The History of the Bristol Harbour Railway

In March 2022 the Bristol Harbour Railway turned 150. Marion Blackburn looks back at the history of one of Bristol’s most iconic pieces of infrastructure.

Marion Blackburn


The early development of the Bristol Harbour Railway (Temple Meads to Wapping Wharf)

Why the railway was needed

Despite Bristol being a maritime city, there was no rail connection between Temple Meads and the City Docks until the opening of the Bristol Harbour Railway in 1872.

Before then, merchandise arriving in ships and destined for other parts of the country had to be unloaded into carts and hauled through the city’s crowded streets to the terminus at Temple Meads. On arrival at the station, goods were transferred into trucks which were then lifted by an engine to the higher level of the railway

The whole, tiresome process led to delays, additional costs, a loss of trade for the docks and placed Bristol merchants at a disadvantage to those elsewhere. Many manufacturers and businessmen preferred to use other ports such as Liverpool that could handle bigger ships and offer cheaper rates.

For many years, interested parties campaigned for a rail system that would link the port of Bristol to London as well as many other principal towns and markets.

Plans for building a tramway

The first steps towards building a rail connection between the harbour and Temple Meads were taken by the Bristol and North Somerset Railway Company. In 1863, the company obtained an Act of Parliament authorising it to build a railway that would connect the important mining centre of Radstock with Bristol. The Act also gave it permission to lay a tramway from Temple Meads, along the north side of the New Cut to a quay on the south side of the Floating Harbour below Wapping. The tramway was to be worked by horsepower and not engines.

black and white etching of a ceremony

Two special opening ceremonies were held to mark the beginning of the construction work. The first took place at Clutton on 7 October 1863 when Mrs Milward, wife of the Vicar of Paulton, cut the first sod for the Radstock to Bristol main line. The second ceremony was held a day later at the Floating Harbour when Mrs Elizabeth Hare, wife of the Lord Mayor of Bristol, laid the first rail for the Bristol Harbour Tramway.

Image: The opening ceremony at the Floating Harbour on 8 October 1863

In 1864, the Bristol and North Somerset Railway Company purchased land at Wapping where a quay would be constructed for the western end of the tramway. Unfortunately, over the next few years, the company was beset by many problems and became so desperately short of money that very little progress was made. Although it succeeded in completing the Radstock to Bristol line, its plans for the tramway had to be abandoned. In 1871, the company completely withdrew from the project and sold the land that had been acquired for it.

All was not lost, however, as an alternative scheme for a harbour railway had already been authorised.

The Bristol Harbour Railway

In the early 1860’s, the Great Western Railway, the Bristol & Exeter Railway and Bristol Corporation joined forces to promote a parliamentary bill outlining plans for a harbour railway and a depot at Wapping. It received the Royal Assent on 28 June 1866.

The estimated cost of £165,000 was shared between the three parties. A joint capital of £115,000 was raised by the two railway companies who were responsible for laying the lineBristol Corporation agreed to spend £50,000 on making a new wharf at Wapping.

ornate silver spade
The ceremonial spade presented to the Mayoress, Mrs Sholto Vere Hare

Although the line was less than three-quarters of a mile in length, it was expensive to build because it crossed developed urban land and the final cost was thought to exceed £200,000. Acquiring properties along the planned route was not always easy and the railway companies paid a heavy price, especially in the Redcliffe Hill area. Arguments about compensation hindered progress and there were difficulties and delays in getting possession of premises that had been leased and let, sub-let, and even sub-sub-let.

Construction work on the harbour railway began on 21 August 1868 and took almost three and a half years to complete. The chief engineer was Charles Richardson, a former assistant to Isambard Kingdom Brunel and resident engineer for the Bristol and South Wales Union Railway. The contractors were William and John Blinkhorn of Gloucester.

Building the line was not an easy undertaking because it included a long viaduct with three iron bridges, a tunnel under St Mary Redcliffe Churchyard and a steam powered bascule bridge at Bathurst Basin.

The line was double tracked throughout and laid with mixed gauge rails to accommodate both broad and narrow gauge trains. At the time, most railway companies used the 4ft 8½in gauge but the Great Western and Bristol and Exeter Railway companies were still using Brunel’s 7ft ¼in broad gauge and did not have any narrow lines in the city.

The route of the Harbour Railway

At the Temple Meads end, the Harbour Railway left the Great Western goods terminus and ran alongside Brunel’s original train shed. As soon as it had left the station, it went over a 316-yard viaduct consisting of a series of brick-built arches sixteen feet above the level of the roadway. The viaduct crossed Victoria Street on an ornamental iron girder bridge with a span of 65 feet and the width of three lines. Its foundations were built on those of the old Temple Gate, the remains of which were discovered during the excavation work.

The line then abutted onto the George Hotel, passed over Temple Street on a second iron girder bridge and over Pile Street on a skew bridge. All three bridges were made of wrought iron and manufactured by the Butterley Company in Derbyshire. The bricks were all supplied by the Cattybrook Brick Works at Almondsbury, owned by Charles Richardson himself.

Testing the stability of the viaduct and bridges took place in January 1872. This involved driving four powerful Great Western locomotives backwards and forwards along the route for several hours. Occasionally the engines were allowed to stand on the bridges for some time so that the engineers could scrutinise the effects of the pressure on the masonry and ironwork. A large crowd gathered to watch the unfamiliar spectacle of an engine standing on Victoria Street Bridge, and then running at full speed over the viaduct leading to the Great Western goods lines.

After leaving the viaduct, the line continued along a short embankment flanked on each side with a substantial brick retaining wall. The area, from the east side of Pump Lane and the south of Pile Street was used for goods sheds and sidings and became known as Redcliffe Goods Yard. It ran close to H & T Proctor’s (Cathay) artificial manure works on the site of Prewett Street glass cone, since converted to a restaurant for the Dragonara Hotel.

black and white aerial view of a train track going between buildings
Redcliffe Goods Yard and sidings. The Harbour Railway went past H & T Proctor’s (Cathay) artificial manure works.

At Pump Lane, it took a long sweeping curve as it entered into a tunnel or “covered way” that was 282 yards long, 27ft 6in wide at rail level, 18ft 9ins high and on a gradient of 1 in 100. Work commenced in November 1867 and finished in the following August. As there was insufficient room above, it was impossible to tunnel the line in the usual way, so the work was carried out using the cut and cover method and completed in lengths of 24ft at a time. It was estimated that 1,500,000 bricks were used in that part of the railway alone.

The tunnel passed under the corner of St. Mary Redcliffe churchyard which meant that many bodies had to be removed. These were subsequently reburied in a new cemetery in Brislington, (opposite Arnos Vale Cemetery), with the railway companies paying £2,500 towards the costs. As it continued underneath Colston Parade and Redcliffe Hill, the tunnel broke through the middle of Redcliffe caves, arousing much local interest in the process, and involved the demolition of the old St Mary Redcliffe vicarage. (Now the site of the Mercure Hotel.)

After emerging from the tunnelthe railway passed through a short cutting, (100 yards), to the bottom of Guinea Street where it crossed the entrance to Bathurst Basin on a bascule bridge. Housing on the north side of Guinea Street was pulled down to make way for the cutting.

Construction work on the 250-ton bascule Bridge began on 25 July 1870. It was a lifting bridge with counterbalancing tails designed to offset the weight of the whole bridge. When raised, the main girders were carried back and dropped into tail pits to allow vessels to pass. It carried a double track for the railway, a roadway for ordinary vehicles and a water main that had to be temporarily disconnected whenever it was lifted.

black and white photo of train tracks with buildings in the background

The bridge could be opened or shut in about 30 seconds and reached a height of 45 ft in its lifted position. It was operated by a two-cylinder horizontal steam engine, built by the Avonside Engine Company in Bristol. The engine also worked a pair of steam capstans used to help manoeuvre large boats through the lock. The steam engine and capstans were sited on the quay edge by Lower Guinea Street. When the line closed in 1964, the engine was removed to the Industrial Museum (now M Shed).

Original railway wharves at Wapping

A large amount of land was acquired to build the station, sidings, goods sheds and landing stages. It included the site of the Bathurst Hotel, adjoining houses and the Royal Ann Inn as well as filling in three docks known as the Wet, Victoria and Wapping DocksBuilding the wharf was the responsibility of Bristol Corporation, who had certain rights regarding the water frontage. The quay wall – about 1000 feet in length – extended on either side of Prince Street Bridge, in one direction towards Terrell’s rope factory, and in the other to the Guinea Street ferry. The quay was equipped with steam cranes, fixed and travelling cranes to help load and unload goods brought to the quays by trains and ships.

Opening the Bristol Harbour Railway

At the end of February 1872, Colonel Yolland, the Government inspector, reported that the Bristol Harbour Railway was fit for goods traffic, but not fit for passenger traffic and so there were no platforms or stations for passengers.

It was formally opened as a mixed gauge single line for goods traffic on 11 March 1872 but had to terminate on the east side of Prince Street because a lot still had to be done at the wharf. On 12 June 1876, it was extended by half a mile to the newly built and better sited Princes and Wapping Wharves. By then, the Bristol Harbour Railway was entirely Great Western Railway property as that company had amalgamated with the Bristol & Exeter Railway and taken over Bristol Corporation’s interest in the line.

newspaper clipping
Announcement of the opening of the Bristol Harbour Railway on 11th March 1872 from Bristol Times & Mirror 9 March 1872

A great deal of goods traffic was transported through the wharves, including vital war supplies during both World Wars. Some improvements were made after the First World War including the installation of an electric train token system in late 1929.

It was from 1930 that engineering work on the main line meant passenger trains were brought onto the Ashton-Wapping line. During the Second World War, the goods traffic increased dramatically, and the railway started operating 24 hours a day. Attacks had been occasional throughout the war but the City Docks were severely damaged on 24 November 1940 when the bombing tragically caused the deaths of approximately 200 people.

In the 1940s and 50s the docks prospered, handling goods such as coal, esparto grass, wood, meat, as well as alcoholic beverages such as sherry and Guinness. During the 1960s the lines and harbour went into decline and some of the branches closed. In 1964, the Harbour Railway was closed, and the track lifted. The docks closed to commercial shipping in 1975 and the area became derelict although the return of Brunel’s SS Great Britain in 1970 sparked interest in preserving what was left of the docks.

Bristol Industrial Museum opened in 1978 with the railway operating along the quayside as a heritage attraction. The museum became M Shed in 2011. Today the railway operates on many weekends throughout the year and visitors can take trips in one of the steam locomotives along the dockside.

M Shed’s working exhibits are operated by volunteers and powered by donations. If you would like to ensure our fantastic railway is here to enjoy for years to come, please donate to our charity.

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