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Updated:  28 February 2013 


The Cornwall Railway ran from Plymouth's Cornwall Junction, just north of Millbay Station, through Devonport and St Budeaux and across the River Tamar into Cornwall.

It formed the last part of the trunk route from London to Penzance, the section from Truro to Penzance already having been constructed as the West Cornwall Railway.

A Corwall Railway's mail train

A Cornwall Railways mail train.

Early in 1844 a meeting was held in Truro with the object of forming a company to construct a line through Cornwall.  This was at first proposed to run through Okehampton, Devon, and down through the centre of the County, roughly in line with the road used by the London mail coach service.  However, when the South Devon Railway Act was published, authorising a route to the south and ending at Plymouth, a route into Cornwall at Torpoint was proposed.  This was surveyed initially by a Captain Moorsom.

The first Cornwall Railway Bill was rejected by the House of Lords Committee, who suggested that a fresh survey be carried out avoiding the severe gradients and the ferry crossing.  This survey was carried out by non other than Isambard Kingdom Brunel, of course, who proposed a line crossing the river Tamar by means of a bridge at Saltash and running then to St Germans and Liskeard.  Nowhere did the inclines exceed 1 in 60 although there were some short stretches at 1 in 59.

As a result of these changes, the Cornwall Railway Act received the Royal Assent on August 3rd 1846.  Of the authorised capital (£1,600,000), the South Devon Railway provided £150,000, while the Great Western supported the project to the tune of £75,000.   The Bristol and Exeter Railway contributed £112,000.

The line was to be built to Brunel's "Broad" gauge of 7ft 0¼ins, and after a slow and unsteady start, Brunel proposed that the line be single track throughout so that it could be built quicker and for less than £800,000.  The line in Cornwall, from Truro to Liskeard, was completed first, in 1852, and then the contract was let for the stretch from Devonport to the bridge at Saltash, which was to be named the Albert Bridge, by permission of His Royal Highness, the Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria.   In January 1853 the contract was given to Mr J C Mare, who was already known for his work on the Britannia Bridge across the Menai Straits in north Wales.

Progress of the line

On Tuesday May 17th 1853 the "Plymouth Mail" reported [1]: 'The works between Stoke and Saltash passage, are progressing vigorously.  The men are at work on the proposed deep cutting through Keyham Barton, and the line may be marked out by the works for some distance on the Saltash side of Weston Mill Lake.'

By means of an agreement dated May 9th 1854, the Cornwall Railway purchased the land which the South Devon Railway had already bought from the Stoke Damerel Manor Estate for their branch line from Millbay Station to Devonport.  The land commenced from the south eastern abutment of the proposed viaduct and ran to the point at which the railway line would go under the main road from Fore Street, Devonpprt to Milehouse and Tavistock.  Included in this agreement was another one with a Mr James Horswell for 'the erection and completion' of the viaduct over the Stonehouse Mill Pool.  Millbay Station was to be extended to cope with the extra traffic and was to be run by a joint committee of the two railways.  [2]

Opening of the Cornwall Railway

At the end of March 1859 the final span of the Albert Bridge was hoisted into place and the first train to cross the Bridge, reputedly driven by Mr Thomas Tunstall ran on April 11th 1859.  The first train from Plymouth to Truro ran on April 12th 1859 despite the fact that Board of Trade approval did not come until shortly afterwards.  The Bridge was officially opened by HRH Prince Albert on Monday May 2nd 1859 and the first public trains ran on May 5th 1859.  Goods traffic did not start until early October 1859.

Locomotives for the Cornwall Railway were supplied by Messrs Evans & Company for an initial period of seven years.  The contract was signed on February 28th 1859.  They were similar to those also supplied by the same Company to the South Devon Railway.  It would appear that Evans worked both systems as though they were one line, which presumably meant that locomotives that had worked into Plymouth from Exeter might be sent on down to Penzance even though it was on another company's rails.

Passenger coaching stock was originally painted brown all over but this was changed in about 1864 to chocolate below the waist rail and white above it.   It was thus similar to both the Great Western and South Devon Railway companies.  

The Cornwall Railway had no locomotives of its own, those being supplied in the first instance by the contractors and after July 1st 1866 by the South Devon Railway.  [3]

Cornwall Railway merges with Great Western Railway

By June 1875 the finances of the Company were in such a bad state that an overdraft had to be arranged with the National Provincial Bank.  This was followed on February 1st 1876 by the Great Western Railway leasing the whole system, which was then run in its entirety from Paddington to Penzance.  It was not until June 30th 1889 that the end of the Cornwall Railway Company came, with its final board meeting held on June 21st 1889.  The Company was dissolved on July 1st 1889 [4].

Principal Source: Woodfin, R J, The Centenary of the Cornwall Railway, W Jefferson & Son Ltd, Ely, Cambridgeshire, 1960.

Other References: 

[1]  Plymouth Mail, Plymouth, May 17th 1853.

[2]  Articles of Agreement dated 9th May 1854, Plymouth & West Devon Record Office, Plymouth, accession number 2666/12.

[3]  Gregory, R H, The South Devon Railway, Oakwood Press, Salisbury, Wiltshire, 1982.

[4]  Thomas, David St John, Regional History of the Railways of Great Britain, Volume 1, The West Country, David & Charles Ltd, Newton Abbott, Devon, 19XX, page 135.

©  Brian Moseley, Plymouth, UK

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