The origins of Sway's Treacle Mines
How a delightully quiet New Forest village became a centre of construction and infamous for 'Treacle'.
The terms 'Sway Treacle Mines' and 'Sway Docks' were commonly used in the 1950s and 1960s (and I remember them also in the 1980s!) as humorous descriptions of the destination by railwaymen and bus crews when arriving at Sway Sation. Gwen Boule, in her booklet 'Memories of Sway' (1996), recalls the ticket inspector on the train responding when asked if the train stopped at Sway "Yes, it stops at Sway Docks and how are the treacle mines doing?"
These terms actually date to the mid-1880s when the Bournemouth Direct Line was being built.
The Bournemouth Direct Line
Construction took place in several phases. Castleman's Corkscrew opened in 1847, extending from Brockenhurst, through Holmsley to Ringwood and on to Wimborne and then Hamworthy. Next the line from Brockehurst to Lymington, which opened in 1858. The Ringwood to Christchurch via Hurn opened in 1862, followed by lines into Poole and Bournemouth.
Finally, the Direct Line linking Brockenhurst to Christchurch line opened in 1888. Covering a distance of about ten and a half miles, the Direct Line was constructed between 1884 and 1888, was two years late in completion, led to the bankruptcy of a construction company and the the deaths of at least ten navvies, with injuries to many more. The construction was fraught with unforeseen difficulties and was described by the main contractor, Joseph Firbank who had built 49 railways as being the one where work 'proved the most troublesome'.
The 'troublesome' Brockenhurst to Christchurch Line
Just over a mile of the line lay over the forest land between Lymington Junction and the Sway parish boundary at Manchester Road and the Verderers decided that they were prepared to allow the scheme provided that suitable bridges and subways were constructed to enable the free passage of the commoners' animals across the line. Three wooden bridges of nine feet and one 'cattle creep' (subway) were constructed in addition to four public road bridges.
Agister Albert Chandler, who conveniently lived in Sway, was given oversight of the works to protect the Verderer's interests. He noted that "they are cutting and destroying the pasture" making roads far wider than they should have done, that not all workers were consulting and complying by the plans. The railway company sought to alter the plans to make the main road into a dog-leg, which the Verderers vehemently opposed!
Working on the railway
The plan was to work on the railway from both ends, which required a substantial workforce. The project was taking place at a time of agricultural depression which was sufficient to keep labourers' wages lower so the opportunity for employment was no doubt welcomed by many local working men. The pay rate was between 3 and 4 shillings a day, somewhat better than those for agricultural labourers, but the work was demanding.
This aside, an influx of hundreds of working men into the area was inevitable. Most of the navvies drawn from further afield were largely itinerant workers, experienced in navvying, who went from one project to another regardless of location. Many found lodgings in the families of local working families, whilst others were housed in specially erected wooden 'hutments'. There are records of huts at Fernhill near New Milton and also close to the work at Sway. Accommodation was disorganised, usually down to the men to take the initiative to find both lodgings and employment. Living conditions in the communal huts were not great. Violet Mary Cook, who was born 'on the railway' in Sway in 1887, the daughter of a navvy, recalled being told "in those days the navvies lived in long galvanised iron huts divided into three; one end for men, the middle section for living quarters and the other end for unmarried women."
Desperate times in 1885
When contracting firm Kellett and Bentley went into liquidation and work ceased on 30 June 1885 there were huge consequences for contractors and sub-contractors, men had to be laid off, wages could not be paid and things became desperate for many. Some 300 navvies were paid off, but not before they had threatened violence if their money was not forthcoming. As Christmas approached and still no new contractor was established, Clara and Gertrude Petter appealed in the press for Christmas gifts so as 'to supply presents' to the navvies who were 'working so laboriously in the immediate neighbourhood.' In Christchurch the vicar and railway missionaries went round begging for money to help alliviate the poverty of the labourers.
The firm of Joseph Firbank and Co took over as new contractors to complete the works. Conditions were very hard and treacherous. Many navvies suffered injuries and even death, often following sudden falls of unstable banks. The fundamental problem was that the 'Barton clay' was extremely sticky and very hard to manage. Joseph Firbank described the 'celebrated Barton clay - dear to the geologist as supplying the happiest of happy hunting grounds for fossils, but utterly obnoxious to the engineer and contractor, as treacherous and slippery in the highest degree.'
The gooey clay often stuck to the trucks and proved difficult to top when they arrived at embankments. The problems arising from this terrible terrain had been difficult for Kellet and Bentley and when Firbank took over he had to devote a lot of capital in resolving the problems caused by the clay.
The navvies working in these sticky, wet conditions often had their clothes, boots and tools clogged with these yellow or bluish clays and as they filed back form the cuttings or embankment, they gave the impression of having been wallowing in treacle. This was the origin of the Sway treacle mines!
The men battled with the 'treacle' and worked hard to build the railway line, bridges, embankments, culverts, junctions and stations that we know today. Next time you catch the train to Bournemouth, spare a thought for the many labourers who made your journey possible back in the soggy clays and desperate days of the 1880s...
Source and images:
Treacle Mines, Tragedies and Triumph: The Building of the Bournemouth Direct Line 1883-1888 (Jude James)
St Barbe Museum & Art Gallery
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