Nicknamed the ‘Powder
Puff Line’, Blandford Camp railway probably had the shortest and most
controversial working life of any railway in Britain. Blandford Camp railway was
a small branch line built towards the end of World War I which connected the town
with Blandford Camp designed to carry both supplies and personnel. It left the
Somerset & Dorset line just to the south of Blandford Station passed along
the borders of Langton Long, crossed the Blandford-Wimborne road and climbed up
to the military camp. At the Camp end of the line there was a 200 yards long
halt style platform. This remained in place until the 1960s.
Although today Blandford Camp is an army establishment, its
first permanent occupants were the Royal Naval Division to be followed by the
Royal Air Force in 1918. The RAF had been formed in April 1918 and its
Blandford base of 15,000 military personnel became a major entry point for new
recruits. It was also the location of the Royal Air Force’s Headquarter’s
General & Records Office.
Unfortunately, the new base suffered from many problems. In
expanding quickly, there were serious construction delays caused by a shortage
of skilled building workers. Requests to improve pay rates were flatly refused
by the Government because they were concerned about the possible repercussive increased
pay cost effects on the large naval dockyards in the south and south west.
Then, the Camp was severely affected by an influenza epidemic which caused the
deaths of many young servicemen. Because of the construction delays, many had
to be accommodated in crowded tents which encouraged the spread of the virus.
There were disturbing stories of relatives arriving from distant places to view
the bodies of young men who had left home in robust health a fortnight earlier.
The Blandford Camp railway line opened in January 1919 but, of course, by then the war had ended. Also that month, the Western Gazette claimed there were serious problems in the Camp.
‘Badly prepared and insufficient food, bad sleeping accommodation, bullying by non-commissioned officers and the absence of opportunities for exercise- all these have contributed to a depression and discontent that might have been avoided.
Built by McAlpines, the three mile line had cost £59,877 but
on completion its construction was to become highly controversial. There was
criticism that the line was heavily underused and that work should have been
halted as soon as the Armistice had been signed in November 1918. A
Parliamentary Question was raised as to why so many Women’s Royal Air Force
clerks allegedly lived in Bournemouth and were brought to the Camp daily at
Government expense. A local resident wrote to the Times suggesting there was
much waste and inefficiency. The line gained the disparaging nicknames of the ‘Powder Puff Line’ and the ‘Scented Line’ because of the large
number of RAF women clerks.
There can be little doubt that the early construction
difficulties, the influenza epidemic and the alleged inefficiencies led to the
decision to close the RAF camp. Within two years of opening the line was handed
over to the Somerset & Dorset railway company and was only used
occasionally for the transport of stores and equipment.
A Sale by Auction notice appeared in the Portsmouth News
advertising a three day sale from Tuesday 27 May 1924 stating ‘the whole of the camp needs to be sold and
is for sale without reserve.’ Included were 5.5 miles of permanent way with
points, crossings and nine feet sleepers. Some of these items would soon exit
Blandford Camp in a dramatic fashion.
Two months’ later there was what today’s railway companies would describe as an incident on the line. Trollies were being loaded with rails and other materials at the Camp end of the line. Suddenly and for no apparent reason, six trollies began to slowly move forward in the direction of Blandford before anyone could stop them. It is, of course, downhill all the way to the main line. At ever increasing speeds, the trollys hurtled across level crossings in White Lane and on the Blandford-Wimborne road. Fortunately, no-one was passing. At the junction with the mainline there was a closed gate and points set against the Blandford Camp branch line. So the trollies were derailed as they smashed against the gate and tumbled down an embankment. Heavy steel work was scattered everywhere.
track was finally removed and an area close to the main line became a dumping
ground for the town’s rubbish. Such was the sad end to the short life of the ‘Powder Puff’ line.
(Illustration: Only known photograph of Blandford Camp's railway)