One of the first railways in southern England and Dorset's first , the Middlebere Plateway, was built across Hartland Moor very early in the nineteenth century by a wealthy London Merchant - Benjamin Fayle, to take Ball clay from his pits near Corfe Castle to boats moored on Poole Harbour. The engineer who built the plateway was John Hodgkinson whose mentor and cousin was Benjamin Outram (partner of William Jessop who built the Surrey Iron Railway). Papers held in Corfe Castle Town Museum state that the contractor was Willis. At the time the manager of the clay pits was Joseph Willis and tenant at Norden Farm, so this points to a possible "self build" by Fayle's men to John Hodgkinson's instructions. Construction of the line commenced in 1805. The rails were cast iron, L-shaped 3ft long and weighing 40lb, the horse-drawn clay wagons had flangeless wheels, and the sleepers were simply stone blocks (60-70lb) numbering well in excess of 10,000. (some of the sleepers remain in place today, complete with holes where the rails used to be fixed. Others have been used as paving stones at Langton Wallis Cottage.) The gauge was 3ft 9in and the line was 3.4 miles long. On 16th August 1806, Fayle wrote to Wedgwood announcing the opening of the line and a reduction in the price of clay.
Two horses worked in tandem pulling 5 wagons weighing almost a ton each and with a 2 ton capacity and making 3 round trips a day, giving an annual total of 9,000-10,000 tons. By 1865 and additional team of horses and wagons had been brought into use and passing places constructed to raise the annual tonnage to 22,000 tons.
The plateway consisted of cast iron rails secured to stone blocks (with metal spike and oak dowel) set in the ground. There were no cross members between the two rails.
The plateway was one of the first users of Collinge's patent axle that was designed by John Collinge of Bridge Road, Lambeth in 1792. It was already in use on the plateway in 1812 when William Stevenson visited. Until its introduction, wheels had to be removed and axle arms greased at least once a day when traveling any distance.
In this device, the axle box (bearing tube) revolves against a collar on the axle arm, and has an oil reservoir at the inner end. It revolves against a collet at the outer end, which is held in place by two nuts on opposing threads, with a split pin through the outer nut. A brass axle cap is screwed into the outer end of the axle box. The cap is a second oil reservoir and is used to top up the oil. There was usually a groove machined along the top of the axle arm to assist the flow of oil from one reservoir to the other and also to catch any grit that may have entered. The axle arm and axle box were case-hardened. The oil is retained by a thick leather washer between the axle box and the collar, and a thin one between the flange of the axle cap and the outer face of the stock or nave (Wheelwrights never called it a hub). The axles and the axlebox which turned on them were accurately ground together and their rotation pumped a supply of oil to the rubbing surfaces, so that a well-made Collinge axle could run for 5000 miles without attentions. Such axles were extensively used on horse drawn carriages and went on to mount the wheels of early motorcars a century later.
The railway was extended to the South side of the Wareham to Corfe road via a tunnel built in 1807.
The tunnel is still there
today but now is the route for a stream draining the artificial valley formed by
the clay workings. The north portal of the tunnel was buried when the road was realigned
in the 1980s. The Tunnel is now a listed building.
By 1825 a second tunnel to the east was built and is still there under the main road but as yet is not listed.
1881 the pits north of Norden Farm were being worked out and the tramway was extended eastwards along a parallel route to the proposed Swanage Railway to Norden where pits were dug, clay was processed and weathered. When the L&SWR branch line to Swanage was built an interchange siding was constructed and named "Lord Eldon's Clay Works Siding" to transfer clay to standard gauge wagons by shovel (later a ramp was built to enable the clay to be tipped).
The Middlebere Plateway was abandoned in about 1907, but it had been in continual use longer than any other Purbeck railway that was to follow.
The quay at Middlebere Creek has gradually fallen in to disrepair and almost vanished. The photo's below show its decline.
Click here to see photographs of the Middlebere Quay area today. The area in not accessible by members of the public. The location is in full view of 2 bird hides and part of an important bird sanctuary. However the National Trust do run a number of guided walks to the site throughout the year. For further information contact the editor
A model of Middlebere Quay can be found in Wareham Town Museum. This has been made by local member Tim Slater to celebrate the bicentenary of the plateway.