A History of Inland Transport and Communication in England/Chapter 19

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[ 222 ]

CHAPTER XIX

THE RAILWAY ERA


Between 1801 and 1825 no fewer than twenty-nine "iron railways" were either opened or begun in various parts of Great Britain. The full list is given by John Francis in his "History of the English Railway." It shows, as Francis points out, that from Plymouth to Glasgow, and from Carnarvon to Surrey, "there was scarcely a county where some form of the railway was not used." Most of these new railways were, however, still operated in conjunction with collieries or ironworks and canals or rivers, as the following typical examples show:—

1802: Sirhowey Tramroad, built by the Monmouthshire Canal Company in conjunction with the Tredegar Iron-works; length, eleven miles; cost £45,000.

1809: Forest of Dean Railway, for conveying coals, timber, ore, etc., to the Severn for shipment; length, seven and a half miles; cost £125,000.

1809: Severn and Wye Railway, connecting those rivers; length, 26 miles; cost £110,000.

1812: Penrhynmaur Railway, Anglesey; a colliery line, seven miles long, consisting of a series of inclined planes.

1815: Gloucester and Cheltenham Railway, connecting with the Berkeley Canal at Gloucester.

1817: Mansfield and Pinxton Railway, connecting the town of Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, with the Cromford Canal at Pinxton basin, near Alfreton, Derbyshire; cost £32,800.

1819: Plymouth and Dartmoor Railway; length 30 miles; cost £35,000.

1825: Cromford and High Peak Railway, connecting the Cromford and Peak Forest Canals, and rising, by a series of elevations, 990 feet; length 34 miles; cost £164,000.

The first Act for a really public railway, in the sense in which that term is understood to-day, and as distinct from [ 223 ]railways serving mainly or exclusively the interests of collieries, iron-works and canal navigations, was granted by Parliament in 1801 for the Surrey Iron Rail-way, which established a rail connection between the Thames at Wandsworth and the town of Croydon, with a branch to some mills on the river Wandle whose owners were the leaders in the enterprise. The total length was about nine and a half miles. According to the Act, the line was designed for "the advantage of carrying coals, corn and all goods and merchandise to and from the Metropolis." Constructed with flanged rails, or "plates," fixed on stone blocks, the line was available for any ordinary cart or waggon of the requisite gauge. The conveyances mostly used on it were four-wheeled trucks, about the size of railway contractors' waggons. They belonged either to local traders or to carriers who let them out on hire, it being doubtful whether the company had any rolling stock of their own. The motive power was supplied by horses, mules or donkeys. Chalk, flint, fire-stone, fuller's earth and agricultural produce were sent from Croydon—then a town of 5700 inhabitants—to the Thames for conveyance to London. The return loading from the Thames was mainly coal and manure. Two sets of rails were provided, and there was a path on each side for the men in charge of the horses.

Referring to the Surrey Iron Rail-way in his "History of Private Bill Legislation," Clifford says:—

"The Act of 1801, upon which the rest of this early railway legislation was framed, follows the canal precedents in their provision for managing the company's affairs, for raising share and loan capital, and for compensating landowners. Only the use of horse power was contemplated. The tracks, when laid down, were meant, like canals, for general use by carriers and freighters. The companies did not provide rolling stock; any person might construct carriages adapted to run upon the rails, and if these carriages were approved certain maximum tolls applied to the freight they might carry.... Passenger traffic was not expected or provided for.... Such was the first Railway Act, passed at the beginning of the century with little notice by Parliament or people, but now a social landmark, prominent in that stormy period of history."

[ 224 ]This was, however, in point of fact, only a further development of the still earlier railway legislation (see page 210), which required the proprietors of lines laid down for general traffic to allow anyone who pleased to run his own vehicles thereon, subject to certain regulations and to the payment of specified tolls.

The Surrey Iron Rail-way was also a landmark in railway history because, although in itself of very small extent, it was originally designed to serve as the first section of a railway which, made by different companies, as capital could be raised, would eventually have extended from the Thames to Portsmouth.[1] The second section was the Croydon, Merstham and Godstone Iron Railway, which Parliament sanctioned in 1803. From Croydon this further railway was to carry the lines on to Reigate, with a branch from Merstham to Godstone Green, a total distance of sixteen miles in addition, that is, to the nine and a half miles of the Surrey Iron Rail-way. Both companies, however, drifted into financial difficulties, and had to apply to Parliament again, in 1806, for fresh powers, while the lines of the second company never got beyond the chalk quarries at Merstham.

In the absence of the through traffic it had been hoped eventually to secure, the local business alone available was evidently inadequate to meet the charges on a capital outlay which, at that time, may have been regarded as not inconsiderable, inasmuch as the Surrey Iron Rail-way attained to a good elevation at its southern end, while the Croydon, Merstham and Godstone line went through a cutting thirty feet deep, and crossed a valley by an embankment twenty feet high. After a chequered career, the Merstham line was acquired by the Brighton Railway Company in 1838 and closed, being then no longer required. The Surrey line lingered on till 1846, when, with the sanction of Parliament, its operation was discontinued, the rails being taken up and sold by auction.

[ 225 ]It was unfortunate that these two pioneer public railways were a failure because, had they succeeded, and had they really formed the first sections of a through line of communication between the Thames and Portsmouth, there would have been established a further precedent—and one of much greater value than that of a common user—the precedent, namely, of a trunk line made by companies co-operating with one another to give continuous communication on a well-organised system, in place of collections of disconnected lines designed, at the outset, to serve the interests only of particular localities, with little or no attempt at co-ordination.

Yet the principle of a general public railway had, at least, been established by the Surrey and Merstham lines, and this principle underwent further important development by the Stockton and Darlington Railway, the first Act for which was obtained in 1821.

The only purpose originally intended to be served by the Stockton and Darlington Railway was the finding of a better outlet for coal from the South Durham coalfield. A company, with Edward Pease as the moving spirit, was formed in 1816, but two years later the projectors were still undecided whether to make a canal or "a rail or tramway." George Overton, who preceded George Stephenson as a distinguished railway engineer, wrote to them, however, advising the latter course. "Railways," he said, "are now generally adopted, and the cutting of canals nearly discontinued"; and he told them, further, that within the last fifteen years the great improvements made in the construction of tram-roads had led to the application of the principle to a number of new roads. His advice was adopted, and the first Act, obtained after several unsuccessful efforts, authorised the making and maintaining of "a railway or tramroad" from the river Tees, at Stockton, to Witton Park Colliery, with various branches therefrom. The line would, the Act said, be "of great public utility by facilitating the conveyance of coal, iron, lime, corn and other commodities from the interior of the county of Durham to the town of Darlington and the town and port of Stockton," etc.

It was first intended to use wooden rails, and to rely on horse-power, no authority for the employment of locomotives being obtained under the Act of 1821; but George [ 226 ]Stephenson, on being appointed engineer to the line, persuaded the company to adopt iron rails in preference to wooden ones, and to provide a locomotive such as he had already constructed and successfully employed at Killingworth Colliery. Two-thirds of the rails laid were of malleable iron and one-third of cast iron. It was not, however, until September, 1824, that the order was actually given for a locomotive, some of the promoters having still shown a strong preference for the use of stationary engines and ropes.

The line was opened for traffic on September 27, 1825, and the locomotive which had been ordered—the "Locomotion" as it was called—was ready for the occasion. It weighed seven tons, and had perpendicular cylinders and a boiler provided with only a single flue, or tube, 10 inches in diameter and 10 feet in length, the heat being abstracted therefrom so imperfectly that when the locomotive was working the chimney soon became red-hot.[2] The usual speed was from four to six miles an hour, with a highest possible of eight miles an hour on the level.

The company made provision for the anticipated goods traffic by having 150 waggons built; but they started with no idea of themselves undertaking passenger traffic. Their first Act had laid down that "Any person is at liberty to use and run a carriage on the railway, provided he complies with the bye-laws of the company"; and J. S. Jeans, in his history of the Stockton and Darlington Railway published (1875) under the title of "Jubilee Memorial of the Railway System," says: "It was originally intended to allow the proprietors of stage-coaches or other conveyances plying on the route of the proposed new railway to make use of the line on certain specified conditions." This, too, is what actually happened; for although, a fortnight after the opening of the line, the railway company themselves put on the line a springless "coach," known as the "Experiment," and drawn by a horse, several coach proprietors in the district availed themselves of their statutory right to run their own coaches on the railway, first, of course, providing them with wheels adapted to the rails. They paid the railway company [ 227 ]the stipulated tolls, and had the advantage of requiring to use no more than a single horse for each coach. These horse coaches for passengers seem to have run in the intervals when the lines were not occupied by the locomotive engaged in drawing the coal waggons.

In a letter published in the "Railway Herald" of April 27, 1889, John Wesley Hackworth, whose father, Timothy Hackworth, was for some time engineer on the Stockton and Darlington Railway, says that twenty miles of the line were at first worked by horses and locomotive in competition, and at the end of eighteen months it was found that horse traction was costing only a little over one-third of the traction by locomotive. Meanwhile, also, the value of the £100 shares had fallen to £50. In view of these results the directors had decided to abandon locomotive power, and depend entirely on horses; but Timothy Hackworth said to them, "If you will allow me to construct an engine in my own way I will engage it shall work cheaper than animal power." He received the desired authority, and the "Royal George," built by him, was put into operation in September, 1827. It confirmed the assurance which had been given, and, says Timothy Hackworth's son, "finally and for ever" settled the question of the respective merits of horse and steam traction on railways.

Horse coaches still continued to run on the lines, however, in addition to the mineral and goods trains, and in January, 1830, the company had to draw up a time-table fixing the hours of departure for the coaches, thus ensuring a better service for the public, and, also, protecting travellers against any possible encounter with the locomotive as the horse ambled along with them on the railway.

By October, 1832, seven coaches, belonging to various proprietors, were doing fifty journeys a week between different places on the line; so that thus far the original idea of Parliament, in enforcing against railways the principle of a common user of their lines by the public, had appeared to be warranted. A year later, however, the railway company, finding, as Jeans tells us, that it would be more convenient and more advantageous for them to take the whole carrying trade in their own hands and supersede the horses by steam locomotives, bought out, on what were considered generous terms, [ 228 ]the interests of the four coach proprietors then carrying passengers on their own account on the lines.

Actual experience had thus nullified the expectation that a railway would be simply a rail-road upon which anyone would be able to run his own conveyances as on an ordinary turnpike road.

From October, 1833, the whole of the passenger traffic (then undergoing rapid expansion) was conducted by the company. In April, 1834, the directors, who had by this time acquired some other and better engines, announced that they had commenced to run, six times a day, both "coaches" (for passengers) and "carriages" (for goods) by locomotives; and this date, probably, marks the final disappearance of the horse as a means of traction for passenger traffic on public railways in England, though the word "coaches," introduced into the railway vocabulary under the circumstances here narrated, has remained in use ever since among railway men as applied to rolling stock for passenger traffic.

Unlike its predecessors in Surrey, and though facing various difficulties at the outset, the Stockton and Darlington line attained to a considerable degree of prosperity. After undergoing various extensions from time to time, and playing a leading part in the industrial expansion of the district it served, it was incorporated into what is now the North-Eastern Railway system.

Summing up the respects in which the Stockton and Darlington line had carried forward the story of railway development, we find that it (1) established the practicability of substituting locomotive for horse traction on railways; (2) introduced the provision of waggons by the railway company, instead of leaving these to be found by carriers and traders; (3) proved that railways were as well adapted to the transport of passengers as they were to the carriage of goods; (4) showed by actual experience that the idea of a common user of railways was impracticable; and (5) prepared the way for the eventual recognition, even by Parliament itself, of the principle that transport on a line of railway operated by locomotives must, in the nature of things, be the monopoly of the owning and responsible railway company.

While the Surrey Iron Rail-way and the Stockton and [ 229 ]Darlington Railway had been thus seeking to establish themselves as public railways, there was no lack of advocates of what were then called "general rail-ways," to be laid either on the ordinary roads or on roads made for the purpose; and such general railways were especially advocated for districts where canals could not be made available.

Dr James Anderson, writing on "Cast Iron Rail-ways" in the issue of his "Recreations in Agriculture, Natural History," etc., for November, 1800, had already strongly recommended them as "an eligible mode of conveyance where canals cannot be conveniently adopted"; and he especially advised the construction of one railway in London, from the new docks on the Isle of Dogs to Bishopsgate Street, and another between London and Bath, "for the purpose of conveying unsightly loads, leaving the roads, as at present, open for coaches and light carriages." Such railways, he argued, would render great service in relieving the ordinary road of heavy traffic, and help to solve the road problem of that day—all the more acute because McAdam had not yet shown the country how roads could and should be made or repaired.

On February 11, 1800, Mr Thomas, of Denton, read a paper before the Newcastle Literary Society recommending the introduction of railways, on the colliery principle, for the general carriage of goods; and R. L. Edgeworth urged, in "Nicholson's Journal," in 1802, that for a distance of ten miles or more one of the great roads out of London should be provided with four tracks of railway operated by stationary engines and circulating chains for fast and slow traffic in each direction.

But the most strenuous advocate of all was Thomas Gray. Both before and subsequent to the publication, in 1820, of the first edition of his "Observations on a General Rail-way," he had been pressing his views, in the form of petitions, letters or articles, on members of the Government, peers of the realm, M.P.'s, corporations, capitalists, reviews and newspapers. His idea was that there should be six trunk lines of railway radiating from London, with branch lines linking up towns and villages off these main routes; but he was looked upon as a visionary, if not as a crank and a bore whose impracticable proposals were not deserving of serious [ 230 ]consideration. It was evidently Thomas Gray whom the "Quarterly Review" had in mind when it said, in March, 1825: "As to those persons who speculate on making railways general throughout the Kingdom, and superseding all the canals, all the waggons, mail and stage-coaches, post-chaises, and, in short, every other mode of conveyance by land and water, we deem them and their visionary schemes unworthy of notice."

In the result Gray was left to spend the last years of his life in obscurity and poverty, and the further development of the railway system of the country was proceeded with on lines altogether different from, and far less efficient, than those he had recommended.

The greatest impetus to the movement was now to come, not from any individual pioneer, but from the Liverpool and Manchester Railway; and this line, in turn, was due far more to purely local conditions and circumstances than to any idea of encouraging the creation of a network of railways on some approach, however remote, to a national or "general" system. The original cause of the Liverpool and Manchester line being undertaken was, in fact, nothing less than extreme dissatisfaction among the traders both of Liverpool and of Manchester with the then existing transport arrangements between these two places.

Just as the Duke of Bridgewater had drawn his strongest arguments in favour of a canal from the shortcomings of the Irwell and Mersey navigation, so now did the traders base their case for a railway mainly on the deficiencies and shortcomings alike of the river navigation and of the canal by which the rivers had been supplemented.

There were, in the first place, physical difficulties. By whichever of the two water routes goods were sent from Liverpool to Manchester, the barges had first to go about eighteen miles along the Mersey to Runcorn, being thus exposed for that distance to the possibly adverse winds and strong tides of an open estuary. The boats often got aground, and many wrecks occurred during stormy weather. On the canal itself the boats could often go with only half loads in the summer, and they were liable to be stopped by frost in winter, while the canal was closed altogether for ten days every year for repairs.

[ 231 ]Supplementing these physical disadvantages of the navigation was the attitude of the waterway interests towards the traders whom they held at their mercy. Theoretically there was competition between the rivers and the canal; but the agents of both extorted from the traders the highest possible charges for a most inefficient service.

Joseph Sandars, who was to take a leading part in the movement for a railway between Liverpool and Manchester, has some strong things to say about the "exorbitant and unjust charges of the water carriers" in a "Letter" on the subject of the proposed railway which he published in 1824. He alleged that, whereas the Duke of Bridgewater had been authorised by his Acts to charge not more than two shillings and sixpence per ton for canal dues, his agents had, by various devices, which Sandars details, exacted five shillings and twopence per ton. The trustees had, also, obtained possession of all the warehouses alongside the canal at Manchester, and they were thus able to exact whatever terms they pleased from the bye-carriers and traders. If the canal trustees carried the goods in their own vessels they were entitled to charge six shillings per ton; and their aim seems to have been to render it impossible for the independent carriers to do their business at a lower rate than this. When the carriers, using boats of their own, would not pay the same rate as if the trustees had themselves done the carrying, they were not allowed to land the goods.

Then, by acquiring all the warehouses and all the available land at Preston Brook and Runcorn, the trustees had likewise got control over navigation on the Trent and Mersey Canal, which joins the Bridgewater Canal at Preston Brook. Sandars speaks of Mr Bradshaw, to whom the Duke of Bridgewater had, by his will, given absolute control of his undertakings, as a dictator of canal transport. "No man," he says, in giving examples of the wide extent of the interests that Bradshaw controlled or sought to influence, "can bring a Bill forward for a canal in any part of the Kingdom but Mr Bradshaw interferes as a sort of canal Neptune, directing where, how, and at what price it shall run. He has tortured the trade of the country to become tributory to him in all directions. Every man, every corporate body, seems spellbound the moment Mr Bradshaw interposes his authority." [ 232 ]As for the profits of the undertaking, Sandars says: "There is good reason to believe that the nett income of the Duke's canal has, for the last twenty years, averaged nearly £100,000 per annum."

The Old Quay Company had refrained from exceeding the amounts they were authorised to charge for tolls on the Irwell and the Mersey; but there was no restriction on them in regard to traffic they themselves carried, and Sandars alleges that they, also, had secured all the warehouse accommodation on their own line of route, and had almost monopolised the carrying trade, since a bye-carrier's business could hardly be conducted without warehouses. They were thus making far more money than they could have got from the statutory tolls alone. So profitable had the undertaking become that the thirty-nine original proprietors had, Sandars continues, "been paid every other year, for nearly half a century, the total amount of their investment." An immense revenue was being raised at the expense of the merchants and manufacturers, "and for no other purpose than to enrich a few individuals who were daily violating Acts of Parliament, Acts which, by a long course of cunning policy," they had contrived to convert into "the most oppressive and unjust monopoly known to the trade of this Kingdom—a monopoly which," Sandars goes on to declare, "there is every reason to believe compels the public to pay, in one shape or another, £100,000 more per annum than they ought to pay."

The agents of the two companies not only agreed between themselves what charges they would impose but, autocrats as they were, they established a despotic sway over the traders. They set up, says Francis, "a rotation by which they sent as much or as little as suited them, and shipped it how or when they pleased. They held levees, attended by crowds who, admitted one by one, almost implored them to forward their goods. One firm was thus limited by the supreme wisdom of the canal managers to sixty or seventy bags a day. The effects were really disastrous; mills stood still for want of material; machines were stopped for lack of food. Of 5000 feet of pine timber required in Manchester by one house, 2000 remained unshipped from November, 1824, to March, 1825."

[ 233 ]Merchants whose timber was thus delayed in transit were fined for allowing it to obstruct the quays; and Sandars tells of one who paid £69 in fines on this account during the course of two months. It was less costly and more convenient to leave the delayed timber where it was, and pay the fines, than to keep moving it to and fro between quay and timber yard; though the effect—especially as the imports of timber increased—was to block up, not only the quays, but the neighbouring streets, which thus became almost impassable for carts and carriages.

Corn and other commodities had often to be kept back eight or ten days on account of a lack of vessels. It sometimes happened that commodities brought across the Atlantic in three weeks were detained in Liverpool for six weeks before they could be sent on to Manchester. The agents would not carry certain kinds of merchandise or particular descriptions of cotton at all. Alternatively they would tell a trader: "We took so much for you yesterday, and we can take only so much for you to-day." "They limited the quantity," says Francis, "they appointed the time, until the difficulties of transit became a public talk and the abuse of power a public trouble. The Exchange of Liverpool resounded with merchants' complaints; the counting-houses of Manchester re-echoed the murmurs of manufacturers."

To avoid serious delays either to raw materials or to manufactured articles the traders were often forced to resort to road transport "because," says Sandars, "speed and certainty as to delivery are of the first importance"; and he adds on this point, "Packages of goods sent from Manchester, for immediate shipment at Liverpool, often pay two or three pounds per ton; and yet there are those who assert that the difference of a few hours in speed can be no object. The merchants know better."

The example already set in so many different parts of the country in the provision of rail-ways, or railways, as they were now being generally called, may well have suggested that in a resort to this expedient would be found the most practical solution of the problem which had caused so much trouble to the traders. Sandars himself says that inasmuch as the two companies were "deaf to all remonstrances, to all entreaties," and were "actuated solely by a spirit of [ 234 ]monopoly and extortion," the only remedy the public had left was to go to Parliament and ask for permission to establish a new line of conveyance—and one, also, that possessed decided advantages over canal or river transport.

But here there arose a consideration which had a material bearing on the problem immediately concerned, and was to affect the further development of the railway system in general.

Numerous as were the lines already existing at this time, none of them directly competed with the waterways. They were feeders rather than rivals of the canals. Even the Surrey Iron Rail-way and the Stockton and Darlington line, though operating independently of the canal companies, had not come into conflict with them. In the one instance—that of the Merthyr and Cardiff dram-road—in which a railway had hitherto been projected in direct competition with a canal the scheme had been either killed or bought off by the canal interests. But the proposed Liverpool and Manchester Railway was avowedly and expressly designed to compete with the existing water services. It was not simply to supplement the waterways. It threatened to supplant them.

So the waterway companies, representing very powerful interests—inasmuch as by 1824 the amount invested in canal and navigation schemes was about £14,000,000—might well think it necessary to take action in defence of their own position. Down to this time they had regarded the railway as either a friend or a non-competitor, and they had either extended to it a sympathetic support or had, at least, regarded it with a feeling of equanimity. Henceforward they had to look upon it as an opponent.

The project for a Liverpool and Manchester Railway would seem to have first begun to assume definite shape in or about 1822, when William James, a London engineer, who had already proposed a "Central Junction Rail-way or Tram-road" from Stratford-on-Avon to London, made surveys between Liverpool and Manchester, and prepared a set of plans. The certain prospect, however, of vigorous opposition from the waterway interests led some of the traders to think they had better make terms with the men in possession, if they could; and in that same year the corn merchants of Liverpool memorialised the Bridgewater trustees, asking both [ 235 ]for a reduction in the rate of freight and for better accommodation. Bradshaw replied with an unqualified refusal, and he treated as idle talk the then much-discussed project of a line of railway.

There is no doubt that if, at this period, reasonable concessions had been made to the traders the building of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, although, of course, inevitable, would have been delayed to a later period. The traders shrank, at first, from an open fight, and the project of 1822 was allowed to drop for a time. The situation was found to be so hopeless, however, that in 1824 they decided that mere concessions from the waterway interests would no longer suffice, and that the provision of an alternative means of transport had become imperative. A Liverpool and Manchester Railway Company was now formed, and on October 29, 1824, there was issued a prospectus which was, in effect, a declaration of war against the waterway parties who had so mercilessly abused the situation they thought they controlled. This document, after mentioning that the total quantity of merchandise then passing between Liverpool and Manchester was estimated at 1000 tons a day, proceeded:—

"The committee are aware that it will not immediately be understood by the public how the proprietors of a railroad, requiring an invested capital of £400,000 can afford to carry goods at so great a reduction upon the charge of the present water companies. But the problem is easily solved. It is not that the water companies have not been able to carry goods on reasonable terms, but that, strong in the enjoyment of their monopoly, they have not thought proper to do so. Against the most arbitrary exactions the public have hitherto had no protection, and against the indefinite continuance or recurrence of the evil they have but one security. It is competition that is wanted, and the proof of this assertion may be adduced from the fact that shares in the Old Quay Navigation, of which the original cost was £70, have been sold as high as £1250 each!"

The canal interests in general had, however, anticipated the definite challenge thus given, and there had already been a call to arms in defence of common interests. In a postscript to the prospectus just referred to it was mentioned that [ 236 ]the Leeds and Liverpool, the Birmingham, the Grand Trunk and other canal companies had issued circulars calling upon "every canal and navigation company in the Kingdom to oppose in limine, and by a united effort, the establishment of railroads wherever contemplated."[3]

By this time, therefore, the projectors of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway were threatened with the opposition, not alone of the Bridgewater trustees and of the Old Quay Navigation trustees, but of the canal and river navigation interests throughout the country. As Thomas Baines well describes the position in his "History of Liverpool," "The canal proprietors, with an instinctive sense of danger, justly appreciated what they affected to despise, and, with one accord, and with one heart and mind, resolved to crush the rival project which threatened to interrupt, if not to destroy the hopes of prescription and the dreams of a sanguine avarice."

The real strength of the opposition thus being worked up against not only the Liverpool and Manchester Railway but public railways in general will be better understood if I supplement the references I have already made to the shares of canal and navigation companies by a few further figures, showing the financial position to which the waterways had attained, and the extent of the vested interests they represented at the particular period now in question.

In a pamphlet published in 1824, under the title of "A Statement of the Claim of the Subscribers to the Birmingham and Liverpool Rail-road to an Act of Parliament; in reply to the Opposition of the Canal Companies" (quoted in the fifth, or 1825, edition of Thomas Gray's "Observations on a General Iron Rail-way"), it is stated that the amount of capital originally subscribed for the old Birmingham Canal Company was about £55,000, in shares of £100, subject to a stipulation that no one person should hold more than ten shares. The pamphlet proceeds:—

[ 237 ]"By various subsequent Acts and collateral cuts, this canal, which has now changed its name to the style of the 'Birmingham Canal Navigation Company,' is extended to a distance of about 60 miles of water, containing 99 locks or thereabouts, 10 fire engines to raise water, number of bridges not known to the present writer.

"The original shares are computed to have cost the proprietors £140 each. In 1782 they were marketably worth £370, and in 1792, £1110. In 1811 an Act increased the shares 500 to 1000, or, in other words, for marketable convenience divided them. In 1813 the half share was sold as high as £585. In 1818 power was given to the company of proprietors further to subdivide the shares as they should deem advisable, on due public notice, etc. The shares are now in eighths. Thus at the present time, and at the last quoted prices in Wetenhall's list, there are 4000 shares of eighths, marketably worth £360 per eighth, each receiving an annual dividend of £12-10-0. Thus the original cost, compared with the present value of the 500 shares, is as £70,000 to £1,444,000, the original share having risen from £140 sterling (or thereabouts) to the sum of £2840."

Shares in the Loughborough Navigation cost the first holders £142-17-0 each. In the "European Magazine" for June, 1821, they are quoted at £2600 a share, and the dividend then being paid is given as 170 per cent. In the issue of the same magazine for November, 1824, the price per share is £4700, and the dividend is shown to have risen to 200 per cent.

Among other canal shares quoted in the "European Magazine" for the dates mentioned are the following:—


1821 1824
COMPANY. SHARE. PRICE. DIVIDEND. PRICE. DIVIDEND.
£ £ £ £ £
Coventry 100 970 44 1350 44 and 61
Erewash 100 1000 56 58
Leeds and Liverpool 100 280 10 570 15
Oxford 100 630 32 900 *32*
Staffordshire and
Worcestershire
100 700 40 950 40
Trent and Mersey 200 1750 75 2250 *75*
* And bonus.


[ 238 ]The following further quotations are from "Wetenhall's Commercial List" for December 10, 1824:—


COMPANY. SHARE. PRICE. DIVIDEND.
£00s.00d. £00s.00d. £00s.00d.
Ashton and Oldham 97018000 310000000 05000000
Barnsley 160000000 340000000 12000000
Grand Junction 100000000 296000000 10000000
Glamorganshire 172013004 280000000 13012008
Grantham 150000000 190000000 10000000
Leicester 140000000 390000000 14000000
Monmouthshire 100000000 245000000 10000000
Melton Mowbray 100000000 255000000 11000000
Mersey and Irwell 1000000000 35000000
Neath 100000000 400000000 15000000
Shrewsbury 125000000 206000000 10000000
Stourbridge 145000000 220000000 10010000
Stroudwater 150000000 450000000 31010000
Trent and Mersey (half share) 100000000 2300000000 75000000*
Warwick and Birmingham 100000000 320000000 11000000
Warwick and Knapton 100000000 280000000 11000000
* And bonus.


These figures, it will be seen, are given for years when the "canal mania"—at its height between 1791 and 1794—had long been over, and they suggest, therefore, bona fide market values based on business done and dividends paid. High as they are, it is doubtful if they tell the whole story. I have mentioned on page 218 that in their petition to the House of Commons against the proposed railway, or tramway, between Merthyr and Cardiff, the Glamorganshire Canal Company represented that they were restrained by their Act from paying more than a "moderate" dividend. The dividend they were authorised to pay was one of eight per cent; but there is a tradition in South Wales that the company, after checking effectively the threatened railway competition, attained to phenomenal prosperity, and resorted to an ingenious expedient as a means of deriving further pecuniary advantage from the waterway without exceeding the statutory limitation in regard to the dividend to be paid. This expedient took the form of a suspension of all tolls for a large part of every year, the use of the canal being free to the public for [ 239 ]the period so arranged. In some years, it is said, no tolls were paid for six months at a time. This practice was found preferable, for certain members of the managing committee—ironmasters or large traders in the district—to a reduction of tolls to be in force throughout the year, their practice being to keep back their own consignments, whenever possible, till the free period, which they could fix to suit their convenience. When the principal shareholders were traders using the canal, it did not matter to them whether their profits came wholly in dividends or partly in dividends and partly in free carriage. Traders, however, who could not wait for their supplies or store their manufactured goods until the free period came round had to pay the full rates of tolls for, at least, the period during which these were enforced.

I shall refer later to the effect on railway legislation of the power and influence to which the waterways had attained. The consideration for the moment is that, even allowing for a certain number of minor or of purely speculative canals which were admittedly failures, the waterway interests, consolidating their forces, were able, by virtue of their position at the time in question, to organise a powerful and widespread opposition to a rival form of transport then still in its infancy, though obviously capable of eventually becoming a formidable competitor.

The canal interests also made every effort to work up an opposition on the part of representatives of the landed interests, who, however, developed such strong hostility of their own towards the iron road that the arguments of the canal proprietors were hardly needed to arouse them to violent antagonism to the scheme. Popular prejudices, too, were well exploited, and the most direful predictions were indulged in as to what would result from the running of locomotives, so that, for a time, the promoters even abandoned the idea of using locomotives at all.

The combined canal and land interests scored the first victory on the Liverpool and Manchester Bill, which was thrown out in 1825; but it was reintroduced and passed in 1826, the opposition of the Bridgewater trustees having, in the meantime, been overcome by a judicious presentation to them of a thousand shares in the railway.

The promoters thus established the new principle of direct [ 240 ]competition between railways and waterways; but otherwise the Liverpool and Manchester differed from the Stockton and Darlington, at the outset, and as a line of railway, only in the fact that the former was to be provided throughout with malleable iron rails, whereas the latter had two-thirds malleable iron and one-third cast iron. On the one line as on the other, the use of locomotives had not been decided upon from the start; and, unless the Liverpool and Manchester had not only adopted locomotives but, as was, of course, the case, improved on those of the Stockton and Darlington, it would have shown little real advance in actual railway operation.

The motive power to be used on the Liverpool and Manchester remained uncertain when George Stephenson and his "navvies" were attacking the engineering proposition of Chat Moss. It was still uncertain in October, 1828—or two years after the passing of the Act—when three of the directors went to Killingworth colliery, to see the early locomotive which Stephenson had made there, and to Darlington to see the locomotives then operating on the Stockton and Darlington line. They decided that "horses were out of the question"; but even then the point remained doubtful whether the Liverpool and Manchester should be provided with locomotives or have stationary engines at intervals of a mile or two along the line to draw the trains from station to station by means of ropes. How the directors sought to solve the problem by offering a premium of £500 for a locomotive which would fulfil certain conditions; how George Stephenson won the prize with his "Rocket"; and how the "Rocket," with a gross load of seventeen tons, attained a speed of twenty-nine miles an hour, with an average of fourteen—whereas counsel for the promoters had only promised a speed of six or seven miles an hour—are facts known to all the world.

If the Stockton and Darlington Railway had had the honour of introducing the locomotive, it was the Rainhill trials, organised by the Liverpool and Manchester Company, which gave the world its first idea of the great possibilities to which alike the locomotive and the railway might attain. In this respect the Liverpool and Manchester line carried railway development far beyond the point already attained by the Stockton and Darlington, although no fundamentally [ 241 ]new principle in railway working was set up. The Liverpool and Manchester line did, however, establish a new departure in proclaiming direct rivalry with the then powerful canal interests, and the warfare thus entered on, and persevered in until the railway system had gained the ascendancy, was to affect the whole further history of railway expansion and control.




  1. My authority for this statement is a newspaper article, headed "Centenary of the First Railway Act," written in 1901 by W. P. Paley, and to be found in a collection of railway pamphlets in the British Museum (08235 i 36). The name of the journal is not stated; but the writer of the article gives such precise details concerning the line in question that his information is evidently authentic.
  2. In succeeding engines a double tube, bent in the form of the letter U, was fixed. Stephenson provided his "Rocket" with 25 tubes, thus giving a further substantial increase in the heating surface.
  3. That this attitude of organised hostility on the part of the canal companies was well maintained is shown by the following extract from the "Manchester Advertiser" of January 30, 1836: "The proprietors of the Ayre and Calder navigation and of the Canals, have resolved to organise an opposition to all railways whatever in Parliament. The canal proprietors are thus openly setting themselves in opposition to one of the greatest improvements of the age."