Swindon was made great by the Great Western Railway, which based its workshops there. But for an accident of history, Marlborough could have been like Swindon. Its position on the road from London to Bath and Bristol should have guaranteed its incorporation into the Great Western’s line, completed by1841. However, the Ailesbury family objected to the line following the Bath Road which was the original proposed route. The 1835 Railway Act fixed the route through Swindon instead. Brunel in fact preferred the more northerly route as it avoided the Downs. The decision to avoid Marlborough by 12 miles effectively began a process of isolation. It is unsurprising that the initials GWR meant to Marlborough people the “Great Way Round”.
A ray of hope emerged with a proposed Manchester to Southampton railway planned to pass through Marlborough. The borough corporation petitioned for it but it was rejected by the House of Lords in 1846.
By 1862 the Berks and Hants Extension Railway had been built from the Great Western line at Hungerford through Great Bedwyn and Pewsey to Devizes. Marlborough had again been by-passed. The Ailesburys, realising their earlier mistake in objecting to Brunel’s main line going through the town, had dropped their opposition. The Mayor and Lord Ernest Bruce, who was one of the town’s two MPs, succeeded in obtaining an agreement by the GWR that a station would be built north of Burbage. Savernake Station, five miles from Marlborough, was at least nearer than Swindon. The push for a branch line began in earnest as many had hoped the much awaited extension would go through the town. J S Thomas, the bursar of Marlborough College, and the Corporation encouraged the setting up of a Marlborough Railway Company to build and run the proposed line. An Act of Parliament was passed in July 1861 authorising the construction. The cost was kept to a minimum by building the line in a sweeping curve to the west of Savernake Forest thus avoiding any tunnels. The only bridges required were at Hat Gate over the road to Wootton Rivers, and at Leigh Hill over the Burbage road. Construction began in 1863 and the five and a half mile line opened in April 1864. The first train on it, an old machine nick-named “The Marlborough Donkey” was achieved with difficulty because it had a steep gradient on the last stretch into Marlborough. The Marlborough Railway was absorbed by the GWR in July 1896.
There is no doubt that the people of Marlborough realised the implications of the railway for in 1873 an Act of Parliament was passed allowing for the first time the construction of a through line through Marlborough. On July 31st 1875 the ceremony of cutting the first sod for the construction of the Swindon Marlborough Andover line, in Coldharbour Meadow, on the eastern fringes of the town, was reported in the “Marlborough Times”.
Emphatically a great day in the annals of Marlborough was Wednesday last, when the construction of the Swindon Marlborough Andover Railway was formally commenced. . . we rejoiced . . . because that missing link in north and south communication would be supplied by placing Swindon, Marlborough and Andover in close juxtaposition, and we hoped in close union. Especially did the inhabitants of Marlborough rejoice in the “good time coming” when they should be no longer left “out in the cold”, and for this reason, as well as its being the centre of the proposed railway, was Marlborough selected as the site of the ceremony . . . before noon the streets were enlivened with visitors, who came in every description of vehicle from waggons laden with country folk to the landau of the squire . . . the High Street was gay with bunting particularly in the neighbourhood of the Town Hall, from either side of which flags spanned the street . . . St. Martins made the greatest efforts: the inhabitants evidently looking forward to increased importance as they are situate in the road to the new station. . . The “Queen’s Head” was never so gay . . . by dint of flags and greenery . . . The “Duke of York” . . . followed the example of the “Queen” and the “White Hart” was similarly emblazoned.
LORD ERNEST BRUCE commenced the proceedings by saying,
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we meet here for a great and important national occasion. . . the object of the Swindon Marlborough Andover Railway is to connect the north and north west of Great Britain with the southern parts of this great nation . . . as regards Marlborough I cannot conceal from myself that it will be of the greatest possible advantage to my respected constituents, those men who have returned me to Parliament now for a period of forty three years . . . with regard to Marlborough it will be an immense advantage. Look at the great collegiate establishment (Marlborough College – my brackets) of more use to the world at large than it is now
. . . Marlborough will one of these days be one of the largest towns in the South of England (cheers) . . .”
Marlborough did not become, “one of the largest towns in the south of England”. Its railway, when the SMAR (Swindon Marlborough Andover Railway) was finally opened in 1881 failed to take the town out of its backwater, even after a line was later built north of Swindon to connect with Cheltenham in 1891. The SMAR joined with the Cheltenham Extension Railway to form the Midland South-Western Junction Railway in 1884. The MSWJR and its antecedent the SMAR purchased running rights over the Great Western owned branch line from Marlborough to Savernake. Difficulties this caused resulted in the construction of a parallel line in 1898 involving a large tunnel. A new “High Level” station was built at Savernake. The MSWJR was heavily used during the First World War as access to Salisbury Plain which had by then become the British Army’s main training ground. Until 1921, when it was taken over by the GWR, the MSWJR created an independent north-south route through the middle of GWR territory.