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Purbeck’s clay railways

Ben Buxton traces the network of lines which carried clay across the Isle of Purbeck

A view of the Middlebere Plateway in the 1890s, looking exactly as it would have done on the day it was opened. Each of the five trucks carried two tons of clay. In the background are the New Line Farm weathering beds.

The blue lorries carrying clay around northern Purbeck are a familiar sight and, since the clay pits themselves are well hidden, they are the most visible sign of the clay industry. These trucks are the successors of a complex system of railways which conveyed clay to processing works, weathering beds and, ultimately, quays on Poole Harbour for export. It is now over two hundred years since the first railway was opened and fifty years since all but a short section of line closed.
Clay has been dug in Purbeck since the Bronze Age, around 3500 years ago, and in Roman times pottery was manufactured on an industrial scale. The modern clay industry began in the 17th century, when smoking the new drug, tobacco, became popular and Purbeck clay was perfect for pipes; hence it was known as pipe clay. Later another innovation, tea-drinking, provided a new market. Demand for clay continued to grow and in 1760 the Pike brothers began operations in the Furzebrook area. By the end of the century they were supplying pipe clay to Josiah Wedgwood in Staffordshire, who mixed it with china clay from Cornwall to make his distinctive ware. Purbeck clay, now known as ball clay, is one of only three deposits of its kind in Britain and indeed Europe, the other two being in Devon.

Benjamin Fayle, a London clay merchant and insurance broker, started producing clay in the Norden area in about 1795 and was soon also supplying Wedgwood. At that time all the clay was transported by packhorses and carts across the heath to Wareham and quays on Poole Harbour. Small boats then took it to Poole, where it was transhipped onto large sea-going vessels. Competition between the two producers (and with Devon producers) was fierce and Fayle decided to revolutionise production by building a railway to transport the clay to a quay on Middlebere Lake, an arm of Poole Harbour. He must have known about the Surrey Iron Railway, which was completed in 1803.

The line opened in 1806; it was the first railway in Dorset and one of the first in southern England. It was built by John Hodgkinson, who had worked with Benjamin Outram, a pioneering railway and canal engineer. Technically it was a ‘plateway’ which differed from the ‘edge’ railway that became the norm, in that the flanges retaining the truck wheels on the line were on the rails (plates) rather than on the wheels. The plates were three feet long and were supported on stone sleepers; the ends of the plates were held down by nails driven into wooden plugs inserted into holes in the sleepers. The gauge was about three feet nine inches. The clay trucks were hauled by horses and remained so throughout the line’s 100-year life.

A fascinating picture taken in 1969 which would be impossible now because the scene is smothered in reeds and undergrowth. To the left are the timbers of Middlebere Quay, with the waters of Middlebere Lake and Poole Harbour behind.In the centre are some of the Middlebere Plateway’s stone sleepers, two of them clearly showing the holes by which the plates were attached.

The first stage of the line was 2¾ miles long and served a clay pit which can still be seen on the east side of the A351, a short distance north of the roundabout at Norden. From here New Line Farm marks the route of the line, which then crosses Hartland Moor to the quay east of Middlebere Farm. Little survives of Middlebere Quay, apart from the remains of timbers lost among the forest of reeds at the harbour edge and some walls of a building hidden among gorse bushes.

Fayle extended the line in 1807 to serve new pits west of the Wareham-Corfe Castle road. One branch tunnelled under the road, and the original entrance to this tunnel can still be seen on its west side. The keystone bears the inscription ‘BF 1807′. A second branch tunnelled under the road a short distance to the south. Workshops and a weighbridge were built near New Line Farm and weathering beds were also located here; these were dumps of newly dug clay which had to weather for up to a year to allow the clay to break down to make it workable.

In about 1881 new pits were opened up near where Norden station now stands. New track was laid from near the workshop area to these pits, on a route planned to run alongside the Swanage branch of the main line which was built shortly afterwards. A siding was laid to allow clay to be transferred from the clay trucks to main-line trucks, but most of the clay continued to be hauled by horses to Middlebere Quay.

By this time the plateway’s days were numbered. The channel at Middlebere was silting up, limiting the size of vessel that could approach the quay. The company already had a deeper-water quay at Goathorn on the southern shore of Poole Harbour, used for the export of clay from pits at Newton, a mile to the south and now hidden under forest. Fayle had constructed a plateway connecting the two and it was this line (not the Middlebere line, as is sometimes claimed) that was converted for use by steam locomotives in about 1870. The first locomotive was built by Lewin of Poole and was named Tiny.

In 1907 the company opened a new line from Norden to connect with the existing section at Newton, thus replacing the Middlebere plateway. Tiny was joined in 1909 by the bigger Thames, which between 1920 and 1936 pulled a truck converted for the use of school children from Goathorn attending school at Corfe Castle. The line was also used for transporting stone to Goathorn to be used in building the ‘training bank’ which helps keep the entrance to Poole Harbour clear of sediment. Most of the line closed in about 1937, but short lengths remained in use at Norden, re-gauged to two feet, until 1971. From 1948 to 1954 the line was worked by the steam locomotive Russell, thereafter by diesel locomotives. Some readers may remember the level crossing on the main road at Norden, and being ‘held up by a young man with a red flag while a small diesel locomotive, horn blaring, draws a string of clattering, clay-filled wagons over the road’ (Pat Henshaw, writing in Dorset, the County Magazine, summer 1968).

The other clay tramway system was built by Pike Brothers. It began in about 1840 as a literally straight line from pits at Furzebrook to a quay on the River Frome at Ridge. The first pits were just to the south of the pit now known as the Blue Pool, which was dug some time after 1843. The gradient of the line was such that loaded trucks could descend by gravity to the wharf, where the clay was tipped into barges. On one occasion, it is said, a line of loaded trucks failed to stop in time and shot off the end! The empties were pulled back by horses. The first of a series of steam locomotives replaced horses in 1866; by now the line was edge rail, with a gauge of two feet eight inches. As if in anticipation of a growing family, the first locomotive was named Primus, Latin for ‘first’, subsequent purchases being named in numerical order up to Septimus, ‘seventh’. Secundus is the only survivor of this family and in 2004 it returned to Purbeck, to the railway museum at Corfe Castle, having spent the previous 49 years in a museum in Birmingham.

Brothers’ pit at Cotness was unusual because it was a mine within a
pit. This is a view looking east along the tramway to Corfe. To the
left is one of the steam locomotives between Primus and Septimus.

The growing family reflected the expansion of Pikes’ network west of the company’s works at Furzebrook, the site still used by the current operator, Imerys. By 1890 it had reached Cotness and West Creech and by 1911 it reached its furthest destination, a mine at Povington, six miles from Ridge Wharf. The system was very flexible and track could be laid to new pits and mines as required. Exchange sidings had been built in the early years of the 20th century at Furzebrook so that clay could be transferred to trucks on the main line, but clay was still exported via Ridge Wharf. The line between Furzebrook and the wharf closed in 1940, when the heath was taken over by the army, and the remainder closed in 1956-7.

These railway systems supported an unprecedented expansion in clay production, from a vast number of pits and mines. Today production is concentrated in six open pits, the last mine having closed in 1999.

The routes of these old railways can be followed in many places. Most of the Middlebere Plateway can be walked, as can Pikes’ line between Ridge and the Wareham-Corfe Castle road. Part of the Norden-Goathorn line in Rempstone Forest is used as a road by BP, and other sections can be walked or cycled.

The heritage of the clay industry is being preserved by the Purbeck Mineral and Mining Museum Group, who are establishing a museum among old clay workings near Norden station and park-and-ride. The displays will include a mine building, lengths of various types of railway track, Secundus, trucks, photographs and other reminders of past methods of clay extraction and transport. The museum has a very informative website ( A model of Middlebere Quay as it was around 1900, made by group member Tim Salter, is on display at Wareham Town Museum.

The northern stretch of Pike’s Tramway, just inland from Ridge Wharf, is now a footpath leading onto Stoborough Heath

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