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Fire & Steam
A New History of the Railways in Britain
By Christian Wolmar
Grove Atlantic LtdCopyright © 2007 Christian Wolmar
All rights reserved.
THE FIRST RAILWAY
It was not by chance that the world's first steam-hauled and twin-tracked railway should have run between Liverpool and Manchester. In 1830 when the line opened with much fanfare and, unluckily, a terrible tragedy, they were two 'world-class cities' of their age. Manchester and its Lancashire hinterland was the centre of the cotton trade while Liverpool had been built up on a rather more sinister industry – slavery – and despite the decline of that trade remained Britain's second most important port, thanks to the burgeoning imports of cotton from the USA. The Liverpool & Manchester represented the start of the railway age – just as it marked a significant advance in the technology – and was far grander in scale and conception than any of its predecessors.
While work had progressed on the Stockton & Darlington, there had been something of a mini railway mania, the first of several over the next few decades, as various enterprising promoters put forward ideas for schemes to criss-cross Britain. Lines worth a total of £22m (about £1.32bn today), an unprecedented amount of capital at the time, including an ambitious scheme for a London–Edinburgh railway, were put forward in 1824–5, though most never got further than a prospectus and a vague scrawl on a map. The publicity around these ideas, however impractical they may have been, helped shape the public climate. Railways began to be seen as a realistic proposition, rather than a mere pipedream, and this was a key factor in helping promoters win over the public and, most vitally, investors, to their schemes.
A line between Liverpool and Manchester was the obvious place to start and the time was ripe for such an investment. The turmoil of the early years of the century, characterized by incessant wars and political instability, had receded and the economic situation was looking brighter with the north-west enjoying particularly rapid growth. The line had everything going for it, given the importance of the two places it would serve and the lack of any decent alternative transport. Liverpool and Manchester were the boom towns of the era: in 1760 Liverpool had a population of 26,000, a few more than Manchester, but by 1824 those numbers had swelled to 135,000 and 150,000 respectively and were still rising. Manchester was rapidly becoming the most important industrial city; as Asa Briggs put it, 'all roads led to Manchester in the 1840s'.
Traffic between the two towns was also growing apace. Trade amounted to 1,000 tons per day and it was the poor and overcrowded condition of the roads and the circuitous canal routes on which goods had to be carried that spurred local merchants to come up with the idea of a railway. Despite losing the slave trade, Liverpool's port was expanding swiftly as it replaced London as the principal landing point for cotton from the United States and eight new docks were opened between 1815 and 1835. By 1824, the port was handling 1,120 bags of cotton every day, 80 per cent of the total imported into Britain. At the other end of the putative railway, there was Manchester and Salford, with their ever-expanding factories and mills. Lancashire's sweatshops were the equivalent of those in western China today, producing the cheapest cloth and exporting it across the world.
But the existing transport links between the two towns were lamentable. There was a continuous scene of chaos on the thirty-six-mile turnpike road, which had been open only since 1760, with hundreds of carts, horse-drawn wagons and pack-horses cluttering up the road. Accidents and obstacles due to bad weather were frequent and for passengers the bumpy and tiring journey in a stagecoach between the city centres was an exhausting five-hour slog.
For freight, there was the alternative of the canals, a journey that took a couple of days at best. The canal network had developed from the mid- eighteenth century, offering a smoother and more reliable alternative to the terrible roads. Liverpool's relatively remote harbour had become well served by a series of canals built since 1750, and by the early nineteenth century there were three rival routes between the two towns. But the canals were far from being an ideal system of transport. As one writer put it, 'heavy winds and storms, frozen surfaces in the winter, shallow water in the summer, and pilferage on the slow circuitous routes' all created problems. Nevertheless, with trade growing and the roads so crowded, the canals had an effective monopoly for heavy goods. Despite the apparent competition between them, the companies that owned them became rich and powerful by charging exorbitant rates to their customers, suggesting there was something of a tacit cartel. Meanwhile, the merchants and businessmen who needed to transport their goods between the two towns were concerned that trade was being strangled by the inefficiency of the transport system, a familiar cry still heard today from the Confederation of British Industry.
It was the Liverpool traders who were most frustrated at the cost and slowness of transport, and who started considering the construction of a railway. The initial driving force was Joseph Sandars, a Liverpool corn merchant and underwriter, who was angered by the transport owners' ever-rising profits and their failure to improve facilities. There had been several earlier proposals for a railway between the two towns but they would have been horse-hauled like the Surrey Iron Railway whose builder, William Jessop, had proposed a wagon way as far back as 1797. He even surveyed the route for a group of Liverpool merchants who had shown some interest in the project but their enthusiasm waned at the prospect of funding such an ambitious scheme. The following year another engineer, Benjamin Outram, had interested a group of Manchester businessmen in an alternative route. A third suggestion came from Thomas Gray, one of the first people to put forward the idea of a national rail network. He proposed that a line between Liverpool and Manchester should be a trial run for the national scheme and wanted the service to be operated with steam locomotives. While none of these schemes really made it on to the drawing board, let alone off it, their very existence sowed the idea of a railway in the minds of the local business class of both towns. All it needed was for someone to set the process in motion. And that required a combination of courage, verging on foolhardiness, and optimism, bordering on naivety.
Sandars had all those qualities and was prepared to invest his money where no one else had dared to venture. As a chronicler of the railway suggests with some irony, Sandars was ambitious and influential but 'had little experience of project management, and less of engineering works, and [was] thus ideally placed to underestimate the vast political, financial and technical turmoil that lay ahead'. In 1821, he met William James, who was something of a jack-of-all-trades having trained as a solicitor but worked as an engineer and, most significantly, as a land speculator draining marshes and supervising property development for the aristocracy. James and Sandars 'set about transforming the country', and in 1822 Sandars paid James £300 to conduct a survey between the two towns in order to prepare a Bill for Parliament.
This was not an easy or indeed a safe assignment given the hostility of the entrenched interests. James's surveying team was attacked by opponents of the scheme, canal owners and local landowners. Even coal miners joined in the attacks, which was odd as their coal would become more valuable once the railway had reduced the cost of transporting it to the towns. James lived in fear of being lynched and hired a local prize- fighter as a bodyguard. Even when the surveyors took to working at night in order to escape the thugs, they were still disturbed by shots fired into the air to scare them off. These men worked for a local landowner, Robert Bradshaw, a ruthless opponent of the railways who had been given control of the Bridgwater canal by the old Duke of Bridgwater, the creator of Britain's first man-made navigable waterway.
This was a battle which extended far beyond the north-west of England. Bradshaw was an important voice at national meetings of canal company delegates, once expelling a hapless soul who made the mistake of admitting he owned a paltry five shares in a railway. The canal companies were powerful and often very profitable; the long boom in canal construction was only just coming to an end. Over the previous sixty years, since the opening of the Bridgwater in 1763, 2,200 miles of canal had been built throughout Britain, providing such an extensive network that there was no place south of Durham that was more than fifteen miles from navigable water. A horse, limited to pulling a ton on a bumpy road, could haul 25 tons in a barge, but canals offered more than great savings in horsepower. Fragile loads like pottery suffered far less risk as waterborne freight than when they were subjected to the jolting of the roads, and the dense but yielding medium of water sustained weighty loads which could not be carried on the roads. For these reasons the artificial waterways spread, growing straighter, wider and deeper as capital and profits furthered their expansion. Bradshaw and his fellows realized that the Liverpool & Manchester Railway was not just a threat to their local interests but would presage a price war between the two methods of transport in which, thanks to speed and flexibility, there could be only one winner.
Not surprisingly given this hostility, William James's survey took longer than expected, delaying the start of the parliamentary process. Moreover, the poor fellow had neglected his other business interests and in the spring of 1824 he was thrown into jail for debt, ending his role in the history of the railways. His job was given to the ubiquitous George Stephenson, who ignored much of the curvy and hilly route that James had devised and went for a more direct line. He faced similar opposition from landowners. As with the Stockton & Darlington, the aristocracy was making life difficult for the railway promoters because the proposed route passed through land owned by two powerful Lords Sefton and Derby. As a result, Stephenson tried to minimize the impact on their estates, which meant he could not always proceed with the best possible alignment.
News of the surveys had reached the local press and a propaganda battle ensued. The canal owners produced leaflets which described in graphic detail the dangers of steam locomotives with their risk of exploding or of setting fire to nearby fields and houses. Stephenson was not averse to using similar dirty tricks and produced a document that misleadingly purported to give Lord Sefton's sanction for his survey.
Despite the need for the odd extra curve to avoid the wrath of their lordships, the eventual route proposed by Stephenson was thirty-one miles, just a mile longer than the crow flies. More significantly, it was five miles fewer than the road and twelve fewer than the shortest of the three canal routes. The downside of such a direct route was that it necessitated a large number of expensive bridges and viaducts, a total of sixty-three or an average of two per mile. As with the Myers Flat swamp which the Stockton & Darlington had to cross, there was also one major natural obstacle, a damp bleak plain called Chat Moss that required an innovative engineering approach to support a railway. Using conventional draining ditches was not feasible because they would simply fill with water, so Stephenson devised the notion of 'floating' the railway embankment on a raft of brushwood and heather, along with vast amounts of spoil from other sections of the railway, a scheme that eventually proved successful despite concerns that the swamp would simply swallow up any amount of earth and gravel tipped into it.
While James, and then Stephenson, were conducting their surveys, Sandars had to ensure that the money was available to finance the construction and operation of the railway. He had formed a wide-ranging committee of local notables, including bankers, merchants, landowners and solicitors. Although they came from both towns, Liverpudlians predominated and the railway would always be regarded primarily as going from the port to the hinterland, rather than the other way around. Its headquarters and the most imposing structures would always be in Liverpool and, when the railway was finally opened, the first train would inevitably depart from the port heading inland.
The committee faced a tricky task. To build the railway, they needed the right to impose compulsory purchase orders on the land, much of which was owned by backward-looking aristocrats or people such as Bradshaw with an interest in canals. To obtain this, they had to promote a parliamentary Bill and overcome the powerful opposition of vested interests, with the inevitable risk of failure. It took pluck to invest in such a groundbreaking venture. The initial estimate was that £300,000 would be required but this was later increased to £510,000 with a contingency for a further £127,000, making a total of £637,000 (which crudely represents about £38m in today's money). Many of the investors were the very merchants who would benefit most from better transport for their goods, but it would be unfair to characterize their motivation as entirely self-interested. They were committed, too, to the notion of progress and modernity, a key characteristic of the progressive members of the moneyed classes and one of the driving forces behind the Industrial Revolution.
Railways were seen as the future, although so were many other new inventions. As one writer puts it, there were a lot of schemes that were to prove far less rewarding than the railways: 'In the 1820s, you could invest in balloon companies which would carry passengers through the London air at forty miles an hour, or in coaching companies which were going to run coaches on relays of bottled gas instead of horses. Or you could lose your money in a railway run by steam.'
In 1824, in an effort to obtain support, the committee issued a prospectus, an eloquent document largely written by Henry Booth, the highly literate company treasurer. The proposal at this stage did not commit the railway exclusively to locomotive haulage but instead suggested that a combination of steam engines, both fixed and moving, as well as cables and horses, would be used. The advantages of the railway were unequivocally stated: it would be more reliable than the canals, which were affected by water shortage in the summer and ice in the winter, and provide a more secure journey for goods which were frequently lost to pilferage during their transhipment to boats and their meandering passage on the water.
The lengthy prospectus was far-sighted in that it stressed the importance of Britain embarking on railway construction before its rivals overseas. The Tsar of Russia, Booth warned darkly, had expressed an interest in the design, and visitors from the United States had become acquainted with much technical detail. The railway, he observed, would stimulate the economy and encourage 'fair competition and free trade'. On the issue of who would use the railway, however, the prospectus was less prescient. It concentrated on freight as the principal purpose of the line, almost ignoring the carriage of passengers to which Booth devoted barely a couple of sentences in the whole document. However, that began to change. In a letter in support of the railway sent to MPs and Lords just before the Bill entered Parliament, Sandars with great foresight anticipated the notion of commuting. While factories no longer needed to be next to rivers, thanks to steam rather than mill power, houses for the workers still had to be within walking distance. But with the railway, Sandars argued, that would no longer be necessary. He was way ahead of his time, as the commuting habit did not develop on any scale until the mid-Victorian period.
It seemed that everything was in place when the Bill was presented to Parliament in February 1825. The arguments were sound, there was support from all the local Chambers of Commerce, and even from their colleagues over the water in Ireland. The national interest was at stake and the existing transport methods were slow and expensive, so what could go wrong? Well, British class interest for a start. The landowners had lined up the best briefs who marshalled their self-interested arguments with great aplomb. Worse, those arrogant barristers would enjoy roasting the self-educated and semi-literate Stephenson when he appeared in the witness box to outline the scheme. Stephenson let himself down by being too vague, having left much of the detailed work to assistants whose competence was, to put it kindly, variable. The sheer nastiness and dishonesty of the attack symbolized a desperate last cri de coeur of a class that suspected its days of ruling unchallenged were numbered. As one historian put it, the building of the railways was 'the final battle between two economic systems and two ways of living'. One can imagine the scene. The barristers must have been unable to hide their contempt for the wooden Stephenson with his almost incomprehensible Northumbrian accent and his lack of clarity on detail. He stumbled over basic questions such as the width of the Irwell river where the railway was to cross it, the location of the baseline for all the other height levels (some of which were wildly wrong, thanks again to the incompetence of his assistants), and, most importantly, the method of crossing Chat Moss. After his ordeal, it was little wonder that Stephenson commented ruefully: 'I began to wish for a hole to creep into.'
Excerpted from Fire & Steam by Christian Wolmar. Copyright © 2007 Christian Wolmar. Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic Ltd.
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