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Princetown’s Iron Horse

Early in the August of 1883 there was a buzz of excitement in Princetown, the streets were being decorated and preparations were being made for a milestone event – the ‘Iron Horse was coming to town. It was expected that the first train would be arriving at the brand spanking new railway station having left Horrabridge and travelled across the 10.5 trans-moorland to Princetown. The new line was owned by a subsidiary of the Great Western Railway and had utilised some of the former Plymouth and Dartmoor Tramway line from Yelverton simply by reconstructing it to standard gauge. Initially the Princetown Railway was mostly used by Dartmoor Prison for transporting convicts to and from the jail. However it did not take long for tourists to take advantage of a easy way of visiting the centre of Dartmoor. As you can imagine this gave a massive boost to the local businesses such as The Duchy Hotel and the various inns etc. in the town. The railway also provided a much welcomed service for local farmers for transporting livestock to the annual sales as well as providing a means of getting their produce to market.
So, all of Princetown had made their preparations and eagerly awaited the inaugural appearance of the ‘Iron Horse’ but then as often happens, nothing goes to plan. On Friday the 10th of August the dire news arrived that Colonel Yelland, the Board of Trade inspector had examined the line and deemed it unfit for purpose, Health and Safety at work even back then. Passengers who had booked their tickets were in a right quandary, how and when were they to experience the historic trip to Princetown? Then on the Saturday morning the new was flashed to Princetown that Colonel Yelland had once again inspected the line and said ‘YES’. However, so unexpected was this news that another problem arose, because of the sudden approval of the line the contractor did not have enough time to clear the tracks of rolling stock.  These had been used in the construction of the line and were now blocking the way for the passenger train. Once again the passengers who had hoped to embarking on the 9.05 a.m. train were disappointed.
All good things come to those who wait, and sure enough at 12.08 p.m. the first train left Horrabridge bound for Princetown carrying a large compliment of passengers among whom were several dignitaries. The Traffic Superintendent was there, as was the Goods Manager, the Assistant Company Engineer, the two Princetown conductors, the Chief Inspector in charge of trials and the District Foreman. It was announced that Mr. Higman was to be Princetown’s Station Master and Mr. Williams the Inspector Chamberlain of Tavistock the Superintendent of Traffic.
Once the glad tidings had been received at Princetown then ensued a modicum of panic as the two committees charged with the celebrations had to hurriedly re-instate the various decorations etc. these consisted of three triumphal arches, one near to the station, another by the post office and the third outside the Duchy Hotel. Garlands of evergreen and buntings were liberally placed around the town and fir trees outside many of the hotels. Additionally, to mark this momentous occasion it had been decided to officially name the square in the centre of town ‘The Duchy Square. The only huge dampener  on the day was literally the continuous rain which pelted down throughout the day. It was also noted at the time that if the opening of the line had gone to schedule some three weeks earlier and the fact that it rained the decorations would have been on a much grander scale. When it was first realised that the ‘Iron Horse’ was coming to Princetown Mr. Rowe of the Duchy Hotel called a meeting in order to form a committee who would organise the celebrations. A fund raising effort was launched and through subscriptions the total sum of £50 was reached with two prominent landowners supposedly digging deep in their pockets. H.R.H. The Prince of Wales donated £5 and Sir Massey Lopes gave two guineas. Amongst many of the arrangements it was decided to provide all the district children with cakes, a nice touch. Except these were all baked for the intended celebrations which never took place, luckily there were no complaints from the local school kids because rather than letting the fancies go to waste they were dished out to them.
As mentioned at 12.08 p.m. the train left and before long around 50 passengers were trundling towards Princetown. For some of them it was possibly the first time they had ventured onto Dartmoor in such comparative comfort. It was reported that; “the prospect from Walkhampton Down evoked many expressions of delight… After passing along an embankment some twenty feet high and more than a third of a mile in extent, which curves away from close proximity to Roborough Down, the train runs into a deep cutting, whose dungeon-like walls are gladly exchanged for a peep at the little village and parish church of Meavy on the one side, or the equally beautiful moorland view which presents itself in the opposite direction. After crossing the Devonport Leat and getting onto the bank of the old Princetown Trackway – in the vicinity of which the only fatal accident in connection with the construction of the line, took place, through the burial of twp navvies by a falling away of debris – the line gradually ascends to Dousland station, situate a mile and a half from Yelverton. A brief stoppage occurs here and then the train continued to thread its way uphill, skirting Yennadon down, and taking a circuitous route until it reaches a point above which the Devonport Leat wends its way, while below rises the Plymouth Leat, and from this spot a good view is obtainable of the Sheepstor valley. The Sheepstor and Lowery roads are then crossed and Peek Hill is reached. The main road to Princetown is crossed by a granite arch. Along Waalkhampton Common a beautiful landscape open out towards the west, taking in the river Tamar backed by the Cornish Hills. Walkhampton church and Horrabridge may be seen ensconced below. A siding, with signals with signals and other accommodation has been made on Walkhampton Down for the convenience of that immediate locality, and it is thought that this arrangement will prove of much value to the neighbouring agriculturalists for the conveyance of heavy goods. En Route the line passes Ingletor (Ingra Tor), King Tor, Foggen Tor (Foggintor)… the line after this continues until it reaches Princetown” – The Tavistock Gazette, August 17th, 1883.

Princetown Station

Having finally reached Princetown the festivities then began with the passengers strolling triumphantly through the arches and amongst the bunting and garlands. At around  one o’clock some 200 school children from around the district assembled outside the recreation room. Having finally been mustered into some order they were then all given banners and marched off towards the station accompanied by the band of the Tavistock detachment of the 2nd Devon Rifle Volunteers. Walking at the head of the parade was a military style leader on a white palfrey and behind him was a phalanx of older boys each carrying a miniature axe. Once the children had arrived they were marshalled together to give three hearty cheers for the Princetown Railway, this having been done they were all marched off back through the town to the Duchy Hotel.  Here, by then the drenched children were formed into a military-style square and once the band had stopped playing they then sang a medley of melodies ending with another rousing three cheers for the Princetown Railway. At this point of the proceedings the steady downpour of rain turned into a veritable deluge thus soaking all and sundry. The crowds were then rapidly ushered down the quarter of a mile route to the festive hall.  Once the sodden hoards were assembled the children gladly partook of their cakes, for some the second time in two days. Not to be left out the adults were served a very welcomed tea which was catered for by Mr. White, the master baker from the prison. It was estimated that over 400 adults and children had partaken of the refreshments all served by women volunteers.  Following the food-fest various sports were held in a field by the recreation room and included flat races, steeplechases, along with donkey and wheel-barrow races. There was even a greasy pole which was finally conquered by a man from Tavistock who received a leg of mutton for his troubles. As evening drew on there was a fireworks display which was organised by a specialist from Barnell’s of Plymouth who were the local agents for the famous firework manufacturer, Mr. Pain of London (Pains Fireworks are still thriving today). Once the display was over many who were not catching the last train home attended a dance which brought the festivities to an end.
At the time of opening Princetown Station was described as a “thoroughly well built and handsome structure. It comprises of a spacious general waiting room, a ladies waiting room and adjoining lavatories, a booking office, and station master’s apartment, the whole being complete in all their details. We noticed that the flushing apparatus was supplied by Mr. George Dunn (if by this it means the toilet plumbing then what an apt name for the suppler Mr. Dunn). The platform is very well suited to meet any increased demands of traffic; the larger portion of it laid with vitrified brick. On the other side of the line stands a goods shed, with an office at one end, and behind this shed is an engine house which has a large tank. As Dartmoor is such a rough spot at times a long corrugated iron shed has been constructed in which the carriages employed on the line can be stored at night. The signal box is fitted up with two telegraphic instruments and fourteen levers, eight of which are only at present in use. There are two sidings and a turn-table. The chimney pieces of the station rooms are specially worthy of mention consisting as they do of enamelled slate which might almost be taken for marble.” – The Tavistock Gazette, August 17th, 1883.
It was estimated that one the first inaugural day over 400 passengers made the trip to Princetown. Needless to say that over the years the railway was a huge contributor to the early success of Princetown as a visitor destination. Sadly nothing lasts forever and before long there were other means of getting to the area such as the motorcar and buses. As cars became more affordable it gave rise to the family car and the Sunday drives became the norm. Gradually the numbers of passengers decline until in 1956 the Princetown Railway no longer was a profitable enterprise and was closed down. The following year the rails were dismantled and the station buildings virtually all demolished.
For many folk on that day it was the first time they would have ridden in train and for some the first opportunity to observe never seen before landscapes of Dartmoor. I can still remember the excitement when I first saw Concorde flying overhead which must have been a similar feeling to those travelling or even seeing the first train to Princetown.

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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