pm, while York–Manchester services, via Normanton and Wakefield, were advertised at 7.35am, 9.30am, noon, 3.00pm and 6.19pm. Given that all the York–Manchester departure times were the same as either a Leeds or Derby train, these services would have been provided by detaching coaches at Castleford from trains to Leeds and at Normanton from trains to Derby, continuing onward either as a separate train or by the coaches being attached to a Leeds–Manchester service at Normanton.

Although Castleford was still little more than an industrial village when the railway arrived, ironically it enjoyed a more extensive provision of direct train services, and to an impressive range of destinations, at this time than it ever did in later years. Despite becoming an ever-more important commercial centre in its own right, the development of the railway network – particularly the building of more direct routes from York to Leeds and the south, and the opening of lines to Pontefract and Knottingley – meant that most of the long-distance services had been diverted away from the southern end of the York & North Midland line by the end of the 1840s. However, Castleford’s importance as a generator of freight traffic quickly grew in tandem with its industrial expansion, prompting the Y&NMR to build a goods shed there in 1842.

The railway also stimulated the development of facilities to serve rail travellers passing through Castleford, typified by the following advertisement for the ‘Castle Hotel & Posting House’ which appeared in the York Herald newspaper in October 1841.


MISS DEVENPORT begs respectfully to inform TRAVELLERS, that she has entered upon the recently erected Commodious INN, situated close to the STATION on the York and North Midland Railway, where Refreshments are continually on the Table for the Immediate Accommodation of Passengers by the Railway, and at moderate Charges.

Wines and Spirits of the First Quality. Well Aired Beds. Single and Double Horse Carriages.

Miss D. assures those Gentlemen who may honor her with their Patronage, that her most strenuous endeavours will be used to render the Accommodation worthy their notice.

Castleford, October 12th, 1841.

The three-storey red brick hotel, not dissimilar in style to the stationmaster’s house, was built and owned by John Waring, the same man who built the railway alongside which it stood, and was situated directly across the road from the station entrance. To the rear were stables, a coach house and a small brewery. In August 1842, it was advertised to let (perhaps Miss Devenport had failed to secure the patronage of sufficient numbers of gentlemen), along with fourteen acres “of excellent land adjoining the same” – which must be the origin of the Castlefields name applied to the land which is now the car park off Lower Cambridge Street but would also have included much of the land now comprising the Valley Gardens as well. The hotel evidently fell upon hard times after the station was moved to its present location in 1871 and the North Eastern Hotel replaced it as Castleford’s principal place to stay: it was put up for sale by auction on 15 March 1880, when the lots included a “4-pull beer machine, waggonettes, cabs, dray, carts [and] horses” as well as all the furniture. However, just two days later the hotel was being advertised to let, with applications to be made to Beverleys Brewery of Wakefield, suggesting the brewery had stepped in to buy the building and its contents before the auction took place.

It continued as a hotel (albeit functioning, it seems, mainly as an increasingly downmarket drinking establishment) into the later years of the nineteenth century, though on an ever more insecure basis. It was closed for several weeks in the late summer of 1887, when the cellars flooded with sewage, and again during 1889 owing to a general decline in its trade. Eventually, the hotel became a lodging house: it was recorded as such in April 1914, when one of the lodgers was convicted of robbing the landlady, Hannah Briggs, and retained that role until 1948, when it was converted into offices for the newly-formed Department of National Insurance. A report in the Yorkshire Evening Post of 13 August 1948 told how builders working on the conversion discovered an old poster from the time of the Castle Hotel proclaiming it to be “licensed to let post horses and gigs, etc.”. The building remained the local home of the department and its various successors until the early 1970s, also serving as a small sewing factory for a while, eventually being demolished as part of the same road widening and bridge replacement which claimed the old station entrance block.

The subsequent development of railways in and around Castleford, and the role the played in the life of the town, will be examined in future articles.


Minute books of the York & North Midland Railway from October 1835 onwards are in the Public Record Office, Kew, in file RAIL770/1. Copies of the Leeds Intelligencer and Leeds Mercury are on microfilm in Leeds Central Library, while York Central Library has copies of that city’s newspapers on microfilm. There are images of Castleford old station in the 1960s on the website http://www.twixtaireandcalder.org.uk