History of the Line

By the time the Helston Railway Company was formed in 1879 there had been no less than five previous attempts to construct a railway to serve the town. All had envisioned a connection from Penryn in order to move tin and all had foundered, either for fiscal reasons or lack of political will.

By the late 1870's, with an increase in tourism and prosperity in the area, a group of local land-owners, notably William Bickford Smith, W. Molesworth-St.Aubyn and William Bolitho, floated the idea of a line from the main line station at Gwinear Road to a station on the outskirts of Helston.

William Bickford Smith was the son of George Smith, Chairman of the Cornwall Railway Company.  William Bickford Smith's grandfather - William Bickford - was the inventor of the safety fuse which saved countless miners lives and is still in use today.  The remnants of the factory that manufactured the fuse can still be seen at Tuckingmill in Camborne.  W. Molesworth St Aubyn was related to the St Aubyn's at St Michael's Mount. The Company Secretary was John R Daniel who was married to George Smith's daughter.

The Company had a provisional capital of 3,500 and £20 shares would provide the necessary £70,000 funding. The GWR agreed to operate trains for 50% of its receipts, resulting in £4500 per annum for the company itself.  According to the prospectus, " providing an ample dividend on invested capital".

Local support for the scheme was strong, and the Helston Railway Bill received Royal assent on the 9th of July, 1880.

The Bill provided for the following:

  • 1st, 2nd and 3rd class tickets would be charged at 2d, 1 ½d and 1d respectively:
  • Freight was on a sliding scale of either 1 ½ d, 2d or 3d per mile, per ton, dependent upon the nature of  the cargo.

The share issue was authorised along with borrowing not to exceed £23,333 and construction was to be completed in 5 years.

Helston Celebrates - Photo: Oakwood CollectionConstruction Begins

The stage was set, and the first act, from 1880 to 1882, consisted of land acquisition and fund raising, with enthusiastic townsfolk rushing forward with moneys for their share of the action.

On the 22nd of March 1882 Helston celebrated. Triumphal arches were erected, bunting hung, schools and businesses closed, and a procession marched up to the Tile House Field to watch the venerable R. S Martin cut the first sod.  .

Construction work began in earnest under the stewardship of the company engineer, Sylvanus W. Jenkins.  However the contractors - Messrs. Maddison and Company - were unable to meet the onerous financial terms imposed on them and withdrew in 1883.  This caused great delay, but with new contractors Messrs Lang & Son of Liskeard, work progressed quickly and by 1887 the branch was finished.

The line was 8 miles 67 chains long and had stations at Praze and Nancegollan.  There was also a stone built six arch viaduct over the River Cober at Lowertown.  After Colonel Rich assessed the line for the Board of Trade, and pronounced it satisfactory, it was time to open.

Monday 9th of May 1887 saw celebrations to rival the sod cutting 5 years previous, as the 9:40 am train carrying some 50 passengers and bedecked with flags set off for Gwinear Rd.  Ceremonies, dinners and services abounded, all attended by Mayor, Corporation, Directors, Dignitaries and no doubt a considerable number of hangers on.  In the nineteenth century the opening of a railway was considered as vital to the local community as the opening of a new road or the introduction of a new air service would be seen today.  

Cober Viaduct - Photo: Hugh DaviesOperation of the Line

Although the line was independent of the Great Western, that company operated the trains from the opening of the line.

The early years of the line unfortunately coincided with the death throes of mining. In a classic example of how railways can benefit both themselves along with the local economy, quarrying began to develop, meaning jobs for redundant miners, and lucrative cargo for the branch.  Tourism meant that in the summer passenger trains were healthily full.  Agriculture was also an important source of traffic for the line. Profits in the first few years were above expectations.

In the mid 1890's, with their aim of bringing rails to Helston satisfied, the directors decided to sell the branch to the Great Western Railway and this took place on the 1st of July 1898.

Life on the branch line in the first two decades of the 20th century was tranquil compared to other Cornish lines, with up to 8 or 9 trains per day, but no trains ran on Sundays.  In July 1905 Truthall Halt was opened primarily to serve Truthall Manor.

When the company was formed there was a long term aim to extend the line down to Lizard Village. Helston station was built on an embankment which would have allowed a bridge to be built across what is now Godolphin Road and continue south, but this was found to be too costly. Instead a connecting bus service to Mullion and The Lizard was introduced by the GWR on 17 August 1903- the first of its type in the world - and a vanguard for the competition that was to prove the railway's death-knell almost 60 years later.

A photograph of preserved GWR Guy FBB No 1268 - an example of the type of bus used by the GWR in the 1920s in Cornwall. This example has been restored by Colin and Helen Billington. 

In the 1930s Goods traffic remained an important source of revenue. Besides "coal down and agriculture up", broccoli proved an important consignment, 30,000 being transported in 1936 alone.  Quarrying continued, with granite proving the usual cargo. Freight vehicles reflected the goods transported, with a privately owned fleet of wagons for the Helston Gas Company. It was during this period that road transport began to challenge the dominance of the railways, a situation that was to become critical for the Helston Branch in years to come.

In many ways the Second World War gave the line a much-needed shot in the arm. Apart from the extra passengers such as evacuees and servicemen, freight also increased due to petrol rationing. Interestingly an armoured train could briefly be found trundling along the branch. Protected by ¼" steel plate and sporting six naval six pounders, it must have made a formidable sight. Perhaps the most important development was the construction of the Naval Airbase at Culdrose, adjacent to Helston.  This was started in 1944 but completed after the war in 1947, with many supplies being taken by rail to Nancegollen.

It took several years after the war for things to return to normal, but by Nationalisation in 1948 services were comparable to those of 1939.  Road competition began to kill off freight in the 1950's, with passenger numbers enjoying an "Indian summer" due in no small part to the close proximity of RNAS Culdrose, pupils travelling to Helston School and the relatively cheap fares.

In 1962 BR Western Region introduced diesels to the branch, but these were not the cheap railcars that saved other branches but heavier Type 2 Diesel Hydraulic locomotives that continued to haul the old coaches used in steam days.  The Class 22s as they became known proved to be very unreliable and were withdrawn completely by BR by the early 1970s.  

Two Photographs Helston Station taken by Ron Herbert 3 May 1961, including a large consignment of Lyons Cakes - we wondered where these were destined?  

Last Train at Helston - Photo: Pat EnglishThe Final Years

By 1960 it was becoming clear that the Helston Branch Line's card had been marked for closure.  Unlike other branch lines which received cost cutting measures such as diesel rail cars, unstaffed stations and basic signalling,  the Helston Branch was left to operate as it always had.  Eventually it was decided to end passenger services on the 3rd of November 1962.  This was one of the first acts of the new BR Chairman Dr Beeching who was appointed by the Government with the remit of making the railways profitable regardless of any social or environmental needs.  The closure actually pre-dated Beeching's infamous 'Reshaping' report that was published in 1963, but the research work behind the report he had already carried out on behalf of the Government would have included the Helston Branch. 

Although many local people moved heaven and earth in a frantic effort to try and save the branch, it was a sad fact that many were already abandoning the railway in favour of their cars.  A promise to improve the road between Helston and Redruth was made at the time of closure although never carried out.  

Despite these protests it was perhaps inevitable that the branch would be closed to passengers.  The line only ever really served one purpose, to provide connections with main line trains, and as the age of the motor car came those who wanted to travel long distance by train tended to drive to the main line station rather than use an infrequent branch line service.  Buses provided more frequent and convenient links to Camborne, Redruth and Penzance without having to change en route.

At 8:45pm, in the pitch black and biting cold, Class '22' Diesel No. D6312 rolled into Helston pulling the last ever passenger train. Locals dressed as mourners travelled to Gwinear Road and back, with protesters singing haunting choruses of Auld Lang Syne at both stations.  

Freight soldiered-on for another 2 years, but succumbed on the 4th of October 1964. The main line junction station at Gwinear Road closed the next day. 

After Closure

In April 1965 British Oxygen Company commenced track lifting and all had gone by the end of that year. In the 1970s and 1980s BR sold all of the track bed in sections, mainly to adjacent land owners. The station site at Helston was developed into a Sheltered Housing complex, but the Goods Shed remains as a community centre along with part of the station platform. The remaining track bed in Helston town has disappeared under development including Water-ma-Trout Industrial Estate.

Nancegollen station site has been developed into an industrial estate - although part of the station platform remains - and at Praze the girder road bridges have been removed and a private house built on the station site.  At Gwinear Road the track bed has been ploughed into adjacent fields although the station master's house and cattle dock along with the Branch Line platform remain.  The magnificent viaduct over the Cober Valley is now in private ownership.

However, many of the bridges that cross public roads remain in public ownership.  It is ironic that despite the aim to cut costs by closing the line, over 40 years later the remnants of the British Railways Board that could not be privatised are still responsible for maintaining the bridges at taxpayers' expense.

The rest of the track bed was either left to nature or used by local farmers - until the Helston Railway Preservation Society arrived at Trevarno in April 2005. With the kind permission of Trevarno Gardens who owned part of the track bed, volunteers started work on restoring a section of the line.  It was a most appropriate starting point as Trevarno was William Bickford Smith's home - the first chairman of the original Helston Railway. 

For more photos of the line before it was closed in 1964 please go to the Cornwall Railway Society website http://www.cornwallrailwaysociety.org.uk/helston-branch.html   

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