1876 Board of Trade REPORT

the curious history of the ratty

steel makers to the world

Between the 18th and 20th centuries iron-ore extraction and steel-making were the dominant industries in the west of Cumbria, with towns such as Barrow-in Furness, Workington and Millom becoming internationally known for their products. In the early 1870s demand for local iron ore suddenly increased and Whitehaven Iron Mines Ltd turned to Eskdale, an area previously mined by the Romans. One of the challenges the company faced in this isolated area was how to get ore from the mines to the main-line Furness Railway at Ravenglass faster and cheaper than by horse and cart. The solution was obvious… 


In 1873 Parliament passed an Act to allow Whitehaven Iron Mines Ltd to construct a seven-mile railway from the Nab Gill mine at Boot in Eskdale to the station and harbour at Ravenglass. A standard-gauge 4ft 8 1/1inch track would have cost £90,000 (approx. £9,180,000 in 2016 terms) but laying rails to a narrow 3ft gauge only cost £32,000 (approx. £3,264,000). Whitehaven Iron Mines Ltd and Ambrose Oliver, the contractor, took equal shares. 50 navvies started work in February 1874 and within a year ran trains to Eskdale Green. A steam loco’, ‘Devon’, arrived from Manning Wardle in Leeds and the full-length line opened for goods in May 1875. However, passing the government Board of Trade inspection to carry the public took two attempts. The inspector, Colonel Yolland, had never seen ‘masonry…of such indifferent quality’!

The first passenger train left at 8:35am on Monday 20 November 1876 ‘gaily decorated with flags…. The district was quite en fete over the event…’. Unfortunately, the iron ore being extracted from the Eskdale mines was of such poor quality that prices fell rapidly and within 6 months of opening, unpaid bills forced the railway into Receivership. However, although the railway was technically it continued to run for a further 32 years! Being the easiest way to transport goods up and down Eskdale, the railway carried produce from local grocers, coal merchants, millers, even basket makers, though as a passenger route the local population sometimes joked that it was quicker to walk…

Eventually dwindling traffic and the poor state of repair of the line and rolling stock forced the railway to close in 1913.

AN UNEXPECTED REVIVAL – Re-Birth of ‘La’al Ratty’ in 1915

When the Great War broke out in 1914 the old railway was overgrown but not forgotten, while elsewhere trains, tracks and complete railways were requisitioned for war service. The line’s salvation came in the unlikely form of miniature railway engineer and model manufacturer W.J. Bassett-Lowke, whose new company, Narrow Gauge Railways Ltd, was seeking a location to test their 15inch gauge locomotives. This was a departure for Bassett-Lowke, which until now had produced model steam engines and ships as well as providing small trains for exhibitions, fun-fairs and rich mens’ estates (including the King of Siam (Thailand)). Narrow Gauge Railways purchased the railway in 1915 and gradually re-gauged the entire seven miles from 3ft to 15 inch, giving the railway its local nickname ‘La’al Ratty’, old Cumbrian dialect meaning ‘narrow way’.

On 28th August, only 12 days after a German submarine shelled the local coast, the first trains on the small railway ran as far as Muncaster Mill. Carrying over 700 passengers in four days, the curious little railway was an immediate success. In fact, during the first year of operation ‘La’al Ratty’ became so busy that more engines were needed to complement the only loco’ ‘Sans Pareil’ which, together with a set of open coaches, had been retrieved by Bassett-Lowke from Norway where it had appeared at the 1914 Jubilee Exhibition. By the end of the war in 1918, ‘Sans Pareil’ had been joined by another two Bassett-Lowke engines; ‘Colossus’ and ‘Sir Aubrey Brocklebank’. Unfortunately these ‘model’ locomotives proved too lightly built and lacking in power for the steep gradients and sharp curves of the railway, and it became something of a tradition for passengers to push the trains up the hills.  A further three locomotives, ‘Katie’, ‘Ella’ and ‘Muriel’, were purchased together with wagons, coaches and track from the Duffield Bank and Eaton Hall railways after the death of their designer, Sir Arthur Heywood.

entering the granite business

The 1920s saw another change of ownership, to local landowner and shipping magnate Sir Aubrey Brocklebank. Although predominantly a passenger railway by this time, a quarry had developed at Beckfoot and the railway carried granite from there to a purpose-built crushing plant at Murthwaite. A new, larger loco’, ‘River Esk’, was constructed by Davey-Paxman in 1923 to handle the heavy stone traffic. It was designed by the famous model engineer Henry Greenly who had also produced the Bassett-Lowke locomotives. The stone traffic flourished to a point where it was necessary to construct a standard gauge line which straddled the 15inch tracks from the crushing plant down to Ravenglass.

Passenger running was suspended during the Second World War, though the granite traffic continued, with services recommencing in 1946. Ownership of ‘La’al Ratty’ passed to the Keswick Granite Company, which in 1949 hoped to supply the Sellafield site with aggregate for construction. Unfortunately, the presence of iron in the Eskdale granite made it unsuitable for use on a nuclear site. With the quarry becoming uneconomical to maintain, the Beckfoot quarry, Murthwaite crusher and standard-gauge line to Ravenglass were closed and dismantled in 1953.


The railway now only carried passengers. With a short tourist season it was a liability that Keswick Granite Co tried to sell. With no buyer immediately forthcoming, the railway went to auction at the end of the 1960 operating season. In the months before the auction, people came for a ‘last ride’ while a local movement formed to save the railway for posterity. In early August Barrow railwaymen formed the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway Preservation Society. Muncaster Parish Council held the funds being raised, though on the day of the sale it was felt that these were insufficient to purchase the line outright. Fortunately two interested parties; Colin Gilbert, a Midlands stockbroker, and Sir Wavell Wakefield, a local businessman and landowner, stepped in to make up the balance of the purchase price of £12,500 (approx. £262,600 in 2016 terms). The present-day Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway company was formed, supported by the Preservation Society 

into the present... 

Today ‘La’al Ratty’ has been in operation for over 130 years and, with new or redeveloped locomotives, rolling stock and stations since the 1960s, carries over 100,000 passengers every year. 


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