©  Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: April 29, 2018
Webpage updated: July 02, 2022




The exterior of Plymouth Station (Millbay) from Millbay Road in the 1960s.
From the author's collection.

Plymouth Station was at Millbay, 246 miles 64 chains mile post mileage from London's Paddington Station via Bristol Temple Meads, the original route from London to the West of England.  It was built by the South Devon Railway Company and was officially opened to passenger traffic, amidst tremendous celebrations, on Monday April 2nd 1849.  Goods facilities were provided from Tuesday May 1st 1849 and a line constructed to the Docks at Millbay in 1850.  The approaching gradient was 1 in 61 falling.

The Station was a timber built train shed, with an overall roof covering the three tracks.  In addition to the Arrival Platform and the Departure Platform there was a central line which was connected to the other two by means of turnplates at the buffer-stop end.  No official explanation has been found but it is likely these turnplates were used to remove carriages from one line to another rather than locomotives.  Defective ones could be removed through the central track while otherwise a complete train could have been moved from the Arrivals Platform to the Departure Platform so that it remained in exactly the same order as when it arrived.  This would have saved the need for shunting.

Because Plymouth Station had no ticket barriers it was the practice to collect the tickets off arriving passengers while the train was stopped at Plympton Station, where three men were employed for that purpose.  However, in October 1851 the South Devon Railway Company transferred a platform from Starcross Station to become a "ticket platform" just outside Plymouth Station.  The platform was just wide enough for the staff to clamber from carriage to carriage collecting the tickets before the train was drawn or propelled into the main Arrival Platform.  Naturally this required a Regulation to ensure its proper operation:  'Before a train is propelled from the Ticket Platform into Millbay Station the Guard of the train must obtain a signal from the Signalman at the Station end of the bridge.  Before a train is pulled from the Ticket Platform into Millbay Station the Front Guard must obtain Line Clear from the Signalman.'  Notwithstanding the public objections to this inconvenience, the Ticket Platform remained in use until 1896.

Plymouth Station became much busier during 1859.  Traffic on the Cornwall Railway commenced on Wednesday May 4th and on the South Devon and Tavistock Railway on Wednesday June 22nd 1859.  This necessitated the widening of the line between Cornwall Junction and the Station.  This task was not completed until 1863.  A loud bell was fixed at the Station to enable the Signalman at Cornwall Junction to announce the imminent arrival of trains from Exeter (1 ring), from Cornwall (2 rings) or from the Launceston Branch (3 rings).

In his Engineer's Report to the Directors in August 1860, Mr R P Brereton stated that: 'The line has been doubled from the Plymouth junction to Devonport station' and also that: 'The works at the Plymouth Station necessary for the increase of the goods' accommodation are proceeding favourably, and are in a forward state'.

But Plymouth Station had two big problems: the platforms were too short because the old broad-gauge trains were short; and the overall roof made the Station dark and retained the smoke and steam under its canopy.  In May 1874 the local press said of the Station: 'There is no greater libel on Plymouth than Plymouth Station as it at present stands.  It is, however, reassuring to know that a speedy improvement is in contemplation.  Before that takes place, for the sake of the Town, it is fervently to be hoped that the traveller will arrive when it is dark, or that he will be too tired to look around before he is whirled off.'

The main office of the Great Western Railway was at Plymouth Station so that was where all the local top brass were based.  In 1890 Mr Thomas Welch was the Station Master; Mr Charles Edward Compton was the Superintendent in charge of the Passenger Department; Mr William Henry Avery (1830-1904) was the Manager of the Goods Department; and Mr P J Margary was the Divisional Engineer.  None of them lived on the premises: Mr Welch lived at number 15 Windsor Place, Citadel Road; Mr Compton was at number 5 Saint James's Terrace, also in Citadel Road; Mr Avery lived at 31 Durnford Street, East Stonehouse; while Mr Margary resided at number 6 Wingfield Villas, Molesworth Road, Stoke, in Devonport.  The Refreshment Rooms were at the entrance to the Station buildings while outside was a Parcel Post Depot.

For a Departure Board for Down, Up and Launceston Branch trains leaving Plymouth Station (Millbay) in the last quarter of 1894 CLICK HERE.

In 1898 work started on installing a new roof supported by light, steel-framed supports to afford shelter at the outer end of the new platforms and to the area served by the cabs and horse omnibuses.   A whole new range of stone-built waiting rooms and public conveniences were to be erected on the Arrivals Platform.

The following report appeared in the local press on Tuesday June 6th 1899: ‘Early next month the first section of the new Millbay Station will be opened for public use, and when this is done the workmen will be able to demolish other portions of the present structure and make further progress.  The part which is nearing completion is that adjacent to the new road from Union-street to the station, and consist of an arrival platform 520 feet long, and a block of buildings, of local limestone with Portland dressings.  The latter, which immediately faces Mount Pleasant Hotel, includes a first and second class dining and refreshment-room (36 feet long by 19 feet), a third class refreshment-room (20 feet long by 19 feet), kitchens, etc., and a ladies’ first and second class waiting-room, a general waiting-room, a ladies’ third class room, lavatories, etc.  The platform, which gives access to two sets of lines – one set being immediately contiguous to the Adelaide-road boundary wall – is covered for a considerable distance by corrugated iron and glass.  A platform immediately opposite to this, of equal length, and also affording access to two sets of lines, is likewise approaching completion.  The portion of the old station to be demolished next will probably be that facing the Duke of Cornwall Hotel and the present ‘bus stand.  Here a block will be built consisting of spacious accommodation for luggage, a first and second, and also a third-class booking office, with offices for clerks, stationmaster, and telegraph operators.  Where the present inadequate booking-offices are there will be a cloak-room, 38 feet by 23 feet, a lost property office, and other accommodation for clerks, parcels, etc.  On that side where the bookstall now stands, new buildings will also be put up, providing on a larger scale accommodation similar to that which already exists there – a first and second class waiting-room, a ladies’ first and second class waiting-room, a ladies’ third class, and a general third class waiting-room.  There will also be a new cash-office on this side.  The widest space between the two extreme platforms will be 90 feet.  What is known as a circulating platform, of spacious dimensions, will exist, the termini-buffers being fixed in a line with Mount Pleasant Hotel, and as nearly as possible corresponding with the southern end of the new block which as already been constructed.  This arrangement will afford ample space for luggage, etc., to be dealt with, and in the centre of the circulating platform a handsome bookstall will be put up.  This week the work of pulling down the staff offices occupied by Mr Adye and his subordinates will be commenced; and whilst some of the engineering staff to be displaced will probably be transferred to North-road, the divisional superintendent and others will, when the scheme is completed, find accommodation over some of the buildings which we have been describing.  With reference to Union-street bridge, the work of widening this structure is progressing, and the improvement this will effect when finished is now apparent.  It seems difficult to say when the station will be completed.  The contractor, Mr W T Jinkin, who, by the bye, is a local man, and the clerk of the works (Mr C Marshall) seem to be doing what they can to press the work forward, but the settlement of differences between the Great Western Railway Company and the town authorities has caused serious delays.’

Sunday July 2nd 1899 was a busy day at Plymouth Station.  The Station was closed to traffic, which was diverted to North Road Plymouth Station.  From 3am on the Sunday morning, some 230 workmen, drawn from all over the Great Western Railway between Saint German's and Newton Abbot, were engaged in replacing the permanent way, relaying the track in the yard and linking up the signals and points to the new signal box.  The old arrival lines had been removed and a new arrivals platform constructed.  The work was supervised by the District Engineer, Mr T H Gibbons, and his assistant, Mr Elms.  The Station was re-opened for traffic on the Monday morning, July 3rd 1899, although there was still much work for the contractors to do.  During the day one of the signalmen, a Mr Whiteway, of Teignmouth, was injured when a signal arm fell on to and severely crushed his foot.

On Monday January 15th 1900 the Western Morning News reported that: ‘Now that the end of the work is practically within view, it is opportune to note the progress of the important improvements at Millbay Station, Plymouth – improvements which will confer great benefits on the public, not only from the point of view of comfort and convenience, but in the acceleration of traffic by the widening of the “road” and the provision of further station accommodation.  Begun two years ago, everything is now finished with the exception of the station offices in Millbay-road, and the remainder of the work will not in a great measure concern the public.  In eighteen months at the farthest everything in connection with the extension will be completed, and the full value of the GWR enterprise will then be apparent.  It will be a very costly job, running, probably, into £70,000.  And this is only as far as concerns the contract of MR W T Jinkin, whose courteous representative, Mr Robins, expressed the belief that the station would in every way be worthy of the town and if the company.  Mr Jinkin's work extends only to Union-street bridge, and the company have themselves widened the bridge and the “road” as far as the engine sheds.

‘As to the details of the work, the railroad has been widened to an extent from 80 to 90 feet, and an additional platform added to the station.  There are now four platforms and these, with the extended “road”, will greatly assist the officials in the acceleration of traffic.  Number 1 block, on the eastern side, consisting of the waiting and refreshments rooms, have been in use for some time, and the work now proceeding is the demolition of the old station buildings fronting the Duke of Cornwall Hotel and their re-erection.  This will be the highest block – much higher than formerly – and, as the whole area has been raised several feet, they will, on this account be still more effective.  The coign opposite the entrance to the Royal Cornwall is to disappear, thus leaving a clear thoroughfare for vehicular traffic from Buckland-street and Millbay-road to the Stonehouse end.  At the latter the road will be on a level with the street.  It was impossible, owing to the great decline at the Albion Hotel side, to raise the level higher, and, indeed, the rise from Buckland-street would preclude this.

‘The buildings look very smart in local stone, with Portland dressings, and bands of Torquay red stone, which impart warmth and variety.  It is impossible now, of course, to judge of the final appearance, but there is little doubt that it will be of an attractive character.  Plymouth has for years yearned for this improvement, and the fact that it is almost within sight gives cause for no little congratulation.’

In 1901 a double-dialled drum clock was installed at a cost of £31 and in 1904 the Harwell Street Signal Box was erected to control the lines in the engine shed and carriage sidings.

According to the Great Western Railway Company's official "Traffic Dealt with at Stations and Depots", published circa 1936, in the calendar year 1903 Plymouth Station issued 390,671 railway tickets, dealt with 11,186 parcels and took in passenger income £94,432.  The goods depot collected £117,289. 

Further developments at Plymouth Station were undertaken during 1906 and 1907, as reported by the Western Morning News on the morning of Monday December 17th 1906: ‘Several improvements are being carried out at the Millbay Station of the Great Western Railway Company, Plymouth.  From to-day the old booking-offices will disappear.  For some years the directors had realised that the arrangements for the issue of tickets were too inadequate.  There were two booking-offices for third-class passengers at the entrance in Millbay-road, one dealing with the Cornwall, Tavistock and Launceston, and Yealmpton lines, and the other that for the whole of the main line to London.  First and second-class passengers had to secure their tickets at the rear, approaching from another entrance in Millbay-road.  At times, when popular excursions have been running, passengers’ experiences have not been pleasant.  Since the inauguration of the rail motor service, the traffic has increased enormously, and it is estimated that four times the number of passengers are now now using Millbay compared with five years ago.  At Millbay Station for the past few years quite a million and a half of passengers have been dealt with annually.  An entirely new booking-office has now been erected.  It has been placed on the spot previously occupied by the bookstall, and is spacious and excellently-planned.  Built of oak, it is about 20 feet long and 18 feet wide.  The roof is of Cathedral glass, and provides an abundance of light.  Around the office are five booking openings.  The opening at the top part of the office, nearest the railway track, will be used for the issue of third-class tickets for the Cornwall line, Tavistock, Launceston, and Yealmpton, whilst the next one is for the stations between Plymouth and London, also third-class.  First and second-class passengers will be booked at the third aperture, and the remaining two reserved for any emergency.  The latter will be frequently in request when there is heavy Bank-holiday traffic, and on the occasions when men of the navy and army are on leave, and go to the stations in large numbers at the same time to book for their homes.

‘The old booking-office will give place to a bookstall.  With increased railway facilities the inquiries of all kinds at Millbay Station have become very great, and now a spacious inquiry office is to be provided.  The improvements are such as will be of the greatest convenience to the many thousands who use Millbay Station.  All the old inconvenience will now be avoided, the new booking-office being constructed on the circular plan, in a large open space, and having plenty of apertures'.

A footbridge between the Arrival and Departure Platforms was erected in 1907, the cost of which was £183.  In 1908 the Great Western Railway took over the 50 local delivery horses and their stables near Plymouth Station that had previously been operated by their carting agents.

According to the Great Western Railway Company's official "Traffic Dealt with at Stations and Depots", published circa 1936, in the calendar year 1913 Plymouth Station issued 1,486,581 railway tickets, dealt with 11,925 parcels and took in passenger income £140,037.  The goods depot collected £145,876.

In 1914 the bookstall on Plymouth Station was being run by Messrs Wyman and Sons Limited. 

In 1922 over £3,000 was spent on improving the goods office accommodation. 

According to the Great Western Railway Company's official "Traffic Dealt with at Stations and Depots", published circa 1936, in the calendar year 1923 Plymouth Station issued 900,584 railway tickets plus 1,845 season tickets, dealt with 18,997 parcels and took in passenger income £204,759.  The goods depot collected £253,090. 

During 1928 the Station was fully track-circuited.  On and as from Monday April 1st 1929 the Great Western Railway Company took over the former Royal Mail Parcels' Office in the Station forecourt and established the Railway's own central Parcel's Office.  It would appear that from that date parcels were no longer accepted at or delivered from Plymouth StationMilk and fish traffic was dealt with as before.  By 1929 North Road Plymouth Station had become the Town's principle railway station and it is said that the last train to reverse at Millbay was an overnight Penzance to London Paddington express.  There were just four platforms, numbers 1 and 2 for arrivals and numbers 3 and 4 for departures.  Lines 5 and 6 were short sidings.  Linking platforms 2 and 3 were crossovers worked from a Scissors Crossing Ground Frame where the traverser was originally situated.

According to the Great Western Railway Company's official "Traffic Dealt with at Stations and Depots", published circa 1936, in the calendar year 1929 Plymouth Station issued 549,018 railway tickets plus 913, dealt with 10,408 parcels and took in passenger income £156,181.  The goods depot collected £253,374. 

Millbay Goods Shed pictured on May 1st 1941, just days after the Blitz.
©  Great Western Railway Company, Chief Engineer's Office.

During the wartime bombing in April 1941 the goods shed adjacent to the Station was destroyed.  As a result Millbay Station was closed to passengers from Wednesday April 23rd 1941 and the platform lines were used solely for loading goods traffic.  Empty stock was still stabled in the sidings near the Station, however, but trains that were terminating at Plymouth now finished their journey at North Road Plymouth Station

Incidentally, it was during one of these raids that the GWR lost 32 of their delivery horses when the stables in Station Road were destroyed by fire.

Amongst Great Western Railway employees at Plymouth who were given awards for gallantry and meritorious service during the Second World War were Mr J G Thomas, a stableman, and Mr T Penwill, a temporary carter.  Both worked in the Goods Department and were awarded the British Empire Medal.  It is probable that they were involved in the above-mentioned incident.

A sad event that no member of the public turned out to witness was the closure of the old Great Western Railway's stables under the arches in Station Road.  On Saturday September 8th 1951 a 12-years-old gelding by the name of "Punch" was the last of the then 5 remaining horses to go out on a delivery round.  They were replaced the following week by motor vehicles.  The foreman stableman for the last 18 years had been a Mr Warne, who became a goods checker at Millbay Station. It is stated that in 1953 the bookstall on Millbay Station was stil being run by Messrs Wyman and Sons Limited despite the fact that the Station had been closed to passengers since 1941.

Between Saturday October 24th and Monday October 26th 1953 Plymouth's Millbay Station had a visit from the British Transport Commission's travelling exhibition of Royal Train rolling stock and relics.  The special train was headed by the preserved Caledonian Railway 4-2-2 locomotive number 123, although the engine had been brought to Plymouth out of steam.  The oldest of the Royal Train carriages on show was one built for Queen Adelaide in 1842.

According to the "The Official Hand-book of Station 1956" Plymouth Station (Millbay) dealt with goods traffic, furniture vans, carriages, motor cars, portable engines and machines on wheels, and live stock.  It was equipped with a crane capable of lifting 6 tons.

On and as from September 15th 1958 North Road Plymouth Station became the City's principle railway station, following the closure  of Friary Station.

In October 1958 what had previously been the Up and Down Goods lines were re-designated the Up and Down Main lines through to Millbay Docks.

By Tuesday September 29th 1959 Millbay Station's four platforms had been removed and five sidings laid in their place.  Trains of empty stock were formed here before proceeding up the incline to North Road to start their services.  This function slowly replaced goods traffic.

During 1959 the former carriage sidings and shed at Harwell Street were converted into the Belmont Street Diesel Depot for the maintenance of diesel multiple units.

Plymouth Millbay Station was closed to goods traffic from Monday June 20th 1966.

Three years later, on Monday October 6th 1969, the carriage sidings were closed and the traffic diverted to Laira.

All the track except the Up and Down lines to the Millbay Docks were removed by Sunday December 14th 1969, when Plymouth Mill Bay Signal Box was also closed. 

Finally on Wednesday June 30th 1971 those two lines were closed to traffic, although apparently not actually taken out of use until September 26th 1971.