History of peat railways

Bob Evens

Thorne and Hatfield Moors have been exploited for peat for a long time. In the 1620s, Cornelius Vermuyden attempted to drain Hatfield Chase, but it resulted in friction between those who settled on the land that had been drained and local people. A Commission was set up, because much of the land had previously been common land, and tenants were given ‘turbary rights’ in 1630, which meant that they could cut peat for themselves, but could not sell it to others. In the early 1800s, there were schemes to improve the moors for agriculture, but the last of the chief proponents, Makin Durham, died in 1882, and subsequently, peat was extracted for commercial purposes.

Extraction became more organised in 1896, when the Hatfield Chase Peat Moss Litter Company amalgamated with the Griendtsveen Moss Litter Company and several other small concerns on Thorne Moors, becoming the British Moss Litter Company. All of the major peat works on the moors were then under their control, and to make transport of the cut peat to the works easier, they laid 3 ft gauge tramways. Horses were replaced by locomotives in the 1950s, and the tramways were linked together as works closed, with Swinefleet works serving the whole of Thorne Moors. The standard gauge Axholme Joint Railway transported the peat away to markets. The British Moss Litter Company became Fisons in February 1963, became Levingtons Horticulture from July 1994, and Scotts from January 1998.

The story for Crowle Moors is somewhat different, in that Crowle residents received turbary rights for land in Yorkshire in 1630. This anomaly was resolved in 1888, when the county boundary was relocated.
Crowle Moor was always exploited on a smaller scale than Thorne Moors, with small peat moss mills constructed near to Moor Middle Road. Each mill worked a ribbon of moorland running in a north-westerly direction to the parish boundary. Some peat from Crowle Moors was taken to Medge Hall and Swinefleet Works by the British Moss Litter Company, but this practice stopped after a fire on the moors in 1956. Moors Farm was the longest-running of the Crowle Moors sites, where horses worked a single tramway track to bring the peat wagons to the mill. Clifford Cowling bought the farm in 1940, intending to use it for agriculture, but he and William Thomas set up the Scientific Peat Company in 1947. A Fordson Major tractor was used to pull a trailer loaded with turves to the mill, where the peat was processed for horticultural use. In 1950 Herbert Pickett bought into the Scientific Peat Co., subsequently, that company was bought by his son, Sidney Pickett and business partner Herbert Mason. Herbert Pickett continued to live in the house on the land until 1960. Sidney Pickett and Herbert Mason developed the Poly Peat Products company, pioneering the use of polythene packaging, and worked the peat farm until 1972 when the company was sold by them.  The mill was later the base for Ken Crow Peat Products, then Richgro Peat, and from 2002, Fernmoor UK Limited, the last peat company to be formed.

Although much of the moors was an industrial workplace, there was a gradual understanding of its value as an ecological resource. 144 acres were managed as a nature reserve by the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust from 1971, and they bought 290 acres of moorland in 1987. With the value of the moors the subject of vigorous environment campaigning, Fisons donated 2,340 acres of moorland to English Nature in 1994, and finally in 2002, the government bought the Thorne and Hatfield Moors peat extraction rights from Scotts for £17 million. Most peat cutting stopped at that point, although Scotts continued to remove cut peat until 2005. By late 2005, a National Nature Reserve had been established, covering 4,020 acres, with most of Crowle Moors under the management of the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust. Fernmoor continued to run the operation at Crowle, but had to cease in 2007, when the findings of a long-running public enquiry were published.

The Old Peatworks Site on Crowle Moor 1950s

Locomotives on the moors

Motive power on the moors was initially provided by a steam engine on a 3ft 7in gauge track running from Swinefleet Works to the River Ouse at Swinefleet Clough. It ceased to operate in 1903, when the Axholme Joint Railway opened.

For nearly 50 years, peat wagons were moved around the system by horses, until a fitter at Moorends Works built an experimental vehicle from a peat wagon and parts of an Austin Swallow car in 1947. It did not replace any horses, as it was used as a personnel carrier until it was scrapped in 1960. The first use of a locomotive was in 1955 when a second-hand machine was purchased. It had been built in 1930 by James & Frederick Howard of Bedford, a firm usually associated with traction engines. The 31hp petrol engine was replaced with a diesel engine in 1956.

All of the locomotives obtained to work the system had four wheels, and were initially allocated to Medge Hall, Swinefleet or Hatfield Works, but were frequently moved from one works to another. In 1959 and 1962, Ruston & Hornsby supplied three 31.5hp locomotives, which were used to move peat from the moors to the works. Four Listers arrived in the 1960s, consisting of little more than an engine, gearbox and seat, and these were used on the moors to shunt wagons ready for the larger machines to take away.

Further locomotives were obtained from a variety of manufacturers. Seven Simplex machines were constructed by Motor Rail of Bedford, of which three had previously been used elsewhere, Hunslet of Leeds supplied two more, and two diminutive Diema locomotives were obtained from Fritz Schottler of West Germany. As peat trains got longer, more powerful locomotives were required, and Fisons bought three Schomas from Christoph Schőttler Gmbh of Diepholz in 1990 and 1991.

The Schomas were fitted with 5-cylinder Deutz engines, which powered a hydraulic motor. A slave unit was fitted to each, which was like a four-wheeled flat truck, but with an additional hydraulic motor powered from the locomotive. Two of the locomotives were upgraded in the late 1990s, when Alan Keef fitted Deutz 6-cylinder engines and improved air conditioning systems, but there were insufficient funds to upgrade the third machine. After peat extraction stopped, one Schoma was displayed at the entrance to Hatfield Peat Works.

Several of the smaller locomotives were of unusual appearance, as fitters extended the cabs upwards, to enable drivers to see over the tops of the peat wagons. Nine locomotives were preserved when they became redundant and were bought by Cliff Lawson of Tring from 1992 onwards. He obtained three Rustons, two Listers, two Hunslets and two Diemas, all of which he converted to 2ft 6in gauge. One of his Listers is on display in Doncaster Museum. One Simplex was sold in 1984 and saw further use when the Southend Pier railway was refurbished.

Crowle and Thorne Moors became part of the Humberhead National Nature Reserve after peat extraction ceased. The tramways were removed for scrap, but a Simplex locomotive and some bin harvesters were abandoned at Bank Top. The Simplex was a 40hp model, which had been supplied new to Fisons in 1967 by Motor Rail. It had the works number 40s302, and was fitted with an extended cab some time before May 1992.

Formation of Crowle Peatland Railway

Ideas for a Crowle Peatland Railway took shape in 2013, when a group of local people meeting in a pub wondered whether the Simplex at Bank Top could be restored, in order to retain some of the history and heritage of the moors. At a similar time, the Landscape Partnership was gathering ideas for projects in the area. Crowle Peatland Railway became one of those projects, and so funding became available. The locomotive and bin harvesters were moved from Bank Top to a local farm in 2015, after Natural England donated them to the project.

Two of the Schomas were discovered to be for sale in Norfolk in 2014, and after a second visit to Ray King’s yard on 16 February 2015 to inspect them, a price was agreed for both of them and for three slave units. They remained with Ray King until 10 May 2016, by which time North Lincolnshire Council had bought the Poly-Peat site, which then became the base for the railway.

As restoration began, the Simplex was moved to North Lindsey College, where work was carried out by engineering students. When it was dismantled, the main bearing journals were found to be completely worn out, and it seems likely that this was the cause of it being abandoned. The refurbished parts were moved to the Old Peatworks at Crowle in 2019, but the planned re-assembly by the college students did not take place, due to the Covid pandemic. Final assembly and restoration was therefore carried out by members of the Crowle Peatland Railway.

On 5 June 2019, the plinthed Schoma from Hatfield Works was donated to the railway by Evergreen Horticulture, the successors to Scotts, and subsequently, a former Lisbon tram was obtained from Clacton in Essex, for eventual use to carry passengers.


  • Booth, Adrian (1998). The Peat Railways of Thorne and Hatfield Moors. Industrial Railway Society. ISBN 978-1-901556-04-9
  • Keef, Alan M (2008). A Tale of Many Railways. Lightmoor Press. ISBN 978-1-899889-30-3
  • Limbert, Martin; Roworth, Peter C. (2009). Mechanised Peat Winning and Transportation on Thorne
    Moors (2nd Ed). THMCF Technical Report. Thorne & Hatfield Moors Conservation Forum. ISSN 1468-