The West Cornwall Railway by Michael Tangye

The steam trains of the Great Western Railway are now very much a feature of the past. Memories linger of snug compartments featuring elongated sepia photographs of west country resorts, of wide leather straps used to open and secure windows of corridor doors; of the inevitable smut in the eye on poking one’s head out of the window into the long cloud of smoke and steam emitted from the engine as it passed swiftly along, creating its rhythmic tattoo of sound; of stations and halts brightened by colourful posters and superb beds of flowers, lovingly tended by smartly uniformed staff. It was all an accepted feature of daily life at a time when travel by train was competitive with bus fares.

But what of West Cornwall before the creation of the main railway line? Travel by road was both slow and hazardous, and it was more convenient to travel by sailing or steam vessels from Hayle or Penzance to Bristol, Southampton, Liverpool etc. We can therefore imagine the sense of wonder and amazement with which the appearance of the first iron-horses were greeted.

The Hayle Railway, in West Cornwall, was constructed in 1834 as a mineral line, with subsequent branches to Portreath harbour and Tresevean Mine, in Gwennap – but from 1843 it was also used to carry passengers from Hayle to Redruth where the line ended at the west end of the town, in what is now a car park.

By 1851 much progress had been made to improve the line, to extend it westwards to Penzance, and to carry it across the valley at Redruth to link it with Truro, and the main line running through Cornwall. It was a massive undertaking, carried out by a large army of navvies, mainly Irish, who both worked hard and played hard. Surprisingly, little has been written about the construction of this railway, but the research of Cornish newspaper files at the Courtney Library of Truro Museum, and at the Cornish Studies Library at Redruth reveals numerous accounts of its progress, and of the rough, tough drunken life styles of its creators.

The population of Copperhouse, Hayle, had little sleep at weekends; on Sundays, long before they arose to attend chapel services, they were awakened by shouting in the streets “with the addition of three or four fights, and the usual amount of minor rows accompanying these fistic displays”. The West Cornwall Railway employed its own police force, both to safeguard the materials of the railway, and to curb the riotous behaviour of its workforce who pillaged the countryside like an invading army. One of the policemen, James King, assisted by the watchman at Harvey’s Foundry, arrested three navvies at the Hayle lime kiln. They had stolen ducks from John Trewhella’s farm at Ludgvan and had later taken them to the limekiln to roast them. When they were approached, they pretended to be asleep. That July 1851, all three appeared at the Cornwall Midsummer Assizes and were imprisoned, with hard labour for four months.

John O’Brian, an Irish navvy from Bristol, was arrested at Lelant Fair, for being a “pick-pocket”, having “set his eyes” on two or three well stocked leather purses, carried by some farmers.

O’Brian and his fellow navvies were paid monthly, and as the bulk of this was immediately spent on beer, they were obliged to buy food, and other essentials, at the “Tommy-shop”, which the railway provided for their use at greatly increased prices. Becoming increasingly disgruntled with this arrangement they decided to strike for fortnightly pay “in order that they may lay their money out to the best advantage”.

Many of the navvies were still working at Camborne that August, with no intention of striking, when they were engulfed by the great body of men, who persuaded them to join them. When they reached Hayle they numbered between three and four hundred and continued to walk the whole line as far as Penzance, bringing all work to a standstill. However, the contractor remained firm, and after threatening to pay them off the next day, so that those who felt aggrieved might seek alternative employment elsewhere – they all, slowly, returned to work.

A few weeks before this the great engineer, and architect of the line, Isambard Brunel, had visited Penzance to monitor its progress. He had been forced by landowners at Gulval to alter the planned route of the line seaward, to its present position; no doubt they did not wish it to pass through the highly fertile agricultural area, which lay inland, and which provided such valuable early crops for the London and Midland markets. The seawall, built to protect the railway, had by then reached the end of Chandour, and piles were being driven into the pebbly beach beyond for a foundation. At Hayle, the embankment nearly parallel with the causeway, was progressing rapidly, and the high-level bridge at Foundry was completed. Brunel must have been pleased with the progress made by his army of unruly, though highly productive, navvies.

They sustained many injuries as they dug and blasted deep cuttings in the landscape and replaced old inclines at Penponds, near Camborne, and at Angarrack, near Hayle, with tall wooden viaducts, reminiscent of those which are seen in films of the American west. In August 1851 Thomas Odgers was killed by a fall of ground at Angarrack.

In the same month two skeletons were dug-up – the first by men working on the line near Camborne. It was that of a female of about 30 years of age, estimated at over a century old; as it was found in a shallow grave at a crossroads, it was thought to have been a suicide. This was common practise in times past, as internment in consecrated ground, in such circumstances, was not permitted. The second skeleton, of a male about 23 years of age, was also found in a shallow grave, in sand at “Halfway House” – a now lost place name, probably in the Hayle – Carnsew area – and assumed to be a wreck victim.

By late February 1852, the line was nearing its completion, and trains were temporarily halted from Redruth to Hayle whilst the old and new sections of the line were joined, horse drawn omnibuses providing alternative transport.

On Wednesday 25th February 1852, a locomotive and tender made the first trial journey from the old West Cornwall Terminus at the West End of Redruth to Penzance. (The wooden viaduct crossing the Redruth valley, taking the line to the present railway section, was still being constructed.) A huge crowd, attracted by the “shrill whistle and hoarse steam”, gathered to watch its mechanical movements, while the more fortunate clambered aboard, “A party of ladies and gentlemen mounted the iron-horse and rode as far as Long Rock, Penzance, but found it not to be compared with a ride in the carriages – as shown by their complexions and clothing”. The following day engines and carriages made repeated journeys, conveying enthusiastic locals’ short distances to Hayle, Camborne and Redruth.

It was now time, before the official government inspection, for the directors and shareholders to see the results of their investments. On Saturday 28th February, nine directors travelled by horse-bus from Truro to the old Redruth terminus, where they were joined by reporters and shareholders, before boarding the train for an inspection of the sixteen-and-a-half miles of track. The locomotive, built at the railway’s factory at Carn Brea, and appropriately named Penzance, was decorated with the Royal Standard and the Arms of Cornwall and Penzance; it pulled five carriages, one of them quite luxurious and divided into three compartments, also made at the Cam Brea works. A second engine, reported as being the Cornydon, but probably a misprint for Cornubia, which was the first ever Cornish made locomotive, assisted at the rear, filled with several gentlemen waving flags.

“Barlow’s Patent Rails” had been laid from Camborne westwards, the first time that they had ever been used anywhere over such a distance. These gave a much smoother journey, as they did not rest on granite sleepers but had a broad bearing on the track throughout their length, and at their ends were rivetted to iron bars which lay across from rail to rail to maintain the gauge. The ends of the rail were held together by an iron-plate, the whole system reducing vibration to a minimum.

Leaving Camborne, the train passed through a deep cutting of hard greenstone which had proved to be the most difficult, and most expensive, section to excavate on the whole line. Blasting had to be resorted to here whereas elsewhere it was not generally required. Then onwards across the new Penponds viaduct, like the other newly constructed viaducts, consisting of trestles of heavy yellow pine timbers saturated with Sir W. Burnett’s patented process of a liquid containing zinc. At Angarrack the new line passed to the south of the old incline, used on the previous stretch of line, and passed over another viaduct 109ft. high, built at a cost of £4000, yet it was stated that if it had been built of stone the cost would have been £30,000! The train stopped to allow the directors to inspect it before passing over the 80ft. high Guildford viaduct to Hayle where thousands had assembled to greet the train. Once they had passed over the Hayle viaduct, which was constructed on pillars of masonry where it passed through the Hayle Foundry premises, as a precaution against fire, it was a straight-forward run into Penzance at a speed of 30m.p.h., where they arrived at mid-day. There, the station was gaily decorated, and hundreds of cheering people engulfed the train.

The line was officially opened on 11th March, 1852, with, again, great enthusiasm and typical Victorian celebrations – numerous dinners for the gentry, and officials, another for 500 men and boys on the western promenade where tables groaned under the weight of roast and boiled beef and beer flowed freely; a later tea for 2000 schoolchildren and their mothers before an evening illuminated with transparencies in front of a jet of gas-lights, and a fire-work display at the newly built pier in the harbour. The cost of the line from Redruth to Penzance was £60,000 and the benefits to West Cornwall were immense – the development of tourism, the transport of fish, and early flowers and vegetables to Covent Garden, etc. Yet there were disadvantages. The landscape at Penzance would never again be the same. The Eastern Green, which lay alongside the sea where previously “wool and tan lay bleaching in the sun, or delighted juveniles basked beneath his gentle rays, or the dozy horse quietly waited for its load of sand”, was now traversed by the “iron-tram road”, and six times each day “the scorching time-annihilator rushes by with its comet-like tail of carriages and trucks”.

Views of the sea and Mount were obstructed. There were plans to build a promenade on the seaward side of the railway, 40 – 50ft. wide, from the low viaduct at Chyandour to Long Rock, and to erect one or two light wooden bridges over the railway for access, but this was never done.

The line was finally completed with the opening of the section from Redruth to Truro on August 25th, 1852.