World ‘Firsts’

In 1830, Canterbury and Whitstable Railway was at the cutting edge of technology. Known affectionately as the ‘Crab and Winkle Line’ from the seafood for which Whitstable was famous, it was the third railway line ever to be built. However, it was the first in the world to take passengers regularly and the first railway to issue season tickets. The first railway season tickets were issued at Canterbury in 1834 to take people to the beach at Whitstable over the summer season. This fact is now recorded on a plaque at Canterbury West railway station. Whitstable was also home to the world’s oldest passenger railway bridge.

The Industrial Revolution was happening and all the famous engineers of the time were connected to the Crab and Winkle line. George Stephenson and his son Robert built the Invicta, the locomotive which pulled passengers out of Whitstable. Thomas Telford built the harbour where the railway ends. Isambard Kingdom Brunel inspected the route’s railway tunnel, the first in the world to take passenger trains.

The survey for the project was done by William James who was a leading promoter of railway schemes. Of three proposed routes, the most direct of about 7 miles was chosen despite involving tunnelling and heavy gradients. George Stephenson was appointed engineer when it was discovered that the original costs had been underestimated although he only visited the line once or twice. His son Robert Stephenson supervised the construction work which took some 4 years to complete.

The Harbour

The City of Canterbury had been served by ships and barges navigating the river Stour as far as Fordwich. As commerce increased, the river was prone to silting up until eventually a better mode of transport had to be found.

A harbour at Whitstable was then built to serve the needs of the Canterbury. As steam power suddenly became the rage it seemed an ideal opportunity to build a railway to connect the city with the harbour replacing the existing turnpike road. Completed on the 19th March 1832, the harbour provided a direct connection to London, making it an important freight route.

The ‘Invicta’

On Monday the 3rd of May 1830, a clanking passenger locomotive, the ‘Invicta’ pulled into the platform near Whitstable Harbour carrying nearly 300 excited passengers from Canterbury.The ‘Crab and Winkle Line’ as it affectionately became known, had become the ‘first regular steam passenger railway in the world’ as stated in the Guinness Book of Records. The locomotive and the line were engineered by the famous George Stephenson and his son Robert, at their works in Newcastle upon Tyne.

The ‘Invicta’ was based on Stephenson’s more famous ‘Rocket’ which came into service four months later on the Liverpool to Manchester line. Unfortunately with just 12 horse power the ‘Invicta’ could not cope with the gradients and was only used on the section of line between Bogshole and South Street. The rest of the line was hauled by cables using steam driven static winding engines at the Winding Pond in Clowes Wood and the Halt on Tyler Hill Road. The Winding Pond also supplied water to the engines.

By 1836 the ‘Invicta’ was replaced and a third winding engine was built at South Street. The line was a pioneer in railway engineering using embankments, cuttings, level crossings, bridges and an 836 yard (764 metre) tunnel through the high ground at Tyler Hill. The railway was worked with old engines and ancient carriages always blackened by soot from the journey through the tunnel. It was said that goods trains tended to slow down for their crews to check pheasant traps in the woods and to pick mushrooms in the fields.

Journey times in the 1830s were approximately 40 minutes, but by 1846 with improvements to both the line and the locomotive, the trip took just 20 minutes. This is a very respectable time especially when compared with today’s often congested roads.

In 1839, the ‘Invicta’ was offered for sale as the three stationary engines were found to be adequate for working the whole line. The one enquiry came to nothing and the locomotive was put under cover. In 1846, The South Eastern Railway reached Canterbury and acquired the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway in 1845. The branch was relaid with heavier rail and locomotives replaced the stationary engines. For many years the ‘Invicta’ was displayed by the city wall and Riding Gate in Canterbury. The ‘Invicta’ is now displayed in the Canterbury museum.

The Tunnel

To follow the most direct route from Canterbury to Whitstable, the line had to pass either over or through the high ground at Tyler Hill. The latter was chosen and in 1826 the world’s first passenger Railway tunnel was completed, half a mile in length. At this time, it was an engineering feat no less impressive than the Channel Tunnel is today! When the first engines, passed through the tunnel, the low ceiling and narrow sides meant rolling stock had to be specially modified, and the trains were always cohered in soot.

Although the line closed in 1952, the tunnel remained. In the 1960s The University of Kent was built on the top of the hill that the tunnel passes through. Students from that time tell stories of walking right through the disused tunnel. Although the University had been advised that it was safe to build over the tunnel, in 1974 there was severe subsidence under one of the buildings, apparently caused by a 30-metre stretch of the tunnel collapsing. No one was injured, but the building was damaged and all but a short section at the south end of the tunnel was filled in. For such an old and pioneering structure, the tunnel has survived very well and its significance to Britain’s transport heritage, as the first of its kind, can not be overestimated.


The line was in use for over 120 years. Passengers were carried until 1931 after which the line was used for goods only. The line finally closed on the 1st of December 1952, but was re-opened for several weeks in 1953 after the great floods cut the main coastal line on the 31st of January. The line was offered for sale in the late 1950s and large sections of the line were sold to private landowners.

The world’s oldest railway bridge in Whitstable was knocked down in 1971 to make way for cars. Thirty metres of the tunnel collapsed in 1974 and by 1997 the whole route was disused built on, or overgrown, almost entirely forgotten…

Further Reading

The Canterbury and Whitstable Railway
Brian Hart ISBN 0 906867975

The Canterbury and Whitstable Railway 1830-1980 A Pictorial Survey
R L Ratcliffe ISBN 0 90527011 8

In the Tracks of Railway History – A Walk along the line of the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway
Mike Page ISBN 0 9515828 1 X

The Romance of a Railway
Rev. R. B. Fellows