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Cannock Chase Military Railway (Pt.1)






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#1 Andy Y

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Posted 21 July 2011 - 20:13

Cannock Chase for those not familiar with the area is approximately 40 square miles in size as a plateau stretching from west of Lichfield up to the east of Stafford; most of the Chase is designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty with a mix of ancient woodlands, open heath and forestry farming literally undermined by a collection of coal mines on its eastern side and pockmarked with old and current sand quarries towards the north-east. A hundred years ago the area was somewhat bleaker with the wide open spaces becoming a target for military usage in the Great war with a mix of training, POW and hospital camps.

The West Cannock Colliery Company based in Hednesford, Cannock was contracted to provide a standard gauge railway to the camps upon the Chase and in 1915 work commenced from both ends of the line at Milford and Hednesford until they joined on the Chase in the summer of that year.

Although familiar with parts of the route across the top of the heathland areas I had never traced the route from the northern end despite being aware that it must have been a punishing climb and shamefully admitting this is only 2 miles from home. Having a couple of spare hours I thought I'd capture some images and information.

The northern end of the railway started at Milford and Brocton Station on the LNWR route just west of Shugborough tunnel; each end of the railway being capable of transferring goods to stations on the railway network. The military railway would have started to the left of the site of Milford and Brocton Station which closed in 1956 approximately where the vehicles are just behind the communications mast.

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The course of the railway from this point up on to the Chase is shown on the map extract below.

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Copyright: OS Explorer Map 244 1:25,000 - reproduced in accordance with licence

The map shows the points where images have been taken from in the following text.

The map tells little of the severity of the climb that lay ahead of the loco crew and the experience of the soldiers and prisoners who took the ride to the camp in the open wagons; the gradient map below illustrates this better.

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The line rose 385 feet in 2.15 miles giving an average gradient on 1 in 29 with one section of 1 in 20 for half a mile. The sharper curves in the map above are on lesser gradients but it is still an impressive feat.

The start of the climb began as soon as the railway left the station and crossed Milford Common.

A visit to the Staffordshire Records Office to view a document recording the leasing of land by the War Office from the landlord Captain William Swynnerton Byrd Levett enable me to define exactly where the railway came through onto the Common. A portion of land, 1.75 acres in size, immediately to the west of The Red House was rented from Captain Levett for 18/6 a month. Captain Levett had demanded that a concession to operate a refreshment room from the SW corner of the land be given. For those who know the Common I did wonder if it may have been called the WW1mpy.

It should be noted that the Earl of Lichfield owned the majority of land used by the camps and that this was given freely whereas Captain Levett, a retired army captain and husband of a Justice of the Peace and owner of numerous residential and land properties around the village was not entirely satisfied with his remuneration from the War Office with continual demands via his land agent to increase the rent. A handwritten note on the reverse of a letter advises his land agent that he wanted £21 per annum. The War Office politely but steadfastly refused his demands and felt obliged to question how much rent he was getting for the rental of the refreshment rooms which the War Office felt they were really paying for anyway. The War Office gave notice on the land towards the tail end of 1917 as the demands grew more insistent; how much of this is influenced by Captain Levett's son's death in action in France in March 1917 is not recorded.


C.J. and G.P. Whitehouse's book 'Great War Camps On Cannock Chase - A Town For Four Winters' makes reference to two sets of crossing gates over the Tixall and Rugeley roads and also the fact that soldiers had decided to liberate three wagons from the top of the chase at night. The wagons came down the 2.5 miles of inclines and tore through the crossing gates and damaged rolling stock in the sidings.

The Barley Mow pub on Milford Common was one of the nearest pubs accessible to the troops and a group of New Zealanders apparently decided they were going to see the landlord of the pub about his opportunistically high prices one night armed with rope to hang him from his own pub sign. It sounds like they were caught before they got close enough to get the prices lowered.

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Before and after the Great War Milford Common was an excursion destination with fairs on summer weekends and holidays; the war saw the ground used for billeting local troops housed in tents across the open ground.

The railway ran alongside the road towards Brocton for around 400 yards before branching off to the left of the road as shown in the shot below.

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This is the best place to park if you wish to follow the next section of the route, it's easy walking or if you'd like to push further ahead it is entirely suitable for a mountain bike.

The steepest section of the line now lies ahead of you, a punishing 1 in 20 climb through The Cutting. I can imagine the deafening exhaust forcing the branches of the overhanging trees upward through here and the challenges faced by the engine crew on a damp day in the autumn of 1915.

Several references are made to it being The German Cutting but as no prisoners of war were brought to the camp until 1916/7 the cutting must have been dug by the Irish labourers hired by the Colliery for the work. It's not impossible that German POWs did maintain the railway at a later time.

The photo below shows the view back down The Cutting from Mere Pits.

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After the climb the railway spans the sudden dip at Mere Pits by an embankment leading onto the 90 degree curve through ancient oak woodlands.

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Mere Pits is the site of an old sand quarry which now forms a pleasant pool although no such pool on the Chase could ever be considered safe to swim in with its subsidence and concealed sink holes. At the edge of the pool is a concrete hollow cube of the same sort of materials that can be found in other WW1 structures around the Chase and appears from detailed maps to be a sluice gate from Mere Pit through to the sewage treatment pans that lay on the opposite side of the railway cutting.

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The railway winds its way up the Mere Valley and Hollywood Slade to Coppice Hill

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At the head of the Slade, a local term for a small valley which appears in many place names around the Chase (and is likely to have give Noddy Holder and Dave Hill the band's name) the railway breaks out onto more open heathland with ancient oaks giving way to silver birch, hawthorn and gorse.

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This area forms the start of the areas that were occupied by camps. To the side of a nearby path lies the grave of the New Zealand Rifles mascot 'Freda' who with her minders guarded prisoners of war who were free to work for local farmers.

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The New Zealand Rifle Brigade had formed part of the successful offensive at the Messines Ridge in Flanders in 1917 where the German lines were tunnelled under and mined. They were then posted to Brocton Camp to train recruits in trench planning and warfare and used the German POWs to create a concrete map of the terrain and trenches.

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After the Great war this model was given to the Borough of Stafford but immediately started to fall into disrepair until a local chap was given the role of custodian and guide showing visitors round between the wars. It seems as though the model suffered further damage from gorse growth and has grassed over to the point where its location is difficult to determine. We believe we found a small portion of this and would like at a future time to probe a little further. Although other such maps were created in areas to the rear of planned campaign it is believed that this is the last surviving example from the Great War.


Over 90% of the County's heathland has disappeared in the last 200 years as a result of mining, industry and farming but this shot of the area in the three pictures above from 90 years ago shows it to be a bleaker place with the sandy soils being used for training in the digging of trenches that were to become the home and workplace of the camps' trainees for the next few years; if they were lucky.

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The base of the water tower in the postcard shot above will mark the starting point of the centre part of this route's story and its operation.
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#2 Mark Forrest

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Posted 21 July 2011 - 21:00

Great stuff Andy, looking forward to part 2!
Embarassing how little I know about this line; had no idea about the junction at Milford or that a line had ever run accross the edge of the common.

#3 2ManySpams

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Posted 21 July 2011 - 21:06

Hi Andy, having grown up in Stafford and spent many Sundays on the Chase, I was aware of the line and it's purpose. We used to regularly walk along the route on a circular tour to Severn Springs. My Grandma used to tell us about the camps and prisoner trains. Apparently there's more than a few that stayed in England after the war and eventually set up home here.

Nice article.

#4 Andy Y

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Posted 21 July 2011 - 21:06

In truth I can't establish if a junction was ever established at Milford or just a railhead on the military railway adjacent to the station. My thoughts are that troops would disembark the train at the L&NW station and be somewhat aggrieved that the next leg of the journey would be in a coal-dust begrimed open wagon (probably even just an internal user wagon) for the start of their military career.

#5 'CHARD

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Posted 22 July 2011 - 08:47

What a great new topic, railways and social history in the landscape. I can think of nothing finer! :drinks:

If the weather holds, I'll be across the Chase with the kids and my dad on Sunday. Excellent stuff Andy, and for me to my shame, completely new!

#6 Oldddudders

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Posted 22 July 2011 - 08:56

I found this rather interesting, although my limited familiarity with the Chase is in connection with matters that do not bear discussion here! Ahem! All the same, the idea that such a railway ran through some of the bits I have seen is a delightful discovery, and I will follow Andy Y's further revelations with interest.
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#7 Ramblin Rich

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Posted 22 July 2011 - 09:59

I'm fascinated - I walked the Milford to Mere Pits section quite often in the past, I always thought the cutting looked like it might have been a railway line but never actually found any information (seems difficult to imagine a time before Google!). I'm looking forward to further installments!

#8 Andy Y

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Posted 22 July 2011 - 15:52

Having had a conversation with Staffordshire Record Office today some material I haven't seen before has been found which has certainly surprised me. This gives indications that the camps and the railway were more extensive than I'd realised; possibly with a separate narrow gauge system. How much of the information I've now got was purely proposed and how much was carried out remains to be seen. Part 2 will involve a lot more walking and prodding than I'd envisaged!
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#9 TheSignalEngineer

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Posted 22 July 2011 - 16:40

I will be awaiting with interest for more info. The Chase was my regular winter walking area when I lived in Birmingham. Now when I occasionally go for a bike ride across there I use the old railway as a quick route back to Milford when the walkers have gone home for tea. The area at the top has quite a lot of ground disturbance so it looks as if there was substantial traffic in WW1. I have a walking book at home which has a bit of local background in it so I will look it out and see if it has anything to add.

#10 Ashcombe

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Posted 23 July 2011 - 16:48

Having had a conversation with Staffordshire Record Office today some material I haven't seen before has been found which has certainly surprised me. This gives indications that the camps and the railway were more extensive than I'd realised; possibly with a separate narrow gauge system. How much of the information I've now got was purely proposed and how much was carried out remains to be seen. Part 2 will involve a lot more walking and prodding than I'd envisaged!



Thank you for all this interesting information, Andy, most of which was news to me, despite living in the area since 1974 and enjoying the attractions of the Chase on several occasions. My late mother-in-law recalled being at a training camp on the Chase when she joined the WRAF during the Second World War, so perhaps that was how the POW camps were used in later years? Unfortunately she couldn't identify its exact location during visits to us.
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#11 Andy Y

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Posted 23 July 2011 - 16:56

My late mother-in-law recalls being at a training camp on the Chase when she joined the WRAF during the Second World War,


Hi, I believe that areas of the camp, known as Rugeley camp, around the Brindley Heath area were still in use during WW2 but the vast majority of Brocton Camp's huts were disposed of after WW1. Whilst awaiting further info on Part 2's content I've been trying today to track down some of the missing areas in what will become Part 3.




#12 TheSignalEngineer

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Posted 23 July 2011 - 23:24

Hi, I believe that areas of the camp, known as Rugeley camp, around the Brindley Heath area were still in use during WW2 but the vast majority of Brocton Camp's huts were disposed of after WW1. Whilst awaiting further info on Part 2's content I've been trying today to track down some of the missing areas in what will become Part 3.



The RAF camp was to the south of Marquis Drive, not far from the visitor centre. A friend of mine told how they were marched up from the station at Moors Gorse for National Service training in the 1950s. I haven't been across that bit for some time,but a few years ago the positions of roadways and huts were clearly visible.
I think the location would be 52°44' N 1°59' W. Look on Google Earth with Roads switched on and the shape seems to show up.
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#13 D605Eagle

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Posted 24 July 2011 - 23:46

Interesting pictures Andy, its been 23 years since I last walked the route. Back then you could still see here and there the indentions where sleepers had been. However back then the Chase was a fairly quite place, unlike now so I expect a great deal of changes will have taken place to the groud surface. A friend brought up in Baswich calls the cutting up from Milford the German Cut, suposedly named after the German prisoners of war who aledgedly dug it (Saying that I've never seen or heard it refered to that name since)
I used to have a booklet I'm sure was called "The Military Railways of Cannock Chase" but I cannot find it any more. There were an amazing number of railways up there, some you can trace, others you cannot.
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#14 The Stationmaster

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Posted 25 July 2011 - 08:28

Great stuff Andy - yet more interest for potential Members' Day visitors to explore.Posted Image

#15 Removed a/c_Phil

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Posted 25 July 2011 - 08:39

I found this rather interesting, although my limited familiarity with the Chase is in connection with matters that do not bear discussion here! Ahem! All the same, the idea that such a railway ran through some of the bits I have seen is a delightful discovery, and I will follow Andy Y's further revelations with interest.



Really olddudders. I wouldnt have thought that of a respectable gentleman like you ;)

Good piece of work Andy.

Must admit I didnt realise there might have been a connection with the mainline at Milford & Brocton.

#16 TheSignalEngineer

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Posted 25 July 2011 - 08:49

The camp at Marquis Drive, known as RAF Hednesford, was operational from 1938/9 to 1956. From 1950 it was No.11 School of Recruit Training, where National Service Personnel did their initial training were broken in. More details of this period and pictures/maps of the site are available at RAF Hednesford website. In 1956 it was used as a refugee camp for people fleeing after the Hungarian Uprising.

A booklet entitled "Kitbag Hill", The story of RAF Hednesford, (ISBN 0 9512903 0 4 ) co-written and published by C J Whitehouse, gives historical and other information about the camp regarding the period from 1938 to 1950 and from 1956 onwards. I do not have a copy but believe that it is still available from the Marquis Drive Visitor Centre. Brindley Heath Road. Hednesford. Staffordshire. WS12 4PW. Tel: 01543 878690.

#17 Oldddudders

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Posted 25 July 2011 - 10:34

Really olddudders. I wouldnt have thought that of a respectable gentleman like you ;)

That's the point about appearing respectable! Hang on - who said I even looked respectable? I need a new image, pronto!
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#18 2ManySpams

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Posted 25 July 2011 - 20:10

That's the point about appearing respectable! Hang on - who said I even looked respectable? I need a new image, pronto!


I'd go back to your previous photo - the long haired one....

#19 Ashcombe

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Posted 26 July 2011 - 05:41

I'd go back to your previous photo - the long haired one....


Long hair ages men, although not women, necessarily. So Olddudders could become "a respectable old gentleman"!

#20 Leicester Thumper

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Posted 26 July 2011 - 13:31

this si very fascinating, I'll be looking at this one with deep interest :)

thanks Andy! :D

#21 Oldddudders

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Posted 26 July 2011 - 16:21

So Olddudders could become "a respectable old gentleman"!

Saucy minx! Especially as I know she's now on the evening boat from Portsmouth and won't be online again for weeks!

Apologies to Andy Y for this pointless diversion off the Chase via Little Haywood, by the way! It won't happen again, I hope......

#22 Andy Y

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Posted 26 July 2011 - 17:35

Not a problem; nice to see people finding the topic enjoyable on all sorts of levels. ;)
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#23 2ManySpams

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Posted 26 July 2011 - 20:34

Andy

Back on topic, honest, I've been moving stuff around our bomb site of a house and starting to get the upper floor more like home. Now, this involved moving bookcases etc into the modelling room and I took the opportunity to sort through some files and books......and lo it came to pass that i had a great find....

A booklet entitled "Following the Tackeroo - Cannock Chase Military Railway Walk - 28th February 2004". It's a 10 page A5 booklet including some photos, a plan and a description of the route. I also have a laminated A5 walk plan indicating items of interest on the route. Interestingly in light of the posts above there's mention of the 'German Cutting'.

There's no mention of who produced it or any copyright info on the booklet. Would I be ok scanning it and including it here??

Any idea where "Tackeroo" came from?

Hang on, found it here: My link
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#24 Andy Y

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Posted 26 July 2011 - 20:49

There's no mention of who produced it or any copyright info on the booklet. Would I be ok scanning it and including it here??


I think it was published by Cannock Chase District Council; I'd be prepared to take the chance (and the rap if it's pulled up) as it's a public information leaflet so I'd be very grateful if you could Chris. I've got part of the booklet and it certainly doesn't seem to show the full extent compared to some info I've now got. I'm off to the Records Office on Thursday to have a look at a document they've got which describes the leasing of land adjacent to the LNWR to the military; it could be nothing but it may be of interest.




#25 Andy Y

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Posted 26 July 2011 - 20:56

A friend brought up in Baswich calls the cutting up from Milford the German Cut, suposedly named after the German prisoners of war who aledgedly dug it (Saying that I've never seen or heard it refered to that name since)


Interestingly in light of the posts above there's mention of the 'German Cutting'.


I'd say that it's highly likely the prisoners were co-opted into digging the cutting which is no mean feat. This was possibly balanced by the Colliery Co. getting some POWs to work at the mines (but not underground as per the Hague Convention).

Hidden beneath a patch of gorse at Coppice Hill is a relief map of the Messine Ridge trenches in concrete that the NZ Rifle Brigade got the POWs to make to assist the instructors in briefing the recruits about planning trench warfare.











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