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This line had its origin in the need to serve the East Cornwall mining area around Gunnislake and Kit Hill, where there were lodes rich in copper, tin and arsenic, and its surrounding rich agricultural area. For hundreds of years the area had been noted for its rich mining and its products were transported away by the river Tamar that wound its way through the area.
By the 1850s production was at its peak and the need for more efficient transport arose. After the usual abortive starts and one or two name changes a railway, the East Cornwall Mineral Railway (ECMR), finally fully opened on 7 may 1872 as a 3ft 6in gauge line from Kelly Bray, 640 feet above sea level, some 7 miles to the quay on the River Tamar at Calstock, reached down a steep valley side by a rope-worked incline. Two identical Neilson 0-4-OST engines built in 1871 were obtained to work the line.
Success attracted the attention of others and proposals were made to connect the railway with the national system but the decline in the mineral prosperity of the area dampened this initial enthusiasm. However the London and South Western Railway's long held desire to bring the standard gauge to Plymouth now influenced events. This railway had reached Plymouth in 1876, but only by running powers from Lydford over the South Devon Railway. Several proposals were made by local interests to create an independent access for the LSWR. One of these, the Devon and Central Cornwall was authorised to absorb and convert the ECMR. In the event the Plymouth, Devonport and South Western Junction Railway, a line heavily influenced by the LSWR, and always worked by them, was successful in opening the way in 1890.
It was part of the parliamentary bargain that the Plymouth Company should acquire the Cornwall Minerals Railway and connect it to the standard gauge passenger line. After complex negotiations stretching over ten years purchase was completed on 4 January 1894. Although he PD&SWJR Act required a branch to Calstock to join the ECMR, the LSWR had achieved its main objective and put pressure on them to drop new branches. The ECMR trundled on as a subsidiary, but the coming of the Light Railway Act revived interest in railways in this isolated area and a firm proposal was made for a light railway to the area from Saltash (designed to, and ultimately successfully, attracting GWR involvement).
In March 1898 the Secretary was instructed to investigate the possibility of constructing a railway "on the East Cornwall" gauge from Bere Alston to Calstock. Powers were obtained in 1900 but construction was held up by the usual shortage of capital and LSWR opposition. More dealing with the LSWR had by 1903 secured their support provided the line was kept as a separate light railway undertaking.
Whilst all this was going on preparations were proceeding to plan and construct the new line and adapt the ECMR. The long standing Consulting Engineers to both the LSWR and PD&SWJR were Galbraith & Church and they undertook all the initial work, including the specification for the necessary connecting Viaduct over the Tamar.
The contract for this was placed in March 1904 with a relatively inexperienced contractor from Liskeard, John Lang, under the supervision of a Galbraith & Church employee, Henry Byers. Shortly before, in February 1904, the Engineers, probably realising the need for light railway expertise, asked the PDSWJR board to agree to their desire ‘to associate themselves with Holman Fred Stephens for the construction of the light railway’ The Board accepted him as a representative of Galbraith & Church. So began Stephens’ involvement and he was to remain actively involved for the next six years. His influence was soon apparent for the Board decided in April 1905 to use standard rather than 3’6” gauge and a further Order in 1905 allowed this.
There is some division of opinion about the extent of Stephens’ involvement in construction and engineering design of the new railway and the conversion of the old. However there seems little doubt, if only because of Stephens personality, that the major responsibility for the construction and initial operation of the line was his.
The line structure that has attracted most interest was the magnificent twelve-arched viaduct at Calstock and its steam-driven, vertical wagon hoist that was built at the Calstock side of the viaduct to lower wagons to the ECMR's terminal quay. The viaduct was constructed of concrete blocks and has twelve arches, each of 60ft span. The rail level is 120ft above river level. The wagon lift was one of the highest in England, the difference in levels being 113ft. The cage could hold one four wheeled open wagon, weighing laden approximately 15 tons.
It is clear here that the design and concept was squarely with Galbraith and Church although the use of concrete blocks was unusual for such a long established and essentially conservative firm. The die was cast before Stephens came on to the scene and certainly the contacting method used and the over engineering of a feature such as the wagon hoist to replace a perfectly serviceable incline would have been most uncharacteristic. However Stephens was actively involved in overseeing the work and was highly critical of the contractor’s methods, drive and commitment throughout construction. There was certainly trouble enough in plenty for the overseeing engineers for the viaduct was commenced in mid 1904 but was not finished till august 1907. Problems were experienced with two of the river piers and construction of some of the arches. Some of this was not the contractor’s fault but some was and Stephens was convinced that the contractor should have finished his work long before he did. The end result was however a lasting credit for all concerned and Stephens proprietary interest in the viaduct was clear from the photo he kept on his office wall.
The LSWR refused to work the new branch, so Stephens was asked in October 1905 to obtain some second hand LSWR engines, the Board even deciding at their following meeting on the three names to be used (all directors). He was also ordered at the same time to obtain carriages and wagons. However no second hand locomotives were available so in January 1906 he was asked to obtain tenders for new.
Tenders were received by September and after Stephens had met Hawthorne Leslie, his preferred supplier, the tenders were accepted on 10th October and the order placed on 13th October 1906. They were for an 0-6-OT, that became No. 3, "A.S. Harris", and two 0-6-2Ts, No. 4, "Lord St. Levan", and No. 5, "Earl of Mount Edgcumbe”. The engines were delivered late in 1907. In addition, one of the ECMR 1871 narrow gauge Neilson tanks, which had received a new boiler in 1899, was converted around 1908 to a standard gauge 0-4-2T, No. 2. In its enthusiasm the company ordered its rolling stock too early and in too great a quantity and eight carriages and the converted locomotive had been disposed of within a few years.
By December 1907 all the trackwork was laid, but the stations at Calstock and Gunnislake were not complete. Major Pringle of the Board of Trade carried out the official inspection of the line on 5th February 1908.
The branch opened on 2 March 1908, with stations at Calstock, Gunnislake, Latchley, Stoke Climsland (later renamed Luckett) and Callington Road (later renamed Callington, despite being a good mile from the village). A halt was opened at Chilsworthy in 1909 and another serving the Seven Stones pleasure ground existed from 1910 to 1917. All were classically Stephens’s stations and demonstrated his firm stamp on detailed constructional and operational features.
There was now considerable local pressure for the railway to be extended from Kelly Bray to Callington proper, but the company would only undertake this if the land were given free. In May 1907 the directors had considered a proposal from mine owners that the railway be extended from Kelly Bray to the Cheesewring quarries, but although they were willing to work such a line they were not prepared to construct it. Six months later however the directors unanimously reported in favour of an extension from Kelly Bray to a terminus in North Hill Parish, either at Congdon's Shop or Goad's Green. Stephens surveyed this and the North Hill Light Railway Order was granted by the Board of Trade on 11th February 1909, but this line was not to be.
With the railway opened and running as a separate enterprise from its main line in July 1908 the LSWR was approached with a view to it leasing the branch but they advised the PDSWJR to run the branch itself. Stephens' was appointed as engineer and as manager with a salary of £250, and he was required to attend on the line two days every week, something he could not do. The Company naturally wished to have a resident manager and in March 1910 asked Stephens to be engineer for maintenance purposes. Stephens was however very committed elsewhere by this time and couldn’t be contacted so in June 1910, although they still wanted him, his appointment was terminated. He obviously remained on good terms with the company, as in 1911 he bought some of the recently acquired exLSWR carriages for the S&MR, and in 1912 the converted Neilson tank, which became the Selsey Tram's "Hesperus". Soon after he probably also acquired the two ex Royal Saloons.
The initial train service comprised four journeys throughout in each direction, and one short working between Bere Alston and Gunnislake. The volume of traffic must have exceeded expectations for early in July the 6.05pm from Bere Alston was extended to Callington Road on Saturdays, and a late evening train was run from Callington Road to Bere Alston and back on Wednesdays and Saturdays during July and August. In March 1909 it was reported that passenger traffic was good. On the whole the business of the line was giving every sign of satisfactory and efficient management but goods and mineral traffic was poor (and indeed by 1912 the goods lift at Calstock was rarely used) due to the bad state of trade, which was practically at a standstill in the district.
The line was marketed as "Bere-Alston & East Cornwall line", with connections at Bere-Alston for LSWR mainline stations specified stations, and Tourist return tickets to various resorts served by the LSWR and associated companies. Tourists were exhorted to travel by the "new route" to see the "most beautiful and picturesque scenery in Cornwall", and cheap excursions were offered.
Expansion now ended. In place of Stephens Mr T. H. Gibbons was appointed Engineer and Mr S. G. Hartnell, Traffic Manager. Gibbons died and was replaced by Mr William T Foxlee, a London consulting engineer.
In January 1913 he re-presented the plan for an extension to Callington but recommended that it be not carried owing to insufficient traffic and that arrangements be made for motor omnibuses to connect Kelly Bray with Callington, the railway paying a subsidy of 5s per week. Later in the year it was decided not to apply for an extension of time to construct the North Hill extension, as the GWR had abandoned its plans for extending into the district in favour of a bus service, and it was felt that road motor transport was adequate. Truly the Stephens influence was at an end.
After the war the line had a fairly uneventful existence. In 1921 four bogie coaches were purchased from the LSWR for £800 each to replace stock that was said to be worn out. It was hoped to hire the coaches pending absorption by the LSWR under the Railways Act but this approach had to be dropped because of legal difficulties.
The PD&SWJR was absorbed by the LSWR immediately before the latter company became part of the Southern Railway. The working of the line continued much as before but A. S. Harris soon left the line to be replaced by LSWR O2s, and most of the repair work which had been carried out in the workshops at Callington was transferred away.
Goods traffic continued to be affected by the progressive decline of the local mining industry, and by 1934 several of the numerous sidings on the branch were out of use. In October 1934, the wagon hoist at Calstock was finally removed; it had been used mainly for wagons loaded with bricks, and when this traffic declined it was not thought worth maintaining. Other traffic at Calstock was however doing well, with no less than 231,577 packages of fruit and flowers dispatched in 1936, more than three times 1931's total.
Nationalisation and the 1950s saw the branch become part of the Western Region of British Railways, but other changes were limited, one of the most obvious being the introduction of 2-6-2T engines of LMS design and the final departure of Stephens’ 0-6-2Ts.
The opening of the Tamar road bridge in 1961 bought an old rival to life. When the GWR dropped the Saltash–Callington light railway they substituted a bus service and this could at last be extended to Plymouth. The poorly sited Callington station lost all purpose, but the residents of the more inaccessible villages fought the Beeching inspired cuts and gained a limited victory, although much was lost. From 28 February 1966, freight trains were withdrawn and the Callington branch was closed completely beyond Gunnislake from 7 November 1966. A Gunnislake–Plymouth via Bere Alston passenger service was retained and still continues. The last survivor in the national network of all the Stephens influenced passenger light railways.