A First Steam Locomotive for the Severn and Wye Tramway?

While I was researching the story of the Penydarren Tramroad, [7][8] I came across a short story which related to the history of the Severn & Wye Railway & Canal Company. [9] The story, while coming predominantly from one source, has an interesting addendum (or postscript) which is based on a comment about “an engineer named Stewart” early in the text below. ….

Mr Keeling Buys a Locomotive [1]

After an earlier attempt by James Teague to introduce a tramroad in the Forest was thwarted by the authorities, between 1809 and 1812 three horse worked cast iron tram roads were successfully constructed which later formed the basis of the railway system that subsequently emerged in the Forest. [6]

The Severn & Wye Railway & Canal Company was the first of these and finally opened as a plateway in 1813. It linked the two rivers between Lydbrook and Lydney on the western side of the Forest, with associated branch lines. [6]

In 1818, the first legal action was taken to force the company to repair the tramroad. [2]

The line was worked by horse power until 1865, and in 1870 powers were obtained to convert it to a passenger-carrying line, and to join it to the Great Western system.

1868 the tramway was converted to broad gauge, and then to standard gauge in 1872.

However, in the middle years of the 19th Century a series of options for the improvement of the Tramroad and its services were being considered.

By 1863 the Severn & Wye Railway & Canal Company possessed a comprehensive system of horse-worked tramroads, of 3′ 8″ gauge angle-plate type, in the Forest of Dean. These lines were the principal means whereby the coal, iron, stone and other products of the major part of the Forest were taken to the rivers and the South Wales Railway for onward transit. The service provided on the tramroads in the Forest of Dean was the subject of regular complaints and discontent amongst traders and the communities of the Forest. These complaints were sustained over a number of years.

The Company did not want to incur the costs of conversion from a horse-drawn tramroad to a locomotive hauled railway without Crown assistance, and their engineer, George William Keeling, decided to make enquiries into the possible use of steam locomotives on the existing tramroad. An engineer named Stewart had tried a locomotive on the line as early as 1814, but had not developed its use. In 1856 T.E. Blackwell, consulting engineer to the Severn & Wye, had asked Daniel Gooch, locomotive superintendent of the broad gauge Great Western Railway, for advice in introducing locomotives, but no trials were undertaken. [1]

Keeling set out on a fact-finding mission to see locomotives at work on different industrial railways and tramroads, and to enquire about their performance and cost. The record of his travels are contained in the Severn & Wye Board Minute Books. His first visit was to the Sheepbridge Ironworks at Chesterfield, in December 1863. He was told that one small locomotive, costing £775, had for upwards of two years performed all haulage. This locomotive was probably ‘Little Nell’, an 0−4−0 saddle tank, the first locomotive built at the Boyne Engine Works, Leeds, by Manning, Wardle & Company, and delivered to Sheepbridge on 5th February 1859.

Keeling later visited Messrs. Brown & Company, London, and in March 1864, made a tour of various South Wales industrial railways, and visited the Blaenavon Ironworks. “The Blaenavon Tramway was about two to three miles long, of 3′ 3″ gauge, laid with L−plates having a slight rib underneath for strength and weighing 45 lbs. per yard. The plates were laid on wood sleepers at 2′ 4″ to 3′ 0″ pitch, and the Company had two locomotives, one of which was working, whilst the larger one was kept as spare or reserve engine in the shed. The smaller one was a four-coupled locomotive with 3′ 6″ wheels at 4′ 5” centres, and weighed nearly 8 tons in working order. It drew 35 loaded trams (66 tons) at 10 m.p.h. on the level, and 30 tons up an incline of 1 in 60. It had worked most satisfactorily for fifteen years. The larger engine (Keeling noted in brackets “Gan−y−Erw” – presumably its name) was comparatively new and more powerful. It had six coupled cast iron wheels 3′ 6″ in diameter at 5′ 3″ centres, with wrought iron tyres having about 23/8″ tread, outside cylinders 12″ by 18″, and weighed 10 tons in working order. It cost between £800 and £900, and could draw 50 loaded trams (90 tons) at 10 m.p.h. on the level, or 25 loaded. trams (45 tons) up an incline of 1 in 60. Both engines were built by the Usk Side Iron Company, of Newport, Mon., the larger one having been designed by Mr T. Dyne Steel.” [1]

At Brynmawr, Keeling found a tramroad of similar gauge to Blaenavon, and worked by locomotives similar to the smaller engine seen there. “At Tredegar and Rhymney there were tramways worked by locomotives of varying sizes, some being similar to those at Blaenavon and others being the “old fashioned ones formerly used by the Monmouthshire Railway and Canal Company”. These were presumably the Tredegar Ironworks’ “vintage” 0−6−0’s which were reminiscent of the early Stockton & Darlington Railway engines.” [1]

At the Plymouth Ironworks, near Merthyr, Keeling found the works served by a tramway over a mile long, laid with a combined edge rail and tramplate of channel section in small chairs on sleepers about 3′ 0″ apart. The tram wagons ran on the bed of the plate but the locomotive, “a perfect little model of an engine beautifully constructed by Messrs. Hawthorn & Company, Leith”, had flanged wheels and ran on the outside flange of the channel rail. The engine which so excited the admiration of the engineer had 8″ by 15″ outside cylinders, weighed 7 tons in working order, and cost £650. It was able to pull a train of between 60 and 80 trams (wagons) “varying according to the weather”, equal to a load of 70 to 90 tons up a long incline of about 1 in 200, and made some fifteen trips a day. Formerly a dozen horses had been employed, and the engine was then doing the work of twenty. The Plymouth Ironworks were part-owners of the Penydarren Tramroad, but the tramway Keeling encountered appears to have been independent of this, and was probably laid to a narrower gauge. It is not clear exactly where this ran, many of the tramways in the area werewer relatively steep grades. It is possible that it was the line between Morlais and Penydarren but unlikely. There were a lot of internal tramways around the Plymouth works which may be more likely. The number of trips per day seem to suggest a short tramway that was internal to the Plymouth Works.Keeling travelled round a whole series of different Works and Tramroads which included: Fothergill’s Ironworks at Abernant (owned by The Aberdare Iron Company); and the Neath Abbey Iron Company’s works, an establishment with a history as venerable as its name suggests, having been established in 1792. [1]

When Keeling ended his tour. He reported to the Severn & Wye Board, “I am sure that, if the Blaenavon Tramroad will stand a 10−ton engine rattling over it at a pace of 10 miles per hour several times a day, our tramway will certainly bear a 7− or 8−ton engine at a speed of 4 or 6 miles per hour”. Three firms tendered for the honour of supplying the first locomotive – Neath Abbey Ironworks (£620), Alfred R. Thomas, of Cardiff (£600) and Fletcher, Jennings & Company (£695). In spite of the higher price, the last named secured the order – possibly because they promised to follow up their tender with a personal call and drawings. Severn & Wye locomotive No.1, a humble little 0−4−0 well tank with outside cylinders and flangeless wheels, was delivered at Lydney on 31st October 1864. [1]

Postcript … or is it actually a ‘prescript’?

The first part of this blog is based primarily on an article from the Industrial Railway Society website which in turn was based almost wholly upon extracts from the Severn & Wye Railway & Canal Company Board’s Minute books made available by courtesy of the Archivist, British Transport Commission. But there is more to this story. …

There appears to be an alternative version of the story about what was might have been the first locomotive on the Severn and Wye Tramroad. To follow this story through, we need to travel back to the early part of the 19th Century. ….

It appears that earlier in the 19th Century the Parkend Coal Company entered into a deal with an engineer called William Stewart which seems to have gone sour. The story is related in a letter from William Stewart which is contained in “A History of Railway Locomotives down to the End of the Year 1831” which was written by Chapman Frederick Marshall. [3]

As will be seen, the story does not end well.

Stewart appears to have been stirred into action after listening to a speech by George Stevenson at the opening of the Newcastle and Darlington Railway in June 1944. Stewart wrote to the Practical Mechanic and Engineer’s Magazine (Glasgow):[4]

“In 1814, a Coal Company in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, paid annually three thousand pounds for the haulage by horses of the coal extracted from their mines to Lydney, the place of embarkation. an engineer who was in communication with that company and who knew nothing at that time of Mr Stevenson’s more successful attempts, proposed to make a locomotive engine to do the work of the horses, provided the Company would give him one-half of the sum which they then paid for haulage, that is, he would undertake to perform the haulage at fifteen hundred pounds per annum, in place of the three thousand, the price then paid – the engineer to make and maintain the locomotive at his own expense.” [4]

“This was thought by the Company a very good offer, but they expressed an unbelief in the possibility of making an engine fit to do such work; that, consequently, if they openly encouraged such an attempt by prematurely entering into any written agreement with the engineer, the consequence would be disastrous to the Company, as those employed to do the work by horses would probably abandon it, and thereby cause perturbation in the work, and a consequent loss to the Company, but, said they, if it was shown by an actual trial, that the engine proposed would really move along the line of rails, and function properly, then the Company would accept and ratify the proposal offered by the engineer.” [4]

“Ambitious to succeed, and credulous to believe, the engineer, a resident in Newport, Monmouthshire, commenced his work. Trusting to the specious promise of the Coal Company and having some months after completed the engine, he had it transported to the Lydney railway, and then set it in motion, in presence of the Company’s Directors who had conducted all the concerns, and many other spectators. The result of the experiment was such as to convince the Company’s Director of the practicability of the undertaking, which he admitted  without reserve, and offered to fulfil his promise by giving one-half of what the Company now paid for the haulage.” [4]

However, while the locomotive was being constructed, the Company had talked with its hauliers on the basis that their role may be superseded by a locomotive. The Company had negotiated a significant reduction in their prices from £3000/annum to £2,000/annum — “the one-half of which became one thousand pounds in place of fifteen hundred, making a difference of five hundred pounds a-year less to the engineer, who feeling discouraged and indignant at such unjust and ungentlemanly conduct on the part of the Company, renounced the enterprise and was obliged to abandon the engine to that Company in lieu of a small sum they had advanced to him for to assist in its completion . . . ” [4]

“The construction and trial of the engine is well known to many persons now residing in Newport and in Chepstow, Monmouthshire, and at Lydney in Gloucestershire . . The Company alluded to was known by the name of the Parkend Coal Company; and the Engineer was, Your most obedient humble Servant, William Stewart.” [4]

“It would have been interesting to hear the Company’s version of the affair; still more so, to know what the engine was like. The line on which it was tried must have been the Severn and Wye Tramroad, from which a short branch led off to the Parkend Colliery, almost in the centre of the Forest of Dean. Nothing more is known about it.” [3]

“Two further letters have been discovered in the archives of the Great Western Railway,’ which suggest either that he retrieved the engine from the Colliery Company, or that he was proceeding with the construction of a new one in 1816.” [3]

This all happened well before Keeling’s time at the helm of engineering developments on the Severn and Wye Tramroad. It seems that immediate financial concerns prevented the tramroad being at the forefront of developments in the early 19th Century.


1. https://www.irsociety.co.uk/Archives/3+4/Keeling.htm, accessed on 1st February 2019.

2. https://www.gracesguide.co.uk/Severn_and_Wye_Railway, accessed on 4th February 2019

3. Chapman Frederick Dendy Marshall; A History of Railway Locomotives down to the End of the Year 1831; Salzwasser-Verlag GmbH, 2010, p99-102, sourced from https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=jlS3F9wU_p4C&pg=PA100&lpg=PA100&dq=Severn+%26+Wye+locomotive+No.1&source=bl&ots=Xmw4_mqk1L&sig=ACfU3U0pzf9Jt1zIyZZXFZ9Gn5C6-y_AGg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjY08yawKrgAhWfQxUIHQrXDqQ4ChDoATAEegQIBRAB#v=onepage&q=Severn%20%26%20Wye%20locomotive%20No.1&f=false, accessed on 7th February 2019. … The book was originally written in 1953 and the available source is a copy and relatively badly reproduced. However, “the very nature of his subject, though crying out for new research, is probably more accurate for having been written then, nearer the time he is recording, than now, some 60 years later, if that is not an oxymoron. He covers, character by character, everyone he could find reference to, from the immortal legends like the Stephensons and Richard Trevithick, to the not so well known William Hedley and John Blenkinsop, to the downright obscure, such as Robert Wilson, John M’Curdy and the magnificently named Goldsworthy Gurney. The technical descriptions are very thorough, as are the profuse illustrations. Alas the latter suffer in quality due to the manner of their reproduction in this reprint. To criticise Dendy Marshall at all is difficult, but if one had to then it would be his failure to realise that many of the men covered in this book were simply standing on the shoulders of giants, copying there designs and not contributing to the evolution of the steam locomotive at all. Of course, one might argue that Dendy Marshall set out to record every mention of a locomotive up to the end of 1831 and the story of the people connected to them. If that is the case then one can only heap praise upon the author, for this he has certainly achieved.” [5]

4. Practical Mechanic and Engineer’s Magazine (Glasgow), Volume IV, October 1844, p24.

5. P.J. Nock; Amazon Book Review; https://www.amazon.co.uk/History-Railway-Locomotives-down-Year-ebook/dp/B00K1ETP1A/ref=sr_1_1_twi_kin_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1549577267&sr=1-1&keywords=9783845712871, accessed on 8th February 2019.

6. https://www.forestofdeanhistory.org.uk/forest-history/railways, accessed on 8th February 2019. … The other two tramroads were:

A “second, … built by the Bullo Pill Railway Company and was designed to run from Churchway Engine via Broadmoor, Coal Pitt Green, Cinderford Tump, Ruspidge Meend, Sewdley Coppice, Sleepers Hill and Bradley to Bullo Pill. The line included a pioneering 900 yard tunnel under Haie Hill which was reported completed in Hereford Journal of 20th September 1809; “the tunnel is completed to the Forest of Dean, which is connected with the River Severn, and a channel thus established, by which the valuable productions of the Forest may be brought to market with a feasibility hitherto unknown”. Renamed the Forest of Dean railway in 1826, it was replaced by a broad gauge railway in 1854.”

A “third, … built by the Monmouth Railway Company to link Coleford and the Forest with Monmouth, and opened in 1812. The Coleford, Monmouth, Usk and Pontypool Railway Company purchased most of the line in 1853 but did not convert the tramroad into a railway. This was latterly done by the Coleford Railway Company in 1883. The line was relatively short lived and closed in 1916.”

7. https://rogerfarnworth.com/2019/02/02/the-penydarren-tramroad-south-wales-part-1

8. https://rogerfarnworth.com/2019/02/06/the-penydarren-tramroad-south-wales-part-2

9. https://rogerfarnworth.com/2017/09/28/the-branch-tramways-and-sidings-of-the-severn-and-wye-tramroad

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