Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: June 03, 2017.
Webpage updated: May 13, 2019




When the South Devon and Tavistock Railway Company issued their prospectus on Monday July 5th 1852, it included a promise that 'the line will be so arranged that if found desirable, it may be formed to Government establishments at Princetown, or the existing railway modified for that purpose'.

However, it was not until Wednesday November 22nd 1876 that Princetown saw the arrival of its first ever steam locomotive.  There was still no railway: this was a traction engine.  Driven by a Mr M Stephens, described as a contractor, it hauled a load of coal for the prison.  It is not known if it travelled from Plymouth or Tavistock or the other side the Moor but it was claimed that 800 people turned out to welcome it to the village, including the school children and those who wanted a railway.

The time was not evidently right for such a scheme as it was not until March 6th 1877, at the half-yearly meeting of the new owners of the South Devon Railway, the Great Western Railway Company, that this proposal was brought up for discussion.  It came up with the idea that if the Government would use its convict labour to build the first three miles out of Princetown, then the Great Western would construct the rest of the line for 52,000.  Although it was further discussed at a meeting at Princetown, again nothing seems to have come of it.

In due course the Company withdrew this proposal in favour of an offer to purchase the Plymouth and Dartmoor Railway Company from a point at Yelverton, in the parish of Buckland Monachorum, to Princetown, in return for 2,200 shares of 10 each in a new Princetown Railway Company.

On Friday November 30th 1877 plans were duly deposited for a line 10 miles 2 furlongs 2.8 chains long from a point at the north end of Yelverton Siding (there was still no station at this location).  Its Bill received the Royal Assent on August 13th 1878.

The Directors of the Company met at the offices of the Great Western Railway Company, Paddington Station, on August 7th 1879.  Present at that meeting were Sir Daniel Gooch, Bart, MP; Sir C Alexander Wood; Sir Massey Lopes, Bart, MP; Henry Brown, Esquire; and J N Batten, Esquire.  Sir Daniel Gooch was appointed Chairman and Mr A L Jenkins was appointed as Secretary at a salary of 50 per annum.  Mr William Lancaster Owen (1843-1911) was selected to be the Company's Engineer.  The Company's Solicitor was a Mr Nelson, who was also present at the meeting.

Tenders for the construction of the railway were duly invited and seventeen tenders were opened and considered at the Board Meeting on June 24th 1880.  After checking of the four lowest tenders received, the on from Mr W T Mousley, of 1 Westminster Chambers, London, in the sum of 21,800, was approved.  However, progress was so slow that when the Board gave the go-ahead on March 17th 1881 for works to commence, Mr Mousley refused to adhere to his tender price and and Mr John Mackay's tender of 22,190 8s 6d, was accepted instead.  At the Board meeting onJuly7th 1881 it was reported that Mr Mackay had signed the contract and at the next meeting, on September 29th, the Engineer reported that about 1 mile of railway had been formed at the Princetown end of the line.

During the construction of the line there were at least two deaths.  Just after 6am on the morning of Saturday August 12th 1882, Mr John Tickle was working on removing about 12 feet of surface earth from an embankment near Wakhampton Church and Mr Thomas Taylor was at the bottom loading earth into a wheel-barrow.  As Tickle swung his pick the embankment gave way, covering both men in about three inches of soil.  Although the men were quickly dug out by other workers, both suffered from broken necks and Taylor's body was badly mutilated and both his legs and a foot were broken.  A mounted messenger was sent for Doctor Butters but upon his arrival he found both men were dead.  Their bodies were removed to a carpenter's shop near the Rock Hotel in preparation for the inquest.

It was thought that the recent dry weather had made the soil rock hard and liable to collapse when touched.  The sides of the cutting were perpendicular at the time and it was considered that only loads of earth had fallen on the men.  Both were young, single men, Tickle coming from Tamerton Foliot and Taylor being a sailor from Liverpool who had been left ashore when his ship sailed from Plymouth without him.

Colonel Yolland, Royal Engineers (1810-1885), carried out the Board of Trade inspection on Friday July 13th 1883.  The inspection train consisted of two locomotives, two carriages and a guard's van, and it arrived at Yelverton Junction at around 10am.  Accompanying the Colonel were: Mr C E Compton, divisional superintendent; Mr Lancaster Owen, engineer, from Paddington; Mr W H Avery, goods manager, Western Division; Mr Armstrong, locomotive superintendent; Mr J C Inglis, assistant engineer, Western Division; Mr Mackay, the contractor; Mr Blackhall, a superintendent from the Signal Department at Reading; Mr Webber, superintendent of the Telegraph Department at Plymouth; and Mr G Luke, chief permanent way inspector of the Western Division.

The signalling and level crossings were in complete working order and the bridges were most carefully tested by running the double-headed train across them at full speed.  The stations at Dousland and Princetown were not finished and it was anticipated that the Board of Trade would withhold their certificate until they were.  At Horrabridge work was still underway to enlarge the facilities to cope with the extra traffic.  A water-tank had bee erected and the foundations laid for a turntable at the Tavistock end of the yard.  The inspection train arrived at Princetown just before 2.30pm.

Once back at Yelverton Station, Colonel Yolland left the party to return to London on the 2.55pm London and South Western Railway Company's express from Devonport Station.

Colonel Yolland returned to make a second inspection of the line on Thursday August 9th 1883.  The party, which was even larger than on the first inspection, left Millbay station at 9.15am in a broad-gauge train comprising a single engine, an inspection carriage and a van.  At Yelverton they transferred to a narrow-gauge train with Chief Inspector Northcott, of Plymouth, and Inspector Chamberlain, of Tavistock, in charge.  The station and signal-box at Dousland was fully examined and also all the facilities at Princetown, where even the approach road came under the Colonel's scrutiny.  At about 1.30pm the train left for Yelverton and Horrabridge, where the Inspector spent a further two hours examining everything, before returning to Plymouth.

Away in London, at the offices of the Great Western Railway Company, the shareholders of the Princetown Railway Company were attending their half-yearly meeting while the Colonel was making his inspection.  The directors explained that it had been hoped to open the line earlier in order to 'get the benefit of the full summer season' but the contractor's work had at times 'been retarded by excessive rains'.

Sir Massey Lopes, Bart, MP, one of the directors, explained that: 'he had on several occasions been to the Home-office and the Treasury with reference to the question of the 5,000 in the shape of convict labour which the Government promised towards the construction of the line.  They were to do that originally, but then they (the Company) thought they could get from the Government half the amount in cash instead of the convict labour.  That they thought to be more desirable, and he was able to say that, after he had made several calls, he obtained from the department a promise that the 2,500 should be paid over to the funds for the construction of the railway.'  

On the morning of Saturday August 11th 1883 announcements appeared in both the local morning newspapers declaring that the 'Opening of the Princetown Railway for Passenger and Goods Traffic' would happen that very day.  The first train was to leave Princetown at 8.12am but it could not operate because no-one had bothered to inform the line's contractor and he had placed two or three of his own engines on the line.  What's more, the good folk of Princetown did not know about it either so there were no celebrations.

It is not known if the first train from Princetown ran as per the timetable at 10.52am or not but certainly the first train to leave Horrabridge for Princetown departed at 12.08pm, after connecting with the 11.20am from Plymouth Station at Millbay.  The fares were 2 shillings from Plymouth or 1s 11d from North Road Plymouth Station.

The reporter from the "Western Morning News", who alleged that he had the first ticket to be issued at North Road Plymouth Station for Princetown, recorded:  'At a high point upon Walkhampton Common, a siding, with signals and other accommodation, has been made for the convenience of that immediate distrixct, and being on a high level, it is thought it will be of considerable advantage to the farmers and others for their goods, as it will obviate a great deal of hill.  A little further on, and still rising, the line reaches Foggen Tor Granite Quarries (sic), similar works upon King Tor having previously been passed.  Here Mr Pethick has been anticipating events by getting something like eight hundred tons of granite pitching ready for being despatched to Plymouth'.

Of Princetown Station he wrote: 'There is a capital goods shed, four times as large as the one at Dousland, an engine-house for two engines, a turn-table, and a carriage shed 180 feet long'.

That first train into Princetown was driven by Mr John Goodall, the foreman engineer of the district while a Mr Williams had been appointed as the regular driver.  Also on board were Mr Compton, the traffic superintendent; Mr Avery, the goods manager; Mr J C Inglis, the assistant engineer of the Company; Mr A P Prowse, of Yennadon House; Mr A Watt, of Princetown; and Mr P Blowey, who constructed the stations at Dousland and Princetown.  Mr Higman, formerly of Launceston, had been appointed Station Master at Princetown, and the line was under the control. of Inspector Chamberlain, of Tavistock Station.

The remaining trains for that opening day were the 2.17pm from Princetown; the 3.16pm from Horrabridge; the 5.42 from Princetown; and the 6.04pm from Horrabridge, which was due to arrive at Princetown at 7.20pm.

On May 1st 1885 a station was opened at Yelverton and this became the new terminus.

Because of the constraints of the site at Yelverton Station, it was not possible to put in a loop on the Princetown line for running the engines from one end of the train to the other so a novel approach was adopted.  The engine would push the incoming train, now empty of passengers, back up the inclined branch and bring it to a stand.  It would then be detached, run forward again and when the points had been changed, run back into a short siding that was linked to the turntable for the snow ploughs.  The Guard would release the handbrake on the carriage, which would then run down the line and into the station.   Finally the engine would emerge from the siding, be coupled up and the train would be ready for departure to Princetown.  The fastest time allowed for this procedure was eight minutes.

Apart from the terminus at Princetown, the only other station on the line was at Dousland, where there was a level crossing under the watchful eye of Dousland Barn Signal Box.  This provided the only block section post on the Branch.  There was a small locomotive shed at Princetown and the main line continued beyond the Station platform in to a carriage shed, where the carriages were kept away from the ravages of the elements.

Sidings were provided at Swell Tor, some 7 miles from Yelverton.  These were initially operated by Messrs Pethick Brothers, of Plymouth, under a Private Siding Agreement dated September 12th 1883.

The passenger train service in June 1884, operated by the Great Western Railway Company, of course, was rather meagre.  The first train from Princetown on Weekdays left at 8.12am and after calling at the only intermediate place, Dousland Station, at 8.36am, arrived at Horrabridge Station at 8.45am.  This connected with the 8.15am from Plymouth and the 7.55am from Launceston.  It left Horrabridge again at 9.05am, left Dousland at 916am and was due to arrive at Princetown Station at 9.42am.  The second round trip of the day commenced at 10.52am and connected at Horrabridge with the 10.30am from Launceston, 11.20am from Tavistock.  Following the arrival at Horrabridge Station of the 11.20am train from Plymouth, the train left at 12.08pm for Dousland and Princetown.  The third and final round trip began at Princetown at 5.52pm, called at Dousland at 6.16pm and was due to arrive at Horrabridge at 6.25pm.  The 5.53pm train from Plymouth left Horrabridge at 6.39pm for Tavistock and Launceston, while the while passengers for Plymouth had to wait until 7.05pm for the 6.05pm from Launceston, 6.53pm from Tavistock.  The Princetown train then left Horrabridge Station at 7.12pm and after calling at Dousland at 7.23pm was due to arrive back at Princetown at 7.50pm.  There was no Sunday service on the Princetown Branch but two trains in each direction between Plymouth and Launceston.

The Princetown line suffered badly when it snowed, although as often as not it kept going when the local roads were blocked.  However, on the evening of Monday March 9th 1891 the 6.30pm train from Princetown to Yelverton, hauled by saddle tank locomotive number 990, became stuck near Horsford Farm in the worst blizzard for years.  The train comprised of just one carriage, with four third-class, one second-class and one third-class compartments in addition to a guard's compartment.  The eight passengers, six men and two women, all huddled together in one compartment.

One of the passengers later reported that: 'the snow beat in our compartment through closed doors, ventilators, and windows so much that in a few minutes I had two inches of snow on my umbrella.  We stuffed paper, handkerchiefs, and cloth into every hole or crevice we could find and this remedied matters a little.'  After passing through two large snow drifts just outside of Princetown, the train suddenly shuddered to a halt, finally stuck in the snow. 

The three crew, driver, fireman and guard, tried to clear the snow from in front of the engine but without success so they all bedded down for the very cold night out on the Moor.  The following morning the fireman and guard left to walk to Dousland and sometime afterwards the driver also abandoned the passengers for the same reason.  Around 3 in the afternoon (Tuesday March 10th 1891) the passengers were alarmed by a knock on the compartment door, which opened to reveal three packers who had tramped up from Dousland with cocoa, bread and butter, cake and 'a well watered bottle of brandy'.

At about 7 on the morning of Wednesday March 11th one of the party spotted Mr Hilson, farmer, of Horsford Farm, picking his sheep out of the snow.  The Farm was only about 250 yards from where the train was stuck and he expressed his astonishment that he was unaware of the accident.  He took them to shelter in his farmhouse, where they were served breakfast.

After breakfast four of the gentlemen, named as Messrs Hancock, Palk, Viggers and Worth, walked through the deep snow to Dousland.  One of the lady passengers, Mrs Watts, suffered very badly as a result of the ordeal, as did the driver and fireman.  By this time the carriage was full of snow 'above the hat-racks' in spite of all the windows, doors and ventilators being closed. 

The local shareholders of the Princetown Railway met at Plymouth on Monday October 13th 1902.  Their names make interesting reading: Mr H Matthews was in the chair; others present were Messrs John Pethick, A S Harris, E M Russel Rendle, Doctor R Willis, E Pridham, W C James, H Maynard, J E Monk, R Rugg Monk, J Bruford, F E Bowden, G E Fox, A Bolt, A W Wright, Doctor Eccles and a Mr Steer.   Apologies were received from Mr H B Bewes and Mr T W Wolferston.

Mr Pethick had a considerable interest in the line and said he had done all he could to increase the traffic.  He had suggested to the Great Western Railway Company that a stopping-place be provided at the Royal Oak Quarry and he had even offered to pay for the platform and waiting shed.  The GWRC had made life difficult by saying that he, as quarry owner, must pay the Railway a way-leave and the expense of watching and lighting and that use of the stopping-place would be restricted to the workmen in the employ of the Pethicks and not for those of Mr Duke's quarry or any member of the general public.  They proposed to charge 1s 6d for a return ticket, which Mr Pethick considered prohibitive. Mr Pethick also highlighted the fact that the GWR took 70% of the receipts, leaving only 30% for the Princetown Railway Company.  Messrs Duke and Company had been told by the GWR that they intended to construct a siding at the point in question.  (This was the Royal Oak Siding).  The meeting resolved to form a committee to draw up a report on the subject for the shareholders to consider.

The Royal Oak Siding was installed in 1904.

A scheme for a light railway between King Tor and Merrivale Quarry was discussed in 1909 and again in 1924 but nothing came of the plan.

Dousland Barn Signal Box -- the one that controlled the level crossing -- was reduced to ground frame status in 1915 when a more convenient signal box was opened on the station platform.

In 1917 the small siding at Walkhampton Common, which served Eggworthy Farm, was removed.  Its location remained identifiable in the 1960s.

On June 24th 1920 the South Devon Granite Company signed a new Private Siding Agreement in respect of Swell Tor Sidings.

Although the line was operated by the Great Western Railway Company, the Princetown Railway Company remained an independent Company until January 1st 1922 when, under the terms of the Railways Act 1921 and the Great Western Railway (Western Group) Preliminary Absorption Scheme, Number 1, dated May 19th 1922, it was absorbed into the Great Western Railway and really did become the Great Western Railway Princetown Branch.

Click on the following links for more information about the Engines Sheds, Goods Depots and Yards, Ground Frames, Halts, Junctions, Platforms, Sidings, Signal Boxes, Signalling, Stations, Tunnels, and Viaducts -