Notice is hereby given, that application is intended to made to Parliament, in the next Sessions, for leave to bring in a Bill, to make a rail or tram road or roads into, through, to and from the town and borough of Liverpool, into, through, to and from the town of Manchester, both in the county palatine of Lancaster, with certain branch rail or trans road or roads to be connected therewith, and that the same is, or are intended to pass into, through, to, and from the several boroughs, parishes, townships, and places of Liverpool, Everton, Kirkdale, Walton, Wavertree, Childwall, West Derby, Knowsley, Prescot, Huyton or Highton, Whiston, Cronton, Torbock, Rainhill, Eccliston, Saint Helens, Sutton, Parr, Haydock, bold, Burton Wood, Newton-in-the-Willows, Winwick, Leigh, Kenyon, Croft, Culcheth, Astley, Chat Moss, Wooding, Worsley, Barton-upon-Irwell, Swinton or Winton, Monton, Eccles, Pendleton, Salford, and Manchester, in the county palatine of Lancaster, or some of them. Dated the twenty-eighth day of August, one thousand eight hundred and twenty-two.
1828 Plan showing a proposed railway line and signed by Robert Stephenson. Picture courtesy of Parliamentary Archives
One of the most famous of the railway engineering works was Stephenson's 'floating' railway across Chat Moss, an undertaking that one contemporary engineer declared 'no man in his senses would attempt'.
The bleak waste of Chat Moss had long been notorious in the county of Lancashire. It had defied several attempts over the years to drain and cultivate it and was home to vipers. A giant spongy mass of bog-moss, it rose above the surrounding countryside like the dome of a giant jellyfish.
The treacherous bog would not bear the weight of either a man or a horse; it was over 30ft deep in some places, and four miles across. Stephenson's assistant John Dixon slipped off a wooden plank while inspecting the ground, and nearly disappeared for good; he had to be rescued by the navvies.
The engineers and men approached the problem logically. The navvies fastened wooden boards to their shoes to spread out their weight and stop them sinking; next, they constructed heather walkways for their wheelbarrows and the wagons. Light rails were laid down on this path. Young lads pushed one-ton wagons laden with building materials along the rails, and according to Stephenson's biographer Samuel Smiles, they could trot across all four miles of the Moss in just over half an hour.
Stephenson ordered drains to be cut on either side of the track route; around 200 men were needed for this section. It was frustrating work; in many places, whenever the men dug a drain, the Moss quickly filled it up with water again. So a kind of 'pipe' drain was constructed using empty tar barrels joined end to end, weighted down with clay so they wouldn't rise up again. But the railway line, of course, had to support the weight of a full-size locomotive and wagons. Once the ground had firmed sufficiently after drainage, hurdles 9ft wide and 4ft broad, interspersed with heather, formed a kind of floating base. A 2ft layer of gravel or ballast was piled on this, topped by wooden sleepers, on which the track was laid.
View of the Railway Across Chat Moss, 1831. Engraved by Henry Pyall after a painting by Thomas Talbot Bury
To the dismay of the men and the railway directors, and despite all their efforts to prevent it, the Moss swiftly gobbled up whole sections of their new embankment. Worst of all was the embankment which had to support the line at the Manchester end of the bog. Turf-cutters, men and boys, skinned the moss nearby with sharp spades called 'tommy-spades', and dried the turf into cakes, which were then tipped into the hole to help form the embankment. The men tipped in hundreds of wagonloads of dry moss in order to fill it up, to no avail; it seemed as if they were feeding a bottomless pit.
The tipping went on for weeks, but Stephenson encouraged the men to persevere. They worked day and night until at last the Moss was conquered; his vision of a floating railway was now a reality, and a lasting monument to the navvies hard work. £28,000 (£2.6 million today) was the total cost for the Chat Moss crossing - £820,000 (£77 million today) being the cost for the whole railway.
The Opening of the Railway
Before the official opening of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, there was much controversy over which design of locomotive to use. The story of the Rainhill trials in October 1829 and the triumph of Stephenson's Rocket is well known. Rocket achieved a then revolutionary speed of 29mph (unladen) and won the £ 500 prize.
The next year an 'immense multitude' gathered to witness the grand opening ceremony at Liverpool on 15th September; the cheering crowds saw the wonderful engines, covered with flags and carrying many passengers, speed down the line with 'arrow-like swiftness'.
Stephenson's Locomotive, Rocket
The day was marred by a dreadful accident at Parkside, when William Huskisson, M P for Liverpool, unluckily fell under the wheels of the advancing Rocket, and was fatally injured. The Duke of Wellington wanted the festivities cancelled, but after much hand-wringing by the authorities and railway directors, fears over public order meant the procession of engines eventually continued their journey to Manchester. Here they received a mixed reception as political protestors tried to make their presence felt. Radical sympathisers waved banners and some of the wagons had stones thrown at them by weavers. A tablet was later displayed in his memory.
Tablet dedicated to William Huskisson
The railway opened to passenger traffic the next day, conveying 130 people to Manchester for seven shillings a head, in an hour and thirty-two minutes.
The Railway Age was here.
(Extracted and edited from NARROW WINDOWS, NARROW LIVES by Sue Wilkes)