The Railway


The lead up to the railway coming to Bideford is quite a saga (so it has been included below this main account). But to summarize that story, it all started in 1832, when the Bideford to Okehampton Railway proposing a route to link North and South Devon, with their Bideford terminus sited at Cross Parks (East-the-Water). That scheme faltered, as did several others, until by 1845 there were no less than six schemes on the table, two planned to link Bideford to to the rest of the world via Tavistock, one via Launceston, one via Crediton, one via Bampton, and one dismissed out of hand. One of the Tavistock proposals was preferred (as that served Bideford’s more natural market and avoided competing with Barnstaple at a disadvantage). This Tiverton idea lost momentum when the timescale for connecting Tiverton to the national network becam clearer. The North Devon Railway Company’s 1845 decision, to bring a line to Barnstaple, focused thinking. When, in 1848, the broad-gauge Taw Valley Railway completed their Fremington to Barnstaple stretch, the need for a rail link to Bideford became an increasingly urgent priority for the town’s trade. In 1852 the North Devon Railway (the re-branded Taw Valley Railway) were approached to see if they would extend their line, but, other objectives prevented them doing so any time soon, thus Bideford’s merchants decided to go it alone, and the Bideford Extension Railway Co. was born.

With elaborate ceremony, the first sod, for the Bideford Extension Railway, was cut on Saturday 20th August 1853, somewhere at the Bideford end of the line. Amidst the banqueting and toasts, John G. Maxwell Esq. spoke of progress having been delayed by two years due to the illness of a certain Mr. Tite, through whose efforts the railway had not been abandoned, and who was now thankfully with them.. He then sounded a more sober note. There was £50,000 to be raised, fundraising had come to a standstill, and there was still a large balance to be made up.

The funds were clearly raised somehow, as, on the 2nd of November, 1855, the Bideford Extension Railway opened. The town is estimated to have hosted four thousand visitors to witness the event and enjoy the accompanying celebrations, of which about three hundred were somehow left stranded on the platform at the end of the day. Within a week of the railway opening the Barnstaple Turnpike Trust were considering its impact on horse-drawn traffic on their East-the-Water to Instow road. A director of the railway assured the public that appropriate screens would be erected, until which he felt that “horses have much more discrimination than you give them credit for” and that “quadrupeds as well as bipeds” of a nervous disposition could always use the Old Barnstaple Road. Screening walls still remain on these sections of road.

Whilst the railway carried clay and culm out, it brought tourists in, drawn to the area by Kingsley's prose, and accommodated by the growth of his book's namesake village, Westward Ho! The majority no-doubt, having arrived in East-the-Water, were then conveyed across the bridge to swell western Bideford’s coffers, or for onward transit. Cheaper mass-produced goods also began to flood into the area by rail, out-competing local lime-kilns and potteries, and depressing the coastal steamer trade.

The original terminus, at Cross Park (now the northern end of Ethelwynne Brown Close), extended into the river to provide room for a station, a quay, and a large goods depot. As part of the latter, a 160-foot long, completely wooden, goods shed was constructed, at a cost of £300 (about £24,000 at 2017 rates). Unfortunately, in January 1857 this shed was demolished by a fierce south-westerly gale.

In February 1857 the company’s financial figures offered rather gloomy reading, the poor picture being blamed upon litigation, opposition in parliament, and compromise with landowners. To compound the problems, over £17,000 remained to be paid up. Unsurprisingly, no shareholder dividend was paid that year.

In that same year, 1857, the press hinted that a single individual still stood in the way of the terminus moving nearer to the bridge end, where it would have been in a more sheltered spot. It would also have been better connected to the town, for access to the terminus was off a toll-road, compounded the unsuitability of the site. The route to the Cross Parks terminus remained an issue for some time and, in 1859. the directors of the Bideford Extension Railway contacted the Bideford authorities to indicate their willingness to “render pecuniary assistance toward the contemplated new road to the railway station,” hoping that the inhabitants would lend their assistance to the much needed improvement.

Whilst rail was great for over-land journeys, there were still destinations to which the best, or the only, route was by sea. The lack of a suitable quay at Bideford’s railway terminus held back the port, whilst others could now easily handle Bideford’s wares, e.g. in 1860, tree bark (a significant local export) was being sent by rail, from Bideford and Barnstaple, to by shipped from Bristol. The railway company, with its riverside terminus, could see the benefit for the town of such a wharf, for, in August 1861, plans were mentioned for “making docks near their terminus, by which steam communication could be opened with Ireland, and other places.” This plan, however, failed to bear fruit until 1873.

By 1860 a change of operator was also in the pipeline, for the London & South Western Railway (Exeter & North Devon) Act of that year provided, amongst other things, for the LSWR to lease the Exeter & Crediton Railway, North Devon Railway and Bideford Extension lines and to mix their track gauge. Then, in May 1864, it was agreed that, as of 1 Jan 1865 the Bideford Railway Co. and the North Devon Railway Co. would amalgamate with the South Western Co.

As part of their tactics to gain control of parts of the West Country, the LSWR had, in 1865, ventured a parliamentary undertaking to extend the line from Bideford to Torrington. Despite later attempts to evade this responsibility, for Torrington was no longer quite so Great as it had been, pressure was brought to bear and the company were forced to comply.

By 24 April 1866 the entire length of the line had been staked out, and the works were about to commence at a central part of the line, with the intention of completing them within two years. But the company dragged its heels, so the “London and South-Western Railway (Bideford to Great Torrington line), Extension of time” bill was put forward by a private member in late 1868. Then, in February 1869, the South-Western Railway company approved its directors to introduce a bill “for extending the time for the compulsory purchase of lands for, and for the completion of, the authorised railway of the London and South-Western Railway Company from Bideford to Great Torrington.”

In March 1870 the railway company cleared the trees from East-the-Water to the Barnstaple Toll Gate, indicating that they were at long last about to start cutting the line. By October of that year, they were busily constructing an embankment on the East-the-Water foreshore, the legitimacy of which had been queried with the Board of Trade, who were powerless to intervene unless the embankment obstructed the river.

The 1871 Census shows Torridge House occupied by Richard F. Church, a Civil Engineer known to have been associated with the L.S.W.R. Elsewhere in the census records, an introductory note mentions that Richard was a Railway Engineer, so he was probably residing in Torrington Street whilst he worked on the extension of the railway to Torrington.

The extension cut through the heart of East-the-Water, radically re-organizing Vinegar Hill, demolishing the New London Inn, triggering the development of the Royal Hotel, and perhaps helping to sound the death-knell of the anthracite mine. Purchase was compulsory, with property owners either compensated or bought out. The owner of the Torrington Street brewery, Robert Barrow, was offered compensation, but contested the rates, whilst a property that preceded the current Torridge Auctions appears to have been purchased, as it later functions as the station-master’s house; in 1929 it was still owned by the railway, who called it Lion House.

The North Devon Journal of 23 May 1872 announced that the new station was anticipated to open in June, with the line itself opening in July. Then, on 18 Jul 1872, the North Devon Journal reported that the line had passed its final inspection and that on that day the line would open for general traffic. The news caught out the people of Great Torrington, who, despite some months of preparation, were still unready to celebrate the event (though celebrations were enjoyed retrospectively).

With the extension to Torrington now complete, the L&SWR turned their attention back to their property at Crosspark, with a view to enlarging it southward to create a larger wharf. Thus, on 4 Dec 1873 the North Devon Journal carried an article under the title “The Proposed New Railway Wharf at East the Water,” in which it reported that the Railway Company had served both “Mr. Philip Colwill, and Mr. Waters, shipbuilder,” with 10 days notice to quit their yards (in accord with the terms of their leases), and that the company were also negotiating for the purchase of “some property adjoining.”

The quay, once extended as Railway Wharf, was eventually equipped with a travelling steam crane, which served for unloading coal-laden coasters and river barges full of locally-dredged gravel, as well as for loading the ball-clay, brought from Peters Marsland. Local merchants were delighted, as, until this, bulk cargoes bound for Torrington had been discharged at Fremington (in the competing port of Barnstaple). Timber was also frequently brought in by rail, e.g. by the East-the Water ship-builder John Johnson and the Appledore ship-builder Robert Cock. Over its long history, other, more exotic, items came and went from Railway Wharf. Bidefordian Derek Barnes recalled elephants and giraffes arriving by train, bound for Bideford Zoo, and pens full of pigs waiting to be transported. Until the Second World War, life-boats and working boats, intended for use on Readon Smith’s new vessels, and built by Appledore’s boat-builders, would be rowed up the Torridge on the flood tide, then loaded at Railway Wharf for onward transit via the rail network.

In June 1874 the L&SWR, having constructed the “New Road at the Railway Station,” now Station Hill, sought to hand responsibility for it over to the local Board.” The Board seemed somewhat lukewarm about the expense this might entail, prompting some within the railway company to consider constructing an alternative approach.

Plans for re-roofing the station were drawn up in 1889, but more significant changes were soon to follow. Around 1887, the Western Counties Agricultural Co-operative Association constructed offices on the southern end of Railway Wharf, as a prelude to erecting a huge mill on adjacent Victoria Wharf. A railway siding ran directly into the mill, and was later extended, through the back wall of the mill, and onto the Devon Trading Company’s Clarence Wharf, where a steam crane on rails enabled them to load directly from vessels into railway trucks.

By 1893 the haulage company of William Pridham & Son, were acting as agents for the L&SWR. They had offices at the western end of the bridge, but they also operated out of the Railway Yard, where their wagons were a familiar site.

In October 1896 an agreement was drawn up, between the L&SWR and the North Devon Clay Company, Limited, “for Enlargement of the wharf at Bideford Quay.” An accompanying plan clarifies that the “Bideford Quay” referred to in the agreement was not what we think of as Bideford Quay today, but was actually what we now think of as Railway Wharf. The plan involved extending the quay wall slightly further south, to enable larger ships to use it.

In 1898 Capt. Molesworth proposed changes on a much larger scale, i.e. linking the Bideford to Barnstaple main line with the Bideford to Westward Ho! route, via a new bridge across the Torridge (above the Long Bridge). The Local Board, who were not quite so enthusiastic, refused to sanction it.

The First World War saw munitions manufacturer Kynock establish an acetone plant to the south of Bartlett’s sawmill, and utilizing waste wood from it. Bartlett’s site lay south of Nutaberry and is now a builder’s merchants. In 1915, both Bartlett’s and Kynoch’s were provided with their own sidings.

1916 saw the engines of the Bideford, Westward Ho, and Appledore Railway commandeered, and brought across the bridge, from whence presumably to Railway Wharf, to proceed elsewhere under their own steam. Two reputedly went to Bristol, bound for the Western Front, they then sailed on the S.S. Gotterdammerung only for her to be torpedoed at the entrance to the Bristol Channel. Though some believe that the wreck has now been found, others have challenged this account, suggesting that all three went to Ministry of Munitions factories).

In 1929 it was reported that the quay belonging to the Southern Railway was 300 feet long and had 15 feet alongside at highest springs.

During the Second World War, or shortly after, a photograph shows two rocket barges moored alongside Railway Wharf. These rocket barges (known colloquially as “rocket ships,” but correctly designated as Landing Craft Tank (Rocket) Mk 3, or LCT(R)3) were designed to support the D-day landings.

The rail lines were nationalized as part of British Railways in 1948.

Following Beeching’s report, “The Reshaping of British Railways,”of March 1963, regular passenger services were withdrawn on Sat. 2 October 1965, though the occasional one-off excursion continued, as did the use of the line for freight. Demolition of the station buildings to the west of the line took place in 1968, then the line finally closed in 1982, with one last rail tour, on 6th November, to mark that event. The railway tracks were lifted in 1985, as work began to clear the line for the Taw/Torridge Country Park (now the Tarka Trail).

Joining Bideford to the national rail network, 23 years of false starts

For all you railway buffs who like such details, here, as promised, is the saga of how the railway finally came to Bideford.

As early as 1832 linking Bideford with the national railway network was under consideration, with the Bideford to Okehampton Railway proposing a route from Cross Parks (East-the-Water), via Alverdiscott and Yarnscombe, thence across central Devon to Okehampton, and to terminate in Bridestow, with a branch line to South Tawton. The aim of this scheme was to facilitate the transport of lime to the agricultural centres and, at the time, one observer, noting Devon’s farmer’s dependence on Welsh coal and lime, hoped that that such a line would break the local monopolies held by the four Devon lime depots, Exeter, Okehampton, Taw, and Torridge, releasing competition and bringing down prices. This was the first of many attempts to bring the railway to Bideford that failed, but, in this case, not before it had left future generations a detailed plan of the area in which the railway terminus was to be built. The decision to site the proposed Torridge-side terminus on the eastern bank, was due, in part, to the lack of sufficient depth of water on the western side.

By May 1836 entrepreneurs were still thinking in terms of a railway linking North Devon with South Devon. To that end the supporters of the 1832 venture were contacted in the hope that they would support another attempt. Proposed by the London, Exeter and Falmouth Railway Company, it was to create a North & South Devon Railway Company line, to which they would then link. At the time the people of Barnstaple were encouraged not to let a sense of independence prevent the onward extension of the line from Bideford to their town. But the people of Barnstaple, whilst they were well aware of the desirability of a line linking their town with a deeper water port, preferred that port to be Fremington, from which they could compete with Bideford. To that end they obtained the Taw Vale Railway and Dock Act in 1838, though even with this official approval, it would still be some years before work on the line commenced.

With the prospect of the Taw Vale Railway providing port facilities, for Barnstaple (via Fremington Quay) and for Ilfracombe, the residents of Bideford began to considered the extension of that line to serve their town. But Bideford’s natural market catchment extended to Kilkhampton in the west, taking in Holsworthy, Meeth, and Black Torrington to the south and south-west, whilst only extending as far as Fremington in the east. Thus, a public meeting, held to discuss the matter, heard how the greatest benefit to the county still lay in a rail link between the Bristol Channel and the English Channel. Furthermore, an extension of the line from Barnstaple would, the meeting was told, leave Bideford’s produce competing for a market in which Barnstaple would always be able to under-sell them.

At the same meeting an advocate from the Central Cornish railway committee suggested an extension to Bideford via Tavistock and Hatherleigh, another idea that came to nothing. Just like The Direct Plymouth and Bideford Railway, which received a satisfactory surveyors report for their proposed line in 1845. The same year saw no lesser man than Brunel, whilst advocating his proposals for the Launceston and South Devon Company’s line, from Tavistock to Launceston, suggesting that the proposal supported a larger objective, i.e embracing the additional advantages of connexion with Bideford and the North of Devon.”

By 1845 the there were so many competing schemes being proposed to Parliament that a Railway Commission, led by Lord Dalhousie, was set up to single out those preferred schemes for each area that would receive further attention. In Devon, Dalhousie selected the Exeter and Crediton Railway (linking to the B&ER at Exeter) and the North Devon Railway that would extend the line from Credition to Barnstaple. On 4 March 1845 the Railway Commission then recommended that a decision on these two be deferred, pending consideration of an alternative route from Tiverton to Barnstaple.

On 19 Jun 1845 Woolmer's Exeter Flying Post carried the account of a public meeting held to discuss what attitude Bideford should take to the various competing railway proposals. The extant proposals, and the speakers view of them, were summarised as follows:

  • Bideford to Tavistock line (advocated at the meeting, commencing at Bideford and passing up the Torridge past Torrington, thence to the valuable clay moors “from which so much clay is annually sent to Bideford for exportation”, then down the Okemont valley to Okehampton, then via Lydford to Tavistock)
  • Bideford to Tavistock line (as yet un-published, but not including Okehampton)
  • Bideford and Lauceston line (relatively short and a roundabout route)
  • North Devon Line, from Crediton to Barnstaple (bogged down with Board of Trade issues)
  • Bristol & Exeter Company's Bideford & Bampton line
  • The Great West of England (only just published and dismissed as worthless)

This was effectively an attempt to update and revitalise the earlier Bideford and Okehampton Railway scheme of 1832, and to encourage the Railway Commission to re-think. The Flying Post article reports that a resolution was passed to support the first above proposal (Tavistock to Bideford), and unanimously passed. At the time it was noted that the Great Western's involvement had been solicited, but that they had shown no interest in putting forward a scheme themselves. It is particularly interesting to note the recognition of the potential value of a line for the transport of clay and, in some ways, a link with Tavistock was a fairly natural choice, as Tavistock-based entrepreneurs, Rundle and Gill, were active in Bideford’s mining industry in the late 1830s and early 1840s.

In July 1845 the North Devon Railway Company published its prospectus, clarifying that it only planned to bring a line to Barnstaple, thus increasing the pressure on Bideford’s merchants and officials to persuade a railway company to connect the town to the rapidly growing rail network. The Railway Shareholder’s Manual of 1845 reported that the projected “Bideford and Tavistock Railway” railway had 14,000 shares of £25 each, i.e. £35,000 capital, but the Bideford to Tavistock route (which had become the favourite for Bideford’s merchants) would eventually be scuppered, when it became clear that Tavistock was no longer to be linked to the wider system (at least not in the time-frame previously envisaged)

Although no construction had yet started, there was still enough interest in the Taw Vale Railway for the passing of a Taw Vale Amendment Act on 21 July 1845, and January 1846 saw the first track laid for the Taw Vale Railway, from Fremington to Barnstaple.

In July 1846 a public meeting of the inhabitants of Bideford, perhaps increasing aware that they might be left without any link at all, approved a petition to Parliament in favour of the Taw Vale Railway.

The 1846 session of Parliament introduced bills for two prospective solutions for linking Barnstaple to the main railway network, the North Devon Railway Company (a Tiverton to Bideford line, with Brunel as its engineer) and the Taw Vale Railway Extension and Dock Company (effectively providing the Crediton to Barnstaple route proposed in 1845 for a North Devon Railway). The former was rejected on procedural issues, but the latter was approved.

A general meeting, on January 11th, 1847, carried resolutions that the Exeter and Crediton be leased, along with the Taw Vale, to the London and South Western Railway.

In March 1847 the Admiralty Court of Inspection considered the impact, on the Torridge, of extending the line to Bideford and proposals were approved. In the same month a special meeting of the London and South-western Railway approved bills to “authorise the lease of the Taw Vale Railway” and “for making branches from the Taw Vale Railway to Bideford and South Molton.”

In July 1847, Woolmer's Exeter and Plymouth Gazette carried a brief note that “The Taw Valley Railway (Deviations, and Bideford and South Molton Branches) Bill, was read a third time and passed in the House of Lords.”

In 1848, the broad-gauge Fremington to Barnstaple stretch opened for “horse-drawn coal and other goods traffic”.

In Dec 1851 the name of the Taw Vale Railway Extension and Dock Company changed to the North Devon Railway & Dock Company, which known locally as the North Devon Railway. In February of 1852, on hearing the news that the first clod had been cut for the “North Devon Railway,” the people of Bideford celebrated by ringing the church bells, so great were the anticipated benefits of connecting the Taw Vale region to the railway network, with the likelihood that it would facilitate a railway link for Bideford.. Then, in August 1852, the North Devon Railway, drew up a report on a proposed extension to Bideford. Meanwhile, thought was apparently still being given to running a line, not just to Torrington, but onward to Hatherleigh, and thence to Okehampton.

By August 1852 a committee, appointed at an earlier public meeting and tasked with talking to the North Devon Railway, concerning an extension to Bideford, reported to a public meeting. Whilst the North Devon Railway were sympathetic to the idea, there was effectively no prospect of the them using their funds on an extension to Bideford until all the other objectives laid down by their act had been achieved. As a result of this a motion was passed to form an independent company to do the job. In response to the enquiries of the committee Mr Buck (who held the land just north of East-the-Water), had promised two of the directors of the company to accept payment for his land in the form of shares.

November 1852 saw the publication of the “Provisional Registration” for the Bideford Extension Railway Company, a company instituted with the sole aim of building the link from Fremington to Bideford. Head of the list of directors was George Bragington, Esq., a banker in Torrington and Bideford, and Mayor of Torrington.

The Crediton to Barnstaple line opened on 1 August 1854, but meanwhile the North Devon Railway had allowed their powers to provide an extension to Bideford to lapse. By this time the Bideford Extension Railway Co. had presumably taken the lead.

The Western Times of 11 June 1853 reported that the construction of the North Devon Railway was progressing well and that “The preamble of the Bideford Extension Railway Bill was proved in committee, on Tuesday last,” it being a continuation of the North Devon Railway, from Barnstaple to Bideford.

Backed by commercial interests in Bideford, the Bideford Extension Railway Co. obtained powers on 4 August 1853, when its bill obtained royal assent, allowing a broad-gauge line to be constructed.

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