It was no accident that the North of England was the cradle for the railways, nor that a self-educated but brilliant man from Wylam in Northumberland was their midwife.
But this is far more than the story of a couple of early railways, the Stockton & Darlington and the Liverpool & Manchester, and the curmudgeonly George Stephenson because they did not emerge from a vacuum. As we shall see, The North, and particularly but by no means only the North East, had long been in the forefront of the post enlightenment developments that would incubate the industrial and capitalist system that would sweep across continents and, with railways as their catalyst, create the world that we know today.
Of course many other countries would develop railways quite soon after the United Kingdom, but there is a crucial difference. Whereas here they emerged from the maelstrom of the Industrial Revolution long after what the economist WW Rostow calls the ‘take off’, the starting point from an agricultural to an industrial economy. The railways were the result of a series of technological, economic, social and political changes that stretched back decades, even centuries, and the North of England was fortunate in that it happened to be the right place at the right time.
Let us start, therefore, with the origins of the various elements that make up a railway system and try to understand why this amazing invention emerged and, in particular, why here, the original Northern Powerhouse. What do you need for a railway? Of course the technology is important, but in a way that is a by product of various other societal processes. You need the right conditions for that technology to be developed, you need the raw materials, a stable society, and of course some good old surplus value – or profit – in order to finance all the successful inventions that made up the railway – as well as the myriad of unsuccessful ones. Remember that for every James Watt and George Stephenson remembered today, there are countless others whose names we will never know – and indeed some of these may well have contributed to the invention of the biggest ‘machine’ of all, the railway system, but others will have tinkered about with devices that simply would never have worked.
Why here, England’s north, slightly off the beaten track, invaded by Romans and Vikings, blessed with good but not unique agricultural conditions? Why not Tuscany, or the Pas de Calais, or the Ruhr, other areas where there was coal and lots of smart innovative people who might well have been potential Stephensons? That’s because, like with a successful football team which needs not just good players, but the right manager, sufficient finance and strong support, all the elements happened to combine in this one region of Europe. As Harold Perkins in The Age of the Railway puts it, that the answer to why it was Britain, and indeed Northern Britain that was the site of the world’s first ‘take off’,
‘It is not enough to say “because a set of clever men invented them, for inventors need the challenge and the opportunity, a demand to be met, and businessmen and money to back them and apply their inventions far and wide’.
All those elements were here. There was a measure of luck in terms of the geography of northern Britain. There was the water power which preceded coal burning but large deposits of coal, iron ore and other minerals. There were natural harbours which, with a bit of improvement, gave easy access to world trade.
Other regions in Europe too, had those advantages but here there was a bit societal difference that was crucial – and that was primogeniture or inheritance by the oldest son. The landowners had, for centuries, managed to create a system whereby they retained control of the land from generation to generation. Unlike on the Continent where estates were broken up and split between the various male children which meant they got smaller at each succeeding generation, the estates remained held together as a big unit able to produce big surpluses. The younger sons, often helped by the gift of a small amount of capital, were forced to seek their own way in the world, in trade or a profession – many of these subsequently became rich enough to buy their way back into the aristocracy but they had to work hard to make their fortune..
This, as Perkins puts it, ensured
‘there was a continuous downflow of younger sons of the landed class into the middle ranks, and a continuous upflow of “new men” from business and the professions into the landed class.
There was, in other words, more fluidity between the classes and ambition was not disdained. With a bit of luck, lots of ambition and hard work, it was possible to become a country gentleman – rather than by just being born into the right family. And it worked the other way – some aristocrats became part time industrialists such as the Earl of Derby who had a cotton mill at Preston while, according to Perkins,
The ninth earl of Dundonald ruined himself in trying to develop new chemical process at his works at Walker on Tyne
Transport was key and initially it was the network on rivers that was crucial. Britain was fortunate with being blessed with many navigable rivers, supplemented from the mid 17th century onward by Navigation Acts which turned many previously impassable flows into new routes that, inevitably, ended up in that great ‘universal high road’, the sea. Few places by the end of the 17th century were more than 15 miles – or a day’s ride – from navigable water. Water carriage was so much cheaper and more reliable than road transport, even in places where it was difficult to tow barges along the adjoining path and boats had to be poled or sailed. Where these existed, a horse could pull something like 50 times the load that they could carry on the road. The roads, incidentally, were terrible, despite perennial attempts to improve them through turnpike acts.
The lousy state of the roads was a great catalyst for innovation and a stimulus for building canals and railways. Indeed, if the roads had been good, there may never have been railways, but that question is for another day. Indeed, by the mid 17th century, the roads were little better – and in places worse – than they had been when the Romans were in charge. Indeed, since the Roman s departed, there had been a millennium and more of roads being simply repaired rather than built, and the maintenance standards were low – mostly consisting of throwing gravel into potholes (familiar today in some local council areas!). There was, for example, until 1760 still no road for wheeled transport out of Liverpool and therefore packhorses carried the cotton and other imports for Manchester. Similarly in Northumberland at the time, there was, according to one traveller, ‘not a cart in the county’.
The problem was that, apart from on a few routes with turnpike trusts, there was no one to repair or build roads. From the mid 17th century, there was a system by which local people were responsible for providing ‘statute labour’ to work on the roads for a few days every year, but according to Perkins
‘The work was usually done in a perfunctory manner, merely filling up the ruts and potholes of the previous year with the scrapings of the old road, to be churned up again by the next coaches and wagons to roll by.
The problem was that local people had little interest in using the roads – the trip to the local market was probably their most ambitious journey – and consequently they did the minimum to avoid being fined for not providing the requisite labour. It it was not until the inventions of the like of Thomas Telford and John Macadam in the early 19th century that they became at all reliable, and even then they were still slow and the stagecoaches were expensive to travel on. Moreover, despite the fact they represented a major improvement and speeded up journeys between major cities, these improved roads had neither the capacity or the durability to provide routes for major flows of minerals. They were very useful for stagecoaches and the post but were not major transport arteries.
The existing rivers were not good enough when the Industrial Revolution began to lead to rapid economic expansion – and consequently a massive rise in demand for transport – by the middle of the 18th century and that stimulated the beginning of the relatively short canal age. The first canal of the industrial age was the Sankey Canal opened in 1757, which linked St Helen’s with the Mersey but it was the much longer Bridgewater canal, opened four years later that was the stimulus for much greater investment both because of the remarkable engineering feat of building it, which included an aqueduct over the Irwell but also, crucially because it proved highly profitable. The canal, built by the Duke of Bridgewater ran from Worsley to Manchester to enable the Duke to carry coal from the mines far more cheaply than by the combination of pack horses and river that had been used previously. Within a year, the price of coal in Manchester halved.
Soon a network of canals emerged in the area and over the next quarter of a century canals were built across the UK. Then there was a period of canal mania in the 1790s that would be a precursor to the railway mania half a century later. The result was an extensive network of canals and navigable waterways that stretched from Kendal in the Lake District to Portsmouth, and, in the east west direction from the Severn to the Thames. The decades around the start of the 19th century were the period of the initial economic take off and had been both stimulated by the canals, and had, in turn, stimulated their massive expansion. They resulted in whole series of interrelated economic effects such as cheaper iron and coal, as well clay and bricks, and cotton and grain. Not only did the canals link almost every town and factory in the country but thanks to the sea never being very far away, there was far easier access to the world markets.
This then, was the situation when the various technical developments for the railways were emerging in the early 19th century. And the impact of the railways would be far greater and longer lasting than that of the canals. Indeed, in the North East, there were fewer canals because of the steep hills and deep valleys but there was already a – sort of – railway network. As I said at the beginning, it was no coincidence that the North East would be the site of the first pioneering public railway, not that the north west, with its different geography and its canals would outdo it with what I and most historians consider is the world’s first real railway.
When plans for the Stockton & Darlington railway were being considered, the North East had long been the most powerful force in the British economy and could boast by far the world’s biggest network of waggonways. Coal – in effect cheap energy – had been at the root of the North East’s success. It was, from the earliest days of mining, black gold and the North East was, right from the start, at the epicentre of production as Neil Evans pointed out in Two paths to economic development
‘By the reign of Charles I, one Tyneside pit could probably have produced the entire output of Henry VIII’s reign. Coal was increasingly mined in response to the phenomenal growth of London and the gentry of the north-east flourished as a particularly market-oriented group in an increasingly commercialised society’.
In other words the north – and in particular the north east – was already a powerhouse before the advent of the railways which explains why they were first developed here.
The divide across the Pennines is nicely encapsulated in the story of the two pioneering railways, the Stockton & Darlington opened in 1825 and the Liverpool & Manchester five years later which I will set out here. While Lancashire, the centre of the cotton textile industry, has always been seen as the fastest area of economic development as a result of the Industrial Revolution, the North East experienced an earlier rapid growth in its economy. Between 1700 and 1830, production of coal, which was already at a high level in the region, increased fivefold helped by technological change, notably the use of steam pumps to enable the extraction of coal from deeper mines and the creation of a network of waggonways across the region – two elements which were essential precursors of the first railways. We will come to steam in a moment, but let’s look at the extensive network of waggonways which developed in the region mainly over the course of the 18th century.
A little history and diversion here. One of the least known aspects of Louis XIV’s reign is that he had a little railway in his garden. As I mentioned in my book on Britain’s railways, Fire & Steam, the Sun King used to entertain his guests by giving them a go on his Roulotte, a kind of roller-coaster built in the gardens of his estate near Versailles in 1691. Louis’s little railway was a carved and gilded carriage on wheels that hurtled down a 250 metre wooden track into a little valley and, on a good day with the right momentum up the other side. The passenger would enter the carriage from a small building in the classical style that could claim to be the world’s first railway station. Then three bewigged valets would push the coach to the top of the incline giving the overdressed aristocrats a frisson as it whooshed like a toboggan down the hill.
In fact this simple technology using mostly gravity but also human and equine labour had been in use for some time before that stretching back to the 16th century, much more prosaically as short lines to take coal and other minerals up from mines and then to the nearest navigable waterway where they could be transported cheaply down rivers and even to the sea. With its large number of mines and increasing demand for coal, by far the biggest network of such waggonways was built up in the North East using crude wooden rails to support the wheels of the heavy loaded wagons.
By 1660 there were nine such waggonways on Tyneside alone and it is reckoned that across the UK there were already 40 miles of such lines by the end of the 17th century. The rapid increase after this was the result of higher demand for coal and the need, therefore, to use seams that were further away from rivers and deeper underground.
It was in the north east that these waggonways were concentrated because the banks of the Tyne and Wear rivers were ideally suited to waggonway operations. The journey from pit head to the river was rarely more than ten miles, and normally much shorter.
While these ‘Newcastle’ waggonways – or Newcastle roads as they became known – appear at first glance to be rather crude affairs, in fact they required considerable engineering, rather more than Louis’s fairground ride and were genuine precursors of the railway as much of the technology they used was adopted for railway. After the trackbed had been formed and levelled, transverse sleepers – a term that was already in use – were placed on which wooden rails were secured with pegs. The track was ballasted – again another term developed at the time – and ash was sprinkled on the rails to prevent them becoming too slippery.
There were two other important innovations on these waggonways as they became more extensively used. First, the wheels were flanged in order to stay on the rails – which incidentally were anything between 3ft to 6ft apart,as standard gauge 4ft 8 ½ ins would await George Stephenson. There was, for a time, the idea of putting the flange on the rails – creating an L shaped rail – but this made the track difficult to use for conventional horses and carts, and tended to harbour dirt. Metal rails were, too, far more efficient. A contemporary author, John Buddle, reckoned that
‘a horse on average will do more work by 30 per cent on an iron way than a wooden way, but frequently he will do 50 or even 100 per cent more’.
The best option for the design of the railways was if they ran down a slight incline to the waterway and then the empty wagons could be hauled back up, preferably by a horse to the mine but this was not always possible and more complex arrangements. By 1780, the idea had even developed of coupling together several wagons to form trains, a development helped by the invention of a braking system and the use of ropes on the steeper inclines in order to prevent derailments.
The other key development, and a big step towards the concept of railways, was the replacement of wooden rails with wrought or cast iron. Wooden rails, not surprisingly, wore out very quickly and as early as 1767 wooden rails with a surface of metal were installed at a mine at Coalbrookdale in Shropshire. By the 1790s, cast iron rails were beginning to replace both types of existing rail, wooden and metal covered rails.
The most famous of these early railways – an expression first recorded in 1681 – was the Tanfield Waggonway which ran south east from the Tyne near Gateshead and was opened between 1725 and 1738. It was the West Coast Main Line of its day, with wagons passing at busy times every 45 seconds and carrying about half the Tyneside traffic and perhaps a third of the whole coal output of the north east. Crucially, like other busy waggonways, it was double tracked, which meant the empty wagons could run on a separate track to those that were loaded.
The Tanfield waggonways required the construction of the Causey Arch, the oldest surviving railway bridge in the world. Such sophistication – and indeed cost – was enabled by the creation of the Grand Allies, a group of local mineworking families who clubbed together to form what was effectively a network of waggonways to serve a number of collieries. This was to overcome the biggest problem facing the builders of these waggonways, namely obtaining way leaves over other people’s property in order to build their lines. That required an Act of Parliament, an expensive process that could easily be stymied by local objectors, a very similar obstacle to that faced by railway pioneers in the following century. In order to get round this the Grand Allies bought up wayleaves, built a series of lines and created a veritable network that, again as with the railways, created a monopoly that excluded new entrants. By 1739, the Allies controlled much of the output of the mines alongside both the Tyne and the Wear but their influence waned as new entrants began to take advantage of technical progress, notably the use of steam engines to pump out water.
By the end of the 18th century, the idea of waggonways had spread to other parts of the United Kingdom notably the coal mines of south Wales with a total of possibly 300 miles, at least half of which were on Tyneside. Maurice Kirby, author of a book on the Stockton & Darlington, is unequivocal about their importance as by the end of the 18th century they were firmly established as part of Britain’s transport system. He writes:
The contribution of the waggonways to the growth of the coal industry – in facilitating the extension of coal working by containing rising marginal costs – had been an important one. In their absence, river navigations and canals would have been forced to rely upon a feeder network of roads which even in improved form could not have sustained the kind of traffic density and haulage weights which had long been the norm in the north east coalfield.
Despite the network created by the Grand Allies, the waggonways, however, were still limited in function – they had a sole purpose – of carrying minerals – but gradually the idea of developing them into a more general transport system, for both freight and passengers was beginning to emerge.
So waggonways were the first half of railway technology but the other key invention that enabled the development of the railways was, of course, the steam engine and again the North East played the part of midwife. Again, as with all these developments, there is not one person that can lay claim to being the inventor but rather there was a lengthy process of innovation and, crucially, refinement over the space of centuries.
Here we leave the North East, and indeed the North for a little southern diversion. The first engines driven by steam were produced early in the 18th century by Thomas Newcomen, an ironmaster from Devon who probably made use of a concept first devised by a French scientist, Denis Papin, who had already recognised that a piston contained within a cylinder was a potential way of exploiting the power of steam.
Newcomen developed the idea into working engines that could be used to pump water from mines, massively extending the potential for extraction as flooding prevented deep mining. His invention was crucial in keeping tin and copper ore mining viable in Cornwall but soon his pumps were being used in the North East to greatly extend the potential of the local mines to produce coal. By 1733 Newcomen had produced sixty engines and soon the invention was spreading across the UK and, indeed, Europe. In the North East they were popularised by John Potter, who seemed to act as a kind of agent for Newcomen and put an ad in 1724 in the Newcastle Courant
To give notice to all gentlemen and others – a rather odd implication – who have occasion for the fire engine or engines for drawing water from collieries to apply to Mr John Potter of Chester-le-street
Consequently these ‘fire engines’ were widely used across the region.
It was James Watt who greatly improved the engines and made them commercially viable – interestingly he tended not to sell them but to lease them out, effectively taking the risk that they would not work. In the 1860s, he teamed up with a Birmingham manufacturer, Matthew Boulton, extended the patent for another 25 years which effectively cornered the market. With these technical improvements, steam power therefore became commonplace and when the patents ran out, dozebns of other manufacturers entered the market. By the time that the Liverpool & Manchester railway wa being developed in the mid 1820s, Manchester alone had teh staggering number of 30,000 steam powered looms.
So by the first decade of the 19th century, the initial elements were all available for building a railway. It was combining the mobility of the waggonways with the power of steam that would finally enable the railways to emerge and this was the hard bit.
Here, too, we have to take a trip away from the North to bring in Richard Trevithick, who, not Stephenson, has the best claim to the accolade of ‘father of the railway’. Trevithick devised engines using high pressure steam, again improving efficiency, but, crucially making it possible to put the engines on wheels. Famously, his first effort came to an end when an attempt to run a steam engine on roads without a method of steering ended up with it in a ditch. Legend has it that Trevithick and his mates went off to the pub forgetting to douse the fire in the boiler which promptly exploded. Trevithick kept on trying, first with an engine at Coalbrookdale, in Shropshire, and then famously in London on a circular track near what became Euston station in 1808, charging a shilling to riders. But as with many such inventors, Trevithick went bankrupt and left for South America to try to find his fortune.
Trevithick, rightly had understood that rails were essential. It was not just the inadequacies of the road system which could not sustain the weight of these locomotives, but also the lack of any steering mechanism and the heavy tolls exacted by turnpike trusts. One can only speculate as to whether, if the pneumatic tyre or the internal combustion engine had been invented earlier, there would have been railways….
There were numerous inventors who picked up on his idea, nearly all in the North of England. John Blenkinsop, a mine agent, for the Middleton Colliery in Yorkshire, produced a working steam engine which did not, as had previous efforts, break the rails on which it rested by using a cog interlocked with sprockets on the side of the rail, rather like those mountain railways.
Another early developer was William Hedley, based at the Wylam Colliery next to where George Stephenson grew up, and who built an engine called the Wylam Dilly with eight wheels rather than four. Timothy Hackworth, a foreman blacksmith and who became another major engine builder, was also experimenting at the same time as Hedley.
But it is on George Stephenson that we have to concentrate. Stephenson, the son of a steam engine fireman, may have had difficulty reading and writing but his knowledge of the workings of the mines,and in particular steam pumping and winding engines was extensive. It is wrong to call Stephenson the father of the railways, because he was not an original inventor but crucially he could tell a good idea from a bad one. And he had a vision, without which neither the Stockton & Darlington, in which he was surveyor as well as engineer, or the Liverpool & Manchester, where he played a similar role, might well not have seen the light of day. As Maurice Kirby puts it,
It was Stephenson’s outstanding achievement that he alone of the early locomotive builders proved capable of viewing railway development as an entity. In perceiving the vital link between locomotive and track, he succeeded in demonstrating the economic and practical advantage of mechanical traction.
It was not until 1813 that Stephenson first took on the task of building a locomotive for the West Moor colliery and the result, called Blucher after a Prussian general (we were allies in the Napoleonic war) was almost certainly the first locomotive to run under its own steam with flanged wheels on iron rails. Stephenson, not known for his modesty, at the time told a friend ‘I will do something that in time which will astonish all England’.
Over the next decade Stephenson – and some of his rivals – produced a series of locomotives, mostly representing improvements. By the time the Stockton and Darlington was opened, around 30 locomotives had been built in England – all in the north– and 18 were still working and this included all 11 produced by Stephenson.
Oddly, the extensive waggonways which had grown up around the banks of the Tyne and Wear were so efficient that a steam driven railway was not deemed necessary. So it was further south, where the coalfields were entirely dependent on local markets as transport was much poorer where the idea for a railway to better exploit the coal seams was put forward. Originally, there was an idea for a canal but ultimately, what would be known today as the business case was too poor. The number of locks and the other costs associated with the canal could not be justified.
To create a railway a crucial third key element comes into place, the rather baser – but essential component, which was money or, rather finance. Here, the Stockton & Darlington pointed the way and was indeed pioneering. I have, in the past been rather dismissive of the Stockton & Darlington in contrast to the Liverpool & Manchester which was a much more substantial enterprise running between two cities which each boast two premier league clubs – something neither Stockton or Darlington have ever even had one club that rose above the second division. But they were, at the time, actually the two biggest urban centres of the region both with populations of over 5,000. Moreover, the way that the railway was financed, developed and, indeed, constructed was pioneering in every respect.
Two Quakers, the Peases, father and son, had long argued strongly for a railway between Stockton and Darlington, and were the driving force behind the construction of the line. The older, Edward Pease was the largest contributor of the £113,000 required to build it. The money, in fact, was put up by a group of around 30 locals, principally bankers and Quakers, and mostly from Stockton or Darlington (though Edward Backhouse was a Sunderland banker).
In reality the 37 mile line was Stockton three collieries near Bishop Auckland via Darlington and its main purpose was the same as with the waggonways, the carriage of minerals to water.
There was no shortage of difficulties, not least the hostility of some local landowners and tough decisions over the choice of traction – should it be horses or locomotives. Passing a Bill through Parliament was no easy task in the face of opposition and it two attempts before it was successful
And what would be the gauge? Stephensons’ choice of 4ft 8 1/2 ins – apparently the width of two horses arses coupled to a wagon – ended up as the world’s most used standard gauge. Stephenson surveyed the route and produced a far better version, three miles shorter than had been previously set out. But he made mistakes, too, using stone sleepers which were far too rigid, rather than the wood that would become universally used. There was swamp to dry out, which was done with tons of local rock, and a river to bridge over but actually once work started in 1822, it proceeded relatively quickly and trouble-free.
The opening was a grand affair in September 1825. It was not quite the world event that would occur five years later with the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester, but it nevertheless attracted widespread attention and support. The Newcastle Courant noted how
The novelty of the scene and the fineness of the day had attracted an immense concourse of spectators – the fields on each side of the railway being literally covered with ladies and gentleman on horseback, and pedestrians of all kinds. The track of carriages was then attached to a locomotive engine of the most improved construction and built by Mr George Stephenson
In fact, the Stockton and Darlington was a rather ramshackle line. It was single tracked with just four passing loops leading to disputes – and even fisticuffs over who had priority, it was open to anyone who wanted to use it which included slow horse drawn wagons which were in the great majority, as well as locomotives, it was slow and there were few passengers, hardly surprising given the low population in the area. No one knew how to operate a railway and there was a shortage of locomotives – the half dozen provided were unreliable – , cuts had been made which meant the track was in a poor condition and several important branch lines were not completed.
In some respects it was merely the apogee of the waggonways, but in others it was actually the beginnings of the railway network and soon expanded to Middlesbrough, the first railway town.
Its problems were overcome and the line was profitable, paying dividends of 2.5 per cent in the first year and they soon reached 8 per cent, a jolly good rate of return at the time. Moreover, the groundbreaking aspects of the railway as a genuine transport system had been noted, and stimulated something of a mini railway mania with ideas for lines being suggested across the country. But it was the business people over the other side of the Pennines who were keeping the closest eye on developments in the North East . Indeed, one of them, Joseph Sandars, invited Stephenson over for a chat about a possible line between Liverpool and Manchester. There had been several earlier proposals for a line between the two towns but Sandars, a Liverpool coal merchant, was more determined than his predecessors and prepared to put up money.
This was an enterprise on a different scale to the Stockton & Darlington, and if anywhere was ripe for a railway, it was the north west of England. Both Liverpool and Manchester had populations well over 100,000 and the links between them were vital for the textile industry.
Trade between the two amounted to 1,000 tons per day and, as we have seen, the 36 mile long turnpike opened in 1860 was in a poor condition and overcrowded while the canals were slow, taking two days, and required transhipment.
Again, there was no shortage of opposition. Although there had already been a survey, in 1824 Stephenson was called in to carry out another one and tried to minimise the impact on the main opponents, Lords Sefton and Derby. The canal owners were, too, unsurprisingly opposed and at times fights broke out between the two sides.
Sandars, however, had powerful supporters on his side, having brought together a powerful group of bankers, merchants, landowners and solicitors. It was not just self-interest that motivated them. They were committed to the notion of progress and modernity, a key characteristic of the progressive members of the moneyed classes who were the driving force behind the Industrial Revolution.
Again, as with the Stockton & Darlington, it took two attempts to get the Bill through Parliament. Famously, Stephenson was humiliated when he appeared in front of the Lords during the first attempt when he presented the case but was pulled apart by the oh-so clever barristers who treated the man with a Northumbrian accent with all the contempt of class privilege. Stephenson muttered afterwards that ‘I began to wish for a hole to creep into’.
But he got the last word when the second Bill was waved through with reasonable ease, not least because more confident representatives appeared before the committee. Stephenson at one point was replaced as surveyor but soon came back and was at the heart of the whole scheme. And of course, famously, it was his engine, The Rocket, designed with the help of his son, Robert, which easily triumphed at the Rainhill trials held to find the best locomotive. It was the improvement in locomotives and the commitment to them that ensured the Liverpool & Manchester was a far superior railway to the Stockton & Darlington.It was double tracked, steam powered throughout – tho with a static engine at the Liverpool end and carried both freight and passengers. Other railways authorised at the time, such as the Newcastle & Carlisle were still considering using horses. The Liverpool & Manchester never did.
The opening in September 1830 was, rightly a world event, with representatives from America and numerous European countries. This was the dawn of the railway age, and the promoters of the line knew it. The opening ceremony was an opening akin to those today for sporting events like the Olympics. There was a grand parade of eight trains, comprising 32 carriages, all hauled by Stephenson locomotive and with the Duke of Wellington as the guest of honour in a carriage deemed ‘fit for a king’ . The crowds were reckoned to encompass a million people – tho that may have been a bit of journalistic licence – and the event was only marred by the death of the MP William Huskisson, who was trapped between two trains, and died a few hours afterwards.
While that tragedy grabbed the following days’ headlines, the impact of the line lasted rather longer. It is difficult to understand, today, just what a difference this made. Suddenly, journeys that took days could be undertaken in hours, and the capacity of the freight network increased many fold instantly.
The Liverpool & Manchester never paid less than 8 per cent and this was noticed by other local investors who poured money into other railways. Thanks to them, the Grand Junction, and the London and Birmingham, the basis of today’s West Coast Main Line were funded, enabling them to obtain Parliamentary bills,and other lines such as the Midland Counties, the North Mdland, the Great |Western, the Edinburgh and Glasgow, and even astonishingly the London & Southampton, all incorporated in the 1830s were funded largely or solely by northern investors.
Therefore the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester set us on the journey that resulted in a staggering 5,000 miles of railway being developed over the next 20 years. And crucially, and contrary to what might have been expected, it was not the City of London that provided the finance for much of the early expansion. It was the northern entrepreneurs who, having seen that money could be made out of this new invention, promoted and financed railways across Britain.
The Northern Powerhouse extended southwards. The benefits of the Industrial Revolution which had been nurtured in the north could now spread far and wide. It is no exaggeration to say that the railways were the catalyst for the economic take off that swept through Europe and parts of the rest of the world over the next decades. And it was all sparked off by the ingenuity, persistence, and imagination of the people of this region. And with all the talk of Northern Powerhouse, that should not be forgotten.
I leave you with a picture of the Doric Arch that adorned the front of Euston Station for more than a century. It was symbol of the power of the railways, and it was no coincidence that it was demolished in the 1960s when the notion that the car was king was unchallengeable and the City of London was flexing its muscles. It was built by the London & Birmingham railway, and the £5.5m capital needed for the railway – a quite staggering sum – largely came from Lancashire and the vast profits of the cotton industry. The symbolism was clearly too much for the sensitive Londoners