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The man behind Bridport’s railway

Richard and Marion Sims recount the colourful life of Edward Gill Flight

Maiden Newton station as it is today
Maiden Newton station as it is today. The platform and gravity siding for the old Bridport branch can be seen on the left.

On the morning of 12 November 1857, Bridport joined the Railway Age. The 8.15 train, leaving Bridport on its way to Maiden Newton, was watched by a large crowd; now London was only six hours away! The following Tuesday a public holiday was held to celebrate the railway, followed by a dinner at the Bull Hotel during which the health of the originator of the scheme – Edward Gill Flight – was proposed by Joseph Gundry.

Edward Gill Flight was born in Tiverton in about 1803. Arriving in Bridport around 1828, he and his elder brother, Thomas, opened a solicitor’s practice at 54 South Street. In 1840 they added a branch in London, which was run mainly by Edward. While in London, Edward formed a business alliance with Thomas Hood, the poet and humorist who had published ‘The Song of the Shirt’ in Punch in December 1843. A powerful indictment of capitalism and the exploitation of seamstresses, it raised Hood’s profile to that of a serious literary figure. Hood had wanted to publish his own magazine and Flight offered to provide the financial backing. The first edition of Hood’s Magazine was published in January 1844. However, it soon became clear to Hood that Edward Flight had paid neither the contributors nor the stationers and had haggled with the printers over payments. Following his withdrawal from the venture, Edward Flight was the subject of a bankruptcy order and he faded from view.

 The Wytherstone brick kiln, near Powerstock,
The Wytherstone brick kiln, near Powerstock, a memorial to one of Edward Flight’s schemes for his new railway

In 1852, following the death of his brother, Thomas, Edward Flight returned to Bridport and moved the legal practice to 28 East Street. Flight re-built the former wagon office and warehouse in the classical form we see today; it is currently occupied by Barclays Bank. He described Bridport as being at a low ebb and of woeful appearance due to the lack of railway communication. The end of the Railway Mania had put paid to plans for the railway to reach Bridport. Whilst further schemes had been put forward over the years by both the South Western Railway and the Great Western Railway, nothing came of these. In 1851, ever hopeful of gaining its railway, the Town Council had placed a second minute-hand on the Town Hall clock so that it now showed both London and Bridport time, the latter being around eleven minutes later than London time. In November 1854 the additional hand was removed and Bridport henceforth kept London time, this act corresponding with the start of the town’s final drive to be placed on the railway map.

Since his return, Edward Flight had been working behind the scenes to give Bridport its railway. He had engaged Henry Wylie, the Scottish civil engineer, to survey a route and prepare plans for submission to Parliament in November 1854. Wylie’s report was not received by Flight until the end of September. It advocated a route from Bradpole through Loders and Powerstock Common to Toller and Maiden Newton, where it would join the GWR’s Weymouth line. The estimated cost at just £65,000 for the ten miles shows that Flight had taken heed of an article in Chamber’s Journal of October 1852 which stated that the downfall of many railways was the over-elaboration of the line and its facilities.

 Victoria class 2-4-0 Brindley at Bridport station in the 1860s
Victoria class 2-4-0 Brindley at Bridport station in the 1860s

Flight alerted the townspeople to his railway scheme in October and received a letter of support signed by 161 of its businessmen, wishing him success in his venture. The first open meeting was held later that month, but the formal approval of the Town Council was not forthcoming until December. The first shares were issued in the same month, with the contractor, Mathieson, taking 1000. In order to ensure that land purchase could go ahead as soon as possible, Flight took on an additional 1100 shares, which he later sold.

With little or no opposition, the Bridport Railway Bill gained its Royal Assent in May 1855, and five days later the first Board meeting was held, at which Joseph Gundry was appointed Chairman and Flight confirmed as Secretary, being paid £400 p.a. for use of his solicitor’s offices for railway business and another £200 as a salary. The cutting of the first sod was carried out in June and work started in earnest the following month.

John Sheppard, a guard on the Bridport line from the early 1860s until his retirement in 1896
John Sheppard, a guard on the Bridport line from the early 1860s until his retirement in 1896. Alongside the platform edge, the fireman has popped his head up from lubricating the machinery of his locomotive to make sure he is in the photograph.

The two years after its opening were difficult ones for the new railway. The line had already cost £90,000, some 50% over budget, and before the GWR would formally take over the running of the railway, an additional £6000 was required to put the line in good order. This was achieved by going back to Parliament for permission to raise its capital by £20,000. In addition the contractor, Mathieson, sought action through the courts in order to get the money owed to him. He was only prevented from removing the track by a private mortgage on railway property held by its new chairman, Thomas Legg.

Modifications had to be made in the operations at each end of the line in an attempt to keep costs down. Between 1858 and 1882, horses were used to draw the train into Bridport station, there being no provision for the engine to run round its train. At Maiden Newton a new branch platform was added in 1859. This needed the building of an inclined siding to allow the engine to run round its train. The carriages were shunted into it before being allowed to run back into the station by gravity, a system which continued until the end of steam a hundred years later.

In 1861 Flight decided to develop land he owned at Conygar Hill. Using a £2000 loan from the Wilts and Dorset Bank, he built a number of superior houses, accessed by a private drive from the station. He moved into the first of these in January 1862. Later that year he was elected to the Town Council.

One of the Conygar villas built by Edward Flight in 1861
One of the Conygar villas built by Edward Flight in 1861

However, the following year saw Flight’s fall from grace. He was unable to sell the other houses and the bank called in the loan, forcing him into bankruptcy. He resigned his Council seat, in August his properties were put up for auction and a sale of his personal possessions followed in October. A number of properties not sold at auction were later bought by friends.

Flight moved his family to 84 St Andrew’s Road, a house owned by builder James Gerrard, who had built Bridport station. At the age of 60 he had to start all over again, not helped by the return of the deafness which had afflicted him in his early years. He spent the next few years in semi-retirement, working as secretary to the railway, trying to get it more business. 1871 saw the publication of his book entitled The Horse-Shoe, the True Legend of St Dunstan and the Devil, illustrated by George Cruikshank, the famous caricaturist. This was to be his last venture, for he died of congestion of the lungs in February 1871, leaving his widow and children with little provision for their future. Edward Flight is buried in an unmarked grave in the town’s cemetery.

It would seem that the natural speculator in him brought benefits to those he touched – but at a price. For Thomas Hood the price was his health, which never recovered. While Edward Gill Flight had almost single- handedly brought the railway to Bridport, it did not make money for its shareholders. However, the town was better off for its presence, since it allowed the expansion of the textile industry just as it was moving into the factory era and brought cheaper coal and goods to the town and surrounding villages. It also meant that Bridport now had access to the electric telegraph, which provided rapid communication with the outside world.

The Bridport Railway survived until 1975 and sections of it are still accessible. The longest stretch runs from Loders to Powerstock and there is a small section in the Powerstock Common Nature Reserve, where the Wytherstone brick kiln is a reminder of one of Flight’s schemes to increase revenue. A railway path has been opened from the station at Maiden Newton to Chilfrome Lane, with the gravity siding still visible. Bradpole Crossing has its gate and a section of track and Sea Roads North and South follow the lines of the 1884 extension to West Bay as far as the Crown roundabout. From here the track-bed is a footpath to the old West Bay station. The remainder is in private hands and has no public access, although the route can easily be traced from nearby roads and tracks.

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