Station Name: PORTESHAM

[Source: Nick Catford]

Date opened: 9.11.1885
Location: At the end of a short approach road running north from Bramdon Lane (B3157)
Company on opening: Abbotsbury Railway
Date closed to passengers: 1.11.1952
Date closed completely: 1.11.1952
Company on closing: British Railways (Southern Region)
Present state:

The station building has been refurbished as a holiday let called 'Sleepers’. Most of the platform is extant. The goods shed has also been refurbished, and the loading gauge to the east is extant.

County: Dorset
OS Grid Ref: SY605855
Date of visit: December 2011

Notes: Portesham is a village and parish of 4,511 acres, eight miles south-west of Dorchester and 7 miles north-west of Weymouth. Its population in the 1851 census was 767, the highest it had ever been since records were kept, probably because there were more cottages in the village, the families were larger, and there was less likelihood of them moving away. In 2001 the population was 708.  Until the twentieth century the spelling of the name was generally Portisham. This form was still used on the Ordnance Survey one-inch map from the 1920s (see below) and in Eilert Ekwall’s Concise Oxford dictionary of English place-names (Fourth edition, OUP 1960). Since the station opened the railway’s preferred spelling seems to have been Portesham.

Portesham station opened with the line and was sited at the end of a short access road half-a-mile south-west of the village centre. The station had a single platform on the down side of the line. A single-storey warm yellowish limestone building with a hipped slate roof and three tall chimneys stood near the west end of the platform. It was similar to the buildings at Abbotsbury and Broadway (Upwey) and was constructed by sub-contractor Edwin Snook of Upwey to a design by William Clark, a freelance railway architect who designed a number of stations on GWR branches. The building incorporated a booking office and waiting room with a flat-roofed stone toilet block at the east end. The building had a wide canopy with a deeply fretted valance supported on six cast iron brackets. There were gas lamp standards on both sides of the building and two additional lamps were suspended from the canopy. There was one large nameboard at the east end of the platform. Regularly tended flower beds were found at the back of the platform.

The station had a small goods yard opposite the platform. This took the form of a single loop siding with a headshunt at the east end which, in later years, was used to stable a camping coach. There was a small stone goods shed opposite the station building with a short platform for loading projecting from it. A 5-ton crane stood on a stone plinth to the west of the goods shed. From the west end of the loop a siding ran for half-a-mile to the bottom of the gravity incline from the Abbotsbury Railway to the Portesham stone quarry. The trucks of stone were let down on ropes from the top of the hill, and the weight of this operation pulled the empty trucks up on the other side. The Mansfield shale shaft to the west of the incline was sunk in 1883 during construction of the railway, and the shale was used for ballast. However, after running dry for some depth through the shale, water burst in from the sides and the shaft was flooded. Access to the goods yard and siding was controlled by a signal box at the east end of the platform on the down side. In the early twentieth century the box closed and was replaced with a ground frame; the box was quickly demolished.

By the 1930s the valance had been cut down to half its original depth, and by the 1950s the station was in a very run down state; all of the platform lighting had been removed. After remaining derelict for some years the station building was renovated, probably in the late 1960s; during this renovation the canopy was removed. The building is now a holiday let.

The Great Western Railway opened a mixed gauge line to Weymouth on 20 January 1857; this allowed trains from both Paddington (broad gauge) and Waterloo (standard gauge) to operate a service into the town. The Weymouth & Portland Railway Act was passed in 1862 authorising the extension of this line to Weymouth Quay; services would be provided jointly by the GWR and LSWR, and a freight-only line from Weymouth to Portland would be constructed which was operated solely by the GWR.  Both lines opened on 16 October 1865.

In 1872, a six-mile branch from the Weymouth line at Upwey to the village of Abbotsbury was proposed.  Abbotsbury was established in the eleventh century on the site of an existing religious community. It would have been one of the most important villages in the county, with the settlement laid out around a wide market area. After the decline of its monastery,

Abbotsbury became the quiet village it is today. It is set amongst the hills behind Chesil Beach and the lagoon known as the Fleet, and is known worldwide for its Swannery and the Sub-tropical Gardens; the swan sanctuary is over 600 years old.

The reason for promoting the line was primarily for freight, anticipating the commercial development of shale oil deposits and stone at Portesham, as well as iron ore at Abbotsbury which would be shipped to South Wales for processing.  It was also suggested that the branch could be extended westwards to Axminster and Chard Junction, providing a direct line to Weymouth from the west for cross-channel traffic. A Bill was put before Parliament, but was withdrawn in 1873 as a result of staunch opposition by a prominent local landowner.  A second Bill was prepared and went before Parliament during the 1876/77 session.  This time the Bill was  

successful, and the Abbotsbury Railway Company was incorporated under the Abbotsbury Railway Act on 6 August 1877 to construct various railway lines to and from Abbotsbury.

Construction was slower than had been hoped owing to the difficulty in raising promised capital.  This caused problems with the contractors, Monk and Edwards of Chester, and all work stopped in 1881 forcing the company to apply to Parliament for an extension of time; they also sought powers to make small changes to the route at Upwey and Portesham after a speculator bought land on the original route and then demanded extortionate terms. Parliamentary approval was received on 19 May 1882.

In February 1883 the local company reached an agreement with the GWR to work and maintain the line on its completion.  After new contractors Green and Burleigh had been appointed, work restarted in October that year.  This was not the end of the line’s difficulties, however, as the contractors were declared bankrupt at the end of 1884. The established consulting civil engineer George Barclay Bruce was given the job of finishing the line. Bruce had an excellent reputation as a railway engineer: he worked for many railway companies in Britain, Europe, Asia and South America and was knighted in 1888. The GWR advanced £10,000 towards the cost of completion and appointed a director to the Abbotsbury board. The branch station buildings were constructed by sub-contractor Edwin Snook of Upwey.

Some of the navvies working on one of the contracts were black men who had been aboard a ship which was wrecked. Instead of returning to the USA they found work in constructing the Abbotsbury branch. A curious cultural legacy of their time in Dorset was that the Negro spirituals that they taught the local people were still sung in the area’s public houses into the
twentieth century.

On 2 October 1885 progress in construction was sufficient to allow a trial trip to operate on the line for directors and shareholders. Colonel Rich inspected the line for the Board of Trade on 28 October 1885 and found it satisfactory. Therefore, after eight years, the short branch finally opened to freight and passenger traffic on 9 November 1885, but with little ceremony. Because the station at Upwey Junction was incomplete, a horse-drawn carriage conveyed passengers between Upwey station on the Abbotsbury branch and the original Upwey station on the Dorchester line, half-a-mile north of Upwey Junction. This arrangement continued until Upwey Junction opened on 19 April 1886, replacing the original station. Intermediate stations were at Broadway and Upwey, and a single-road engine shed was provided at the Abbotsbury terminus for the branch locomotive. From the start the line operated under 'one engine in steam'.  The 1887 Bradshaw shows five up trains and five down trains with an additional evening service in each direction on Wednesday, and two trains in each direction on Sundays.

An incline was constructed at Portesham to link local quarries on the hill near the Hardy Monument. Once the line had opened it was quickly apparent that the expectations for it could not be fulfilled. There was only a little shale oil and it was not of a quality worth extracting; the iron ore was confined to one small area with no more to be found, and the stone at Portesham had no chance of competing with the extensive quarries at Portland. The extension was soon found to be impractical and once it was established that the line was not going to bring wealth to the area, it settled down to handle purely local traffic, with brisk passenger business at holiday times. On Easter Monday 1886, such was the demand that a double-headed eighteen-coach train ran from the branch to Weymouth in the afternoon.  In summer months Abbotsbury Swannery attracted many visitors who reached it by rail.

An accident occurred on 23 January 1894 involving the derailment of an Armstrong tender 0-6-0 locomotive when the train was on the tight curve between Upwey Junction and Upwey stations; this revealed that the curve was sharper than had been indicated in the official plans. A check rail was fitted and a ban introduced on six-coupled locomotives that nominally lasted until the remaining goods spur was reduced to a siding. This change of rules, ironically, meant that in later years these engines could be used by British Railways to service Upwey goods yard after the closure to passengers, even though the only part of the line operational at this point was the curve that had caused the problems. In the meantime this ban left the motive power duties on the line to other designs, notably the 0-4-2Ts which ran for many years. The '517' class gave way to the '14xx' class which were used for passenger and goods traffic until closure.

In August 1896 the company was vested in the Great Western Railway by virtue of the Great Western Railway (Additional Powers) Act of 7 August 1896. The engine shed at Abbotsbury was closed at the end of September 1894, shortly before the line was absorbed by the GWR. By the turn of the century the Sunday service had been withdrawn but it was reinstated in 1905 only to be withdrawn again a few years later. It was again reinstated in 1933, lasting until at least 1938. The 1902 Bradshaw shows five trains in each direction on weekdays. As with many branch lines, more convenient road transport and the introduction of motor cars and rural bus services would eventually lead to an irreversible decline in passenger numbers.

Early in the twentieth century the GWR reduced maintenance and wage costs by installing ground-frames to replace signal boxes. In 1905, GWR steam rail-motors were tried on the line. In conjunction with the new rail-motor service, Radipole Halt was opened on the main line between Weymouth and Upwey Junction on 1 July 1905 and Coryates Halt was added o the branch between Broadway and Portesham on 1 May 1906. The rail-motors were intended to stimulate traffic on branch lines, where small and cheap platforms could be built to serve small traffic sources. Unfortunately the lightweight rail-motors could not cope with pulling trailers on hilly lines. After a few years, they were converted into auto-coaches, and the power units were scrapped. Push-and-pull auto trains offered most of the benefits of rail-motor, but because they were operated by 'proper' locomotives they were much more flexible in operation and easier to maintain. The locomotive remained coupled to the carriages and pulled them to Abbotsbury and then pushed them back to Weymouth.

There was a reduction in services during WW1, initially down to four trains a day, but in 1917 this was further reduced to three.  With the high demand for oil during the war there was renewed interest in the shale oil deposits. A siding was laid at Corton (near Portesham) to allow the shale to be loaded onto wagons by German prisoners of war, who were brought each day from their camp near Dorchester.  In January 1918 there was a proposal to close the line and lift the rails for re-use in France, but this never happened. The Corton shale siding was out of use by September 1921. After the war the branch settled back to a quieter existence with diminishing passenger revenue after the war as the popularity of motor cars increased. This decline continued when a local bus service was established in 1925.

There was a brief respite for the line during WW2 due to the activity of military installations on Chesil Beach and around the area. Despite stiff competition from road transport, both cars and buses, the 1949 Bradshaw shows an improved service with seven up six down trains with an additional service on Saturdays. The working timetable for 26 September 1949 shows
the 9.50am down service and the 10.25am and 5.35pm up services as suspended. It also shows an 11.20am Monday - Friday down freight service returning to Weymouth as a mixed service at 1.20pm. Friar Waddon milk platform is also shown. This small platform at the two-mile point of the branch, between Upwey and Coryates, opened in summer 1932, was used to serve the local dairies and even had a Sunday train to get the milk to markets early on Monday morning in the days before domestic refrigeration was common. The platform closed with the line.  Additional traffic was brought to the branch in 1935 when camping coaches were placed at Portesham and Abbotsbury stations; Upwey received one the following year. Track improvements were carried out in 1937/8 when standard GWR bullhead rail replaced the original flat-bottomed rails which had been spiked directly to the sleepers.

By 1949 road transport had lured most of the passengers from the Abbotsbury branch, with an average of approximately five passengers on each of the winter trains, and between eight and nine on the trains in summer. In 1950 seven up and seven down trains operated, with an additional Saturday service in both directions. The 10.25am and 1.40pm Saturday-only trains from Abbotsbury ran into Melcombe Regis instead of Weymouth and then continued to Easton.

When the railway system was nationalised on 1 January 1948 the new British Railways Western Region largely corresponded to the extent of the former Great Western Railway lines. However on 2 April 1950 there was a major revision of regional boundaries, one effect of which was to transfer the whole of the main line from Sparkford (just south of Castle Cary) to Weymouth, together with the Abbotsbury, Bridport and Easton branches to the Southern Region. However the existing operating arrangements were continued, with the Western Region providing the passenger train services and showing them in its regional timetable. The Southern Region passenger timetable for winter 1951/2, for example, did not include the Abbotsbury branch.

The Easton branch was particularly vulnerable to bus competition as it was paralleled by a main road for most of the way to Portland. Apart from the Bridport - West Bay route, the Easton branch was the first Dorset line to close to passenger traffic (on 3 March 1952) but it was retained for goods traffic.  The Abbotsbury branch was also vulnerable to competition from buses,
the more so because of the indirectness of a journey to Weymouth and the inconvenient siting of the station at Abbotsbury, some distance short of the village. A further disincentive to use the trains was that they made leisurely progress along the line, limited to 40mph, but with a 25mph restriction west of Portesham and 10mph ¼-mile east of Abbotsbury.

Towards the end of the line's existence GWR diesel railcars were used to reduce costs, but they could not prevent its inevitable closure. As the branch never lived up to expectations for goods traffic, despite local protests and an improved service it closed completely on 1 December 1952, with only a short section between Upwey Junction and Upwey (originally Broadway, then Broadwey) remaining open for another nine years to serve the goods depot at Upwey.  It was built there because the position of Upwey Junction station on the embankment leading to Bincombe Tunnel had always made that station unsuitable for handling goods traffic. 

West of Upwey, the track was lifted in 1955. The last passenger train to travel on any part of the Abbotsbury branch was the REC ‘South Dorset Rail Tour’ on 7 June 1958 which visited Upwey goods depot. The line to Upwey closed to goods traffic on 1 January 1962, and the remaining track was lifted in 1965.  Radipole (The ‘Halt’ suffix was dropped in 1969) on the main line remained open until 31 December 1983 when the cost of repairs to the platform could not be justified.

Today just over a mile of the Abbotsbury branch can be walked, from the western edge of Portesham to the site of Abbotsbury station.

Tickets from Michael Stewart except 0039 Brian Halford, Bradshaw and BR WR timetable
Chris Totty. Route map drawn by Alan Young.


Further reading :

See also: Abbotsbury, Coryates Halt, Upwey, Upwey Junction & Radipole Halt

Portesham was an attractive station, seen here c1937 with a stone building designed by William Clark. The station staff took pride in their station, regularly tending the flower beds at the back of the platform. The goods yard took the form of a loop line opposite the platform. The diminutive goods shed is seen on the right with a short loading platform protruding from the building. The 5-ton yard crane stands on a plinth beyond the shed. In the distance a camping coach is seen on the headshunt
at the end of the loop.
Photo from John Mann collection

1902 1:2,500 OS map. Although two lines through the station are shown there is only one platform, the second line being a loop serving the goods yard. There is a headshunt at the west end of the loop, and a long siding at the east end which runs to the bottom of the Portesham Quarry incline, which is shown in the map below. The small stone goods shed is shown opposite the station building, and to the right of the shed is the 5-ton yard crane. Access to the loop was controlled by the signal box which is seen at the back of the platform at the east end; this was closed in the first decade of the twentieth century and replaced with a ground frame.

1902 1:2,500 OS map. This shows the gravity incline from the Abbotsbury Railway to the Portesham stone quarry. The trucks of stone were let down on ropes from the top of the hill, and the weight of this operation pulled the empty trucks up on the other side. The Mansfield shaft was sunk in 1883 during construction of the railway, and the shale was used for ballast; but after running dry for some depth through the shale, water burst in from the sides and the shaft was flooded.

A push-and-pull auto-train stands at Portesham station c1950s. This is a 14xx class auto-tank, an 0-4-2 loco built at the Swindon works of the GWR. The 1400s were identical to the 5800 class but were fitted for push-pull working. Originally classed as 4800 and reclassified in 1946, these locos were found throughout the Great Western system on local branch lines. The 5-ton crane is seen in the goods yard opposite the platform. As built the station canopy had a much deeper fretted valance.

Portesham station looking west c1950s. As closure approaches all of the platform
lighting has been removed.
Photo from John Mann collection

Portesham station looking west in 1955, three years after closure.
Photo from John Mann collection

Portesham station looking east in February 1963. It was a long and bitterly cold winter, and many villagers missed their link to the outside world. Ten years after closure the station building is still derelict.
Photo by C L Caddy

Portesham station building in the late 1960s.
Photo by Dave Nelson

Portesham station looking east c1970. The station building, including the toilet block at the east end, has now been converted into a private dwelling.
Photo from John Mann collection

Portesham station in August 1977. The station canopy was removed during
conversion into a private house.
Photo by Alan Young

Portesham station looking west in December 2012. The landowner lives in the new bungalow on the trackbed to the west of the station. The station building - now called 'Sleepers' - has been refurbished as a holiday let.
Photo by Nick Catford

Portesham goods shed in December 2012. The loading gauge is still there and can
be seen beyond the greenhouse.
Photo by Nick Catford

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