Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: May 16, 2017
Webpage updated: November 19, 2019




The present main railway line into Plymouth from Newton Abbot was constructed by the South Devon Railway Company.

Early Proposals

The first proposal for a railway line connecting Plymouth with the other parts of the Kingdom was made as early as the summer of 1836.  Mr Isambard Kingdom Brunel, engineer of the Great Western Railway Company, surveyed a route from Exeter Saint David's Station, the southern terminus of the proposed Bristol and Exeter railway, through Dawlish, Teignmouth, Torquay, Dartmouth, Kingsbridge and Modbury to Plymouth.  This route was favoured by the good folk of Plymouth but fell because of the inability to raise the finance.

At the same time the London and Southampton Railway were proposing a route from Exeter via Crediton, Okehampton and Tavistock to Plymouth.  The people of Exeter favoured this project but Plymothians did not.  Finally, in November 1836, plans were deposited for the London, Exeter and Falmouth Railway, which completely missed out Plymouth altogether.

Those good folk of Plymouth were not impressed by the latter proposal, of course, but still took three years to organise a meeting early in 1840 to discuss the three proposals put forward by the engineer of the Plymouth and Dartmoor Railway, Mr James Meadows Rendel.  Although the 37-mile direct route across the centre of Dartmoor was the most popular and a Bill was deposited in Parliament, it slowly dawned on people that running a railway line across desolate moorland was a bit of a waste of money, Rendel's other suggestion of a route to the south of the Moor gained favour.

While this heated debate was going on, the Bristol and Exeter Railway was getting nearer and nearer.  In October 1843 the Mayor of Plymouth, Mr W Prance, presided at a meeting in Plymouth at which it was agreed to accept the route via Dawlish, Teignmouth and Newton Abbot to a terminus at Eldad, from where it could be extended in Devonport and on to Cornwall in due time.  A branch to Millbay was included but locomotives were banned from this if it crossed roads on the level.

Birth of the South Devon Railway

It was on May 1st 1844 that the Bristol and Exeter Railway reached its southern terminus.   Following the decision of a shareholder's meeting on November 21st 1843 to abandon Rendel's proposal for a route from Exeter to Plymouth right across the centre of Dartmoor, the name was changed from the Plymouth, Devonport and Exeter Railway to the South Devon Railway.  On July 4th 1844 the South Devon Railway Act received the Royal Assent.  The authorised capital of 1,100,000 in 50 shares was largely funded by the Bristol and Exeter Railway Company and the Great Western Railway Company along with the Bristol and Gloucester Railway Company.

Development towards Plymouth

The South Devon Railway reached Teignmouth in May 1846 and Newton Abbot on December 30th of that year.  But Brunel had decided that the line was going to be powered by atmospheric pressure rather than steam locomotives and in 1847 converted the entire line to run by that means.

Locomotive-hauled trains started running from Exeter to Totnes on July 20th 1847 but Brunel was still laying pipes for the atmospheric system and a pumping station was built at Totnes Station.  However, they were destined never to be used, for on Wednesday September 6th 1847 Brunel abandoned the experiment and steam locomotives were employed on all trains from that date.

Plymouth's first steam locomotive

Plymothians first saw a steam railway locomotive at around 2pm on Thursday April 27th 1848, when the Great Western Railway Company's "Pisces" drew its train of seven heavily laden trucks, a larger wagon and a horse-box through the arch into Plymouth's Laira Green Temporary Station.  There were several hundred people waiting to greet it and the crowd swelled to several thousands when the news of its arrival reached the Town.  Every opportunity was given to the townsfolk to examine the station and the locomotive.

The engine was driven by Mr Minard C Rae, the superintendent in charge of the Locomotive Depart at the Great Western Railway Company.  With him on the locomotive were Mr Peter J Margary, superintendent of the permanent way; Mr Glennie and Mr Freeman, engineers; Mr Herbert Clark, superintendent of the South Devon Railway; Mr Hennett and Mr Carpenter, the contractors of the line; Mr Champernowne, of Dartington, late the High Sherriff of the County; Mr Luxmore, of Heavitree, near Exeter; and a Commodore Brucks, of the Honourable East India Company Ships.  During their break at Laira a dinner was provided in one of the rooms at the station by Mr Elliott of the Royal Hotel, Plymouth.

At 5pm the train was ready to leave again.  One of the trucks of materials was detached at Colebrook Station.  Sadly, it was on the return journey that the Railway suffered its first fatality.  Mr Kearley, an employee and a resident of Plymouth, was so severely injured while shunting wagons near Blatchford Viaduct that he died almost immediately.  He left a widow and three children.

Before the South Devon Railway could be opened to carry passengers it had to be inspected by the Inspector General of Railroads, Captain Symonds.  On Saturday April 29th 1848, accompanied by Mr Brunel and Mr Thomas Gill, the chairman of the directors, Captain Symonds spent three hours inspecting the line from Totnes to Laira.  All was found to be soundly constructed and when the party arrived at Laira Green Temporary Station at around 2pm they retired to the Royal Hotel in Plymouth for a meal.  At around 4pm the party returned and the train made its way back to Totnes.  The Inspector must gave been satisfied because on Monday May 1st it was announced that the line would be officially opened on Friday May 5th 1848.

Thus at 8am on that Friday morning the directors and a large party of ladies and gentlemen who had been invited to join them, left Laira Green Temporary Station in the first passenger train to run over the South Devon Railway.  Headed by "Pisces", driven by Mr Daniel Gooch, Locomotive Superintendent of the Great Western Railway Company, and "Cancer", driven by Mr M C Rae, now Locomotive Superintendent of the South Devon Railway, the train comprised one first class, two second class and two third class carriages.  The journey of 21 miles was accomplished in 42 minutes.  Upon arrival at Totnes the party was so large that breakfast had to be served at both Mr Webb's Seven Stars Hotel and Mr Bishop's Seymour Hotel.

Back in Plymouth, Stonehouse and Devonport a general holiday had been declared.  The banks led the way by closing until 3pm but the shops and other businesses soon followed suit.  Flags adorned buildings and ships in the Sound and the church bells rang out.  Tens of thousands of people were estimated to have gathered at Plymouth Station and on all high vantage points.  However, there was no official welcoming party as, it would seem, the only person in the Three Towns who did not know what was happening was the Mayor of Plymouth, who was consequently absent from the celebrations.

At 10.38am the train set off once again, this time as the first Down train to Plymouth (well, Laira).  After passing through the Marley Tunnel, which hid the railway from Lady Carew's mansion, the train soon passed through Brent Station, Wrangerton (sic) Station, over Glase (sic) Viaduct, the skew bridge and viaduct at Bittaford (which the press curiously named "Devil's Bridge owing, it said, to it being 'the scene of many coach and horse accidents'), and Ivybridge Viaduct.  Ivybridge Station was still under construction at this time.

After Ivybridge came Blatchford or Moor Cross Viaduct and then Slade Viaduct before the single track became double at Beechwood in readiness for the steep descent down Hemerdon Bank to Colebrook Station and onwards to Laira Green Station.  The train arrived there at 11.23am, having taken 45 minutes for the journey, and was greeted with loud cheering from the assembled multitude.  As usual the journey was followed by another slap-up meal, this time at Mr Elliott's Royal Hotel in Plymouth.  No doubt the directors of the Company made use of his omnibus and two stage coaches, each drawn by four grey horses and attended by post-boys in scarlet jackets and caps and guards in scarlet and gold-laced hats.

Although a train is said to have departed from Laira Green Temporary Station shortly after the arrival of the opening special, no further details are known.  The regular service started on Saturday May 6th 1848, with six trains Up and six Down, the first leaving at 7.30am and the last arriving at 12.20am.

The single fares to or from Totnes were 4s 10d first class; 3s 4d second class; and 1s 9d third class.  The last charge amounted to one penny per mile.  A first class ticket through to London Paddington would cost 2 16s; second class was 1 18s, and third class was 1 0s 3d.  Return tickets were issued only to first and second class passengers for outward and homeward journeys over the South Devon line on the same day, the charge being one third more than the single fare.

Goods traffic commenced on September 13th 1848.

As previously mentioned, it was planned to continue the line to Eldad with a branch to Devonport's Torpoint Ferry, where the ferry would have provided the link across the Hamoaze to join the projected Cornwall Railway Company.  Indeed, this line is shown on an old map.  But several changes were made.   Firstly, the terminus at Eldad was abandoned and a new one planned near the Octagon in Union Street.  Unfortunately, this required the line to cross Union Street on the level and the Board of Trade's Railway Inspectorate refused to sanction that.  The answer was to raise the line on an embankment to enable Union Street to be bridged.  Finally the Cornwall Railway abandoned its plan to cross the River Tamar at Torpoint and substituted a bridge at Saltash instead.  This meant that Devonport lost its hoped for railway but later turned out to be fortuitous for the Railway Company.

So the line was constructed from Laira Green through Lipson and Mutley to above Pennycomequick and then southwards to the new terminus at Millbay Station.  In addition, the South Devon Railway bought land from the Saint Aubyn Estates for a branch line to Devonport.

While this construction work was progressing there were a couple of other important events happening.  First came the announcement from the Mayor, Mr James Moore, that as from Noon on Monday May 22nd 1848 the Borough of Plymouth would adopt London Time, which was sixteen minutes earlier than Plymouth Time.

Then came the announcement that as from Thursday June 1st 1848 the London Mails were to be conveyed to Plymouth by the South Devon Railway.  This was slightly ahead of the opening of the new General Post Office in Whimple Street on Tuesday June 6th 1848.  The Mail was due to arrive at the Post Office at about 7am and it was declared that it would be ready for delivery within half an hour.  The outgoing Royal Mail was set to leave Plymouth at about 6pm.

Finally, on Thursday June 15th 1848 the stations at Brent, Ivybridge and Colebrook were opened, 'a great convenience for the inhabitants of those neighbourhoods'.  Indeed, Ivybridge was so pleased they beflagged the Town and arranged for a band to attend.  The electric telegraph between Brent and Plymouth still had to be completed, though.

But all was not entirely going to plan.  The South Devon Railway Act of 1846 had authorized the Company to purchase the Plymouth and Dartmoor Railway between Crabtree, where the lines crossed each other, and Sutton Pool.  The mortgagees of the P&D were the Johnson Brothers, who operated the granite quarries high up on Dartmoor.  The SDR had to cross the P&DR on the level at Crabtree and thus cross the Johnson Brothers property.  The Brothers were determined to force the SDR to carry out its obligation to buy the line and continually refused to let the SDR cross their property.  The dispute came to a head on Saturday October 21st 1848 when the Brothers dumped some large granite blocks across the South Devon's line.  The blocks remained in place until a provisional settlement was reached, the matter not being fully sorted until 1851.

On Tuesday March 27th 1849 Captain Symons, the Inspector-General of Railways at the Board of Trade, arrived in Plymouth and on the following day, he and Mr Glennie, the resident engineer of the South Devon Railway, travelled over that line from Plymouth Station to Laira Green Station.  The locomotive used was "Hecla", which was driven by Mr Reddington, the Superintendent of Locomotives.  The line, earthworks and the bridges were all inspected very thoroughly with perfect satisfaction.

The South Devon Railway reaches Plymouth

The first train to arrive at the new Plymouth Station on Monday April 2nd 1849 was, in fact, the Down Mail, which arrived without ceremony at about 6am.  Gradually more and more people gathered at the wooden Station and on the approach to witness the arrival and departure of the first, formal trains.  The military bands of the Royal Marines and the 28th Regiment of Foot were engaged for the occasion, together with an amateur band which travelled as far as Plympton on the first train to depart from Millbay and then returned on the Bath Mail train along with the Directors of the Company.  This was due to arrive at 1.20pm London time.  One of the bands was positioned in Mr Rendle's Nursery off Union Street, where spectators could watch the goings on.

Receipts during the last week of March, preceding the opening, were 1,765 9s 6d, of which 375 17s 11d for for the transporting of goods traffic.  The goods shed at Plymouth was expected to be ready by May 15th 1849 and the electric telegraph would be installed within the next fortnight.  The directors had been asked to provide a goods shed at Ivybridge Station and Wrangerton (sic) had been renamed Kingsbridge-road Station (sic), which was considered more appropriate.

Naturally the system experienced teething troubles.  On Friday April 6th 1849 the Down Mail train arrived two hours late because a goods train broke down between Teignmouth and Dawlish.  In the Up direction, some 500 passengers boarded the 6.35am departure and a further 150 were left behind.  The 6.55am was so well loaded that it had to be broke into two trains for the ascent of Hemerdon Bank.  The locomotive took the first part up and was almost at the top of the incline with the second portion when it burst a tube.  With its power gone the train then ran back down the hill to beyond Plympton Station.  A fresh locomotive was sent out from Plymouth and the train eventually continued on its way after a delay of about one and a half hours.  The 10.20am express train was also crowded and the Midday departure carried some 400 passengers in its one first class and eight second class carriages.

Mr Francis Pickersgill Cockshott (1824-1896) was appointed as Superintendent of the South Devon Railway in 1851 and of the Cornwall Railway in 1858.  Both appointments lasted until 1865 when he was appointed to the Great Northern Railway Company.

In 1854 Mr William Henry Avery (1830-1904) joined the South Devon Railway Company.  He served with the Great Western Railway Company after 1876 and retired from the post of Western District Goods Manager in 1890.


When it opened the South Devon Railway did not have its own locomotives: it hired then from the Great Western Railway Company.  Amongst them were 2-4-0 "Leo" class, 2-2-2 "Firefly" and "Sun" classes and 0-6-0 "Hercules" class for the goods traffic.  In August and September 1849 two new 4-4-0 saddle tank locomotives designed by Daniel Gooch, named "Brigand" and "Corsair", were introduced on the line to Plymouth.  Some fifteen engines were allocated to work the entire SDR system.

But the GWR would not co-operate when the SDR wanted them to build some locomotives for them so Brunel approached a Mr Charles Geach, of Birmingham, who agreed to not only supply locomotives but to work the line under contract.  The Board accepted this and a ten years contract was signed on June 3rd 1851 and came into operation on July 1st that year.  In October 1851 the SDR took delivery of the first one, named "Comet", a 4-4-0 saddle tank built by Messrs Longridge & Company.  Three more followed in the remainder of 1851 plus one named "Priam" built by Messrs Haigh Foundry belonging to Mr Edward Evans.  By the end of 1853 the SDR sported twelve of these 4-4-0 saddle tanks, all for working passenger trains.

The first goods loco, "Tornado", an 0-6-0 saddle tank built by Messrs Vulcan Foundry, arrived in December 1854.

Over the next few years the Cornwall Railway and the South Devon and Tavistock Railway were opened and the operation of both was undertaken by the South Devon Railway's contractors.  By the end of 1865 there were 40 locomotives at work, 28 for passenger traffic and 12 for goods trains, covering a combined system that ran from Falmouth to Exeter and northwards to Launceston.  At this point the directors decided it was time to purchase their own locomotives and so from July 1st 1866 the South Devon Railway took over the entire fleet from the contractors.  Mr John Wright was appointed as locomotive superintendent.

The livery used on the locomotives apparently changed slightly but was basically dark green boilers and wheels, vermillion buffers and buffer beams with black lining edged in white.  The locos carried nameplates but were not numbered.

Although the SDR had its own workshops at Newton Abbot, it opened the Plymouth Engine Shed in June 1849.

In May 1853 the South Devon Railway Company opened their Sutton Harbour Branch from Laira Junction to Sutton Harbour by adding a third, broad-gauge rail to the Plymouth and Dartmoor Railway's 4ft 6ins track.  A couple of year's later it was relaid to take steam locomotives.

The Devonport Branch

The South Devon Railway had promised to construct a branch line from Plymouth Station to Devonport.  Land for this was purchased from the Saint Aubyn Estate and a contractor engaged to construct the viaduct over Stonehouse Pool.  But when the Cornwall Railway changed their mind about where to cross the River Tamar it was decided to sell the land and the rights to them so that they could use it for their main line to Saint Budeaux.  The agreement was signed on May 9th 1854. 

The Tavistock Branch

On July 1st 1865, under the authority of the South Devon Railway Act 1865, the South Devon Railway took over the South Devon and Tavistock Railway Company, which it had operated under lease since its opening on June 21st 1859.

Gradient Profile

The summit of the South Devon Railway between Totnes and Plymouth was at Wrangaton.  Apart from a short stretch at approaching Bittaford, the line fell continuously until just before Hemerdon Sidings, where a short incline helped to slow Down trains before the sharp decent of Hemerdon Bank.

Although the decent started gradually enough, at 1 in 630, this quickly increased to 1 in 75 and then the main incline at 1 in 42.  There was a slight easing to 1 in 47 before it steepened, towards the bottom, to 1 in 41.  Plympton Station was more or less on the level.

The line continued to drop to Tavistock Junction and remained more or less level then until Laira Junction.  There was then a climb at 1 in 77, 1 in 83 and finally 1 in 72 before the approach to Mutley Tunnel, which was at 1 in 347.  The summit was at the western end of the Tunnel, after which the line fell at 1 in 77, 1 in 109 through Mutley Station, and 1 in 246 through what was later North Road Station.

A fall at 1 in 65 and then 1 in 61, preceded a gentler decline at 1 in 341 before the line levelled off at Plymouth Station.

The South Devon Railway Company merges with the Great Western Railway Company

At a meeting of the South Devon Railway's shareholders on December 17th 1875, they overwhelmingly voted for merger with the Great Western Railway Company, who thus took over possession of  the line to Plymouth on February 1st 1876.  It was necessary to get this transfer approved by Parliament and when this was done (by the Great Western Railway and South Devon Railway Companies Amalgamation Act of July 22nd 1878) the South Devon Railway Company was dissolved on August 1st 1878.

Preserved South Devon Railway Locomotive

There is still in existence a South Devon Railway locomotive, "Tiny", acquired in 1868 from Messrs Sara and Company to work the Sutton Harbour Branch.  She became number 2180 in the Great Western fleet and was in 1927 preserved on Newton Abbot station.  She is now in the museum at the modern South Devon Railway Trust's headquarters at Buckfastleigh Station.

For more information about the Engines Sheds, Goods Depots or Yards, Ground Frames, Halts, Junctions, Platforms, Sidings, Signal Boxes, Signalling, Stations, Tunnels, and Viaducts along the South Devon/Great Western Main Line between Brent Station and Plymouth Station (Millbay) CLICK HERE.