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Cornwall's Railways (before 1859 and the opening of the Royal Albert Bridge, Saltash | Cornwall Council

Cornish Railways

Last updated: 04/11/2014

Cornwall's Railways (before 1859 and the opening of the Royal Albert Bridge, Saltash

Cornwall played a noteworthy part in the infancy of steam locomotion. In Redruth in 1784 the Scot, William Murdoch, built the first practical vehicle to run under its own steam power, albeit a small model. The great Cornish engineer, Richard Trevithick, built a steam road carriage and ran it successfully in Camborne on Christmas Eve, 1801. He went on to harness the power of steam for rail locomotion, at Penydarren in South Wales in 1803, but it was left to others elsewhere to profit from his achievements.

Cornwall's extractive industries, mining and quarrying, prompted the growth of its railway network and all the early lines run to and from the coast to facilitate shipment of goods. Nonetheless, for almost half a century after Trevithick's invention Cornwall continued to use horses on most of its railways.

1809-c1860: Portreath Tram Road. Although an underground tramway was in use in 1783 at Pentewan in a tin working, the earliest above-ground railroad in Cornwall itself was the horse-drawn mineral Portreath Tram Road, designed to link the great Gwennap copper mines to a harbour on the north coast, by which the ore might be taken to Wales for smelting. (Became known as Poldice Tramway from the 1960s)

1826-1915: Redruth and Chasewater Railway. Authorised in 1824, it also serviced the mines of Gwennap and Redruth, running in the other direction to the south coast river port of Devoran. It opened officially in 1826 and worked with horses until 1854, when two tank engines, Miner and Smelter, were bought.

1829-1918: Pentewan Railway. To support the growing china clay industry, Christopher Hawkins built the railway which opened in 1829, worked by horse-power until 1874, and ran from just outside St. Austell to the port of Pentewan, just four miles away. In its early days about a third of the clay produced was shipped via Pentewan, but the port silted badly and the railway inevitably suffered as a consequence. Rails still to be seen in situ today are the relics of a later sand-extraction enterprise that closed in the 1960s.

1834-1983: Bodmin and Wadebridge Railway. To carry sea sand required by farmers inland from Wadebridge, the landowner Sir William Molesworth initiated the construction. It opened in 1834, and carried passengers as well as goods from the beginning. The company also had one steam locomotive, Camel, Cornwall's first, followed by Elephant in 1836.

Today the Bodmin & Wenford Railway operates steam and diesel passenger and demonstration freight trains between Bodmin Parkway on the Plymouth-Penzance main line and Bodmin General station and between Bodmin General and Boscarne Junction over a restored part of the Bodmin and Wadebridge route.

1837- : The Hayle Railway ran eastwards to Redruth, and from Redruth Junction north to Portreath and south to Tresavean, again built to profit from the mining industry's need to transport ore for shipping. It opened in stages after December 1837. Steam locomotion was used from the start, giving the route an early advantage over the Redruth and Chacewater line. Notable features were the steep inclines at Angarrack and Portreath, where wagons were hauled by ropes. Inclines at Penponds and Tresavean worked on a counterbalancing principle. Part of the original Hayle Railway

1852- : The West Cornwall Railway. To extend the Hayle Railway westward, the West Cornwall Railway was authorised in 1846. A passenger service from Penzance to Redruth commenced in 1852, and a little later to Truro. In 1855 an extension to Newham by the Truro River was opened which served as the terminus until 1859.

1859- :The Cornwall Railway. The building of Brunel's Royal Albert Bridge at Saltash in 1859 meant rail travel and transport could link Penzance and Plymouth, albeit with a break between standard and broad gauge track at Truro until after 1867, requiring transfer from one to the other. Ambitions to extend to Falmouth prompted the building of the Truro to Falmouth line from as early as 1847 but it was not completed until 1863. Meanwhile nine stations from Saltash to Truro had been opened and others followed.

1844- 1916: The Liskeard and Caradon Railway was built to supplement the work of the Liskeard and Looe Union Canal of 1828, carrying ore and granite from the Caradon area towards Looe. It opened from the Cheesewring and South Caradon Mine to Tremabe in 1844, and was completed to the the terminus of the canal at Moorswater, near Liskeard, in 1846. Wagons were run down from the mines and quarries by gravity, to be hauled back up by horses.

1847- : Par Railway. By 1847 J T Treffry had built a canal from Par to Ponts Mill, and a tramroad from Ponts Mill to Molinnis near Bugle. This was extended alongside the canal down to Par in 1855.

1849- : Newquay Railway. Treffry opened the track from Newquay Harbour to St Dennis with a branch to the East Wheal Rose lead mine. In 1873 these were to form part of the Cornwall Minerals Railway.

To find out more:

The very brief notes above cannot hope to do justice to the complexities of the story of Cornwall's Railways. The Cornish Studies Library (CSL) has a substantial collection of books and pamphlets about the subject and Cornwall Record Office (CRO) holds a large number of relevant documents and plans. An interesting collection of railway photographs is also at the library, and for those with the time to search, local newspapers contain reports of opening galas and work in progress. The library also has large-scale Ordnance Survey maps as well as a number of station and track section plans which can be helpful to the railway modeller.

To search the CRO or CSL collections please see the online catalogues.

For the Family Historian:

A useful guide for locating records which is available at the CSL is 'Was your grandfather a railwayman?'. A directory of railway archive sources for family historians by Tom Richards (4th ed., 2002) ISBN 1-86006-161-3.
Roger Lacy has compiled a valuable list entitled 'Working on railways in Cornwall: 1891 census 5th April (unpublished typescript)'.
Edwards, Cliff. Railway records: a guide to sources [Public Record office Readers' Guide] (2001) ISBN 1903365104.
Cornwall railway: list of staff upon takeover by GWR 15th June 1889, compiled by Stuart Tamblin (1998).


The CSL also has a collection of railway photographs, notably the Arthur Trevena Collection. Reproductions can be provided at current charges, subject to Copyright. Other providers of Cornish railway images include:

Photos from the Fifties, 32 Charterhouse Road, Godalming, Surrey, GU7 2AQ. Tel. 01483-416357.
Transport Treasury, Logie Shannock, Drumrossie, Insch, AB52 6LJ. Tel. 01464-820717. Website:



Jeremy Rowe LD | Egloshayle, St Breock, St Ervan, St Eval, St Issey, St Mabyn & St Tudy