Topsham's Tank Engine

Topsham's Tank Engine - Topsham Museum

Added: 10 September 2020

Next time you’re driving along Holman Way, spare a thought for Topsham’s very own Thomas the Tank Engine, which once shunted up and down here.

On 23 September 1861, the first tank engine chugged slowly from Topsham station, under the new railway footbridge with its ornate ironwork, across the level crossing at the Lighter, and onto the Quay. The track was steep as railway tracks go, so two men sat in a special brake van, ready to use the handbrake if need be. Two porters walked beside the train and threw grit onto the rails to give the wheels more grip.

The tank engine with up to eight trucks made regular trips up and down, collecting coal, timber, stone and slates from ships docked at the Quay. Guano (bird poo) from South America was lifted out of the holds in baskets and taken to Odams’ fertiliser factory (on the River Clyst near what is now Dart’s Farm).

In 1925, in true Thomas the Tank Engine style, five troublesome trucks ran away down the hill and fell into the water. They had to be hauled back by a steam crane.

Finally, in 1957, the last train gave a long whistle at the top of the track, and the rails were taken up to make room for the road.

The Lighter Crossing by E Voysey, 2010, watercolour held at Topsham Museum