The Railway

We have created a brand new virtual exhibition focusing on the story of the Horncastle Railway as part of our plans to mark the 50th anniversary of its closure on the 5th April 1971.

Our volunteers have tracked down photographs, plans, and objects, many of which have never been seen before.

Visit the virtual exhibition



Background to the History of the Horncastle Railway

Horncastle in the first half of the 19th century was a thriving market town. It was home to 5,017 people (1851) and famed as the home of thelargest horse fair in Europe.

The Horse Fair on the Bull Ring seen from across the Canal’s South Basin in 1890. The Ship Inn is on the right. Photo credit: Horncastle History & Heritage Society’s Town Archive.

By the 1840s, railways were connecting Britain, opening new markets and reducing the price of coal and goods once carried by canal or packhorse. Yet Horncastle still depended on its canal, which had opened in 1802.

Long and costly battles between rival promoters of railways in Lincolnshire resulted in the opening of the Great Northern Railways "Lincolnshire Loop Linefrom Peterborough to Boston, Lincoln and on to the North in 1848bypassing Horncastle. Here theinefficient canal company maintained a monopoly, and the people of Horncastle began to see other towns leave them behind in this age of progress.

The Great Northern could not afford to build a branch to Horncastle, despite seeing it as vital to attracting goods traffic to its other lines. So a plan was hatched by Horncastles leading citizens, whereby the local people themselves would finance a Horncastle Railway Company to build a 7˝ mile branch from Kirkstead station on the Loop Line and the Great Northern would operate it. Proceeds would be split 50 50.

As its engineer John Cubitt later said, the line would be: "the firstbranch of the great stem which the Great Northern Railway threw out.”

The plans met strong resistance from the Horncastle Canal Company, but eventually the Parliamentary Bill to build the line was given Royal Assent in 1854.

The Horncastle Canal Company objected fiercely to the railway, and its decline was rapid once it had to compete. Image credit: Horncastle History & Heritage Society’s Town Archive.

Building the line was rapid and opening celebrations were planned for 11th August 1855. But a Board of Trade inspector refused permission. Rain had damaged an embankment. In characteristic spirit the people of Horncastle decided to go ahead with their festivities regardless! (Expand section below to find out more about these). Six days later after another inspection the Horncastle Railway opened just in time for the Horse Fair. Heavy goods and other traffic commenced on 26th September 1855.

It was an immediate success. The price of coal in Horncastle was cut from 17/6d (87p) to 13/6d (67p) a ton, and the canal company had to drop its fees to compete.A cheap excursion to London ran in October for 6s. (30p).

That month 3,200 people, 2,580 quarters of grain, 4,156 sheep, 298 cattle, 48 horses, 35 pigs and 91 calves were conveyed. Shares rose in value so much they proved impossible to buy.


This is just a sample of the exhibition. Click here to visit our Horncastle Railway Virtual Exhibition or you can go direct to any of its sections by clicking on the right hand column.

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Grand Opening of the Railway
Description of the festivities accompanying the opening of the railway


 (All extracts below are from articles by C.E.S. in ‘The News’ 21/9/1978 & 23/4/1981 currently in our Archives)

Coming in 1855, the railway helped, at Horncastle, to usher in a new age. We were a sort of out-post of the industrial revolution of Victorian days and the railway in the age of steam constantly reminded us of this fact.

Starting exultantly as a means of showing that Horncastle was never to be left behind, we kept very happily in step with travel by rail for a good century or so.

Then, as an acknowledgment that the motor car had really taken over, we waved goodbye to the last of the steam trains with scarcely a twinge of regret. Hardly anyone was present to see the last train depart.



News that the Horncastle Railway Bill had received Parliamentary approval reached the town at ten o’clock at night. Notwithstanding the lateness of the hour, a peal was rung on the church bells and people paraded the streets shouting and cheering.

A sum of £12,000 was subscribed for the construction of the line. Actually, in total, it cost £60,000 and was on the whole thought to be cheap at the price.

Long before the opening date, the parish church tower was adorned with a handsome tricolour flag bearing the inscription ‘God speed the Railway’ provided by enthusiasts. Horncastle Town Band also joined with enthusiasm in this preliminary celebration along the principal streets, proceeded by a special railway standard bearer.

All Horncastle shops were closed on the day the railway was opened, August 7th 1855. In the morning 2,500lb of beef was distributed among the poor of the town while continuing peals were rung on the church bells. Horncastle & Spilsby brass bands paraded the streets, proclaiming joyously that a new age was dawning.

Four or five wonderful triumphal floral arches were put up the like of which Horncastle will almost certainly never see again. These were at the railway station, the junction of the High Street with the Market Place and a third at the Town Bridge with still others in the Bull Ring and near St Mary’s. The railway bridge bore the arms of St Henry Dymoke and Mr Stanhope of Revesby. Near the church was an arch which had as its theme ‘The Rose of England’.

Easily the most arresting arch was that in the Market Place which was adorned with armour, spears, fulchions and battle axes. The Arms of the town were here displayed and also those of the Bishop of Carlisle, at this date, the Lord of the Manor.

‘A very nice arch’ put up at the junction of the Bull Ring with North Street. This arch was notable, so it was said, because of its very great height.

At the south bridge there was a sort of triple arch, having one in the centre flanked by  smaller arches at the side. A smaller arch was also put up at St Mary’s bridge.

The most marvellous town procession ever seen started from the Bull Ring to pass along in due time to West Street and the station.  The procession was headed by a navvy bearing a bronze pickaxe and shovel. Then came more navvies, waking four abreast. Behind were a succession of banners and the bands together with a silver-gilt wheelbarrow. The Horncastle Town Band played ‘The Standard Bearer’ with Spilsby Band further along the line playing ‘Cheer, Boys, Cheer’.

All the important people of Horncastle were there as went without saying, including JC Osbourne, Parish Clerk, in his robes and preceded by a standard bearer. The Vicar of Horncastle, the Rev WH Milner was there.

The railway directors walked two by two. There were also 1,000 schoolchildren, four abreast and all the Horncastle clubs were represented together with several thousand members of the public.

It was the greatest concourse of Horncastle people which the town had ever seen in its history, and perhaps greater than it would ever see again,  and one of the greatest displays of railway enthusiasm seen in Lincolnshire at this time. The whole scene was one of real triumph.

Bearing in mind the poverty of the time, and the stupendous nature of the task which was undertaken chiefly with local money and local inspiration, it could be said that the railway constituted Horncastle’s greatest long term achievement.

 Sir Henry Dymoke was, very appropriately, Chairman of the new company, the Horncastle and Kirkstead Railway Company. The great day concluded with what was called a splendid dinner for 200  notables at the Bull Hotel. There was also a wonderful display of fireworks on the Wong, apparently given by the railway company to set the seal of success on the day’s operations

 It had been arranged that the Great Northern Railway was to work the new line, handing over half the receipts to the locally based company. Trials made by Great Northern on the new line were said at the time to be entirely satisfactory and when these preliminaries had been completed a whole series of excursion were arranged at very cheap fares, thus demonstrating to local people that they were now very much part of a wider world.


Note: Due to the early date of this event, we have no photographs or illustrations available