An introduction history of transport in Cornwall

Road, Canal & Railway…


The development of Cornwall’s roads was hugely affected by the county’s unique topography and landscape. Cornwall’s rivers run north-south, so all traffic along the peninsula has to cross several valleys; even to enter the county by road the Tamar has to be crossed. Bodmin Moor represented a large obstacle to travel down the spine of the county. Due to these difficulties and the relative poverty of the area, packhorses for carrying goods were more common than wheeled vehicles well into the C18th. Roads remained narrow and twisting, often sunk between steep banks and keeping to high ground rather than the wet, wooded and difficult river valleys.

Old Routes through the County

Before the coming of turnpike roads in the C18th Cornwall had two main roads coming into and crossing the county. One, the post road from London via Exeter, crossed the Tamar at Cremyll Passage and ran along the south coast, through Looe and Fowey to Penzance. The other post road entered the county at Launceston and went around the northern edge of Bodmin Moor, heading to Truro.

Turnpike Roads

A network of well-maintained roads was created across England during the C18th. These helped to improve the movement of goods and passengers throughout the kingdom and greatly stimulated trade. This road system was not set up centrally but organised at a local level and regulated through Acts of Parliament.

Groups of trustees were established to improve and maintain stretches of local road. They were given the right to charge a toll on the people who used it.

The money raised through tolls was used to keep the road in a good condition. Turnpike Trusts carried on being responsible for most main roads in England until the 1870s. The word “turnpike” actually refers to a gate placed across the road at a tollhouse, to stop traffic until a toll was paid.

As in many other counties that were a long way from London, “turnpiking” came quite late to Cornwall. The first turnpike Act for Cornish roads was in 1754, dealing with roads in Truro. Sections of the main Post Road were turnpiked in 1760. The Launceston Trust brought the road over from Devon, and the Haleworthy road continued the route along the northern edge of the county through Camelford and Wadebridge.

Soon after this the main town-based trusts were created: Helston, Liskeard, Lostwithiel and St Austell turnpike trusts started in 1761. Creed / St Just and Saltash came about in 1762, Penryn in 1763 and Callington in 1764. Finally the Bodmin Turnpike Trust was set-up in 1769, providing for the first time a route over the moor, through the centre of the county.

So by 1770 there were three turnpiked routes into the county, one from Okehampton through Launceston, one over Dartmoor through Tavistock to Callington and one from Plymouth across the three ferries on the lower Tamar. These linked to three principal roads across the county to Truro; one from Launceston through either Wadebridge or Bodmin; one through Liskeard from either Callington and one from the Tamar ferries.

In the early 19th century, new Trusts were created to improve roads and especially to meet the needs of local industries, especially mining and quarrying. For example, Trebarwith Sands Road was built in 1825 to move sand in and slate out; Hayle Causeway was constructed between 1825 and 1839; and the Penzance to St Just road was built in 1863, to meet the needs of tin and copper mines on the north Penwith coast.

The Cornish turnpike trusts were significantly affected by the arrival of the railways in the 1850s. After a period of steady decline they were gradually disbanded in the 1870s, when responsibility for Cornish roads was transferred first to local Highways Boards and later, in 1888, to the County Council.

Tollhouses and milestones

Almost 50 of the original 180 tollhouses still survive in Cornwall, and many hundreds of milestones.


The full story of Cornwall’s railways is long, fascinating, complicated and beyond the scope of the CHT website. Readers seeking a more detailed explanation are advised to go to our links page which will direct you to specialist sites that tell the story in much greater detail.

Cornwall played an important role in the development of steam locomotion. The first practical vehicle to run under its own steam power was demonstrated in Redruth in 1784 by the Scottish steam engineer William Murdoch. This small model was followed seventeen years later by Richard Trevithick’s steam road carriage, which ran successfully in Camborne on Christmas Eve, 1801. In 1803 at Penydarren Iron Works in South Wales, Trevithick demonstrated the world’s first steam locomotive on rails.

Back in Cornwall, it was the mining and quarrying industries that stimulated the growth of a railway network in the county. All of the early lines ran to and from the coast for the import and export of goods, most notably coal (in) and tin and copper ore, quarried stone and china clay (out). These railways continued to use horses to pull the trains of wagons for almost 50 years after Trevithick’s ground-breaking invention.

1809 to about 1860: Poldice Tramway
An underground tramway was in use in 1783 at Pentewan near St Austell in a tin working, but the earliest above-ground railroad in Cornwall was the horse-drawn mineral Poldice Tramway from the St day area to Portreath. This was built to link the Gwennap copper mines to a harbour at Portreath on the north coast. This enabled coal, for steam engines used at the mines, to be imported and copper ore to be exported to Wales for smelting.

1826-1915: Redruth and Chacewater Railway
Started in 1824, this railway also served the mines of Gwennap and Redruth, running south to the coastal river port of Devoran. It opened officially in 1826 and worked with horses until 1854, when two tank engines, Miner and Smelter, were bought. Today it is possible to follow the course of the Poldice Tramway/Redruth and Chacewater railway, as the track-bed has been converted into a superb cycle path, enabling visitors to cycle “coast to coast” off-road across the county.

1829-1918: Pentewan Railway
Sir Christopher Hawkins built this railway, which opened in 1829, to support the growing china clay industry. It ran from just outside St. Austell to the port of Pentewan, four miles away and was worked by horse-power until 1874. At the start of its life about a third of the clay produced in the St Austell area was shipped via Pentewan, but the port became badly silted-up and this restricted shipping access. Clay companies became more and more reluctant to transport their clay by horse and cart to the terminus at St Austell and, as more convenient routes developed, the Pentewan railway declined until it eventually closed in 1918.

1834-1983: Bodmin & Wadebridge Railway
The landowner Sir William Molesworth had this railway built to carry sea sand, used by farmers as manure, inland from Wadebridge. It opened in 1834, and from the beginning carried passengers as well as goods. The company also had one steam locomotive, “Camel”; this was the first railway in Cornwall to use a steam locomotive. The Bodmin and Wadebridge was bought in 1846 by the London and South Western Railway, despite its nearest line being at Dorchester 120 miles away. In 1886 an agreement was reached to allow the GWR to operate on the line, so after 54 years the B&WR was at last connected to the main railway network. Until the broad gauge was abolished there was a change of gauge at Bodmin Road. The line was closed in 1983. Part of it is now run as a steam heritage line (Bodmin Parkway to Boscarne junction via Bodmin Town) and the line from Boscarne Junction to Wadebridge is a cycle trail. The story of the North Cornwall railway, which eventually linked Padstow to the mainline, is a complicated but fascinating tale of company rivalry between two giants of the railway age, the Great Western Railway and the London & South Western Railway.

1837-: The Hayle Railway
The Hayle Railway was another line built to meet the mining industry’s need to move coal in and ore out of the county. The line ran eastwards to Redruth, and from Redruth Junction north to Portreath and south to Tresavean. It opened in several stages after December 1837, using steam locomotives from the start, giving the route a dsitinct advantage over the Redruth and Chacewater line. At both Angarrack and Portreath “inclined planes” were built, by which wagons were hauled by ropes up to the next level section of line. Similar inclines at Penponds and Tresavean worked on a counterbalancing principle, using the weight of wagons to pull others up the slope. The remains of one of the inclined planes can be seen in Portreath.

1852- : The West Cornwall Railway
The Hayle Railway was extended westward, as the West Cornwall Railway, which began construction 1846. A passenger service from Penzance to Redruth started in 1852, and a year later to Truro.

1859- : The Cornwall Railway
Brunel’s Royal Albert Bridge at Saltash was completed in 1859 and for the first time rail travel and transport was possible between Penzance and Plymouth. Until 1867 the journey was broken at Truro, where standard and broad gauge tracks met, so goods and passengers had to change trains. The Truro to Falmouth line was planned from as early as 1847 and completed by 1863. In the meantime nine stations from Saltash to Truro were opened, with more to follow over the next decade.

1844- : The Liskeard and Caradon Railway
was built by the owners of the Liskeard and Looe Union Canal (opened 1828) to carry ore and granite from the Caradon area towards Looe. The line opened in 1844 and ran from the terminus of the canal at Moorswater near Liskeard to South Caradon in 1844, and on from Caradon to Cheesewring Quarry after 1846. By the late 1850s traffic had increased so much that the canal could not cope, and so the company replaced it with a railway, mostly built on the bed of the canal. This gave the railway a direct route to the port of Looe from the Cheeswring and Caradon Hill. Wagons were run down from the mines and quarries under gravity and then hauled back up by horses.

1847- : Par Railway.
By 1847 Joseph Thomas Austen (he later changed his name to Treffry) had built a canal from Par to Ponts Mill, and a tramway from Ponts Mill to Molinnis near Bugle, to transport tin ore and china clay to the coast. The railway line was extended alongside the canal down to Par in 1855. It crosses the Luxulyan Valley via the Treffry Viaduct, a Cornwall Heritage Trust property. The viaduct also carries a leat across the valley, its water being used to power waterwheels used to hoist wagons onto the tramway via an inclined plane at Carmears.

1849 : Newquay Railway.
Treffry opened the track from Newquay Harbour to St Dennis, with a branch to the important East Wheal Rose lead mine. In 1873 these were to form part of the Cornwall Minerals Railway. Later, the line was extended to Par, following some of the course of Treffry’s original tramway but passing underneath the Treffry viaduct, through the Luxulyan valley. This became the current Newquay branchline, part of the Great Western network, in 1896.

Shipping and Canals

Canals were generally not a practical option for moving minerals and supplies in Cornwall, partly because many mines were in easy reach of navigable rivers, and many more were on high granite moorland inaccessible by canal. However, some canals were constructed in Cornwall:

At Carglaze Mine, a tin operation St Austell an underground canal was in operation from around 1720-31, ore being removed from the mine on oak barges floated into it.

The Liskeard & Looe Union Canal (opened in 1827) connected Moorswater at Liskeard with Looe, to transport copper ore and later granite from Caradon Hill and Cheesewring Quarry to the sea. From 1844 the canal was linked to Caradon Hill by a railway, which was in 1860 extended to Looe and the canal closed. The railway was in places built on top of the canal bed.

The Bude Canal was built in the early 1820’s to carry calcium-rich sea sand used by farmers as fertiliser for the poor soil to be found further inland. Water was fed into the canal system from the Tamar Lakes. The project was a magnificent engineering feat of its day stretching some 35 miles from Bude to Holsworthy and on to Launceston. The canal fell into disuse after the arrival of the railway in 1902. One of the most spectacular engineering features along the Bude Canal were the inclined planes, which lifted tub-boats 430 feet above sea level only six miles from the coast where the canal meets the sea at Bude sea-lock. It is sobering to remember that all of the construction work, for embankments, aqueducts and the wheel pits for the inclined planes was done using picks and shovels.

The Par Canal (opened in 1829) was constructed by Treffry from Par to the foot of Penpillick Hill and later extended to Ponts Mill. This connected with a railway to Lanescot Mine and via an inclined plane to Fowey Consols, a large and very rich mine owned by Treffry.


History of Cornwall



Neolithic Cornwall

Neolithic Cornwall

The upland areas of Cornwall were the parts first open to settlement as the vegetation required little in the way of clearance: they were perhaps first occupied in Neolithic times.

Hurler Stone Circles

Cornwall in the Bronze Age

Bronze Age cultures began to appear in Cornwall around 2200 BC with new ideas spreading from the Continent to the existing population, but the changes were gradual not sudden and stone tools continued to be used...

Cornwall in the Iron Age

Cornwall in the Iron Age

New, stronger iron ploughs and axes meant that farming improved. Cornwall contains many archaeological remains from this time: small villages with field systems around them, hillforts and cliff castles that...

Roman Cornwall

Roman sites and finds in Cornwall are few and far-between. In Cornwall, the first impact of the Roman domination of north-west Europe must have been felt around 56BC...



Cornwall 410 - 1066

Cornwall 410 - 1066

After the Roman withdrawal from Great Britain, Saxons and other peoples were able to conquer and settle most of the east of the island. But Cornwall remained under the rule of local Romano-British and Celtic elites...

Mediaeval Cornwall 1066-1485

Mediaeval Cornwall


With the arrival of the Normans to the British mainland in 1066, the River Tamar became the agreed border. There was also a general acceptance that Cornwall had a separate identity to the rest of England...


Sancreed Beacon

Early Modern Cornwall 1485

During this period English rulers sought to establish firmer control over the furthermost parts of Britain - Scotland and Ireland especially but this trend also affected Cornwall. Here the loyalty of many gentry, particularly in East Cornwall...

Cornwall & The Civil War 1642

Cornwall & The Civil War 1642

The Civil Wars of the mid seventeenth century were a result of political, constitutional, religious and social changes and disagreements, which culminated in a struggle for control of the country between King and Parliament...


treffry viaduct

Industry in Cornwall

The industrial revolution had a huge impact on Cornwall and the county at this time was amongst the most industrialized part of the UK, if not the world...

History of Transport

History of Transport

The development of Cornwall’s roads was hugely affected by the county’s unique topography and landscape. Cornwall’s rivers run north-south, so all traffic along the peninsular...