The home-town boy who took railways to China

Richard Rapier, printed with kind permission of Suffolk Record Office.
Richard Rapier, printed with kind permission of Suffolk Record Office.

DID you know that a Morpeth man was heavily involved in setting up the first railway in China?

A local rail group is hoping to find out more about engineer Richard Rapier, who grew up in the town before moving south to make his mark on the industry.

Born in 1836, he served a seven-year apprenticeship with Robert Stephenson & Co in Newcastle and came to Ransomes, an Ipswich-based agricultural engineering company which had branched out into the manufacture of railway products, in 1862 to take charge of the railway department.

Then in 1869 he became the engineering partner in Ransomes and Rapier, which traded until 1986.

After linking up with trading business Jardine Matheson and Company, with railway construction contractor John Dixon also on board, Mr Rapier built a small locomotive Pioneer which it was hoped would appeal to the Chinese.

According to the book Ransomes and Rapier Locomotives by Chris Fisher and Keith Halton, it was sent to the Asian country in the winter of 1875 and in 1876 the engine began transporting passengers on a line between Shanghai and Kangwan.

It was later joined by a larger train, called Celestial Empire.

But the sense of optimism did not last long as a local man committed suicide on the line a month after the official opening and the railway was becoming a source of difficulty between the British and Chinese Government as they were entering trade talks – even though the service was well used the Chinese authorities were said in the book to be hostile to the project.

The service was suspended in August 1876 and in November it was agreed that the complete railway would pass into Chinese ownership, to be paid in three half-yearly instalments.

Although Ransomes and Rapier received an order for another locomotive, when the final instalment was paid in October 1877 the railway was then demolished.

John Earl, Vice Chairman of the South East Northumberland Rail User Group (SENRUG), has found out from the county records office that a Mr Rapier, who was a teacher, lived in Morpeth and the dates would fit for him to be Richard’s father.

“Presumably somewhere in the company archives it mentions that Richard Rapier originally came from Morpeth,” he said.

“What surprises me is that this was a relatively small player in locomotive engineering, but he had a lot of vision and felt that his trains would benefit the Chinese people.

“It appears from the book that the people who used the train were very excited about it as they didn’t know anything faster than a horse and cart, so it was a shame that things didn’t work out for the railway.

“But given the difficult relations between Britain and China at the time, Rapier did well to get as far as he did – he must have had a pleasant manner with the Chinese.

“We hope that somebody will know something about him and/or the company and get in touch with us.”

The company also provided the first locomotives to Hawaii and Malaya.

Mr Rapier died in 1897, one year after Ransomes and Rapier became a limited company.

Anyone who has further information about the man or his relatives can tell SENRUG members at its Morpeth Gathering stall in the Town Hall on Saturday and Sunday, or e-mail