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Chapter LII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 2


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" The commercial results of the Liverpool and Manchester railway," writes Dr. Smiles, "were so satisfactory, and, indeed, so greatly exceeded the expectations of the projectors, that many abandoned projects were revived. An abundant crop of engineers sprang up ready to execute railways of any extent. Now that the Liverpool and Manchester line had been made, and the practicability of working it by locomotive power had been proved, it was as easy for engineers to make railways, and to work them, as it was for navigators to find America after Columbus had made the first voyage thither. George Stephenson had shown the way, and engineers forthwith crowded after him, full of great projects." A position like that in which Stephenson was placed, was one in which he was naturally exposed to temptations. He was, however, proof against them. The spectacle of men connected with the railway interest retiring, after a few years of activity, with handsome fortunes, was one which not unfrequently came under his notice. They were all necessarily younger in the field than himself. In many cases their contributions to the spread of railways extended little beyond the wording of a prospectus and the collection of shareholders' subscriptions. Yet George Stephenson remained content with the legitimate gains of a laborious profession. Up to the year 1844, respectable brokers in the City could not, without some difficulty, be induced to undertake the negotiation of railway shares. The new species of property was not in favour with the Stock Exchange. But in the course of a single year all was changed. When, by the payment of dividends, it had become evident that railways could really be worked at a profit - when it was discovered that the gloomy prophecies of their impending ruin in which old and experienced financiers had indulged were falsified by the result - then suddenly, with one consent, the whole financial world rushed into the opposite extreme, and on the 17th of November, 1845, there were six hundred and twenty new projects before the public, requiring for their execution an aggregate capital of more than five hundred and sixty- three million pounds sterling. In that year Parliament had actually granted powers for the construction of 2,883 miles of new railways, with a total capital of 44,000,000 sterling. But the nation was now fairly abandoned to its speculative frenzy; and in the following year bills conceding powers to raise three times as much money as was granted the previous year, for lines whose total mileage was not double as great, passed through the Legislature. This was the period of the railway mania of 1846. Throughout this period the conduct of Stephenson presented a remarkable resemblance, and an equally remarkable contrast, to that of a great English statesman during a similar crisis which occurred more than a century earlier. "When the South Sea Company were voting dividends of fifty per cent., when a hundred pounds of their stock was selling for eleven hundred pounds, when Threadneedle Street was daily crowded with the coaches of dukes and prelates, when divines and philosophers turned gamblers, when a thousand kindred bubbles were daily blown into existence - the Periwig Company, and the Spanish Jackass Company, and the Quicksilver Fixation Company - Walpole's calm good sense preserved him from the general infatuation. He condemned the prevailing madness in public, and turned a considerable sum by taking advantage of it in private." The latter, however, is precisely what Stephenson did not stoop to do. In the railway mania of 1846, though " anxiously entreated to lend his name to prospectuses, he invariably refused. He held aloof from the headlong folly of the hour, and endeavoured to check it, but in vain. Had he been less scrupulous, he might, without trouble, have secured enormous gains."

In a speech delivered at Newcastle in 1850, Robert Stephenson said: " It seems to me but as yesterday that I was engaged as assistant in laying out the Stockton and Darlington railway. Since then the Liverpool and Manchester and a hundred other great works have sprung into existence. As I look back upon these stupendous undertakings, accomplished in so short a time, it seems as though we had realised in our generation the fabled powers of the magician's wand. Hills have been cut down and valleys filled up; high and magnificent viaducts have been raised; and if mountains stood in the way, tunnels of unexampled magnitude have pierced them through, bearing their triumphant attestation to the indomitable energy of the nation and the unrivalled skill of our artizans."

In the twenty years which have elapsed since Stephenson spoke these words, the extent of the railway system of the United Kingdom has been far more than doubled.

In 1851 the number of miles of railway open in the United Kingdom was 6,890; in 1841 it was less than 1,800; in 1871 it was 15,376. The 6,890 miles of railway in 1851 had cost two hundred and forty-eight and a quarter millions sterling (248,240,896) in their construction. The 15,376 miles open in 1871 had cost more than five hundred and fifty-two and a half millions (552,680,107), or more than two-thirds the amount of the National Debt. The number of passengers conveyed by railways in 1851 was 85,391,095; in 1871 it was 375,409,146. The net receipts on railways in 1851 were little more than nine millions sterling; they were but 11,009,519 in 1854; in 1871 they had reached to 25,739,920. On every mile of railway open in 1851 the average yearly receipts were 2,176; in 1871 every mile brought in 3,064. Thus, in the twenty years, the mileage of British railways had increased two and a half fold; the annual number of passengers was more than quadrupled. The capital had been considerably more than doubled, while the total receipts had been nearly trebled.

The history of railways in the United States is very remarkable. So rapidly did they spread in that country of great distances, after their introduction in 1830, that by the year 1855 the United States possessed 2,550 more miles of railway than all the other countries of the world put together. Since that date, however, Europe has again taken the lead. If we compare the railway accommodation of the northern part of the Western Hemisphere with that of the civilised portion of the Old World, we find the balance is considerably in favour of the former, in point of population, though not of area. At the end of 1866 there was one mile of railway to every 193 square miles of surface in North America, and to every seventy-two square miles in Europe. But North America had 39,414 miles of line to an aggregate population of only fifty-two millions, while Europe had but 50,117 miles to its population of two hundred and eighty-five millions. So that there was one mile of rail on the North American continent to every 1,309 inhabitants, while in Europe the population were 5,686 times as numerous as the total miles of its railways. In 1866 there were open in Asia 3,660 miles of railway, principally in the British possessions in the East Indies. In Africa the number of miles open in that year was only 375; in Australia 607; in the West Indies 410; and in South America 1,041.

Altogether, therefore, the aggregate length of all the railways in existence throughout the world in 1866 was 95,727 miles. Since that date the multiplication of railways has been going forward as rapidly as ever. This is more particularly the case with British India, and the great empire of Russia, where, in the course of a few years, many millions of British capital have been invested in assisting their development. Among the more remarkable achievements of railway engineering in the most recent years may be mentioned the railway across the continent of North America, joining the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The largest tunnel in the world - that which pierces through the Alps at Mont Cenis - is also the work of this period. It connects France and Italy, and its length is seven miles. Another difficult work of recent date is the Underground railway in the British metropolis. It had to be carried underneath the streets of the busiest of cities* down where the soil was honeycombed with other works - gas-pipes, water-mains, drains, and sewers. It had to undermine without damaging the foundations of houses and churches, and other public and private buildings. The cost was fabulous being upwards of 150,000 per mile. And, even when completed, another formidable difficulty had to be overcome. If the ordinary railway engines were used in the confined space of this tunnel, the atmosphere would soon become intolerable, and passengers would be deterred from travelling upon the line. The obstacle was, however, successfully surmounted. An improved engine was invented by Mr. Fowler which could be worked in the open air like an ordinary engine, but which, while in the tunnel, gave off neither steam nor smoke, being so constructed as to be able to condense the one and consume the other. The subterranean railway, though the most wonderful, was not the only remarkable addition to the railways of the metropolis in recent years. Three lines, connecting London with the counties south of the Thames, were brought over the river into the heart of the metropolis. Three great iron bridges were thrown across the Thames, and vast terminal stations erected in the centre of London. The great Midland system was likewise brought to the metropolis; and its terminus at St. Pancras, designed by Sir Gilbert Scott, is the grandest work of the kind in the world. The growing population of the capital, which in 1871 numbered little short of four millions of souls, was every day requiring increased facilities of locomotion. The old methods of conveyance had long since ceased to be adequate to its wants. There was a wide field for railway enterprise within the limits of the metropolis itself, and in the twenty years preceding the field was cultivated very assiduously. In fact, in the year 1871 there were no fewer than 177 railway stations in London, nearly all of which were either wholly or partially employed in the inter-metropolitan traffic alone. On the underground lines of the metropolis the trains are counted by hundreds, and the passengers by the hundred thousand daily.

Some of the bridges which the introduction of railways has called into existence are amongst the most stupendous works of engineering, whether of the present or of any age. In the Albert bridge over the Tamar near Saltash, which was built by Brunei, the central pier, measured from foundation to summit, rises to a height of 270 feet, or more than fifty feet higher than the Monument of London. This bridge consists of nineteen spans. The two central ones, resting on the central pier, cross the whole stream of the Tamar at a leap of 900 feet, which is wider than the Thames at Westminster. The foundations of the central pier of this bridge, as well as those of another of Mr. Brunei's bridges, that over the Wye at Chepstow, presented difficulties which it would have been hardly possible to overcome if the usual modes of operation had been followed. By a modification of the pneumatic process, applying what is called {he coffer-dam system, Mr. Brunei succeeded in laying the foundations of the pier at Saltash at a greater depth below the water and soft mud than had ever before been accomplished.

The great bridges erected by Robert Stephenson are among the proudest monuments of his engineering skill. A quarter of a century after Telford had spanned the Menai Straits with his magnificent suspension bridge, Robert Stephenson raised a still more astonishing structure over the same arm of the sea. In the Britannia bridge, as also in the Conway bridge, Stephenson adopted a new and untried principle. These two structures may be described as consisting of two huge tubes or hollow beams of iron. The Britannia bridge tubes are in eight parts, resting on towers, the central tower rising up from a rock in the middle of the Straits to a height of 230 feet. The tubes themselves - of which the four central portions are 460 feet, and the four other portions 230 feet, long - are composed of enormous iron plates riveted together. The rivets alone weighed 900 tons, and would make an iron rod seven-eighths of an inch thick, and 126 miles long. The work of raising the vast tubes from the water to their position on the piers was effected by the help of Bramah hydraulic presses of unprecedented power. One of these engines was estimated to be capable of lifting as much as 30,000 men. The merit of the successful application of iron in the form of a tube for the construction of bridges, like those over the Menai Straits and the Conway, belongs in part to Sir William Fairbairn, whose knowledge of the strength and properties of that metal was unrivalled. It was in a high degree clue to the labours of this celebrated engineer that the same principle was also successfully applied in iron-shipbuilding.

The Britannia bridge, which was completed in the year 1850, was followed by a still more marvellous work of the same kind - the tubular bridge over the St. Lawrence at Montreal. This was the last great work of Robert Stephenson, and, indeed, it is by many authorities considered to be his greatest. For gigantic strength, and the majesty of its proportions, no structure in ancient or modern times can compare with it. It consists of a series of twenty-five tubular bridges connected together by the piers on which they rest. These piers are of enormous strength, as, indeed, they were required to be. They not only have to support the weight of the iron tubes, which themselves are upwards of ten thousand tons, but to withstand the strain to which they are exposed from the stream itself. The usual rapidity of the current is ten miles an hour; and every season, on the break up of the frost, immense quantities of ice in vast blocks are brought down from the great lakes, and pass the bridge in their course towards the ocean. The piers each contain 8,000 feet of solid masonry. The Victoria bridge is five times as long as the Britannia, its length being but sixty yards short of two miles. The central span is 330 feet wide, each of the others being 242 feet. The cellular principle of construction, which had been followed in Stephenson's two former tubular bridges, was discarded in this structure. The Victoria bridge - which was carried out by Mr. Malcolm Ross, after Stephenson's designs - was commenced in 1854, and finished in 1860. Two other tubular bridges were also among Stephenson's later works. These were, the bridge over the Damietta branch of the Nile, the other over the large canal near Beaket-el-Saba. In these bridges the trains run, not inside the tubes, but outside, on the top or roof.

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Pictures for Chapter LII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 2


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