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“It is a common error to suppose that there were neither railways nor locomotives before the era of George Stephenson, Edward Pease, and the Stockton and Darlington Railway. The fact is, that mechanical locomotion, by the adhesion of the rim of a loaded wheel to the surface upon which it rolled, while being forced to revolve by some tangential force, is very old . . . .”

A History of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, J. S. Jeans (1875).

. . . . indeed, not only does the history of the railway locomotive predate the Stockton and Darlington Railway by some two decades, but the history of railways predates that of railway locomotives by at least two centuries.

To some extent, the early development of rail transport stemmed from the abysmal condition of British roads.  The Romans understood the need for good roads and how to build them, at least to the standard that they required, but following their departure from our shores road building and maintenance sank into a state of oblivion from which it did not begin to emerge until the 18th Century.  Even then, it was many years before a system of trunk roads of a reasonable standard were built.  Thus, in the absence of good roads, the only practical means of transporting deadweight cargoes such as coal, stone and minerals in any quantity was by water, and many of our early railways were built to link mines and quarries to the nearest waterway.

Besides the guidance that a line of rails imposes on a train of wagons, rails also greatly reduce ‘friction’; in other words, the resistance encountered when one body is moved when in contact with another.  Much less energy is required to move a wheeled vehicle over smooth and hardened rails, than over the softer, more resistant surface of a road.  Whereas a horse could haul a wagon loaded to ⅝ ton over an unmade road, or 2 tons if on a macadamised surface, the same horse could haul 8 tons on a railway and up to 50 tons on a canal.  And so the question arises, why, when they arrived in the 1840s, did the new locomotive-operated railways quickly displace the canals?



Canals were our earliest man-made bulk carriers, the Bridgewater Canal [1] being the first to enter service.  Following its success, many more canals were built until by their peak in the 1840s there was over 4,000 miles of inland waterways.

During the early period of canal building, speed on transit was relatively unimportant when balanced against a canal’s capacity to move heavy loads over distance.  But as the Industrial Revolution progressed, time increasingly cost money and the new locomotive-operated railways soon demonstrated that they could move heavy loads reliably and at speed.  Whereas three men could move 50 tons in a pair of narrow boats at the pace of a walking horse, the same manpower could shift 500 tons in a goods train at ten times the speed.

The leisurely pace of canal traffic.

And other factors acted against canals:

•    compared with a canal, railways were cheaper to build and more adaptable to the terrain, for a canal needed a sufficient water supply that was sometimes difficult and expensive to obtain;

•    crossing high ground required a system of locks, which were expensive to build and maintain, slowed traffic, and often required one or more pumping stations to lift water to their summit level;

•    droughts in summer and ice in winter brought canals to a standstill, often for long periods;

Ice, an old enemy of the canals.  River barges on the Grand Union Canal at Hanwell during the winter of 1962-3.

•    there were no mandated standards governing canal construction; thus, interworking between different waterways was sometimes impossible due to the incompatible sizes of the canal craft designed to operate on them;

•    canal companies resisted the introduction of steam-powered barges for many years due to their unwillingness to invest in bank reinforcement for protecting against the erosion caused by propeller turbulence;

•    the waterway network had no equivalent to the Railway Clearing House for allocating tolls for traffic moving between different companies’ systems, which could result in chaotic charging, particularly for long distance traffic; and last but not least was . . . .

•    the parochial and complacent attitude of the canal companies.  This prevented mergers that would have brought longer waterway routes under unified control.  From an early date, mergers between railway companies resulted in longer routes coming under a single management with accompanying gains in technical standardisation, administrative efficiency and economies of scale.

And so the new railway companies quickly captured most of the canal trade, leaving once important canals to eke out a bare existence, or go to the wall ― and many did.



“It will be evident that such a work as this could only have been undertaken in a country abounding with capital, and possessing engineering talent of the highest order.  The steps, by which the science of Railways has arrived at its present position, were slow yet progressive.  Railways of wood and stone were in use, as well as the flat iron or tramrail, in the middle of the seventeenth century, particularly among the collieries of the north, and were gradually improved from time to time; they still, however, retained a character totally distinct from those structures which will soon form the means of transport through the principal districts of the Kingdom.”

The History of the Railway Connecting London with Birmingham, Lieut. Peter Lecount RN (1839).

For the purposes of this account, ‘early railways’ were those that predate 1830 and the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, the Stockton and Darlington Railway (1825) lying on the transitional boundary.

Broadly speaking, railways fall into three eras, although the transition between each was more a matter of evolution than of sudden change, with some examples of early types of railway surviving well past obsolescence, even into the 20th Century.

Wooden railway - a peg running between the planks kept the truck in alignment.
National Railway Museum, York.

The earliest era was that of the ‘wooden railway’, so named because of its timber construction.  Wooden trucks were pushed along wooden planks using a peg running within a slot to keep the wagon wheels aligned with the planks.  By the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the planks had become wooden rails, the wagons were larger and horse-drawn and their wheel were by then acquiring iron tyres, later becoming all iron (ca. 1730).  Towards the end of this era, the life of wooden rails was being extended with the use of cast iron reinforcing strips (ca. 1770), and so there began a gradual transition into the intermediate era, that of the ‘iron railway’ (ca. 1790), during which all-iron rails gradually replaced the earlier timber and composite construction, and the first steam locomotives made their tentative appearance.

Moving on to the 1820s, this wagon from the Stratford and Moreton Tramway has iron flanged wheels designed to run on
iron edge rails, but note the absence of suspension and shock-absorbers (buffers).  National Railway Museum, York.

In its turn the iron railway reached its zenith in the Stockton and Darlington Railway, from where railway engineering (together with railway administration) progressed to the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, which marked the beginning of the era of the modern public railway.  From then on entrepreneurs entered the field, creating railway companies that eventually grew to form a national network operated solely for the purpose of creating wealth for its constituent companies’ shareholders.



In common usage, we refer today to metal tracks designed to carry wheeled vehicles as ‘railways’ or ‘tramways’, although at the lightweight end of what is quite a broad spectrum of descriptions there exists some distinction (both between and within) ‘underground’, ’rapid transit’, ‘light rail’ and ‘tramways’.

The Little Eaton Gangway, Derbyshire (1795-1908). Note the L-section plate rails,
typical of many early railways.

The terminology used to describe early railways is more confusing.  It was subject to regional variations, to the type of engineering employed, and how the owners wished to describe their line.  Thus, the terms ‘wagonway’, ‘plateway’, ‘tramway’, ‘dramway’, ‘gangway’ and even ‘railway’ (or ‘rail-road’) crop up, to name but some.  Sometimes the name implies the type of engineering employed, but not always ― strictly speaking, the ‘Surrey Iron Railway’ (described later) was a ‘plateway’, a term that applies to horse-operated lines that utilised cast iron single or double L-shaped plates on which ran wagons fitted with rimless (unflanged) wheels.  The term ‘railway’ came to describe lines constructed with iron ‘edge rails’ that supported vehicles fitted with flanged wheels, the predecessor of the modern railway.

However they were named, early railways in general:

•    were short lines, built mainly to transport their owners’ goods, often to a waterway wharf;

•    used horse-drawn wagons (steam traction began to make its appearance towards the end of the era);

•    were engineered with embankments and cuttings to level the terrain, and bridges to cross waterways, but often incorporated steep, rope-worked ‘inclines’ that were avoided by later railway engineers;

•    usually consisted of a single track with passing places;

•    used rails of various designs and materials (wood, wood/cast iron composite, cast iron and later malleable iron [2]), set to various gauges and mounted on transverse wooden sleepers, or on blocks of either wood or stone and sometimes a mixture (as in the case of the Stockton and Darlington Railway);

•    provided a gravelled surface between the rails suitable for horses to walk on, or if transverse sleepers were used, they were sunk into the ballast to avoid being damaged by horses’ hooves.

The ‘early railway’ era ended with the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830.  From then on railways began to be built as businesses in themselves, the aim being to make profits for their investors.  They offered the public a service carrying not only goods, but passengers; they used locomotive-hauled trains; they operated to a timetable accompanied by a schedule of fares and charges; and, increasingly, they linked towns and cities throughout the land.  These are all features that we would recognise in our railway network today.



Although ‘wagonways’ ― to use a general description ― undoubtedly existed in Britain before the 17th Century, the earliest to be recorded was built ca. 1603 to convey coal from the mines at Strelley to the west Nottingham, to Wollaton, a distance of some two miles. [3]  Its builder, colliery owner Huntingdon Beaumont, later constructed other wagonways to serve his mining interests near Blyth in Northumberland:

“Among the rest of the ‘rare engines’ introduced by master Beaumont into the coal trade, one was ‘Waggons with one horse to carry down coales from the pits to the staiths to the river.’  Lord Keeper Guilford, in 1676, thus describes them: ‘The manner of the carriage is by laying rails of timber from the colliery down to the river, exactly straight and parallel; and bulky carts are made with four rowlers, fitting these rails, whereby the carriage is so easy, that one horse will draw down four or five chaldron of coals, and is an immense benefit to the coal merchants.’”

An Historical, Topographical, and Descriptive View of the County of Northumberland, Eneas Mackenzie (1825).


From here began the evolution of the wagonway in the north-east of England, where many local systems grew up to serve the collieries around the Tees, Tyne and Wear.  It is with some justification that this locality can be described as the ‘birthplace of the railway’. [4]  These wagonways were laid across land between colliery and waterway by private arrangement with the owners, the proprietor of the wagonway paying an annual rent under the name of ‘wayleave’.  Where a public road had to be crossed, this was by consent of the local authority.  But as wagonways developed, it was not always found practicable to arrange such informal rights of passage, particularly when a line of considerable length had to be laid down, and an Act of Parliament became a necessary expedient.  Such private legislation was used to obtain the necessary powers to cross public highways and to purchase ― by compulsion, but with fair compensation ― private land on which to lay the track.  The first application to Parliament for a ‘Railway Act’ was made in 1801, to authorise construction of the Surrey Iron Railway.  By then compulsory purchase was already established in Acts authorising the construction of canals. [5]

Besides being the first Act of Parliament to contain the work ‘Railway’ ― it was in fact a wagonway ― the Surrey Iron Railway was the first line intended for public use.  In the following 20 years, more such lines were built (listed in the Appendix).  But despite their importance to particular businesses and localities, in themselves wagonways were unimportant.  Short and widely dispersed, they did not become part of the railway network that eventually extended throughout the land.  Their importance lay in providing a testing ground for the early development of railway engineering, both civil and mechanical, in particular the development of the malleable iron edge rail and the steam locomotive.

Despite their misleading titles, the following are examples of some notable wagonways.


(the Middleton Railway).

pened in 1758, this wagonway was built by Charles Brandling to link his collieries at Middleton with Leeds.  It is credited with being the world’s oldest continuously working line, a short section ― a standard gauge railway since 1881 ― remaining in use as a heritage site.

Brandling needed to transport his coal to market in Leeds, but did not have access to a waterway for that purpose.  His agent, Richard Humble, solved the problem with wooden wagonways, which were common in his native north east.  The first, constructed in 1755, crossed Brandling’s land and that of friendly neighbours to riverside staithes, but two years later he began work on a wagonway into Leeds itself.  The line was financed privately and operated using horse-drawn vehicles called ‘corves’.

Wishing to protect his investment with a degree of permanence, Brandling obtained a private Act of Parliament, the first piece legislation to refer to a wagonway.  Unlike later canal and railway Acts, it did not give powers of compulsory purchase, but instead ratified existing wayleaves.  In return, the Act required Brandling to send into Leeds 240,000 corves (a corf was defined as 210lbs., giving 22,500 tons) of coal a year for 60 years, for which he was to receive 4¾d a corf, or 6d a corf for delivery to specific dwellings.  For the cheaper rate, all coal had to be off-loaded at Cassons Close, and on no account was a coal merchant to be employed; the purchaser had to make his own arrangements. [6]

“On Wednesday last the first waggon Load of Coals was brought from the Pits of Charles Brandling, Esq., down the new Road to his Staith near the Bridge in this Town, agreeable to the Act of Parliament passed last Sessions. ― A Scheme of such general Utility, as to comprehend within it, not only our Trade and Poor, (which ought to be grand objects of our Concern) but also beneficial to every Individual within this Town and Neighbourhood: On this Occasion the Bells were set a ringing, the Cannons of our FORT fired, and a general Joy appear’d in every Face.”

Leeds Intelligencer, 26th September 1758.

Around 1807 the wooden tracks began to be replaced with iron rails to a gauge of 4 feet 1inch.

On Wednesday last a highly interesting experiment was made with a Machine, constructed by Messrs. FENTON, MURRAY and WOOD, of this place, under the direction of Mr. BLENKINSOP, the Patentee, for the purpose of substituting the agency of steam for the use of horses in the conveyance of coals on the Iron-rail-way from the mines of J. C. Brandling, Esq. at Middleton, to Leeds.  This machinery is, in fact, a steam-engine of four horses power, which, with the assistance of cranks turning a cog-wheel, and iron cogs placed on one side of the rail-way, is capable of moving, when lightly loaded, at the speed of ten miles an hour.  At four oclock in the afternoon, the machine ran from the coal-staith to the top of Hunslet Moor, where six, and afterwards eight waggons of coals, each weighing 3¼ tons, were hooked to the back part.  With this immense weight, to which, as it approached the town, was super-added about 50 of the spectators mounted upon the waggons, it set off on its return journey to the Coal-staith, and performed the journey, a distance of about a mile and a half, principally on a dead level, in 23 minutes, without the slightest accident.  The experiment, which was witnessed by thousands of spectators, was crowned with complete success; and when it is considered that this invention is applicable to all rail-roads, and upon the works of Mr. Brandling alone, the use of 50 horses will be dispensed with, and the corn necessary for the consumption of, at least, 200 men saved, we cannot forbear to hail the invention as of vast public utility, and to rank the inventor among the benefactors of his country.

The Leeds Mercury, 27th June 1812.

Following its opening in September, 1758, Brandling’s wagonway conveyed thousands of tons of coal into Leeds each year.  Cheaper coal, based on more efficient transport, gave Leeds a head start in the newly developing large-scale industries and the City was to grow into an important centre for heat-dependant processes, such as metal-working and brewing; the manufacture of bricks, glass, pottery and tiles; and cloth-making in steam-powered mills.  But the Middleton Railway was to make its mark in history for another more significant reason.  In 1812 it became the site of the world’s first rack railway (an idea later exploited on mountain railways, such as that on Snowden) and of the first commercially viable steam locomotive (see Chapter 2).   Priestly later described it thus:


31 George II. Cap 22 Royal Assent 9th June 1758.

This railroad proceeds from the extensive collieries, situate at Middleton, (belonging to the Rev. R.H. Brandling) about three miles south of the town of Leeds, and terminates at convenient staiths, near Meadow Lane in the above town.  It is three miles in length, and was constructed under the powers of an act, entitled, ‘An Act for establishing Agreements made between Charles Brandling, Esq. and other Persons, Proprietors of Lands, for laying down a Waggon Way, in order for the better supplying the town and neighbourhood of Leeds, in the county of York, with Coals.’

There are upon this railway two inclined planes, one at the southern corner of Hunslet Carr, and the other at Belleisle, near Middleton, upon which the full descending waggons, regulated by a brake, draw up the empty ones.  It is here worthy of remark, that it was upon this railway that the powers of the locomotive engine were first applied in this part of the country, by the ingenious inventor, Mr. John Blenkinsop, the manager of the Middleton Collieries.”

Historical Account of the Navigable Rivers, Canals, and Railways, Joseph Priestley (1831).


Having seen Blenkinsop’s locomotive at work on the Middleton wagonway and recognising its potential, George Stephenson set to work at the Killingworth and Hetton collieries the chain of development that would eventually lead to the mainline steam locomotive.  In the process he gained valuable experience in railway construction that he would later apply to the Stockton and Darlington, the Liverpool and Manchester, and other lines.



Opened in 1803, the Surrey Iron Railway (SIR) was a purely commercial venture.  In common with many other wagonways (which is what it was), its purpose was to improve access to a waterway, in this case to link the industrial areas extending from Croydon along the Wandle Valley to Wandsworth on the Thames.  However, the SIR was not intended for private use; its enabling Act was framed in a similar manner to that for a canal, authorising the Company to provide a track on which the public could convey their goods for payment of the appropriate toll, but it was left to the user to arrange conveyance in their own wagons or in those of a haulage contractor. [7]  The SIR was therefore our first public railway:

“The Surrey Iron Railway promises to be one of the most useful public works that have late been undertaken for the improvement of the country.  These iron roads are excellent substitutes for canals, and in some instances superior to them.  They are executed at one third of the expense; and by not obstructing the natural flow of rivers, all the evils with which the canals are at times accompanies, are avoided.  One horse on an iron railway will do the work of ten, and the speed with which carriage is performed exceeds all other modes of conveyance.  This iron railway commencing at Wandsworth, will in all probability be extended to Portsmouth, by which at all times of the year, and in the severest storms, when canals are blocked up by ice, stores might be in one day conveyed from Woolwich Warren to our fleets at Spithead ― a thing which it has been long in contemplation to effect.”

The Reading Mercury, 1st June 1801.

The original plan had been to link Croydon and Wandsworth by canal.  The civil engineer William Jessop reviewed the route and while declaring a canal to be feasible he felt it impractical due to the sole source of water, the River Wandle, being heavily used by water-driven factories and mills.  Instead, he proposed linking the towns by wagonway along a route running south from the Thames at Wandsworth, through Streatham, Tooting, Wimbledon, Merton, Mitcham and Beddington to Croydon, where it terminated at Pitlake Meadow.

Having visited some existing wagonways, the proprietors decided in favour of Jessop’s scheme and engaged him to engineer the 9¼-mile line.  Jessop’s estimate for the work was £33,000, which included a substantial basin at Wandsworth capable of holding 30 barges, and an entrance lock into the Thames.  In February 1801 a Bill was laid before Parliament, and later that year the proprietors of the Surrey Iron Railway became the first company to obtain an Act with ‘Railway’ in its title: [8]

“An Act for making and maintaining a Railway from the town of Wandsworth to the town of Croydon, with a collateral Branch into the parish of Carshalton, and a navigable Communication between the River Thames and the said Railway at Wandsworth, all in the county of Surrey.”

41 George III. Cap. 33, Royal Assent 21st May, 1801.

In his Historical Account of the Navigable Rivers, Canals, and Railways of Great Britain (1831), Joseph Priestly provides information on what the Act contained regarding the raising of capital and charging of tolls:

“It incorporates the subscribers by the name of ‘The Surrey Iron Railway Company’ and empowers them to raise, for the purposes of the undertaking, amongst themselves the sum of £35,000, in three hundred and fifty shares of £100 each, and, if necessary, a further sum of £15,000, either amongst themselves, by creation of new shares or by mortgage of the tolls and rates, and also authorizes them to take the following:


For all Goods Wares and Merchandize whatever carried into or out of the Dock or Basin . . . . 4d per Ton;

For all Dung carried on the Railway . . . . 2d per Ton, per Mile;

For all Lime stone, Chalk Lime and all other Manure, except (Dung) Clay, Breeze, Ashes, Sand and Bricks . . . . 3d per Ton, per Mile;

For all Tin, Copper, Lead, Iron stone, Flints, Coal, Charcoal, Coke, Culm, Fullers Earth, Corn and Seeds, Flour, Malt, and Potatoes . . . . 4d per Ton, per Mile;

For all other Goods, Wares and Merchandize . . . . 6d per Ton, per Mile;

Fractions of a Quarter of a Ton to be considered as a Quarter, but all Fraction of a Mile as a Mile.”

Any person was at liberty to put wagons on the line and to carry goods within the prescribed rates.  The Company was also given compulsory powers to lease wayleaves across land, and in the event of differences arising as to price, &c., local commissioners named in the Act were appointed to meet and determine disputes.

Below the memorial plaque are two stone-block sleepers from the line.  Such sleepers were in common use on early railways
because they created a clear path between the lines for horses to walk on, without the risk of tripping.

Tenders were invited to build the line, Benjamin Outram and Company [9] winning the contract at £33,000.  Construction progressed quickly, the contractors being George Leather (father and son) with Outram supervising the works:

“On Thursday last the lock, canal, and basin, from which the proposed iron railway is to commence at Wandsworth, was opened, and the water admitted from the Thames.  The first barge entered the lock, amidst a concourse of spectators, who rejoiced in the completion of this part of the important and useful work.  The ground is laid for the railway, with some few intervals, all the way to Croydon, and the undertakers wait only the approach of open weather to lay down the iron.”

Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 16th January 1802.

As built, the line was a double track ‘plateway’, the rails being cast iron L-shaped plates mounted on stone blocks, an arrangement that left space between the tracks for the horses’ hooves.  The wagons had rimless wheels set to a gauge was 4 feet 2 inches and were initially hauled by horses, mules and donkeys, but donkeys were found to be cheaper and later took over.

The line opened to the public in 1803, to be followed by the 1¼ mile Carshalton Branch a year later:

“On Tuesday last the Iron railway from Wandsworth to Crydon was opened to the public for the conveyance of goods.  The Committee went up in waggons drawn by one horse; and to show how motion is facilitated by this ingenious and yet simple contrivance, a gentleman, with two companions, drove up the railway, in a machine of his own invention, without horses, at the rate of 15 miles per hour.  The Committee afterwards dined together at the King’s Arms, in Croydon, and spent the day with the utmost conviviality.”

The Hampshire Telegraph, 8th August 1803.

In 1805 the Company returned to Parliament for:

“An Act to enable the Company of Proprietors of the Surrey Iron Railway to raise a further Sum of Money, for completing the said Railway, and the Works thereunto belonging.”

45 George III. Cap. 5, Royal Assent 12th March 1805.

. . . . which authorised the Company to raise a further £10,000, some of which paid for enlarging the Wandsworth basin.  The final cost of the project overall was £60,000, almost twice the original estimate.

Enthusiasm for the SIR led to the Croydon, Merstham and Godstone Railway being formed to extend the line to Reigate, there to exploit the stone and chalk of the area, with the possibility of eventually reaching Portsmouth:

“An Act for making and maintaining a Railway from, or from near, a place called Pitlake Meadow, in the town of Croydon, to, or near to, the town of Reigate, in the county of Surrey, with a collateral Branch from the said Railway, at or near a place called Merstham, in the parish of Merstham, to, or near to, a place called Godstone Green, in the parish of Godstone, all in the said county of Surrey.”

43 Geo III Cap. 35, Royal Assent 17th May 1803.

But the project was seriously under-capitalised and despite an application to Parliament for:

 “An Act for better enabling the Company of Proprietors of the Croydon, Merstham and Godstone Iron Railway, to complete the same.”

46 Geo III. Cap. 93, Royal Assent 3rd July 1806.

. . . . the line only reached Merstham, which, together with its branches, added a further 16 miles to the SIR.  Jessop was the engineer and Outram’s company was both civil engineering contractor and supplier of the iron rails. [10]

Neither railway prospered.  The Croydon to Merstham line closed in 1838, its trackbed being acquired by the London and Brighton Railway.  It was followed in 1846 by the SIR, its trackbed being sold to local landowners and to the Wimbledon and Croydon Railway Company.  Both lines were abandoned by Act of Parliament.

ollowing the opening of the Merstham line, an interesting article appeared in a number of newspapers that gives some insight into a wagonway’s carrying capacity:

“The SURREY IRON RAILWAY being completed, and opened for the carriage of goods all the way from Wandsworth to Merstham, a bet was made between two Gentlemen, that a common horse could draw thirty-six tons for six miles along the road, and that he could draw this weight from a dead pull, as well as turn it round the occasional windings of the road.  Wednesday last was fixed for the trial; and a number of Gentlemen assembled near Merstham to see this extraordinary triumph of art.  Twelve waggons loaded with stones, each waggon weighing above three tons, were chained together, and a horse taken from the timber cart of Mr. Harwood, was yoked into the team.  He started from near the Fox Public-house, and drew the immense train of waggons with apparent ease to near the Turnpike at Croydon, a distance of six miles, in one hour and 41 minutes, which is nearly at the rate of four miles an hour.  In the course of this time he stopped four times, to shew that is was not be the impetus of the descent that the power was acquired ― after each stoppage he draw off the chain of waggons from a dead rest.

Having gained his wager, Mr. Banks, the gentleman who laid the bet, directed four more loaded waggons to be added to the cavalcade, with which the same horse again set off with undiminished power; and still further to shew the effect of the railway in facilitating motion, he directed the attending workmen, to the number of about fifty, to mount on the waggons, and the horse proceeded without the least distress, and in truth, there appeared to be scarcely any limitation to the power of his draught.  After the trial the waggons were taken to the weighing machine, and it appeared that the whole weight was . . . . [55 tons 6 cwts 2 qtrs].”

The Morning Post, 5th July 1805.



The Company emblem is indicative that the
 Railway was only partly worked by
 steam locomotives in its early days.

The transition between the era of the ‘iron railway’ and that of the ‘modern railway’ ― or at least a railway that, in its essentials, would be recognisable as such today ― was by no means immediate.  The transitional period began in 1825 with the opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway and extended to at least the opening of the Grand Junction and the London and Birmingham lines in 1837 and 1838.  Neither was its arrival solely a matter of new technology, as had largely been the case with earlier transitions, for with the modern railway came the beginning of railway administration, of the active marketing of railway services, and of interworking between the networks of different railway companies, and all on a grand scale.

The Stockton and Darlington Railway is sometimes considered to be the beginning of the modern railway era, but although it incorporated much that had been learned in the fields of mechanical and civil engineering (mainly in locomotive and track design), initially it retained many of the features of the colliery wagonway.

The line was first surveyed [11] by George Overton, a Welsh canal and railway engineer now remembered mostly for his work in connection with the Pen-y-Darren wagonway, the site of Richard Trevithick’s steam locomotive experiment of 1804 (Chapter 2).  Using Overton’s survey, the proprietors applied to Parliament for a railway Act in 1819, but their application was rejected due to the opposition of landowners, Lord Darlington in particular.  Their second application was based on an altered route.  It met with little opposition, and in 1821 the Stockton and Darlington Railway Company obtained:

“An Act for making and maintaining a railway or tramroad from the River Tees at Stockton to Witton Park Colliery with several branches therefrom, all in the County of Durham.”

l & 2 Geo. IV. C. 44, R.A. 19th April, 1821.

However, Edward Pease, an influential director of the Company, was unimpressed with Overton and his proposed route.  Influenced by George Stephenson’s growing reputation, Pease invited him to Darlington where Stephenson arrived on 19th April 1821 in company with Nicholas Wood, that being the day on which the Stockton and Darlington Railway Act received the Royal Assent.  At the time, Stephenson was employed constructing a 7-mile wagonway between Hetton Colliery and staithes on the River Wear.

Edward Pease (1767-1858), Quaker, anti-slavery campaigner
and railway pioneer ― a man of weight, of prudence,
of keen commercial instincts.

The directors’ original intention had been to work the line with horses, but in the conversation between them Stephenson suggested that it should be worked entirely by steam.  Pease subsequently visited Killingworth to see the colliery locomotives at work and was impressed with what he saw.  The outcome was that Stephenson was engaged by the Company to re-survey Overton’s route.  This he shortened by three miles and eased the gradients, although two substantial ‘inclined planes’ remained. [12]  Following the survey, Stephenson was appointed Engineer to the Company.

Taken together, the changes that Stephenson proposed ― to which were added the conveyance of passengers and parcels, both a novelty ― required a further Act of Parliament, which the Company obtained in 1823 (4 Geo. IV. C. 33, R.A. 23rd May, 1823).  Construction then went ahead, and the Stockton and Darlington Railway was formally opened on 27th September 1825 to become the world’s first public railway to utilise steam power.  That said, the line was not worked solely by steam, but also employed horse traction:

“. . . . its promoters had only anticipated the carriage of 10,000 tons per annum, they had not thought of passengers, and the locomotive appeared incapable of acquiring the regularity required by such traffic.  They began their work, therefore, with animal power.  Prior to the formation of this railroad, there had been a coach traffic of fourteen or fifteen persons weekly: the rail increased it to five or six hundred.  Each carriage was drawn by one horse, bearing, in ordinary cases, six passengers inside, and from fifteen to twenty outside; ‘In fact,’ says one writer, ‘they do not seem to be at all particular, for in cases of urgency they are seen crowding the coach on the top, sides, or in any other part where they can get a footing: and they are frequently so numerous, that when they descend from the coach and begin to separate, it looks like the dismissal of a small congregation.’  The general speed with one horse was ten miles an hour.”

A History of the English Railway, John Francis (1851).

In addition to locomotive and horse traction, there were two steep rope-worked inclines, both powered by a combination of stationary steam engines and gravity.  This system appears to have been influenced by Stephenson’s construction of the Hetton Colliery wagonway:

“On the 18th of November, 1822, the Hetton Colliery Railway, which had been formed under the direction of George Stephenson, was brought into use, the traffic being worked over five self-acting inclines and conveyed over other portions of the line by locomotive and stationary engines.  The directors of the Stockton and Darlington Railway had thus an opportunity of seeing in another part of the country a successful application of the principles which had guided George Stephenson in the laying out of their own line.

These principles, deduced from a series of experiments which he had made in conjunction with Nicholas Wood, were, as stated by the latter:― (1) On the level or nearly level gradients, horses or locomotive engines were proposed to be used, a rule being laid down that, if practicable, the gradients ascending with the load should not be more than 1 in 300; (2) in gradients descending with the load, when more than 1 in 30, the use of self-acting planes; and (3) in ascending gradients with the load, where the gradients did not admit of the use of horses or locomotive engines, then fixed engines with ropes.”

The North Eastern Railway; its rise and development, W. W. Tomlinson (1915).

For about five miles at the western end of the Stockton and Darlington, stationary steam engines were used to haul trains up the inclined planes at Brusselton and Etherley; having reached the respective summits, the loaded wagons then descended by gravity, hauling empty wagons up the incline in the process.

Inclined plane ― loaded coal wagons descending hauling empties up the slope.

Horses were then used to haul the wagons between the two inclines.  For the remaining 20 miles or so eastwards from Shildon, the line was at first worked by horses and by locomotives, although in service the latter proved to be highly unreliable:

“On the 27th of September, 1825, the Stockton and Darlington line of railway, twenty five miles long, was opened for public traffic.  Twenty miles of this was worked by locomotives and horses, the powers of each being put thus in close competition.  At this early period of the history of a line of railway, the first ever laid down on the improved principles as introduced by Stephenson, and which formed the nucleus of the railway system, the locomotives employed on it were five in number, four having been manufactured by Messrs. Stephenson at their factory at Newcastle, and one by Mr. Wilson of the same town.  Such, however, was their inefficient working condition, that the power of steam was about to be abandoned and the railway conducted by horses.”

The Steam-Engine, its History and Mechanism, Robert Scott Burn (1854).

The locomotives that Stephenson built for the line were equipped with single-flue boilers, which, together with the lack of an effective blast-pipe, resulted in their inability to raise sufficient steam to sustain the effort required to haul their loads.  It was not until Timothy Hackworth took over as locomotive superintendent that steam traction on the line came to prove itself; nevertheless, horse traction was not replaced entirely until 1833.

Stephensons Locomotion No. 1, the first locomotive to run on a public railway.

Although authorised in its Act to carry passengers, the line was built essentially to convey local coal to the Tees for shipment further afield:

“In making thy survey, it must be borne in mind that this is for a great public way, and to remain as long as any coal in the district remains.”

Letter, Pease to Stephenson, 28th July 1821 [13].

Initially, the Railway was operated as a single track toll road; as with the Surrey Iron Railway, the Company did not operate the trains.  Thus, for payment of the appropriate toll (laid down in the Act), both steam and horse-hauled traffic could use the line whenever they wished ― and in an uncontrolled manner that often resulted in conflict.  Only in later years did the Stockton and Darlington acquire the characteristics of a modern public railway.  Nevertheless, it was a landmark in the use of steam-worked trains on a public railway, and much was learned from its construction and operation that was later applied elsewhere.





 Railways authorised by parliament in the 20 years following 1801.

Year of


Year of




Length in




Surrey Iron Railway



Carmarthenshire Railway




Sirhowey Railway




Croydon, Merstham and Godstone Railway



Oystermouth Railway




Kilmarnock and Troon Railway



Gloucester and Cheltenham Railway




Bullo Pill (Forest of Dean) Railway



Lydney and Lydbrook Railway




Monmouth Railway



not built

Berwick and Kelso Railway




Hay Railway




Llanfihangel Railway



Grosmont Railway



not built

Anglesea Railway



not built

Mamhilad or Usk Railway



not built

Peak Forest Railways




Mansfield and Pinxton Railway



Kington Railway




Plymouth and Dartmoor Railway




Stockton and Darlington Railway




Stratford and Moreton Railway






Opened in 1761 to connect coal mines at Worsley with Manchester ― it was later extended to Runcorn on the Mersey to provide a link with Liverpool.


Malleable iron contains much less carbon than cast iron. It has good shock resistance, is ductile and is very machinable. Although cast iron is corrosion resistant, it is brittle. Cast iron was the first material used in the manufacture of iron rails, and although adequate for horse traction, it had a high failure rate when subjected to the weight of a steam locomotive, a factor that delayed the steam locomotive’s development. Eventually cast iron was replaced by malleable iron, a much more suitable material for the manufacture of rails; and in turn malleable iron gave way to steel.


It is possible that the wagonway used by James Clifford to transport coal from his mines in Broseley in the Severn Gorge (near Coalbrookdale) to the river Severn was somewhat older than that at Wollaton.


Wagonways also developed in other mining districts, particularly in Shropshire around Coalbrookdale and in South Wales, where, at Merthyr, in 1804, the world’s first steam locomotive ran on a colliery wagonway, in the process demonstrating the inadequacy of brittle cast iron rails for supporting steam traction.


Some canal Acts empowered the canal company to build wagonways as feeders, and they first came under the notice of Parliamentary Standing Orders in 1799 when they were several times referred to as ‘dram roads’ and were treated in the same fashion as canals.


“. . . . for carrying the said Proposal into Execution, that a Waggon-Way (such as is used for and about the Coal-works and Coal-mines in the Counties of Durham and Northumberland) should be made, framed, laid down, and continued, between the said Coal-works and the said Casson-Close Coal-yard and Repository, in, over, and through, divers Fields, lands, and Grounds, in the Parish of Leeds, which belong to, and are the Estate and Property of, divers Persons, and several Owners and Occupiers whereof have consented and agreed that the said Charles Brandling, his Executor, Administrators and Assigns, shall and may have the Liberty and Privilege to make, place, and lay down, such Waggon-Way or ways, for the Carriage and Conveyance of Coals, in, upon, and over the same . . . . the said Charles Brandling is obliged Yearly, during such Time as he shall continue the said Waggon Way, made for the Purpose of bringing Coals from the Coal Works of the said Charles Brandling, in Middleton aforesaid, to the Repository at a certain Place in the said Act called Casson Close, to bring to the said Repository or Coal Yard 40,000 Dozens or 480,000 Corves of Coals at the least, by Four equal Quarterly Proportions (that is to say) 10,000 Dozens, or 120,000 Corves, in each Quarter of the Year, unless prevented by Fire, Water, or other inevitable Accident . . . .

Extract, 31 George II. Cap 22, RA 9th June 1758.


The introduction of steam power and the consequent necessity for carefully regulating railway traffic soon rendered this method of operation impracticable, and the transport of goods gradually became the province of the railway company.


The Carmarthenshire Railway gained its Act in 1802 (in the year before the SIR), but opened later. Engineered by James Barnes (Resident Engineer for the Grand Junction Canal), it was 16 miles long and had significant earthworks.


Benjamin Outram was an early practitioner in iron railway construction.  Following his death in 1805, his company became the long-lived Butterley Company.  The civil engineer and inventor of the iron edge rail, William Jessop, was a partner in the business.


It was while working as a labourer on the Merstham terminus of the Godstone line that Edward Banks (later Sir Edward Banks), met quarry owner William Jolliffe, and from this meeting grew the great contracting firm of Jolliffe and Banks.


In fact there were two surveys, in 1818 and 1819, the second having arisen partly as a result of an unfavourable opinion on the first given by the Scottish civil engineer, Robert Stevenson, who had been engaged by the Company to review Overton’s plan ― see p.63, The North Eastern Railway; its Rise and Development, William Weaver Tomlinson (1915).


“The first introduction of inclined planes, when the gravity of a heavy body downwards was employed to assist or effect the moving of a less heavy body up a plane inclined to the horizon, appears to have been upon canals: when the weight of the loaded boats down were made to draw the empty boats up a sloping plane from one level to another. In the year 1788, Mr. Wm. Reynolds completed, at the Kitley Iron works, an inclined plane, formed of a double iron Rail road, by which a loaded boat, in passing down a frame constructed for the purpose, drew up some boats which were empty, Since that time many inclined planes have been made on Rail roads, for the purpose of drawing up the empty carriages by the gravitating power of the loaded carriages down the plane.”

A Practical Treatise on Rail-roads, and Interior Communication in General, Nicholas Wood (1825).


Quoted on p75, The North Eastern Railway; its rise and development, W. W. Tomlinson (1915).