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CHAP. VIII. THE BEGINNINGS OF RAILWAYS AND LOCOMOTIVES.
RAILwAYs, like most other important inventions, had very humble beginnings. The first railway, properly so called, consisted of a rude line of wooden or iron rails, laid down for the easier guidance of waggons in which coal was hauled from the pit to the shipping place. This germ of the modern railroad, planted by some unknown hand, grew to maturity gradually and slowly. Progress, in this as in almost all branches of mechanics, was effected through the exertions of many; one generation entering upon the labours of that which preceded it, and carrying onwards their improvements. There is, doubtless, a vast difference between the old road track, on which pack-horses carried the main traffic of the country down to a comparatively recent date, and the modern railroad worked by powerful locomotives; yet the change was effected by comparatively easy stages. From an early period the growing trade and commerce of the country demanded constantly increased facilities for the transport of heavy articles. This was especially necessary in the mining districts, where it is to be observed that nearly all the modern improvements in road-making have originated, and that principally in the necessities of the coal trade. The colliery owners along the Tyne, in order to send their coals to market, found it necessary to form waggon-roads between their collieries and the river, where they had quays formed at which the coals could be delivered into the “keels” alongside. The “keel ” is a craft peculiar to the Tyne — a pudgy grim-looking sort of vessel, with a single sail, said to be of the same model as the ships of the Danish invaders who so often ravaged the northern coasts long ago. Every evening, a fleet of some hundreds of these “keels” might be seen floating down their cargoes of coal to the ships lying at anchor in deep water at Shields, and other ports down the river, into which they were transferred. In this process there was much waste of labour, as well as damage to the coal. To obviate this where practicable, loading staiths were erected and extended into the river, so that ships might lie there and have the coal emptied into them direct. Connected with these staiths were the colliery waggon-ways, many of them several miles in length, along which the coal was dragged by means of horses. The prime object of all the improvements made in the road was so to diminish friction by increasing the smoothness of the surface, that the haulage of the coal-waggons by horses should be rendered as easy as possible. With this object, wooden rails were first laid down by one Master Beaumont" between his coal pits, near Newcastle, and the staiths by the river side, probably about the year 1630. On these rails a large loaded waggon could be drawn by one horse. The same mode of transport was shortly after generally employed in the principal colliery districts. Old Roger North thus describes the railroads as they were laid down in the neighbourhood of the Tyne, in 1676 : — “Another remarkable thing is their way-leaves; for when men have pieces of ground between the colliery and the river, they sell the leave to lead coals over their ground, and so
* This enterprising gentleman expended not less than 30,000l. in his mining speculations, the result of which is described by a local chronicler, one Mr. Gray, writing in 1649, who quaintly observes, that “within a few years he consumed all his money, and rode home upon his light horse.”
chap. v III.] NEWCASTLE ROADS IN 1770–1791. 61
dear that the owner of a rood of ground will expect 20l. per annum for this leave. 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 rowlets fitting these rails, whereby the carriage is so easy that one horse will draw down some four or five chaldron of coals, and is an immense benefit to the coal merchants.” " A century later (in 1770–1772) the same roads were found in general use by Arthur Young. The roadway was little improved, but the works on which the road was formed were sometimes of a formidable character. Speaking of the waggon roads near Newcastle, Mr. Young observes:—“The coal-waggon roads, from the pits to the water, are great works, carried over all sorts of inequalities of ground, so far as the distance of nine or ten miles. The tracks of the wheels are marked with pieces of wood let into the road for the wheels of the waggons to run on, by which means one horse is enabled to draw, and that with ease, fifty or sixty bushels of coals.”f An intelligent French traveller, named Saint-Fond, who visited Newcastle in 1791, speaks in terms of high admiration of the colliery waggon ways, as superior to everything of the kind that he had seen. He describes the wooden rails as formed with a rounded upper surface, like a projecting moulding, and the waggon wheels as being “made of castiron, and hollowed in the manner of a metal pulley,” that they might fit the rounded surface of the rails. The economy with which the coal was thus hauled to the shipping places was strongly urged upon his own countrymen, as an inducement to them to adopt a similar mode of transit. :
* Roger North's Life of Lord Keeper Guildford, A.D. 1676.
f Six Months' Tour, vol. iii. p. 9.
f Travels in England, Scotland, and the Hebrides, translated from the French, vol i. pp. 142-6.
Similar waggon roads were laid down in the colliery districts of Scotland at a comparatively early period. At the time of the Scotch rebellion, in 1745, a railway existed between the Tranent coal pits and the small harbour of Cockenzie in East Lothian; and a portion of the line had the honour of being selected as a position for General Cope's cannon at the battle of Prestonpans.
In these rude wooden tracks we find the germ of the modern railroad. Improvements were gradually made in them. Thus, at some collieries, thin plates of iron were nailed upon their upper surface, for the purpose of protecting the parts most exposed to friction. Cast-iron rails were also tried, the wooden rails having been found liable to rot. The first iron rails are supposed to have been laid down at Whitehaven as early as 1738. This cast-iron road was denominated a “plate-way,” from the plate-like form in which the rails were cast. In 1767, as appears from the books of the Coalbrookdale Iron Works, in Shropshire, five or six tons of rails were cast, as an experiment, on the suggestion of Mr. Reynolds, one of the partners; and they were shortly after laid down to form a road. In 1776, a cast-iron railway, nailed to wooden sleepers, was laid down at the Duke of Norfolk's colliery near Sheffield. The person who designed and constructed this coal line was Mr. John Curr, whose son has erroneously claimed for him the invention of the cast-iron railway. He certainly adopted it early, and thereby met the fate of men before their age; for his plan was opposed by the labouring people of the colliery, who got up a riot in which they tore up the road and burnt the coal staith, whilst Mr. Curr fled into a neighbouring wood for concealment, and lay there perdu for three days and nights, to escape the fury of the populace."
* Railway Locomotion and Steam Navigation, their principles and practice. By John Curr, of New South Wales. London, Williams and Co., 1847. The
chap. vi.11.] OUTRAM ROADS — 1800. 63
In 1789, Mr. Wm. Jessop constructed a railway at Loughborough, in Leicestershire, and there introduced the cast iron edge-rail, with flanches cast upon the tire of the waggon wheels to keep them on the track, instead of having the margin or flanch cast upon the rail itself; and this plan was shortly after adopted in other places. In 1800, Mr. Benjamin Outram, of Little Eaton, in Derbyshire, used stone props instead of timber for supporting the ends and joinings of the rails. As this plan was pretty generally adopted, the roads became known as “Outram roads,” and subsequently, for brevity's sake, “tram-roads.” From this time the use of tram-roads rapidly extended, until at length they were generally adopted in the mining districts. The progress of railways was, indeed, such that the canal interests became somewhat uneasy respecting them. The Duke of Bridgewater, when congratulated by Lord Kenyon on the successful issue of his scheme, made answer, with farsighted shrewdness, “Yes, we shall do well enough if we can keep clear of these d–d tram-roads—there's mischief in them!” It will be observed, however, that the improvements thus far effected had been confined almost entirely to the road. The railway waggons still continued to be drawn by horses. The gradual improvements made in the rail, by improving the firmness and smoothness of the track, had, indeed, effected considerable economy in horse-power; but that was all. What was further wanted was, the adoption of some mechanical agency applicable to the purpose of railway traction. Unless some such agency could be invented, it was clear that railway improvement had almost reached its limits. Inventors and projectors, however, presented themselves in
author of this book was son of the John Curr of Sheffield, who laid down the above railway, and who also wrote a book, which was printed in 1797, entitled “The Coal Viewer and Engine Builder's Practical Companion.”