Torquay & the Railway
Although little is known about Torquay's early interest in having a railway to the town, the Westcountry as a whole was showing enthusiasm in the early 1820s. Some years later, in 1832, there was a serious attempt made to build a line from Newton to Torquay and plans for it, drawn by James Green, were deposited with Clerk of the Peace in Exeter. It is of interest to note that the name of William Kitson appears therein; an early indication of his involvement in the new mode of transport. There were also proposals for a "Torquay, Newton & Ashburton Railway" but little is known about the scheme as no plans were ever deposited. However, just four years later, Brunel completed a survey for a line from Exeter to Plymouth along the coast as far as Teignmouth, crossing the Teign over a new bridge, passing near Torquay to Dartmouth, spanning the Dart with another bridge and through the South Hams by way of Kingsbridge and Modbury. It was probably during this visit that he fell in love with Watcombe and determined to "retire" there. The undertaking would have been an expensive one and, not surprisingly, the finance was not forthcoming. A scheme for a LONDON, EXETER & FALMOUTH RAILWAY, plans for which were deposited in 1836, suffered the same fate.
There was no further progress until the Plymouth, Devonport & Exeter Railway Company was formed in 1843; it later changed its name and as the SOUTH DEVON RAILWAY Company obtained its Act in 1844, having put together the necessary finance with the help of the "Associated Companies" (this included the GWR). Isambard Kingdom Brunel, already engineer to the Great Western and the Bristol & Exeter, was therefore appointed in charge of the new venture. Like the others, it was to be a "broad-gauge railway" but for South Devon he chose a novel form of propulsion, the Samuda Brothers patented "atmospheric system". The first train entered Newton (Abbot was added to the town's name later) in December 1846 and, over the next months, trains ran with variable success until abandonment was agreed by the directors in January 1849. The "atmospheric caper" was over. The story has been told many times. Surviving evidence of this in Torquay is Messrs. Mann's fruit warehouse; this was to be the pumping-house for the Torquay branch line but was never used. Its external appearance shows clearly one of the great man's Italianate designs.
In August 1846 a new Act authorised the construction of a branch line from "Aller to a certain field in the manor of Tormohun", the remainder, beyond the town, being rejected by the House of Lords because of petitions from landowners in Paignton. Trains, steam-hauled of course, arrived at Torquay (at Torre) in December 1848. Almost immediately schemes were in hand for an extension and in 1852 a public meeting was held under the banner "Extension of the Railway into Torquay". Three different routes to the Harbour were proposed, one of which would have involved digging a trench and covering it to keep the line out of the sight of the Cary family. There was no real progress until after the DARTMOUTH & TORBAY RAILWAY Company was formed in 1857; Mr Charles Seale Hayne was the chairman and many prominent local people also bought shares. The Act authorising the work received Royal Assent in July 1857 and the first sod was cut with great ceremony in a field below "Torquay" Station. The first train ran over the completed rails as far as Livermead and the first passengers travelled to the new Torquay Station on 1st August 1859. The hilarious events which followed the baking of the "Paignton Pudding" is told in the companion history of "Paignton".
Broad gauge steam-hauled trains ran on the branch from the start which was opened to "Brixham Road" (later Churston) in 1861 and finally to Kingswear in 1864. From 1866 the SOUTH DEVON RAILWAY was in control and the D&TR had only a financial existence.
There were several accidents spread over the next decade, fortunately without any loss of life. One, at Kingswear in 1870, involved a train which "dashed into a siding" and found the rails of a turntable "standing in a contrary direction to those on which the train was coming which had the effect of throwing the engine off and bringing the train to a standstill". Another, at Torquay in 1875, may have been the script for a comedy. A runaway train "departed" from Torquay station without driver or fireman on board and with the stationmaster in pursuit on another engine. What might have been a serious tragedy ended fortuitously and eventfully when two railwaymen on the train as passengers, climbed over the roofs of the carriages and brought it to a halt on the last viaduct before Churston station.
There were new owners again in 1876. All the lines operated by the South Devon were taken over and became part of the GREAT WESTERN RAILWAY. The town of Torquay soon benefited. A new station was constructed by Messrs. Vernon & Ewens and opened for traffic in the summer of 1878. The "unpretentious structure" which had been there from the opening day was demolished at the same time.
Opposition to the "broad-gauge" was hardening among Torquay businessmen particularly; they contended that, because invalids were having to change trains (of the standard gauge) at Exeter, Bournemouth, the "Hampshire Torquay" was taking their trade away. Eventually, as part of the gauge's final demise in the Westcountry, the change was made to the 4 feet 81/2 inch standard gauge between Friday night and Monday morning at the beginning of May 1892. This meant that, within a month and for the first time, through trains were running from the Midlands and North of England.
There had been plans before to place Torbay on the "main line" to Plymouth. Two schemes were put forward, in 1894 and again in 1897, for a direct line from Totnes to Paignton and Torquay. Nothing came of either.
In the first decade of the Twentieth century Torquay changed from being a "watering place" to a summer, as well as winter, "holiday resort". Rail traffic increased steadily until the onset of World War 1 slowed progress, the lines throughout the country being taken over by the government. A reorganisation followed the passing of the Railway Act in 1921, which created the "Big Four" companies. The Great Western Railway was the only one not to be renamed. The Great Western did much to make Torquay a major resort between the Wars, inaugurating the "Torquay Pullman" express in 1929. Although this was not a commercial success, the "Torbay Limited" ran from Paddington for several decades. Its daily on-time arrival at Torquay Station was legendary, at times of public holidays it was run "in duplicate, even triplicate if necessary". On August Bank Holiday Saturday in 1938, just before the outbreak of World War 2, some 20,000 passengers arrived: the day after, the town was invaded by excursionists from another 50 trains.
The trains into the town in wartime were filled with many thousands of servicemen. These included young RAF trainees; patients for the RAF hospital at the Palace Hotel; men who had just returned from the beaches at Dunkirk and the Army personnel (who built and guarded the defences against a German invasion). The "late arrivals" were US Army personnel who came either to undergo training at Slapton and elsewhere, or to use South Devon as the starting point for Normandy. There was one unpublicised Royal Visitor; King George VI inspected a guard of honour at Torre Station before leaving for a tour of the town.
After this War had ended, there was another reorganisation of the railways. From 1st January 1948 BRITISH RAILWAYS took over all the privately-owned companies. Torquay was a popular destination for the thousands of people who had been unable to "go away on holiday" - and to those who had been stationed in the area and wanted to renew acquaintance with it. "Summer Saturdays" in the Fifties were days when trains "queued" to enter the Kingswear branch and visitors walked the streets searching for breakfast from the early morning hours. Outgoing trains were "banked up" from Torquay to Torre in a regular succession. The great days of the railway were soon to end. Mr Collins, the stationmaster at Torquay, sounded the alarm in 1958 when he commented that numbers were "down on the previous year". In the late Sixties all goods deliveries were done from Exeter; they were soon to decline even further. The line from Paignton to Kingswear went "up for sale" and from 1972 the Dart Valley Railway Company took it over. Now the DART VALLEY LIGHT RAILWAY plc, it runs summer only steam-hauled trains mainly for holiday-makers. As 1993 ends and privatisation of BR is scheduled, it is possible that this company will, at some future date, operate outward passenger services from Torquay Station.