History

The WW1 Factory Train That's Transporting People 104 Years Later

The train may be old and quaint but it comes from a dark time in British history when it was used to move materials for weapon production.

A unique train that started its life in a mustard gas factory in 1917 is helping commuters and tourists get around in Hampshire. 

The rare piece of First World War military heritage is still earning its keep at Hythe Pier.

Hythe Pier Railway runs for 700 yards, on a 2ft-wide track, taking commuters, shoppers and tourists from the land to the pier head, where they can catch the ferry to Southampton. 

The train may be old and quaint but it comes from a dark time in British history. 

While the fighting was continuing in the trenches during the First World War, the little engine – or correctly named tractor unit – was supplied with two others to an armaments factory.

Trains were routinely used to move the vast amounts of raw materials needed to keep the weapons of war in production.

A rare photo of the Hythe Ammunition Train from about 1920 before the tractor unit arrived in Hythe DATE UNKNOWN Credit Alan Titheridge.jpg
A rare photo of the Hythe Ammunition Train from about 1920 (Picture: Alan Titheridge)

These tractor units were destined for Avonmouth near Bristol, which made mustard gas – a devastating chemical weapon.

Historian and author Alan Titheridge explains how these engines came to be in Hampshire.

He said: "Mr Thomas Percy who owned the ferry and the pier came into possession of a war office surplus materials catalogue at the end of the First World War. 

"Listed in there were the track units, lengths of rail and various other railway equipment – by 1922 they had this railway running up and down the pier."

Royal Navy veteran and train driver Ken Crosby said: "It's an honour, it's a bit of heritage, you can feel the 99 years as you drive it, but it's lovely." 

The railway's survival has not always been assured, and recently the COVID-19 pandemic placed its future in doubt. 

Hythe Pier Heritage Association now owns the pier and railway for the community and is fundraising to renovate and restore it all in an attempt to keep history alive.

Next year marks the centenary of the Hythe Pier Railway.