A history of the site

One of the earliest images of the site, circa 1900, showing the Brunel building and the working creamery. Note also the building’s original arched windows. Photo: Totnes Image Bank and Rural Archive

In about 1845, the older buildings on the site were built as part of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s ‘atmospheric railway’, an experimental way of powering trains which ran between Exeter and Newton Abbot.

A passenger train of the South Devon Atmospheric Railway in operation along the seawall built by Brunel near Dawlish.

Plans of the Atmospheric railway used in Ireland on a short stretch of rail between Kingstown and Dalkey.

However, the technology failed, partly because it was ahead of its time and the pressurised valves required didn’t work well enough, and the project was abandoned in 1848.  It had cost a total of £426,000 of which only £50,000 was recovered from sale of the plant.  Some of this money had been Brunel’s own personal money that he had invested into the experiment.  Brunel took full responsibility himself, refusing any payment for his services as an engineer.  Later, his grand-daughter wrote “this costly mistake brought down the fury of shareholders, and certainly undermined confidence in him, for a time” (quote, and the two images above from Pudney, J (1974) Brunel and his world.  Thames and Hudson).  The atmospheric railway never reached Totnes, and the building itself never actually being fitted out as a pumping station, remaining a shell.

The Brunel buildings and original chimney, c.1900 (Photo: Totnes Image Bank and Rural Archive)

The Brunel building being used as storage for Symonds, a local cider manufacturer.

This image of Totnes station, from 1912, shows the original chimney that stood on the site (Photo: Totnes Image Bank and Rural Archive).

From that point forward, the Brunel buildings were used for various storage purposes, including, during the early parts of the 20th century, as a warehouse for Symons’ Cyder (see above).  In 1934 the complex of buildings was taken over by Daws Cremery and opened the following year.  In 1937, the site was acquired by Cow & Gate.  At that time, milk was collected every day from 350 local farms, taking in and processing 7000 gallons of milk a day.

This aerial image, from the late 1930s, shows both the original Brunel chimney and the newer one that still stands on the site. Note also, to the bottom left, the allotments that once stood where there is now tarmac for cars (Photo: Totnes Image Bank and Rural Archive).

By 1966, at the site’s peak as a processor of dairy products, at which time it was run by Unigate Dairies, it was taking in milk from 1,300 farms, over 65,000 gallons per day.  At that time, Ron Wheeler, the works manager, told a meeting of Totnes Rotary Club (see news clip, right) that the site produced over a ton of clotted cream a day!

In May 2007, Dairy Crest, who had taken over the site from Unigate in 2000, announced that they were closing their operations there, with the loss of 162 jobs, a major blow to the economy of the town.  With an eye to selling the site to developers, Dairy Crest began moves to demolish the Brunel Building, and following a fierce community campaign, English Heritage’s original decision not to list the building was reversed.  A number of celebrities, including Jeremy Clarkson, gave their backing to the campaign.  To see the story from this point forward, click here.

Our thanks to the Totnes Image Bank and Rural Archive for permission to use their photos and the Totnes Museum Study Centre for the news clipping.