I live within a stone’s throw of the railway bridge at Burton End in Melton Mowbray which serves to convey traffic and pedestrians across both the Midland railway line and the River Eye which passes underneath on its way to join the Wreake, then the Soar, the Trent and finally into the River Humber on its winding way to the North Sea.  On many a Sunday morning I can be found to be scratching around beneath the large blue-brick and steel structure which was contrived over 100 years ago, or in and about the nooks and crannies of our railway station or the hospital fields in an effort to discover how much the original topography of the area has changed since the dying days of the 19th century.  My curiosity was initially aroused when I first saw the now iconic – and very early – photographic view of the Burton End Basin and began to realise just how much the area has adapted to its more modern needs.  In the matter of discovering the more detailed and technical evidence, I still have places to visit and official records of the town require to be perused to find out how the decisions were arrived at by our fathers in their smoke-filled rooms. This is not to mention the all important working papers relating to the actual construction of the bridge which I sincerely hope do still exist somewhere.  But I am able to provide a general history as to the main aspects of the area’s general evolvement into the 21st century scene which exists today.
The Canal.
    Multiple disparate factors are necessarily involved in the transformation of this part of the town, almost all related to the obvious need for an efficient system of transport which is so vital to a self-contained community and as homo sapiens first travelled by using his legs, he was for ever afterwards seeking refinement.  One of the most important methods from the very early days was the ability to use the natural assistance of water such as rivers and the sea, thus there are very few communities in this and most other developed countries around the world which are not founded and built upon rivers and thus it was in Melton.  In his ‘The Story of Melton Mowbray’, Philip E Hunt states: 
    ‘… from the 11th century almost up to the year 1800, the town, together with most other inland towns, must in spite of its weekly market and any other trading, have remained a very self contained community, supplying most of its own wants and using mainly local materials.
    With the commencement in 1791, and the opening in 1795, of the canal known as the Leicester to Melton Navigation, which in 1803 was further extended to Oakham, rapid industrial changes took place.  The wharf or basin as it was called in Burton End, became the commercial centre of the town.  This canal brought many blessings to Melton, one of the principal of which was the carrying of coals much more cheaply and quickly, resulting in great increase of trade in the area.  Many barges must have used this waterway, although facts and figures of this trade are very difficult to obtain.  We do, however, have one small illustration from the census of 1841, when we are told the population of the town of Melton included 14 occupants of barges, who were literally floating members of the community.
    The first detailed County Directory to be published was Whites compiled in the year 1846 and it gives us a good deal of information on trade and transport in the county, among which the Melton entries are very enlightening.  At this date, the railway had not reached the town, although it was on the way, but Melton was, nevertheless , not so isolated in 1846 as one would imagine. …’
    So we know then that the canal was successfully utilised and much to the benefit of the town.  Many people regarded the venture as a good and secure financial investment with the result that many shares were sold in the Company which for a short while reaped in the dividends, but it was to be a short-lived bubble, about to be burst by the arrival of the railway.  Wikepedia tells us of its expiration thus:
‘Railway companies arrived in the area in November 1844. When they were approached by the Midland Railway company about proposals for the Syston and Peterborough Railway, the shareholders recommended negotiation. A deal was struck, with the Midland Railway paying £26,000 and 200 fully paid up £40 shares for the canal. In 1844, the canal had carried 31,182 tons of goods upwards, with around 72 per cent of it being coal, and grain and wool amounting to 4,120 tons had passed down the canal. The lack of a proper water supply had resulted in the canal being closed for nearly five months during the dry summer of 1844. The construction of the railway was authorised by Parliament and a second act to allow the canal to be sold and abandoned was obtained on 27 July 1846.
The railway from Syston to Melton Mowbray opened on 1 September 1846. It would be more than a year before the sale of the canal was finally completed, on 29 October 1847, but just six months after that, the line from Melton Mowbray to Oakham opened on 1 May 1848. The purchase price enabled a final distribution of £44.35 to be made on each of the original shares.’

The Railways

    The ubiquitous railways in the first half of the 19th century were to spread like wildfires to all corners, hills, cliffs, and coves of the British Isles like a giant spiders web.  Great excitement was abroad  in the country and millions of pounds were invested in the anxious and desperate purchase of shares in the various companies which scrambled and jostled to set up in the competition of providing transport for an excited and welcoming public.  This scenario was no different in the small market town of Melton Mowbray, where the locals envisaged the potential of a wider world opening up before them, with no limits as to the extent of their future journeys.  A barge was very romantic but they were desirous of getting to their neighbouring cities and places of business in minutes rather than hours or days.
    Almost overnight, the canal system ceased to operate as a Company and the District Council were  unhurried in removing all vestiges of the infrastructure which had developed in its wake, not least, the filling in of the small lagoon at the bottom of Burton End known as ‘the basin’, which lingered for many years, uncared for and existing as a general trap for watery filth and detritus from the past, not to mention the related reek of decay.  It seems that the Leicester route was to linger on for general use for a few more years, but for the Oakham section, owned and operated by the Wreake Navigation Company, with its scenic path winding through the smallest county in the country, it was sudden death.  In February, 1857, The Leicester Journal published its ‘obituary’ in the following item;

In The Meantime …

    With the barge people of Melton now being squeezed out of a living – though they did continue to haul large items and bulk coal by water – their presence was being replaced by rail workers of all persuasions; mechanics, line workers, station staff and of course the drivers and firemen, entered what was a new profession for most and a career which would carry many of them comfortably and proudly through the remainder of their working lives into their pension.  In the map below it is interesting to pick out the points of interest at the time just prior to the arrival of the iron-railed Midland line branch from Leicester to Peterborough via Syston.  Spot the wash pen at the eastern side of the old stone bridge and on the other side of the road, access to a ford through the river which was passable at most times of the year.  Like the basin, the attractive old stone Burton Bridge was also destined to disappear and to later metamorphosize into the structure we all know today. It is this major Victorian construction event with which I now intend to deal, in conjunction with the demise of the old ‘narrow bridge’, shown below, close to the basin.
    In the following picture which shows clearly the old and not unattractive stone bridge which dated from the 1770s, it is not possible to see the new arrangements used to control the safe passage of vehicles and pedestrians which were now required to pass over the newly laid railway tracks.  It was then operated as a gated level-crossing which was physically controlled by a gate-keeper similar to the tollgate operations on the trunk roads.  To the frequent chagrin of travellers, it was chained shut at night and this fact was just one major agitation in the escalating public clamour to ameliorate the situation in the coming years.  Another major factor was the arrival of increasingly popular new toy of the rich; the advent of the motor-car.
    Melton Mowbray, at the turn of the 20th century was established and recognised as the top place for fox-hunting on the whole planet and had long been a magnet for the very rich and the mega-rich, not to mention members of the world’s royalty, stars of the stage and thrill-seeking celebrities from all walks of life.  During the season, the town was crowded with not a decent room to be had and the many stables were bursting with some of the finest equine bloodstock to be found anywhere and the tables of the hunting boxes, grand houses and restaurants would be overflowing with the finest of fine foods.  But, as the 19th century was rapidly drawing to a close, a new toy was becoming available for the man or woman who had everything and Melton was the scene of many of the new fangled motor-cars – of which was probably said at the time that they would ‘never replace the horse drawn ones’.  People like the Prince of Wales and Count Zborowski, regulars in the town, would be the first to take up the option of being seen in the the steam-driven or petrol fired machines, ususally under the control of a handsome, liveried chauffeur.
    A quite recent arrival in town of very high society who had recently purchased the grand house known as Craven Lodge on the Burton Road, was military man Edward Holmes Baldock. One of the very first converts to the new form of transport, he seems to have not been too happy with the state of the road outside his house, a matter about which he was soon to write of to the District Council, complaining that the part of the road in question which was adjacent to the main entrance of his property, was too narrow and tended to impede his manoeuvres and progress.  He was one of the many who by the late 1890’s was to become increasingly vociferous in their complaints about the inefficient service provided at the railway level crossing.  When it was not locked and chained, there were frequent moments when the gatekeeper was not to be found and tempers were raised.  Of course it was not good for business either.

The Town Estate intervenes.

Around the middle of the 19th century, Melton Mowbray, ever attractive to visitors and the hunting fraternity, was increasingly becoming tainted with problems of smells and sewerage, mainly due to the inability of the existing drains to evacuate the spoils of an increasing population.  The closing of the Oakham stretch of the canal was to create a stagnancy of the still-present basin which had by now become a dead-end.  Used increasingly as a rubbish tip, serious problems arose when the river Eye annually flooded its banks and plains, distributing the fetid contents far and wide.  Although not responsible for this aspect of everyday life in the town, the local body known as the Town Estate were to take up cudgels with the Midland Railway.  From their excellent web site, I have borrowed these few relevant ‘Scrapbook’ notes which the Estate retain in their excellent archives.  A visit to this site is well worth the  effort and very informative. Click Here
6th June 1877Moved by Mr Shouler and seconded by Mr Large that the Townwardens be empowered to take possession of the piece of land adjoining the Play Close as soon as at liberty and do so much of asphalting a path round it as they may deem prudent until the future occupation of the Old Canal is decided.
Melton Mowbray – 14th January 1880A Meeting of the Inhabitants was held, in the Town Hall, on Friday 14th January, in accordance with a memorial “to consider and determine as to the Expediency of memorialising the Crossing at Burton End, to substitute another in lieu of their pile Bridge and to improve the waterway bounding their property in the Parish. And in the event of Directors not complying with the Memorial – if adopted – then to authorize steps to bring all, or any one or more of the matters specified under the notice of the Board of Trade”The Chairman having opened the meeting, Mr John Gee, Honorary Secretary of the Flood Committee, read the following, as the suggested memorial to be sent to the Midland Directors:-
To the Directors of the Midland Railway Company:The Memorial of the inhabitants of Melton Mowbray, adopted at a Town Meeting, held on 7th January 1881, sheweth:-That the level crossing over your Railway at Burton-end, in this town, has been, for several years, a source of danger to life, and a great interruption to traffic, and that such danger to life and interruption to traffic has become intensified since the opening of your new route to the North and South, via Melton Mowbray; and the passing of many express trains, daily, over such level crossing.That your pile bridge, spanning the only waterway through Melton Mowbray, is a great obstruction to the flow of storm waters, and one of the principal, if not the main cause of Burton-end and other low-lying portions of the town being inundated; thereby causing destruction to life and property, with loss of trade, sickness and misery as attendant evils.That the waterway forming the boundary of your property requires to be widened and deepened, to facilitate the passage of the floods, inasmuch as in its present state it is contributory to the inundations and disastrous effects mentioned in the last paragraph.Your memorialists therefore pray that you will take the matters brought to your notice into your serious consideration, with the view of erecting such structural appliances as will obviate the necessity of the public using the level crossing. That you will substitute another for the pile bridge; and that you will widen and deepen the waterway forming the boundary of your property in Melton Mowbray; And your memorialists will ever pray.Lord Grey-de-Wilton moved the adoption of the memorial, which was seconded by Mr T Large, and carried unanimously.Signed John DickensonChairman
22nd June 1886…the following resolution were passed
  1. That the Feoffees and rate-paying inhabitants in meeting duly convened hereby authorize the Townwardens to accept the offer made by the Trustees of Court George and Dragon to sell the South portion of the old Canal now partly filled with soil for the sum of £30 in order to secure a Frontage to the Play Close and to the Canal purchased a few years ago for the sum of £650, conditionally upon the consent of the Chancery Division of the High Court of Justice being obtained to the application towards such purchase of the funds at present in hand of the Paymaster General.
  1. That the best thanks of this meeting be given to Herbert B. Praed Esq. for the interest he has manifested in the welfare of the town by securing funds for and otherwise aiding the carrying out the projected improvement in the Play Close.
22 March 1887Business The Road to the Play CloseMoved by Mr Fitton and seconded by Mr Weaver that the offer of the Court George and Dragon of the Ancient Order of Foresters, to devolve a piece of land belonging to them to the widening and straightening of the Road from Burton Street to the Play Close for the sum of Five Pounds be accepted. Carried unanimously.
    Things were not to get into any higher gears as a result of tis intervention but as the new century beckoned, the plans for the construction of a new rail bridge seemed to have been well underway. The  Leicestershire Chronicle and Leicestershire Mercury duly reported that on Wednesday night, July 14th 1897, the fortnightly meeting of the Melton Mowbray Urban District Council had convened and that present were the Midland Railway Bridge and Level Crossing Committee who were in attendance for the purpose of laying before the Council a letter which they had received from the engineers of the chosen company on the subject of the proposed work at Burton End.  The letter referred to read as follows: –

“In answer to your letter of the 5th inst., I have now had this matter looked into, and find that to make this bridge 30 feet wide throughout would increase the cost considerably, making it £13,000 exclusive of land.  I should like to know whether you would like me to lay the matter before the directors next week, or make any further remarks.” – Mr. March, one of the deputation, said there was a meeting of the directors on the following day, and he thought it best that the Council should hear the letter before he replied, and to know whether they had anything to say before the matter went before the directors.  It struck him that the letter was tantamount to saying that “I will lay the recommendation before the directors, but you will hear nothing more of it if I do.”  He pointed out that in the first instance the plan showed the bridge and approaches to be 25 ft. wide throughout, but at the request of the Council they agreed to make the approaches 30ft., and leave the bridge 30ft., and the engineer amended his plan accordingly, and at the same time adopted a suggestion by the County Council relating to the gradient on the Burton-road side of the bridge.  But now the Council had asked for something further, and he had no doubt that if they persisted in that the matter would fall through.  The Council appeared to be unanimous in their opinion that it would be better to adhere to the former plan, and on the motion of Mr. Gill, seconded by Mr. Manchester, a resolution was passed to that effect.”

(This account went on to report further, that the drains of a property at the west end of Victoria-street were in a very unsatisfactory condition!)

I am desperately seeking information or documents which relate to the actual construction of the large railway bridge, which must have been a massive project for the town.  Much of the infrastructure of the area was to change drastically and the railway company involved were to pay out much money in compensation for structures in their path which were in turn demolished.  A classic example being the Railway Hotel which had served the station almost from its inception in 1947, the site of which nestles exactly underneath the existing bridge at a point which would have been at the top end of the station driveway. As the illustrating maps suggest, the entrance to Ankle Hill was much extended and the Burton Road was diverted also when the whole route was moved some 20 to 30 metres to the east.  The road outside Craven Lodge was scraped out and the and the resultant fill was pushed forward to assist in developing the newly raised approaches to the bridge from both of these roads.  Aesthetically and architecturally incongruous but typical of the many thousands of its late Victorian era, it is constructed almost solely of blue engineering bricks and utilises 5 semi-circular arches either side of the main span which is supported by massive steel girders.  Above a swollen River Eye which should now have comfortably flowed – famous or infamous as it was for flooding the town on occasions – the job was completed in 1899 with little or none of the fanfare usually related to the opening of a new bridge.  Indeed there was said to be little money left in the Council coffers when the invoice finally arrived from the builders and it is recorded in the town records as a matter of fact and with some chagrin in various quarters, that due to this shortage of funds the payment of the bill was delayed for many months and almost became a matter of legal pursuit.  As a matter of passing interest the job is said to have cost about £15/18,000.
Having displayed the earlier map of the area pre-railway, I have attempted to show by superimposition, a combined map of pre and post structure of the bridge which should assist in explaining just about all that occurred during those few years of change.

Of course, not everyone was pleased with the wholesale disruption brought about by the railway companies, but these were as big and powerful as anything that had ever happened in the country.  The Members of Parliament spent a great majority of their time dealing with the thousands of statutes appearing before them each day during the boom years and most were considered to be rubber-stamped with little problem.  Objectors and protesters were frequently given short shrift in response to any complaint they might harbour in connection with what was akin to an epidemic, with the wealth and the power being maintained and exerted by authority in getting the tracks laid as quickly as possible. But at the very end of 1900, the big blue bridge at Melton Mowbray was soon to be put to the test.



The Great Flood of 1901

On Friday, the 29th day of December 1900, within 12 months of the completion of the works, the good people of Melton were almost certainly looking forward to and planning festivities relating to the arrival of another new year and as they retired to their beds for the night, most would have been aware that heavy rain was beginning to fall on the town.  Not a particularly significant matter at that time but substantial rain did in fact fall throughout the Saturday and Sunday though apparently, most people thought little of this and as the River Eye downstream filled its banks and stretched its girths, it began to overflow them into the adjacent fields where farmers especially attuned to such situations warned of heavy flooding being imminent.  During the early morning of Monday, the final day of 1900, the townsfolk were horrified to discover that their town had finally succumbed to the relentless rains and that many properties, if not already under water, were rapidly becoming overwhelmed by an out-of-control body of water.  A detailed account of the deluge and its aftermath was duly reported in the Grantham Journal of Saturday, January 5th which was to touch upon upon the part which the new bridge might have played.  I hope to bring you more of this in a later blog.


2 thoughts on “MELTON TO OAKHAM – 1900

  1. Thank you for your very encouraging comments; I will contact you by email soon.The disaster of the lost pics is perhaps explained here and it is something which has caused me a lot of angst. I

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