Spark-arrestor chimneys and a whole lot of industrial railway heritage history

Industrial railway modellers can gain plenty of inspiration from former large complexes such as the one that formerly served a large Bowater’s paper mill in Kent and became known as the Sittingbourne & Kemsley Light Railway in 1972. Craig Amess delves into the history of this fascinating line that is a thriving visitor attraction today.

In 1877, publisher and newspaper owner Edward Lloyd bought Sittingbourne Paper Mill, and a horse-drawn tramway centred on the wharf at Milton Creek was constructed to move raw materials and finished products around. The lines served storage sheds and the mill itself, and in 1905 the first two steam locomotives arrived.

In its heyday, the system boasted 14 locomotives including two fireless engines, a diesel and a battery-electric engine. At first the mill relied heavily on raw materials brought in by barge, but the discharge of paper-making waste such as china clay started silting up Milton Creek and turning the
water white.

By 1913, with an ever-growing demand for raw materials, plans were drawn up to build Ridham Dock and Tramway, and although construction was hindered by the First World War, the tramway was completed by 1916 and the dock by the end of the conflict.

The safety valves of Bagnall 0-6-2 tank engine Superb, with its spark-arrestor chimney, have cracked open as it stands at the quaintly named Much Purring station.

The original plans had included a half-mile steel viaduct between Sittingbourne Viaduct and Milton Regis Halt stations, but in the end the structure became one of reinforced concrete comprising 118 spans and six bridges between Sittingbourne Viaduct and Milton Regis Halt stations.

Milton Regis Viaduct originally curved around houses that were later demolished, hence its meandering route, and although more than £160,000 has had to be invested in repairs over the past few years, it remains in use.

The development of the mill was restricted by the Southern Railway on one side and the creek on the other, so in 1923 a new mill was built between Ridham and Sittingbourne at Kemsley, becoming the largest paper mill in Europe at the time.

The railway ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week, taking workers to and from the mill. The ‘main line’ alone was 3½ miles long, and more than 10 miles of track spanned the whole network. In addition, an internal standard-gauge line at Ridham Dock and Kemsley branched off from the Sheerness line.

In 1927 Lloyd’s sold the mill to Berry’s, who in turn sold to the Bowater family in 1936, and Bowater’s were still in charge when a study of their internal transport in 1965 concluded that road transport would be a much cheaper option. In 1969 the railway, locomotives and rolling stock were handed over to the Locomotive Club of Great Britain’s Light Railway Section for preservation as a tourist railway, and this became the Sittingbourne & Kemsley Light Railway in 1972.

Since Bowater’s sold the mills in 1986, they have changed ownership many times.

For the full article and to view more images, see the November edition of Modelling – available now!

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