History explorer: The birth of the railways

As part of our series in which experts nominate British locations to illustrate historical topics, Di Drummond visits Manchester Liverpool Road Station, where the age of passenger rail travel was born

A portrait of Di Drummond for BBC History Magazine

When travelling by train few of us realise how the railway transformed the world, helping to create that frantic pace of life that makes us ‘modern’. Visiting the Manchester Liverpool Road Station at Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry – the world’s oldest surviving passenger station and the original terminus station for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (L&MR) – reminds us that the modern age was born in north-west England.


George Stephenson, the engineer of the L&MR, is often dubbed ‘the father of the railways’. But it should not be forgotten that the L&MR represented the climax of a host of technical, financial and business advancements made by ‘railways’ since the 16th century.

Waggonways were the first of these. Loaded wagons were run on wooden plates as early as ancient times, and the technology was employed in Britain from the 1560s.

The oldest surviving railway bridge in the world, the Causey Arch, built in 1725–26 on the Tanfield Railway in County Durham, was designed to carry wagons.

Early wagon and tramways were operated in a number of ways. Most were ‘powered’ by humans or horses, while in hilly areas ‘self-acting inclines’, with descending loaded wagons drawing up empty ones, were first used in the 1600s. Wire inclines powered by stationary steam engines appeared in the 19th century – as visitors to Derbyshire’s Middleton Top on the Cromford and High Peak Railway, built in 1829, can still see.

By the early 19th century, rails were replacing plates, and iron supplanting wood. However, one of the most important technical advances proved to be the steam locomotive. Richard Trevithick, a Cornishman, had conducted experiments in his home county with high-pressure steam vehicles from the 1790s. Other key names include John Blenkinsop, and Matthew Murray of the firm Fenton, Murray & Wood. William Hedley and Timothy Hackworth also developed locomotives on colliery railways in the North East in the 1810s.

The first public railway to use some steam traction was the Stockton and Darlington Railway (S&DR), which opened in 1825. The S&DR provided invaluable experience for George Stephenson as its engineer and, under its promoter, Edward Pease, acted as a useful model for rallying local supporters and capital.

The L&MR followed a different model. Instead of using numerous means of propulsion, it concentrated its efforts solely on developing the steam locomotive. It also rejected the idea of subcontracting railway operations, preferring to run all aspects of the railway by itself. It was as much a financial, organisational and operational success as a technological one.

Exploring the Manchester Liverpool Road Station, built in the summer of 1830, gives visitors an insight into the importance of the L&MR. An exhibition of items from the earliest days of the line on the ground floor of this elegant, brick-built station includes silk handkerchiefs and mugs celebrating the opening of the line. Meanwhile, TT Bury’s engravings of 1831 provide a real insight into the feats of engineering involved in its construction – from building embankments across the marshy Chat Moss on the approach to Manchester, to cutting through sandstone at Olive Mount in Liverpool.

Bury’s engravings bring to life early railway passenger travel. The wealthy journeyed either in their own personal road coaches placed on flat wagons, or in covered coaches. A walk through the recently refurbished booking hall, with its high, echoing ceiling, followed by a climb up the wide staircase to the spacious waiting room, conveys the quality of service that first and second-class passengers once enjoyed.

Lower-class passengers, on the other hand, suffered in open wagons. Despite this, train travel was quick to catch on. By the end of its first year, the L&MR had carried more than 75,000 passengers.

The Warehouse opposite the station, also built in 1830, demonstrates the importance of goods traffic to the two cities and the surrounding region. The faster exchange of raw materials and finished goods – such as cotton bales imported from the US en route to the cotton textile manufacturing districts – not only brought returns for L&MR investors, but furthered regional industrialisation and prosperity, too.

George Stephenson and L&MR secretary Henry Booth were wonderful publicists. The Rainhill Trials of 1829, a competition to decide which type of locomotive was to be employed on the line, demonstrates how the spectacular was used to promote the railway. A replica of one of the locos that took part, Braithwaite and Ericsson’s Novelty can be seen in the museum’s Power Hall. Compare this with the reproduction of the Planet-class locomotive that steams along the outdoor tracks at the museum on weekends and holidays. Planet, developed by the Stephensons from the original Rocket, is more robust than its flimsy predecessor.

Five machines competed in the trials: Perseverance, Cyclopede, Novelty, Sans Pareil, and George and Robert Stephenson’s Rocket. Despite the large crowd rooting for Novelty, it was Rocket that reached the unprecedented speed of 30mph. Rocket was the only locomotive to finish the trials, its multi-tubed boiler not only giving it the edge that day, but influencing steam locomotive design ever after. The original Rocket is now housed at the Science Museum in London.

Like publicists today, Stephenson and Booth courted celebrities to promote the L&MR. Stephenson invited the famous actress Fanny Kemble to ride a train before the line had opened, with great success.  Describing her exhilarating journey as having “this sensation of flying”, the actress was one of the first people to experience ‘high speed’ travel. But not all the publicity was so positive. A huge crowd of some 50,000 people, including the prime minister and the Duke of Wellington, attended the grand opening on 15 September 1830. But it was two train collisions – one of which caused the tragic death of local MP William Huskisson – that brought the line notoriety.

Yet despite the somewhat inauspicious start, the line continued to thrive. Today, Manchester Liverpool Road Station reminds us that while the L&MR was a remarkable feat, heralding the beginning of the modern era of transport, it also represents the culmination of an earlier, equally important railway age.

Five more places to explore


George Stephenson’s Birthplace, Wylam, Northumberland


The village of Wylam was the birthplace of George Stephenson – the tiny cottage in which he once lived is now cared for by the National Trust. Wylam was also the location of the many experiments with steam locomotives and iron plateways conducted by William Hedley and Timothy Hackworth.

Sites with important early railway connections abound in the north-east of England. The Robert Stephenson Trail in Newcastle-on-Tyne, and Head of Steam, Darlington’s railway museum, which celebrates the Stockton and Darlington Railway, are both excellent examples.



The Wylam Dilly, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh


Wylam Dilly is one of the oldest surviving locomotives in the world, and can be seen at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. It was built in 1813 by Wylam’s pit manager William Hedley, and his blacksmith Timothy Hackworth.

Hackworth is also remembered through the railway workshops and village that are now part of Locomotion, the National Railway Museum at Shildon, County Durham.



The National Railway Museum, York


The National Railway Museum has a number of exhibits on the early history of railways in Britain, including locomotives such as Agenoria, built by John Urpeth Rastrick in 1829, and a reconstruction of Rocket, as well as early L&MR carriages. The museum’s library and archive, the Search Engine, is also well worth a visit.



Middleton Railway, Leeds


The Middleton Railway in Leeds is the oldest continuously running railway in the world. Set up by an act of parliament in 1758, the original line began life as a waggonway linking local collieries to coal docks on the river Aire. It was based on similar coal waggonways built throughout the North East. John Blenkinsop and Matthew Murray later developed locomotives that ran on the line from 1812.

The current Middleton Railway is a preserved line. Now open on weekends and holidays between late March and November, locomotives running on the Middleton Railway are from a much later date than those built by Blenkinsop and Murray. But passengers can still glimpse bell pits marking the site of the early coal mines that the waggonway served.



The Trevithick Trail and Penydarren Tramway, Merthyr Tydfil


A visit here is the perfect way to explore the pioneering work of Richard Trevithick. On 21 February 1804, Trevithick’s ‘tram wagon’ successfully hauled 10 tonnes of iron and 70 men along the full 9 miles of ironmaster Samuel Homfray’s Penydarren Plateway. Closed in 1875, the route of the plateway now forms the Trevithick Trail.

Trevithick also demonstrated one of his locomotives on a circular railway track in London in 1808. You can see a plaque celebrating this, erected by the Trevithick Centenary Memorial Committee, on the Chadwick Building in Gower Street.

Di Drummond is reader in modern history at Leeds Trinity University. She is author of Tracing Your Railway Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians (Pen and Sword, 2010).


This article was first published in the May 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine