All Change For Melford!
By the middle of the nineteenth century much of England was in the grip of railway mania as different individuals and companies sought to develop new lines across the country.
Essex and Suffolk were no different but whereas today much of the rail networks’ trade is passenger driven in the nineteenth century the focus was on being able to move goods quicker and cheaper than by road, canal or sea.
Long Melford had no canal links though there was the Stour Navigation running from Sudbury down to Mistley Quay and ultimately to the North Sea and round to the Thames and London which was a major market for produce from south Suffolk and north Essex.
However, the development of the railway suggested that there was a better way to make the most out of the trade with London. In 1843 the Eastern Counties Railway ran the first goods train between Colchester and London showing the way forward for freight traffic.
An Act of Parliament in 1846 authorised the Colchester, Stour Valley, Sudbury and Halstead Railway to construct a line from Marks Tey to Sudbury. A further Act in 1847 granted the company the right to extend the railway from Sudbury to Clare with a branch line from Melford to Bury St Edmunds.
The first section was opened in July 1849 and in 1862 became part of the Great Eastern Railway following the amalgamation by Act of Parliament of the Eastern Counties Railway, the Eastern Union Railway and a number of smaller companies.
At the same time consent was also given to build the still unconstructed extensions from Sudbury to Cambridge and from Long Melford to Bury St Edmunds. These lines all opened in 1865 and Melford became a junction with connections to a wide number of small local stations in Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire.
By the mid-nineteenth century Long Melford had largely lost its connections with the wool trade which had provided its wealth in the Middle Ages. In its place had come new industries such as horsehair weaving, coconut matting manufacture, flax processing and in 1843 a foundry was established by David Ward in the heart of the village. A small gas works was also developed to provide a local supply of gas to houses that could afford it.
Agriculture remained important to the local economy, and a large maltings was constructed adjoining the railway station and its freight sidings. The finished malt could be transported to breweries elsewhere in East Anglia and London using the rail network which also helped bring in raw materials and take out finished products from the other businesses in the village.
The end of the nineteenth century probably saw the peak of traffic on the lines served by Long Melford’s station with large amounts of freight being carried along with a steady amount of passenger traffic. The First World War had a major impact on the railways generally and in 1923 the Great Eastern Railway was absorbed in the new London and North Eastern Railway.
The LNER was forced to look at the cost of running the line and make savings, although the advent of paid holidays saw regular excursion services running on bank holidays and Sundays alongside the more regular passenger and freight services.
During the Second World War large areas of Suffolk were given over to the construction of military airfields and the Long Melford and Lavenham areas were no exception. The railways were used to bring in construction materials, munitions and of course service personnel. By the end of the war the rail networks across England were very run down. This led to them being nationalised by the Labour Government in 1948 to become British Railways.
Steam locomotives had been the motive power throughout the lines existence but in 1955 a modernisation plan was introduced. The Melford branches saw the introduction of diesel railbuses and multiple units on passenger services from 1st January 1959, with freight trains also being hauled by diesel locomotives.
Despite these changes the lines continued to run at a loss as more people turned to using their own cars or local buses. The branch to Bury St Edmunds closed to passengers in April 1961 and to freight in April 1965. The Beeching Report in 1963 recommended complete closure of the Stour Valley Line and in 1965 the closure plan was announced.
There was considerable opposition to the plan from both the public and local authorities along the line. A public meeting was held in August 1965 and the outcome in November of that year was that the line from Marks Tey to Sudbury was reprieved but the rest of the line to Haverhill, including that through Long Melford, was to close.
In 1966 British Rail was paid a subsidy of £26,000 to keep the whole line open but with freight services being withdrawn from the various branch stations. A higher subsidy of £52,000 was demanded the following year and when this was not forthcoming the process of closure went ahead and line formally closed on 6 April 1967.
Today Long Melford Station is a private residence and the adjoining maltings have also been converted into housing. Sections of the trackbed on the branch to Bury St Edmunds that run through the village have been turned into a nature reserve and walk and are well worth exploring.
If you want to see examples of the locomotives and carriages that were used on the line then a visit to the East Anglian Railway Museum at Chappel and Wakes Colne, Bressingham Steam Museum near Diss or the North Norfolk Railway at Sheringham is recommended.
On a smaller scale, railway modeller Nigel Locke has created a scale model of the station as it was in the late 1950’s. It is well worth seeking out at model railway exhibitions or can be found on Facebook under “Long Melford Junction”.
The Heritage Centre also has one of the large nameboards from the station on display along with a number of photographs from our collection showing the station at different periods in its history.
David Burch (Trustee)