The Northumberland rail that crossed the world

InterCity approaching Morpeth.
InterCity approaching Morpeth.

GREY’S Chorographia, 1649, says: ‘Many thoufand people are imployed in this trade of coales; many live by working of them in the pits; many live by conveying them in waggons and waines to the river Tine; many men are imployed in conveying the coales in keels from the ftathes aboard the ships.’

Grey does not mention rails, but does tell us about Huntingdon Beaumont, of Coleorton in Leicestershire. In 1597 he built the first waggonway in England, a two-mile line near Nottingham.

He came north in 1605, and having moved into Bebside Hall, in 1608-9 built waggonways down to the River Blyth at Bedlington, Cowpen and Bebside. Coal waggons on them could be pulled by one horse. These were probably timber plateways, planks let into the ground to make a smoother path.

In 1768, Arthur Young visited Northumberland. He was a keen observer, writing only what he either saw himself or got from the best informed people:

‘The coal waggon roads, from the pits to the water, are great works, carried over all forts of inequalities of ground, fo far as the diftance of 9 or 10 miles. The track of the wheels are marked with pieces of timber let into the road, for the wheels of the waggons to run on, by which means one horse is enabled to draw, and that with eafe, 50 or 60 bufhels of coal.’

These again seem to be timber plateways rather than railways. Improved plateways, with L-shaped rails, were not widely adopted in the North East. Instead, coal owners here developed waggons with flanged cast iron wheels running on timber edge-rails.

A variant of the simple timber rail was Tyneside double rail. It had a wearing surface of beechwood, which hardens when wet. Fixing bars of cast iron to the rail was tried out as early as 1716. Cast iron rails were first used at Whitehaven in 1738 and became widespread 40 years later. The first record of a cast iron edge-rail was at Loughborough in Leicestershire in 1789.

These edge-rails were made in 3’ lengths. They were fish-bellied for strength, and butt-jointed. Just as paving slabs become uneven and make you trip, so the same thing happened with these joints, causing damage to the waggons and locomotives.

George Stephenson invented a new type of rail with a half-lap joint so that even if it did subside, the wheels weren’t jolted so much, thus reducing the damage to rails and rolling stock. He had wide business interests, including a partnership in the Walker Ironworks of Losh, Wilson & Bell, makers of cast iron rails. The principal partner, William Losh, patented the new rail in the joint names of himself and Stephenson.

In 1818, Robert Stevenson, builder of the Bell Rock Lighthouse and grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson, wrote a report on a proposed railway from the Midlothian coalfield to Edinburgh. He recommended the directors to lay malleable iron rails: ‘Three miles and a half of this description of railway have been in use for about eight years on Lord Carlisle’s works at Tindal Fell in Cumberland, where there are also two miles of cast iron rail; but the malleable iron road is found to answer the purpose in every respect better. Experiments with malleable iron rails have also been made at Mr Taylor’s works at Ayr and Sir John Hope’s at Pinkie; and, upon the whole, this method … is not only cheaper in the first cost than the cast iron railway, but is also less liable to accident.’

The Birkinshaw rail had its origin in a contract to supply cheap coal to Bedlington Ironworks. Michael Longridge, the managing partner, agreed to build a line from the Willow Bridge colliery to his works, with a branch going to a staith on the River Blyth. This gave the colliery direct access to water transport, transforming it from a landsale colliery supplying only local needs to a seasale one that could supply the London and export markets.

Longridge and his principal agent at the Ironworks, John Birkinshaw, knew of Stevenson’s report. Birkinshaw wrote to lord Carlisle’s agent, who replied that: ‘Our rails are one and a half inches square.’ The malleable iron, he said, ‘I cannot see the least alteration with, although it has now been laid eight years. The cast iron is a daily expense; it is breaking every day.’

Despite these glowing reports, there was a problem. H.H.E. Craster says: ‘Mr. Longridge … ascertained that rails of this description had been tried at Wylam colliery, as well as at Tindale Fell, in Cumberland, but with only partial success.

‘The rails used at these places were formed of bars one and a half inches square and about three feet in length, having so narrow a surface as to cause injury to the wheels; while the increase in width, required to overcome this difficulty, added so largely to the weight as to render the cost prohibitive.

‘To Mr John Birkinshaw … belongs the credit of having suggested the idea of making the rails in a wedge form, so that the same extent of surface, as in the case of the cast-iron rail, was provided for the wheel to travel on, and the depth of the bar increased without adding unnecessarily to the weight.’

Malleable iron bars had been rolled at Bedlington Ironworks since the days of William Hawkes and Thomas Longridge. When Birkinshaw applied for a patent in 1820, he made it clear that all he claimed originality for was the cross-section of the rail, not how it was made. Nevertheless, Bedlington Ironworks’ expertise in rolling long lengths of wrought iron made an important contribution to his success. It meant that rails up to five times the length of the cast iron rails could be made in a single operation.

As well as his interest in the Walker Ironworks, George Stephenson also had a share in the Willow Bridge colliery, giving him ample opportunity to study Birkinshaw’s rail. He immediately recognised its superiority and recommended it to the directors of the Stockton and Darlington Railway. Losh was furious, virtually accusing Stephenson of underhand dealing. But in fact the reverse was true. His advice to the directors was honest and impartial.

The Birkinshaw rail was used on the Stockton and Darlington and Liverpool and Manchester railways, and on all subsequent major lines until improved forms of rail, typically of an I-shape and made of steel, superseded it.

It is hard to overstate its significance. Its length made it cheaper to lay and gave a smoother ride, while its greater strength reduced breakages and thereby the damage to locomotives and carriages. Put simply, it made long distance railway travel possible. Thank you Mr Birkinshaw. Thank you Bedlington.

Sources include: Arthur Young, Six Months’ Tour through the North of England; Samuel Smiles, Lives of the Engineers; H.H.E. Craster, Northumberland County History, Vol. IX; www.oxforddnb.com; www.gracesguide.co.uk. For Billy Embleton’s photo of a local fish-bellied rail, search on Fishbelly New Hartley.