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Railroads England - The Midland Railway

( Originally Published 1927 )

THE MIDLAND RAILWAY, which is one of the most important systems of England, resulted, in part at least, from the rivalry between the coalfields of Leicestershire and Derbyshire. The bursting of the Charnwood Forest Canal in 1799 had deprived the mines of Leicestershire of almost all suitable communications, the owners of the collieries had considered many propositions for getting their coals to market, and had engaged Robert Stephenson to construct the Leicester and Swannington Railway. The first section of this line, from Leicester to Bagworth, was opened in 1832, with the ceremonies that were then customary on the inauguration of a new railway, the firing of cannon, the ringing of bells and the playing of bands. A mile from the start was the Glenfield Tunnel and in the middle of this excavation the chimney of the "Comet" locomotive struck the roof and broke, covering the passengers in the open carriages with soot. One other accident occurred, the account speaking of a "woman being ridden over alongside the railway by a cavalier who was trying to keep up with the train." Otherwise the day was a success for the engineers, the passengers and the onlookers.

This step to improve transportation in the Leicestershire coalfields roused the competitive spirit of the coal-owners of Derbyshire, and they organized to build the Midland Counties Railway. This line was constructed in three sections ; the first, which ran from Derby to Nottingham, was opened in 1839, the second, from Leicester to Trent Junction, in 1840, and the third, from Leicester to Rugby, in the same year. It was then possible to travel from Derby to London by two routes, either by way of Birmingham, over the Derby and Birmingham and the London and Birmingham lines, or by the Midland Counties and the London and Birmingham. This choice of roads promptly led to a battle for traffic between the feeders of the main line to London.

These new railways advertised themselves by popular excursions, when tickets were sold at half-price. These excursions made a great stir and many took advantage of them. The "Leicester Journal" of Au-gust 28, 1840, gives this account of a popular trip from Nottingham to Leicester : "The engines were overloaded, and the progress was slow. There were about 2400 persons. A special engine, with all proper means and appliances in case of accidents, was sent off to reconnoitre, but did not return. At length, about 12.30, when the excitement had almost worn itself out of long endurance, a white flag, the signal of security, was seen from the station waving in the air. The enormous train of nearly seventy carriages passed majestically in review before the astonished spectators. It was indeed a wonderful scene. Grand ! magnificent ! sublime ! were the terms which gave vent to the feelings as in countless succession the animated mass rushed into view. It was in truth a moving city, with banners and music and accompaniments of all the material of high excitement to enhance its efficacy."

Another line, the North Midland Railway, made Derby its terminus in 1840. This road ran from Derby to Leeds and was built by George Stephenson, who added to his list of achievements by constructing an elliptically-sectioned tunnel at Ambergate in order to overcome the sliding of a bank of shale. The North Midland increased the competition between the Midland Counties and the Derby and Birmingham Junction roads, and each of the latter reduced its fares by 75 per cent in the fight for business. Such competition was ruinous, and to protect the shareholders the North Midland and the two other lines were amalgamated in 1844 under the name of the Midland Railway Company.

This railroad system was now well established in the Midlands of England and did a flourishing business by connecting the colliery and manufacturing districts that centred around Birmingham, Derby and Leeds with the metropolis of London. The company now adopted a policy of expansion and built a line from Nottingham to Lincoln in 1845 and a branch to Peterborough in 1848. In constructing the latter road the route lay across country that belonged to Lord Harborough, a conservative, fox-hunting nobleman, who also owned a canal, which he thought would be injured by the railway. When the survey-ors entered this nobleman's property they were driven off by his gamekeepers; the surveyors rounded up a band of adherents and marched on the grounds again; a pitched battle followed until police arrived, when both parties threw their weapons away and indulged in a hand-to-hand scrimmage. More combats ensued, in which the gamekeepers came out victorious over the surveyors, and the matter was decided by Lord Harborough granting the company the right to build a tunnel under his land. The tunnel unfortunately fell in, and the engineers proposed to make a cutting. The nobleman forbade that, and when an alternative route was proposed through another part of his property he forbade that also. After a great deal of controversy an agreement was arrived at, and the road was completed by building what was known as "Lord Harborough's Curve."

The centre of England was now well knit together by the Midland Railway. In the west a railroad was opened from Birmingham to Gloucester in 1840, the Great Western Railway inaugurated a line to Bristol in 1841, and a few years later Bristol was joined by a road to Gloucester. The Midland and the Great Western both desired to own the lines from Birmingham to Gloucester and from Gloucester to Bristol, and each made offers to the proprietors of those roads. The Midland's offer was the better and was accepted, and in 1846 Gloucester and Bristol became part of the Midland's network.

On the north this ambitious railroad system extended its reach by leasing a line that ran from Skipton to Lancaster and then by constructing a branch from Settle on this road to Carlisle. One important town yet remained to be linked up : Manchester was not touched by the Midland, and Manchester, with its thriving trade, was an exceedingly valuable ter-minus.

To Manchester there was a short road, the High Peak Railway, that had been built with heavy gradients through the Derbyshire Hills, and a line from Manchester to Crewe. This latter line, wanting an outlet to the south, took over the High Peak, and agreed to connect with the Midland at Ambergate. Before this junction of interests was made, however, rivals of the Midland came into the field ; the London and Birmingham, the Grand Junction, which ran from Birmingham to Manchester, and the Manchester and Crewe road combined forces and organized the system which became known as the Lon-don and North Western. This kept the Midland from Manchester, and as that company was determined to reach that town the directors decided to build a line of their own. This they did, although their route lay through the Peak Forest country, which presented many difficulties, the chief of which was the boring through the Peak with a tunnel almost two miles long. A large viaduct built of brick at Bagsworth was ruined by a landslide and had to be replaced by one of wood. The road was successfully completed, how-ever, and the Midland linked Rugby to Manchester.

With so many branches, north, east and west, the Midland now wanted to do away with its dependence on the Great Northern Railway and the London and North Western for connection with London. Those roads carried the Midland's traffic, but gave preference to their own. So the Midland obtained permission from Parliament to construct a line over the territory from Bedford to London. This route lay through Luton, St. Albans and Hendon to a metropolitan terminus at St. Pancras, where the Midland built its London station near the stations of its great rivals, the London and North Western and the Great Northern Railways.

In such fashion the needs of the coalfields led to the weaving of shining rails over central England.

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