Canterbury – a famous Roman City and the Home of the Church of England. Since Tudor times, the City had for long relied on the River Stour for the movement of goods traffic upon vessels. Over time, the river became chocked with silt, so much that by the 19th Century, shipping came only as far as the Port of Fordwich, 2½-miles to the north east of the City. In 1811, consideration was given to building a canal between Ashford and Whitstable, via Canterbury, to provide an alternate, unhindered, path for vessels to and from the North Sea and Thames. This failed to materialise, but the dawn of the railway age later in the same century was to provide a quicker solution to transporting goods to coastal ports around Britain.
In 1823, Mr William James promoted the building of a railway line between Canterbury and the fishing village of Whitstable, to replace the stalled canal scheme and to provide a significant improvement over the Stour. The proposal gathered momentum on the passing of the ‘’Canterbury & Whitstable Railway’’ Act on 10th June 1825, which authorised the construction of a single-track line, five miles and seventy-eight chains in length, between the historic City and the Kent Coast. This was to become the first railway in Southern England to be worked by stationary and moving steam engines. James initially estimated that £25,000 would be required to complete the line, but this figure later increased to £31,000 on advice from George Stephenson (about £1,665,000 and £2,064,305 at 2007 prices respectively). Three further Acts of Parliament were later passed, authorising an increase in funding:
George Stephenson was drafted in as engineer of the line, replacing James, the latter who ultimately died destitute (much like Richard Trevithick, inventor of the steam locomotive). Naturally, the line was laid to Stephenson’s Standard Gauge of 4-foot 8½-inches, and he delegated the construction task to his assistant, Joseph Locke, who laid down lightweight wrought-iron rails upon oak sleepers.
Opening of the Canterbury & Whitstable Line occurred on 3rd May 1830, with much ceremony. Passenger services commenced operation on the following day, and a mixture of motive power was available to the railway. The line possessed just one steam locomotive, an 0-4-0 outside cylinder engine named ‘’Invicta’’, in addition to a series of stationary steam engines and horses. By 1839, the steam locomotive was no more: built by Robert Stephenson, it was found to be too large for the single-bore 1012-yard-long tunnel through Tyler Hill. It was also underpowered to handle the 1 in 46 gradient on departure from Canterbury, thus thereafter, the horses and stationary steam engines, working on a rope system, were used exclusively. Engine houses were located at Tyler Hill and Clowes Wood, these residing 3300-yards and 5280-yards from Canterbury respectively. At Tyler Hill, a pair of stationary engines were in evidence, each of 25 HP output; at Clowes Wood, a single 15 HP engine was in use, and pulley ropes were 3¼-inches in circumference. Passenger traffic along the line was fairly light, and from the outset, the line was principally a conveyer of coal. Nevertheless, the Canterbury & Whitstable was one of the first railways to issue passengers with season tickets, these being available from 25th March 1834 onwards.
Enter the South Eastern Railway. On 7th February 1844, the SER commenced through running between London Bridge and Dover, over its circuitous trunk line via Reigate Junction (Redhill), Tonbridge, and Ashford. The company had been forced to share the metals of the London & Croydon and London & Brighton Railways between the capital and Reigate Junction, Parliament decreeing that only one railway line should enter London from the south. Initially, this was not a concern for the SER, because it avoided the expense of building a completely new line over this section, but problems later surfaced as traffic and competition between companies increased. In the meantime, the SER had looked at rapid expansion into further Kentish territories, particularly Thanet. This it began, by taking the Canterbury & Whitstable Line out on lease in 1844 (which, previously, had been leased to Messrs Nicholson and Bayliss). A fourteen-year lease agreement formally began on 29th September of that year, at a price of £3,000 per annum (£233,570 at 2007 prices), and an option to purchase the line outright was available before lease expiration, in September 1852. The asking price was £60,000 (£4,671,380 at 2007 prices), and in addition to this, the SER had to agree to assume the outstanding mortgage liability on the line, which remained at £44,221 (£3,442,890 at 2007 prices).