The saying ‘Where’s there’s muck there’s brass’ was never more true in the case of the internal railway system that used to operate at Esholt sewage works.

Re-processed human waste matter was used as fuel to power steam locomotives on the site. The grease residue from this re-processing was put to work as a lubricant for train axles and was taken up as the standard axle grease by railway companies all over the country – before the nationalisation of railways after the Second World War.

It was a green dream long before the ecology movement got going. The Esholt track system was extensive, up to 22 miles of it was in use at one time. It closed 35 years ago in late 1977, after the management of Esholt passed from Bradford Council to Yorkshire Water.

Remember When? is indebted to two T&A readers for the story we are about to relate. David Oyston, of Gilstead, Bingley, drew our attention to it following an article about steam locomotives that appeared in these columns on November 21.

That article was written by local railway historian Mark Neale. As a schoolboy in Shipley, he and a pal came across the Esholt railway system while exploring the towpath of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal.

What follows was extracted from the June 1988 issue of Steam Railway magazine, a copy of which Mr Oyston bought for holiday reading some time ago.

Young Mark and his intrepid friend literally followed their noses, following the ‘Esholt Pong’, as it was called, to a canalside factory building behind a meshed wire fence. They soon found themselves staring at a “tiny, dirty brown saddletank, standing hissing quietly outside a part stone, part wood shed building.

“Any thoughts about the penalties of trespass evaporated: this remarkable find had to be investigated!” wrote Mark. The captivating little engine before his eyes was Nellie, a Hudswell Clarke 0-4-OST No 1435 built in 1922. Inside the shed was Nellie’s companion engine, Elizabeth, another Hudswell Clarke No 1888, built in 1958.

Having been told to clear off in the past by testy railway shed foremen, Mark expected more of the same when a man with wrinkled forehead, silvery hair and flat cap, asked what these particular railway children were up to. When he heard, he sat them down with a mug of tea apiece and told them the history of the Esholt railway. Mark writes; “In its heyday around 1921, the Esholt system could boast some 22 miles of standard gauge track, but by 1957 this had been reduced to just six-and-a-half miles, through the removal of passing loops and sidings no longer required, the lifting of temporary tracks and the closure of several ‘permanent’ ones.

“During the construction of Esholt Works, the locomotives served both as contractors engines, and as part of the treatment process. Once the works was complete, employment could only be provided for two locomotives, and from 1933 the system was worked by Nellie, and a four-coupled Peckett, Ainsbury.

“The status quo remained unchanged for 25 years until, in 1958, Elizabeth arrived as a replacement for the Peckett, which was ultimately scrapped in 1962.

“Esholt’s locomotives performed a variety of weekly tasks, but the most regular by far was the conveying of ‘cake’ from the press house (adjacent to the loco shed) to the drying ground at Longholme, on the western extremity of the site...

“The ‘cake’, totally odourless and crumbly in texture, was left to dry in large piles set out parallel to each siding and then, some months later, was reloaded into the wagons by steam grab to travel back up to the works, where it was bagged and ultimately sold to distributors as organic matter!

“As if that wasn’t resourceful enough, the grease extracted from the sewage was sold to the LMS (London Midland Steam) for use as a lubricant on wagon axle boxes.

“The use of high-quality tallow and palm oil had been banned during wartime, but following a successful experiment, it was decided at a meeting of railway company chemists at Euston in July 1940 that Bradford Corporation ‘recovered grease’ be adopted as the standard axle grease by all railway companies.

“But Esholt’s piece de resistance – and the reason for the total absence of coal anywhere on site – was the use of this same processed grease to fuel its locomotives.

“Elizabeth was the first of the two engines to be fitted with a special burner, and the arrangement proved so successful that Nellie was similarly converted in 1959, during a return visit to Hudswell Clarke’s Leeds factory for the fitting of a new copper firebox.”

At one time, Esholt Sewage Works railway operated 13 standard gauge steam locomotives. Between 1922 and 1927, when the construction of the works was in full swing, 11 were in use.

In June 1969, Nellie was retired from work and just over a year later, in September 1969, the loco was hoisted on to a low loader and driven by road to Embsay Railway Museum. Eventually, it was taken to Bradford’s Industrial Museum.

After Esholt railway closed in 1977, Elizabeth remained in a shed apparently forgotten for seven years. In 1984, the loco was dismantled and transported to the Armley Mills Industrial Museum, Leeds. The Esholt loco shed was taken down and re-erected at the museum.

In the 35 years since the railway was closed, Esholt has become more widely known through the television series Emmerdale Farm and latterly Emmerdale.

You could say there’s been a natural progression at Esholt from fertiliser to axle grease to soap.