The Railways before Stephenson

David Eveleigh reviews Mark Jones’ book Discovering Britain’s First Railways.

One of the early railways featured in Mark Jones’ book is the Storeton Railway in Wirral and as a young teenager I explored this thoroughly, even digging up sections of the short lengths of fish bellied rail of 1837 in nearby woods and recording my excavations with drawings and photographs….

An early 19th century tramway sleeper found at an archaeological site in Darlaston served as a reminder that railways existed long before their popular use for steam-powered passenger transport (Photo: Martin Cook)

It was, therefore, a great pleasure to be given this book to review and place this particular railway I have known so well all my life in  a wider context.  As the author states in his introduction, surprisingly little has been written about Britain’s first railways and they have a longer history than many may imagine

In the popular mind the spotlight of early railway history tends to focus on the first essays in steam traction – by pioneers such as Trevithick, Blenkinsop, Hedley and George Stephenson – in the first three decades of the nineteenth century. But for the author, this important chapter in the history of our railways effectively forms the final chapter of his account of early railways.

Mark Jones acknowledges that the idea of guided transport can be dated back to ancient times and was introduced to Britain by German miners as early as the sixteenth century. By the mid-eighteenth century tramways were a widely recognised mode of transport in colliery districts to transport coal from the pit head.

First railways eclipsed by arrival of steam
As the author explains the early railway or tram tracks were made of wood. There was no standardisation. Each tramway was separate and the solutions to providing the guide varied but by the end of the eighteenth century the idea of trucks with flanged wheels running on raised track made of iron was gaining ground. Traction was supplied by horses although many early railways – including the Storeton Railway –also took advantage of gravity to move short trains of wagons.  These early railways were mostly built for freight although the Swansea to Mumbles Railway which opened in 1807 carried passengers.  The arrival of steam power required heavier permanent way and as the railway network developed from the 1830s and 1840s, relying on steam power, these first railways were eclipsed ; yet they proved to be surprisingly resilient, some carrying on throughout the nineteenth century.

A pocket-sized book, ideal for walkers
These and other developments are described by the author in several short chapters but this as much a book for ramblers as railway historians, for those with an interest in walking (or cycling) along disused railway lines. The book is slim and pocket sized, ideal for the glove compartment of the car and the second half of the book provides a region by region guide to early tramways and what can be seen of them today. A surprising amount of the infrastructure of these railways survives – including viaducts and bridges, tunnels and other earthworks down to stone gate posts at former crossings – a reminder that our railways have provided one of the many layers of the landscape we see around us today.

This is an excellent one volume introduction to the subject with a useful bibliography for those wanting to take the subject further. It is clearly a subject that merits further research and publication.

David Eveleigh is Director of Collections, Learning and Research at the Black Country Living Museum. A Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and the Museums Association, he has published over a dozen books.

Discovering Britain’s First Railways by Mark Jones.
The History Press,
Stroud, 2012. ISBN 978 0 7524 6273 8, pp144, £9.99.

> Read more early railways in the Black Country here.

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