A History of Watlington Railway Station
Watlington railway station opened on the 26th October 1846 as part of the Lynn and Ely railway Company. Due to financial difficulties it was taken over by the East Anglian Railway then the Eastern Counties Railway and finally became part of the Great Eastern Railway. The name of the station was changed to Magdalen Road on 1st June 1875. This was its name until it was closed on 9th September 1968 as part of the rail closures under the then Chairman of British Railways Board Dr Beeching. It would have remained closed if it wasn’t for a group of Watlington villagers who lobbied for it to be reopened. Thankfully they were successful and the station reopened on 5th May 1975 still with the name of Magdalen Road. Then on the 3rd October 1989 the station reverted to its original name of Watlington.
It must be recognised that when the station first opened it was situated in open countryside as Watlington village was mainly around the church, along the Downham and Fen Roads. In 1845 the population of Watlington was 502 and by 1931 it had only increased to 583. Never the less Watlington/Magdalen Road station was a busy one as in 1848 a branch line from Watlington to Wisbech was opened. The bridge spanning the relief channel at Magdalen which carried this line can still be seen today. This meant that much of the produce, both animal and vegetable from a large area passed through Watlington. This was in addition to the Human passengers and the increasing amount of mail being sent due to the introduction of the ‘Penny Post’ which had been introduced in 1840.
The coming of the railways although good for many people was not good for everybody. In ‘The History of the Borough of Kings Lynn’ by H.J. Hillen with regard to the coming of the railway he states that, “More than half of the eighty “carriers” with their cumbersome tilted vans, discovered with inexpressible dismay, that their occupation was irrevocably gone”. Also many of the small ships which had transported grain and other goods from the port of Lynn to other ports were now redundant as the sacks of grain and other goods could now be put on to rail trucks and taken quickly to other parts of the country.
However the railways also provided new jobs as each station was staffed by a number of people. Unlike today when apart from someone in the signal box there is nobody to be seen manning the station. In the early twentieth century Magdalen Road station had a Resident ‘Station Master’, three ‘Porters’, a ‘Crossing Gate Keeper’ and a ‘Signal Man’ and they were all kept busy. Where today passengers park their vehicles in the station yard this and the area next to it was where the cattle sheds and pens were.
A Magdalen man, Arthur Randell, who worked at Magdalen Road station from 1918 to 1921 said that when on duty, amongst other jobs, he would have to unload 500 to 600 sheep from 15 or 20 wagons. That daily they would have cattle to load and unload. That milk was delivered to the station twice a day which had to be loaded on to the trains. Coal for the office, waiting room, porter’s room, signal box, crossing keepers hut and the station master’s free allowance had to be unloaded. Rape seed oil for the signal lamps, crossing gate lamps, office and waiting room lamps was delivered in 40 gallon casks (182 litres) five at a time. Some of this oil would be ‘borrowed’ by local residents for their cycle lamps to clean their bicycles and garden tools and pig keepers ‘borrowed’ it to rub behind their pigs ears to kill the lice that were difficult to get to.
The lamps had to be collected, cleaned, the wicks trimmed and filled with the oil. The signal lamps were cleaned one a week but the crossing gate, office and waiting room lamps were done on a daily basis. The platforms had to be kept clean and tidy and goods had to be barrowed from one platform to the other depending on the destination that the goods were to go to.
Trays of fruit, fish, vegetables, mail bags as well as passengers luggage all had to be man-handled on and off trains. One rather unpleasant cargo that had to be loaded on to the train from Magdalen Road was cart loads of three-hundredweight (152kg) casks of dog dung delivered twice a year from Watlington Hall. These originated from the large pack of hounds owned by Mr Birch the owner of the hall. This strange load was destined for the Tanneries.
Watlington was also where the first railway accident in Norfolk occurred. This was on 28th December 1846 when the crossing gate keeper Thomas Mickleson was struck by a train and killed. Sadly Thomas was not the only fatality at Watlington as on Tuesday May 10th 1920 another crossing gate keeper George Woodhouse was struck by the Hunstanton to Liverpool Street train and died from his injuries. George managed to save the crossing gates but lost his life in doing so. Ironically the following Sunday the relief crossing keeper left the gates across the line and they were smashed to pieces by the 10.52 p.m. mail train from King’s Lynn. The relief crossing keeper was severely reprimanded and then sent to learn signals. He became a first class relief signalman and ended his railway career as Inspector on March station.
So the next time those of you who use Watlington station are standing on the platform maybe you will think about how times have changed since the early days of the station. Maybe you will be able to imagine how busy Magdalen Road station was and the hard physical work that staff in those early days carried out on a daily basis.