The opening of a railway line was always a significant event, but for Midhurst this was unusual as the residents witnessed three such occasions.
With three lines converging on Midhurst from Petersfield, Petworth and Chichester, opening trains ran in September1864, October 1866 and July 1881 respectively. The sleepy town of Midhurst not only had three railway lines, but also two railway stations – the latter was a constant cause of irritation as there were no through trains from west to east until 1926.
More significant were the special workings and the very last trains which ran on these lines which have long since closed. Within seven months of the opening of the Petersfield to Midhurst railway, the line witnessed one of the most notable events in the railway history of the county.
On April 2, 1865, radical politician Richard Cobden, the man celebrated as the popular hero behind the repeal of the Corn Laws died in London. One of a family of 11 children, he was born in 1804 of yeoman stock, in the tiny impoverished hamlet of Dunford near Midhurst. He made his fortune as a calico printer in Manchester before turning to reformist politics and the philosophy of free trade.
With John Bright, he led the Anti-Corn Law League to success in 1846, abolishing the protective duty on corn which had artificially inflated the price of bread – the latter was the most important staple food on which the working man spent most of his wages. Cobden has been described as the most important backbencher of his time; his death was accompanied by mourning which transcended all shades of political opinion and all ranks of society.
Cobden’s wish was to be buried bedside his son in the churchyard at West Lavington, near Midhurst. It had been announced a special train would leave London for Midhurst on the day of the funeral. On the morning of the special there were 600 passengers and the train consisted of 21 first-class and four second-class carriages.
The train staff of inspector, driver fireman and guards were supplied with complimentary mourning crepe hatbands and black gloves.Superintended by WM Williams, traffic manager of the line, the train left Waterloo at 9.40am for Midhurst with every seat taken. The West Sussex Gazette reported ‘it was about 12 o’clock when the train arrived at Midhurst – containing the greatest number of carriages ever disgorged at the station’.
A large deputation from Midhurst headed the funeral procession, which was estimated by the local press to consist of between 3,000 to 4,000 people. When it reached the church, 12 of Cobden’s closest friends, including John Bright and Gladstone, carried the coffin. The national press gave the funeral extensive coverage and it was an elaborate and spectacular occasion, and one in which the railway had fulfilled a central role.
It was not until towards the end of the century that other important trains – notably those patronised by royalty – ran on the local lines around Chichester. Queen Victoria never travelled on the LBSCR; for her journeys to Osborne House on the Isle of Wight via Portsmouth, she always travelled on the LSWR. She disliked Brighton where she had been publicly insulted and therefore a railway including this name was not to be used.
Her eldest son, the Prince of Wales, had no such qualms and the royal train was frequently seen on the lines to Midhurst. Both as Prince of Wales, and later as King, Edward VII was a frequent visitor to Goodwood Races, West Dean House and Petworth House. The royal train was often seen in Singleton station when the King visited his friend William James who owned West Dean House. The latter became a popular venue during the pheasant-shooting season. The first visit was made to West Dean in 1895 and for the next 15 years until his death in 1910, Edward VII and Queen Alexandra visited the house and West Dean became one of the main focal points for the ‘Marlborough House Set’.
An official visit was made to Midhurst on June 13, 1906 when the King and Queen arrived by royal train to open the new sanatorium at Midhurst which following the opening was called the King Edward VII Sanatorium. Punctually at four o’clock the train steamed into the station. Their Majesties were conducted down a red-carpeted slope placed against the carriage door and were received on the platform by the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk and other local dignitaries. So reported the Midhurst Times of June 15, 1906. To the sound of cheering crowds the King and Queen journeyed to the sanatorium for a guided tour lasting three hours.
During the second world war there were special workings on the Chichester to Midhurst line as the Cocking and Singleton tunnels were used to store wagons containing mines, torpedoes and shells. Passenger traffic had ceased as long ago as 1935 owing to road competition and this also sealed the fate of the Pulborough to Petersfield service in 1955. Freight trains continued to run on the Pulborough to Midhurst section until the 1960s but on October 18, 1964 the very last passenger train ran, an excursion jointly organised by two railway societies.
Footage of this train can be seen at an evening of archival railway film at West Sussex Record Office on Tuesday, October 29 at 7pm. A variety of films will be presented, including Steam on the Southern Railway featuring the Isle of Wight in the 1930s together with the first electric train to Bognor. Tickets from West Sussex Record Office at £7.50 (includes refreshments) can be booked by calling 01243 753602.