We are grateful to Jeremy Hill of the Colne Stour Association for the use of his excellent article on Chappel’s landmark.

photo of viaduct

The valleys of the Colne and Stour saw their fair share of railway mania in the first half of the 19th century. The result was a maze of lines connecting almost every town and village of any substance (and some very insubstantial ones as well). Starting from Marks Tey on the Eastern Counties Railway, the Colchester, Stour Valley, Sudbury and Halstead Railway advanced to the metropolises of Chappel and Wakes Colne, Bures, Sudbury, Long Melford, Glemsford, Cavendish, Clare, Stoke and Sturmer on the Stour Valley Line and White Colne, Earls Colne, Halstead, Hedingham, Yeldham and Birdbrook on the Colne Valley Line. The lines joined up at Haverhill and continued to Cambridge. From Long Melford there was a branch to Bury St. Edmunds.

The 1960’s put paid to the vast majority of all this but by a miracle the line to Sudbury viaChappel and Bures survived. After the proposal to close the line had been fought for several yea

rs, the government announced that the line would close in July 1974. Then the unexpected happened. The Yom Kippur war and the resultant oil crisis frightened the government into believing that oil would run out and that cars might be doomed. Thank goodness for knee-jerk reactions – the line was reprieved and as a result the magnificent viaduct at Chappel, the finest monument to Victorian rail building skills in East Anglia, is still in use.

The Chappel viaduct is 1066ft long, has 32 arches of 30ft span and its maximum height is 75ft. Interestingly it could have been dwarfed by a proposed viaduct over the Stour included in the prospectus for the Eastern Counties Railway from London to Yarmouth in 1834. This viaduct, which got no further than being included in the 1838 ordnance survey map, would have been over three-quarters of a mile long with about a hundred arches of 40ft span and 70ft high. It would have crossed the river at Flatford, more or less on top of the mill, and the history of the tourist industry in East Anglia would have been very different.

In March 1843 the Eastern Counties Railway from Shoreditch to Colchester opened for business. It took a further two years for the line to be extended to Ipswich. These were years of furious activity for the promoters of East Anglian railways. Numerous groups competed against each other, all championing different routes, endless bills were presented to parliament and countless prospectuses issued. Because a railway company needed compulsorily to purchase land, it was necessary for each company to be incorporated by Act of Parliament. The Colchester, Stour Valley, Sudbury and Halstead Railway Company received its Act of Parliament in June 1846 in spite of competition from the Eastern Counties Railway who were promoting a rival line from Lexden to Bures.

The engineer for the construction of the line was Peter Bruff, who had been promoter and engineer for the line from Ipswich to Colchester and had been dismissed for the poor quality of the Stanway embankment. The construction work, which included the line from Colchester to the Hythe was let to a single contractor George Wythes at a price of £190,000. To reach Bures the line had to cross the Colne and then traverse the Mount Bures ridge and in order to do this it was planned that it should cross the Colne on a timber viaduct about 70ft high. In the event, good brick earth was subsequently discovered at Mount Bures, so it was decided to change to brick arches which would be cheaper to maintain. In July 1847 after two million bricks had been readied and a workforce of 606 men assembled, work began on the foundations.

On September 14th a ceremony was held to lay the foundation stone which is still clearly visible from the Colchester road on the fourth arch looking towards Marks Tey. The navvies were dressed up for the occasion in white frocks and straw hats and the stone was jointly laid by the chairman and deputy chairman of the company, using the silver trowels obligatory on such occasions. A bottle containing a newly minted sovereign, a half-sovereign, a shilling, a sixpence and a four-penny piece was placed under the stone.

The crowd then adjourned to a marquee for refreshment, but the celebration was somewhat dampened by the news that the bottle and its contents had been stolen. That night someone tendered a suspiciously new sovereign to the barmaid at the Rose and Crown in Chappel, leading to the arrest of a bricklayer from Norwich who had been on the platform at the time of the stone laying ceremony. He subsequently appeared in court charged with stealing £1 11s 10d from the company, but with the aid of an efficient lawyer, who argued that the company “had no property in the money”, he got off, and the case was dismissed.

The huge number of men required to build the railways led to all sorts of social problems, the labourers being prone, so it was thought, to every sort of vice and villainy. Efforts were made to improve the labourers’ morals but considerably less effort seems to have been put into improving their living conditions. A parliamentary Select Committee was appointed in 1846 to investigate the living conditions of those building the railways, but it did not lead to any immediate action. The one thing upon which everybody agreed was that the men should not work on Sunday, and the mayor of Colchester went out personally to order the contractors to stop work.


The bulk of the 600 men working on the viaduct would have been encamped locally, probably around what is now known as the Chappel Millennium Green. Whereas nowadays they might largely be Irish, most of the labourers were in fact East Anglian farm workers, desperate for some form of better paid employment. The Thatchers Arms at Mount Bures is said to have been built specifically to slake the thirst of the navvies.

They worked with remarkable efficiency and the foundations having been completed in February 1848, the viaduct was finished except for the parapets by the following February. Although some 5 or 6 million bricks are said to have been used, the piers were hollow to save money. A further remarkable feature of the viaduct is that it is on a gradient and the Sudbury end is 9 feet 6 inches higher than the Marks Tey end.The total cost which was estimated by Bruff to be £21,000, seems remarkably reasonable when compared to the present day cost of, for instance, having ones roof repaired. The Eastern Counties Railway is said to have cost £50,000 per mile because of the very large cost of compensating land owners in addition to buying the land.

The first passenger train to Sudbury carrying an official party from Colchester ran on July 2nd. As the train entered the branch line at Marks Tey, the engine’s chimney struck a triumphal arch erected to celebrate the occasion, causing “a huge descent of verdant ornament and more solid woodwork.” Thus garlanded, the train continued on its way to Sudbury, being greeted en route by a band at Bures and bells at Sudbury, where a great crowd awaited it. The station was still unfinished, and having arrived earlier than expected the honoured guests had to cool their heels for a couple of hours before sitting down to a celebratory banquet at the town hall.

There is a feeling of “plus ca change” reading about the early days of railways in East Anglia. In 1857 the chairman of the Eastern Counties Railway was presented with a petition by the citizens of Sudbury citing problems which seem all too familiar today. The last train to Sudbury, they complained, was on average an hour late as “luggage trucks are invariably attached to this train at Marks Tey…..during which the passengers are confined in their carriages and are constantly shunted about for the space of 20 minutes before leaving.” Having further complained about the “almost universally bad and dirty state of the carriages,” the petition turned its attention to the waiting room at Marks Tey. “The shed there, termed waiting room, is….a place unfitted for all classes, into which no person ventures except under the direst necessity of a stress of weather or other unfortunate circumstance. At this place it seems to be the practice unnecessarily to detain passengers for the arrival of trains.” It took people some considerable time to acclimatize to the pitfalls of travelling by train. On September 14th 1847, the day that the foundation stone was laid at Chappel, a letter to the Times began as follows: “Are the public to submit to be penned up in railway carriages with madmen or not?” We still await an answer.

Yet in spite of these shortcomings and the efforts of British Rail, Beeching and countless incompetent transport ministers, the Chappel Viaduct, now a listed monument, still carries trains across the Colne.

Jeremy Hill

viaduct at sunset