By Haydn Brown
Amongst the list of Victorian British railway pioneers you will not find the name of William Betts (1810-1885), principally because he was not a ‘major player’ – today’s terminology! But he was certainly important, around the mid-19th century, as far as the local community that lived and worked in the Scole Parish in Norfolk were concerned.
Betts was also the diving force behind the development of his 400-acre market garden business there, together with the design and construction of his very own railway system which serviced that business. His railway, built very much to his design of its route and its waggons, has been referred to as either the ‘Frenze Farm Railway’ and ‘The Scole Railway’ – whichever one prefers perhaps! Either way, we have here a story of William Betts, along with some detail of the geographic structure and layout of the parish community in which he once conducted his business.
The present-day Scole Parish is in the local government district of South Norfolk. To the south it is bordered by the River Waveney and the neighbouring County of Suffolk, with the town of Diss facing it from the west. This parish now contains not just the village of Scole, but also Billigford, Thelveton and Frenze – not forgetting the deserted village of Thorpe Parva. Indeed, in Betts’s time, the Parish was known as ‘Scole with Thorpe Parva and Frenze’, but reverted to simply ‘Scole’ when in 1935 the parishes of Billingford and Thelveton were abolished and were joined to Scole. The village of Frenze – in earlier times Frense, Frens or Frence and locally pronounced as ‘Fi-renze’ – stands in a picturesque spot on the banks of Frenze, a fast-flowing tributary of the larger river Waveney.
William Betts himself, was born in 1810 to parents Thomas Betts (1783-1847) and Sarah (nee’ Smith 1784-1855) who produced a total of eight children. William became a businessman and brick manufacturer and was married to Julia Wildman Sparling on 30 March 1843 at All Saints Church, Colchester. Then, in 1844, he became Lord of the Manor of Frenze, within the parish and patron of St Andrew’s Church and becoming, along with a Mr Browning, the chief landowners at Frenze. Betts also had extended family connections there – along with his dreams!
By around 1861, Betts was in the position to buy the Frenze Hall Estate from his uncle Sheldrake Smith – but, apparently, did not live in the Hall itself. Instead, in 1863, he bought ‘The Court’ (see Map, bottom L/H corner) from a William Ellis and this became his home. The Court, once stood between Vince’s Lane and the railway line, but has long been demolished. Concurrent with his property acquisitions ran his ‘master plan’ of transforming the Estate’s 400 acres from agricultural fields into a vast market garden.
Large barns and other ancillary buildings were to be built, in conjunction with the building of his railway, a system that would allow him to export his fresh vegetable produce direct to London by way of a connection to the Great Eastern Railway system at Diss station.
The railway would transport his produce to London daily, and to avoid empty runs back to Norfolk, the returning wagons would be filled with fresh manure from the City’s streets and stables; this would be spread on the land. But manure would not necessarily be the only commodity delivered back to the market garden; some train wagons returned filled with coal and delivered direct to the brickworks located just behind Diss station; these brickworks had been created by William Betts to both enhance the value of his line, but also to provide materials for the building of his workers’ houses in and around Scole. As owner of Frenze Hall, he also saw to it that his red bricks encased the 17th century timber-framed Hall with a façade, resulting in the present-day ‘late Victorian’ external appearance protecting its much older oak-framed structure more-or-less intact inside.
As for the railway track itself; this was of standard gauge, which allowed his trains to run straight on and off the Great Eastern line. In total, the length of the Frenze Farm/Scole Railway network reached approximately seven miles, including a number of sidings near the Great Barn on the Frenze Estate, where the produce was sorted and packed. According to Christopher Weston, the route of Betts’s railway began at Diss station, from behind the Jolly Porter’s Inn (closed 25th October, 1973) in Station Road. The line headed east to Dark Lane, where it branched east and north, via a turntable. Then the eastern branch continued to buffers behind the Scole Inn public house, with two more branches leading south to Betts’ brick fields, then north to Nab Barn and several sidings. Here, again was where the produce was sorted and packed. From Dark Lane, the northern branch went to Frenze Hall Farm, before crossing the river and ending at buffers near the Great Eastern line. Yet another branch below Frenze Hall continued to a field known as ‘Scotland’.
(Adove Photos) This girder rail bridge crosses the river at Frenze Hall. It was once part of the Scole Railway which was built by William Betts. This northern branch of the railway, from Dark Lane, took the line up to Frenze Hall farm before crossing the river over this bridge and ending at buffers near to the GER line at Diss station. Photos: Carol Gingell.
William Betts owned the Frenze Hall Estate until his death in 1885 and, as his son had already pre-deceased him, the entire property was put under the management by the Court of Chancery while his affairs were sorted out. The manager was a Thomas W. Gaze, auctioneer and land agent who became the tenant of the Estate from 1886. Gaze not only took over the Frenze Estate but closed the market garden and railway, which was said to be under capitalised by then. He also arranged for the line to be pulled up before running the subsequent two-day auction of the entire estate’s equipment, horses, railway track and locomotives. The rail lines were sold for scrap to George Archer of Yarmouth, with some track syphoned off by thieves. The two locomotives, (one a 2-4-0 saddle tank, manufactured by Brotherhoods of Chippenham and the other, an 0-4-OT made by Hughes of Loughborough), raised £20 each and were shipped to India. In 1898 the Frenze Estate was eventually purchased by the neighbouring Thelveton Estate.
As an aside, the Frenze Hall estate was a RAF Bomber Command ‘Splasher Six’ site during World War II; its transmissions guiding aircraft missions. Radio equipment was installed inside a collection of single-deck buses and huts in one of the fields. The transmissions frequently interfered with local BBC radio, resulting in complaints from the populace. During the war bombs did fall at Frenze but the Hall and St Andrew’s Church were undamaged. Finally, ‘Splashers’, operated by the RAF in the East Anglia area during this period were: Splasher 4 – Louth; Splasher 5 – Mundesley (near Cromer); Splasher 6 – Scole (S of Norwich); Splasher 7 – Braintree; Splasher 10 – Windlesham and Splasher 16 – Brampton Grange.
Today, you would be hard pushed to trace the once busy Scole Railway – unless, of course, you were an archaeologist! Again, according to Christopher Weston, it was back in 2015, that work was scheduled to begin on the construction of a new care home in Diss; however, ahead of this an archaeological dig was permitted, with unbelievable results. As digging progressed, floors, ovens, brick kilns and even traces of railways sidings were found. Then, not too far from today’s Diss mainline station, hidden railway sidings were located. These did not, initially, seem unusual but opinion soon changed when further research revealed that this was only part of something much bigger and it was just the brick kilns, which were thought to have been used for the 19th century’s housing in Diss. The railway sidings discovered were eventually confirmed as being part of the 7-mile private railway network built by William Betts.
So, Dr Beeching of the 20th century could not be blamed for the closure of the Scole Railway; although he was certainly responsible for Norfolk losing numerous miles of its railway track and dozens of stations during the early 1960’s. Neither did he have his hand in the closure of numerous ’Light’ or ‘Narrow-Gauge” railways in Norfolk, built to commercially transport goods across estates, through private land, for RAF use and for other industrial purposes. Finding these could be a project for someone interested in discovering evidence of pioneering engineering some of which, like the Scole railway, have long been hidden in the Norfolk landscape.
‘The Scole Railway’ by N.A. Brundell and K.J. Whittaker, published in The Railway Magazine April 1955; ‘Waveney Valley Studies’ by Eric Pursehouse, published by the Diss Publishing Company in 1969. Also, ‘Branches & Byways of East Anglia’ by John Brodribb.