Early Railroads in Britain


British Railroads Date to the 16th Century

The railway age is generally thought to have started with the opening of the London and Manchester Railroad in the 19th Century.

However, history shows that railways in Britain date to the 16th Century.(Hylton, Stuart (2007). The Grand Experiment: the Birth of the Railway Age 1820-1845. Ian Allan Publishing)

The Earliest Railroads in Britain

The first official recorded use of rail transport in Britain was the Wallaton Wagonway. Built by Francis Willoughby in 1603, the Wallaton Wagonway was used to transport coal in Northamptonshire.

In 1671, railed roads were built in Durham to facilitate easier shipment of coal to canals for shipment to urban centres.(Hamilton Ellis (1968). The Pictorial Encyclopedia of Railways. The Hamlyn Publishing Group. p. 12.)

The 17th and 18th Centuries saw the construction of many horse-powered tramroads similar to these ones. Most were built with straight parallel rails made of timber. The carts ran on flanged wheels made of wood and bound with strips of iron.

In 1793, Benjamin Outram, the Superintendent for the Cromford Canal, built a tramway with L-shaped rails made of iron plates to serve the stone quarry at Crich. The wagons were kept on the tracks by vertical ledges. These iron rails were a major improvement over the wooden rails used in other tramways. They reduced friction between the wheel and the rail and were able to bear heavier loads. However, there were also drawbacks to using iron rails. Because they could only be made in short lengths, they were prone to separation. In 1820, John Birkenshaw developed a method for producing rails made from wrought iron. Rails produced using Birkenshaw’s technique could be made in longer lengths. They were also not as prone to breaking, another problem common with iron rails.(HM Government (1758). “Middleton Railway Act of 1758”. The Railways Archive)

The First Public Railroads

The first railways were built and paid for by the owners of the mines, quarries and factories that they served. Nevertheless, as railway technology matured, it became possible to build longer and longer railway lines. However, as railways grew longer and longer, mine owners found that they had to run their lines across private land in order to reach more distant transhipment points. The owners of the lines were often required to seek the permission of the land owners whose property they wished to cross. It was also common for early railroads to be paid for through public subscriptions. In order to protect land owners and investors, laws were enacted that protected investors from fraud and unrealistic schemes.

The first railway built for public use was the Surrey Iron Railway, which was incorporated in 1799. Although it only operated until 1845, the Surrey Iron Railway served as a model for many other British railways.(Baxter, Bertram (1966). Stone Blocks and Iron Rails. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.)

In 1807, the first passenger-carrying railway was built at Oystermouth. Initially pulled by horses, the Oystermouth Railroad converted to steam in 1817.(Roberston C. J. A. (1983) The Origins of the Scottish Railway System 1722-1844. Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd.)

The Advent of Steam

The first steam locomotive was built by Richard Trevithick in 1804. Trevithick had already gained a certain amount of notoriety in Britain for his work with high pressure steam engines. He eventually built an unmanned steam locomotive for the Merthyr Tydfil tramroad in Wales. The Penydaren locomotive, as it was called, represented an important step forward in the development of steam engine technology. The Penydaren locomotive used a high pressure cylinder without a steam condenser. The steam and hot gases escaping from the firebox and the boiler provided a sufficient draught to keep the fire going. These were basic innovations that would remain unchanged for the entire steam era.(Robert Kirkby, Richard Shelton et al. (October 1990). Engineering in History. New York: Dover Publications Inc.. pp. 274–275)


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