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Dawlish Railway – Then & Now

February 8, 2014

By Paul Homewood


h/t QV & John Hultquist


One of the iconic images of the recent severe weather in the South West has been the collapsed railway track at Dawlish, Devon.

Apparently though, this is nothing new. The Illustrated London News archives report exactly the same set of events in 1855, just a couple of miles south between Dawlish and Teignmouth.




According to their report , Easterly gales during the first fortnight of February in 1855, had washed away the beach near Teignmouth, exposing the marl on which the railway and sea-wall were built. Heavy seas scoured the marl and despite remedial work, 30 yards of wall collapsed on the 16th. Severe frosts and turbulent seas prevented reconstruction, and by the time work could begin, 50 yards of the embankment had been washed away.

Traffic was resumed by running trains to the edge of the breach and passengers walking round. A wooden viaduct built across the gap was completed in early March. Further strengthening was carried out during the summer under the personal supervision of Brunel.

  1. winter37 permalink
    February 8, 2014 6:58 pm

    There has been no mention of who has the responsibility to check the sea wall ,and underpinning of the line at that point on a regular basis,and particularly after each storm.What was the verdict last winter I wonder.
    Also the water seepage from higher ground inland will have created a pressure on the wall over past years,and combined with an opposite wave pressure,the result should have been predicted.
    Entropy always gets you in the end.

  2. February 8, 2014 11:15 pm

    Thanks Paul. Good article.
    The Google Maps images of the Dawlish area clearly show how daring that railroad stretch is. This is not the Caribbean with occasional hurricanes, it is the North Sea.

    • February 9, 2014 7:51 am

      It’s not the North Sea! It’s the English Channel!!!!!

  3. John F. Hultquist permalink
    February 9, 2014 7:20 am

    Thanks Paul.

    The b/w image of the 1855 damage shows (I think) a train about to enter a tunnel, then a break in the track, and then more but different looking train cars. The latter seem a bit larger and rounded – maybe for passengers. On the left side there appears to be an engine and that would be followed by a (coal or wood) tender. Then there are people on the right (observers ?) but all those on the left are doing what? One seems to have a shovel, maybe. I wonder if one or more train cars washed into the sea when the wall gave way?

    I don’t expect answers to any of the above. It just seems that the artist either saw the scene as drawn or had a great imagination.

    The image is from “Illustrated London News” and that makes me wonder what other fascinating things could be found by browsing through this publication.

  4. Perry permalink
    February 10, 2014 11:55 am

    I think this Streetview link to Smugglers Lane shows a masonry viaduct that probably was built to replace the temporary wooden viaduct erected in March 1855. The tunnel entrance is not in the picture, but the edges of the two cliffs look quite similar.’+Lane%2C+near+dawlish++United+Kingdom

  5. lapogus permalink
    February 11, 2014 10:47 am

    Paul, the BBC have found other similar photos of historic storm damage and made a slideshow – – and surprisingly put a link to it from the main England News page. Wonders will never cease.

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