Category Archives: Greater Manchester Railways

Altrincham Gas Works Tramway

An item about the Altrincham Gas Works Tramway appeared on the Industrial Railway Society (IRS) email discussion group to which I belong. [2] John Pitman on that discussion group provided a link to Dr. Mark Newall’s website. [3]

This article grabbed my attention because for the first 5 years of my life in the early 1960s I lived in Altrincham – Broadheath, to be exact. I was born in Altrincham Maternity Hospital in 1960.  I always keep my eye open for interesting snippets of information about the various places that I have lived.

In 1870-72, John Marius Wilson’s Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales described Altrincham like this:

ALTRINCHAM: …. “a town, a township, two chapelries, a subdistrict, and a district, in Cheshire. The town is in the parish of Bowdon, at an intersection of railways, adjacent to the Bridgewater canal, 8 miles SSW of Manchester; comprises good streets and some handsome villas; is a seat of petty-sessions and county courts, and a polling-place; publishes a weekly news paper; carries on iron-founding, bone-grinding, timber sawing, much trade from neighbouring market-gardens, and much transit traffic, and has a head post office, three raIlway stations, two chief inns, a town hall of 1849, a literary institution in the Tudor style enlarged in 1864, a plain church of 1799, a church in the decorated English style built in 1867, a Wesleyan chapel in the Byzantine style built in 1864, five other dissenting chapels, a Roman Catholic chapel, five public schools, a medical hospital, charities £57, a weekly market on Tuesday, and three annuals fairs.-The township comprises 657 acres. Real property, £24,087. Pop., 6,628. Houses, 1,240.” [10]

But, there is no mention in Wilson’s work of a Gas Works present at the time!

It seems that in the 19th century, 3 different gas works existed in Altrincham. The earliest was established in 1844, initially intended to serve an immediate area around the works. It only lasted for 3 years before it was purchased and closed as the main Gas Works was opened in 1847.

South Trafford Archaeological Group produced a short piece about the Altrincham Gas Works just a few days before Newall’s article. As does Newall, they point out that the Altrincham Gas Works were built by 1847. Both add that the third Gas Works were railway related, established to supply gas for carriage lighting.

The light railway, or tramway, between the Gas Works and Altrincham Railway Station was not established until provision was made for it under the Altrincham Gas Act of 1893, as a single track of standard gauge. It cost £1,820 to build, was in operation by 1895 and for many years was horse-drawn.

The South Trafford Archaeological Group point out that, “The tramway ran from the sidings at Altrincham Station for roughly a third of a mile (c. 500m) to the gas works on Moss Lane, where a series of sidings ran around the site. The light railway carried coal for the gas works which was used in the production of ‘town gas’.” [4]

The majority of the length of the short tramway – as shown on the 25″ OS Map from the turn of the 20th century, soon after it was constructed. (The detailed layout in the Gasworks is shown below on enlarged OS Map extract.) This extract shows the line running from the Gas Works, along Moss Lane, to the railway station yard. [15]


The map extract above shows the line of the tramway from the Gas Works to the Railway Station Yard. The adjacent extract shows the track arrangement within the Gas Works at about the turn of the 20th century. [15]

“At the station end of the tramway, … the land alongside
the depository was owned by the gas company …; beyond there the land belonged to the railway but the tracks were the responsibility of the gas company. The gas company’s authority ended just before the two sidings became one (on the east side of the station yard).” [5: p198]

Before the tramway was constructed, “coal was conveyed by horse-drawn wagons along the streets to the gas works. The route between the station yard and the gas works was partly along what was, in effect, little more than a rough bridleway (later known as Moss Lane); although unsuited in some ways to the transportation of coal, at least there were no significant gradients to contend with.” [5: p197]

The demand for gas rose quickly in the second half of the 19th century. “By the 1890s the increasing demand for gas meant that easier access to a larger supply of coal … had to be sought. …. [The tramway] was in operation by 1895 and initially was horse-drawn.” [3]

This extract for the 6″ OS Mapping of 1899 also shows the relatively newly constructed tramway serving the Altrincham Gas Works. [8]

The use of horses pertained until the 1930s, when a Sentinel steam lorry running on road wheels was purchased. It was built “by Sentinel of Shrewsbury in 1924, was employed from 1933 to pull the coal trucks.” [4]

The growth in the use of gas in Altincham is evidenced by the increasing use of coal. By 1919, 20,000 tons was used during the year. By 1933, usage had risen to in excess of 32,000 tons of coal. [5: p201]

The Gas Works Tramway in Altrincham from above.. This image covers the curved sidings on the East side of Altrincham Railway Station. Coal wagons are much in evidence. This view was taken in 1927. [6]

An aerial image of the Gasworks taken from the South in 1951. Careful inspection wil show at least one wagon in the Gas Works site to the right of the Gasometer on the left side of the image. [7]

In 1943, a Peckett 0-4-0ST took over locomotive duties from the Sentinel steam lorry. Newell says that this was “Peckett’s W/No. 2034, a ‘Yorktown’ type 0-4-0ST, and the new tank engine was named ‘Arthur E Potts’, after one of the company directors.” [3] No. 2034 left Peckett’s works on 27th May 1943. [13]

The Peckett was joined by “a second locomotive …. in 1947, a four-wheel vertical boiler engine built by Sentinel (W/No. 9375).” [3] Dixon says that this was a diesel loco, [11] but research suggests that Sentinel (W/No. 9375) was a steam locomotive. Sentinel Locos with this range of Works Nos. were all steam-powered. An example is Works No. 9376 which Sentinel’s records show as a Vertical Boiler Steam Loco built in 1947 for ‘Ind Coope and Allsop’ and used at their Burton Brewery. [12] Millichip explains: “This type of engine, with enclosed cylinders and chain drive to the leading axle, was eminently suited to gas works duties. Coke dust, which proliferated in gas works, always seemed to be attracted to the motion and other moving parts of conventional locomotives, and when mixed with oil the effect was far from satisfactory.” [5: p203]

These two locos (Peckett and Sentinel) shared 4 or 5 trips per day between the Gas Works and the Railway Station Sidings on weekdays. [11]

The tramway ran eastward from the Southern end of the sidings at Altrincham Railway Station to the Gas Works where there were a series of sidings that served the Works. Newell says that the “line entered the gasworks from the south-west, passing a weighing machine and an associated building on the western side of the track. It then threaded its way between two gas holders before branching north and eastwards towards two process buildings. Three turn tables gave extra flexibility for the coal wagons accessing these buildings.” [3]

Newell writes about some of the various developments on the line over the years. His words do not need rehearsing in detail here as they can easily be read on his site: [3]

In summary, Newell says that the essential changes were:

  • 1908: a short 50 metre siding running north from Moss Lane between Oakfield Road and Balmoral Road
  • 1936/1937: doubling of the tracks at the Railway Station.
  • various changes to sidings in the Gas Works over the years
  • 1951: a siding accessing a processing building to the East end of the Gas Works site.

Millichip talks of the siding at the station being very difficult to shunt because there was only a small passing loop available. This meant that a rope hawser was used to facilitate shunting. The two sidings mentioned by Newell above  were not connected in a way that would allow either of the Gas Works engines to run round the wagons delivered to the Station Goods yard. [5: p203] Millichip and Robinson provide two excellent shots of the rope -shunting taking place. [5: p203 & p204] In the second of these pictures the short passing loop is visible.

The Altrincham Gas Works was nationalised in 1949 when it became part of the North Western Gas Board. Millichip tells us that North Western Gas Board was one of twelve gas boards set up at Nationalisation and took over not only the Gas Works but nearby offices and a gas showroom on Cross Street in Altrincham [5: p204]

Gas production at Altrincham ceased on 26th June 1957. [5: p204] Newell tells us that the tramway was closed in December 1957, track was removed in 1958, and the Moss Lane site became the headquarters of the Gas Board, opening in 1965. The two gas-holders at the Gas Works survived this work but did not survive beyond the end of the 20th century. [3] The whole site, including the headquarters building were redeveloped in the first decade of the 21st century as housing and a new ice-rink. [3][5: p204]

If you are interested, the process used at Gas Works is covered in an article on the International Good Guys website ( [14]


  1. M. Newall in Reference [3] below mentions a 14 year period. It seems as though the line was first constructed by around 1895 and was still in use in the late 1950s – see references [5] and [9] below.
  3. M. Newall; The Industrial Archaeology of the Altrincham Gas Works Tramway; 10th August  2020;, accessed on 15th December 2020.
  4. accessed on 15th December 2020.
  5. Malcolm Millichip & Douglas Robinson; Altrincham Gas Works; Railway Bylines Magazine, Irwell Press, Vol. 5 Issue 5; April 2000, p196-204.
  6., accessed on 16th December 2020.
  7., accessed on 16th December 2020.
  8., accessed on 16th December 2020.
  9. The Museum of Transport Greater Manchester has shared an image from 1959, showing the tramway in productive use;, accessed on 16th December 2020.
  10. John Marius Wilson; Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales; 1870-1872., accessed on 10th January 2021.
  11. F. Dixon; The Manchester South Junction & Altrincham Railway; 2nd ed. Oakwood Press, 1994.
  12., accessed on 10th January 2021.
  13., accessed on 10th January 2021.
  14., accessed on 15th January 2021.
  15., accessed on 15th January 2021.


Skelton Junction

I still have a number of older railway magazines to read through. The pile still seems to be growing!

The November 2003 issue of Steam Days has an epic article about Skelton Junction. [1] Skelton Junction is in Broadheath which is just North of Altrincham. I picked up my copy of magazine in August (2019).

Broadheath was my home for the first five and a half years of my life. I can remember the railway at the bottom of the garden and also vaguely remember my grandparents waving to me from their train as I stood in the back garden of our home – 112, Lindsell Road, Broadheath, Altrincham.

The featured image for this post is taken from RailMapOnline. It shows the immediate area to the North of Altrincham. [2] The same website shows, below, the distance of our home from Skelton Junction. [2] … Not that close, but enough to provoke my interest as I read the article.No. 112 Lindsell Road in the early 21st Century (Google Streetview).No. 112 Lindsell Road in the early 21st Century (Google Earth) the disused West Timperley to Glazebrook line is visible to the top right of the satellite image.

Skelton Junction is actually a complex of railway junctions to the south of Manchester in Timperley/Broadheath. Both the Cheshire Lines Committee’s Liverpool to Manchester line, via the Glazebrook East Junction to Skelton Junction Line and the LNWR’s Warrington and Altrincham Junction Railway arrived at the junction from Liverpool in the west. The Manchester, South Junction and Altrincham Railway connected Manchester with  Altrincham. The CLC’s Stockport, Timperley and Altrincham Junction Railway continued east to Stockport. [3]Skelton Junction in 1909. [1: p689]

Railways arrived in the vicinity in 1849. An Act of 21 July 1845 had incorporated ‘The Manchester South Junction & Altrincham Railway’ (MSJ&AR). It opened for traffic on 28th May 1849. I was interested to note that the development of the railway sysytem in this area can be linked back to shared decisions in which The Sheffield, Ashon-under-Lyne and Manchester Railway was involved!

This “line sprang from a desire by the Manchester & Birmingham and the Sheffield, Ashton-under-Lyne & Manchester railways to reach Liverpool. Thus was taken on board by the two companies the so-called South Junction Railway — a line about one mile long from Oxford Road in Manchester to a junction with the Liverpool & Manchester Railway at Ordsall Lane in Salford, immediately west of Liverpool Road station. Given the line’s original concept, the branch west to Altrincham was an afterthought. This new railway would parallel the Bridgewater Canal for much of its course, and inevitably become a competitor for its traffic. Eight miles long, the MSJ&AR could be fairly said to have created many of the suburbs through which it travelled.” [1: p687]

All of the suburbs between Altrincham and South Manchester did not exist before the building of the line – Old Trafford, Stretford, Sale, Brooklands, Timperley. They all only became viable as dormitory areas when public transport became adequate to convey the middle classes into Manchester. The building of this line also acted as a catalyst for the construction of further lines. many of these lines came early in railway development across the country:

  1. The line from Warrington to Timperley (1854) which was extended to Stockport (1865)
  2. The extension of the Altirncham line to Knutsford (1862) and on to Chester (1874).
  3. A line through West Timperley and on via Glazebrook to Liverpool (1873).

“Broadheath, whose only transport focus was once the Bridgewater Canal, would see a myriad of industrial development in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. … The Earl of Stamford, the major landowner in the area, was careful to restrict development in the main to the north bank of the Bridgewater Canal.” [1: p689]

“John Skelton sold some of his … land to the Stockport, Timperley and Altrincham Railway Company in the 1860s to build a link line between Stockport and Warrington, and his name is preserved in Skelton Junction.” [9]

An OS Map extract showing Skelton Junction and Broadheath in 1898. There is no sign of Lindsell Road at this time. [4]

West Timperley Station was about 3/4 mile to the West of Skelton Junction, just off to the Northwest of the map above. It was on the Cheshire Lines Railways’ (CLC) Glazebrook to Stockport Tiviot Dale Line. The length of the line through the station opened to goods from Cressington Junction to Skelton Junction in 1873 with passenger workings beginning later in the same year. The line gave the CLC their own route to Liverpool. Previously they had had to operate over LNWR metals between Skelton Junction and Garston.

Paul Wright, writing on the Disused Stations Website says:

“Partington (and by inference, West Timperley) was served by local trains running between Stockport Tiviot Dale and Liverpool Central with some short workings going only as far as Warrington Central. Express services to London St. Pancreas and other destinations along with a steady stream of goods workings passed through the station.

Situated on an embankment [West Timperley] station had two platforms which linked to the road by slopes. Booking and waiting facilities where located on the platforms with the main facilities on the Stockport platform.

The station remained part of the Cheshire Lines Railway until 1948 when it became part of British Railways London Midland Region. The station closed to passenger services on 30.11.1964. Regular passenger trains continued to pass through the station site until 1966 when Liverpool Central closed to long distance services. The line remained a busy route for goods services until 1984 when the bridge over the Manchester Ship Canal at Cadishead closed. The line was cut back to Partington and singled. Goods services operated along this section of line until the 10th October 1993. Today [2006] the platforms at West Timperley are still extant and the single line remains in situ.” [5]

West Timperley would possibly have been the station my grandparents used when they came to visit!

There is discussion of Skelton Junction and surrounding lines on a number of threads on [6][7][8]


  1. Eddie Johnson; Skelton Junction, Its Traffic and Environs; in Steam Days, Red Gauntlet, Bournemouth, November 2003, p687-702. This article is excellent. Copyright restrictions prevent me copying it as an appendix to this post.
  2., accessed on 12th August 2019.
  3., accessed on 14th August 2019.
  4., accessed on 14th August 2019.
  5., accessed on 15th August 2019.
  6., accessed on 15th August 2019
  7. accessed on 19th August 2019.
  9., accessed on 19th August 2019.

The Sheffield, Ashton-under-Lyne and Manchester Railway – 4

How a long defunct, relatively small local railway company aimed high and ultimately was responsible for the poor financial state of the Great Central Railway!

I have been a bit of a NIMBY! All of my recent articles have looked far from home. I guess you could say it has been a case of, ‘Not In My Back Yard’.

I thought it best to put this right but I might have hoped for better things than this. …

I have been prompted to do so by reading a copy of BackTrack Magazine from May 1996 (Volume 10 No. 5) [2] which included an article about the Great Central which is now long-gone – sadly so, from an enthusiasts point of view. That article was itself a response to an earlier article in BackTrack Volume 9 No. 3 (March 1995) by Messrs. Emblin, Longbone and Jackson. [1]

It brought to mind the connections between Ashton-under-Lyne and the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway (MS&L) evidenced by the name of its predecessor, the Sheffield, Aston-under-Lyne and Manchester Railway (SA&M). It also reminded me that early in my attempts to write interesting blogs I spent a little time on my present place of residence, Ashton-under-Lyne. I am wary of providing links to these posts, but they do pull together quite a bit of information about the early railway …… these are the links:

I am not sure, with the benefit of hindsight, that the second of the above posts was really necessary. An appendix to the third post would probably have covered the two links mentioned in the second post.

The article which grabbed my attention in the old BackTrack Magazine did so because it seems to root the significant problems of the Great Central Railway (GCR) in, what I could argue, is my local railway company’s own history. Hence the sub-title of this post!

The significant challenges faced by the SA&M Railway in being ahead of the game in providing rails across the northern backbone of the country led to a financial structure which seems to have dictated the future of its successors, the MS&L and, ultimately, the GCR. Heavily reliant, leveraged, on debentures and preferential stock is was difficult for the successive companies to attract ordinary investors.

The whole history of the GCR seems to have been dictated by the way in which the heavy capital expenditure necessary to cross the Pennines/Peaks was financed.The SA&M Railway was one of the first railways to tackle truly formidable and desolate terrain. Nowhere was the challenge more evident than at the West end of the Woodhead tunnels, seen herevst the turn of the 20th century. The SA&M and its successors were encumbered with the twin problems of high construction costs and low receipts from intermediate stations over a long section of line. [2]

It should be noted that Emblin reserved a right of reply and that he chose to do so in a later edition of the BackTrack Magazine. [5]

His principal argument in that article appears to be that things were really not that bad and that the GCR managed its way out of trouble in a very effective fashion. I am not sure that this negates the reasoning of the articles referred to above, and I am sure that it does not address the particular point that the GCR faced ongoing financial problems which had their birth in the companies it succeeded.

Emblin argues strongly that Sir Alexander Henderson managed his way out of trouble by expansion. [5: p711] That seems to have been that practice of his predecessors as well. The result being that the company was highly leveraged and still not the best investment for ordinary shareholders.

It also does not alter my opinion that my local railway company had a great part to play in the issues which has to be managed by the GCR throughout its life.


1. Emblin, Longbone & Jackson; Money Sunk & Lost; BackTrack Magazine Vol. 9 No. 3, p129-136, notes on this article are reproduced below at Appendix 2. [3]

2. Blossom & Hendry; Great Central – The Real Problem; BackTrack Magazine Vol. 10 No. 5, p266-271. Notes on this article are provided at [4].

3., accessed on 4th May 2019.

4., accessed on 4th May 2019.

5. Emblin; An Edwardian Ozymandias; BackTrack Volume 15 No.12, p707-713. (see

The Sheffield, Ashton-under-Lyne and Manchester Railway – 3

The Sheffield, Ashton-Under-Lyne and Manchester Railway[1] was opened in stages between 1841 and 1845 between Sheffield and Manchester via Ashton-Under-Lyne.

The company was formed in 1835 and it appointed Charles Vignoles as its engineer.[2] A route was proposed which required a 2 mile long tunnel and passed through Woodhead and Penistone. Vignoles and Joseph Locke[3] were asked to make independent surveys and in October met to reconcile any differences. Their meeting resulted in the decision to build a longer tunnel so as to lessen the gradients needed on the line.

The line obtained its Act of Incorporation in Parliament in 1837 and work on the tunnel started. Vignoles arranged for the boring of a series of vertical shafts followed by a horizontal driftway along the line of the first bore. Enough land was purchased for two tunnels but it was only intended to build one at first.

A ceremony was held on 1st October 1838 at the west end of the tunnel at which ground was disturbed for the first time. In 1839 work was progressing well with Thomas Brassey as contractor. However Vignoles was not relating well to the company’s board and he resigned. Joseph Locke agreed to act in a consultative capacity if the Board would appoint resident engineers for the day to day supervision of the work.

In 1841 Locke reported that the tunnel would probably cost £207,000, about twice the original estimate, because the amount of water encountered required the purchase of more powerful pumps. By this time a length of the line was open for business from Godley to a temporary Manchester terminus at Travis Street.

In 1842, Manchester Store Street (now Piccadilly) was brought into use and at the eastern end the line had linked to Broadbottom and Glossop.

By 1844, the western end of the Woodhead tunnel had been reached.

In 1845 the eastern section of the line in Yorkshire was opened between Dunford Bridge and Sheffield. The tunnel was finally ready for inspection in December 1845 and after it was approved the formal opening of the line took place on 22nd December that year.

Besides Woodhead, there were short tunnels at Audenshaw Road, Hattersley (two), Thurgoland and Bridgehouses. Among the bridges the two most notable were the Etherow Viaduct and the Dinting Vale Viaduct, the latter with five central and eleven approach arches. The line initially terminated at a temporary station at Bridgehouses until Sheffield Victoria was built in 1851.Dinting Vale Viaduct – at the top, the original viaduct, at the bottom, the later replacement.

While the line was being built, the directors were looking at ways to extend it. They had hoped to connect to the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, but their approach to the board of that line was rejected. Eventually they secured a relationship with the London and Birmingham Railway which enabled the Manchester, South Junction and Altrincham Railway to be put before Parliament in 1845. That line was not completed for some years.

The Ashton to Stalybridge branch which had been part if the original scheme was completed in 1845. And in the same year a branch was built to Glossop itself, which needed no Act, since it was financed by the Duke of Norfolk and ran over his land, the original Glossop station was renamed Dinting.

In 1844 representatives of the proposed Sheffield and Lincolnshire Junction Railway made plans for a line from Sheffield to Gainsborough. Plans were also made for the Barnsley Junction Railway to connect Oxspring with Royston on the North Midland Railway.

The directors of the Sheffield, Ashton-under-Lyne and Manchester Railway realised that expansion was best achieved by amalgamating with other lines, after the pattern being set by the Midland under George Hudson.

In 1845, they gained shareholders approval for the Manchester, South Junction and Altrincham Railway,[4] the Sheffield and Lincolnshire Junction Railway,[5] and also the proposed Barnsley Junction Railway.[6] They would also lease the Huddersfield and Manchester Railway and Canal Company.[7]

The board also contemplated:

• a line from Dukinfield to New Mills connecting with the Manchester and Birmingham Railway (
• an extension of the Barnsley Junction to Pontefract joining the Wakefield, Pontefract and Goole Railway.
• The Huddersfield and Sheffield Junction Railway.

In September 1845 agreement was reached in a meeting in Normanton, agreement was reached to amalgamate with the Sheffield and Lincolnshire Junction Railway and the Great Grimsby and Sheffield Railway. Further amalgamations included the Grimsby Docks Company Railway and an attempt to take over the East Lincolnshire Railway which was planned between Grimsby and Lincoln, although ultimately that was taken over by the Great Northern.

The merger received royal assent in July 1846 and the combined company was formed at the beginning of 1847. The line became the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway.[8]



1.,_Ashton-under-Lyne_and_Manchester_Railway, accessed 9th March 2018.

2., accessed 10th March 2018.

3., accessed 10th March 2018.


5., accessed 10th March 2018.

6., accessed 10th March 2018.

7., accessed 10th March 2018.

8.,_Sheffield_and_Lincolnshire_Railway, accessed 10th March 2018.

The Sheffield, Ashton-under-Lyne and Manchester Railway – 2

The following are links to information about the line which became part of the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway in 1847:,_Ashton-under-Lyne_and_Manchester_Railway


The Sheffield, Ashton-under-Lyne and Manchester Railway – 1

I am reading a book by Bill Laws: “Fifty Railways that Changed the Course of
History” published by David & Charles, Newton Abbot, UK, 2013 ISBN-13:978-1-4463-0290-3.

The Sheffield, Ashton-under-Lyne and Manchester Railway features as the 17th of these and particularly for the construction of the Woodhead Tunnel. This was a project that exposed one particular company’s shocking attitude to the safety of its workers and it provided some significant impetus to campaigns for better working conditions for navvies.

“When the early transport ships bearing British miscreants to New South Wales landed in Australia, hundreds had perished during the voyage. The prisoners, including a few of those disreputable railway labourers, notorious for their hard drinking and fighting, were so crammed into the ships’ holds that they died. The British government ordered that, in future, the charterers be held responsible for the convicts’ well-being. It produced immediate results. The transporters, paid a bonus for every prisoner safely landed, now took care of their cargo,” (p72).

However, this principle of responsibility for one’s workers was usually ignore by Victorian entrepreneurs and business leaders: “What use had a mill owner for some eight-year-old girl who, through her own carelessness, lost her hand in a machine? Why should a railway company be responsible for a navvy’s family, when the man died, dead drunk, in a tunnel collapse? And why should the shareholder, risking his capital on such a brave enterprise as the Sheffield, Ashton-under-Lyne and Manchester Railway Company’s plan to tunnel under the Pennines, have to mollycoddle workers who were being paid to do their job?” (p72/73).

Wellington Purdon, who was assistant engineer on the tunnel, was asked by a government enquiry if it was not wiser to use safety fuses while blasting rock He replied, “Perhaps it is: but it is attended with such a loss of time, and the difference is so very small, I would not recommend the loss of time for the sake of all the extra lives it would save, ” (p73).

Purdon’s comments revealed how little the railway companies valued their workers. The enquiry and Purdon’s comments should have changed the course of industrial history. Instead, Parliament shelved the enquiry’s report.

Edwin Chadwick

In 1845 the first train through the completed Woodhead Tunnel was met by a celebration. However, the social reformer Edwin Chadwick did not celebrate for he had calculated that the rate of attrition on the contract to build the tunnel was the equivalent of losses incurred in war. “With 32 killed and 140 injured, the casualty rate was higher than in the Battles of Waterloo” (p73).

The navvies on the Woodhead Tunnel paid to keep their own doctor on hand, Henry Pomfret. “The chief engineer, Wellington Purdon’s boss was Charles B. Vignoles who was also a share­holder in the railway company. When the contract ran over time and over budget, the job bankrupted him. The pioneering engineer Joseph Locke took over as more than a thousand labourers hewed away at the muck and mud from seven different shafts, one at each end and five vertical shafts from above, with pick, shovel and explosives. It was obvious to Locke that the only way to complete the project was to drive the men like animals and, if questioned, lie” (p73/74).

The job took six years to complete. When it came to an end Dr. Pomfret talked to his friend Dr. Roberton, who, inturn talked to Edwin Chadwick. “In January 1846 Chadwick delivered a paper to the Manchester Statistical Society: The Demoralization and Injuries Occasioned by Want of Proper Regulations of Labourers Engaged in the Construction and Works of Railways. Despite the exhausting title, the contents were as volatile as navvies’ explosives. They revealed how injured men were forced to fend for themselves, how most workers lived in homemade hovels (occasioning an outbreak of cholera) through the worst of the Pennine winters. Chadwick exposed the practice of not paying wages for several weeks and then paying them in public bars. The pubs encouraged the navvies to drink their wages, while delayed payments forced them onto the truck system, a version of the company store principle that kept the men and their families in hock to the railway company. (The truck was already outlawed in Britain, but the statute, laid down before the railway rush, had not specified railway workers.) Chadwick showed how the reputation of the average navvy as a feckless, reckless drunk was a direct result of the industry plying him with booze instead of provid­ing him with proper food and housing” (p75).

“The rail company and the engineers denied the charges against them. Nevertheless, the government inquiry in July 1846 recommended extending the Truck Act to the railways, making the companies responsible for the health, welfare and accommodation of their navvies and, most important of all, putting the liability for deaths or injuries on the company. The Members of Parliament also insisted that men should be paid weekly, and in cash, not in tokens for the truck. The inquiry report was never even debated” (p75).

However, “although no railway man was censured over the Wood-head Tunnel scandal, Chadwick’s efforts were not in vain. His correla­tion between losses on the battlefield and those on the railways caught the public imagination and in future, when navvies were killed, the press was quick to take up the story” (p75).

Woodhead Tunnel is infamous for the loss of life during its construction, but it is nothing compared to the massive loss of life associated with many colonial railways in Asia, Africa and South America.