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Before the WC&PR
When Brunel built the broad gauge railway from Bristol towards Exeter (the Bristol & Exeter Railway), the route by-passed the small towns of Weston-super-Mare, Clevedon and Portishead because the diversion would not have been worthwhile. When this main line was opened in 1841, at the same time a broad gauge branch line was also opened to Weston. Trains on the Weston branch were horse-drawn until 1848 when steam was used. A branch line to Clevedon from a junction at Yatton was opened in 1847 still as part of the Bristol & Exeter Railway, and also laid in broad gauge. In 1867 the Bristol & Portishead Pier & Railway opened a broad gauge branch line from Bedminster to Portishead, which was operated by the Bristol & Exeter Railway. See GWR branches. So although the three coastal towns were now linked to the rail network, travel between them was not straightforward as it needed at least one change of train, the alternative being horse-drawn road transport. So there seemed to be a case to link the three towns directly with a new line.
In 1884 a standard gauge tram line was proposed by the Weston-super-Mare, Clevedon & Portishead (Steam) Tramways Company to link the three towns. The power behind the scheme was Mr JFR Daniel, Secretary to the Bristol & Portishead Railway, who was later to become Managing Director of the WC&PR. The line was to run on the street along the Boulevard in Weston and from then off-road apart from level crossings. An Act of Parliament to authorise the construction of the railway was passed in Aug 1885, but due to various legal and financial problems, the time limit of the Act expired and further Acts had to be passed in July 1890 and Dec 1891. Two years after the opening, the tramway was designated a Light Railway and the name was changed to the Weston, Clevedon & Portishead Light Railway Company.
Building of the Weston-super-Mare to Clevedon section of the railway began in 1887, but due to financial and other problems, it wasn’t opened until 1 Dec 1897. Due to these delays some of the track had to be re-laid because the sleepers had rotted. The track along the Boulevard in Weston was taken up before the line opened due to complaints from the council.
Before the extension to Portishead was built, the town was connected to Clevedon by horse-drawn omnibus. There were many objections to the proposed extension, mainly that the line was to run through the streets in Clevedon. This was eventually accepted but a flagman had to lead trains across the street at 4 mph. See Clevedon Triangle and Then & now. The railway bought numbers 18 and 20 Lower Queens Road, using number 18 as a booking office and demolished number 20 to enable the extension to be built. The 1903 OS map shows number 20 at the end of the terrace standing in the way of the extension. Though the extension to Portishead had been planned from the beginning, it required another Act which was passed in Aug 1899, and it finally opened on 7 August 1907. The extension was built as a Light Railway.
The finances of the railway became serious as early as 1905, and it entered receivership in 1909, being in decline up to the outbreak of World War II, not helped by the increase in road traffic. It had relied on the transport of stone from the Black Rock quarries and the decline in this business made things worse. The railway spent 31 of its 43 years in the hands of receivers.
Col. Holman Fred Stephens took over the running of the WC&PR in 1911. He was known as the ‘Light Railway King’ because he ran a number of similar railways, and he got the costs under control. He managed the railway mostly from his base in Tonbridge, Kent. After his death in 1931 the railway declined further. W H Austen followed him as manager until the railway closed. See also People.
Due to an ever-worsening financial state, the Company applied for a Court Order to close the line and the last train ran on 18 May 1940. The GWR purchased the railway (but not the land) to use it for storage, and for a short time up to 200 coal wagons were stored on the line. All of the stock was removed to Swindon, and mostly scrapped. The two Terriers survived for a few years, and one carriage (No 7) survives to this day. It was decided to remove the track for use in the war effort, and it was cleared between Oct 1942 and late 1943. Afterwards, the railway’s land still belonged to the company though it had ceased to exist. New information on the reasons for closure - article on Col Stephens Society web site.
In the 1950s there was an ill-fated attempt to reopen part of the railway as a narrow gauge tourist line. More details.
In November 2006, the WC&P Railway Group was formed, dedicated to preserving what’s left of the line, and promoting the heritage of the railway to the public. Further details.
For the full story of the railway, see the Books page for details of recommended books
See also Museums page for details of artefacts held by various museums.