Norfolk: A Hidden & Forgotten Railway.

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.

Scole Railway (Frenze Beck)
The Ford across the stream leading to Frenze Hall. Photo: © Copyright John Walton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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.

Scole Railway (St Andrews)
The ancient church of St Andrew at Frenze Hall, near Diss in South Norfolk. More info here: www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/frenze/frenze.htm. Photo: Carol Gingell.

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!

Scole Railway (Frenze Hall)
Frenze Hall, near Diss in South Norfolk. Built in the early 17th century, the hall and it’s estate was purchased by William Betts in the 1860s and it’s 400 acres of land were converted into vast market gardens supplying London with fresh vegetables. To service the estate, Betts built a standard gauge railway which connected to the mainline at Diss and ran eastwards to Scole and north above Frenze hall, covering around 7 miles in total, with branches leading off in several directions to cover the whole estate. William Betts also owned two brick fields in the area and, in the 1880s, added the brick facade to Frenze Hall using his own wares. Photo: Carol Gingell.

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.

Scole Railway (lost-scole-railway-line)2
This track across the fields near Diss, in South Norfolk was once part of the Scole Railway, built by William Betts in the 1860s to service his vast market gardens at the Frenze Hall Estate. The standard gauge rail line ran between the main station at Diss and the Scole Inn to the east, and above Frenze hall to the north. This part of the track ran between Dark Lane, along Millers lane to towards Scole. Photo: Carol Gingell.

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.

Scole Railway (Map_ Carol Gingell)
Map of the Scole Railway which was built by William Betts to service the Frenze Estate in South Norfolk. Photo: Carol Gingell.

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.

Scole Railway (Great Barn)
More evidence of the vast market gardens and the Scole railway established at Frenze Hall  in the 1860s by William Betts. This is marked on contemporary maps as being the “Great Barn” and the rail line ran directly behind it. Given the huge arched doorways, one wonders whether this could possibly have been used as an engine or maintenance shed for the locos? A large water storage tank was housed at the barn, fed by underground pipes which led from a pumping station that Betts built near to the river. Nearby stood the large Lay’s Barn, also built by Betts, and used for sorting and packing of produce from the market gardens. Lay’s Barn is no more, the site on which it stood is now occupied by a handful of 1960s built houses. The Great Barn has been renovated as small office units as Diss Business Centre, run by South Norfolk District Council.Photo: Carol Gingell.
Scole Railway (Farm)
When William Betts purchased the Frenxe Hall estate in the 1860s, he expanded the farm at the hall. This range of barns looks to be contemporary with that expansion and are certainly marked on maps of the time. These were no doubt used in connection with the 400 acres of market gardens established here by Betts. In the background is the small church of St Andrew’s – no longer used regularly but still consecrated and under the care of the Churches Conservation Trust.Photo: Carol Gingell.
Scole Railway (Derelic Building)
Another legacy of William Betts ownership of the Frenze Hall Estate in the late 1800s. A sadly derelict barn on the farm. One map of the railway which Betts built to service his market gardens shows that a section of railtrack led directly into this building. The track certainly ran along the rear of the farm, over the river and on up to buffers near to the GER mainline above Diss. Photo: Carol Gingell.

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.

Scole Railway (Splasher Six)
A derelict building in the grounds of Frenze Hall which is believed to have been one of those built during WW2 when the hall was used as a Splasher Six Beacon site. Frenze Hall was one of a series of transmitting bases along the east coast which helped to guide returning aircraft back to base. The Thorpe Abbots airbase was just up the road. Photo: Carol Gingell.

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.

Scole Railway (Betts Grave)
The memorial stone over the grave of the Betts family at St Andrew’s Church at Frenze, Diss, in Norfolk. William Betts, born December 1810, died June 1885. Sadly, the memorial shows that William’s wife Julia Wildman Betts, and his two eldest sons, William and Edward, predeceased him. Census returns show that William and Julia also had six daughters and another son. Photo: Carol Gingell.

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 END

Sources:
‘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.
Photos:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/28466597@N04/albums/72157637874175125/
https://www.flickriver.com/photos/28466597@N04/sets/72157637874175125/
www.blennerhassettfamilytree.com/Frenze-Hall,-Norfolk.php

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