©  Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: May 17, 2017
Webpage updated: April 16, 2022




The Plymouth and Dartmoor Railway at Yelverton,
mile stone 14 on the right.
From a postcard.

The Plymouth and Dartmoor Railway was the brainchild of Thomas Tyrwhitt (1762-1833), who for more than twenty years tried to cultivate and populate the waste of Dartmoor.  He built Prince's Town in the heart of the Moor and named it after the Prince of Wales, later to become King George IV.   Sir Thomas persuaded the Admiralty that this place would make an ideal location for a depot to house prisoners from the war with France.  As a result, he built Dartmoor Prison, competed in 1809, which for a few years housed 5,000 prisoners-of-war, until peace was declared in 1815.  The buildings then lay deserted.

Sir Thomas (he had been knighted in 1812) then had the idea that a railway linking Prince's Town with the coast near Plymouth would be an advantage.  The plan was to bring in the materials and people for the reclamation of the land, such as lime and sea sand for manure, coal and timber and even tea and sugar.  The journeys to Plymouth would carry granite from quarries at King Tor and possibly Dartmoor peat, as well as the produce from the farms.   It would help to turn his dream into a reality.

A public meeting was held in the Plymouth Guildhall on March 29th 1819 and soon afterwards, on July 2nd 1819, the Royal Assent was given to the first Plymouth and Dartmoor Railway Act.  It authorised the construction of a line from Crabtree, in the parish of Egg Buckland, to Princetown, as surveyed and marked out by Mr William Shillibeer, a surveyor from Walkhampton, early in 1818.  By this time Sir Thomas had already raised the £27,788 required for the expenditure authorised.

At the first general meeting of the shareholders, held at the Royal Hotel in Plymouth on September 20th 1819, Sir William Elford, Bart, was appointed treasurer and Mr William Burt was made clerk (secretary).  Mr William Stuart, who at that time was superintendent of the Breakwater Works, was chosen as engineer and Mr Hugh Mackintosh of London was selected as the contractor.  The iron rails were to be supplied by Messrs Bailey and Company, also of London.

The second Act, on July 8th 1820, gave authority for an extension to Sutton Pool, along with a short branch to Martin's Wharf on the Cattewater, just below the Laira Bridge.  The third Act, which received the Royal Assent on July 2nd 1821, allowed the line between Crabtree and what was then called Jump (nowadays, Roborough) to deviate to follow the contours and made provision for a 620-yard tunnel on that section.  The work authorised by these two Acts was estimated to cost £12,200.

The Plymouth and Dartmoor Railway was opened on Friday September 26th 1823.  It was built to an unusual gauge, 4 foot 6 inches, which henceforth became known as the "Dartmoor" gauge.  The line was 25 miles, 2 quarters and 6 chains long, of single track throughout, and reputed to have cost £66,000 to build.  It ran from King Tor, short of Princetown, to Sutton Pool, a distance of some 13 miles as the crow flies.

On the opening day Sir Thomas hosted a breakfast at the wharf or station on Roborough Down, where horses were stabled.  After the breakfast, a steady procession of wagons proceeded down towards Plymouth, carrying granite and people.  They passed through the tunnel at Leigham and received a rousing welcome when they arrived at the goods station on the shore of Sutton Pool.

King Tor quarries were worked by two brothers, John and William Johnson.   Because the Plymouth and Dartmoor Railway Company ran out of money, the brothers helped financially with the completion of the line into Princetown.  In return they took out a mortgage on the line but as the Company could not pay the interest on it, they allowed the Johnsons to transport their granite free of charge.  These two situations were to bring about the death of the railway as Sir Thomas disappeared from the scene and his promises with him, even though he remained the largest shareholder.  There was no other traffic on the line to pay the running costs.

A branch of the Plymouth and Dartmoor Railway was opened to Cann Quarry on November 20th 1829.  This also worked until about 1900.

There was a further branch to Plympton, which was opened in 1833 or 1834.  It was bought by the South Devon Railway Company in 1847 and closed as it got in the way of their new line from Totnes to Plymouth.

Accidents were not unknown on the Plymouth and Dartmoor Railway, as this report from the Western Morning News on Wednesday January 16th 1861 shows:  ‘Yesterday morning a labourer in the employ of the Dartmoor Granite Company, named James Tawle (or Toole), who was engaged as driver of the horses drawing the trucks upon the tramway from Dartmoor to Sutton Road, met with a sad accident.  He was in the act of coupling two trucks at the Laira junction, when by some means he was caught between the buffers of the two, sustaining severe injuries in the lower portion of his body.  The poor fellow was taken to Plymouth as soon as possible, from whence he was taken to the South Devon and East Cornwall Hospital, where he of course received every attention, but very slight hopes are entertained of his recovery.  He has a wife and large family.’

§   This dire state of the financial affairs continued until an Act of Parliament of June 19th 1865, when the surviving Johnson brother, William, was given £75,000 worth of 5% preference shares in exchange for the mortgage.  This brought matters back into the control of the Company and within a few years the revenue from transporting the granite enabled them to relay much of the line.

In 1883 the top section of the railway, above Yelverton, was used by the Princetown Railway Company as the trackbed of the standard gauge line to Princetown.  This left the remainder with very little traffic and it is thought that the line ceased to be used around 1900.

By now both the Great Western Railway Company and London and South Western Railway Company had worked out that Sutton Harbour and more especially the Cattewater offered great facilities for increasing their revenue from industries.  The LSWR got there first, by encouraging the Plymouth and Dartmoor Railway Company, which already had a foothold with the line to Sutton Harbour, to obtain legal powers for several other lines in the Cattewater/Prince Rock area.  Line 1 was to link the main Railway with the LSWR's Friary Station; another extended the line from in front of Prince Rock Row to Catdown Lane (sic); the third was to extend the main line to Gibb's Quay and Finch's Quay.  These were authorised by the Plymouth and Dartmoor Railway (Plymouth Extensions) Act 1875.

A second set of proposals added two further extensions, from Cattedown Quarry to the Passage House Inn and thence on to the Graving Dock, one quay and two piers.  They were authorised by the Plymouth and Dartmoor Railway Act 1882.

Sources differ as so exactly when the Plymouth and Dartmoor Railway's Cattewater Harbour Branch was formally transferred into the hands of the London and South Western Railway Company.  Mr H G Kendall states that the agreement to do so was signed in August 1878 while Williams quotes a later but more specific date of February 11th 1879.  It was certainly considered to be the LSWR Cattewater Branch when it was opened in 1880.

One of the last acts of the Plymouth and Dartmoor Railway Company, on November 30th 1882, was to deposit plans for a branch line to Clovelly Bay and Turnchapel.  These proposals received the Royal Assent on August 2nd 1883 and the line became the first part of the LSWR Turnchapel Branch.  This was quickly followed on November 30th 1883 with the depositing of plans for another line leaving the Turnchapel Branch and going to Modbury.  Plans deposited on November 30th 1887, however, shew the line as terminating at Yealmpton only.  This received the Royal Assent on June 28th 1888 as the Plymouth and Dartmoor Railway (South Hams Extension) Act 1888.

Mr Sidney Chester and a companion (possibly Mr Charles R Fircken),
looking at Plymouth and Dartmoor Railway rails still attached
 to the granite sleepers near the Rock, Yelverton, in the 1960s.
From the author's collection.

In 1916 all the track was removed, except that between the Rising Sun Inn (long demolished) at Crabtree and Sutton Harbour, which remained as part of the Lee Moor Tramway.  As proved by the photograph above, some pieces of track embedded into the granite sleepers, remained on the Moors long after the route was abandoned.  The mile stones, which were carved granite, remained at some points on the Moors into the 1970s.