Rationalisation of the former London & South Western Railway (LSWR) route to Exeter, west of Salisbury, is a well-told story. Formerly a double-track main line boasting journey times of under three hours between Waterloo and the Devon capital, it was reduced to a secondary backwater with a laughable semi-fast diesel service running roughly once every two hours in either direction. Ten intermediate stations between Salisbury and Exeter were closed, of which Semley - located in rural Wiltshire near the Dorset border - was one.
Semley station came into use with the first section of the "Salisbury & Yeovil Railway", a nominally independent company which was backed by the LSWR. The opening date of this stretch of line varies depending on source; numerous publications, in addition to a 2009-installed plaque at Gillingham station, reflect 2nd May 1859 as the big day. However, the Official Guide to the London & South Western Railway (Cassell & Company, 1894) and Bradshaw's Railway Almanack state 1st May 1859 as the commencement date of traffic along the route.
The line initially terminated at Gillingham and was operated by the LSWR from the outset, this company having nominated two directors for the board of the smaller concern. The route was commissioned as a single track; extension of services from Gillingham to Sherborne occurred on 7th May 1860; to Yeovil on 1st of the following month; and finally, to Exeter (Queen Street) on 19th July. Double-track working between Salisbury and Exeter was possible from 1870.
Semley was a minor village, comprising a tiny population which alone could not justify the opening of platforms on the route. From the outset, however, the station was the railhead for Shaftesbury, the latter of which was just over the border into Dorset and that county's highest town:
Semley is an insignificant village of no importance in itself, the last stopping-place westward of the London and South-Western Railway in Wiltshire, but connected with Dorsetshire from the fact of its being the station for Shaftesbury, which lies nearly 3 miles south (omnibuses meet all the principal trains; fare 1s.). This is the only claim that Semley has to notice here. [Tourist's Guide to Dorsetshire: Coast, Rail, and Road, R. N. Worth, 1882]
Two platforms came into use at Semley, initially linked by a track foot crossing. The main station building was an attractive red brick affair, located on the "down" platform which, customary of the time, incorporated the Station Master's house. West of Salisbury, most of the buildings were the product of architect Sir William Tite, who had earlier designed termini for the LSWR at Nine Elms and Southampton. Those stations west of Yeovil, such as Crewkerne, Axminster, and Honiton, were arguably provided with more stately buildings, imposing Gothic structures worthy of the towns they served. However, those which opened with the first section of the Salisbury & Yeovil Railway in 1859 were nevertheless pleasing, and the same architectural style was employed at the likes of Wilton, Tisbury, and Semley stations. The main station buildings of the former two, specifically the two-storey section incorporating the Station Master's house, were tile-hung with slate; by comparison, the walls of that at Semley had a basic whitewashed finish. Semley's "down" platform was equipped with a pitched roof canopy, which was backed at its rear by a timber windbreak. The canopy on the "up" platform was a plain, flat-roof design, attached to the main building. From the outset, weary travellers could rest overnight in the "Railway Hotel", which was situated on the approach road to the main "up" side station entrance.
For such an isolated station, set amongst flowing green fields, a complex array of sidings were established, all but one situated on the "up" side of the running lines. A rail-served brick-built goods shed was evident east of the "down" platform, as were three wagon turntables. Stables were established beside the station forecourt, for those early days when wagon shunting in the sidings was done by horse, and a corrugated iron parcels office was established behind the "up" platform, just east of the station building. The layout, which changed little over the years, is illustrated in the diagram below.
Goods traffic increased markedly when, circa 1871, a dairy farm was commissioned adjacent to the station, on the "up" side of the line:
About 1871 Thomas Kirby started a business of buying milk from local farms and, from a depot near Semley station, sending it to London for sale. The depot was the first in Wiltshire serving primarily the London market. [A History of Wiltshire, Institute of Historical Research, 1953].
Indeed, such was the extent of this traffic that mention of it was made in The Official Guide to the London & South Western Railway (Cassell & Company Ltd, 1894):
Returning to Semley, we should note that its principal railway traffic consists of large quantities of milk and cream, which are collected from the pasture farms of the countryside. From a central factory some twelve thousand gallons weekly are sent to the London market.
Mention should also be made of the signal box, which was commissioned upon the "up" platform in about 1875. This was situated immediately east of the station building and was an LSWR "Type 1" signal box, with hipped slated roof and timber sides, set upon a stone base. This type of signal box was employed as standard at those stations between Salisbury and Exeter.
Ordnance Survey maps from 1887 show no signs of a footbridge, but by the 1901 Edition, one had appeared between the platforms, immediately west of the station structures. No expense was spared, for the footbridge was fully enclosed and glazed, supported by huge red brick staircases. Sherborne, Crewkerne, and Axminster all benefited from enclosed footbridges, all having slight variations in design.
Under the Southern Railway, a handful of cosmetic changes were made. The "up" side canopy, attached to the main station building, was altered from flat-roofed to upward-slanting. Both platforms were refaced with prefabricated concrete, manufactured at the company's own Exmouth Junction works, and lampposts of the same material also appeared. In the goods yard, east of the platforms, a prefabricated concrete provender goods store was built.
After the advent of British Railways (BR) in 1948, the route still enjoyed a healthy long-distance traffic between London and the south west, in addition to regular local services and a steady flow of freight. BR's first major mark at Semley was the abolition of the LSWR signal box, a replacement being commissioned adjacent to it in 1961. The latter was built to a standard BR design, being a plain brown-brick building with a flat roof and square windows. A similar example had earlier come into use at nearby Gillingham in 1957 and, as it soon transpired, the example at Semley was to have a ridiculously short working life.
Regional boundary changes announced by the British Transport Commission saw all Southern Region lines west of Salisbury transferred to the Western Region, effective 1st January 1963 (some sources suggest as early as September of the previous year). Thereafter, efforts were made in earnest to reduce service levels and generally degrade the line, at a time when railway closures were very much on the agenda. Perhaps historic pre-nationalisation company rivalries between the GWR and SR also manifested in the decision to wield the axe west of Salisbury, but one thing was made clear: only one main line to the south west was needed. As far as Semley was concerned, the beginning of the end started with the withdrawal of public goods traffic on 5th April 1965. Next, local passenger trains west of Salisbury were discontinued from 7th March 1966, Semley closing at the same time. Prior to closure, the footbridge had already lost its roof and glazing.
Service reduction paved the way for singling of the line, starting with that portion of the route between Wilton and Templecombe in April 1967. At Semley, this resulted in the "up" track being lifted, but the station's major structures - station building, goods shed, and signal box - survived, and today are in private ownership.
Semley: Track Plan 1925
Click the above for a larger version.
© David Glasspool
16th August 1964
Merchant Navy Class No. 35025 "Brocklebank Line" is seen passing through Semley with a Plymouth to Waterloo service. "Warship" diesel hydraulics took over from steam traction on Waterloo to Exeter, and beyond, workings in the following month. In the background, it can be seen that the footbridge had lost its roof and that the main building - incorporating the Station Master's house - had a whitewashed finish. Behind the train's third carriage can be seen the signal box of 1961, whilst to the right of this is the goods shed; both of these structures and the main "up" side building remain in existence today.
Paul Claxton / © David Glasspool Collection