The Wirksworth Branch 1867: Shin-Kicking Capitalism

The Problem…

The Midland had an opportunity and a big problem: the opportunity was simple, to crack the market in Manchester – Cottonopolis.  The problem?  The London & North Western Railway and their chairman, ‘Captain’ Mark Hewish.


The cotton mills of Victorian Manchester: a strategic objective for the Midland Railway and a vital step on the route to the west coast port of Liverpool.

1849 – there may be trouble ahead…

Step one for the Midland was what, today, we call a joint venture with the London &

NPG D8023; Mark Huish by William Henry Mote, after  Abraham Wivell

‘Captain’ William Huish

Birmingham Railway to Rowsley, well on the way into the Peak.

There was bad news however – the day the Act of Parliament to build the railway was signed, the London & North Western took over the London & Birmingham.

The Midland now had a problem – they were sleeping with the enemy and the enemy wanted them well away from Manchester.

1862 – Plan ‘B’ for Wirksworth

Beyond Rowsley, the Midland was pretty safe: it had a route surveyed through Bakewell and Chinley into Manchester but south of Rowsley, a contingency was necessary – Wirksworth came into the frame.

The Midland Railway New Lines and Additional Powers Act 1863:

  1. A New Railway from a Junction with the Midland railway in Duffield to Wirksworth
  2. A Railway from a junction with the last mentioned intended Railway in Wirksworth to terminate at a junction with the Cromford and High Peak Railway

The plan: build a new line to Rowsley, via Wirksworth, to avoid the existing route.

There were two principal opponents to the Bill:

  • The London & North Western Railway
  • John Shaw, a local quarry owner

An early 20th century Midland Railway line diagram annotated to include the approximate path of the proposed continuation of the Wirksworth Branch to Rowsley.  (Courtesy of the Midland Railway Society).  Click on the diagram for a larger version.


An early 20th century Midland Railway line diagram annotated  in include the approximate path of the proposed continuation of the line from Wirksworth to Rowsley.  Map courtesy of the Midland Railway Society.  Click on the image for a larger version.

1865 – Construction Starts

The London & North Western and Mr. Shaw were placated.  Ironic really, Mr. Shaw was bothered about his quarry losing business from foreign imports (e.g. Leicestershire) and yet his business flourished despatching loads of stone by train a few years later.

1867 – Grand Opening


The Derby Mercury for 2nd October 1867. (Courtesy of Howard Sprenger from his book The Wirksworth Branch, published by Oakwood Press)

The line opened to modest celebrations and services commence.  A service of three return trips a day from Derby sets the pattern for the line’s passenger services: goods would be the line’s primary source of income.

And what of the Continuation to Rowsley?

This was the  big ‘what-if’ of the Wirksworth Branch.  By the time the line had opened, the LNWR had effectively pulled-out of the original Rowsley line and so the extension was quietly dropped.

While the branch from Duffield to Wirksworth was comparatively lightly-engineered, it running along the floor of a gentle valley, the route north of Wirksworth would have been extremely expensive to engineer.  It would have involved:

  • Three tunnels, 1,503, 500 and 980 yards long
  • Two viaducts 280 and 300 yards long
  • Ten more miles of railway
  • Upgrades to the route and signalling of the Duffield to Wirksworth section to support a through service.

Interestingly, a landslip at Whatstandwell on the direct Rowsley route in 1897 led to the plan being briefly revived but after that no more was heard.


150 years on and there is still evidence of the Rowsley Extension at Wirksworth.  To the left where the line terminates there would have been a tunnel mouth for a nearly mile-long tunnel under Cromford Hill.  To the right, the quarry line that once extended to the Cromford & High Peak line still remains running to Ravenstor Halt.

Read on: The Next 75 years: Ascent then Gradual Decline >> >>