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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 6 (September 1, 1934)

The Oldest Railway in the World

page 48

The Oldest Railway in the World

Departure of train for the Mumbles.

Departure of train for the Mumbles.

SItuated on Swansea Bay, at the mouth of the River Tawe, in South Wales, is to be found the thriving, industrial town of Swansea. It possesses a large seaport, and is the chief centre of the copper smelting trade, while its tinplates and anthracite find a market the world over. Of recent years an oil refinery has come to play a not insignificant part amongst the more firmly established industries of the district.

Some five miles distant, towards the Western end of the Bay and at the head of the Gower Peninsula, lies the picturesque, sea-side village, known as the Mumbles. Possessing a mild, equable, climate, many beautiful natural bays, a splendid pier and pavilion, innumerable country lanes that all seem to lead ultimately to romantic coves and inlets much frequented by smugglers of an earlier period, it is perhaps only natural that Mumbles should be a popular holiday resort for the residents of the neighbouring town.

It is the connecting link between these two, thriving city and pretty village, that lays claim to the title of the world's oldest railway — the Swansea and Mumbles Railway.

It was in June, 1804, that an Act was obtained for constructing a Railway or Tramroad from the town of Swansea into the Parish of Oystermouth (now a part of Mumbles). It is admitted there were other railways in existence prior to this; notably the Grand Surrey Iron Railway and the Sirhowy Tramway. These and the rest ceased to exist with the passing of the years, but the Mumbles Railway remains and flourishes. In common with other railways that had been established on the Clyde and Tyne the Mumbles Railway was first used for conveying limestone and other minerals from quarries and mines near by. It was not until 1816 that passengers were first carried and then in a one-horsed carriage known as Llewelyn's car.

As can well be imagined the permanent way at this date was decidedly crude. Flanged rails of angle iron in three feet lengths were used, and in the absence of chairs they were spiked directly to stone sleepers.

About the year 1817, an interesting experiment was conducted. With the idea of assisting the carriage's progress, sails were utilised when the wind was in the right direction; surely this is a unique example of a “sailing train.”

Suffering many financial vicissitudes and changes of ownership, the railway was still horse-drawn in 1876 when a new company was formed which, not long afterwards, suggested a change to steam. As with every new advance in industry or transport there arose instantly a storm of protest, in which the Mayor of Swansea at that time took a leading part, against the proposed conversion. Their main concern was for the safety of the community generally, but objection was also made to the pollution of the countryside by smoke and the excessive noise. Eventually the dissenters found themselves in the minority and the Mumbles Railway was converted to steam in 1877.

In 1899 an Act of Parliament was obtained permitting the extension of the line from Oystermouth to Mumbles Pier (distant about 1 mile). About the same time the line was leased for a long term to the Swansea Tramways Co., which, in an endeavour to cope with the traffic to the Mumbles, now becoming increasingly popular as a seaside resort, set about making general improvements. The permanent way was lifted and relaid alongside the public road, the locomotives were changed from the enclosed type to the saddle tank variety and the carriages, which resembled tram cars more than railway carriages were split up into 1st, 2nd and 3rd classes. Thus the Mumbles Railway took the shape so familiar to those of the present generation.

Then it was the social event of the week to take the run down to the Mumbles on a Sunday afternoon or evening. On a fine Sunday the pier was always crowded, and after the leisurely run down it was very enjoyable to settle down to a couple of hours of light music dispensed by the band of the Grenadier Guards or a band equally as famous.

Perhaps the one day above all others that the Mumbles train was expected to give of its best was on August Bank Holiday.

Given fine weather as many as 45,000 trippers have been carried on this day, each train comprised of about 18 cars and drawing some 2,000 people—no mean feat for the old saddle tanks.

And now quite recently another step forward has been made; the Mumbles Railway has been electrified. Gone are the “beetle crushers” (as the engines were familiarly called) but the journey remains the same—five miles of sheer delight. On the one hand Swansea Bay with its vast stretch of golden sands; on the other there passes in succession, the St. Helens Ground where one can get an excellent if brief view from the top of the train, of Glamorgan XI. at play; the Recreation ground where the younger generation disport themselves; the Swansea University College, the newest of the University Colleges; an old bridge built by the Romans and Oystermouth Castle, reputed to have sheltered Oliver Cromwell, so that the interest is never allowed to flag.