The Long Siding
The Park Prewett Railway
In addition to the private sidings mentioned in other sections serving the brickworks at Daneshill and Thornycroft's works, there was a third, much longer, private siding in Basingstoke. This served Park Prewett Hospital for the best part of forty years. Park Prewett Hospital came into being because the existing Asylum in Hampshire, at Knowle* between Southampton and Portsmouth, had insufficient capacity. When, in 1912, the decision was taken to construct the relief hospital at Park Prewett, a railway line was included in the planning.
* “Knowle”: As it happens, this Asylum also had a short private siding for coal deliveries
Contractors for the line were the local firm of Mussellwhite and Sapp. The line was constructed quite quickly. The route of the line was close to the recent Basingstoke Ringway West road. From the main line, the Park Prewett branch rose quite steeply - the gradient was 1 in 53 for most of the way to the hospital. There was a dip in the railway at Kingsclere road. The approach to the hospital was mostly level. There was a very sharp left curve just after the Kingsclere Road and another long right-hand curve approaching the hospital, which sharpened in the last few yards of the approach.
The main reason the line was built quickly was for it to be used to bring materials to the hospital construction site. The timing of the building work turned out to be unfortunate, as some of the builders were called away when war broke out. When in 1916 the hospital was completed, the railway was used for its planned role of transporting coal to its boilers. Ironically, Park Prewett did not come into immediate use as an asylum, but was taken over by the Canadian Army in 1917 for use as a military hospital. There are local rumours about some of the wounded soldiers arriving at the hospital by rail. This is not impossible, because the L&SWR did include some short carriages* in its stock list. Whilst these were milk wagons and horse boxes, which might seem an unusual mode of transport, short reflection will suggest that coaches with ordinary seats would not have been best suited to carrying men on stretchers. On the point of whether or not soldiers ever did reach the hospital by train, other authors are sceptical. Once the war was over, and the soldiers had left,* the hospital was turned over to its envisaged use, and the railway then settled down to a twice-a-week coal train routine. The following were the 1934 Southern Railway operating instructions for the line:
"Park Prewett siding: The engine will propel* vehicles from the direction of Basingstoke and haul them on the return journey. A van must be attached at the rear (front when being propelled) of the vehicles. The engine whistle must be sounded when approaching and passing over the level crossing* situated about midway between Basingstoke and the Asylum."
* “short carriages”: Shorter vehicles would have been necessary because of the sharp curve on the line, as related later.
* “had left”: They remained until 1921.
* “the engine will propel”: as mentioned in the text, the climb up to Park Prewett was quite steep, and the locomotive was kept at the Basingstoke end of the train to prevent any mishaps due to couplings breaking between the trucks, which would otherwise roll back towards the main line.
* “level crossing”: This is odd. Roger Simmonds, in his account of the line, says that a level crossing was indeed planned at this road, but the council in March 1912 insisted that a bridge under the road would be required instead. In support of this, a bridge is shown on a 1933 map. This level crossing apparently did not exist!
When World War 2 broke out, the hospital was again used for military casualties, and the usual inmates were displaced. One of the few notable events on the line took place during this period. An attempt was made to take a train formed of normal passenger coaches up the siding, to judge the feasibility of moving casualties there by rail. In the event, the sharp curves on the line got the better of the train, which became wedged in a curved cutting. Subsequently, the casualties were taken to the hospital by road.
In common with other parts of the railway network, the condition of the track on the siding deteriorated during the war because there were more important things to worry about than maintaining private sidings. The result was that, after the war, deliveries of coal were made by road. Some repairs were made in 1948-9, but these were not sufficient to satisfy British Railways, who suspended services on 30 Sep 1950, until the whole line was attended to. In the event, the money for the necessary repairs was not forthcoming, and the siding never saw further traffic.
The period of indecision over the siding's future accounted for four years, and the track remained in place for a further two, being lifted in 1956. Today, there are few signs of the line. Traces of the track bed can be seen in the embankment of the ring road, and the sharp curved cutting near Kingsclere Road can still be made out. Nearer the hospital, a curved line of trees marks the course of the final approach, and there are remains of the terminal facilities at the hospital.
Overall, the length of the siding suggests an importance for this line greater than it ever really had. The great unresolved question about the line is: did casualties ever use it. To that, one can say that it did not happen in World War 2, but might*, just might, have happened in World War 1, when suitable stock was available.
* “might”: I discussed this with noted local historian Arthur Attwood in 1995 after I wrote this piece. He discounts the possibility completely, and one must respect this judgment, because it's quite certain that if it had happened, Arthur would know about it.Click here to return to the table of contents for Basingstoke's Railway History