The Furness Railway was the brainchild of iron prospector Henry Schneider who struck it lucky in 1839 and needed to carry iron ore and slate from Furness mines/quarries to the coast for export. The hematite deposits subsequently discovered were of such quantities that Schneider was able to open factories for smelting and exporting steel, and by the late 19th century the Barrow Hematite Company’s steelworks was the largest in the world.
In less than 40 years – between when the railway opened in 1846 to 1881 – Barrow grew from a small hamlet of a few hundred people to a large borough with a population of circa 58,000. Though it now has a population of 69,000, it suffered the largest decline in population of any UK region in the first decade of this century.
The Furness Railway kick-started an industrial revolution on the Furness Peninsula and became the backbone of a thriving area so successful, sudden and rapidly growing that Barrow was dubbed ‘The English Chicago’. Barrow’s coastal location, the ready availability of steel and the infrastructure of the railway presented perfect conditions for the town to become a major shipbuilding centre in the UK. But the end of the Cold War heralded a drop-off of government spending on the military leading to a vast depletion of the workforce in Barrow since the mid-1990s. For an isolated town so dependent on almost a sole employer this had a significant impact on all aspects of life, causing loss of civic pride and the high levels of deprivation experienced in Barrow today.
THE LOST STATIONS
Barrow Island “Shipyard” Station | 1899 – 1967
Custom built for the shipyard’s workforce, it carried large components and materials and serviced the thousands of heavy industry workers who lived close by on the Island. Well-used until its closure, it was never quoted in public timetables as it was used exclusively for workman trains, specials and excursion traffic. The track bed of the station remains clearly visible today.
Furness Abbey | 1846 – 1941
Its importance resulted from its proximity to Sir James Ramsden’s home at Abbotswood, and the Abbey House Hotel, which provided tourist traffic. Used for military purposes with the outbreak of WW2, the hotel and part of the station were badly damage by bombing in May 1941 and it never reopened. There’s almost no evidence today of it ever existing.
Lindal | 1851 – 1951
Opened in 1851, and important due to the proximity of the iron ore mines and the needs of miners and residents of Lindal village. In 1892 a massive sinkhole appeared on the track, the engine crew jumped off to safety before the train sank into the cavity. It is estimated that it lies some 200 feet below the ground today.
The sink hole incident provided the inspiration for the Arthur Conan Doyle short story “The Lost Special” short story, as well as “Down the Mine” an episode from Season 1 of Thomas the Tank Engine. Little evidence now remains of the station apart from 2 gateposts.
Piel Station – Roa Island | 1846 – 1936
Located on Roa Island it was built to serve the passenger steamers at Piel Pier. The station and the Piel Branch line have both been demolished. The Roa Island Hotel which was built adjoining the station survives to this day as a Grade II listed building.
Foxfield to Coniston Branch | 1859 -1962
Popular tourist line due to the beautiful scenic route and link to the steam Gondola boat trips. The last passenger train was in 1958 and the line closed completely in 1962 and then disconnected at Foxfield after track lifting in 1963.
Greenodd (Lakeside Branch) | 1869 – 1939
Well used by the local agricultural population prior to the development of bus services, the branch never fully reopened after WW2 and by 1946 the station had lost even its summer service. The station site was cleared in 1974 to build the A590 Greenodd by-pass. Only the back wall of the up-side platform is now visible to the trained eye.
Conishead Priory Station | 1883 – 1916
Furness Railway won permission for a line following the coast from Ulverston to Barrow but only the first two miles were ever built. The line included a rolling bridge now thought to be England’s last surviving example from the 19th century and placed on the National Heritage List for England in 2012. Closed in 1916 as a wartime economy measure. The railway embankment and station houses can still be seen today.
COMING SOON… AUDIO INTERVIEWS WITH LOCAL RESIDENTS
The railway is an intrinsic part of the town’s history and the facts and figures exist in literature locally and online. But what’s missing is any record of the intangible but meaningful heritage of how the railways were used and the impact on people’s lives.