THE YEAR 1842, the time 8.45am – and the inhabitants of Wem High Street would have been awakened by the thunder of horses as the two morning stage coaches headed off on the Whitchurch Road – the Liver from the Castle Hotel and the Salopian from the White Horse.
The dust clouds raised as they jockeyed for position on the dirt road must have choked those unfortunate passengers sitting on top. Three quarters of an hour later both coaches would have been leaving Whitchurch.
The Liver departed from the Swan and the Salopian from the Victoria, both en route to Chester. At a slightly more leisurely pace, freight was being carried either by cart or on the Prees canal from Edstaston wharf or from Whitchurch dock.
Twenty years later, and most of these scenes had been swept away by the railway boom. In 1858 the Shrewsbury to Crewe line joined Wem and Whitchurch to Crewe, where the Grand Junction railway (later the London, Midland and Scottish) was already operating. In 1864, the first passenger train ran from Oswestry to Whitchurch. Whitchurch’s final link, the railway to Tattenhall, was opened in 1872, making it a major hub of railways in North Shropshire.
The same was almost true of Wem. The two world wars brought a large amount of freight to the station. In the First World War, like Bettisfield on the Cambrian railway, it was a major centre for the loading of horses destined for the front line.
In the Second World War, Aston Park was developed as a military supply depot with a network of railway sidings controlled from Wem North signal box. Wem could have been an even greater hub if other schemes had come to fruition.
In 1845, the Ellesmere and Chester Canal Company proposed that their network be enhanced by parallel railways and gained an Act of Parliament to this effect the following year, with a line passing through Wem. That plan was abandoned by 1849.
However, this was nothing in comparison to the ambitions of the Drayton Junction Railway Company which had ambitious schemes for lines across North Shropshire.
In 1862, the company gained permission to build a line of “nine miles 61 chains from a junction with the Shrewsbury and Crewe line of the London and North Western railway near Wem to a junction with the authorised line of the Nantwich and Market Drayton railway near Market Drayton in the County of Salop”.
The capital specified was £150,000 in £10 shares, with the power to borrow a further £50,000. Share issues were a popular way of raising railway capital at the time, and some company shares were still being traded up to the nationalisation of the railways.
More schemes from the Drayton Junction Company followed. In the London Gazette of November 29, 1864, there were three proposals. The first was to build a line from the Cambrian Railway just east of Bettisfield to make a junction “with the Shrewsbury and Crewe Railway of the London and North Western Railway at or near the Occupation Bridge road over the Shrewsbury and Crewe Railway situated in the township of Edstaston, in the parish of Wem, in the said county of Salop”.
The second line was from “an enclosure called the Big Meadow, in the occupation of Edward Dickin of Edstaston Park, and terminating by a junction with the Shrewsbury and Crewe line at or near the platform on the west side of the station of Prees on that railway”.
The third line was to start “in a field called Little Wall Leasow in the occupation of Thomas Cartwright and the property of Lord Hill, situate in the township of Edstaston”.
This was to join their original 1862 scheme and so provide a through route from Market Drayton to Bettisfield, with running rights over both the Shrewsbury-Crewe line and the Cambrian railway to Ellesmere and beyond. To operate it would have required trains to come into Wem.
As with many railway schemes, these proved to be under capitalised, over-ambitious and were never built.
There was little local freight to be had and the original Market Drayton line never lived up to its expectations, except as a through route from the Potteries to Wellington.
The infamous Dr Beeching condemned all of North Shropshire’s secondary railways, with the exception of the Shrewsbury and Crewe line, and on that, if he had got his way, only Whitchurch and Hadnall stations would have remained.
Hindsight has proved that the other stations were of value, both for short and long distance passengers, though any freight services, signal boxes and manually operated customer facilities have long been discarded.
In a bygone era (as recently as the 1960s) a rail enthusiast could have taken a rail journey from Shrewsbury via Oswestry, Ellesmere, Whitchurch, Wem and back to Shrewsbury in a morning.
Today a car is the only option for such a journey.
See full story in the Whitchurch Herald