The speaker at our meeting in Wells Town Hall on the 11th March was Gerry Nichols from Bristol. His subject was ‘Rails to Avonmouth‘ and we were entertained to an excellent illustrated presentation covering the history of this nearby port and the railway lines serving it.

Gerry began by reminding us that, at the beginning of the Victorian era, the area around the mouth of the River Avon was mainly marshland and mudflats. This land then formed part of the extensive Kingsweston estate, then owned by the Miles family who were prominent Bristol bankers. In 1852, they had backed a scheme to dam the Avon at its mouth and thereby transform the five miles or so to the centre of Bristol into a vast dock system. This scheme did not materialise of course but, a decade later, plans for building a dock at Avonmouth were approved and this was to be connected to the city by a railway. The Bristol Port Railway and Pier, to give the line its legal name, was financed and built by the well-known railway contractor, Charles Waring, and was opened in 1865.

This line was totally isolated from the national railway system, having its Bristol terminus at Hotwells, almost immediately below the Clifton Suspension Bridge. In addition to the new dock, steps were taken with a view to developing a resort at Avonmouth, its attractions including pleasure grounds and a large rifle shooting range. The Port Railway was always impecunious and finally the Great Western and Midland Railways, wishing to gain access to the new dock, promoted a joint railway through the northern central suburbs of Bristol to connect with the Hotwells to Avonmouth line near Sea Mills. This line, which involved driving a mile-long tunnel under the Clifton and Durdham Downs, was brought into use in 1877. Great Western passenger trains from Temple Meads and Midland ones from Bath via Mangotsfield initially terminated at Clifton Down and not until 1885 were such trains permitted to run though the tunnel to serve Avonmouth.

The original service from Hotwells survived for a while longer until part of its route disappeared under the building of the Portway arterial road through the Avon Gorge in the 1920s. The next major development affecting Avonmouth was the opening of the Severn Tunnel in 1886 and eventually a connecting line to the South Wales route at Pilning was built in 1900 and it was on this line that a station was to be built at Severn Beach some twenty years later. By the turn of the century the original Avonmouth Dock had proved inadequate and the City Council began the  building of the vast Royal Edward Dock, which was opened by King Edward VII in 1908. The final substantial railway development followed in 1910 with a new line from Filton and Stoke Gifford via Henbury. This line gave direct access to the main lines serving South Wales, London, the Midlands and the North and is now heavily used.

Over the years, a considerable internal railway network came into being to serve the docks, associated industries – such as the Imperial Smelting  Company – and warehousing. In the last years of the Edwardian period, attempts were made to attract transatlantic lliners to use Avonmouth and during the First World War a large quantity of armaments and other supplies, together with horses and mules, were shipped to the Continent from Avonmouth to relieve the pressure on the Channel ports which were more concerned with troop transport. Subsequently, a passenger service of sorts did develop to and from the West Indies when a limited amount of passenger accommodation was provided on the ships used in the banana traffic and right up until 1964 occasional special boat trains were run into the docks for these passengers. In recent years cruise liners have increasingly used Avonmouth but as virtually all the internal railway network has disappeared there is now no possibility of providing any sort of rail connection. Avonmouth, however, still generates a great deal of rail freight traffic especially with regard to imported coal and cars. Also, for many years, the railway lines serving Avonmouth saw many passenger excursion trains, mainly from South Wales, and unofficially and irreverently known as ‘Monkey Specials’. These unloaded thousands of passengers each year at Clifton Down station for the short walk to Bristol Zoo.

During the evening we saw a magnificent selection of photographs illustrating the development of the docks at Avonmouth, the four railway lines serving them and the locomotives which were operated by the Port of Bristol Authority and the various industrial companies. After Gerry had received a warm vote of thanks, we all agreed that we had learned much about this important port not so far from Wells.