The challenge of building our railways – the tools that shaped our town

When it reopens next week Hastings Museum and Art Gallery will have a newly-acquired piece of the town’s history on display thanks to the Hastings and St Leonards Museum Association. 

It’s a silver trowel which was presented to Thomas Farncomb, Lord Mayor of the City of London, on October 28th 1850 by the South Eastern Railway Company on the occasion of his completing the works of the Ashford Rye and Hastings Railway by inserting closing bricks in two of the local tunnels. 

It was bought at auction by the Hastings and St Leonards Museums Association. When committee member and local historian, Steve Peak, saw it on the auction site he immediately suggested it should be found a home at the Museum and the rest of the committee agreed.

The silver trowel commemorating the completion of the completing the works of the Ashford Rye and Hastings Railway.

Steve explained that the three Hastings railway lines – Brighton, Tunbridge Wells and Ashford – were built in six hectic years from 1846-52. The first line to open was from Brighton, on June 27th 1846, but only as far as a temporary station at Bulverhythe. A permanent station at Bopeep, called West Marina, opened in late 1846, but for several years this was the nearest station to Hastings town centre because of the tunnels that had to be built.

Work on the Bopeep-Hastings-Ashford line started at Ashford in 1846, but soon South Eastern Railway faced major difficulties. From the east they had to dig a long tunnel under the Ridge, and then a shorter one under Mount Pleasant Road, followed by a massive embankment across the Priory Valley to Hastings Station. From the west, the company had to make two long tunnels from Bopeep under St Leonards, with Warrior Square Station – first called Gensing Station – in the gap. 

The huge amount of spoil from the one and three-quarter miles of the two St Leonards tunnels had to be spread wherever possible, creating Grosvenor Gardens, Havelock Road and many of the nearby streets. Although the Lord Mayor of London inserted final bricks in the Ore tunnel and one of the St Leonards tunnels on October 28th 1850, the Bopeep-Hastings-Ashford line actually only opened on February 13th 1851.

Work on the Tunbridge Wells line began in 1847, starting at Tunbridge Wells, and opening on January 31st 1852. But South Eastern Railways’ lack of finance meant the tunnels were badly built and had to be made narrower, with unique special diesel trains a foot narrower than normal eventually being made.

Bopeep tunnel

Association chair, Richard Street says: “Our Association has been supporting the museum since we handed it over to the council in 1905 and we all agreed with Steve that this genuinely historical artefact had to be on display at our museum so we put forward the money to enable the Museum to bid for it and were delighted when this proved successful.

“The coming of the railway to Hastings was so important in the development of the town and this trowel is part of that.”

Museum & Cultural Development Manager, Damian Etherington added: “The presentation trowel is not only a beautiful object, but also tells an amazing story about the development of our town. I am enormously grateful to the Association for donating it to the museum and for their continued to support.”

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