The Encyclopaedia of Plymouth History

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Updated:  07 May 2013 

The earliest railways in Plymouth were for the movement of stones for building work.  In order of construction, they were:

With the Bristol and Exeter Railway already under construction, in 1836 Brunel surveyed a line through the South Hams to Plymouth.  Likewise, Lord Morley's consulting engineer, Mr James Meadows Rendel, had surveyed a line through the heart of Dartmoor to Plymouth.  On October 28th 1840 a meeting was held at the Royal Hotel in Plymouth at which Rendel's proposal was considered.  His suggested route across Dartmoor would be 7 miles shorter than the line through Totnes and cost over 1 million less to construct.  His recommendation was accepted at first but interest continued to be lukewarm and so in 1842 the plan was dropped in favour of a line to the south of the Moor based on Brunel's survey.  This became known as the Plymouth, Devonport and Exeter Railway until November 21st 1843 when the name was changed to the South Devon Railway and the go-ahead given for the proposal.

On May 5th 1848 the South Devon Railway was opened between Totnes and a temporary station at Laira Green, on the outskirts of Plymouth.  This route forms the present main line into Plymouth.  It was extended into Millbay Station on April 4th 1849.  The South Devon Railway was taken over by the Great Western Railway in 1876.

In May 1853 a new branch of the South Devon Railway was opened from a junction at Laira to Sutton Harbour by adding a third, broad-gauge rail to the Plymouth and Dartmoor Railway's 4ft 6ins track.

Although most of the industrial lines so far built in the Plymouth area had been for the transportation of stone, the Lee Moor Tramway was constructed to transport china clay.  It was opened in September 1854 but closed the following month.  It was rebuilt and re-opened on September 24th 1858 and carried increasing traffic from Lee Moor on Dartmoor to the ships at the Cattewater in Plymouth.   The line fell into disuse in 1939 and the track was finally lifted in 1961-62.   Both its locomotives have been preserved.

The remainder of the main line through Plymouth into Cornwall was opened as far as Truro by the Cornwall Railway on May 4th 1859.  The only station  was at Devonport.   The Royal Albert Bridge was opened on the same day.  Railway access to the Royal Dockyard was provided in 1867 by means of the Devonport Dockyard Railway.  The Cornwall Railway was amalgamated into the Great Western Railway in February 1876.

On the eastern side of the Plymouth the South Devon and Tavistock Railway opened its line from Tavistock Junction on the main South Devon Railway to Tavistock on June 21st 1859.  There were stations at only Bickleigh and Horrabridge.  This Railway amalgamated with the South Devon Railway on July 1st 1865, the last meeting of the shareholders being held on August 31st.  Also in July 1865, the South Devon Railway installed a siding and a platform to accommodate traffic for the Royal Agricultural Society of England's show being held in the Exhibition Fields.

In the 1860s there was a proposal to construct the South Hams Railway linking Plymouth with Dartmouth and onward via Paignton to Newton Abbot but their bankers failed in 1866.

February 1st 1876 saw the Great Western Railway taking over the running on the South Devon and Cornwall Railways.  The Bristol and Exeter Railway was already being leased by the GWR.

Until this point Plymouth only saw chocolate and cream carriages but on May 18th 1876 the London & South Western Railway opened its "narrow" gauge line over the route of the Great Western Railway's Tavistock and Launceston Branch into Plymouth and via the new Cornwall Loop to a new terminal station at Devonport.

Following the acquisition of the South Devon Railway, the Great Western re-laid its branch to Sutton Harbour, which it re-opened on November 6th 1876.  The London & South Western opened its own branch from Friary Station to Sutton Harbour on October 22nd 1876.

Although not a part of Plymouth's railway network the Princetown Railway is included here because it had a link into Plymouth at Yelverton Station.  The Railway was opened on August 11th 1883 although until a station was provided at Yelverton in May 1885, trains from Princetown terminated at Horrabridge on the Tavistock and Launceston Branch.  Although worked in perpetuity by the Great Western, it remained a separate company until absorbed into the Great Western on January 1st 1922.

The final section of main line to be constructed in Plymouth was from Lydford on Dartmoor through Tavistock and Bere Alston to Devonport LSWR Station.  This was opened by the Plymouth, Devonport & South Western Junction Railway on June 2nd 1890.   As at first the trains terminated at Plymouth's joint North Road Station, this turned Devonport Station into a through one.  Their line was extended to Friary Station in 1891.

A line had been built from Plymouth's Friary Station to Plymstock and opened on September 5th 1892.  This crossed the river Plym at Laira Bridge.  On January 1st 1897 the Plymouth & Dartmoor Railway Company, acting as an agent for the London & South Western, opened a branch from Plymstock to Oreston and Turnchapel

This was followed by the obtaining of an Act of Parliament for the South Hams Railway to run from Plymstock to Modbury.  The Great Western Railway feared that this line would be extended to Torquay and eventually Exeter so it negotiated to have the rights for the section as far as Yealmpton to be transferred to themselves, leaving the LSWR with running powers over the GWR line to get to its own portion between Yealmpton and Modbury.  Not surprisingly this did not exactly materialise.  The GWR opened its branch from Plymstock to Yealmpton on January 17th 1898 but the line to Modbury was never constructed.

Railmotor services were introduced in 1904 by the Great Western Railway and 1906 by the London & South WesternLaira Motive Power Depot was constructed in 1906.

The Great Western Railway remained as one of the "Big Four" in the grouping of 1st January 1923, as required by the Railway Act 1921, and was nationalised as British Railways Western Region from 1st January 1948.  The lines of the old Southern Railway became the Southern Region.

Both were overseen by the British Transport Commission, formed under the Transport Act 1947.  From January 1st 1963 this was dissolved and replaced by the British Railways Board.




  Brian Moseley, Plymouth, UK

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