The Furness Railway Company was an independent railway operating between 1846 and 1923.
Originally conceived as a mineral railway, it later played a major role in the development of the town of Barrow in Furness, and in the development of the Lake District Tourist industry.
The Furness area was traditionally very isolated: the only road to reach the area before the coming of the railway was across the treacherous sands of Morecambe Bay. So when local landowners wanted to get their high quality slate and Haematite iron ore to their markets, they looked to build a railway down to the coast, using ships for the onward journey.
Thus was created the Furness Railway, and the town of Barrow in Furness. The railway went on to develop Barrow's iron and steelworks, and shipbuilding industries.
The Crest of the Furness Railway Company, derived from the seal of Furness Abbey, and the basis of the FRT crest.
In November 1843, a Prospectus was published for the Furness Railway, linking the slate quarries of Kirkby in Furness, and iron ore in the Lindal area to a deep water berth at Roa Island (south of Barrow in Furness at the mouth of the Walney Channel). The line would be out and out a mineral railway, although there was provision for a branch to Barrow, and for the iron ore line to be continued eastwards to Ulverston, the largest local town at the time. The Furness Railway Bill became law on 23 May 1844 and construction started. The railway opened in 1846 - first to goods trains, and then to passengers on the 24th August. (It is no coincidence that the Heritage Lottery Fund Grant to restore Furness Railway Number 20 to full working order was announced on 24th August, 1996, 150 years to the day since the first passenger train ran.)
Image of "Coppernob", the nickname given to Furness Railway Number 3 which hauled the first passenger train on the FR, and was placed in a glass case at Barrow Railway station on its retirement. It was removed during the Second World War after the station was bombed, and is now a valued exhibit at the National Railway Museum in York. "Coppernob" returned to the Furness area to mark the 150th anniversary of its first passenger service in 1996.
In its early years, the line slowly expanded, extending north from Kirkby to the market town of Broughton in Furness in 1848, where FR metals first encountered those of another company in 1850 with the completion of the Whitehaven and Furness Junction Railway down the coast from Whitehaven, past Sellafield and Millom to Broughton. The extension to Ulverston was finally completed in 1854. Three years later the Ulverston and Lancaster railway completed its route between the two towns (requiring major bridges over the Leven and Kent estuaries) with the help of the FR Company - indeed the FR bought out the U&L outright in 1862.
Now the Furness Railway was connected to the national network at Carnforth, and had a link north to the coalfields of West Cumbria. For the first time, the people of Furness had easy access to the rest of the country.
The Furness Railway Board were not just interested in running a successful railway - backers like the Duke of Devonshire, the Duke of Buccleugh and industrialist Henry Schneider, as well as the FR's own General Manager Sir James Ramsden, were the driving force behind a complete industrial revolution. They owned the slate and iron ore mines; they owned the railway that transported the raw material; they built the massive docks at Barrow (previously a minor hamlet) that ended Roa Island's days as the local port; they built the steelworks in Barrow to process the local ore, and they built the shipyard that used the steel from the steelworks.
Throughout the second half of the 19th century, the Furness Railway consolidated its position and expanded. It took over the Whitehaven and Furness Junction route in 1865, giving it direct access to Whitehaven. But it failed to buy the next link in the chain of independent railways running round the coast of what is now Cumbria, turning down the offer to buy the Whitehaven Junction railway (between Whitehaven and Workington). Instead this line was sold to the London and North Western Railway, by which time was running services between London, Lancaster and Carlisle and so was able to exert a great deal of control over the Furness Railway - controlling both its northern and south eastern frontiers.
The FR empire in Barrow continued to expand - a new through Central station (removing the need to reverse through trains at the old terminus at the Strand) was opened in 1882. It survives to this day, albeit in modified form, the original station having been bombed during the Second World War. A passenger station had been opened at Ramsden Dock a year before to connect with the new Isle of Man and later Belfast steamer services.
In the early years of the 20th century, a new era began at the Furness Railway, under the new general manager Alfred Aslett. He inherited a system with run down facilities and falling traffic. His strategy was bold, and has had a lasting effect on the Lake District. Aslett transformed the Furness Railway into a tourist line. It was really a matter of refocusing the business: steamers brought in tour parties from the popular holiday destinations of Blackpool and Fleetwood across Morecambe Bay to Ramsden Dock station. Trains could take the holiday makers to either Coniston or Lakeside (at the bottom end of Windermere), and the FR operated steamers on both lakes. Charabancs were used to provide a number of circular tours from the northern end of the two lakes. The era of mass tourism in the English Lake District had begun.
War intervened in 1914, and all the railways emerged from the conflict four years later run down and in need of new investment. The Government's Railway Act of 1921 signalled the end of the plethora of interlinking independent railway companies, many of whom dated back to the earliest years of railways in Britain, the country that gave birth to the railway. Four massive companies were to be created, and the Furness Railway was absorbed into the London Midland and Scottish Railway at midnight on the 31st December 1922.
To complete the story, the LMS operated the network through to the Nationalisation of the railways in 1948, although it did sever services on the original branch to Roa Island in 1936. British Railways closed the Coniston branch to passengers in 1958 and goods in 1962, the Lakeside branch lost its passenger service in 1965 - thankfully part of the line is still open as the Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway - running what is now the last surviving Furness Railway branch line. But the Furness Railway main line, from Carnforth, past Grange over Sands, to Ulverston, through Barrow to Millom and up the coast past Sellafield to Whitehaven survives to this day as part of the national network.
And the Furness Railway Trust - with assets like 1863-built Furness Railway Number 20 and the ex Furness and North London Railway coach - is also working to keep the memory of the Furness Railway alive.
©Furness Railway Trust 2007