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The Merchant's Railway was operated by the Portland Railway Company formed by a number of the quarry owners once an Act of Parliament had been granted in 1825. The original track was constructed in 1826 by the engineer James Brown employing a method of cutting a narrow ledge into the steeply sloping hillside from Priory Corner, crossing Old Hill and past the Rectory of St. Georges Church, along the level crossing at the top of Tillycoombe and then following the contours around the mass of Verne Hill to meet the head of the Freeman's lncline Railway. The cutting was retained with a combination of large blocks of quarried stone and dry stone walls and the track rails laid to a gradual gradient and set onto stone sleepers. Stone posts were set up to mark each quarter of a mile from Priory Corner to enable the calculation of rates of carriage for the different grades of stone.

The line was constructed for the passage of stone from Priory Corner once transferred from horse-drawn carts (later a network of tramways) that served the quarries on top of the island, down to sea level via the two stages of the Freeman's lncline and thence to the sheltered stone piers situated on the east side of Portland Castle where the stone was loaded onto ships for transportation.

Prior to this the method for transporting stone down the steep escarpments separating Tophill and Underhill had been by horse drawn carts with a combination of blocks of stone on timber sled rails and horses known as Ape Horses tethered to the rear to act as breaks. One eye-witness account from 1804 describes how the horses "squat down on their haunches and suffer themselves to be dragged for many yards, struggling with all their strength against the weight that forces them forwards".

The system employed to descend the steep gradient of the inclines was one of primarily, counter balance. A heavily laden wagon of stone descending was counter balanced by a sufficient number of empty wagons ascending. The pair of overhead break drums that served the two stages of the Freeman's lncline was of similar construction. A chain was wrapped around six foot diameter cylindrical timber drums mounted on timber frames and were later, in 1854, 'housed' with roof structures to offer protection from the elements.

The chain and later, wire cable, was guided by steel rollers on pedestals partially set into the ground at intermediate points down the inclines.

The use of chain proved problematic from the outset due to the extreme loads exerted on it and in 1860 it was decided to remove the lower drum altogether and replace the top drum with a wire cable system consisting of a horizontal pulley carrying the wire cable with a break wheel mounted above it. This breaking system was a great improvement although excessive torque on the break wheel resulted in cable slippage. This was later rectified when, in 1905, a new eight foot diameter pulley wheel and improved breaking system was installed. A second, upper track from the top of Tillycoombe to the Freeman's lncline was cut into Verne Hill in 1866 to accommodate the increase in traffic from the quarries and coincided with construction of the Verne Citadel and the opening of the Weymouth & Portland Railway in 1865. A short branch from Portland Station at Victoria Square to a pair of sidings at the foot of the Freeman's lncline enabled the transferring of stone from the non-standard gauge of four feet, six and a half inches of the Merchant's Railway to the standard four feet, eight and a half inch gauge of the main line wagons. During the remodelling of the southern face of Verne Hill that forms the outer wall of the Verne Ditch an existing fresh water spring head was housed with a stone retaining wall cut into the bank midway along and adjacent to, the upper track. This also fed two large stone drinking troughs located below on the lower track.

Yeates lncline was built as a spur to the main line to serve Withies Croft, lndependent, and lnmosthay Quarries and was constructed to replace an earlier incline to the east, removed in 1866 to allow for the construction of the South Gate of the Verne Citadel.
The lower bridge carried the road up from Fortuneswell to the South Gate, the line from Waycroft Quarry crossed the middle bridge, whilst the 'top road' from Verne Yeates to the South Gate crossed the upper bridge. An overhead twelve foot diameter timber break drum to enable the use of wire cable was situated at the head.

The keystone of the upper bridge and middle bridge have inscribed dates of 1882 and 1880 respectively, whilst the lower bridge is slightly earlier having a date of 1875 inscribed on the inner face of the parapet adjacent to the keystone, The bridge abutments are constructed with rough-hewn, quarry-dressed masonry blocks of Portland Stone set in random coursing. The quoins are of rusticated ashlar with a drafted margin, as are the voussoir stones forming the arches and the bridge rebates and soffits are of dressed ashlar laid in courses. A fourth bridge serving Waycroft Quarry lies to the west of the incline and has an inscribed date of 1881.

Following the introduction of traction engines onto the island in the early 1890's and later in the 1930's, the use of heavy diesel lorries, transporting stone by road down through Fortuneswell, traffic on the Merchant's Railway began to gradually decrease.

The track of the Yeates lncline was removed during the Great War when the stone industry suffered a natural slump and quarrying ceased. Similarly, at the outbreak of the Second World War quarrying was temporarily curtailed and the Merchant's Railway stopped running on 11th October 1939. The Portland Railway Company continued trading until 1972 during which time company land was sold to offset liabilities and costs, the break house building serving the Freeman's lncline was demolished, and the rails removed for scrap (many being used as reinforcement for the Chiswell sea defence wall and promenade constructed from 1958 to 1965).
Ray Emery


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