A History of Inland Transport and Communication in England/Chapter 18

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[ 195 ]



The early history of the railway is the early history of the English coal trade.

Down to the sixteenth century the fuel supply of the country alike for manufacturing and for domestic purposes was derived almost exclusively from those forests and peat-beds that once covered so large a portion of the area of the British Isles. Coal was not unknown, though it was then called "sea-coal," a name distinguishing coal from charcoal, and given to it because the fact of the earliest known specimens being found on the shores of Northumberland and of the Firth of Forth—where there are outcrops of the coal measures—led to the belief that the black stone which burned like charcoal was a product of the sea. The name was retained, as an appropriate one, when coal was brought to London by sea from the north.

Coal is known to have been received at various dates during the thirteenth century in London (which then already had a Sacoles, or Sea-coal, Lane), in Colchester, in Dover and in Suffolk; but it was used mainly by smiths and lime-burners; and it was used by them still more when the construction of feudal castles and ecclesiastical buildings in and following the Norman period called for work not to be done efficiently with fires of wood or charcoal. The use of coal as fuel for domestic purposes remained, however, extremely limited. Unlike wood and charcoal, coal was not suitable for burning in the centre of rooms then unprovided with chimneys, while coal smoke was regarded as an intolerable nuisance, and as seriously detrimental to health. It was on these grounds that when, in the fourteenth century, brewers, dyers and others in London were found to be using coal, a Royal Proclamation was issued interdicting its use by any person not a smith or a lime-burner, and appointing a [ 196 ]commission of Oyer and Terminer to see to the punishment of all offenders.

For a further considerable period the use of coal continued very partial; but in the sixteenth century great uneasiness began to be felt at the prospective exhaustion of the timber supplies of the country, and various enactments were passed with a view to checking the destruction of the forests. Great attention began to be paid to the use of sea-coal as a substitute for wood, and an improvement in domestic architecture led to a more general provision of fire-places with chimneys, thus allowing of a resort to coal fires for domestic purposes. Chimneys began to appear, in fact, in numbers never seen before. Harrison, writing in 1577, grieves over the innovation of coal fires, and recalls the good old times of wood and peat when, as he touchingly says, "our heads did never ake."

Queen Elizabeth retained the prejudice against sea-coal, and would have none of it. Ladies of fashion, sharing, as loyal subjects, her Majesty's objections, would, in turn neither enter a room where coal was burning nor eat of food cooked at a coal fire. But James I., whose ancestors had long favoured coal fires in Scotland—and, it may be, thus made themselves responsible for the name of "Auld Reekie" conferred on Edinburgh—had coal brought for fires in his own rooms in Westminster Palace. When this fact became known Society changed its views, and decided that the hitherto obnoxious sea-coal might be tolerated, after all. Howes, writing in 1612, was then able to speak of coal as "the generall fuell of this Britaine Island."

In the result, and especially following on the development in trade and industry which came with the Restoration, there was a great increase in the demand for coal. In 1615 the coal fleet engaged in the transport of sea-coal to London, and other ports on the east and south-east coasts—where fuel was scarcest—comprised (as stated in "A History of Coal Mining in Great Britain," by Robert L. Galloway) 400 vessels. In 1635, or only twenty years later, the number had increased to between 600 and 700, and by 1650, or thereabouts, the total had further risen to 900 vessels, these figures being exclusive of the foreign fleets carrying coal to France, Holland and Germany.

[ 197 ]The collieries that were more especially required to meet this increased demand were those in the immediate neighbourhood of the Tyne, since they offered the advantages of thick seams of coal of excellent quality and close alike to the surface and to a navigable river. The proportions to which the industry had already attained in the year 1649 are shown by Grey, in his "Chorographia, or a Survey of Newcastle-upon-Tine," where he says: "Many thousand people are imployed in this trade of coales: many live by working of them in pits: many live by conveying them in waggons and waines to the river Tine.... One coal merchant imployeth five hundred or a thousand in his works of coal."

The one great difficulty in the way of development lay in the trouble experienced in getting the coal from the pit-banks to the river for loading into the keels, or barges, by which it would be conveyed to the sea-going colliers lying below the bridge at Newcastle.

The established custom was to send the coal to the river by carts, or wains, or even in panniers slung across the backs of horses; and in Robert Edington's "Treatise on the Coal Trade" (1813) mention is made of various collieries which had up to 600 or 700 carts engaged in this service. Inasmuch, however, as the art of road-making in general was then still in its elementary stage, one can well imagine that, with all this traffic along them, the roads between the collieries and the Tyne must have been in a condition that added greatly both to the difficulties and to the cost of transport. Nicholas Wood, in his "Practical Treatise on Rail-roads" (1825), gives an extract, dated 1602, from the book of a Newcastle coal company, showing that "from tyme out of mynd" the coal carts had brought eight bolls—equal to about 17 cwt.—of coal to the river; but added that "of late several hath brought only, or scarce, seven," a fact sufficiently suggestive of the deplorable state to which the colliery roads had been reduced even at the opening of a century that was to bring about so great an increase in the demand for coal.

Bad as the position was for the collieries located near to the Tyne, it was worse for those situate at any distance from the river, since, under the road conditions then prevailing, it was practically impossible for the owners of the latter collieries to get their coal to the river at all, or to secure [ 198 ]any share in a trade offering such great opportunities and undergoing such rapid expansion. The coal had but a nominal value so long as it could not be got away from the pit-banks.

The first attempt to overcome the difficulties of the situation was in the direction of laying parallel courses of stone or wood for the waggon wheels to run upon; but here we have the equivalent of a partially-paved roadway rather than of actual rails. The latter came when the parallel wheel-courses of wood were reduced to what William Hutchinson, in his "View of Northumberland" (1778), calls "strings of wood," for the accommodation of "large unwieldy carriages or waggons."

Nicholas Wood says that these wooden rails had a length of about six feet, and were five or six inches in thickness, with a breadth of about the same proportions. They were pegged down to sleepers placed across the track at a distance of about two feet apart, so that one rail reached across three sleepers. The spaces between the sleepers were filled in with ashes or small stones, to protect the feet of the horses. The waggons were in the form of a hopper, being much broader and longer at the top than at the bottom. At first all four wheels of the waggon were made either of one entire piece of wood or of two or three pieces of wood fastened together, the rim, in either case, being so shaped as to have on one side a projection, or flange, which would keep the wheel on the rails.

This, then, was the earliest example of a railway—the fundamental principle of which is, of course, the use of rails to facilitate the drawing or the propulsion of a moving body, and not the particular form of motive power (however great the importance, in actual practice, of this matter of detail) by which the traction is secured.

The date of the first "rail-way" (so called) in the form described, and in accordance with the principle mentioned, is uncertain; but Galloway, in his "History of Coal Mining," mentions a document dated 1660 which refers to a sale of timber used in the construction of waggon-ways; while Roger North, writing in 1676, describes the then existing railways in terms which suggest that they were, at that date, a well-established institution. Speaking generally, therefore, one may assume that the pioneer rail-ways were brought [ 199 ]into operation somewhere about the middle of the seventeenth century—if not still earlier. Taking 1650 as an approximate date, this would mean that the first rail-way must have been made about one hundred and eighty years before the opening of that Liverpool and Manchester line with which the history of railways is often assumed to have begun.

Hutchinson speaks of the collieries on the Tyne as being, at the time he wrote (1778), "about twenty-four in number," and he further says of them that they "lie at considerable distances from the river." On account of these considerable distances the colliery managers had to secure way-leaves for their rail-ways from the owners of intervening land, so as to obtain access to the Tyne. Thus Roger North, in the account he gives of the railways in the Newcastle district, says: "When men have pieces of land between the collieries and the rivers, they sell leave to lead coals over their ground, and so dear that the owner of a rood of ground will expect 20l. per annum for this leave." In some instances the total payment for a way-leave seems to have amounted to £500 a year. Statutory powers were not required for the rail-ways so long as they were used only for private purposes, though when they crossed a public road the assent of the local authorities was necessary.

The rails, sleepers and wheels, all of wood, came mostly from Sussex or Hampshire, and the writer of an article on the Tyne railways, published in the "Commercial and Agricultural Magazine" for October, 1800, speaks of the use on them of so much timber as "the more extraordinary" because the necessities of the coal mines had previously "used up every stick of timber in the neighbourhood," so that "the import from returning colliers (coal-ships) was the sole resource." Such import, also, would appear to have been considerable, the making of wooden rail-ways on the north-east coast being the means of developing an important industry in rails and wheels in the southern counties.

One of the importers on the Tyne was William Scott, father of Lords Stowell and Eldon, and his "Letters," included in M. A. Richardson's "Reprints of Rare Tracts" (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1849), give some interesting details on the subject. Scott, in addition to being himself engaged in mining, acted as agent for southern producers of wooden rails and [ 200 ]wheels for colliery rail-ways; and his letters show that in and about the year 1745 the consignments were coming to hand in "immense quantities." Scott seems to have had great trouble in restraining the zeal of the southerners. He tells one correspondent that "Wheels are at present a great drug from so many yt. came last year. Rails will be wanted, but the people pays so badly for them that wod weary eny body to serve them." To another he says: "I find the best oak rails will scarcely give 6d. p yd this year." To correspondents at Lyndhurst, New Forest, he writes: "I fancy the dealers in wn. wheels will expect to have wheels soon 'em given, if such great numbers continue coming." Mr West, of Slyndon, near Arundel, Sussex, is told that not more than five shillings can be got for the best wooden wheels, and that "dealers are so full that they have not room for any wheels." On March 27, 1747, Scott writes concerning wheels: "No less than about 2000 com'd within these 14 days from Lyndhurst consign'd to different people"; and two months later he announces that he has resolved to receive "no more such goods as wooden wheels, rails and such like from anybody."

Most of the Tyne collieries were at a higher level than the river, and in the construction of the rail-ways it was sought to obtain a regular and easy descent, regardless of route or distance, to the "staith," or shipping-stage, from which the coal would be loaded either into the keels (barges) employed to take it along the river to the colliers, or, in the case of longer distance rail-ways, direct into the collier itself, the bottom of the waggons being made after the fashion of a trap-door to facilitate discharge. Gradual descent was further aimed at because it allowed of the loaded waggons moving along the rail-way by reason of their own weight.

How this prototype both of the railway and of express trains as known to us to-day was operated is well shown in a "Description of a Coal-Waggon," with an accompanying illustration, contributed to the "General Magazine of Arts and Sciences" for June, 1764, by John Buddie, of Chester-le-street, Durham, who subsequently became manager of the Wallsend Colliery. In the illustration a horse is depicted drawing, by means of two ropes fastened to its collar, a loaded four-wheeled coal waggon along a rail-way preceded by a man who, having a bundle of hay underneath one arm, [ 201 ]holds some of the hay a few inches in front of the horse so that the animal, stretching forward to get the hay, draws along the waggon more readily. Buddle explains that the waggon is "conducted or drove by a single man, called the Waggon-man, whose most common action on the road is, inticing the horse forward with a bit of hay in his hand, which he supplies from under his arm, a quantity of hay sufficient for a day being kept in the Hay-poke," that is, in a receptacle at the back of the waggon. Suspended over one of the hind wheels is a "convoy," or brake, formed of a curved and strong-looking piece of wood (described in the text as alder-wood), which is attached at one end to the waggon, and held in a loop at the other. "Its use," says Buddle, "is to regulate the motion of the waggon down the sides of the hills (called by the waggon men runs) making it uniform.... The waggon-man, taking the end out of the loop, lets it down upon the wheel, and, placing himself astride upon the end, with one foot on the waggon-soal he presses more or less, according to the declivity of the run; the Convoy acting at that time as a leaver."

Buddle further says: "Waggon men, in going down very steep Runs, commonly take their horses from before, and fasten them behind their waggons,[1] as they would inevitably be killed was the convoy to break (which frequently happens) or any other accident occasion these waggons to run amain. Nor is this fatal consequence attendant only on the horses, but the drivers often receive broken bones, bruises, and frequently the most excruciating deaths. Indeed, in some places, a most humane custom is established, which is, when any waggon-man loses his horse, the other Waggon-men go a Gait for the poor sufferer, which is little out of their profits, and purchase him another horse."

About 1750, according to Nicholas Wood, cast-iron wheels were introduced; but in 1765 wooden wheels were still mostly used at the back of the waggon, to allow of the convoy getting a better grip when the waggon was going, by its own [ 202 ]weight, down an incline; though even then the danger of accident was, as Buddle's observations suggest, sufficiently grave. On this same point it is said by T. S. Polyhistor, in a "Description of a Coal Waggon," given in the "London Magazine" for March, 1764:—

"They commonly unloose the horse when they come to the runs, and then put him too again when down; the reason of their taking him off at such places is because, were the convoy to break, it would be impossible to save the horse from being killed, or if the waggon-way rails be wet sometimes a man cannot stop the waggon with the convoy and where the convoy presses upon the wheel it will fire and flame surprisingly; many are the accidents that have happened as aforesaid; many hundred poor people and horses have lost their lives; for was there ever so many waggons before the waggon that breaks its convoy and has not got quite clear of the run, they are all in great danger, both men and horses, of being killed."

Polyhistor also states that the quantity of coal one of these waggons would draw on the rails was 19 "bolls," or "bowls," as he calls them. This gave a load of about 42 cwt. of coal, as compared with the load of 17 cwt., or less, to which the waggons on the ordinary roads at the collieries had been reduced. The advantage from the point of view of transport was obvious; but no less certain, also, was the risk to life and limb when a waggon with over two tons of coal was allowed to run down an incline checked only by a primitive wooden brake, with a man seated on one end of it to press it against a wheel. In wet weather boys or old men were employed to sprinkle ashes on the rails; but there were times when the rail-ways having a steep descent could not be used at all.

Introduced on the Tyne, the rail-way was adopted in 1693 by collieries on the Wear, and it also came into vogue in Shropshire and other districts. In 1698 a rail-way was set up on Sir Humphry Mackworth's colliery at Neath, Glamorganshire; but after it had been in use about eight years it was condemned by a grand jury at Cardiff as a "nuisance," and the portion crossing the highway between Cardiff and Neath was torn up. In a statement presented, rebutting the allegation of the grand jury, it was said: "These waggon ways are [ 203 ]very common and frequently made use of about Newcastle and also at Broseley, Benthal and other places in Shropshire, and are so far from being nuisances that they have ever been esteemed very useful to preserve the roads, which would be otherwise made very bad and deep by the carriage of coal in common waggons and carts."

The Tyneside colliery rail-way was, in fact, widely adopted; though it underwent many improvements long before there was any suggestion of operating the new form of traction by means of locomotives.

The first improvement on the original wooden rail pegged on to the sleepers was the fastening on it of another rail, in order that this could be removed, when worn down, without interfering with the sleepers. This arrangement was known as the "double way"; and Nicholas Wood says of it: "The double rail, by increasing the height of the surface whereon the carriage travelled, allowed the inside of the road to be filled up with ashes or stone to the under side of the upper rail, and consequently above the level of the sleepers, which thus secured them from the action of the feet of the horses." He adds that on the first introduction of the double way the under rail was of oak, and afterwards of fir, mostly six feet long, and reaching across three sleepers, and was about five inches broad on the surface by four or five inches in depth. The upper rail was of the same dimensions and almost always made of beech or plane tree.

The next improvement was the nailing of thin strips, or "plates," of wrought iron on to the double rail wherever there was a steep descent or a considerable curve, thus diminishing the friction. These "plates" were about two inches wide and half an inch thick, and they were fastened on to the wooden rails with ordinary nails. They constituted the first step towards the conversion of wooden rail-ways into an iron road, and Nicholas Wood thinks it very likely that the diminution of friction resulting from their use may have suggested the substitution of iron rails for wooden ones.

Cast-iron rails began to come into use about 1767. Their brittleness was, at first, found to be a great disadvantage; but this defect was subsequently overcome, to a certain extent, by the use of smaller waggons, which allowed of a better distribution of weight over the rail. Then in or about [ 204 ]1776 "plates" or "rails" (the two expressions seem to have been used somewhat indiscriminately) were cast with an inner flange, from two to three inches high, so that waggons with ordinary wheels could be taken upon them and be kept on the plate, or rail, by means of this flange.

John Curr, manager of the Duke of Norfolk's collieries, near Sheffield, who claimed to have invented these flanged "plates," describes them in his "Coal Viewer and Engine Builder's Practical Companion" (1797), as being six feet long, three inches broad, half an inch thick, from 47 lbs. to 50 lbs. in weight, and provided with nail holes for fastening them direct on to oak sleepers. Lines so constructed became known as "plate-ways," "tram-ways," or, alternatively, "dram-ways."

The derivation of the words tram and tramway has given rise to a certain amount of discussion from time to time, and the fallacy that they come from the name of Benjamin Outram, of the Ripley iron-works, Derbyshire, who, in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, advocated the flanged-plate system of rail-way, has been especially favoured. It was, however, merely a coincidence that "tram" formed part of his name, and this popular theory here in question is quite unfounded.

The real origin of "tram" is indicated, rather, by the following list of possible derivations, which I take from Skeat's "Etymological Dictionary":—

Swedish: Tromm, trumm, a log, or the stock of a tree; also a summer sledge.

Middle Swedish: Tråm, trum, a piece of a large tree cut up into logs.

Norwegian: Tram, a door-step (of wood). Traam, a frame.

Low German: Traam, a balk or beam; especially one of the handles of a wheel-barrow.

Old High German: Drām, trām, a beam.

Thus in its original signification the word tram, or its equivalent, was applied either to a log of wood or to certain specified objects made of wood.

The word itself was in use in this country as far back as the middle of the sixteenth century, since on August 4, 1555, a certain Ambrose Middleton, of Skirwith, Cumberland (as recorded in the Surtees Society "Publications," vol. xxxviii., [ 205 ]page 37, note), made a will in which he left "to the amendinge of the highwaye or tram, from the weste ende of Bridgegait, in Barnard Castle, 20s." There is no reason to doubt that the "highwaye or tram" here referred to was a road across which logs of wood had been laid, the name "tram" being applied thereto by reason of its aforesaid original signification. It is, further, easy to understand how, when the pioneer rail-ways were made entirely of wood, the word tram-way should, for that reason, still be applied to them. Just, also, as "tram" had already passed from a log of wood to a wooden sledge or to a wheelbarrow handle, so it was given by pitmen in the north of England to the small waggon in which coal was pushed or drawn along in the workings.

When "plates" were nailed on to the wooden rails of the early rail-ways the use of the word tram-way may still have been regarded as appropriate; it was retained for the plates or rails provided with a flange, and lines constructed with flanged plates or rails were, in turn, called plate-ways, tram-ways, or dram-ways to distinguish them from other ways or roads made with rails having no flange.

In course of time the wooden rails which had been the original justification for the use of the word or prefix "tram" disappeared, and even the flanged rails were to be met with only on canal or colliery lines; but "tramway"—now a complete misnomer—is the name still given in this country to what in the United States are more accurately known as street railways.

Of the vast number of people in the United Kingdom who daily use the word tramway, or speak of "going by tram," few, probably, realise how they are thus recalling the days alike of log-roads and of those rail-ways of wood which were the pioneers of the iron roads of to-day.

The designation, also, of "platelayer" was originally applied to the men employed to lay the "plates" of which I have spoken; but although workers on the permanent way are now, surely, rail-layers rather than plate-layers, they are still known by the original name.

The system of flanged plates, or rails, was widely adopted; but when, in 1785, it was proposed to build a 3-mile plate-way, or tram-way, of this type between Loughborough and the Nanpantan collieries, the commissioners of a turnpike [ 206 ]road it was necessary to cross objected, on the ground that the raised flange would be dangerous to traffic passing along the road. Following on these objections, William Jessop, the engineer of the proposed line, decided, in 1788, to abandon flanged plates and flat wheels, and to substitute for them flat rails and flanged wheels.[2] He proceeded to cast some "edge-rails" which overcame the scruples of the road commissioners, and the Loughborough and Nanpantan rail-way was opened in 1789, being the first having iron rails with a flat surface, on the "edge" of which wheels with a flange on their inner side were run. The plate, or tram, system of flanged rails still had many advocates, and for a time there was much controversy as to the respective merits of the two systems; but the principle introduced by Jessop was eventually adopted for railways in general, and became one of the most important of the developments that rendered possible the attainment of high speeds in rail transport. "The substitution of the flanged wheel for the flanged plate was," said Mr. James Brunlees, C.E., in his presidential address in the Mechanical Science Section at the 1883 meeting of the British Association, "an organic change which has been the forerunner of the great results accomplished in modern travelling by railway."

For some thirty years after Jessop's improvement, the rails, of whichever kind, were still made of cast-iron, wrought-iron rails, tried at Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1805, not coming into general use until about 1820, when John Birkenshaw, of the Bedlington iron-works, invented an efficient and economical method of rolling iron bars suitable for use as railway lines.[3] By 1785 iron rails, even though only cast-iron rails, had widely taken the place of the wooden rails which had then been in use for over a hundred years.

[ 207 ]The substitution, from about 1767, of iron rails—even though they were only cast-iron rails—for wooden ones became the great event in the development of railways at this period, and gave the newer lines their distinguishing feature as compared with their predecessors. Each fresh line made took the credit of being an "iron rail-way"; and not only did that designation remain in vogue in this country for several decades but it fixed, also, the names of the railway systems in various Continental countries, as shown by the term "Chemin de Fer" in France and Belgium, "Eisenbahn" in Germany, Austria and Switzerland; "Strada ferrata" in Italy, and "Ferrocarril" in Spain (the English equivalent in each instance being "Iron Road"), and by the name of Holland Iron Railway Company ("Hollandsche Yzeren Spoorvegs-maatschappy") by which one of the oldest of the railway companies in Holland—where it was founded in 1837—is still known.[4]

One factor in the preference shown for iron rails over wooden ones was the consideration of cost. Alluding to the wooden railways of Durham, in his "General View" of the agriculture of that county, drawn up for the Board of Agriculture in 1810, John Bailey, of Chillingham, says: "Of late years, on account of the high price of wood, iron railways have been substituted." With an increase in the price of timber, owing to the greater scarcity thereof, as the available supplies in the southern counties became more depleted, the time may well have come when, apart from other considerations, it was found cheaper in the north to make cast-iron rails than to import wooden ones. The need for importing so much timber was further diminished, from about 1739, by the substitution, in many instances, of blocks of stone for [ 208 ]the wooden sleepers previously used, the iron being either spiked to wooden plugs inserted in holes made in the stones or else fastened by wooden pins into cast-iron "pedestals," as John Bailey calls them, fixed in the stones.

Wooden rails did not, however, entirely and immediately give way to iron rails. On the contrary, the old system was so far maintained that, according to "The Industrial Resources of the Tyne," wooden railways could still be found on the collieries in that district as late as 1860.

Among the advantages derived from the substitution of iron rails for wooden rails was the fact that a horse could draw, on the level, heavier loads than before. On the other hand, the heavier the load the greater was the danger in taking the waggons down hill-sides with only a wooden brake to check their speed; and this danger was increased to an even greater degree when the use of iron rails involved the abandonment of the wooden wheels which had hitherto been retained at the back of the waggons in order that the brake should act more effectively. Still further improvements thus became necessary, and these first took the form of inclined planes on which the law of gravity was employed, loaded waggons raising empty ones, or having their own descent regulated, by means of a rope passing round a wheel at the top of the incline. Later on stationary engines and chains were substituted for the wheel and the rope, horses then being employed on the level only.

Bailey says on this point: "Waggon ways have generally been so contrived that the ascents were not greater than a single horse could draw a waggon up them; but some cases have happened lately where it required more than one horse, and steam engines have been substituted for horses for drawing waggons up these ascents. At Urpeth waggon way five or six waggons are drawn up at one ascent, by a steam engine placed at the top."

Here, then, we have another stage in the process of evolution that was going on. The stationary engine at the top of an incline drawing up, or regulating the descent of, heavier loads, on iron rails, was the first employment on railways of that steam power which was afterwards to develop into the locomotive capable to-day of taking heavy trains at a speed of a mile a minute. In those early days, however, speed was [ 209 ]not regarded as a matter of any importance. Colliery managers were quite satisfied with a steady three miles an hour.

Although the general conditions of the pioneer railways were, apparently, so primitive, some of the lines were more ambitious and more costly than might, at first, be supposed. Among them were lines from five to ten miles in extent which served the double purpose of (1) enabling collieries in, for example, the Hinterland of the Tyne to benefit from the ever-expanding trade in coal; and (2) providing them with the means of discharging direct into the colliers below Newcastle bridge, thus saving the preliminary transport in, and transshipment from, the coal barges on the river. In these five- or ten-mile distances there were often considerable declivities to overcome, in order that the ideal of a gradual descent should be secured, and the cuttings, embankments, bridges and other works thus carried out were often closely akin to much of the railway construction with which we are familiar to-day. Thus Dr. Stukeley, in his "Itinerarium Curiosum," says in describing the visit he paid to the Tanfield Collieries, Durham, in 1725:—

"We saw Col. Lyddal's coal-works at Tanfield, where he carries the road over valleys filled with earth, 100 foot high, 300 foot broad at bottom: other valleys as large have a stone bridge laid across:[5] in other places hills are cut through for half a mile together; and in this manner a road is made, and frames of timber laid, for five miles to the river-side."

Arthur Young, also, who visited the Newcastle-on-Tyne district in 1768, says in his "Six Months Tour through the North of England": "The coal waggon roads from the pits to the water are great works carried over all sorts of inequalities of ground so far as the distance of nine or ten miles."

The staiths at the river end of the Tyne railways are described in the "Commercial and Agricultural Magazine" as "solid buildings, two stories high; into the upper story the [ 210 ]waggon-way enters, and a spout projecting over the river shoots the coals into the keels, or a trap-door drops the coals into the lower story, whence they must be shovelled into the keels afterwards."

John Francis expresses the opinion, in his "History of the English Railway" (1851), that probably by 1750 there was scarcely an important colliery that had not its own railway. Such lines as these, however, were of a private character, serving the interests only of the companies or the individuals making them, without offering transport facilities to other traders in return for tolls, and requiring no Act of Parliament so long as they retained this character, did not require to cross public roads, and could be constructed by agreement among the landowners concerned. The more important development came when the canal companies themselves desired to supplement their canals by railways which anyone paying the stipulated tolls could use in connection with canal transport. Under these conditions the companies had to seek for further powers from Parliament, and this they began to do about the middle of the eighteenth century.

The Trent and Mersey Canal Act of 1776, for example, authorised the construction of a "rail-way" from the canal to the Froghall quarries, a distance of three and a half miles.[6] In 1802 the same company obtained authority to construct three "railways" extending from their canal in various directions. The preamble of the Act (42 Geo. III. c. 25) recited that the lines would be of "great advantage to the extensive manufactories of earthenware ... and of public utility," and the Act accordingly sanctioned the lines "for the passage of waggons and carriages of forms and constructions, and with burthens suitable to such railways, to be approved by the company," at rates duly specified. These various railways, together with the Trent and Mersey Canal itself, were, in 1846, taken over by the North Staffordshire Railway Company, whose general manager, Mr W. D. Phillipps, informs me that portions of two of them are still in daily use. They are laid with cast-iron tram plates, with flanges to keep the wheels in place, and ordinary waggons [ 211 ]and carts use them to get from the canal basin to the high road, a few hundred yards away, the same rate of toll being charged as on the canal. Mr Phillipps further says: "Our Froghall tramway rises 400 feet from the level of the canal to the quarry, passing by means of a tunnel through an intermediate hill, and it is worked entirely by gravitation, there being four inclined planes of various lengths and inclinations. The gauge is 3 feet 6 inches. It is practically the same as when laid down over 100 years ago. We convey over it nearly 500,000 tons of limestone annually, and I find it a cheap and expeditious mode of conveyance."

I would call special attention to these details because it was, no doubt, the fact that ordinary road carts, with flat-edged wheels, could be taken along the flanged plates of the early railways, and were so taken under authority of the Acts of Parliament here in question, that originally established the idea both of a common user of the railways by traders employing their own vehicles upon them and of competition being thus ensured between different carriers. The pioneer public railways, provided as accessories to canal transport, were, indeed, looked upon as simply a variation, in principle, of the ordinary turnpike road. They were roads furnished with rails, and available for use, on payment of the authorised tolls, by anyone whose cart-wheels were the right distance apart.

The position in this respect was entirely changed when the system of railway operation came to be definitely fixed on the principle of edge-rails and flanged wheels, with locomotives in place of horses; yet the legislation immediately following the spread of railways on this vastly different basis was still determined, as regarded their use by the public, by the precedent originally established under the conditions here narrated.

While thus operated on the toll principle of a turnpike road—the pioneer "railway stations" being themselves simply the equivalent of toll-houses—the early railways were all associated with canal or river transport. Robert Fulton says in his "Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation" (1796) that "Rail-roads have hitherto been considered as a medium between lock-canals and cartage, in consequence of the expence of extending the canal to the [ 212 ]particular works in its neighbourhood"; and, in the course of a detailed argument in favour of small boats, of from two to five tons burden, in preference to the unduly large ones—as he considered them—then in vogue, he adds: "Rail-ways of one mile or thereabouts will, no doubt, be frequently necessary, where it may be difficult to find water at the extremity, or when the trade from the works is not sufficient to pay the expence of machinery,[7] and, its extent being one mile, can be of little importance to the country."

That Parliament itself, at this time, looked upon railways only as accessories to canals is shown by a reference to the "House of Commons Journals," where, under date June 19, 1799, it is reported that a Committee appointed, on the 10th of the same month, "to consider the expediency of requiring notices to be given of an intended application to Parliament for leave to bring in a Bill for the making of Ways or Roads usually called Railways or Dram Roads, or for the renewal or alteration of an Act passed for that purpose," had adopted the following resolution: "That it is the opinion of this Committee, That the Standing Orders of the House of the 7th of May, 1794, relating to Bills for making Navigable Canals, Aqueducts and the Navigation of Rivers, or for altering any Act of Parliament for any or either of those purposes, be extended to Bills for making any Ways or Roads, commonly called Railways or Dram Roads, except so much of the said Standing Orders as requires," etc. The resolution was agreed to by the House on the 25th of the same month.

Towards the close of the century it became customary for canal companies applying to Parliament for powers, or extensions of existing powers, to seek for authority to make railways, waggon ways or stone roads in connection with their canals; and these they were generally authorised to lay down to any existing or future mines, quarries, furnaces, forges or other works within a distance of, at first four, subsequently eight, miles of such canal. They were, also, authorised to construct any bridges necessary for giving access to the canal. If, after being asked to make a railway, waggon road or bridge, under these conditions, the canal company refused so to do, the person or persons concerned [ 213 ]could carry out the work at his or their own cost and charges, without the consent of the owner of the lands, rivers, brooks or water-courses it might be necessary to cross, though subject to the payment to them of compensation under conditions analogous to those in force in regard to the construction of canals. One Act of this type, the Aberdare Canal Act, 1793, goes on to say: "Every such rail way or waggon road and bridge ... shall ... be publick and open to all persons for the conveyance of any minerals, goods, wares, merchandizes and things, in waggons and other carriages," of a specified construction, "and for the passage of horses, cows and other meat cattle, on payment to the person or persons at whose charge and expense such rail way or waggon road shall have been made or erected" of the same rates as would be payable to the canal company under like conditions.

It was in South Wales, even more than on the Tyne, that the early railways eventually underwent their greatest development. In "Illustrations of the Origin and Progress of Rail and Tram Roads and Steam Carriages or Loco-motive Engines" (1824), by T. G. Cumming, Surveyor, Denbigh, we read:—

"As late as the year 1790 there was scarcely a single rail-way in all South Wales, whilst in the year 1812 the rail-ways, in a finished state, connected with canals, collieries, iron and copper works, &c., in the counties of Monmouth, Glamorgan and Carmarthen alone extended to upwards of one hundred and fifty miles in length, exclusive of a very considerable extent within the mines themselves, of which one company at Merthyr Tydvil possessed upwards of thirty miles underground connected with the stupendous iron works at that place; and so rapid has been the increase of rail-ways in South Wales of late years that at the present period they exceed four hundred miles, exclusive of about one hundred miles underground."

The whole of these lines were on the tram-plate, or flanged-rail, principle, while solid blocks of stone were, in Wales, generally substituted for wooden sleepers. Cumming further says:—

"In the extensive mining districts south of the Severn, including South Wales, the rail and tram roads are very numerous, and here, perhaps, more than in any part of the [ 214 ]United Kingdom, owing to the steepness, great irregularity and impracticable nature of the ground, they have been of the most essential utility in supplying the place of canals....

"There are numerous tram roads connected with the canal between Cardiff and Merthyr Tydvil, in Glamorganshire. The extent of rail road about Merthyr Tydvil alone is very considerable; besides which, in the same neighbourhood are the Hirwaen, Aberdare, and Abernant tram roads, and a great variety of others communicating with the vast works on the hills in the vicinity."

One of the South Wales tramroad schemes—though not specifically mentioned by Cumming—is of exceptional interest inasmuch as it represented, probably, the first attempt ever made to introduce a railway as a direct rival of and competitor with a canal, instead of being simply a feeder thereof. The attempt was a failure, but it nevertheless constitutes a landmark in early railway history.

The story begins with the granting, in 1790, of an Act for the cutting of a canal between Merthyr and Cardiff by the Company of Proprietors of the Glamorganshire Canal Navigation, improved means of transport being then much needed in the interests of the iron-works and other industrial undertakings in the district. The Act of 1790 authorised the company to spend £90,000 on the canal; but this amount was found to be inadequate, and in 1796 a second Act sanctioned the raising of a further £10,000, and, also, the cutting of a short extension at the Cardiff end.

The opening of the canal for traffic is thus recorded by J. Phillips in the fourth edition (1803) of his "General History of Inland Navigation":—

"Feb. 1794. The canal from Cardiff to Merthir-Tidvil is completed, and a fleet of canal boats have arrived at Cardiff laden with the produce of the iron works there, to the great joy of the whole town. The rude tracks, through which the canal passes in some places are constantly improving, from the happy and healthful toil of the husbandman, and in a few years will be forgotten in a garden of verdure and fertility. This canal is 25 miles long; it passes along the sides of stupendous mountains. Nothing appears more extraordinary than, from a boat navigating this canal, to look down on the river Taaf, dashing among the rocks 100 yards [ 215 ]below. The fall from Merthir-Tidvil to Cardiff is nearly 600 feet."

In a later reference, dated 1802, Phillips says that the completion of the Glamorganshire Canal "has opened a ready conveyance to the vast manufacture of iron established in the mountains of that country, and many thousands of tons are now annually shipped from thence."

The canal, however, failed to meet all requirements, a scheme for a railway, or dram-road, between Cardiff and Merthyr being projected in the same year that the waterway was first opened.

In "Rees' Cyclopædia" (1819) it is stated: "The rail-ways hitherto constructed were private property, or for the accommodation of particular mines or works, and it was not, we believe, until about the year 1794 that Mr Samuel Homfray and others obtained an act of Parliament for constructing an iron dram-road, tram-road or rail-way between Cardiff and Merthyr Tidvill in South Wales, that should be free for any persons to use, with drams or trams of the specified construction on paying certain tonnage or rates per mile to the proprietors." Tredgold, in his "Practical Treatise on Rail-roads" (1825), makes a similar statement as regards the granting of an Act in 1794, saying that "in consequence of the upper part of the Cardiff or Glamorganshire canal being frequently in want of water, the Cardiff and Merthyr rail-way or tram-road was formed parallel to it, for a distance of about nine miles, chiefly for the iron works of Plymouth, Pendarran and Dowlais," with a continuation, however, making a total distance of about 26¾ miles. The tramway, he further says, "appears to have been constructed under the first Act ever obtained for this species of road."

These statements have been accepted and repeated by various writers; but a search of the "House of Commons Journals" for 1794 fails to show that any such Act was passed. The scheme in question seems to have been projected, in 1794, by certain ironmasters, who found that their own traffic on the canal was being prejudiced by a preference given to the traffic of their rivals; but the project for a tramway or railway from Merthyr to Cardiff was abandoned—for a time—in favour of one from Merthyr to a place then called Navigation, and now known as Abercynon, [ 216 ]where the canal would be joined, and traffic could be transhipped.

The tramway in question is thus referred to in "The Scenery, Antiquities and Biography of South Wales, from Material Collected during two Excursions in the year 1803," by B. H. Malkin (second edition, 1807):—

"At the Aqueduct, where the Canal is carried over the River, an iron rail-road for the present ends; and from the Wharf at this place [Navigation] the Canal is the only conveyance for heavy goods to Cardiff; the length of it—as far as it has already been completed—is 10 miles, but it was designed to have extended from Merthyr Tydfil to Cardiff, and it is said that one horse would have been able to draw 40 tons of iron the whole distance of 26 miles in one day; I understand, however, that it is not likely to be finished, and, indeed, it is much more necessary where it is now made from the occasional want of water lower down where the confluence of many and copious streams affords a more certain supply to the Canal."

The line had evidently been constructed, not under any special Act, but by the authority of powers already granted by clause 57 of the Glamorganshire Canal Company's own Act, which, framed on the general lines already mentioned, conferred upon all persons owning, renting, leasing, or occupying property containing any mines of coal, iron-stone, limestone or other minerals, or the proprietors of any furnaces or other works lying within the distance of four miles from some part of the canal the right to make any railways or roads over the lands or grounds of any person or persons, or to make any bridges over any river, brook or watercourse, for the purpose of conveying the coal, iron, etc., to the said canal.

It will be noticed that this clause appears to limit to four miles the length of any tramway constructed in virtue of its provisions, whereas the length of the line actually made was, in effect, nine miles from Merthyr and ten from Dowlais. It is understood, however, that the constructors of the tramway successfully contended that, so long as their mines or works were within four miles of the canal, they were at liberty to lay down the tramway to such point on the canal as they thought proper to select, and they chose Navigation because it suited them best.

[ 217 ]There is reason to believe, although actual proof is lacking, that the original design of continuing this tramway to Cardiff was not carried out because of the opposition of the canal company. Certain it is that the project for such a tramway was revived in 1799. Under date February 18, in that year, the "House of Commons Journals" record that William Lewis (Alderley), William Taitt, Thomas Guest, Joseph Cowles, and John Guest, being a firm of ironmasters in the parish of Merthyr Tydvil, known as the Dowlais Iron Company; Jeremiah Homfray, Samuel Homfray, Thomas Homfray and William Forman, ironmasters, of Merthyr Tydvil, known by the name of Jeremiah Homfray and Co.; Richard Hill and William Lewis (Pentyrch Works) petitioned the House for leave to bring in a Bill for the construction of a "dram road" from or near Carno Mill, in the parish of Bedwelty and the county of Monmouth to Cardiff, with branches to Merthyr and Aberdare.[8]

The petitioners declared that such dram-road would "open an easy Communication with several considerable Ironworks, Collieries, Limestone Quarries and extensive Tracks of Land, abounding with Coal, Limestone and other Minerals, whereby the Carriage and Conveyance of Iron, Coal, Lime, Timber and all kinds of Merchandize to or from the different Places bordering on the said intended Road will be greatly facilitated and rendered less expensive than at present, and will tend greatly to improve the Lands and Estates near the said Road, and the said Undertaking will, in other Respects, be of great Public Utility."

The petition was referred to a Committee, who reported favourably on March 8, and the Bill was presented and read a [ 218 ]first time on March 15. Then, however, came the opposition from the canal company. On April 8, as the "Journals" further record, the Commons received a petition from the Company of Proprietors of the Glamorganshire Canal Navigation setting forth that they had been authorised under two Acts to make and maintain a navigable canal from Merthyr to Cardiff; that they had expended on this undertaking a sum of £100,000; that they had seen the Bill above-mentioned, and, they proceed:—

"That the Dram Road or Way, proposed to be made by the said Bill, will pass from one End thereof to the other, nearly parallel, and in almost every Part near to the said Canal; and in some places will cross the same; and that the Petitioners were induced to undertake the making of the said Canal, in hopes of being repaid the Expence thereof, with proper remuneration for the Risk of the said Undertaking, by the Carriage of Coal, Lime, Iron, Timber, and other goods and Merchandizes thereon, but if the said Dram Road or Way should be made as proposed they would be deprived of a great Part of those Advantages which they apprehend they have had granted and secured to them, and are therefore now fully entitled to, by the said Two Acts, without the Country adjacent or the Public in General, receiving any particular Benefit or Advantage."

The company further pleaded that under their Acts they were "restrained from ever receiving more than a moderate Dividend on their Shares, and whenever the Profits of the Canal shall be more than sufficient to pay the same, their Rates of Tonnage are to be lowered;[9] and for that reason, as well as many others, of equal Justice, they conceive they should be secured in the possession of all the advantages proposed to be granted to them by the said Acts."

The House ordered that the petition do lie upon the table until the said Bill be read a second time, and that counsel be then heard on both sides. On May 3 a day was appointed for the second reading, and on May 4 the House received a further petition from landowners, tradesmen and others in support of the Bill. The "Journals," however, contain no record of the second reading having been reached, and their [ 219 ]only further reference at all to the Bill is in the "General Index" to the volumes for 1790-1801, where, under the heading "Navigations: Petitions to make Dram Roads to Canals, &c.," it is said of the Bill in question "Not proceeded in."

There is no reason to doubt that this first scheme for the construction of a railway—even though under the name of a "dram road"—which would have been not only independent of canal transport but in direct competition therewith, was killed through the opposition of the then powerful canal interests. The tradition in Cardiff is that the Glamorganshire Canal Company "got hold" of the leading promoters, and persuaded them to abandon their scheme by electing them members of the managing committee of the canal. Whether or not some additional inducement was offered to them is not known. In any case, there was no further attempt to set up a railway in direct and avowed competition with a canal until the great fight over the Liverpool and Manchester Railway Bill, a quarter of a century later.

The significance of all these facts will be found still greater in the light of what I shall have to say subsequently in regard to the influence of canal interests and canal precedents alike on railway development and on railway legislation.

In some instances the railways belonging to the period here under review were constructed by the canal companies not merely as feeders to the canals but as substitutes for lengths of canal where the making of an artificial waterway presented special difficulties. The Lancashire Canal Company, incorporated in 1792, laid a line of railway for five miles, passing through the town of Preston, to connect two sections of canal. The Ashby Canal Company, under an Act of 1794, avoided a considerable expense in the construction of locks by supplementing thirty miles of canal on the level with intermediate lengths of railway to the extent of another twenty miles. Writing in 1884, Clement E. Stretton says, in his "Notes on Early Railway History," concerning these old tram-roads of the Ashby Canal Company: "One part has since been altered and absorbed into the Ashby and Worthington Railway;[10] but the branch from Ticknall [ 220 ]tramway wharf to Tucknall has never been relaid or altered in any way, and, therefore, is a most interesting relic of ancient times. To see waggons with flat wheels drawn over cast-iron rails one yard long by a horse, cannot fail to interest those who watch the workings of railways, and it most clearly shows the great improvements made and the perseverance which has been required to develop the present gigantic railway system out of such small beginnings."

The Charnwood Forest Canal, again, concerning which I shall have more to say later, was a connecting link between two lines of edge-railway, the purpose of the combined land and water route being to enable Leicestershire coal to reach the Leicester market.

It will thus be seen that, whilst the coalowners introduced railways in the first instance, it was the canal companies themselves who, in the days before locomotives, mainly developed and established the utility of a new mode of traction which was eventually to supersede to so material an extent the inland navigation they favoured. It was open to those companies to adapt their undertakings much more completely to the new conditions, if they had had sufficient foresight and enterprise so to do.

The signs of the times were obvious enough to those who were able and willing to read them, and there were many indications that canals would assuredly be not only supplemented, but supplanted, by railways. An impartial authority like Thomas Telford, in adding a postscript to an article on "Canals" which he had contributed to Archdeacon Plymley's "General View of the Agriculture of Shropshire," wrote under date November 13, 1800:—

"Since the year 1797, when the above account of the inland navigation of the county of Salop was made out, another mode of conveyance has frequently been adopted in this country to a considerable extent; I mean that of forming roads with iron rails laid along them, upon which the articles are conveyed on waggons, containing from six to thirty cwt.; experience has now convinced us that in countries whose surfaces are rugged, or where it is difficult to obtain water for lockage, where the weight of the articles of produce is great in comparison with their bulk, and where they are mostly to be conveyed from a higher to a lower [ 221 ]level,—that in those cases, iron rail-ways are in general preferable to a canal navigation.

"On a rail-way well constructed, and laid with a declivity of 55 feet in a mile, one horse will readily take down waggons containing from 12 to 15 tons, and bring back the same waggons with four tons in them....

"This useful contrivance may be varied so as to suit the surface of many different countries at a comparatively moderate expense. It may be constructed in a manner much more expeditious than navigable canals; it may be introduced into many districts where canals are wholly inapplicable; and in case of any change in the working of the mines or manufactures, the rails may be taken up and put down again, in a new situation, at a moderate expense."

Thomas Gray, writing in 1821, warned investors in canal shares that the time was "fast approaching when rail-ways must, from their manifest superiority in every respect, supersede the necessity both of canals and turnpike roads, so far as the general commerce of the country was concerned." He further expressed the conviction that "were canal proprietors sensible how much their respective shares would be improved in value by converting all the canals into rail-ways, there would not, perhaps, in the space of ten or twenty years remain a single canal in the country."

Blinded by their prosperity, however, the canal companies failed to adopt the necessary measures for ensuring its continuance, though the Duke of Bridgewater himself saw sufficient of the new rival to get an uneasy suspicion of what might happen. "We may do very well," he is reported to have said to Lord Kenyon, when asked about the prospects of his canals, "if we can keep clear of those —— tram-roads." Unfortunately for the canal interests, though fortunately for the country, the qualified tram-roads were not to be kept clear of, but, with the encouragement they got from those they afterwards impoverished, were to bring the Canal Era to a close, and to inaugurate the Railway Era in its place.

  1. Not only was it a case of the cart going before the horse, on a descending road, but in some instances there was attached to the waggon a sort of horse-trolley on which the animal itself could ride down-hill, and thus reserve its strength for taking back the empty waggon on a second pair of rails alongside.
  2. In the first instance projections were cast on the rails to allow of their being attached to the wooden sleepers; but, as these projections were found to break easily, they were cast separately in the form of "pedestals," or "chairs," into which, after they had been fastened to the sleepers, the rails could be fixed with pieces of wood.
  3. Mr Brunlees is of opinion that the plating of rails with a steel surface was probably begun about 1854, and that it was not until eight or ten years later they were made entirely of steel. "Now," he said in his address, "owing to the improvements in the manufacture of steel rails, they can be produced as easily and as cheaply as iron rails."
  4. The adoption of the designation "Iron," as applied to the railway systems abroad, was probably influenced to some extent by Thomas Gray's "Observations on a General Iron Rail-way." First published in 1820, the work had gone through five editions by 1825, and in a letter addressed, in 1845, to Sir Robert Peel, urging the claims of Gray to generous treatment by the State, on the ground of his being the "author" (sic) of the railway system, Thomas Wilson wrote: "His name and his fame were spreading in other lands; his work was translated into all the European languages, and to the impression produced by it may be attributes the popular feeling throughout Germany and France in favour of rail-road which has terminated in the adoption of his railway system in Germany and Belgium especially."
  5. The stone bridge here referred to allowed of an easy transport across the valley from the collieries to the Tyne. Constructed by a local mason, the bridge soon fell down, and was rebuilt in 1727, the architect thereupon committing suicide to spare himself the anxiety of any possible further collapse of his work. In Brand's "History and Antiquities of Newcastle" (1789) it is stated that the span of the bridge was 103 feet, that the height was 63 feet, and that the cost of the structure was £1200.
  6. In the Company's further Acts of 1783 and 1785 this line was still spoken of as a "rail-way," with the hyphen; but in their Act of 1797 it had become a railway—without the hyphen.
  7. Stationary engines.
  8. The length of the main line from Carno Mill to Cardiff was to be 26 miles, the branches increasing the total to 44 miles. The estimates of expenditure put the cost of land and construction at £31,105, exclusive of £894 10s., for "obtaining the Act, etc." The items in respect to the main line were as follows:—
    Forming the road and laying the dram rails,
    making the fences, etc., £220 per mile
    Iron dram rails, 44 tons per mile, at £6 per ton 6864000000
    Sleepers, £40 per mile 1040000000
    Purchase of land, 26 miles at £75 per mile 1950000000
    Extra allowance, £100 per mile 2600000000
  9. In regard to this particular plea, see further references to the Glamorganshire Canal Company on pages 238-9.
  10. Amalgamated by the Midland Railway Company.