The Encyclopaedia of Plymouth History

Click here to return to the Home page      Click here for more information about this website       Click here to go to the A - Z Contents page       Click here to go to the Links page       Click here to go to the Disclaimer page       Click here to link to the Can you help? page



Revised:  10 July 2012 

Plymouth Station, situated at Milllbay, was originally the terminus of the South Devon Railway and later the Great Western Railway and trains bound for Cornwall had to reverse here.


It was opened on Monday April 2nd 1849.  Goods facilities were provided from Tuesday May 1st 1849 and a line to the Docks at Millbay was added in 1850.

Tickets were not checked at the main Station.  Between 1851 and 1896 all passenger trains arriving at the Station were required to halt at a ticket platform just before entering the main Station.  This was just wide enough for the staff to clamber from carriage to carriage collecting the tickets.

The entrance to Plymouth's Millbay Station

The entrance to Plymouth's Millbay Station.

Arrivals and departures at Plymouth Station, August 1852..........
Arrivals and departures at Plymouth Station, September 1852..........

the entrance to Plymouth's Millbay Station, with the Continental Hotel in the background.

On Wednesday May 4th 1859 the Cornwall Railway was opened from Plymouth Station to Truro and soon after, from Wednesday June 22nd 1859, the services to and from the South Devon & Tavistock Railway were added.  The additional traffic this brought necessitated the widening of the route from Cornwall Junction. a task not fully completed until 1863.

The entrance to Plymouth's Millbay Station, with the Continental Hotel in the background.

In May 1874 the local press said: 'There is no greater libel on Plymouth than Plymouth Station as it at present stands.  It is, however, reassuring to know that a speedy improvement is in contemplation.  Before that takes place, for the sake of the Town, it is fervently to be hoped that the traveller will arrive when it is dark, or that he will be too tired to look around before he is whirled off.'  [1]

Millbay Station had two main problems: the platforms were too short because the old broad-gauge trains were short; and the overall roof made the station dark and retained the smoke and steam under its canopy.  In 1898 work started on installing a new roof supported by light, steel-framed supports to afford shelter at the outer end of the new platforms and to the area served by the cabs and horse omnibuses.   A whole new range of stone-built waiting rooms and public conveniences was erected on the arrivals platform.  [2]

A general view of Plymouth's Millbay Station, showing the ticket platform on the left and the goods shed on the right.  This is the first narrow-gauge train leaving.

A general view of Plymouth's Millbay Station, showing the ticket platform to the left and the goods shed on the right.
This is the departure of the first narrow-gauge train in 1892.

The main office of the Great Western Railway was at Millbay Station so that was where all the local top brass were based.  Mr Thomas Welch was the Station Master; Mr Charles Edward Compton was the Superintendent in charge of the Passenger Department; Mr William Henry Avery was the Manager of the Goods Department; andMr P J Margary was the Divisional Engineer.  None of them lived on the premises: Mr Welch lived at number 15 Windsor Place, Citadel Road; Mr Compton was at number 5 Saint James's Terrace, also in Citadel Road; Mr Avery lived at 31 Durnford Street, East Stonehouse; while Mr Margary resided at number 6 Wingfield Villas, Molesworth Road, Stoke, in Devonport.  [2a]

Sunday July 2nd 1899 was a busy day at Millbay Station.  The Station was closed to traffic, which was diverted to North Road Plymouth Station.  From 3am on the Sunday morning, some 230 workmen, drawn from all over the Great Western Railway between Saint German's and Newton Abbot, were engaged in replacing the permanent way, relaying the track in the yard and linking up the signals and points to the new signal box.  The old arrival lines had been removed and a new arrivals platform constructed.  The work was supervised by the District Engineer, Mr T H Gibbons, and his assistant, Mr Elms.  The Station was re-opened for traffic on the Monday morning, July 3rd 1899, although there was still much work for the contractors to do.  During the day one of the signalmen, a Mr Whiteway, of Teignmouth, was injured when a signal arm fell on to and severely crushed his foot.  [2b]

In 1901 a double-dialled drum clock was installed at a cost of 31 and in 1904 the Harwell Street Signal Box was erected to control the lines in the engine shed and carriage sidings.

The booking office facilities were improved in 1906 at a cost of some 410.  A footbridge between the arrival and departure platforms was erected in 1907, the cost of which was 183.

In 1908 the Great Western Railway took over the 50 local delivery horses and their stables near Millbay Station that had previously been operated by their carting agents.  [3]

On Wednesday March 15th 1911 the 4.47pm railmotor service from Saltash, crowded with Dockyard workers returning home, was brought to an unexpected stand on the Down main line at Millbay Signal Box.  Within a moment the signal dropped to "all clear" and the train was in the process of restarting when it collided with a train of six empty carriages being propelled by a tank locomotive up the Down line from Platform 1.  Both trains met with a loud crash, splintering panels and smashing windows, that attracted immediate attention from the staff thereabouts.  There were no serious injuries, one or two sailors requiring attention to minor abrasions on the face and head.  The locomotive at the front of the rail motor and the first two carriages of the reversing empty train sustained the most damage.  The line from Cornwall Junction was immediately closed to traffic and GWR road motors were acquired to transfer passengers to North Road Station.  Normal working was resumed just before 9pm.  [4]

From April 11th 1916 the Harwell Street Signal Box was reduced in status to a ground frame.

During 1922 over 3,000 was spent on improving the goods office accommodation.

An internal view of Plymouth's Millbay Station, with a line of carriages at Platform 4.

The locomotive shed was closed from July 14th 1924, all matters being then dealt with at Laira.  However, it had to be re-opened on May 18th 1925.

Track circuiting was installed in 1928.

n 1931 the Millbay engine shed was finally closed and a new electric vacuum cleaning plant for cleaning the carriages was installed.  Additional sidings were provided in 1933.

An internal view of Plymouth's Millbay Station, with a line of carriages waiting at Platform 4.

Read statistics relating to ticket sales at Millbay Station............

During the wartime bombing in April 1941 the goods shed adjacent to the Station was destroyed.  As a result Millbay Station was closed to passengers from Wednesday April 23rd 1941 and the platform lines were used solely for loading goods traffic.  Empty stock was still stabled in the sidings near the Station, however, but trains that were terminating at Plymouth now finished their journey at North Road Plymouth Station

Incidentally, it was during one of these raids that the GWR lost 32 of their delivery horses when the stables in Station Road were destroyed by fire.  [3]

Amongst Great Western Railway employees at Plymouth who were given awards for gallantry and meritorious service during the Second World War were Mr J G Thomas, a stableman, and Mr T Penwill, a temporary carter.  Both worked in the Goods Department and were awarded the British Empire Medal.  It is probable that they were involved in the above-mentioned incident.  [5]

A sad event that no member of the public turned out to witness was the closure of the old Great Western Railway's stables under the arches in Station Road.  On Saturday September 8th 1951 a 12-years-old gelding by the name of "Punch" was the last of the then 5 remaining horses to go out on a delivery round.  They were replaced the following week by motor vehicles.  The foreman stableman for the last 18 years had been a Mr Warne, who became a goods checker at Millbay Station.  [3]

Between Saturday October 24th and Monday October 26th 1953 Plymouth's Millbay Station had a visit from the British Transport Commission's travelling exhibition of Royal Train rolling stock and relics.  The special train was headed by the preserved Caledonian Railway 4-2-2 locomotive number 123, although the engine had been brought to Plymouth out of steam.  The oldest of the Royal Train carriages on show was one built for Queen Adelaide in 1842.  [7]

In October 1958 what had previously been the Up and Down Goods lines were re-designated the Up and Down Main lines through to Millbay Docks.  [6]

By Tuesday September 29th 1959 Millbay Station's four platforms had been removed and eight sidings laid in their place.  Trains of empty stock were formed here before proceeding up the incline to North Road to start their services.  This function slowly replaced goods traffic.  [6]

During 1959 the former carriage sidings and shed at Harwell Street were converted into the Belmont Street Diesel Depot for the maintenance of diesel multiple units.

Plymouth Millbay Station was closed to goods traffic from Monday June 20th 1966.

Three years later, on Monday October 6th 1969, the carriage sidings were closed and the traffic diverted to Laira.

All the track except the Up and Down lines to the Millbay Docks were removed by Sunday December 14th 1969, when Millbay Signal Box was also closed.  [6] 

Finally on Wednesday June 30th 1971 those two lines were closed to traffic, although apparently not actually taken out of use until September 26th 1971.  [6]

Principal Source:

[Potts]  Potts, C R, An Historical Survey of Selected Great Western Stations, Layouts and Illustrations, Volume 4, Oxford Publishing Company, Oxford, Oxfordshire, 1985, ISBN 0 86093 191 1.

Other References:

[1]  Sadly the source of this quote was not recorded and efforts to find it again have been unsuccessful.  It is thought to have come from the Western Daily Mercury.

[2]  "Notes in the West", Western Morning News, Plymouth, Friday October 14th 1898.

[2a]  White, William, "Plymouth 1890: History and Directory", Hindsight Publications, King's Lynn, Norfolk, 1989.

[2b]  "Railway Operations at Plymouth", Western Morning News, Plymouth, July 3rd 1899.

[3]  "Last passenger train from Turnchapel: And last horse delivery", Western Morning News, Plymouth, Monday September 10th 1951.

[4] "Trains Collide: Alarming Accident Outside Millbay Station", Western Morning News, Plymouth, Thursday March 16th 1911.

[5]  Knox, Collie, The Un-beaten Track, Cassell & Company, London, 1944, no ISBN.

[6]  Cooke, R A, Track Layout Diagrams of the GWR and BRWR, Section 12, Plymouth, R A Cooke, 1974, no ISBN.

[7]  "Pointer to More Rail Comfort", Western Morning News, Plymouth, October 26th 1953.


  Brian Moseley, Plymouth, UK

Any problems viewing this webpage should be notified to the webmaster at plymouthdata dot info