Chapter ToCNext >

Sketch of the History of Railways in England prior to 1833—The Stockton and Darlington—The Liverpool and Manchester—The London and Birmingham

Before entering upon the history of the Great Western and the other railways of which Mr. Brunel was the engineer, it may be useful to give a brief sketch of the development of the railway system, previous to the period when he first became engaged in works of this description.

The first railway in England designed for the conveyance of general merchandise and passengers, was the Stockton and Darlington. An Act of Parliament authorising the construction of this line was passed in 1821.

In 1823, a further Act was obtained, in which a clause was inserted, at the request of Mr. George Stephenson, then the engineer of the company, taking power to work the railway by locomotive engines, and to employ them for the haulage of passengers. This railway, which consisted of a single line with four sidings in the mile, was opened for traffic on September 27, 1825. Its success led at once to the promotion of similar works in other parts of the country.

Next in order must be noticed the celebrated railway between Liverpool and Manchester. A project for constructing a line of railway between these important towns was discussed as early as the year 1822; but a company for carrying it out was not formed till two years later. In 1825, the directors applied to Parliament for an Act; and after a long contest before a committee of the House of Commons, the preamble approving of the construction of the railway was carried by a majority of one. The Bill was, however, withdrawn, as the first two clauses empowering the company to make the line, and to acquire land for that purpose, were lost. [1] In the following year the Act was obtained, and the works were commenced under the direction of Mr. George Stephenson. The line was opened for traffic on September 15, 1830.

In 1824, Mr. George Stephenson wrote a report on a proposed line connecting Liverpool and Birmingham. Surveys were made, and plans deposited; but the Bill was thrown out on standing orders. A similar fate attended the introduction of a Bill in 1826. In 1830, a new line was surveyed by Mr. Joseph Locke and Mr. Rastrick, under the direction of Mr. George Stephenson. The Act was obtained in 1833, and the railway, which was called the Grand Junction, and is now a part of the London and North-Western system, was constructed by Mr. Locke. [2]

In 1830, surveys were commenced by Mr. Robert Stephenson for a line between London and Birmingham, and a Bill was introduced into Parliament in 1832. The Liverpool and Manchester Railway had now been opened for some time, and the promoters of the Birmingham line had the advantage of being able to give in evidence the results of the working of the earlier undertaking. Those results, it is said, were such as to startle most of those who heard them. It was shown that a speed had been attained double that of the fastest stage-coach, that the cost of travelling had been diminished by one half, and that out of 700,000 persons carried since the opening of the railway, only one had met with a fatal accident. The amount of travelling between Liverpool and Manchester had increased four-fold, and the value of the shares of the railway had risen one hundred per cent. Similar evidence was given as to the results of the working of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, and the promoters endeavoured to prove that advantages at least as great would arise from the construction of a railway between Birmingham and London. They were successful in the House of Commons; but, they failed to convince the Upper House that the benefits which such a railway would confer on the country traversed by it were sufficient to entitle its promoters to receive for it the sanction of the legislature. The Bill was again introduced in the following session (1833); and, strange to relate, it passed both Houses almost without opposition. [3]

[1] A graphic account of this famous parliamentary contest will be found in the third volume of Mr. Smiles’ Lives of the Engineers, chapter xi.

[2] See Mr. Smiles’ Life of George Stephenson, p. 325.

[3] See Mr. Smiles’ Lives of the Engineers, vol. iii. chap. xv.

Chapter ToCNext >