The Midland Railway, whose branch to Wirksworth was opened in 1867, owed its origins to the Erewash Coal Masters who wished to open up markets further afield for their product and be able to convey it cheaply and quickly. The initial intention, in 1832, was for a railway, then called the Midland Counties Railway, to connect Derby, Nottingham and Leicester with the London and Birmingham Junction Railway (later the London and North Western Railway). Derby to Nottingham opened in 1839 and to Leicester in 1840. In addition, by 1835, there was a proposal to connect Birmingham itself with Derby, by the sponsors of the Birmingham and Derby Junction Railway Company. This also resulted in an 1839 opening, the journey between Derby and Birmingham taking a mere nine hours to cover 40 miles! Finally, in this same period, a further company, the North Midland, began the construction of a route from Derby to Leeds, which opened in 1840.
These three companies were amalgamated under the rather notorious George Hudson of York on the 10th May 1844. For a brief period, the Midland Railway occupied a key position, because at the time, to get from London to Scotland, the journey was via Rugby, Derby and York. Unfortunately for the Midland, this key position was short lived, as it was soon by-passed on the one side by the LNWR’s West Coast Route in 1848 and on the other by the formation of the Great Northern Railway in 1850. Thus the directors of the Midland, though occupying a key position, lost a significant amount of traffic. E Cleveland Stevens noted: “The position of the company… compelled by the very nature of its position to be constantly fighting for outlets, necessitated a fighting policy… and the Midland Railway lived by competition, which at all times stimulated the company to efficiency, while prompting it to strike out further and further from the centre.”
Above all things, the Midland’s relations with the LNWR were under constant strain. The LNWR was, especially during the 1850s, a somewhat disreputable company, led by that 19th century railway pirate ‘Captain’ Mark Huish. In short, there were frequent spats between the two companies, and the Midland so tired of its relations with the LNWR that it undertook the construction of a number of lines of its own, to disentangle itself from the grip of the LNWR on its traffic. The first of these being a line to Bedford, where it initially joined the Great Northern Railway, to gain access to London. This approach thereafter characterised the Midland under its great general manager, James Allport, and resulted, in the final analysis, in the construction of that most magnificent of the Midland’s lines, the Settle and Carlisle. It also, by a predictable quirk of this policy, resulted in the construction of the line to Wirksworth.
On Friday 19th April 1865, the first sod of the Duffield and Wirksworth Railway was cut. As will become apparent, this was not just an ordinary sleepy branch line, but one which was born out of the inter-company rivalry, and has continued to enjoy a chequered existence in the years since.
Its story begins, not in the Ecclesbourne Valley, but 'over the hill' in the Derwent Valley when, on 4th June 1849, the Manchester, Buxton, Matlock and Midlands Junction Railway opened its line from Ambergate, on the Midland Railway, to Rowsley. Although the name accurately reflected the railway's southern aspirations, it was never to reach even Buxton at its Northern End. The joint promoters of the line were the MR and the Manchester and Birmingham Railway which, for the Midland, was an equitable arrangement whereby it would ultimately gain access to Manchester over the latter company's metals.
On the very day that the Act for the Matlock line was obtained, however, the Manchester and Birmingham Railway became a constituent of the London and North Western Railway. By the time the line had opened, relations between the MR and the LNWR were poor, and the Midland feared that its uneasy bed-fellow would attempt to thwart its hopes of opening a through line to Manchester. In the meantime, it decided to press on from Rowsley and in 1867, ran its first train into Manchester. This arrangement was fine as long as the Midland still had use of the Ambergate to Rowsley line, but the joint lease was due to expire in 1871, and there was every possibility that the LNWR would gain control over the line.
In November 1862, therefore, the Midland introduced a Bill into Parliament for a line from Duffield to Wirksworth so that, if necessary, an extension could be built to Rowsley, and provide the company with its own independent route to the north. In the event, the LNWR relinquished its interest in the Matlock line, but not before the Wirksworth branch had been built, and the Rowsley extension surveyed. Honour was satisfied, the Midland had its route to Manchester, and Wirksworth, at last, had its own railway.
The arrival of the railway must have come as a great relief for the local inhabitants even if the Midland were not very enthusiastic about putting Wirksworth on the railway map. The ceremony to mark the beginning of work on the line was almost an afterthought. The "Wirksworth Advertiser" of 13th April 1865 carried a report about a meeting that had been held in the Moot Hall on the 10th of that month. "For some weeks the public in this neighbourhood have been anxiously enquiring after the ceremony of cutting the first sod of the new railway at Wirksworth...”
The arrangements (made in only 9 days) included the preparation of a silver-plated spade by Mr W. Tomlinson and a wheelbarrow (with handles covered in silk velvet) by Mr George Frost. At 12 noon, the procession started for the Hannages from the Market Place. Several bands took part along with various groups of Rifle Volunteers, Midland Railway officials, Oddfellows, Tradesmen and the Hopton Stone Company's workmen. The ceremonial spade is kept, to this day, in a glass case in Wirksworth Town Hall.
Construction continued for another two and a half years with several hold-ups before the line was opened to passengers on 1st October 1867. The "Wirksworth Advertiser" noted: "Contrary to the expectations of the public generally, this new branch of the Midland Railway was opened for passenger traffic on Tuesday last.". There was no official ceremony, as it was not known until the previous Saturday that the railway was ready to carry traffic. However, the first train was given a most enthusiastic greeting by "...many hundreds of the inhabitants who assembled upon the new railway bridge".
If the MR was not greatly enthusiastic about the new addition to its system, one Wirksworth resident was positively against it. He was a local quarry owner by the name of John Shaw, who feared that stone from Leicestershire would be brought into the district and compete with his own product. He could not have been more wrong, for the coming of the railway brought enormous prosperity to all the quarries in the area.
By the 1940s, there was increasing competition from buses on the Derby to Wirksworth route, and it was decided in 1947 that Wirksworth should lose its passenger trains. Shortage of coal was given as the reason for closure, and it was announced that this was only temporary measure. From 16th June 1947 therefore, the service continued to appear in the timetable but was marked 'suspended'. This state of affairs lasted for two years but the service was never reinstated.
The line remained open to freight, and the occasional passenger excursion, thanks to the output of stone from Middlepeak Quarry. However, with only a couple of trains a week its future was always in question, and the last stone train departed from Wirksworth in December 1989. Thereafter, the line slipped gently to sleep, no maintenance took place and nature gradually took hold. After ten years the line amounted to little more than an eight-mile wood, beneath the brambles and sycamores, the line of rails rusted in the undergrowth.
For many years after the last passenger train ran, the presence of rails linking Wirksworth with the main line gave rise to questions about the viability of restoring the service. WyvernRail has now grasped the opportunity afforded by the continuing presence of that link, and in 2011 they will provide a passenger service once again just as over half a century ago.