North Devon Clay, by Michael Messenger

This book has been out of print for some years and at present there are no plans to reprint it although we are considering alternatives. The following summary is intended to fill this void. If it proves useful we would be glad to know. Please email us at marland@twelveheads.com

Between Great Torrington and Hatherleigh, in north Devon, lie alluvial deposits of ball clay, a particularly useful clay which first found use for pottery and clay pipes in the seventeenth century. However the remoteness of the location prevented the growth of the industry and by the nineteenth century it only met local needs for pottery and bricks.

The impetus for the industry came, perhaps, with the opening of the London & South Western Railway to Torrington in 1872 for a few years later the owner of Clay Moor, William A. B. Wren, started to exploit his land. By 1877 he had sunk several pits and erected at the Marland Brick & Clay Works kilns, cottages and stables. Clay was being taken to Torrington station behind a traction engine but over six or so miles of poor quality roads this was not very efficient.

The Torrington & Marland Railway

A survey for a railway was made in 1879 by John Barraclough Fell who was then given the contract to build it. The first sod was cut on 26 May 1880 and the six and a quarter mile line, from Clay Moor to Torrington, was ready for the first train, carrying bricks and clay, to run on the three-feet gauge on 1 January 1880, a remarkably short time and for a cost of only fifteen thousand pounds.

Fell was a remarkable engineer who had built railways throughout Europe, including the Mont Cenis Railway over the Alps between France and Italy, the first mountain railway. He had very interesting ideas on applications for railways and the Marland line was part of the evolution of his ideas. His patented technique was to build the railway as close to the surface of the land as possible, without earthworks and without using the standard engineering technique of cut and fill, using timber viaducts to span valleys.

His ideas certainly worked at Marland, where there were ten timber structures, of which at least six were quite substantial. The largest was that across the River Torridge and its flood plain with no less than 51 spans over a length of more than 900 feet. The three river spans were each an elegant 45 feet supporting the track 38 feet above the river.

The line was built without parliamentary authority and it was a condition of the local agreements that Wren made with landowners that, as well as carrying his own traffic, the line was to be open to the local people. Sidings were laid at Watergate, Yarde and Dunsbear and about 1892 an extension was built to Bury Moor to serve a coal depot and Lord Clinton's nearby estate. During the 1890s overall tonnage grew from about 10,000 tons to 25,000 tons a year, but in additional to the local traffic and that of the newly incorporated North Devon Clay Company, the line also connected the clay pits and mines with the works, as a purely industrial railway.

Whilst there was no official passenger service workmen's trains were run as most of the clay workers lived at Torrington or Yarde but as with most mineral lines the locals were no doubt readily accommodated on the trains. For the workers' use three wagons were converted to vans but in 1909 the company bought two ex-London horse tramcars.

A variety of locomotives were used on the railway. Eventually three 0-6-0 tank locomotives maintained the 'main-line' service to Torrington while a selection of 0-4-0 locomotives worked the claypits. These included locomotives by Bagnall, Black Hawthorn, Avonside and Lewin. The last steam engines bought were three Fletcher Jennings saddle-tanks that were too heavy for the track so were converted to tender engines by transferring the tanks on to wagon chassis. The first diesels arrived in the late 1940s and soon took over all the work until the end of the system. Up to about 100 wagons were in use and most of these were four-ton wooden bodied wagons, latterly built at the works.

To work the steeply graded (up to 1 in 30) and sharply curved main-line it was broken into two sections; Torrington to Summit and thence to Marland works. One loco, a six-wheeler, was based at Torrington and kept in the short road tunnel there. This took empty wagons, usually eight at a time, to the Summit loop where they were exchanged for loaded ones brought up from the works in two trips. Up to three runs a day were made.

The line survived an attempt to replace it with a standard gauge railway at the end of the nineteenth century but finally succumbed when the ND&CJLR eventually opened in 1925. Despite losing its main-line the T&MR continued to serve the clay pits and works with a mile and a half of three-feet gauge track. After the Second World War it was dieselised and only finally closed in 1971 following a major change in the method of extracting clay.

The North Devon & Cornwall Junction Light Railway

Several proposals for a railway between Bideford, or Torrington, and Okehampton came to nothing during the eighteenth century but in 1909 Holman Fred Stephens, of light railway fame, suggested using the T&MR as part of a route for a standard gauge line, extending from Torrington to Halwill Junction, on the London & South Western Railway's Bude and North Cornwall lines. Like many others at this time, he saw economically built and operated light railways as the means to cheap rural transport. The line was authorised in 1914 but the Great War intervened. Plans were revived in 1919 but the cost had more than doubled and local authorities as well as the Treasury had to agree to support the line financially.

The first sod was cut in 1922 but work was slow. Unemployed men had been shipped in for construction but lacked either skills or willingness, and in June 1923 rowdiness turned to a fairly nasty fracas when two policemen held off a mob of 30 or 40. In 1925 the contractor became bankrupt and Colonel Stephens, as he now was, took over construction personally. The line was completed and opened without formality on 27 July 1925, being operated by the Southern Railway as the successors to the L&SWR.

It was not a great success. The clay traffic used it but there was not a great deal of agricultural traffic while passengers found the stations too inconvenient. Hatherleigh, the principal town served, was only eight miles from Okehampton by road but over twenty by rail.

The new railway did encourage a new clay works at Meeth which, like Marland, could only function with good transport. The Meeth (North Devon) Clay Company commenced in 1920 and laid a two-feet gauge line from their works at Woolladon to the ND&CJLR. Later they worked pits closer to the railway but the narrow gauge survived until 1970.

Apart from clay, all goods facilities on the ND&CJLR were withdrawn on 7 September 1964 and the passenger service went from 1 March 1965. At the same time the line south of Meeth, to Halwill Junction, was closed and lifted. Clay traffic continued for some years but never recovered fully after a rail drivers strike in the 1970s, as the clay companies had turned to road and were unwilling to invest in modern railway wagons. Total closure came in March 1983. The line has been lifted and much of the route is now a foot and cycle path. Clay is still extracted but now without the benefit of rail transport.

© Michael Messenger 1999


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