Ancient Tramroads near Telford – Part 1 – Tramroads Across the Area

A typical plateway [3]

The area around what is now central Telford, and particularly the Severn Gorge and Coalbrookdale are known as the cradle of the industrial revolution. They are significant because of the major steps forward made in the production of cast and wrought iron.

The geology of the immediate area was a crucial factor in these developments. Limestone, coal bearing strata and iron ore were all easily available in the one, relatively small area. Initially the iron production processes needed charcoal, also readily available in the wooded areas which surrounded the Severn Gorge.

Because of the topography, mining at a relatively small scale was easier than elsewhere as mining could be done by ‘inset’ (horizontal galleries) rather than pits. The proximity of necessary materials meant that transport costs were lower than elsewhere.

At a very early time in the development of the area, relatively primitive railway technology was in use. It is difficult to be sure when a ‘railway’ was first used. Some general guidance on undertaking research, particularly into early forms of railways is made available by the Railway and Canal Historical Society to its members. [12]

Peter King tells us that some very primitive systems were in use in Europe over the centuries but “the earliest railway-like transport system … was the Leitnagel Hund. … Planks were laid along the mine passage with a gap between them, and the truck – hund (German for dog or hound) or truhe (box or chest) – had a guide pin that pointed down between the planks to keep the truck going in the right direction. The word hund could be derived from the Magyar hintó, meaning a carriage. If so, this points to an origin in the mines of Hungary, which at the time included Slovakia and Transylvania. The system was widely used in central Europe in the early sixteenth century, and may go back to the fifteenth or even the fourteenth century.” [1: p20]

The German system was introduced in the UK in Cumbria to ‘Company of Mines Royal’ sites at Caldbeck, Newlands, and Grasmere and also at that company’s mines at Talybont near Aberystwyth. King notes that “Documentary evidence indicates they used ‘small rowle wagons bound with iron’ in copper mines at Caldbeck …The first of these … near … Silver Gill at Caldbeck, where investigation has yielded the remains of some plank rails and possible sleepers.” [1: p20]

Historic England organised a survey of available material on the early tramroads. This was undertaken by David Gwyn and Neil Cossons. They report that, “The first railways in England probably date, at earliest, from the second half of the 16th century and were associated with mines where German-speaking miners were employed. Smith-Grogan 2010 suggests that several Cornish rutways might date back to the 1550s and be associated with Burchard Cranich and Ulrich Frosse. The West-Country mining engineer Sir Bevis Bulmer (1536-1615) was familiar with Agricola’s De Re Metallica (Skempton 2002), and another possible literary conduit is Sebastian Munster’s Cosmographia Universalis, published in German in 1544 and in Latin in 1550. This includes a woodcut of a hund on flanged wooden rails in a mine at Ste Marie/Markirch in Alsace (Lewis 1970, 51).” [5: p20]

Gwyn and Cossons note that excavations in Leicestershire of the Coleorton deep collieries which were active from 1460 to 1600 failed to identify any railway systems. They also assert that, “The first rail system in England for which both documentation and material evidence survives is the hund guide-pin system described in ER4 (Allison, Murphy and Smith 2010) in one of the Caldbeck mines exploited by the Company of Mines Royal financed from Augsburg, which was introduced by Daniel Höchstetter in the 1560s.” [5: p20]

King notes that the Hund guide-pin system “had some characteristics of a railway, but differs from them in that neither wheels nor rails were flanged.” [1: p21]

He continues: “The first railways were English. Their function was to carry coal from the pit (or adit) down to a navigable river (or less often to a highway) to be transported to a distant place.” [1: p21]

In King’s opinion it is likely that the first can be dated to sometime in the late 16th century. He identifies one serving “the mines of James Clifford near Broseley in Shropshire, which has no clear date of construction. As Clifford was mining coal by 1575, the funicular railway, by which coal was let down from mines to trows (barges) operating on the river Severn, is likely to have preceded the others. Nevertheless, William Brooke was working his coal mines in Madeley, on the other side of the Ironbridge Gorge, where similar problems would have arisen, but that is only known because Arnold Bean of Worcester owed Brooke money when he died in 1579.” [1: p21]

Gwyn & Cossons concur with King. They say that “documentation dating from the opening years of the 17th century indicates that wooden railways, ‘waggonways’, were being laid as overland systems, connecting a drift or a shaft-head with navigable water, or occasionally with an interchange yard on a road system.” [5: p22]

Like King, they say that most of what we know of these waggonways “comes from legal disputes, and for this reason it is quite possible that there were other systems of which historians are unaware because they prompted no quarrels.” [5: p22]

They also cite the waggonway which ran from a “colliery at Broseley near the Severn Gorge in Shropshire, on the south side of the river, to a wharf at the Calcutts, slightly downstream of the later Iron Bridge; it was laid in October 1605, was a mile or so long.” [5: p22]

King asserts that there were “a number of mines along the side of the [Severn] gorge in the succeeding period and each apparently had an associated railway. Some mines were pits, but some were ‘insets’ – mines operated through an audit, and in these cases the railway extended underground to the coalface.” [1: p22]

After these short notes, King turns his attention away from the Severn Gorge to other parts of the UK, commenting on pits just to the west of Nottingham (using a form of railway circa. 1605) and Belington in Northumberland (1608). He then focusses on the Newcastle area. Again earliest dates are uncertain but by 1660 wainways were in use with “waggons carrying 15 bolls (about 33cwt); from 1700 19-20 bolls (42-44cwt) and from the 1750s, 24 bolls (53cwt). At Gateshead, Old Trunk Quay was at the end of the Old Wain Trunk Way, operating in the 1629s. In 1633 Thomas Liddell as owner of Ravens worth Colliery still had a wainway leading to a staith at Dunston. … Three other waggonways were built before the Civil War. … By the latter part of the 17th century three different waggonways were made,ball reaching the Tyne at Stella. … Stella was about the highest point to which the Tyne was easily navigable.” [1:p23]

Gwyn & Cossons chronology parallels that put forward by King. They refer to a railway that “had been laid from Strelley pits to a yard at Wollaton in the Nottinghamshire coalfield.”

Gwyn & Cossons write of Huntingdon Beaumont (who owned the Strelley pits) introducing the waggonway to the north-east. “According to the Newcastle historian William Gray, ‘Master Beaumont a Gentleman of great ingenuity… brought with him many rare Engines, not then known in these parts, as… Waggons with one Horse to carry down Coales from the Pitts, to the Staithes, to the River, &c.’ Beaumont’s three railways were on the north-east coast, at Bedlington, laid around 1608, and at Cowpen and Bebside, undated but probably much the same time (Smith 1960, Lewis 1970).” [5: p22]

Gwyn & Cossons go on to say: “Railways in the north-east developed into systems of extraordinary density with a complex history, reflecting intense regional rivalries and the profits that could be made from supplying London with coal. Even so, it was not until 1621 that the first recorded waggonway was built to the Tyne and it was not until the Restoration of 1660 that they became common. In the meantime, wain-roads remained a more cost-effective solution for most coal owners (Bennett, Clavering and Rounding 1990, 35-56).” [5: p22]

King cites other examples of early waggonways which include a ‘coalway’ owned by Sir John Lowther of Whitehaven from 1683. His son, Sir James, had waggonways from the 1730s serving to transport coal from collieries into Whitehaven.

Another ran from Sheffield Park to Sheffield, others took coal to the navigable lengths of the Rivers Ayre, Calder and Dun. There were even waggonways in the north of Ireland.

King’s eyes then turn bank to Shropshire. He comments: “Shropshire railways … form a different tradition from Newcastle waggonways. The waggons were smaller because the mines were often insets (rather than pits). The railway often started at the coalface and a smaller waggon meant that only a narrow adit had to be made through dead ground. The descent to the river down the side of the Severn gorge was precipitous, and the descent was controlled using a self-acting inclined plane, something not used near Newcastle until the late eighteenth century, but probably in Shropshire for its first railway. Wilcox’s & Wells’ railway to Calcutts may have been down Birch Batch. Its terminus was later called Jackfield Rails, and it remained in use well into the nineteenth century.” [1: p25]

Gwyn & Cossons comments about the Shropshire coalfield mirror that of King. They say that the Shropshire coalfield “developed smaller capacity systems running on narrower gauges. Here, mines were mainly levels, rather than deep mines such as prevailed in the north-east, and so a compact waggonway could run from the coalface to daylight and then down to navigable water. The Severn Ironbridge Gorge and its immediate environs were home to many such railways. From the mid-18th century, similar waggonways also ran direct from ironstone mines to Bedlam furnaces downstream of the later Iron Bridge.” [5: p23]

King says that a “longer railway, ultimately from John Wilkinson’s New Willey Furnace of 1757, went down Tarbatch Dingle to Willey Wharf but was probably built in the 1700s to serve coalmines and remained in use in parts for some 300 years, though from 1862 it led to the Severn Valley Railway, rather than a river wharf. North of the Severn, the lords of Madeley had railways at Madeley Wood when they let their mines in 1692.” [1: p25]

They go on to say that the “establishment of new coke-fired furnaces in the 1750s and the expansion of mining led to the provision of further railways, the longest running from Ketley (near Watling Street) to Coalbrookdale Wharf on the Severn, so that by about 1775, Abiah Darby (the widow of Abraham II) stated that the Company had 20 miles of railways.” [5: p23] These comments are drawn directly from King [cf: 1: p25]

King notes that “Other railways ran to landsale wharfs on Watling Street. In all, five gauges of railway were in use in the area, with those wholly above ground probably of a similar size to those at Newcastle.” [1: p25]

Gwyn & Cossons found that railways deriving from Shropshire practice “were to be found in coalfields which were adjacent and technically influenced by it. Staffordshire and Warwickshire, as well as parts of Wales and of Scotland.” [5: p23]

Interestingly, Gwyn & Cossons assert that “the Tyneside system is the design-ancestor of the median-gauge railways of the present day, and in particular of the UK, continental European and USA gauge of 4′ 8″. Narrow-gauge railways derive ultimately from the Shropshire system, as the inspiration for the railways built in the heads of the South Wales valleys in the 1790s, subsequently adopted and developed in the Gwynedd slate. industry. This was then offered as a cut-price system suitable for the developing world by the Festiniog Railway’s engineer in 1870, when the great and the good were invited to see it in operation (Gwyn 2010, 138).” [5: p23]

“Tyneside systems ran on gauges of between 3′ 10″ and 5′, Shropshire systems of between 2′ and 3′ 9” (Lewis 1970, 181, 267). [5: p24]

“By the mid-17th Century tramroads were fairly common and continued to be so through the 18th century, so that by the start of the 19th Century they often ran for considerable distances, taking mineral products (notably coal) from their source to the point of consumption, or … to a canal wharf for onward carriage by boat.” [2]

Early tramways in and around the Severn Gorge and in East Shropshire as a whole are noted in works of Bertram Baxter, [4] Savage & Smith, [6] Catherine Clark & Judith Alfrey [13]

These include:

  • Benthall Railway [7][13]
  • Caughley Railway [8]
  • Gleedon Hill Tramroad [9]
  • Sutton Wharf Tramroad [10]
  • Tarbach Dingle Tramroad [11]
  • The Coalbrookdale Company Tramroads [12]
  • Deerleap Tramway [13]
  • Lime Kilns Tramway [13]
  • Ash Coppice Tramway [13]
  • Clay Mine Tramway [13]

This list is the result of a relatively limited search online and is unlikely to be comprehensive. Some of these will warrant further study, the links provided in the references are worth a read.

It is my plan to look at a number of these in coming weeks and months. The first will be the Coalbrookdale Company Tramroads.


  1. Peter King; Before the Main Line; in ed. David St. John Thomas; How Railways Changed Britain; Railway & Canal Historical Society, Derby, 2015, p13 – 32.
  2., accessed on 17th April 2022.
  3., accessed on 17th April 2022.
  4. Bertram Baxter; Stone Blocks and Iron Rails (Tramroads); David & Charles, Newton Abbot, Devon, 1966.
  5. David Gwyn and Neil Cossons; Early Railways in England: Review and summary of recent research; Historic England, Discovery, Innovation and Science in the Historic Environment Research Report Series No. 25-2017.
  6. R.F. Savage & L.D. Smith; The Waggon-ways and Plate-ways of East Shropshire, 1965.
  7., accessed on 22nd April 2022.
  8., accessed on 22nd April 2022.
  9., accessed on 22nd April 2022.
  10., accessed on 22nd April 2022.
  11., accessed on 22nd April 2022.
  12., accessed on 19th April 2022 – particular reference is made to a document which gives a good sense of the development of various waggonways, tramways, plateways and Tramroads … Research-agenda.pdf which can be downloaded from the members area of the site.
  13. Catherine Clark & Judith Alfrey; Research Paper No. 15, Benthall and Broseley Wood; Nuffield Survey, Third lnterim Report; University of Birmingham, 1987.

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