Bristol & Exeter Railway

Great Western Railway

BR Western Region


As with all railways it is mostly referred to by its initials (B&ER). It was formed to build a railway connecting Bristol and Exeter. For the purpose of this article we are only concentrating on the part that ran, and indeed still runs through Devon today as part of the Network Rail main line to Penzance.


The B&ER was allied to the GWR through a contract for them to work the line and its engineer was Isambard Kingdom Brunel, therefore, quite understandably, it was built on the broad gauge. Opening in stages between 1841 and 1844. The contract expired in 1849 and the B&ER ran the line themselves. Effectively it formed part of a through route between London and Cornwall, was regauged to what is now known as standard gauge, 4'8 & 1/2" and amalgamated with the GWR in 1879. Still today it forms the London to Penzance main line on Network Rail and even the operators of the franchise pay homage with the name First Great Western.

It opened a branch line to Tiverton from a station on the main line at rhe village of Willand, but it was named Tiverton Junction. All other branch lines it opened were outside of Devon except those below.


South Devon Railway

The Great Western Railway (GWR) obtained its authorising Act of Parliament in 1835, to build its line between London and Bristol. The merchants of Bristol were anxious to secure a railway route to Exeter, an important commercial centre and a port on the English Channel, giving easier shipping connection to continental Europe. They promoted the Bristol and Exeter Railway and when they issued a prospectus on 1 October 1835, they had very little difficulty in securing the subscriptions for the £1.5 million scheme.


Isambard Kingdom Brunel was appointed engineer—he was also engineer to the GWR—and his assistant William Gravatt surveyed the route and a Parliamentary Bill was presented for the 1836 session. The Bill had an easy passage and was enacted on 19 May 1836. The Act did not specify the gauge of the track; branches at Bridgwater and to Tiverton[2] were authorised. Notwithstanding the apparent family connection to the neighbouring GWR, none of the B&ER directors was also a GWR director at this time.[3] The GWR was still under construction.


The early euphoria turned to great difficulty in raising finance for construction, and getting money proved difficult. In fact 4,000 of the 15,000 subscribed shares were forfeited for non-payment of calls before the line was built. A contract was let for the first part of the line, from a temporary terminus at Pylle Hill, west of the New Cut (an arm of the River Avon). The position improved somewhat in 1838, and indeed the Company obtained Parliamentary powers for four short branches: of these only one to Weston-super-Mare was actually built.


It was not until 5 March 1839 that the Company adopted the broad gauge, having observed the practical results of its use on the GWR.


In the autumn of 1839 the Directors informed the half-yearly meeting of shareholders that it was now planned to make a priority of forming the line from Temple Meads (connecting with the GWR there) to Bridgwater; this would at least generate some income. Five locomotives were ordered from Sharp, Roberts & Co for the purpose.


By the end of 1839 the Directors had decided to avoid the capital outlay by arranging with the GWR—by now in operation—to operate the line for them. By this time three Directors were also directors of the GWR, and the alliance was beginning to strengthen. The proposal to lease the line to the GWR was ratified by shareholders at a special meeting in September 1841. The lease was to commence on the opening of a double line from Bristol to Bridgwater and Weston-super-Mare, at a rent of £30,000 annually and a toll of a farthing (i.e. ¼d) per passenger-mile and per ton-mile of goods and coal (but no toll for mails, parcels, horses, carriages or cattle). The rent was to increase proportionally with the completion of the system, and the lease was to remain in force for five years after completion of the line to Exeter.


The first section of the line was opened between Bristol and Bridgwater on 14 June 1841, just before the GWR completed its line from London to Bristol. It was 33½ miles (54 km) in length and double track, with a 1½ mile (3 km) single-line branch to Weston-super-Mare. There was no B&ER station at Bristol; a temporary wooden platform at the GWR station was used, and as that station faced London, a backing movement was necessary to reach the point of convergence of the GWR line and the B&ER connecting line.


The stations on opening were Nailsea, Clevedon Road, Banwell, Weston Junction, Highbridge and Bridgwater on the main line; Weston-super-Mare was the only station on its branch, which was operated by horse traction. (The subsequent renaming of stations is listed below.)


In 1841 money was a little easier to come by, and contracts were let for the completion of the line; it was opened on from Bridgwater in stages:


Bridgwater to Taunton on 1 July 1842

Taunton to Beam Bridge (on the Exeter Turnpike) on 1 May 1844; Beam Bridge was a temporary terminus, closed when the onward section to Exeter opened

Beam Bridge to Exeter on 1 May 1844. The Exeter station was at the location now known as Exeter St Davids station.

The opening to Exeter competed the B&ER main line, and with the GWR formed a combined broad gauge line from London to Exeter with a mileage of 194 miles, far longer than any other line at the time. The Directors were able to report that the whole construction had been carried out for the £2 million originally authorised, "a most unusual experience in those days".


On 4 July 1844 the South Devon Railway obtained its authorising Act of Parliament: the broad gauge would soon be continuous from London to Plymouth.


In the 1845 Parliamentary session, the B&ER obtained authorisation for the Yeovil branch, and branches to Clevedon and Tiverton, and a direct junction line at Bristol connecting its line with the GWR. Early the same year the Company had at last constructed its own Bristol terminus (authorised in the original Act); this was at right angles to the GWR station. The connecting line formed an arc by-passing both Bristol stations, and an "express platform" was built on it to allow through passenger trains to make a station call; both directions of trains used the single platform.The Tiverton branch proved especially contentious due to the determined opposition of the Grand Western Canal, which foresaw the end of any income; when the parliamentary opposition was overcome, the Canal Company offered every obstruction in the construction of the railway crossing.


The rival London and South Western Railway (LSWR) had its main line from London to Southampton, and was planning to extend to Exeter. The GWR wished to prevent this by promoting its own lines in the region. At this period Parliament considered that only one line was appropriate to serve any particular area, and naturally each company wished their own allies' lines to be authorised. The LSWR was a narrow gauge railway (later referred to as standard gauge) and the GWR and B&ER were broad gauge lines; the intense rivalry to secure territory was referred to as the gauge wars.


In 1845 the Wilts, Somerset and Weymouth Railway (WS&WR) was promoted by the GWR. The GWR now saw it as the beginning of a line to Exeter to exclude the LSWR proposal, and as this would harm the position of the B&ER the GWR offered to purchase the B&ER company, which it was leasing. This was put to a B&ER shareholders' meeting and rejected by a considerable majority.


Feeling that it had acted in good faith, the GWR now promoted a modified version of the Wilts, Somerset & Weymouth scheme, and a line that became called the Exeter Great Western, from Yeovil to Exeter via Crewkerne and Axminster.


The B&ER felt alienated from the GWR, and Brunel saw that his position as Engineer to both companies was compromised, and he resigned from the B&ER at the end of September 1846, being succeeded by Charles Hutton Gregory.


The B&ER naturally opposed these schemes, joining with the LSWR in doing so, and in the 1846 Parliamentary session they were rejected. The Exeter Great Western proposal was presented again in the 1847 session, and the B&ER again opposed the scheme, itself promoting a branch from Durston (east of Taunton) to Castle Cary (on the WS&WR). The Exeter Great Western scheme was again rejected, but the B&ER Castle Cary line was approved. However now the financial collapse following the "railway mania"[note 6] and the B&ER never proceeded with that scheme.


The LSWR too had experienced difficulty in making its proposed line to Exeter, and, in continuation of the struggle to exclude the narrow gauge company, the GWR and B&ER jointly promoted a line in 1852 from Maiden Newton on the WS&WR line (which was not yet completed) via Axminster to join the B&ER at Stoke Canon. This line was to be called the Devon and Dorset Railway; the journey from London to Exeter would have been ten miles longer over it than by the existing line via Bristol.


This was presented in Parliament in the 1853 session, and became part of a bitter fight for the so-called coast line: LSWR trains now reached Dorchester and that company proposed its own line. In Committee, witnesses for and against the respective lines appeared, but the B&ER were absent. The proposed broad gauge line was rejected on 30 June.


In 1845 an Act of Parliament authorised the Exeter and Crediton Railway (E&CR), a six mile (10 km) line from Cowley Bridge, a short distance north of Exeter. A railway had already been authorised in North Devon: the Taw Vale Railway and Dock, a short line at Barnstaple. Little had been done there until 1845, when the proprietors obtained authorisation to revive their powers and build the line; they hoped to sell their enterprise, now called the Taw Vale Extension Railway, to another company, the North Devon Railway which was intending to seek its Act for a Barnstaple to Crediton line in 1846.


Meanwhile competing proposals were submitted to the 1846 session of Parliament for railways to connect Barnstaple to the network. The B&ER wished to make a line from their (proposed) Tiverton station, but that was rejected in favour of the Taw Vale Railway Extension and Dock Company, from Barnstaple to join the Exeter and Crediton line at Crediton. This scheme was supported by the London and South Western Railway (LSWR), which aspired to expand into Devon.


The Exeter and Crediton line and the North Devon line had been expected to be built on the broad gauge and naturally to fall into the B&ER camp; lease terms had been provisionally agreed. However the London and South Western Railway (LSWR) had designs on entering North Devon, and encouraged friendly relations with the companies. At an E&CR shareholders' meeting on 11 January 1847 the provisional lease was rejected, and this was quickly followed by rejection of the TVER lease; more favourable leases to the LSWR were negotiated and ratified by shareholders in January and February 1847. The B&ER had lost control of the Crediton and Barnstaple lines.


J W Buller of the B&ER was chairman of the E&CR board, and despite the very large shareholder opinion, he attempted to keep the E&CR within the B&ER family, and personally signed a two-year contract with George Hennett to work the line on 7 April 1847. However at an Extraordinary General Meeting on 12 April 1847, Buller and three other B&ER directors were removed from office amid angry scenes.


The E&CR had been built on the broad gauge, and when tempers had cooled, a lease was agreed in February 1851 that the B&ER would work the line, and installing the junction with their own line at Cowley Bridge; these works would be at the expense of the E&CR. The E&CR opened on 12 May 1851, for the time being effectively a branch of the B&ER.


The Bristol & Exeter Railway was a considerable financial success, and between 1844 and 1874 paid an average annual dividend of 4.5 per cent.


As already described, the Bristol & Exeter took over the working of its line in 1849, and the two companies, B&ER and GWR were completely distinct. Through passenger trains operated with shared rolling stock, and once again there was no common director.


J B Badham was appointed as Secretary and General Superintendent, and after a false start, James Cresswell Wall was appointed Traffic Superintendent, transferring to Chief Goods Agent on 1 January 1855; Henry Dykes succeeded him as Traffic Superintendent. C H Gregory remained Chief Engineer until the post was abolished in June 1851. In June 1850 James Pearson took over the locomotive department; at first his workshops were in Exeter, but they were removed to Bristol towards the end of 1851. Extensive goods facilities were also provided there at this time, as well as a roofed for the Bristol "express platform", earning it the local nickname, the cowshed.]


With money now coming in, and in anticipation of independent operation, the Company had built a carriage works and coke ovens[note 7] at Bridgwater. George Hennet had arranged to cast pipes there for the atmospheric system on the South Devon Railway, and the Bristol and Exeter Railway simply extended his works. The Hennet name continued to be linked to Bridgwater for many years, and was responsible for producing many wagons for various companies.


In 1852 the Company installed the electric telegraph throughout its main line; at the time a remarkably progressive investment. It was the first substantial British railway to operate the block system.


In 1852 the company started construction of a handsome headquarters building at Temple Meads; it was designed by Samuel Fripp and opened in 1854.


In 1856 power had been obtained to extend to Bruton, on the GWR, and the Dorset Central Railway, a narrow gauge line, obtained powers to join the Somerset Central near Bruton too. On 3 February 1862 the lines were completed and the Somerset Central began operating the entire line, on the narrow gauge. In August 1862 the two lines joined together to form the Somerset and Dorset Railway. The junction with the GWR was never built, and the entire line had abandoned any allegiance to the B&ER.


On 19 July 1860 the London and South Western Railway (LSWR) reached Exeter, after a long struggle. It had its own station, Queen Street, in a more central location than the B&ER station, and much higher than it. They already had interests in railways to the west of the B&ER line, and earlier thoughts had turned to an independent line crossing the B&ER line to reach the Crediton line, but wiser counsel prevailed, and an accommodation with the B&ER was reached. By arrangement Parliamentary authority was obtained for a connecting line descending from the LSWR station to St Davids, and the addition of narrow gauge rails to the line from there to Crediton. The LSWR service started on 1 February 1862.


The Exeter (St Davids) station had been built in a one-sided arrangement with separate up and down sections. The increase of traffic and the arrival of LSWR trains made this very difficult to operate; in 1862 work was started on a new conventionally arranged station, and this was opened in July 1864. Taunton station received a corresponding treatment in August 1868. At Weston-super-Mare, the terminus was modernised and expanded, and the branch line doubled, in 1866. At Bristol, the project was much more difficult; work started in March 1871 but was not completed until 1 January 1878, after amalgamation of the B&ER and the GWR; the new station was joint with the Midland Railway.



This is right on the eastern boarder of Devon so being the first station in Devon heading south. Approximately up Wellington Bank north of Whiteball tunnel in which the summit is. It also originally had a 3' gauge private siding and branch line leading to Westerleigh Quarry, later converted to standard gauge but ultimately closed in 1899.


The station looking north from the road bridge in 1963. One can also see the siding at the far end.


Picture from Wikipedia Commons

Sampford Peverell/Tiverton Road

Tiverton Parkway


Not built until 1936 it closed in the Beeching cuts, but later reinstated as the station we know today as Tiverton Parkway.




opened 1 May 1844. when the railway opened. In 1931 the platforms were moved back, the lines were widened to provide two passing loops and a new goods shed and waiting room were constructed. The station closed to passengers on 5 October 1964, but goods traffic continued until 8 May.


The site is now occupied by Cullompton Services for the adjacent M5 motorway. There is land allocated for re-opening a station at Cullompton but forecast demand is relatively low and so the proposal is for the longer term. In July 2016 Mid Devon District Council announced that it would spend £40k on engineering design work to test the viability of their concept for a new station. This matched a previous commitment by Taunton Deane Borough Council of £40k and £10k contributions from the town councils of Cullompton and Wellington.


As part of the "Devon Metro" plans by Devon County Council there would be a station near the location of the old station and could form part of the route. The stations is a 'possible' long term proposal

Stoke Canon


Hele and Bradninch


Originally named "Hele" when opened on 1 May 1844, from 1867 it was known as Hele and Bradninch (50.8113°N 3.4273°W). A siding to the Hele Paper factory was laid in 1919 and used up to the 1980s.


Passenger services were withdrawn on 5 October 1964 but public freight facilities were kept until 17 May 1965. The old Bristol and Exeter Railway signal box was closed on 9 December 1985 when control of the level crossing was transferred to the new panel signal box at Exeter.


The station is recognisable today, with the empty signal box still remaining at the north end of the southbound platform, one of the buildings still on the platform, and the goods shed opposite (which is now in use by a motor engineering company).



opened on 1 November 1867. The platforms were staggered, with the up (northbound) platform closer to Tiverton than the down platform.


The station was closed to passengers on 5 October 1964. Freight traffic continued until 3 May 1965 but a private siding serving a paper mill, which had been opened on 26 July 1894, was closed on 31 August 1967.


Today there is no trace of the station.