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Introductory


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"There be three things which make a nation prosperous, a fertile soil, busy workshops, and easy conveyance for men and commodities from one place to another." So wrote Francis Bacon four centuries ago. The fertile soil this country had; the busy workshops had been given us by those who had put to use the mighty power of steam; and the easy conveyance came with the highest embodiment of that power, the locomotive, the thing that moves of itself, the most wonderful achievement of human ingenuity, for it is nearest to life. Heat may or may not be a mode of motion; but it is assuredly a cause of motion; and the commonest cause. Far back in the development of mankind came the discovery and subjugation of fire; then came the water boiling in the pot; and ages afterwards the bold adventurer who put the lid on the kettle and was the first lo imprison steam, as he who invented the spout was the first to put steam under control. Who they were no one knows, nor in most cases even in our own time does any one know the name of the real inventor. The man who invents is not the man to talk and persuade, but to do. He is dumb, and many of the inventions made by the man are ascribed to the master who found the money to patent them with and the agents to introduce them. And such is not the only sort of false representation in this connection, for the grim giant steam, as dumb as the inventor, did the work that was wanted and gave the nation the prosperity usually ascribed to the adoption of a theory of economics, and is doing it still wherever the theory is rejected.

Railways have never been given the credit that is their due. The majority who knew them in their infancy had little but evil to say of them. That majority's children gave as cold a welcome to the bicycle, and we know how their children's children treat the motor-car. The railways had a harder fight than these to get a footing in the world, but they were here when we were born and seem as natural as the wind and tide.

They were an invention, and there is no one more generally disliked than the inventor until after his death, when he gains nothing by his work, and then the community claim him as one of themselves and boast of what "we" have done. He is the great disturber of capital, the encourager of the speculative, the introducer of new ways, the founder amid many failures of industries competing with industries that seem to have existed for over, of trades taking the place of trades that are always at their best in the final stage of the contest that ends in their replacement. It is easy to sneer at antiquity until we arc reminded that we are doing as our ancestors did under similar circumstances; and the opponents of railways are secure of at least a little sympathy as one result of that knowledge of the past required to realise what railways have done for us.

We are approaching a period of power when with electricity and internal combustion there promises to be no limit to speed; but steam raised the rate of movement to fivefold what it was a century ago, "What is the use of all this hurry?" some will think it right to say, just as in those far-off days when man first made fire "What is the use of it?" was asked in the manner of the time. The answer is - "Look around you! Where is the man that walks, except for exercise, when he can ride? Who rides in a slow train when he can travel in a fast one? Where is the man who will spend ten hours in a vehicle when he can find another that will take him the same distance in three?"

Speed? There is fascination about it that all feel, whether they admit it or not, for there is nothing in the animal world that would not go faster if it could. Who without a thrill has seen the Cornishman sweep by on the way to the west - whizzing through the woodland, whirring down the slope, thundering over the bridge, booming through the cutting, humming along the level, burring on the bank; woods and slopes, tunnels and bridges, cuttings and banks, each with a note of its own?

The locomotive is the most interesting of machines for the same reason as the steam-hammer is the most popular of machine tools; there is no mistaking its purpose or the means by which it does its work. And the story of our home railways, of which it is the central figure, is of more importance than that of any other industry. Let us consider it again with the aid of new light from old and new sources that time has disclosed and trade caution no longer keeps back, though if ever there were a subject on which one has to go warily it is railway history, for never was a path so strewn with misapprehensions and misprints.

We all know what we mean by a railway, but it is as well to remember that the railway is essentially the road, the rail-way, on which the rolling stock is moved by men, horses, steam-engines, or whatever other engines may share it with them or replace them. The railway began with the road, and it will end with the road.

The history of the road specially prepared for fast or heavy traffic would take us back a long way; let it be enough to note that on the 4th of August 1555 there was a tram from the west end of the Bridge Gate in Barnard Castle for the repairing of which Ambrose Middleton, in his will, left twenty shillings. The word tram seems to have been used in the north of England and south of Scotland as descriptive of the special track and the truck that ran on it. The track was of timbers laid lengthways; the trucks were hauled by men or horses. It was these railways with their rails of timber "exactly straight and parallel," running along the old wayleaves, that Roger North found in 1676, on which the "carts with four rowlets" carried the coals from the collieries to the Tyne.

When these rails were first faced with iron we do not know, but in 1734 cast-iron wheels with an inner flange were in use near Bath; in 1767 Reynolds placed plates of iron on the old railway at Coalbrookdale with the flange inside; and in 1776 John Curr laid at the Nunnery Colliery near Sheffield a cast-iron plateway in which the iron was a right angle in section, the vertical of which was outside and kept the wheels on the horizontal track - an idea that caused a riot, the inventor having to remain in hiding for three days and nights in a neighbouring wood until the fury of the populace had abated.

Thirteen years afterwards John Smeaton's pupil, William Jessop, improved upon this, at Smeaton's suggestion, by placing a narrow iron edge rail on his line between Nanpantan and the Loughborough Canal and using inner-flanged wheels, thus removing the flange from the rail to the wheel and introducing into the world a railway about which there can be no dispute. The rails were in yard lengths, about 40 Ib. to the yard, double-flanged in section, with a curved lower flange that spread out to form a foot, through which they were spiked down to cross sleepers. What they were like any one can see by going to South Kensington, where, among the railway antiquities, "Cast Iron Edge Rails, M. 2472," came from the original track which was of 4 ft. 8½ in. gauge. They are rough and rusty, but there is thought in the old iron; do not pass them by with indifference.

Rails were cast without the feet in 1797 in the Newcastle coalfield; they were placed on the so-called "chairs," and as the lines were braced with cross sleepers - apparently the "trams" or beams from which the name comes - the main features of the permanent way had been reached before the close of the eighteenth century. But nearly all the old tram-roads had flat rails, and among the most important of these in railway story were the Pollok and Govan, working in 1778, now part of the Caledonian; and that at Merthyr Tydvil - to the Glamorgan Canal, opened in 1794 - which is now part of the Taff Vale.

One other should be mentioned as a survival, the old lime line from Ticknall to the Ashby Canal constructed in 1799 by Benjamin Outram, who laid so many lines that the word tram was said to have come from the last syllable of his name. But there were trams before there were Outrams, and the derivation is now only quoted as an aid to memory. This Ticknall tram-road with rails like Curr's was bought by the Midland in 1846. It has never been used, but in order to maintain their rights the company still run on it, once in the October of every year, a wagon loaded with coal solemnly drawn by a horse.

In 1799 it was proposed to lay a line from London to Portsmouth, and for the first portion of this the Surrey Iron Railway Company was formed, and obtained its Act of Parliament in 1801. This was the first railway company, the first public railway, and the first Railway Act so-called, though it was not the first Act in which a rail-way was authorised. The rails were 4 in. wide and 1 in. thick, with an arched flange ½ in. thick and 3½ in. high resting direct on stone-block sleepers. The gauge was 4 ft. 7 in. outside the flange; inside, as our present gauge is measured, it was about 4 ft. 6 in.; the four-wheeled wagons were 5 ft. wide, 2 ft. deep, and 8 ft. long, and they were worked by horses. The revenue was derived from tolls - there is one of the toll sheets at South Kensington - coals, for instance, being charged for at the rate of threepence per chaldron per mile. The first section of the line, opened on the 1st of June 1804, ran from Wandsworth to Croydon across Mitcham Common; the extension, for which an Act was obtained in 1803, ran from Croydon to Merstham. This portion was taken over by the Brighton Company as their first purchase, and some of it forms part of their present system.

Between the Surrey's Act of 1801 and the Stockton & Darlington's in 1821, there were no fewer than nineteen Railway Acts, five of which were allowed to lapse. Among the others there were, in 1802, the Carmarthenshire and the Sirhowy, now absorbed by the North Western; in 1804 the Oystermouth (Swansea to the Mumbles), which is still working independently, and is in that sense the oldest existing railway; in 1808 the Kilmarnock & Troon, now part of the Glasgow & South Western; in 1809 the Gloucester & Cheltenham, and the Forest of Dean, now included in the Midland and the Great Western; and in 1817 the Mansfield & Pinxton, now part of the Midland.

Like their predecessors for fifty years or more, they were plateways rather than railways, and the men who laid them were the platelayers, whose name has ever since been applied to the layers and repairers of the track. In several cases these old flat roads were the nuclei of later schemes, and, like the old Surrey, they can be traced in the sections which were abandoned. They were there long before the coming of the steam-engine, and it was upon one of them that a locomotive made its first journey.

At Redruth in 1797 lived two men to whom the world owes much. William Murdock was in the house in Cross Street in which he invented gas lighting, and, within a stone's throw, at Moreton House, lived Richard Trevithick. Murdock had been in Cornwall for eighteen years as engineer to Boulton & Watt, and was to leave it in 1799 to be the superintendent of their works at Soho. The two were opponents in business, Murdock being very much engaged in erecting Watt's engines and looking after Watt's interests, while "Captain Dick" was the most prominent of the Cornishmen who were using every endeavour to evade or improve upon Watt's patents.

In 1759 John Robison, before he sailed for Quebec, was helping Watt to invent a locomotive, and Watt included the use of steam for land transport in his patents. But he seems to have left the matter alone, and certainly discouraged any experiments about it among the stall of the Birmingham works. Murdock, however, away at Redruth, had a freer hand, and took up this problem of making a wheeled carriage that would move of itself.

One evening, wishing to put his model to the test, he went to the walk leading to Redruth church. This was narrow, kept rolled like a garden walk, and bounded on each side by a high hedge. It was dark and he was alone. Lighting the lamp under the boiler he got up steam, and off started the locomotive with the inventor in chase of it. Soon he heard shouts of terror. Following up the machine he found that the cries proceeded from the parson who, going into the town on business, was met on the lonely road by the fiery little traveller. According to the parson's daughter, her father and mother, returning from the town, were somewhat startled by a fizzing sound, and saw a little thing on the road moving in a zigzag way. Murdock was with it; her parents knew him well. They understood that he wished the experiment to be kept secret, and she did not recollect ever hearing of it afterwards. Whichever story be accepted, it is clear that Murdock made a model, and that it moved of itself on Redruth church path.

He seems to have made two models at the least. One, according to Wilson, reporting to the firm on the 9th of August 1786, had a 1J in. stroke; another, which is in the Birmingham Art Gallery, had a stroke of 2½ in.; and about this, or a third one, there is a letter of importance among those now at Soho which cleared up the mystery why Murdock did not persevere with his work on the self-moving engine.

Boulton, going into Cornwall, met a coach near Exeter in which he caught sight of Murdock. He got down at once, and Murdock also alighted. According to Boulton they had a parley for some time. "He said he was going to London to get men; but I soon found he was going there with his steam carriage to show it and take out a patent, he having been told by Mr. Wm. Wilkinson what Sadler has said, and he has likewise read in the newspaper Symington's puff, which has rekindled all William's fire and impatience to make steam carriages. However, I prevailed upon him to return to Cornwall by the next day's diligence, and he accordingly arrived here this day," 2nd of September 1786, "at noon, since which he hath unpacked his carriage and made it travel a mile or two in Rivers's great room, making it carry the fire-shovel, poker and tongs. I think it fortunate that I met him, as I am persuaded I can cure him of the disorder or turn the evil to good. At least I shall prevent a mischief that would have been the consequence of his journey to London." In short, Boulton & Watt had enough to do in their own line, and it did not suit them to lose Murdock or to launch out on to another that might be risky. And so William Murdock, the most loyal of men, was deprived by the policy of the firm of the honour of introducing the locomotive.

Murdock had ventured on high-pressure, and with high-pressure steam the Soho firm would have nothing to do. But Richard Trevithick was a high-pressure man in several senses, and from his youth up had made it his peculiar study. Naturally inventive, he was led on to invent a locomotive. From the newspapers he may have heard of what Symington and others were busy at, or he may have been told, perhaps by Murdock himself, of what had occurred on the church path; at any rate eleven years after that he had a model ready.

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Pictures for Introductory

Richard Trevithick.
Richard Trevithick. >>>>
Jessop Rail (1789).
Jessop Rail (1789). >>>>
Outram's Ticknall Tram-rail (1799).
Outram's Ticknall Tram-rail (1799). >>>>
The first Passenger Engine.
The first Passenger Engine. >>>>
Blenkinsop Wheel.
Blenkinsop Wheel. >>>>
Blenkinsop Rail and Chair (1811).
Blenkinsop Rail and Chair (1811). >>>>
Wylam Bail (1808).
Wylam Bail (1808). >>>>
Birkinshaw Rail and Chair (1820).
Birkinshaw Rail and Chair (1820). >>>>

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