Saltash: just passing through

Saltash is known mainly for its twin bridges rather than for its architectural splendour or the historical significance of its built environment, which now sprawls voraciously and unstoppably into the nearby countryside. In 1859 Brunel’s Royal Albert Bridge across the River Tamar was opened and trains began to cross to and fro from England into Cornwall and vice versa. The ‘combined suspension and arched bridge’, started in 1847, was an engineering first for its time.

Just over 100 years later in 1961, the Tamar road bridge, at the time the largest suspension bridge in the UK, was opened after being two years in the construction. The building of these two bridges and the associated railway and new roads necessitated the demolition of a lot of housing, with slum clearance in the 1960s completing the job by doing away with the old part of the town bordering the river.

Tamar Street at the beginning of the 20th century. The bridge looms in the background.

The arrival of the railway meant moving to London became a lot easier. Someone who took advantage of this was Caroline Brooking. Caroline was the daughter of William Brooking and spent her early years at St Stephens by Saltash, just outside the town, where her father was a farmer. In the 1850s he moved into Saltash to a house near the quays and set up business as a manure and coal merchant. Manure and coal allowed him to prosper and he became an alderman and a respected citizen of the town.

Meanwhile, in 1874 Caroline had married John Whitford, a farmer from Lezant. After spending a few years farming John and Caroline left the land and moved to Plymouth around 1887. Then, after a short time, they took the train to London. John became a clerk for a window cleaning company while the family lived at Camberwell in south London. By 1901 John had progressed to become manager of a window cleaning company, moving to Fulham in west London.

Others, from humbler backgrounds, found work on the railway. Mary Simmons was born in Plympton across the Tamar but her father, a railway labourer, had moved to Saltash during the construction of the railway. By 1871 he was a foreman packer, someone who packed stones under railway sleepers to ensure the rails were stable, based at Menheniot station. In 1874 Mary married James Simms. However, he had died by 1881, when Mary was living in Plymouth with her child and her brother, also a widower, and his young child. He was also employed on the railway as a fireman.

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