The idea of building a 15” gauge miniature main line with double track was the brainchild of Count Louis Zborowski, a millionaire of Polish and American decent, educated at Eton and deeply interested in all things mechanical. He was one of the founders of the Aston Martin Motor Company and had his own well-staffed workshop where he built and maintained his own racing cars which he also drove.
In 1921 Zborowski met fellow Etonian, Captain J. E. P. Howey, another millionaire racing driver.
The two men became close friends and discovered that they had a mutual fascination for 15” gauge railways.
Zborowski and Howey visited the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway (R&ER) in Cumbria, which had been running as a 15” gauge line since 1917.
Their first thought was to try to buy the line, improve it and extend it but that was not possible.
Meanwhile, Zborowski had begun building a 15” gauge line on his estate at Bridge, near Canterbury and was determined to have the biggest and best miniature locomotives for his railway.
Henry Greenly, who had designed the successful 2-8-2 River Esk for the R&ER, was the obvious man to consult. Following discussions between Zborowski, Howey and Greenly a specification was drawn up for a one third scale 15” gauge locomotive resembling a LNER Gresley Pacific. Zborowski ordered two locomotives from Davey-Paxman of Colchester, who had built River Esk.
However, later that same year everything was cast into doubt when Zborowski was killed while driving in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. However, Howey’s father had died a few months earlier and he was now his own master financially. Encouraged by his mother and friends, he decided to continue with the railway vision as a memorial to Zborowski.
In 1925 Greenly was commissioned to find a site for the ‘best miniature railway in the world’, a difficult task given that most of the country was already served by branch lines. Of the Big Four railway companies, only the Southern Railway was willing to help and suggested the Romney Marshes where a branch line had been proposed, between New Romney and Hythe, but never built. The locals were still in favour of a railway but as a standard gauge line would never pay so a miniature version seemed the ideal solution.
The line would be 8 miles long, flat and with no important obstacles, When Howey visited the site he gave his approval right away and Greenly commenced the survey.
By the end of 1925 the application for a Light Railway Order was made and after protracted discussions with all parties concerned, was granted six months later.
The double track line between New Romney and Hythe was completed in 1927. Further locomotives had been ordered during the line’s construction and it opened with a fleet of 7 main line engines and one 0-4-0 tender tank engine.
The line opened on 16 July 1927 with Henry Greenly Mountain Class ‘Hercules’ hauling the inaugural train from Hythe to New Romney.
The line was extended to Dungeness in 1928, again with double track which gave a total length of 13½ miles, by far the longest 15” gauge railway in the world.
The Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway quickly became famous and people came to ride on what was referred to as the ‘Smallest Public Railway in the World’.
The railway prospered until the outbreak of the Second World War when most of the civilian population was evacuated away from what had become a militarily sensitive area.
In 1940 the line was requisitioned by the Somerset Light Infantry who dispatched Hercules and two bogie ballast wagons to the Southern Railway works at Ashford for conversion to the only miniature armoured train in the world.
Fantastically, it was rumoured to have caused one Luftwaffe pilot to crash by flying too low as he didn’t know it was one third the size of a normal train. The line was used extensively during the building of PLUTO (Pipe Line Under The Ocean) which fuelled the Allied invasion force.
By 1945 the war had taken it’s toll on the railway and major repair work had to be carried out before it could be opened for the 1946 season, running from New Romney to Hythe.
In time for the 1947 season the Dungeness extension was re-opened. This section was badly damaged and new rail could not be obtained so Howey had to reluctantly accept that it would be rebuilt as a single line. In the same year, the line held it’s official 21st birthday celebration, Laurel and Hardy were in England at the time and agreed to preside at the event.
There followed a boom period when tourism in the south of England became very popular…
…but as overseas holidays became more affordable in the 1970’s so passenger numbers fell.
Captain Howey had died in 1963 and his widow, Gladys had moved back to London putting the railway and their house in New Romney up for sale. Investment had been sparse for some time and the railway passed from one owner to another, each looking for a return on their capital.
It wasn’t until 1972 when a consortium led by Sir William McAlpine came to the rescue. The fundamental objective since has been to restore, maintain and develop the railway in line with Howey’s and Zborowski’s original vision.
All ten original locomotives remain in service, covering thousands of miles each year. The fleet, already one of the largest of any 15-inch (380 mm) railway in Britain, was expanded in 1976 with German-built locomotive no.11 ‘Black Prince’ (formerly ‘Fleißiges Lieschen’ = ‘Busy Lizzie’). The RH&DR is still the only user of the 4-8-2 “Mountain” locomotive in the UK, with No. 6 ‘Samson’ and No. 5 ‘Hercules’ in regular service. Two diesels, No. 12 ‘John Southland’ and No. 14 ‘Captain Howey’, were constructed in the 1980s.
The line carries 100,000 passengers each year.
And this week the line carried us…
Here are just a few images of our day aboard the really rather wonderful RH&DR.