Somerset and Dorset Railway

The photograph above shows the staff of the railway company at Highbridge Station Circa 1933. With thanks to Mrs Valerie Luke-Cooper who gave us permission to use the photo and whose father, Reginald Samuel Luke, is in the front row.


Highbridge came into being in the form we recognise today following a suggestion put forward at a meeting at Glastonbury on 16th September 1850 where it was proposed a railway line, about thirty miles in length, be laid to connect Bruton, Wells, Glastonbury and Highbridge.  Preliminary surveys followed and the Somerset Central Railway was formed at a meeting at Hodge’s Railway Hotel Bridgwater on 1st December 1851.  Highbridge was chosen as the terminal point of the railway as it offered an entirely level route to Glastonbury, along the River Brue valley. Bridgwater with a population of some 11,000 was a more important town but this would have meant crossing the Poldens Hills. The population of Highbridge and Burnham combined was about 1,700 in 1851.

An Act of Parliament incorporated the Somerset Central Railway on 17th June 1852 to run from Highbridge Wharf on the River Brue to Glastonbury. On the 16th August 1852 work started on the 12 miles from Glastonbury to Highbridge line; the total cost including stations, surveying and Parliamentary expenses worked out at £6,560 per mile. Proving to be one of the cheapest lines. The railway pioneers laid the first bit of permanent way and its construction was completed in two years.  There were bridges, tunnels or cuttings involved, but the peaty soil presented engineering problems when crossing the boggy moors.  The problem was overcome by using a great quantity of bundles of sticks and twigs bound together these are called faggots, which were tipped into the bog until its appetite was sated and a firm foundation established for the new “iron” road.  The railway was opened for regular traffic on the 28th August 1854 and the official link up with the Bristol & Exeter Railway was in December 1854.  On the 1st September 1862 the Somerset Central Railway and the Dorset Central Railway amalgamated and became the Somerset & Dorset Joint Railway.

It was local interest in Glastonbury including the leather and shoe partners Cyrus Clark of Street, and his son James that the benefits of a railway to link their town with the Bristol & Exeter Railway was originally promoted and this obviously included the Somerset Central Railway.

The promoters of the S.C.R. had also had a grand vision, which was to link the north and south coasts by rail to a sea – train – sea route from Wales to France.  It was gradually extended eastwards and in 1862 the Somerset Central Railway had amalgamated with the Dorset Central Railway that had started from Blandford in 1854; the two lines met at Bruton and thus the Somerset and Dorset was linked.

The opening of the Templecombe to Blandford line took place on the 31st August 1863, this enable the S & D J. R. to operate a service from the Bristol Channel to the English Channel.  Between Burnham and Poole (Dorset) there were four trains a day, the Highbridge to Poole journey took three hours fifteen minutes.  Their original idea was to ferry passengers from South Wales to Burnham, then a rail connection via Highbridge, to the south coast where a service was intended to cross the English Channel to France.  The half-day excursion ticket to Poole and Bournemouth in 1933 was 4/6d  (23 p) unfortunately the original planning for the South Wales to Burnham and on to the South Coast had not been anticipated the building of the Severn Tunnel, or the coming of the motor car.  The rail link with the South Coast although completed, was too late, because the coal and other products from South Wales were soon transported through the tunnel.  Thus the coast link was only serving a thinly populated area and soon got into financial difficulties. A ferry service from Poole to Cherbourg did operate for a while, from about April 1856 to early 1857 it was then suspended due to its running at a loss.

Highbridge Station then had five platforms, a booking office, waiting room and toilets, also for a while, around 1910, a W.H. Smith bookstall.  The single branch line from Highbridge to Burnham was opened on the 3rd May 1858; this ran along the course of the present Marine Drive, past Apex Park (the site of the Apex Brick & Tile Co.) passing the Highbridge Wharf.  To avoid accidents/collisions when two trains needed to be on the same section e.g. a train at Burnham and a train at the wharf or brickwork’s, a staff and tablet system was used.

The first train entering the system was given the ‘tablet’ and was shown the ‘staff’, which was then given to the second train; thus both were aware of each other. The line continued alongside Newtown Road (now a cul-de-sac) to cross the A38 between Newtown Road and the neighbouring pub, where gates controlled the flow of road traffic.  Pedestrians were able to cross the line by way of a footbridge.  Signal Box ‘C’ controlled the crossing and lines to Burnham, the wharf and brickwork’s.

The line then ran in a curve through a Goods Yard (now part of Bank Street Car Park) to cross the Bristol & Exeter Railway on the level and at an acute angle right underneath the iron bridge carrying the Wells Road (B3139).

To the east of the Highbridge Station on a piece of land bounded to the north by the line and to the south by the River Brue, the Railway Company had, around 1862 constructed a locomotive, carriage and wagon works comprehensively equipped to maintain its rolling stock.  New railway engines were not built there but were maintained at the workshops where they would be re-built and have new boilers fitted.   Wensley’s of Mark and Day’s of Mark Causeway carried out all foundry work.  Heavy locomotive repairs were carried out at Bristol and ordinary repairs at Derby.  Carriage and wagon repairs were undertaken at Highbridge, being a major part of the Somerset & Dorset Joint Railway network.

It was re-organised in the 1890’s and from then until 1911 was the heyday of the works, all traffic in and out had to be moved by rail because of a complete lack of road access.  Staff employed during the last quarter of the nineteenth century varied between 344 and 485, many completed less than a year’s service but others stayed for forty one to fifty years, with twenty five achieving over fifty years with the Company.  Changing circumstances led to a gradual decline after 1911, though the works remained in operation for a further two decades.

At the start of the First World War in 1914, a large number of railway employees joined the armed forces, almost one hundred and fifty of those employed in the locomotive and wagon works went off to fight.  On March 8th 1922 a memorial was erected at the works in remembrance of those killed in conflict, it had been designed by a railway apprentice, made in the workshops at Highbridge, staff in the locomotive, carriage and wagon departments had subscribed for the memorial.  It was then moved, firstly to the end of the station platform, near the booking office and later re-sited in 1965 in Southwell Gardens.

The locomotive works officially closed on the 31st December 1929 as the economic depression hit, 300 men were made redundant, and this was a major blow for the town as the population was approximately 2000.  Jobs in hand gave further employment to the works until March 1930.

Passenger and freight traffic continued to operate as far as Evercreech Junction where connections were made to the remainder of the network.  Subsequently the London Midland & Scottish (L.M.S.) looked after the railway engines and their operations whilst the Southern Railway took over maintenance of the track and signalling infrastructure. The works buildings were stripped of equipment but remained intact but semi-derelict for many years. That is until the United States of America entered the war and part of the original railway works were used as a government store and the American Army used them extensively as a large fuel depot, supplies from here were used by their Army during the Normandy D.Day invasion.  It was the U.S. Army that finally constructed the missing roads that then provided access to the buildings.

The Highbridge to Burnham line closed for regular traffic on the 29th October 1951 although a special train did run from Glastonbury to Burnham-on-Sea on the 28th August 1954.  The trip was a joint venture organised by C. & J. Clark of Clark & Son descendants of James Clark one of the chief promoters of the original Somerset Central Railway and Morlands of Glastonbury the Sheepskin Firm. The twelve coach train was hauled by a Johnson 3F 0-6-0 Number 43201 formerly the Somerset & Dorset Joint Railway engine No 64 that had been built in 1896.  The train was packed with enthusiasts a number being dressed in Victorian clothes to commemorate the one hundred years of the railway.

Part of the original locomotive works was used to maintain engines using the local line and it was also a wagon repair depot; this facility gave employment until September 1955 when the building caught fire and was totally destroyed, it was never replaced. Passenger traffic was light, but excursion trains appear to have been well supported and there was also considerable freight traffic from Highbridge Wharf.

Regular milk traffic from the Wilts United Milk Factory at Bason Bridge was one of the Somerset & Dorset Joint Railways best customers.  The factory had two connections to the main line, one where the milk tanks were loaded or emptied, the other ran the full length of the factory and was used for incoming coal, sugar and tinplate (for making the tins); outgoing loads were boxes of condensed milk.  The factory had three goods trains and one milk train each day, the service commenced in 1909 and was terminated in about 1970.

Into the 1960’s the volume of traffic slowly declined there was less freight and fewer passengers were carried and eventually it resulted in the break-up of the network. The last passenger train into Highbridge from Glastonbury was on the 5th March 1966; this train was packed with railway enthusiasts.

One small remnant to survive from the old days was the milk traffic between Highbridge and Bason Bridge for which a new connection was made from the Western Region line at Highbridge. This was finally killed off by the construction of the M.5 as the cost of providing a bridge over the railway line to Bason Bridge was considered to be unjustified. Paradoxically, the construction of the M. 5.  Provided the last traffic for this particular line because 750, 000 tons of pulverised fuel ash was used to provide a firm base for the M. 5 across the levels (a modern substitute for the faggots used over 100 years ago).

Today, the Walrow Industrial Estate and in particular the Caxton Furniture Factory covers the site of the Highbridge Locomotive Works; the S. & D.J.R. Station site, will shortly become a housing estate.  Development in Market Street has destroyed the track bed through Southwell Crescent across the A38 and beyond towards Apex Park.  Marine Drive approximately follows the old line to the traffic lights in Burnham, where, if you stop at the traffic lights in Pier Street you are about where the trains would halt some years ago at Burnham  Station.

The final closure of the Somerset & Dorset Joint Railway and its involvement with Highbridge saw the end of what was once describe as the “Crewe of the West”, a true example of an English Branch Line, its associated industries and its involvement with the local people.

10 responses to “Somerset and Dorset Railway

  1. Pingback: Latest News: Updates to the Site « Capture Highbridge·

  2. No mention when the wagon works went up in flames .My grandfather (Henry Dyer)worked at the works and I still have a saw he used to use.
    Many years ago on BBC2 there was a programe about the S& D narrated by
    JOHN BETUMAN !!. It mentioned the “teddy boys ” of highbridge breaking up the carriages. I wonder if anybody has got this on DVD, The last copy I know of on VIDEO was owned by JOHN MEADER, if so ,i would like a copy ,many thanks

    • Jeff

      I read about John Betjamin and my Grandfathers brothers and nephews worked for the Railway. My Grandmothers maiden name was Hanna Bella Wheeler Dyer and she died in 1947 in Highbridge

      My dad has just told me the Dyers had a Funeral Directors in the town

      Are we related, I know very little about the Dyers, maybe you can help me

      Kind Regards

      Gary Andrews (Swindon with connections with the GWR in Swindon)

    • Hi Jeff,
      I have transferred the John Betjeman VCR of ‘Branchline Railway’ to DVD. Not great quality but still very enjoyable viewing. I have a ‘spare’ if you would like it? Send your address to me and I will gladly post it to you.
      Alternatively, you can view it in two parts on Google.
      I am GWR, originally from Appleford, near Didcot. Say no more!
      I now live in Queensland, Australia. I am now 75yrs and would watch the ‘Castle’ and ‘Hall’ steam locos passing at the end of my garden.
      Please reply with any news to my email.
      Cheers, Mike.

  3. The reference to a “staff and tablet” system is incorrect. The single-line from Highbridge ‘C’ to Burnham was worked by the “staff and ticket” system, the ‘ticket’ being what was described incorrectly as the ‘tablet’. Electric Train Tablet working was a different method used elsewhere on the S&DJR. See for further information.

  4. John Betjeman blamed the Teddy Boys of Burnham on Sea and I do have a copy of the DVD, also to see the Norman Gilbey DVD which is very good. I had to check up where Coronation Field was and was surprised to find I worked beside it for many years

  5. My dad Ray Cook, worked at the wagon repair works, when it was destroyed by fire all of dads tools went with it, he loved the railway and in school holidays he sometimes took me to work with him, used to love having tea and biscuits with all the men in the tearoom in the big workshop….

  6. The Somerset & Dorset Railway Trust are commemorating the 50th anniversary of the closure of the railway in 1966 with a project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Part of the programme is a series of touring exhibitions, the next one to be displayed at Highbridge Enterprise Centre, Isleport Business Park between 23-25 May. If anyone is interested there will also be an illustrated talk ‘The Legacy of the S&D Railway’ on Tuesday 24 May at 11am. Presented by Mike Beale, it covers the social history of the railway and the impact it had on local communities. Free event open to all.

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