Given the fates which befell numerous stations which were on, or fed by, the main line to the west via Salisbury, Topsham is a lucky survivor. Set against a backdrop of 1963, the station had been listed that year in Dr Beeching’s infamous "The Reshaping of British Railways" report as a candidate for closure, along with both branch line routes to Exmouth. This was compounded by British Railways’ Western Region taking control of those lines west of Salisbury on 1st January of that year, which marked the beginning of a marked decline for Devon’s railways.
First, it’s time to recount the happier times. On 22nd July 1855, the "Exeter & Exmouth Railway" was incorporated to build a Broad Gauge line from the South Devon Railway (SDR) to Exmouth, which would cross both the Exeter Ship Canal and the River Exe, via Topsham. Bradshaw’s guide also makes mention of a separate branch to Exeter Canal Basin as part of the same works. The company reused the name of a previous concern that had acquired powers for such a line on 3rd July 1846, but which had come to nothing. Approaching from the east was the standard gauge London & South Western Railway (LSWR), whose public services had reached Salisbury via Eastleigh on 27th January 1847 (freight); a more direct route to the former from Basingstoke opened to Andover on 3rd July 1854 and to the cathedral city on 1st May 1857. A westward extension in the form of the "Salisbury & Yeovil Railway" had previously received Royal Assent on 7th August 1854, and a subsequent 50¾-mile LSWR addition to that line to Exeter was approved on 21st July 1856.
On 12th July 1858, the LSWR obtained powers for a single-track standard gauge branch line to Topsham, leaving their proposed Exeter extension in the city’s north eastern suburb of Heavitree. As a result, the original 1855 Act for the Exeter & Exmouth Railway was modified; on 28th July 1858, new powers were passed which stipulated that this branch would be built to standard gauge rather than Broad Gauge, and make a connection with the LSWR’s line at Topsham, instead of linking directly to the SDR. Crucially, the revised works meant that the railway could now avoid the costly works involved in crossing the Exe:
The inhabitants of Topsham were about to make a line with the South Devon, but immediately the South Western project was announced, they instantly abandoned their original intention and embraced it. The South Western Company have agreed to work the line from Topsham to Exeter at 50 per cent per annum - the cost of the line will be about £50,000 [£4,805,000 at 2019 prices]. [The Hampshire Advertiser, Saturday, 12th December 1857]
The LSWR commenced through running between London and Exeter via Salisbury on 19th July 1860. The route west of Salisbury was initially single track, although that section between Exeter and what would become Exmouth Junction was laid as a double line from the outset:
We may add here that a double line of rail has been laid from the Topsham junction to Exeter, but it will not be used until the Topsham line is completed. [Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 4th July 1860]
Mr J. E. Errington was engineer for the line to Exmouth; W. R. Galbraith was resident engineer; H. Drew of Peamore acted as surveyor; and construction of the branch was contracted to Mr Taylor. Prior to formal opening, trial running along the line was reported in the local press, in addition to details about the station at Topsham:
Should the weather prove to be propitious, the long-deferred but now nearly completed line of railway from Exeter to Topsham and Exmouth will, it is confidently expected, be opened on First of May.
On Saturday last the engine, Lepcett, was driven through from Exmouth to Exeter by Mr. Godson; and during the past week an engine has been plying to and fro.
..... it could be clearly seen that the works on the line were in a forward state from Exmouth to Topsham, and from the latter place to Exeter they may be said to be completed.
From Exton station the line proceeds on by the Ebford manure works, over a viaduct, across the Clyst, to the Topsham station, which is situated on the eastern side of the town, not far from Mr. Daniel Bishop Dave’s beautiful new house. The passenger station is handsome and commodious, and on the other side there is a station for goods, both of which are nearly completed. The antiquity and once flourishing state of Topsham are well known, and it is hoped that the railway will tend to revive some of its former prosperity, if not the restoration of its ancient commercial glory. [The Western Times, Exeter, Saturday, 23rd March 1861]
The branch line to Exmouth was opened to public traffic with much ceremony on Wednesday morning, 1st May 1861. Intermediate stations were commissioned at Topsham, Woodbury Road (Exton), and Lympstone. Of these, that at Topsham was undoubtedly the most impressive, having the flavour of those intermediate stations brought into use between Salisbury and Exeter:
The branch from the South-Western Railway leaves the main at a point about two miles from Exeter, and proceeds thence with very little deviations to Topsham, a distance of 5½-miles. Here we have the first station, and a very pretty building it is, constructed from designs by Mr Tite M. P., and similar to those on the South-Western line. The South-Western branch ends at Topsham, a spur being carried down to the Quay there, for the accommodation of heavy traffic brought by water. From Topsham to Exmouth, a distance of 5¼ miles, the railway belongs to the Exmouth Company. [Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 3rd May 1861]
The branch was a single line from the outset, with passing loops at Lympstone and Topsham, and about 140-yards of double-track from the junction with the main line. Two platforms were built at Topsham, either side of the passing loop, the main station building being situated on the "up" (Exeter-bound) side. As alluded to above, this was a handsome structure, based to the same designs Tite had employed at the likes of Axminster, Colyton (later Seaton Junction), and Whimple. Two-storeys high and of red brick construction, the structure was of Gothic design frescoed with stone-lined edges and window openings; the pitched roof sections were recessed behind the walls. The platform canopy was of generous proportions, measuring about 75-feet by 20-feet; like its main line counterparts, this was flat-roofed and had an irregular saw-tooth timber valance of alternating colour.
The goods yard existed on the "down" side of the line, behind the platform, and comprised two sidings. Of the latter, one terminated within a brick-built goods shed; although of red brick construction, this was to the same basic design as that which is still in evidence at Crewkerne. The ⅓-mile-long Quay branch made a series of connections with the running lines at the Exmouth end of the station, these of which can be seen in the diagram. Based on an article in the local press at the time, the quay branch, which descended at a gradient of 1 in 52, came into use slightly later than the rest of the station:
The connection by rails with the quay at Topsham is carried forward so as to be ready for coal and other traffic early in the autumn. [The Evening Standard, Monday, 12th August 1861]
The operation of the Quay branch was recounted in the local press, as part of a court case against the LSWR as a result of an accident along the line on 19th May 1882:
He must now tell them that at Topsham the London and South Western Railway Company have what might almost be called a tramway line from their main line to Exmouth to the Topsham Quay. Mid-way on this line are two gates which span a level-crossing. The line itself was a very steep gradient, 1 in 52, he believed. The Company do not employ upon this branch any engine, but the trucks are pushed off from the main-line and allowed to run to the Quay. There was a man in charge of the brakes of the trucks, and the trucks themselves usually came down the incline at a very considerable speed. On this day, as was usually the case, the trucks passing over the line were timber-laden. When the trucks come to the level-crossing they are generally stopped; the man then opens the gates, and if the line was clear the trucks are allowed to proceed, which they generally did at the rate of twelve or fifteen miles an hour. The Company [LSWR] considered that they were discharging their duty by having a single porter in charge of these trucks, whose duty it also was to stand on one side of the line and warn people of danger. [The Devon Evening Express, Tuesday, 25th July 1882]
A view towards Exmouth Junction includes William Tite's main station building, clearly based on the same design as those still extant structures at Whimple and Axminster. The railings behind the Exeter-bound platform indicated that Tite's building was no longer part of the railway station.
© David Glasspool
The signal box, built to an in-house LSWR design, was last used in January 1988, at which time control of the level crossing here was transferred to Exmouth Junction. Evident is the varying height of the Exeter-bound platform between the former station building and signal box.
© David Glasspool
Topsham offers the only passing place on the branch line for trains. Here, Class 150 units are seen passing in the platforms, that on the left bound for Paignton via Exeter, the other for Exmouth. The car park on the right, behind the platform, is upon the former goods yard site.
© David Glasspool