Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: May 17, 2017.
Webpage updated: August 13, 2021



(and the Launceston and Tavistock Railway)

There had been several unsuccessful attempts to link Plymouth and Tavistock by rail but the one that was to become a success story first issued its prospectus on July 17th 1852 as the South Devon and Tavistock Railway Company.  The capital of the new Company was to be 160,000 in shares of 25.  They were proposing to construct a broad-gauge from a junction with the South Devon Railway near Plymouth to Tavistock and also a line to Lee Moor China Clay Works.  The chairman of the Company was the Earl of Morley, who owned the Clay Works, and Mr Thomas Woollcombe and Colonel H B Harris, two directors of the South Devon Railway Company.  The engineer was to be Mr Augustus Hamilton Bampton.

Just a couple of days before, on July 13th 1852, the shareholders of the South Devon Railway Company had accepted a recommendation that they lease the Tavistock line and its intended branch line from the start.  This proposal was to become law on July 12th 1858 in a miscellaneous South Devon Railway Act.

Its first attempt to gain Parliamentary approval, in 1853, was thrown out, largely because the Government was undecided over the merits of the broad- versus narrow-gauge.  A second attempt was made in the following session, 1854, when the Government, to cover their doubts, added a clause to the effect that if the narrow-gauge ever wanted to connect with the South Devon and Tavistock Railway, then it must be allowed to do so.  The Company did not like this very much and considered opposing the move but having spent so much time and money on the Bill so far, they decided to accept the clause.  As a result, the Bill finally received its Royal Assent on July 24th 1854.

On June 5th 1856 a new agreement was made with Lord Morley that enabled the South Devon and Tavistock Company to give up the proposal for the branch line to Lee Moor.  (This later became the Lee Moor Tramway).

Work was slow to begin because of problems raising the full amount of capital but eventually, on Monday August 25th 1856, the first sod was cut on land at Mrs Davey's Farm on Roborough Down.  The work proper started on Wednesday September 24th 1856 and progressed with great speed, thanks largely to the co-operation of the local landowners.  Unfortunately, their engineer, Mr Bampton, died in 1857 but the Company was pleased to secure the services of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.  However, he was much more likely to have been engaged on the more important project of raising the Royal Albert Bridge and it was left to his chief assistant, Mr R P Brereton, and two Assistant Engineers by the names of Grose and Glennie, to oversee the work.

Progress slowed a bit when the workmen encountered problems working the ground for the tunnels at Shaugh and Grenofen.  However, the Engineer's Report presented to the Board in August 1857 stated that both the longer tunnels were in progress, with the shafts sunk and the headings driven.  Parts of the tunnels had been excavated to their full size.  The cuttings were in progress and a large part of the masonry piers for the viaducts had been completed.

The following August (1858) it was apparently stated by Brunel that the junction with the South Devon Railway was finished and about three miles of track had been laid.  Unfavourable winter weather added more time to the construction but in early June 1859 Brunel himself travelled over the line and found it to his satisfaction.

Before the Railway was even open disaster struck.  At around 5pm on Friday May 20th 1859 a plumber engaged at Bickleigh Station carelessly allowed some lead which he was heating to drip onto wood shavings that were nearby and it set the wooden station buildings alight.  No attempt was made to control the fire because it was so quickly well alight that to try was considered to have been futile.  It took only twenty minutes to destroy the entire building.  As it was only a small station the damage caused was thought to have cost around 250 and work was quickly started on rebuilding.

The official opening of the South Devon and Tavistock Railway took place on Wednesday June 21st 1859.  Stations were provided at Bickleigh, Horrabridge and Tavistock, all of which opened to traffic on Thursday June 22nd 1859.

On Monday June 30th 1862 the Royal Assent was given to the Launceston and South Devon Railway Act.

There were four trains every weekday and two on Sundays in February 1864.  Every train conveyed 1st, 2nd and 3rd class passengers and called at Bickleigh Station and Horrabridge Station in both directions.  The first train on weekdays was 8am from Plymouth Station.  It left Bickleigh at 8.20am and passed the first Up train, 8.20am off Tavistock, at Horrabridge Station at 8.33am.  It arrived at Tavistock Station at 8.47am while the Up train arrived in Plymouth at 9.10am.  The second train left Plymouth at 10.30am, ten minutes after the arrival of the second Up train, the 9.30am off Tavistock.  This train left Tavistock again at 12.45pm and arrived back in Plymouth at 1.33pm.  There were no afternoon trains until the 5.05pm down to Tavistock, which returned from there at 6.16pm as the last Up train.  The last Down train left Plymouth at 7.30pm, and called at Bickleigh at 7.52pm, Horrabridge at 8.06pm and was due to arrive at Tavistock at 8.20pm.  On Sundays there were just two trains in each direction: 8am from Plymouth, returning from Tavistock at 9.20am; and the 4.50pm from Plymouth, returning from Tavistock at 6pm and due back at Plymouth at 6.50pm.

The northern section of the Branch, between Tavistock and Launceston, in Cornwall, was officially opened on Thursday June 1st 1865, although public services did not begin until Saturday July 1st.  It, too, was worked by the South Devon Railway Company.  Intermediate stations were opened that day at Mary Tavy and  Blackdown, Lydford, Coryton, and Lifton.

By authority of the South Devon Railway Act 1865, which received the Royal Assent on July 5th 1865, the South Devon and Tavistock Railway Company was amalgamated with the South Devon Railway Company.  The last meeting of the Company was held on August 31st 1865.

Marsh Mills Station, the first stopping place on the South Devon and Tavistock Railway, was opened by the South Devon Railway on Wednesday November 1st 1865.  It was expected to 'prove of great utility and convenience to the public and be the means of facilitating the traffic on the line'.

The Launceston and South Devon Railway was not amalgamated with the South Devon Railway Company until June 24th 1869, when the line thus became the South Devon Railway Company's Launceston Branch.