Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: April 18, 2018
Webpage updated: April 16, 2022




The Lee Moor Tramway was a privately-owned mineral railway that was built to carry china clay and other produce from the southern slopes of Dartmoor to the quays at Plymouth.  It was doubtless inspired by the Plymouth and Dartmoor Railway, whose track it used for the lower portion of its journey.  Like the Plymouth and Dartmoor, it was built to what became known as the "Dartmoor gauge" of 4 feet 6 inches.

Lord Morley, who owned much of the land involved in this project, agreed to give his support to the South Devon and Tavistock Railway in return for them constructing a branch to Lee Moor to convey his china clay produce.  This they did but evidently the contractors had to finish the line within six months.  The line was so poorly constructed that the South Devon and Tavistock refused to work it.

The Lee Moor Tramway at Laira.

Eventually, on March 20th 1855, Messrs J and W Phillips, who had started the china clay workings at Lee Moor in 1835, took forcible possession of the line.  Given that the South Devon and Tavistock made no objection to this take-over and indeed subsequently gave the line to Lord Morley, it would appear that they were glad to be rid of the tramway.

So much was found to be wrong with the tramway that it had to be reconstructed.  The machinery for working the incline was unsatisfactory, the viaduct at Wotter was unsafe, the trackwork was weak and a bridge near Truelove had been built of wood instead of stone.  As a result the viaduct was rebuilt and the Torycombe incline reconstructed on a different alignment.

The Lee Moor Tramway bridge across the River Plym at Marsh Mills and Weighbridge Cottage.
From the author's collection.

The Torycombe incline was ceremoniously reopened on September 24th 1858 by the Earl and Countess of Morley and this date is now taken as the official opening date of the line.

Until 1899 the tramway was operated by horses.  In that year two steam locomotives were ordered to deal with the increase in clay production.  The line between the Cann Wood incline and the one at Torycombe was re-laid with sleepered track, the level-crossing gates at Whitegates crossing were installed and an engine shed was constructed at Torycombe works.

"Lee Moor No. 1" and "Lee Moor No. 2" were the only 4 feet 6 inch gauge locomotives ever built by Peckett of Bristol and they were delivered to Marsh Mills Station during March and April 1899.  They had painted names but these were later replaced with polished brass nameplates.  Their livery was green with yellow and green lining and dull red frames and wheels.  Both these locomotives have been preserved.

Unlike a passenger-carrying railway, where closure can be easily identified, the run-down of the Lee Moor Tramway came stealthily.  The top part of the line, from Lee Moor village to Cholwich Town pits was the first to close in about 1910.   The Torycombe incline closed next, in 1936, having been kept open to transport goods for the village and stone from the quarry.  The remainder of the line was closed shortly after the start of the Second World War but was re-opened to transport Naval Stores that had been moved from the Royal Dockyard to Lee Moor village for safe keeping.

The line was re-opened properly on October 8th 1945 but it was not to last long and it closed again in 1947.  The only section that remained in use was that from Marsh Mills to Maddocks Concrete Works at Laira, along which sand was conveyed in order to maintain the right-of-way across the British Railways main line at Laira Junction

This crossing was used 14 times in 1958 but it fell to 6 in 1959 and only 4 in the first part of 1960.  The last ever crossing was made on August 26th 1960, at 11.19am on the outward journey and finally at 1.27pm when the horse and empty tracks returned towards Marsh Mills.  The tramway was then dismantled and replaced with a pipeline above Marsh Mills although the track remained between Marsh Mills and Laira.

Lee Moor Tramway locomotive number 1 outside Torycombe Engine Shed, Lee Moor, after restroation by the Lee Moor Tramway Preservation Society, 1974.          Lee Moor Tramway locomotive number 2, with a rebuilt china-clay wagon, outside the shed at Torycombe, Lee Moor, on the day of its transfer to Saltram House.

LEFT: Lee Moor Tramway locomotive number 1 out side Torycombe engine shed after restoration by the Lee Moor Tramway Preservation Society; and RIGHT LMT number 2, with a rebuilt china-clay wagon, outside the she don the day of its transfer to Saltram House.
  Bernard Mills.

In February 1964 the Lee Moor Preservation Society was formed to carry out work on the two steam locomotives.  "Lee Moor No. 2" was the first to be finished and she was transported to Saltram House on Monday July 20th 1970, where she was swung across the pond in front of the coach house. 

"Lee Moor No. 1" was transported to the Wheal Martyn China Clay Museum on March 17th 1975, by which time the Society had been disbanded and absorbed back into the Plymouth Railway Circle, from which it originated in the first place.

"Lee Moor No. 2" is currently on display in the South Devon Railway's museum at Buckfastleigh Station.