Hayling Railway in Wartime by Derek Oakley
The importance of the railway line between Havant and Hayling Island during World War 2 cannot be underestimated. Although the Island was a restricted area with only about 4,000 residents, it was soon inundated with service personnel, mostly Royal Navy and Army..
The Goods Shed, now The Station Theatre was used fully, with loaded wagons being pulled through the shed by one of the ‘Terrier’ engines, in order to be unloaded onto a platform which stretched two thirds of the width of the shed and stores were then transferred into vehicles through two giant sliding doors on the eastern side.
During World War 2, the railway line was used to its maximum ferrying military stores. Because of its closeness to Portsmouth, the Royal Navy requisitioned the existing holiday camps with Warner’s Northney camp taken over as an overflow for the RN navigation School at HMS Dryad at Southwick as early as 15th June 1940 and renamed HMS Northney 1. The Royal Marines Fortress Unit, returning from operations in Iceland also arrived that month while the Royal Hotel on the Seafront became HMS Dragonfly. Other Warner’s Camps (Southleigh, Coronation and Sunshine) were also taken over and commissioned in 1942 as HMS Northney 2, 3 & 4 as the Royal Navy realized that Hayling Island was splendidly placed with ready made accommodation to be used for training landing craft crews, while boatyards (Sparkes and Mill Rythe) had ready made berthing facilities. Many of these troops, as well as their equipment, came to Hayling by train.
Just before Christmas 1940, No.268 Heavy Anti Aircraft Battery, mostly Royal Artillery Territorials from the Isle of Wight, arrived but their 4.5inch AA guns were too heavy for the bridge and they were brought on to the Island by sea. Their stores and ammunition were mostly brought down by train.
When it was decided to build the secret Mulberry Harbour around the south coast and Thames estuary four sections (from a total of 164) of the artificial harbour were constructed on the island near the Ferry Boat Inn in early 1944, a major problem arose. Each section was to be up to 200 feet long and 40 feet high and weighed up to 6,000 tons. A local builder was contracted, employing over 600 workers most of whom were bussed onto the island daily. Buses were allowed a maximum of 13 passengers, the remainder having to walk over the road bridge regardless of the weather. Because of severe weight restrictions on this bridge, thousands of tons of rubble had to be brought down from Havant by train on the Hayling Billy Line. This was a major operation and very hard work on the Terriers who pulled the train, usually two at a time.
The Mulberry project was so secret that no-one knew how each section would be linked to each other. Of the 147 sections (in six different sizes) that sailed for the British Harbour at Arromanches soon after D Day, only 35 didn’t make it. And one broken piece can still be seen in Langstone Harbour today. As one sailor put it to me “I didn’t join the Navy to go to war on a lump of concrete – with no guns!”
A large number of Wrens and ATS girls were stationed on the Island. They had a 9pm curfew on their leave. However they were allowed one late pass a week to go off the Island to enjoy the fleshpots of Havant or Portsmouth, but they had to return by the last train. Other girls who had boy friends on the Island, but still had the 9pm curfew, got in league with the late night train drivers. About a mile out of South Hayling Station, they would blow their whistles loudly, a signal to the girls to hurry to the station and meet those off the train so that all could proceed down Station Road and Staunton Avenue to their digs together, thus enjoying late passes every night of the week.
Continual use proved the enormous value of the railway during wartime Hayling but was limited as it only had one track. The road bridge, which was much worse than it is today, was never capable of carrying the vast number of troops and stores to the training establishments.
The branch line to Hayling closed in 1963 the last train running from Havant on 2nd November. The station platform and buildings were dismantled in 1964 and the railway lines taken were up in 1966, so that all that remained of Hayling Island Station was the Goods Shed. For 30 years the Goods Shed was used by Havant Borough Council as a ‘storage dump’, until they put it up for disposal in 1991. At that time Hayling Isand Amateur Dramatic Society were looking for a new home, and agreement was soon reached to convert it into arguably the best equipped amateur theatre on the south coast. Costing nearly £500,000, it opened as The Station Theatre in 1996.
We wonder what the ghost thinks. Yes we have a ghost, and although not seen in recent years, it caused quite a stir in 1968 when the Goods Shed was a Council store. It was purportedly seen by two workmen, William Phillips and his assistant Michael Doyle and later in the day by Pete Walden, an inspector. It is thought to be the ghost of Station worker Jack Wilkinson who died in 1947 and whose ‘spirit was said to pound the old platform and regularly appear in station outbuildings.’ So far no-one has reported seeing the ghost in the theatre, but a member’s small dog was certainly afraid to venture into one of the dressing rooms when the theatre was first built.
The following images were taken during a Wartime Hayling exhibition I organised at the theatre in 1994.