Wordsworth’s protestations against the Kendal to Windermere railway in 1844 were largely brought on by his concern that this would be the first stage in a North-South dissection of the Lake District by the railways, with the line being extended to Keswick via Ambleside and Grasmere. It was rumours in 1876 that a railway extension from Windermere to Ambleside was being prepared that prompted Robert Somervell to issue A Protest against Extension of the Railways in the Lake District, and to prepare a petition to Parliament against any such proposal. Nothing came of the rumours, but many of those who were fearful of railway intrusion into the Lake District believed that this was the lull before the storm and that sooner or later a serious proposal to extend the railway beyond Windermere would be made.
Apparently envious of the tourist trade being attracted to Windermere, two Ambleside hotelkeepers called a meeting in March 1884 to assess local interest in a railway line to the town. Over the next few months various discussions and meetings took place. Rival routes were suggested with the Furness Railway looking to provide a link from their Hawkshead terminus rather than via Windermere. Whilst no concrete proposal was made in 1884 it was clear to all concerned that there were a significant number of traders and local industrialists who thought that the prosperity of Ambleside and the surrounding district would be enhanced by better railway communications. One of the leading supporters of such a move was Colonel G. Rhodes, a local landowner. It was Rhodes who led the campaign in 1878 against the closure of a footpath to the Stock Ghyll waterfall in the town. To enable the railway plan to Ambleside to gain momentum, Rhodes agreed to give some land for the building of a terminus near Stock Ghyll.
On 30 November 1886, the Ambleside Railway Bill was deposited at the Private Bill Office of the House of Commons for presentation to Parliament in the following session. Unlike earlier railway proposals, however, the Ambleside Bill clearly had the backing of many local people and the promoters had designed a route minimising damage to the landscape. The route of the railway had been carefully prepared so that it did not skirt the side of Windermere and for much of its route it was at least a mile distant from the lake. Parts of the line would also be hidden in a tunnel and other parts by woods. The promoters had learnt the lessons of Braithwaite and Ennerdale and taken care to lessen any scarring of the landscape. Nor could they be accused of speculative promotion. Owners of local bobbin, slate and gunpowder factories campaigned that the railway would be good for business. Hoteliers, tradesmen and other residents were equally supportive, as well as landowners such as Colonel Rhodes. The promoters and their supporters represented a much more formidable group than their equivalents in the case of the Braithwaite and Ennerdale railway proposals.
The result was a bitter campaign of accusation and counter-accusation fought out in local and national newspapers. Hardwicke had been unwell for some time suffering from overwork, and the task of the Lake District Defence Society (LDDS) in opposing the Bill fell largely on W. H. Hills. He set the tone in a letter to The Times on 21 December 1886. After making the usual arguments that the Lake District was well-served by railways and that the line would never generate a profit, he accused the Bill’s promoters of exaggerating the level of local support. He concluded by reiterating the uniqueness of the landscape:
Our Lake country, however, is something more to educated men, and it ought to be something more to all Englishmen, than any Yellowstone Valley can be to the Americans; for not only is it a tract of landscape beauty more perfect in its way than any to be found within the same narrow compass elsewhere in Europe, but nearly every hill and every stream, every glen and hamlet, every nook and corner of this miniature Switzerland is steeped in the memories of some of the greatest and purest lights of English literature, many of whose noblest springs of inspiration were found by the sides of its unpolluted streams, and amid the solitude of its lonely fells.1
Hills also accused Colonel Rhodes, chairman of the group that supported the railway, of refusing to subscribe to any shares. Rhodes was not a man to sit meekly by when he thought that someone was not being accurate in their version of events. The outcome was a series of letters to the Times between the two men, each countering the claims of the other, and becoming more personal in their attacks.
The local community was divided on the merits of the proposal. Groups such as Kendal Town Council and the Lake District Association (LDA) supported the railway. The LDDS and Commons Preservation Society (CPS), as well as some of the landowners affected by the route of the railway, came out in public to say they would oppose the Bill, as did most of the national and regional newspapers. Many major cities formed Committees of the LDDS to oppose the railway. In the meantime, Hardwicke’s illness had worsened and in January he went to Cannes for recuperation. While in France he got news that his younger brother, Walter, had fallen seriously ill in Cairo. He immediately made the journey to Egypt to see what assistance he could give. Hardwicke did not return to England until early March. The LDDS campaign was given a major boost in February 1887 when the London and North-Western Railway, who were to build the proposed railway, came out against the Bill saying they did not intend to work the line after it was built. Even so, the Bill passed its second reading in Parliament by a majority of 12. The MP James Bryce, acting on behalf of the CPS, persuaded his parliamentary colleagues that the Select Committee who were to examine the Bill in detail should also look into the extent to which the railway would damage the scenery and lessen the enjoyment of visitors.
As both sides strenuously tried to win the support of the general public, insults and accusations of lying continued to be aired in the newspapers. One letter, for example, to a Manchester newspaper, claimed that 96 per cent of residents in Ambleside and its surrounding districts had signed a petition supporting the railway. John Ruskin waded into the debate and a letter that he had written to a Cumberland gentleman who had asked for his opinion on the Ambleside railway was published, first in the Birmingham Gazette and then in many other newspapers:
My dear Sir,—I do not write now further concerning railroads here or elsewhere. They are to me the loathsomest form of devilry now extant, animated and deliberate earthquakes, destructive of all wise social habit or possible natural beauty, carriages of damned souls on the ridges of their own graves.2
Enlarging the sphere of the debate, one newspaper called for the nationalisation of the Lake District, claiming that such a move would glorify the monarchy and the country in the year of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. The newspaper later noted that Ruskin concurred with this proposal.
The Select Committee meeting was scheduled for 15 March. The London and North-Western Railway was one of the petitioners against the proposal. They had insisted that any clauses in the Bill giving the company working powers on the line should be withdrawn, and that if the Bill was passed the promoters would have to provide their own plant and rolling stock. Even though Hardwicke was fully recovered and back in the UK it was decided not to use him as a witness.
The Select Committee discussion extended over a number of days. Their final decision on 21 March was very terse and to the point. The Committee ‘threw out the Ambleside Railway Bill upon financial grounds, expressing no opinion upon the alleged probable advantages of the line to the district’. It was obviously a very close call and probable that if the London and North-Western Railway had not withdrawn their support the Bill would have been passed.
It is hard to see how one critic came to the conclusion that ‘[this] was Rawnsley’s greatest victory in the field and he was widely praised for it.3 Certainly it was a momentous victory for the LDDS and Hills. Bryce, acting for the CPS, deserves much credit as well. Hardwicke would have thrown his energies into the campaign once he returned from Egypt but for the most part he was absent. There were no letters to the newspapers on the proposed railway from Hardwicke throughout the campaign.
It is ironic that one of the LDDS’s greatest victories against railway expansion was due, in no small measure, to a railway company, the London and North-Western Railway.
- ‘A New Lake District Railway’. Times. 1886, 21 December, p. 12.
- ‘Carriages of Damned Souls’. Globe. 1887, 3 March, p. 2.
- Carnie, John M. At Lakeland’s Heart. Windermere, Parrock Press, 2002, p. 289.
Next: Thirlmere, 1885-1894