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Selby first appeared on the railway scene as the eastern terminus of Yorkshire's earliest main-line railway: the Leeds & Selby, engineered by James Walker and opened to passengers in September 1834 and freight in December. James Walker (1781-1862) was one of the leading engineers of his time, succeeding Thomas Telford to become the second president of the Institution of Civil Engineers and holding this post from 1835 to 1844. He is best known for  a variety of dock and harbour schemes, while he was also consulting engineer to Trinity House. Railways formed only a small part of his practice but the Leeds & Selby is a significant work, conceived as the first stage of a trunk route from Leeds to Hull and eventually forming part of the coast-to-coast route from Liverpool, completed in 1841.

Initially, passengers and goods completed the journey to Hull by steamer along the River Ouse, but in 1840 the Hull and Selby Railway (also engineered by Walker) opened their line, with passengers carried from July and freight from August. This involved bypassing the original station, which became the town's goods depot and then a private warehouse; hence its survival to the present day as an unusually complete example of an early railway terminus. In 1848 a branch line was opened from Barlby Junction, east of the town, to Market Weighton, where it joined the direct route from York to Hull, via Beverley.

During the eighteen-fifties and sixties East Coast Main Line trains between Doncaster and York ran via Ferrybridge but in January 1871 a more direct line was opened through Selby, whose station was remodelled to cope with the new traffic. A century later, the exploitation of a short-lived Selby coalfield threatened the stability of that route and justified the construction of a new main line passing four miles west of the town. Completed in 1983 this enabled faster running on the main line as well as the closure of the 1871 route from Selby to York. The branch to Market Weighton had faded away long before, with passenger services ending in 1954 and goods in 1964. A local venture was the Cawood, Wistow & Selby Railway, opened in 1898 and soon absorbed by the NER; its passenger service went at the start of 1930 but freight lingered until 1960.

The Leeds & Selby line came into the town from the west, passing south of the town centre before swinging north to a terminus on the river bank, which we'll denote Selby Old Station. This lay several hundred yards downstream of the town bridge and tracks ran through the building and across the road to a broad jetty fronting the river.

The second Selby Station was built a short distance to the west, and the Hull & Selby Railway tracks crossed the river shortly beyond this before swinging east on their way to Hull. James Walker's Ouse Bridge comprised a cast-iron superstructure borne on masonry piers and had a number of short spans as well as two shallow segmental river arches, one of which was split to provide an opening span made up of a pair of bascules. This was required to accommodate the considerable river traffic, for which the company's Act stipulated a clearway of 44 feet.

The bridge was manually operated, with a man standing on each side turning a winch. In the view above, looking upstream, the tower of Selby Abbey makes a shadowy appearance, while the prominent building to the left formed the office frontage of Selby Ironworks, a local iron foundry whose premises have been impeccably conserved in recent years to form a business centre.

The arrival of the east-coast main line prompted the rebuilding of Selby Station in 1870-73 on a much larger scale, with platforms served by loops off a pair of centre lines which handled freight and express traffic. A new entrance range was provided on the west side (down platform) but the 1840 office range was probably retained to some extent on the east side. Both platforms were equipped with elegant, spacious roofs. At the same time, a new Selby engine shed was provided in the angle between the main line from Doncaster and the route from Leeds. This building was typical of best NER practice at the time: a square, hip-roofed 'roundhouse' containing a twenty-road turntable which could stable nineteen locomotives, with one track left for access. A second roundhouse was built on in 1896-8. A significant number of the locomotives based there were employed in working short-haul trains from collieries to a marshalling yard at Gascoigne Wood, west of Selby, whence coal was conveyed to Hull for shipment. The shed closed in 1959 and has been demolished.

For twenty years from 1871 main-line traffic used James Walker's Ouse bridge but a very inconvenient 15 mph speed limit was imposed.  In 1887 the NER Engineer, Thomas Elliot Harrison, devised a scheme for its replacement, a contract being let in September 1888, shortly after his death. The new bridge was built just downstream of the old one and is a classic Harrison design with the navigation opening provided by a hog-backed wrought-iron span swung by hydraulic power. It opened at the beginning of February 1891 and Walker's bridge was promptly demolished. The new bridge was quicker to operate than the old one and is controlled from a cabin bridging the girders of the opening span, a classic arrangement. The cabin was raised 3.5 feet in 1960 to provide better clearance above the tracks, partly with a view to route electrification although this became a less likely prospect with the opening of the main-line diversion in 1983.

The swinging span is an asymmetric one, providing a much wider river opening than its predecessor without encroaching a comparable distance up the north bank. Hydraulic power was originally provided by water pressurised in a pair of accumulators housed in the brick tower seen to the right of the bridge in the view above. This was later superseded by an electro-hydraulic system. The tall concrete tower in the distance is the flour mill formerly producing Yorkshire Ideal Flour. It was sited on the river bank so that grain could be brought in by ship.

The view above shows the station at the present day, with the centre roads removed following the main-line diversion in 1983. It also illustrates how the lines had to be slewed over to connect with the swing bridge, hence the distinct curve at the far end of the platforms. This entailed the demolition and rebuilding (1890-91) of the east side of the station although the platform canopy, then just twenty years old, was meticulously re-erected and extended to the original pattern. On the right are the three white gables of the timber-clad south end of the 1834 station. The mills which tower up in the distance are only a portion of those which formerly lined the 'left bank' (east side in this case) of the Ouse upstream of the town centre. A considerable volume of cattle feed was produced here and it was principally river traffic to the mills which required the swing bridge to be opened; they were also rail connected, with cattle cake and such like being despatched to country goods yards.

The station buildings saw little alteration during the twentieth century until 1965, when the entrance range on the west side was demolished and replaced by a modest but functional one-storey office range. All the platform roofing was, however, retained along with the east-side offices.










© W. Fawcett, 2011