The East Cornwall Mineral Railway – Part 1

Another Railway Magazine article from 1951!

This time we are in the West Country and considering what began life as a 3ft 6in gauge railway with an incline remote from the rest of the Cornish rail network, which later became a standard gauge line with wagon lift.

The East Cornwall Mineral Railway (ECMR) was covered in an article written by C.R. Clinker in the May 1951 edition of The Railway Magazine. [1]

The article is available from the Railway Magazine archives which can be accessed by subscribing to both the Magazine and the Archives.


Important dates [2][3][4]

1859 – the Tamar Coal, Manure & General Mercantile Company was formed. They had wharves, engine works and stores at Kelly Quay, Calstock (now called Kingfisher Quay). They built an incline plane from the quay up the Danescombe valley finishing 350 ft above Calstock at The Butts.

1862 – the Tamar, Kit Hill & Callington Railway Company was formed with the intention of connecting the incline to Callington.

1864 – A Bill was passed in parliament. Land and rails were purchased and work commenced. Most of the finance came from outside the region as local people thought the railway was being built too cheaply. They were proved correct as the engineering problems were greater than envisaged and the contractor found himself in money difficulties. Work was halted and nothing happened for five to six years.

1869 – the scheme was revived as the Callington to Calstock Railway, though in fact the line terminated at Kelly Bray (SX360715) a mile north of Callington. [3] The intention was for the new company to adopt the abandoned works of the Kit Hill company, and to have a capital of £60,000, with borrowing powers of £20,000. It was to be nearly 8 miles (13 km) in extent, including short lengths on the Quay at Calstock and the incline. Passenger traffic was not authorised. Purchase of the quay at Calstock, and improvements to it, were included in the authorised powers. [2] The rope-worked incline was about 800′ long down and dropped down 350′ to reach the riverside quays. [7] A stationary steam engine lowered the wagons down the 1-in-6 gradient over the last half-mile towards quayside for eventual loading onto barges and schooners. Coal, grain and timber came up in the opposite direction. [8]

1871 – an Act of Parliament, of 25th  May 1871 authorised a change of name to the East Cornwall Mineral Railway (ECMR).

1872 – The line was completed as the  East Cornwall Mineral Railway and opened for traffic on 7th May 1872. It was a 3ft 6in narrow gauge industrial railway which connected the mines in the Kit Hill-Gunnislake area with the port of Calstock. The line was 7.5 miles long running from Kelly Bray to Calstock. There were several branches serving copper, tin and arsenic mines and quarries. [4] There were public goods depots at Kelly Bray, Monks Corner, Cox’s Park, Drakewalls and on Calstock Quay, as well as the private sidings at various intermediate locations serving various mines and quarries. [7]

1883 – on 25 August 1883 the Plymouth, Devonport and South Western Junction Railway (PD&SWJR) obtained Parliamentary authority to build a line from Lydford to Devonport via Tavistock and Beer Alston. [2]

1890 – the authorised PD&SWJR opened on 2 June 1890, and it was to be worked by the London and South Western Railway (LSWR).

1894 – in 1883, the promoters of the PD&SWJR had included in its authorising Act the powers to acquire the ECMR, and in its later Act of 7 August 1884 these powers were converted to an obligation. Accordingly, the ECMR was “taken over” as from 1 June 1891, although the formalities of the purchase were not completed until 4 January 1894. “Payment was made by the issue of £48,250 in ordinary shares, £12,500 in cash, and a rent charge of £250 per annum”. [10]

1900 – The Light Railways Act was passed in 1896, designed to facilitate the construction of new lines where there was no controversy over routing, and in 1898 the PD&SWJR investigated the possibility of connecting the ECMR line to its own line as a light railway. This proved feasible, and the Bere Alston and Calstock Light Railway Order was confirmed by the Board of Trade on 12th July 1900; as well as the new line, the Order authorised the acquisition of the ECMR line and its operation as a passenger light railway (excepting the incline). The gauge was to remain 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in). In fact finance was impossible to obtain, and eventually the LSWR was persuaded to guarantee borrowings. [2]

1902 – A new company, the Bere Alston and Calstock Railway (BA&CR) as a subsidiary of the PD&SWJR, was set up and a new Act of 23rd June 1902 authorised it to build the connecting line and to acquire the East Cornwall line. [2]

1905 – A Light Railway Order was made on 12th October 1905 authorising a change of the track gauge to 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 1⁄2 in) standard gauge. The position now was to be that the Okehampton – Devonport line would be owned by the PD&SWJR and worked by the LSWR, and the Bere Alston to Callington line would be owned by the BA&CR, a subsidiary of the PD&WJR, and worked by the PD&SWJR. [10]

1907 – The Calstock viaduct was completed [4] and re-gauging and some realignment of the ECMR line was undertaken that year. Traffic was only interrupted for two days during the conversion. [2] The viaduct is a magnificent twelve-arched structure, it was constructed of concrete blocks and has twelve arches, each of 60ft span. The rail level is 120ft above river level. The featured image for this post is a tinted postcard from around 1907. It catches a moment in the history of the railway line between the completion of the viaduct and the closure of the incline. Having been taken “after the completion of Calstock Viaduct in the background, but before the dismantling of the East Cornwall Mineral Railway incline of 1872 in the foreground. This is one of the most informative images of the incline and sidings, which ran the full half-mile length of the river quays, above and below the viaduct. The guiding sheave wheels at intervals along the incline kept the cable in line and clear of the track-bed. A telegraph or telephone was used to link the inclineman’s office on the left at the foot of the incline, with the winding house at the top. Earlier systems used morse-telegraph, cords on pulleys with bells at either end, or even semaphore.” [13]

1908 – The new line from Bere Alston to Callington opened throughout to passengers and freight traffic on 2nd March 1908. Although the main line of the PD&SWJR was worked by the LSWR, becoming outwardly part of the main line network, the PD&SWJR worked the branch itself, under the management of Colonel Stephens.[10] The original ECMR line was operated as an intrinsic part of the branch, although the incline at Calstock was abandoned. As the PD&SWJR branch crossed the Tamar at a high level on viaduct, a wagon lift was provided there to continue access to the quay. [11] The steam-driven wagon lift was built on the Calstock end of the viaduct and had a maximum capacity of 15 tons. It was constructed against one of the viaduct piers and was one of the highest in England, the difference in levels being 113ft. [5] The lift operated until it was dismantled and sold for scrap in 1934. [3]This fantastic postcard view, shows Calstock Viaduct and the sidings below on the quay. The wagon lift is in place. What was the hut controlling the old incline can also be seen at the bottom of the picture. [14]

The PD&SWJR continued to operate the line itself, forming one of the Colonel Stephens group of minor railways, remaining independent until the “Grouping” of railways in Great Britain under the Railways Act 1921, effective on 1st January 1923, when it became part of the Southern Railway. [2] The Callington Branch as it was formally known was often also referred to as the Calstock Light Railway. [12] Chris Osment commented in 2012: “The Callington Branch followed a fairly tortuous route, with many steep gradients and sharp curves, and there was an overall maximum speed limit of 25mph.” [12]

1966 – rural lines in the area were closed in the 1960s, a short section of the original ECMR line was retained to keep open a connection from Plymouth to Gunnislake, and that section remains open into the 21st Century. [2] The remainder closed on 5 November 1966. [11]

A Summary of the Route of the Original Line

The line went from Kelly Bray round the northern side of Kit Hill where there was a siding connecting to the Kit Hill Quarry incline plane. There were stations at Monks Corner (Luckett), Cox’s Park (Latchley) and Gunnislake. At Gunnislake there were lines going to Clitters, Pearson’s Quarry and Greenhill Arsenic Works. [3]

Early Operation

Two saddle-tank engines pulled the goods from Kelly Bray to the top of an incline. The inc;line connected the railway to the quay in Calstock.and the River Tamar. It was a rope-worked single track incline with a passing loop at its mid-way point. Two loaded wagons would be pulled up the incline as three loaded wagons descended. The wagons were then hauled along the quay by horses to the copper quay which was on the site of the present Calstock village hall and car park. Tin, copper, arsenic, bricks, stone and coal were carried and for the first four years profits were good. Gradually the mines began closing and trade began to decline, what was needed was a passenger service. [4] This came about with the restructuring of the companies associated with the line and the development of other railways in the area.

The first wagons were built by a Calstock carpenter, A.W. Williams in the wagon shed at the top of the incline. [4]

The Reconstructed and Extended Standard Gauge Line

We have noted above that the extended line which included the graceful viaduct over the River Tamar ran from Beer Alston to Callington along a relatively tortuous route with steep gradients.

“From Bere Alston the line runs down towards the River Tamar and then across Calstock Viaduct into Calstock station, which is on a sharp curve. From here the the line rises over 400 feet in the next 2 miles until it reaches the the next station at Gunnislake, which was the main intermediate station and the only passing-loop on the line. From Gunnislake the line ran roughly westwards through intermediate stations at Chilsworthy, Latchley, Seven Stones Halt and Luckett, before finally reaching the terminus at Callington. Between Gunnislake and Callington there were also several intermediate sidings serving various mines and quarries. The total length of the branch was 9 miles 60 chains.” [12]

Following the Route of the Line

This post provides an introduction to the line which ran from Beer Alston to Callington. The next post will follow the length of the line.


  1. C.R. Clinker; The East Cornwall Mineral Railway; The Railway Magazine, Vol. No. 601, May 1951, p291-295.
  2., accessed on 26th March 2019.
  3., accessed o n 26th March 2019.
  4., accessed on 26th March 2019.
  5., accessed on 26th March 2019.
  6., accessed on 26th March 2019.
  7., accessed on 26th March 2019.
  8., accessed on 26th March 2019.
  9., accessed on 26th March 2019.
  10. Roger Crombleholme, Douglas Stuckey and C F D Whetmath; Callington Railways; Branch Line Handbooks, Teddington, 1967.
  11. Vic Mitchell and Keith Smith, Tavistock to Plymouth, Middleton Press, Midhurst, 1996.
  12., accessed on 26th March 2019.
  13., accessed on 26th March 2019.
  14., accessed on 26th March 2019.

4 thoughts on “The East Cornwall Mineral Railway – Part 1

  1. Pingback: The East Cornwall Mineral Railway – Part 2 | Roger Farnworth

  2. Pingback: The Bere Alston to Callington Branch | Roger Farnworth

Leave a Reply to Jonathan Caswell Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.