Remembering island's railway

A wagon load of stone descending the Merchants Railway incline circa 1905, note the double flange on the wagon wheels

A former Merchants Railway wheel in use as a sinker in Weymouth Harbour in the 1980s

First published in News Dorset Echo: Photograph of the Author by

Author and transport expert and Looking Back regular Brian Jackson writes about Portland’s old Merchants Railway:

THE Portland Railway, commonly known as the Merchants Railway operated as a horse drawn and cable operated incline railway on Portland between 1826 and 1939, by which time it was an anachronism from a past age.

Today, the earthworks of its main line can still be traced running from Priory Corner along past the Old Rectory, then around the edge of the Verne before descending a cable-worked incline to Castletown from where stone was transferred to main line railway wagons in Castletown yard, or shipped out by sea from Castletown Pier.

It being calculated that during the railway’s lifetime approximately 704.93672 tons of stone travelled down the incline.

The railway closed at the outbreak of the Second World War, the track and fittings remaining in a decaying state until their removal in the mid 1950s, many of the rails became reinforcements for the Chiswell sea wall.

Sixty years ago a number of the wagon wheels were still to be seen lying around. They were unusual in the fact they were double flanged, the inner flange being larger than the outer, these iron wheels were between 18 inches and two feet in diameter had eight spokes.

In the 1820s and 1830s they were commonly used on industrial railways and tramways of the period.

A further question is, were replacement wheels cast locally either in Easton Foundry, Bakers Foundry, or the foundry in Ranelagh Road, Weymouth?

Sadly over the years these wheels have disappeared, many were used by fishermen and boat owners as sinkers.

However, there is always a chance that one could still survive on the island laying in an unused corner, or in a garden.

The Portland Island Museum Supporters (PIMS), the new ‘friends’ group, would be very interested in obtaining an example as the last remaining item from Portland’s first railway.

To further the aims of the Portland Museum supporters local transport historian Brian Jackson will be giving an illustrated talk on the Merchants Railway in the Community 2000 Hall, All Saints Church, Easton on Friday, March 7 at 7pm. Light refreshments will be available after the presentation.

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