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Figure 1: 8F 2-8-0 on a southbound freight just about to enter Annesley Tunnel on the GC main line in its dying days circa 1965. Photo Credit: David K Dykes

The Great Central Railway at Kirkby-in-Ashfield

In the late 1880’s the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway (MSL), to be renamed the Great Central Railway (GCR) in 1897, started casting its eyes southwards from the Sheffield area to the lucrative East Midlands coalfield. The Act for a line southwards from Beighton to Annesley passed in July 1889 with the line opening in October 1892.

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Figure 2: Map showing routes of the Great Central (GC) and Mansfield Railway lines at Kirkby-in-Ashfield (marked in blue).  Photo Credit: David Amos collection

The line at Kirkby-in-Ashfield passed through a deep and lengthy magnesium limestone cutting and after passing through the 997 yard Annesley Tunnel, it connected with the Great Northern Railway’s (GNR) Leen Valley line at Annesley. (see Blog https://www.kirkbysteam.co.uk/the-great-northern-railway-at-kirkby-in-ashfield/  Despite denials by the MSL at the time, the line was a precursor for its London Extension line.

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Figure 3: Kirkby Bentinck Station in 1966. Photo Credit: David Lowe

The MSL line passed through Killamarsh, Staveley, Duckmanton, Pilsley, Tibshelf and Kirkby-in-Ashfield, where Kirkby and Pinxton station was located. Later it was renamed Kirkby Bentinck. MSL passenger services between Nottingham and Sheffield Victoria commenced on 2nd January 1893. Sidings were built at Kirkby Bentinck with colliery branches to Langton Colliery initially and Bentinck Colliery when it was being developed in the mid 1890’s.

The MSL changed its name to the Great Central Railway on 1st August 1897 when its London Extension line was under construction. The seventy-three mile line started at Annesley where a north junction was made with the GNR’s Leen Valley Line. It ran to Quainton Road in Buckinghamshire where it joined the London Metropolitan Line. Marshalling yards and Locomotive Sheds were established at Annesley and Newstead, which opened in 1898. Passenger trains on the GCR London extension commenced on 15th March 1899. From 1899 to 1960, Kirkby-in-Ashfield was located on a Manchester to London (Marylebone) main line. After 1960, the GC lime became a secondary main line until closure in September 1966.

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Figure 4: Preserved 4-4-0 Director class Butler Henderson in GC livery at Rothley Station on the preserved GC line in Leicestershire, 1982. Photo Credit: David Amos

Paul Anderson and Jack Cupit (2000) commented that Robinson’s handsome 4-4-0’s, Atlantic’s and 4-6-0’s, with their GC bright green and deep red livery, hauling chocolate and French grey or vanished teak coaches, must have been an incongruous site in the grimy, industrial settings of Kirkby and Annesley during the early part of the twentieth century.

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Figure 5: Gresley Class V2 2-6-2 on mixed freight on the GC main line at Kirkby Quarries (Portland Park) in the early 1950’s. Photo Credit: Frank Ashley (Kirkby Heritage Centre collection)

In 1898, the Great Northern Leen Valley Extension line made a junction with GC main line at Kirkby South and the Mansfield Railway joined there in 1916, making Kirkby South a triple junction. Although the Mansfield Railway was an independent railway company, the GC operated it from the outset. At the grouping in 1923, the GC went into the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) along with Great Northern lines in the region.

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Figure 6: BI with the northbound South Yorkshireman express on the Great Central main line in Kirkby Quarries in the 1950’s. Photo Credit: Frank Ashley (Kirkby Heritage Centre collection)

At nationalisation in 1948, the GC main line went into British Railways (BR) Eastern Region. In the 1950’s, following wartime austerity measures, BR introduced two named express trains to the line, the Master Cutler and the South Yorkshireman, in an attempt to maintain the proud tradition of the GC. A Gresley A3 Pacific loco often hauled the Master Cutler, some of the class being allocated to Leicester GC Loco Shed at the time.

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Figure 7: Class 04 2-8-0 with steel bogie bolster empties about to take the Mansfield line at Kirkby South Junction in the early 1960’s. Photo Credit: David K Dykes

Freight remained important to the GC line, with the Mansfield Railway providing an important north-east / south west link for coal, steel and fish trains. Rationalisation started in 1958 when the GC main line was reallocated to BR’s London Midland Region and in 1960 it was deregulate to a secondary main line. The Master Cutler was diverted onto the East Coast Main Line (ECML) at Retford and a semi fast service of four trains a day ran between Nottingham Victoria and London Marylebone. Local passenger services between Nottingham Victoria and Sheffield Victoria, were withdrawn on 4th March 1963 resulting in the closure of Kirkby Bentinck station for passenger trains.

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Figure 8: Brush Type 4 (Class 47) on a southbound York – Bournemouth train having just passed through Kirkby Bentinck circa 1966. Photo Credit: David K Dykes

Annesley marshalling yards closed in June 1965 followed by Annesley Loco Sheds on 3rd January 1966. The last regular passenger service on the GC north of Nottingham, the York – Bournemouth cross-country service, was diverted onto Midland lines when the GC closed as a through route on 3rd September 1966.  The section of the GC between Kirkby South Junction and Annesley North Junction remained in use until 27th May 1968 as part of the former GNR network in the region.

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Figure 9: Demolition train on the GC main line near Kirkby South Junction in 1969. Photo Credit:  Arthur Upchurch Jnr

Track lifting of remaining GC and GNR lines took place in 1969 with the deep cutting and Annesley Tunnel being filled in the early 1970’s. However, this was halted just north of Kirkby South Junction in 1973 when rare orchids were found to be growing on the former GC trackbed. The site was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and the section of cutting has been saved to this day.

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Figure 10: Abandoned former GC and Mansfield Railway trackbeds at Kirkby Quarries (Portland Park) in 1982. Photo Credit: David Amos

In 1995, Stage 2 of the Robin Hood line (RHL) was constructed through Kirkby-in-Ashfield and trains now pass the location of Kirkby South Junction but at a higher level. Northbound RHL trains take the route of the former GN Leen Valley Extension line to reach the 1972 Kirkby deviation line just south of Kirkby-in-Ashfield station.

A standing joke in railway circles in that MSL stood for ‘Money Spent and Lost’ and GC stood for ‘Gone Completely!’ In effect the GC main line was the HS2 line of its day but being a third Manchester to London route under the nationalised years of BR it was deemed surplus to requirements when plans were made to electrify the West Coast Main Line. Many former GC railwaymen in the area said it was ‘closed by stealth’ from 1958 onwards by the London Midland Region of BR. 


References and Further Reading


Anderson, P. and Cupit, J.  An Illustrated History of Mansfield’s Railways, (2000).


Dow, G. Great Central Vol.2, Dominion of Watkin, 1864-1899, (1962).


Grainger, K.  South from Chesterfield Central: The Derbyshire Lines of the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway, Part Two A, (2013).


Hawkins, M.  The Great Central: Then and Now, (1989).


Kingscott, G. Lost Railways of Nottinghamshire, (2004).


Pearce, D. Nottingham towards Kirkby-in-Ashfield: The GCR route 1898 to 1966, (2020).


Posted by David Amos

SB2K Admin

7th November 2022