Michael L. Roach
2nd May 1859
The first section of the Cornwall Railway was formally opened 160 years ago today on Monday 2 May 1859. This was the 54-mile length from Plymouth Millbay to Truro. However the ultimate destination, reached in August 1863, was Falmouth and not Penzance as might be expected. There were a couple of reasons for choosing Falmouth as the western end of the Cornwall Railway. Although it was in decline, Falmouth was a much more important town because of its harbour and shipping and Penzance already had a railway in the shape of the West Cornwall Railway which had arrived at Penzance in March 1852, but that statement hides a complicated history. The West Cornwall was extended eastwards to Highertown, Truro in August 1852. When the Cornwall Railway arrived at Truro in May 1859 it was finally possible to travel from London to Penzance by changing at Truro but only from August 1860. Once again there was a tortuous succession of events involving temporary stations at Truro, and the first through train from London to Penzance did not run until 1 March 1867.
It had taken 26 years from its inception in 1833 to get the first section of the Cornwall Railway built due to a catalogue of difficulties, opposition from other schemes, and financial problems. There was also the small matter of crossing the River Tamar at Saltash, which was a major obstacle for a small local railway. Luckily the Cornwall Railway had the support of the Great Western Railway and later it had the services of the legendary engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Its arguable that the construction of the Royal Albert Bridge across the River Tamar and the consequent opening of the Cornwall Railway were the most important events to occur in Cornwall between 1800 and 1899.
If you wish to read more about the early history of the Cornwall Railway the writer recommends the book "The Struggle for the Cornwall Railway" by Hugh Howes (ISBN: 978 0 906294 74 1). Its fitting that the book was published by Twelveheads Press of Truro.
MLR/30 April 2019