Exeter St David's

Exeter: The First Run

Exeter resided 193½ route miles from London, 75½-miles of which comprised the distance to Bristol. Between Paddington and Bristol Temple Meads, normal passenger trains were timetabled to complete the journey in 4 hours 40 minutes. The GWR planned to run services no slower than 25 MPH. For the inaugural run to Exeter, on 1st May 1844, it was intended to cover the entire distance from Paddington in just five hours, an average speed of 39 MPH. This did not take into account any stops for water or picking up distinguished guests, so on the move, the train had to maintain a greater average speed.

The GWR’s Locomotive Superintendent, Daniel Gooch, stood alongside Brunel as a great believer of Broad Gauge, and both men were determined to use the opening of the B&ER to show the world what it could do. Gooch had been appointed to his post in August 1837 at the age of just 21, having submitted a written application to Brunel. His first successful Broad Gauge locomotive was that of ‘’North Star’’, an engine of 2-2-2 wheel arrangement that he had helped to design under his former employer, Robert Stephenson & Co of Newcastle. Originally destined for the 5-foot 6-inch New Orleans Railway, United States, this locomotive was in fact not delivered, and instead languished at the Newcastle Works. Purchased by the GWR on Gooch’s instruction, via Brunel, the engine was subsequently converted to 7-foot 0¼-inch gauge. It eventually formed the design basis for the more powerful ‘’Firefly’’ Class, initially a fleet of sixteen 2-2-2 engines designed under Gooch’s direction; one of these, named ‘’Actaeon’’, was selected for the Exeter run.

‘’Actaeon’’ departed Paddington at 7:30 AM, the 24-ton engine being driven by Daniel Gooch. On board the train of dignitaries, which comprised six carriages and loaded to 50-tons, was Sir Thomas Dyke Acland, Conservative MP for North Devon. The train arrived in Exeter after just five hours, at 12:30 PM, and at the time was the longest through run ever to have been attempted. The city’s streets thronged with crowds, brass bands played triumphantly, and the train party disembarked for a dinner held in the goods shed. The return working left Exeter at 5:20 PM and transpired to be an even quicker run than the outward journey, at 4-hours 40-minutes. The train, again driven by Gooch, arrived at Paddington at 10 PM which, including the necessary stops en-route, gave an average speed of 41½-MPH. Sir Thomas Dyke Acland immediately made his way from the terminus to Westminster, where by 10:30 PM he had addressed Parliament by claiming that he had been in Exeter little over five hours previously.

In light of the inaugural run, Gooch suggested to the GWR Directors that a permanent fast express should be included in the Paddington to Exeter timetable. This would cover the 193½-miles in 4½-hours, an average speed of 43 MPH, and attract higher fares. Subsequently, the Board agreed. This time can be viewed in the context of pre-railway journey durations: immediately prior to the opening of the through route between London and Exeter, the quickest road journey time was 16½-hours.

Exeter St David’s: First Station

The B&ER’s station resided on the north western edge of the city suburbs, beyond St David’s Hill. St David’s was an extensive parish, which also encompassed a part of the city itself. The first station here was an all-timber affair, wholly situated along the eastern side of the running lines. As per a number of the earliest sites found on those lines engineered by Brunel, the station was of the one-sided pattern, and comprised separate ‘’arrival’’ and ‘’departure’’ platforms serving the same length of track. This in effect created two separate stations, which meant full facilities had to be duplicated on both platforms. These platforms, and the adjacent track, were each covered by a timber trainshed with a slated pitched roof. Of simple construction, these trainsheds were a Brunel trademark, and readers will be pleased to know that a virtually identical example to those which could for a short time be found in Exeter, can still be seen in Frome, Somerset. In-between the arrival and departure stations existed crossovers, linking the platform track with various parallel-running sidings, and upon the general site could also be found a multitude of turntables. Both Bristol and Exeter stations were hosts to a single large turntable of 42-foot diameter for steam locomotives. They were engineered by J. J. Macdonnell, and were each constructed at a cost of no more than £400 (£29,000 at 2008 prices), which included the foundations. These turntables worked on a ball-pivot turning in a socket, and comprised two central cast-iron arms carrying, at their extremities, hollow wrought-iron transverse girders. The latter supported longitudinal beams of the timber framing (of which was the best red pine), and the turntable rotated on wheels of 3-foot diameter. The engineer stated that ‘’the time occupied by the driver and stoker in turning, without uncoupling, an engine and tender weighing (when in working trim) 40 tons, does not exceed three minutes.’’

The positioning of goods and locomotive facilities was largely concentrated on the western side of the running lines from the outset, and this arrangement was generally retained after subsequent station rebuilds. A three-road engine shed, located at the southern end of the site, was separated from the goods yard to the north by the aforementioned 42-foot locomotive turntable. The yard was host to a multitude of rail-served sheds, which housed wagons and carriages. As was common in the earliest years of railways, many of these buildings resided perpendicular to the running lines and sidings, their tracks being served by miniature turntables.

Early Expansion

Growth of railways around the city’s peripheral was rapid, and a multitude of new companies emerged. Of those concerns, the first worthy of note is the ‘’South Devon Railway’’ (SDR), incorporated on 4th July 1844 to build a 52-mile double-track line between Exeter and Plymouth. Originally formed in 1840 as the ‘’Plymouth, Devonport & Exeter Railway’’, of the £1,100,000 capital authorised for this undertaking, £400,000 was subscribed jointly by Great Western, Bristol & Exeter, and Bristol & Gloucester Railways. In brief, the Bristol & Gloucester Railway had been incorporated on 19th June 1828 to build a nine-mile line between Bristol and Coalpit Heath, the latter in the Parish of Westerleigh in the County of Gloucester. Built to George Stephenson’s 4-foot 8½-inch gauge, this goods line opened to traffic on 6th August 1835. Originally making use of horse power, a subsequent Act passed in 1839 allowed locomotives to be employed.

Brunel was appointed engineer of the SDR, and naturally the decision was taken to lay the line to 7-foot 0¼-inch gauge, albeit as a single rather than double-track. Unlike the GWR and B&ER projects, the SDR had to be built on a shoestring, which is why the engineer opted for a coastal route through Dawlish and Teignmouth, avoiding Dartmoor. The railway was projected at a time when atmospheric pressure was coming to the fore as a viable means of train propulsion. Brunel’s attention was attracted to a revolutionary system, patented by Messrs. Clegg and Samuda. Rather than using conventional locomotive power to haul trains along the railway, it was instead proposed to propel them by a piston working in a tube previously exhausted of its atmospheric air by the action of stationary steam engines. This tube was to run centrally upon the sleeper, in-between the rails, and be of 15-inch diameter. A slit along the top of the tube would allow the piston within it to be connected to railway vehicles above; in turn, the slit would be covered by a leather flap, acting as a valve, to maintain the vacuum. A major advantage of this system was that it allowed railway lines to be built to gradients steeper than those the locomotive was capable of surmounting. The system met with Brunel’s approval and he intended to use it not only on the SDR, but also within the shafts of the Thames Tunnel, and through the tunnel itself.

The SDR opened in the following stages:

From the outset, the 15-mile Exeter to Teignmouth section was worked by locomotives, for the atmospheric equipment had yet to be commissioned. It was not until 13th September 1847 that the first trains operating on the atmospheric principle became part of the public timetable, but only in combination with locomotive haulage, which remained beyond to Newton Abbot. Atmospheric propulsion was finally extended to Newton Abbot on 17th December 1847, by which time the SDR had 197 employees. On 23rd February of the following year, all trains between Exeter and Newton Abbot were of the atmospheric type; between the latter and Totnes, locomotive-haulage remained in operation. Extension of atmospheric services to Totnes was expected later in the year; at this time, the SDR declared that the atmospheric system would not be taken beyond Totnes until the principle had been fully tested in all ways.

At St David’s station an atmospheric pump house, three-storeys-high and of Italianate design, was erected at the southern extremity of the site, west of the running lines. This housed a pair of 45-horsepower engines, and it was one of eight pump houses situated between the city and Newton Abbot inclusive. Indeed, at the end of December 1844, the tenders for twenty-four engines – intended for the pump houses – had been received by Brunel and the SDR authorities at Exeter. Sixteen engines were of 43-inch cylinder, about 45 HP, and the remaining eight were 12 HP. The contracts for supplying these engines were taken by Cornish engineers Boulton & Watt and Messrs. Rennie, at costs ranging from £40,000 to £50,000.

To cross the River Exe, at the south end of the station, a single-track wooden bridge was erected. All bridges and viaducts on the SDR were built from timber, and were of a lighter construction than those found on the B&ER. This was made possible by the fact that the atmospheric system allowed for trains of reduced weight to be employed, which in turn lowered vibrations. In addition, Brunel claimed that bridges crossing the SDR were 18-inches lower than those over locomotive lines. Station accommodation at the B&ER’s St David’s was leased to the SDR for £1300 a year (£93,800 at 2008 prices).

Brunel had such faith in the atmospheric principle that he invested £20,000 of his own savings (£1,610,000 at 2008 prices) in the SDR undertaking. In the event, however, the atmospheric system became a complete failure, and locomotive haulage was fully re-instated on 10th September 1848. It had become impossible to maintain the vacuum within the pipe: the continuous leather valve and tallow, which kept the pipe airtight, was eaten away by field mice, which could not resist the tasty snack laid before them. The leather, too, was worn away by a combination of rain, frost, and even harsh sunshine. Patch-up repairs were made with great frequency by puttymen, with their pots and spatulas, after the passage of each train – this was found to be largely impractical over a period of time. Compounding this, the line had cost twice the original estimate to build, and in the dying months of atmospheric propulsion, gross receipts did not cover working expenses. The abandonment of atmospheric propulsion thus left a legacy of fierce gradients for locomotives, and an extensive bridge strengthening exercise.


June 1975

A class 47 rumbles over the junction at the southern end of the station with a BR Mk 1 full brake and BR Mk2a in tow. On the far right can be seen the lattice girder river bridge, installed by the GWR in 1896. © David Glasspool Collection


June 1975

Approaching platform 5 can be seen an unrefurbished Class 50, fronting a mixture of Mk 1 and Mk 2 carriages. Prominent on the right is the former South Devon Railway atmospheric pump house, which later became a gas works for the GWR. The signal gantry in the distance was replaced by a new one with two less arms on 23rd November 1975. © David Glasspool Collection


2nd September 1975

Class 50 No. 50013, later named ''Agincourt'', rumbles into platform 5 with a Paddington express. This locomotive ended its days on the Western Region, formally being withdrawn on 6th April 1988 after suffering fire damage. © David Glasspool Collection