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Roads to the Isle

Dennis Smale looks at transport in Swanage and Purbeck over the ages

William Craft’s Stone loading at Swanage was painted soon after the opening of the pier in 1860. The impressive building on the far right is the Royal Victoria Hotel.

Over the last 2000 years the geographical location of Swanage has always determined its chequered history. Its isolation was the biggest impediment to any true industrialisation of the natural mineral wealth deposited in the Isle of Purbeck. Before the building of roads, only primitive trackways existed and transportation by sea was for centuries the only option.
Once it had been discovered, the diverse limestone plateau became the jewel in the crown, for this area was among the first in Southern England to trade with Rome in the first century BC. Quarrying and manufacturing in Purbeck were already known to the Romans before their invasion and, after they had left, these activities continued with the Celts for the next four centuries. Trading continued through the Saxon era right up to the Norman Conquest. Then Corfe was to become the principal royal castle in Dorset and a large Norman structure with a square tower-keep and ward bailey was constructed from the locally quarried Burr stone. Timber was also in abundance because of the complete afforestation of Purbeck.

With the passing of the massive Norman style of building, the marbler came into his kingdom. It has been well said that Purbeck marble was to be found in nearly every English church of any size built from 1170 to 1350. In the 12th century, these polished dressings were already being exported by sea as far as Dublin for architectural use. By the end of the 13th century, Corfe had become famous all over England as the headquarters of the marble industry.

There were two points of departure for exports from Purbeck: Swanage Bay and Ower Quay, the latter being where Rempstone Heath runs down to Poole Harbour. A weekly market ferry-boat from each port of call was the life blood of all the commerce in the district. The removal of the worked stone from Afflington and Dunshay Manors to Ower Quay would have been by ox-carts with sledges, and later by horse-drawn carts using the Celtic trackways over the chalk downs and heathland. For transport to Swanage Bay from quarries such as Wilkswood Manor, a different mode of export was used. During the Middle Ages, a large lake or lagoon existed in the lower central area of the Wealden Valley, enabling flat-bottomed barges to take the stone direct to the sailing ships lying off-shore or to deposit their loads for storage at the quayside. Evidence of this method of transport was unearthed during Georgian and Victorian excavations for the re-building of Swanage’s streets and promenades.

Seaside Swanage in its heyday at the turn of the 19th century. A paddle steamer has just docked at the new Parade Pier and the trippers are disembarking.

The Georgian period (1714-1830) signalled a renaissance in this area of Dorset. The 1760s saw the birth of one of the largest and most ambitious Dorset turnpike trusts, the Wareham Trust, which included no fewer than ten roads. The turnpiking of the only road from Wareham to Swanage, via Corfe, Kingston, Langton Matravers and Herston, involved the re-building of King Edward’s Bridge at Corfe Castle.

Having stayed largely hidden for nearly 2000 years, the interior of the Isle of Purbeck now became accessible to the commercialised outside world. William Morton Pitt (1754-1836) of Kingston Maurward, an MP for Dorset, became the first of many local benefactors and visionaries to appear on the scene. Acquiring the Encombe estate, together with parcels of land in Swanage, he saw the town becoming a much-frequented watering-place and was soon expending large sums of money for the improvement of the town, converting the Great House into a splendid hotel with a private stone pier and quay. He cleared away old buildings to make a more genteel prospect towards Peveril Point, furthering his vision of Swanage as a seaside resort.

The remaining stone bankers and jetties fronting the rest of the town would not be swept away until the next innovation arrived – the steam engine, bringing with it Railway Mania. The first tentacle southwards from the metropolis was the London to Southampton railway in 1840.

In 1845 the paddle-steamer Rose out of Weymouth, calling at Swanage’s new quay, advertised the possibility of arriving in London from Swanage in seven hours, calling at Yarmouth, Isle of Wight, on the way to the new Southampton terminus – all for seven shillings. John Mowlem, the founding member of the world-famous construction firm still bearing his name today, took this route in reverse in the 1840s when, after a business life spent in London, he retired to Swanage, his birthplace, with his dream of modernising the town.

The opening in 1847 of the railway to Dorchester with a station at Wareham stirred the forward-looking merchants of Swanage to propose an extension for a branch line. A public meeting was attended by some forty prominent people. Captain Moorsom, engineer of the Dorchester line, estimated that the cost of the branch line, including the land, would be £85,000 and the landowners were generally in favour. The resolution ‘that it is most desirable that a line of railway be formed from Wareham to Swanage with as little delay as possible’ was proposed by John Mowlem. It was hoped that an application for an Act of Parliament could be made once a survey was completed.

Henry Gillingham jnr, a stone merchant, was not against a railway but felt, as 20,000 tons of stone was exported yearly, that a tramway to the quarries and a new pier would be more beneficial, since the stone exported was mainly used for docks and sea defences and the like. His proposal would also see the removal of stone workshops and bankers along the remaining shoreline. At the same time he felt it would benefit both the residents and the increasing number of visitors to Swanage ‘by abating the interminable cloud of dust in fine weather and the almost fathomless abyss of mud in winter’ – to say nothing of blocks of stone invading the highways, or huge and unwieldy loading carts barring further progress to the development of Swanage as a watering and seasonal establishment.

The donkey cart was a favourite form of transport among the locals before the arrival of the internal combustion engine

The Swanage Tramway and Pier Act received the Royal Assent on 8 August 1859 and the first stone was laid on 5 September by the chairman of the company, John Mowlem. Because of opposition by other merchants, only the commercial pier was completed.

The railway was to suffer similar opposition. The first attempt in 1847 came to nothing and the second in 1863 got as far as an Act of Parliament. George Burt, partner and nephew of the late John Mowlem, took up the gauntlet and now pressed hard for the realisation of the scheme. The Swanage Railway received the Royal Assent to the Act on 18 July 1881 and at a special meeting the London & South Western Railway agreed to work the railway. This big undertaking was completed on time and on 16 May 1885 the opening of the line at last connected Swanage with the outside world.

The Sandbanks-Studland ‘floating bridge’ on a windy day in 1929

It was perhaps the completion of the new Parade Pier in 1897 which really set the scene for seaside Swanage. Unlike the old one, its chief use was for bringing visitors to Swanage from mushrooming Bournemouth on board the increasing number of paddle steamers: more than 10,000 trippers came over on Bank Holiday Monday that first year. In addition, those on holiday in Swanage and also local residents were able to enjoy sea excursions to Lulworth Cove, Weymouth, Torquay, the Isle of Wight and even occasionally to Cherbourg.

A Royal Blue coach passes through Corfe Castle on its way to Swanage in the 1950s. It was the growth of tourism that led to the building of the Valley Road through Harman’s Cross as recently as the 1920s.

The other great invention that contributed to change in the Isle of Purbeck was the internal combustion engine. This signalled the demise of the stage-coach and any other horse-drawn vehicle – even the popular local donkey cart. The horseless carriage was here to stay. The new automobile found the old road system difficult to travel along, however, so new surfaces were required, plus a completely new route from Corfe Castle, so in the 1920s the new Valley Road via Harman’s Cross was built. There was also pressure for a shorter route into the Isle from the Poole direction. In 1921 the Haven Chain Ferry scheme was proposed, despite strong opposition from the Poole Harbour Board and fishermen. However, the way for the ferry was finally smoothed out and it eventually became established in 1926, although in 1929 the promoters of the Sandbanks Ferry scheme put before a Committee of the Harbour Board an alternative plan for a bridge some 120 feet high. The majority of the Harbour Board members thought it would be a disgrace to the town of Poole and that, although the ferry was an undoubted nuisance, the bridge would be a satanic horror.

A Southern railway poster of the 1930s proclaims the virtues of Swanage. The railway reached the town in 1885 and opened up the tourist industry.

The final opening of Swanage to the rest of the world with the construction of the Sandbanks floating bridge and the toll road from Studland brought about the inaugural bus service to Bournemouth in 1927. Bus services from Swanage to Langton, Worth Matravers and Kingston also began in the 1920s. The Hants & Dorset and Southern National Bus Companies later provided services to Corfe Castle, Wareham, Weymouth, Poole and Bournemouth. The impact of the internal combustion engine was now complete.

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