Chronicles: Express to Ventnor

I was prompted to write this piece after reading in an October 1950 issue of the Isle of Wight Mercury an article by Fred Turton that asked ‘which was the Island’s best railway?’  Turton was referring, of course, to the two main companies that operated on the Island before the ‘Grouping’ of 1923 when all lines came under the control of the Southern Railway. The two precursor companies were the Isle of Wight Railway (IWR) and the Isle of Wight Central (IWC).

Turton came down heavily in favour of the latter on account of their innovative operating policies, even though, financially, they always seemed to be on the verge of bankruptcy. The IWR, by contrast, ‘was rich and paid a handsome dividend’, but, according to Turton, did not deliver.

There was one primary exception, though. This was the achievement of the fastest train on the Island: the ‘Ventnor Riviera’ Express. It was a service that ran non-stop one way only (from Ryde to Ventnor). The picture below comes from the Society  archives and depicts this particular train service on the outskirts of Ryde. The writing on the rear of the photo, however, describes it as ‘The Isle of Wight Express’, even if it is plainly en route to Ventnor. The service was also sometimes known as the ‘Invalids’ Express’, for it seems to have come about partly as an outcome of official pressure from Ventnor to speed up the arrival of patients for the Royal National Hospital. The train ran from 1891 to 1898 and was scheduled to take 21 minutes for the journey, but eager crews typically managed it in 19 minutes and sometimes even 17 or 18 minutes. Just think how this compares with the time for a journey made from Ryde Pierhead to Ventnor today!

Returning to the picture, the locomotive is a Beyer-Peacock 2-4-0 tank with a wonderfully burnished brass dome. This type of engine seems to have been rostered for the service on a regular basis. It was, as Turton reminded his readers, though, not an express locomotive. For such an example, you had to go to the IWC lines which possessed a fine Adams 4-4-0 tank, almost a replica of the 4-4-0 express tender engines that ran on the London & South Western Railway’s main lines. It was said to be the envy of the IWR directors.

Most readers will know that Ventnor had two railways routes, the second coming from Merstone Junction via Godshill, Whitwell, High Hat tunnel and the St. Lawrence Undercliff. The intriguing twist on the story presented above is that this line, operated by the Isle of Wight Central, also had an express service: from Cowes (the 11.30 a.m. from Waterloo). It was known as ‘The Undercliff Special’, reaching Ventnor Town station at 4.15 p.m. So patients destined for the TB hospital had an alternative route. IWC directors were plainly determined not to be outdone by their IWR competitor!

Michael Freeman, Ventnor and District Local History Society

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