Narrow Gauge Railways – Humphrey Household

Humphrey Household was a prolific photographer. He started taking photos in the mid 1920s with an initial focus on the railways near Cheltenham and more widely in Gloucestershire. One of his books focusses on the railways of Gloucestershire in the 1920s (“Gloucestershire Railways in the Twenties” –

“Narrow Gauge Railways” was written in the late 1980s and published first by Alan Sutton Publishing in 1988, and again in 1996 by The Promotional Reprint Company. It was Subtitled, “Wales and the Western Front.” In the book, Household focusses on a number of Welsh Narrow Gauge lines before taking a look at the use of narrow gauge railways in the first World War and then completing the book with a chapter on The Ashover Light Railway.

The six chapters relating to Welsh railways are held together in one narrative by being a result of personal observations by Humphrey Household on a series of day visits to the lines in a family holiday in 1925. His first chapter shows how the Festiniog Railway was the forerunner of a whole series of steam and electric powered narrow gauge lines across the world. His second chapter tell the story of the family holiday in Llanuwchllyn, a mile from the head of Bala Lake. Careful planning was required to ensure that round trips to the various lines could be completed in a day. Vista to the Festiniog Railway, the Welsh Highland Railway, the Talyllyn Railway, the Fairbourne Railway, the Corris Railway and the Glyn Valley Tramway were planned. There was a hope that the Vale of Rheidol Railway could also be included in what was an ambitious programme seeking to utilise information from Bradshaw’s timetables and a series of cheap day tickets offered by the Great Western Railway.

As well as other images, the book features a number of Household’s own photographs which were taken in 1925 and give an insight into what these narrow gauge lines were like in the years before closure and then eventual preservation.

The third chapter covers the collapse and recovery of the Festiniog Railway. The next three chapters cover the Talyllyn and the Corris railways, and the Glyn Valley Tramway.

The chapter about the Glyn Valley Tramway was particularly engaging, probably because I had not properly realised that it existed before reading of it in Household’s book. I guess that my focus was always on Telford’s aqueduct which carries the Ellesmere Canal seventy feet above the River Ceiriog and the railway viaduct a further thirty feet above the River.

Initially the line was a horse tramway which operated on wagon trains travelling loaded under gravity from the mines and quarries upstream as far as Pontfaen before being split into a series of shorter trains to be hauled up gradients as steep as 1 in 22 to a level above the canal basin and railway sidings by horses. It was converted to steam power in the late 1880s which meant that at the time of Household’s visit on 14th August 1925, the locomotives were between thirty and forty years old.

The Glyn Valley Tramway was never a significantly profitable venture. Just u.der 8 years after Household’s visit, passenger services ceased. The line ceased operation completely on 6th July 1935.

The final two chapters cover light railway operations on the Western Front I. The First World War and the The Ashover Light Railway.

Many narrow gauge lines in the 1920s made use of surplus stock bought from the War Surplus Disposals Board and Household decided that the preponderance of ex-military stock on the narrow gauge lines of the UK was enough justification for including a potted history of the use of 60cm lines serving the trenches in the Great War.

I was surprised to discover that the British Army was slow to recognise the benefits of light narrow gauge lines to the war effort and that it was as late as 1916, when British forces took over a sector of the front which had been under French control, that the British high command realised how effective the French lines were in the logistics of supplying the front lines.

Once the value of these light railways had been realised, the War Office moved swiftly to get large numbers of locomotives and wagons built in a very short period of months.

The Ashover Light Railway was constructed after the War, as “were the Welsh Highland Railway, the Sand Hutton Light Railway and the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway, the Ashover was one of the last of a long line of light railways designed for public service before road motor competition put a stop to further promotion.” [1: p144]

Household must have visited the Ashover Light Railway in the late 1920s or early 1930s. There are a number of his pictures illustrating the text of the chapter. The majority of the motive power on the line was ex-military and the gauge was fixed to match the locomotives, 6 of which were bought from the War Surplus Disposals Board for the princely sum of £1000.

I picked this book up second hand in good condition. Of particular interest to me, were the pictures taken by Humphrey Household in the 1920s.

To find out more about the Ashover Light Railway, please follow this link:


1. Humphrey Household; Narrow Gauge Railways: Wales and the Western Front; The Promotional Reprint Company Ltd, London, 1996.

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