The Furness Railway

The Furness Railway owed its origins and later prosperity to iron. The company was promoted largely by two large local land owners, the Duke of Buccleuch and the Earl of Burlington (later the 7th Duke of Devonshire), to carry slate and iron ore from their mines and quarries to the quays at the then hamlet of Barrow for shipment to growing towns and industries elsewhere in Britain. The railway when it opened in 1846 consisted of two crossing routes: from Kirkby to Piel on Piel Pier on Roa Island, the latter reached via a privately-owned causeway (and from where steamers provided a link with Fleetwood), and from Dalton to Barrow.
Although the Furness Railway rapidly prospered, expansion was very slow at first: to Broughton-in-Furness in 1848 where it was joined by the Whitehaven & Furness Junction Railway in 1850, to Lindal in 1851, and at last to Ulverston, the market town of Furness, in 1854.
The link eastwards, to the Lancaster & Carlisle Railway at Carnforth, and which was to become so vital to the emerging Furness Iron and steel industry after the discovery of the Bessemer process for large-scale conversion of iron into steel, was promoted and built by an independent company, the Ulverstone & Lancaster Railway (U&LR). The route included crossings of the estuaries of the Rivers Kent and Leven necessitating two long cast iron viaducts engineered by James Brunlees who was later to go on to design the similar, but longer, Solway Viaduct in the north of the county. The line was completed in 1857 to form the final link in the chain of railways round the Cumbrian coast. The U&LR was absorbed by the Furness Railway in 1862, having been working by its western neighbour from its opening.
After the beginning of iron smelting at Barrow ironworks by H W Schneider in 1859 the expansion of economic and railway activity was immense. Bessemer steel making started in 1864, the FR took over the Whitehaven & Furness Junction Railway in 1866, Devonshire Dock was opened in 1867, Buccleuch Dock in 1873, with corresponding growth in the minerals and iron and steel traffic carried by the railway. One of the main products was steel railway lines to build new railways round the world. The town of Barrow and its industries mushroomed, all under the guiding hand of the FR and its directors. Particularly influential was James Ramsden, later knighted, who was closely associated with the railway for 50 years, first as locomotive superintendent, then as general manager from 1850 and becoming managing director in 1863, a post he was to occupy for another 33 years. Other ironworks at Askam, Carnforth, Millom and Ulverston all generated large amounts of traffic for the railway.
However, by the 1880s new steel making processes and imported iron ores broke the monopoly of Furness and West Cumberland hematite over the steel trade and the boom was over. Although the Furness Railway extended its influence in West Cumberland with the joint takeover of the Whitehaven Cleator & Egremont Railway with the LNWR in 1878, and a working agreement with the new Cleator & Workington Junction Railway the following year, expansion generally came to an end after the completion of an avoiding line and new station in Barrow in 1882.
A change in emphasis became apparent. The late 19th century brought an increase in leisure time which few but the rich had been able to enjoy before; the five and half day working week had become increasingly accepted from the 1860s, statutory bank holidays were introduced from 1871, and by the 1890s most workers enjoyed at least one week’s holiday a year, while at the same time many people had more money to spend. With the great asset of the Lake District embraced by the railway itself the Furness company had long provided for Victorian tourists, but from 1896 its new general manager, Alfred Aslett, saw the greatly increased potential for this traffic to compensate for the decline in industrial traffics. The company thus set about developing much improved services and facilities which would be publicised with considerable flair.
Though the shipyard gradually developed to become the principal industry of Barrow from the 1890s, iron and steel continued to be a very important, though dwindling, source of traffic for many years to come. With the progressive exhaustion of local iron ore resources, contraction became inevitable. The first of the iron works to close was Askam in 1919, Carnforth in 1931, North Lonsdale at Ulverston in 1938 (though to continue as a foundry), the massive works at Barrow in 1963, and finally Millom in 1968.
Today, the Furness main line is shorn of its branches, with no originating freight except at Sellafield. The line continues to provide one of the most delightful railway journeys in England.

The Furness Railway: Branches and other lines

Coniston – the railway was opened to Coniston from Broughton by a nominally independent company in 1859 to tap the traffic from the copper mines. The FR realised early on the potential for attracting visitors and introduced steamer services on Coniston Lake even though the pier was at some distance from station. The steam yacht “Gondola” was built in 1859 and continued in operation by the railway until 1939 after which it fell into a state of dereliction from which it was rescued and restored to service by the National Trust in 1980. Passenger services on the branch from Foxfield ran until 1958 with goods traffic lingering on for another four years.

Arnside-Hincaster – opened in 1876 for local services between Grange-over-Sands and Kendal. Its obvious potential for carrying the heavy coke traffic to Furness from County Durham was not realised until forced by the need for wartime operating economies in 1917 when FR and LNWR commenced working through between Lindal Ore Sidings and Tebay. The line closed soon after the closure of Barrow iron and steel works in 1963; local passenger services had been withdrawn in 1942 though there continued occasional use by excursion trains to Windermere.

Carnforth-Wennington – In 1862 the Furness Railway came to an agreement with the Midland to jointly promote and build a direct connection between the two systems to enable the latter to have better access to the Lake District as well as to Barrow, to which the Midland’s Irish Sea steamer services would be transferred from Morecambe where tidal difficulties were affecting their reliability. The Furness & Midland Joint Railway was to open in 1867 and be worked by the Midland. The steamers originally worked from Piel Pier but were transferred to Barrow Ramsden Dock station when this opened in 1881.

Lakeside – central to the Furness Railway’s promotion of tourism with its rail/steamer interchange station at the southern tip of Windermere, this branch was originally promoted to serve local industrial and commercial needs, including traders at Greenodd, gunpowder works at Haverthwaite and at Black Beck, and the small historic ironworks at Backbarrow. It was completed through at Newby Bridge in 1869, giving access to a small nearby quay, and extended through to Lakeside a few months later. Its role was strongly confirmed when the FR took over the Windermere Steam Yacht Company in 1872. Finally closed to passengers in 1965 the upper section of the branch was later purchased for re-opening as the Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway, a step achieved in 1973, while the steamers were sold off by British Railways in the 1980s
extended through to Lakeside a few months later. Its role was strongly confirmed when the FR took over the Windermere Steam Yacht Company in 1872. Finally closed to passengers in 1965 the upper section of the branch was later purchased for re-opening as the Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway, a step achieved in 1973, while the steamers were sold off by British Railways in the 1980s.
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In 1871 the Furness Railway Company purchased a cargo Steamer, the Raven, from Seath & Company. The boat carried mail, coal, timber, farm produce and general cargo to the houses, hotels and businesses around the lake and to railway warehouses at Bowness and Ambleside. During the winter she acted as an ice breaker for the Steamers which operated an all year round timetable until 1921.
In 1922 Raven was withdrawn from service and sold to Vickers Armstrong of Barrow-in-Furness for testing mine-laying equipment. Eventually, after being abandoned at Lakeside for many years, she was saved for preservation, restored, and is currently exhibited at the Windermere Steamboat Museum. She is the second oldest ship on Lloyd’s Register & the oldest with her original machinery.

Traffic on the lake continued to grow rapidly during the Victorian years and in 1890 the Furness Railway commissioned Forrest & Sons of Wyvenhoe, Essex, to design and build a new Steamer. Tern was launched in June 1891 with a passenger capacity of 633, Tern still sails today as the flagship of the Windermere fleet.
Ten years later, Swift, the last of the coal fired Steamers was commissioned. The largest vessel ever built for service on Windermere, she was launched in 1900 at a cost of £9,500. Powered by steam compound engines developing 63.75 nautical horse power, she carried 781 passengers. Swift sailed as a steam vessel until 1956 when her boiler burst and British Rail installed Glennifer diesel engines in time for the 1957 season. She continued in service until 1981 when she was laid up at Lakeside. Sadly, after attempts to preserve her failed, she was broken up in 1999.
The last vessel purchased by the Furness Railway was Britannia, in 1907. Built by Seaths in 1879 as a private yacht for Col. G. Ridehalgh of Fell Foot, she carried 122 passengers in extreme comfort. The Furness Railway ceased to exist in 1923 when its operations were transferred to the newly established LMS.

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