In the Official Guide to the London & South Western Railway, Cassell & Company, 1894, the following was reported:

From a railway point of view, Gillingham should be remembered as the spot selected for turning the first sod of the Salisbury and Yeovil Railway, which formed an important link of the narrow gauge extension to Exeter. This event took place on the 3rd of April 1856, and although the new company had on that day but a balance of £4 2s 4d at their banker’s, the enterprise went forward, and the 1st of May, 1859, witnessed the opening of railway communication with Salisbury and London.

In Bradshaw’s Railway Almanack, the opening date is also stated as 1st May 1859, but a series of other sources, including a 2009-installed plaque on the main building, state 2nd May of that year:

Opening of the Salisbury and Yeovil Railway. — The first portion of this line, from Salisbury to Gillingham, was formally opened by Col. Luard, Mr. Sergeant Gaselee, Mr. John Chapman, Mr. Scott, (traffic manager), Mr. Nottman, Mr Godson, and other gentlemen connected with the London and South Western, and Salisbury and Yeovil Companies, on Monday last [2nd May 1859]. The gentlemen proceeded down the line to Gillingham, where there was a dinner, and demonstrations of various kinds in honour of the event. There are four stations between Salisbury and Gillingham, namely, Wilton, Dinton, Tisbury, and Semley (for Shaftesbury); and there are four trains daily each way. At present, the line is only a single one. [The Shepton Mallet Journal, Friday, 6th May 1859]

Gillingham remained as the western terminus until a subsequent extension to Sherborne was opened to public traffic on 7th May 1860; Yeovil was reached on 1st June of the same year, and Exeter on 19th of the following month, these sections also being single-track. Double-track working between Salisbury and Exeter commenced in 1870.

Gillingham was a small market town with a population, as reported in the 1861 census, of 3,957. It became a marketplace for agricultural products of nearby farms, and additional industrial sites included milk factories, a brick and tile works, and silk mills. Every two weeks a cattle market was held in the town, which generated much business activity, but a curious industry in the locality was that of bacon curing:

Probably one of the most noteworthy centres of local industry is the factory of Messrs Oake Woods and Company, whose celebrated cure of Wiltshire bacon has twice received the first prize and silver medal at the annual Dairy Shows held in the Agricultural Hall Islington. [Official Guide to the London & South Western Railway, Cassell & Company, 1894]

A station worthy of this market town was established 105¼ route miles from Waterloo. The Salisbury & Yeovil Railway employed William Tite, already well known for his work on the LSWR, as architect, and one of his fine main buildings was erected at the site. It seems likely that two platforms would have been evident here from the outset, in anticipation of the extension west and the fact that a runaround loop would have been required for terminating engines. Tite’s structure was situated on what became the "up" platform, for London-bound traffic. It was a red brick building, three-storeys high with a pitched roof, and incorporated the Station Master’s house. Much of the red brick finish was hidden beneath a layer of slate tiles hung on the walls; this decorative feature was also used at Wilton (South) and Tisbury. A grander version of Gillingham’s building was employed at Sherborne, the main structure there being constructed from local stone, but a near replica of the former was commissioned in the same year at Petersfield, Hampshire. The canopy attached to the main building was substantial, measuring about 110-feet in length, and sported a flat roof with plain valance. In addition to the features of the "up" platform mentioned, on the same side was also a water tower and tank, evident in one of the photographs below.

Gillingham station has a letter box, a telegraph office, and a bookstall on the up platform. An omnibus meets all trains. [Official Guide to the London & South Western Railway, Cassell & Company, 1894]

The omnibus mentioned was a horse and carriage to the town of Mere, which was situated four miles to the north of Gillingham, just over the border into Wiltshire. In the early years, the station’s platform nameboards showed the suffix "For Mere"; this town’s population was recorded in the 1861 census as 8,056.

What of the "down" platform? Nearly all the expense appears to have been ploughed into the "up" side passenger accommodation. The "down" platform was provided with a plain, brick-built rectangular waiting shelter, panelled inside with timber. Passage between both platforms was originally by a track foot crossing at the western ends of the platforms.

Circa 1875, an LSWR "Type 1" signal box was brought into use upon the western end of the "down" platform; this type of cabin became standard along the route. It controlled a layout of generous proportions, which incorporated a goods yard and sidings concentrated at the Exeter end of the station. A rail-served goods shed of brick construction was evident on the "up" side and multiple sidings flanked either side of the running lines. A large brick and tile works existed on the "down" side, fed by a single track leading off a wagon turntable, a feature of which can be seen on the diagram below.

By 1900, a footbridge had been built between the platforms, east of the main building. This comprised substantial red-brick staircases, between which was a metal walkway, but unlike those constructed at nearby Sherborne and Semley, it lacked a roof. The track foot crossing at the western ends of the platforms remained in use for staff and heavy loads.

Under the Southern Railway (SR), the "down" platform was refaced in prefabricated concrete, manufactured at the company's Exmouth Junction works. The SR’s familiar Swan Neck gas lamps, with "Target" name signs affixed, were brought into use on both platforms, but little else changed.

The greatest wave of alterations occurred under British Railways (BR), these of which evolved into an infamous story of decline along the Salisbury to Exeter line, stopping just short of closure. First, however, was the upgrading of the signalling, the LSWR cabin being replaced by a BR "Type 16" signal box. The latter was situated adjacent to its predecessor, just beyond the western end of the "down" platform, and was of red brick construction with a flat-roof. It was a standard design which appeared at multiple stations along the route, comprised a 30-lever frame, and was brought into use on 28th April 1957.

Lines west of Salisbury passed from Southern to Western Region (WR) control in January 1963 (some sources suggest this occurred as early as the previous September) and thereafter, rationalisation was the order of the day. In November of that year, local services started to transition from steam traction to WR diesel multiple units; local trains completely ceased from 7th March 1966, resulting in closure and degrading of multiple intermediate stations along the line. A semi-fast service between Waterloo and Exeter, hauled by "Warship" diesel hydraulics since September 1964, was maintained, but was no more frequent than once every two hours. Such reductions in services justified singling of the route, the first section between Wilton and Templecombe formally going over to one track working from 2nd April 1967.

Comparatively speaking, Gillingham came through the line’s rationalisation fairly unscathed. Post-1967, it retained two platforms serving an equal number of tracks, and Tite’s main building still stood proud. The original footbridge was taken down in 1967 and replaced by a prefabricated concrete example which had come from the closed station at Dinton, between Wilton and Tisbury. Public goods facilities had earlier been withdrawn from 5th April 1965, and the rail connection with the brick and tile works (also known as "Gillingham Pottery Company") was removed the previous year. The signal box remained to control the passing loop through the station, the degraded line being operated on the tokenless block principle. The closure of the station at nearby Semley saw Gillingham become the railhead for Shaftesbury.

In November 1968, a fertiliser depot opened on the former site of the goods yard, on the "up" side of the line. To serve this, a single siding was laid, this having a trailing connection with the "up" loop and being controlled from a ground frame released from the signal box. The company behind the depot was "Shellstar Ltd", which had been formed in the mid-1960s to represent the fertiliser and agricultural chemicals sides of UK firm "Shell Chemical Company" and US-based "Messrs. Armour & Company". A train laden with bagged fertiliser ran from Shellstar’s headquarters in Ince, near Chester, to Gillingham, approximately weekly, although it was less frequent if the traffic was not available. There was a return working with the empty vans back to Ince. Shellstar had a series of contracts with British Rail, lasting a period of ten years and cumulatively worth around £5,000,000 to £6,000,000 (ref: CPE. Chemical & Process Engineering, Volume 51, 1970), for the distribution of fertiliser by rail. The Shellstar organisation became UKF (Unie van Kunstmestfabrieken) in 1973, after the Dutch firm to which it was sold.

As of 1980, the main building retained its slate hung tiles upon the walls, and the original rectangular waiting shelter on the "down" platform was still extant. In addition to the "up" side fertiliser siding, the siding on the "down" side, which terminated behind the signal box, was still in use by the engineering department. By 1988, the shelter and wall-hung tiles had gone, and the windows of the former Station Master’s house (which formed the majority of the main building) had been boarded up. The fertiliser traffic ended in the 1990s and, in September 2000, the former depot which served these trains was taken over by a home removals company.

From 25th February 2012, the signal box’s control of the area was passed to Basingstoke. The cabin was switched out of use, but was retained to control the remaining "up" siding, formerly used by fertiliser traffic. The signal box frame, comprising five levers, is electronically released from Basingstoke signalling centre.

Click the above for a larger version. © David Glasspool


Three BR Mk 1 carriages are light work for Rebuilt Merchant Navy Class No. 35022 "Holland-America Line" as it departs Gillingham in the Salisbury direction during the last year of regular steam haulage on the route. The "Swan Neck" gas lamps and "Target" name signs are classic Southern Railway features, and the prefabricated concrete platform side was made at the same company's Exmouth Junction works. In the right middle-distance is the water tower, whilst behind can be seen the footbridge of about 1900 origin, and the main station building. © David Glasspool Collection

September 1983

The Southern Railway lived on in this view in the form of a cast sign on the "down" side, located about 130-yards south west of the platforms. "UKF" wagons are seen parked in the fertiliser depot's "up" siding in the background. © David Glasspool Collection

19th August 1988

Class 33 No. 33111 was seen propelling a 4-TC unit on the 14:35 departure to Waterloo. The main building looked smart, with a then recently re-slated roof, but the main windows were boarded up. The tile-hung finish upon the walls had given way to the red brick being painted all-over in an off-white colour. A tiny rectangular waiting shelter sufficed for the "down" platform, and the prefabricated concrete footbridge had linked the platforms since 1967. © David Glasspool Collection

20th September 1989

Grubby Class 50 No. 50029, wearing early Network SouthEast "toothpaste" livery, is seen departing Exeter-bound from what was traditionally the "up" platform; this was signalled for reversible running. The signal box on the right dated from 1957 and similar structures were brought into use at other intermediate stops between Salisbury and Exeter, such as at Tisbury, Sherborne, and Crewkerne. The siding in view was a short stub which fed off the "up" fertiliser siding, and formerly served the loading dock platform on the extreme left. © David Glasspool Collection