20 August 2020
‘Amongst all the changes of the civilised and commercial world, there has never been one so eventful and prodigious as that effected by the agency of the Steam Engine. This superhuman power has superseded many long-established practices and confirmed customs … Like other great novelties and innovations, it has had to encounter much prejudice and enmity, much opposition and vexatious hostility’.
So declares Drawings of the London and Birmingham Railway (1839), one of a number of colour-plate books in Emmanuel’s Graham Watson Collection that record the earliest railways. Most of these books are now exceedingly rare. Their plates – which are usually insisted to derive from drawings made on the spot – depict the pioneering days of railway construction and travel, and the accompanying texts brim with excitement and pride in these ultra-modern developments.
Six Coloured Views on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (1831), ‘From Drawings Made on the Spot by Mr T. T. Bury,’ include a dramatic plate (Plate 1 above) depicting what the text describes as ‘a ravine cut though the solid rock to a depth of 70 feet … This cutting is nearly two miles in length and one of the most remarkable portions of the undertaking’. The text explains that the material excavated was then used to construct an embankment, and the writer revels in the traveller’s excitingly contrasting experience: being at one moment in the cutting ‘walled in with solid rock rising almost perpendicularly on either side’ and at the next being sped along an embankment ‘above the tops of the trees’. The main impetus for building the railway was moving goods and raw materials, rather than scenery-minded passengers, between the two booming towns, but by 1831 a train drawing five carriages of passengers went from Manchester to Liverpool in 67 minutes, halving the time taken only the previous year, thanks to an improved locomotive. The writer comments with satisfaction that shares in the company are ‘already selling, as we are assured, at a premium of nearly one hundred per cent’.
Five Views of the Dublin and Kingstown Railway (1834), by A. Nicholl, ‘From Drawings Taken on the Spot … with a Description of this Important National Work’, contains beautiful coloured aquatints of what was the first railway in Ireland, which covered a distance of six miles. The first train of eight carriages ‘crowded with ladies and gentlemen, proceeded the entire length of the line’ on 9 October 1834 in fifteen and a half minutes. There was one first-class carriage, three second-class and four third-class. It continued as a separate company until 1925. Emmanuel’s copy is a very rare and beautiful example of early railway literature, and depicts (Plate 2 above) a locomotive passing through a deep and rocky excavation.
Six years after his book of views on the Liverpool and Manchester, Bury published Six Coloured Views on the London and Birmingham Railway (1837), ‘From Drawings Made on the Line with the Sanction of the Company,’ now one of the rarest of English colour-plate books. It includes (Plate 3 above) a remarkable depiction of the platforms and interior of the station at Euston, with its vast canopy on numerous columns, an iron cathedral for steam. Numerous top-hatted gentlemen and ladies in their best bonnets are seated in what appear to be boxes on wheels, open to the elements and presumably to the smuts from the locomotive. Another ‘View’ (Plate 4) – of the viaduct at Watford – brings home what must have seemed the extraordinary scale and modernity of the new railways as civil engineering projects slicing through the landscape. An embankment dwarfs the adjacent houses, and the brickwork and stone of the viaduct are gleamingly clean and new. In the foreground a top-hatted gentleman pays court to a bonneted lady, in a designedly picturesque depiction of this new dimension to a rural landscape.
Drawings of the London and Birmingham Railway (London, 1839): [Plate 5] ‘Building Retaining Wall near Park Street, Camden Town. September 17, 1836’
Drawings of the London and Birmingham Railway (1839), by John C. Bourne, is a magnificent example of lithographed illustration. Versions with sepia or black-and-white illustrations are rare enough, but Graham Watson’s copy with hand-coloured plates is rarer still. The plates are accompanied with a text by John Britton that breathlessly chronicles the facts and figures of all the feats of engineering – cuttings, embankments, viaducts, tunnels – that enabled the line to be built. Plate 5 above illustrates the scale of the earthworks needed to bring the line into London.
Drawings of the London and Birmingham Railway (London, 1839): [Plate 6] ‘Building the Stationary Engine House, Camden Town. April 26, 1837’
Plate 6 shows construction of a vast underground vault beside the railway tracks in the Camden Town goods yard. The Camden depot was originally to have been the London terminus of the London and Birmingham Railway, and when in 1839 Parliament allowed the line to be extended to a new terminus at Euston it was discovered that the gradient between Euston and Camden was too steep for the current locomotives. Nothing daunted, Robert Stephenson constructed a system whereby trains were hauled up from Euston to Camden by huge steam-powered winches on a mile-long ‘endless rope’, 7 inches in circumference and weighing almost 12 tons.
The two 60-horsepower engines were housed in an underground cavern constructed at Camden, which was 100 feet long and 63 feet wide, and on the surface was marked by two 130-feet chimneys. Signals were conveyed between Euston and Camden by a ‘Pneumatic Telegraph’ (‘it consists of a tube underground, through which the air is forced, so as to produce a shrill whistle … The time occupied in the passage of the signal is less than four seconds’). Once at Camden, the carriages were attached to a steam engine and continued to Birmingham. Yet only a few years later, by as soon as 1844, Stephenson had developed locomotives that could manage the incline and the whole vast scheme was obsolete. The engines were sold off to a mine in Russia and the cathedral-like vaults were abandoned. They were rediscovered, flooded, in 1993.
Drawings of the London and Birmingham Railway (London, 1839): [Plate 7] ‘Tring Cutting. June 17, 1837’
Plate 7, showing construction of the cutting near Tring, witnesses to the immense labour that went into such a deep excavation by manual labour. On one side of the cutting, as far as the eye can see, men are guiding wheelbarrows of earth, which are being drawn up the side of the cutting by a system of ropes and pulleys powered by horses on the top of the bank. The text confirms that between 30 and 40 such ‘horse-runs’ were constantly working for many months, and comments: ‘This is a dangerous occupation, for the man rather hangs to, than supports the barrow, which is rendered unmanageable by the least irregularity in the horse’s motion’. However, ‘such was their surefootedness that only one fatal accident occurred’. Attempts to introduce safer methods were actively resisted by workers: ‘A moving platform was invented by the engineer to supersede the necessity of thus risking life and limb, but the workmen, who considered it was designed to lessen their labour and wages, broke it’.
Plates 8 and 9 show both a working shaft and a ventilation shaft in the tunnel at Kilsby near Rugby. This tunnel was a vast undertaking, using thirty million bricks and, because of its length, requiring two immense ventilation shafts, both 60 feet in diameter, with the deeper shaft 130 feet deep and requiring one million bricks. The plate of one of the eighteen working shafts shows a ‘skip’ or box being hauled up laden with earth in the very humid atmosphere. There was a constant need to pump water up out of the tunnel. 1300 men toiled on the tunnel and twelve steam engines worked night and day.
Passengers began their journey from London to Birmingham by passing through what the railway builders designed to be the most impressive entrance to anywhere in London (Plate 10). This was the remarkable structure now remembered as the ‘Euston Arch’, but Britton calls it more grandly the ‘Propylaeum or architectural gateway’ and enthuses about how it is ‘remarkable for magnitude … the massiveness and boldness of its design [being] on a grander scale than anything of the kind yet attempted in this country’ and so disproving any idea that ‘the English are too parsimonious and calculating’ to produce grandeur in public buildings. The plate shows the huge arch dwarfing the figures and coaches of the approaching passengers, for the columns of the arch were claimed to be higher than those of any other building in London at the time. Even in the Victorian age, the Arch had its critics for being too large, too grandiose. Yet its demolition in the early 1960s has become an iconic instance of the barbarous cultural vandalism of that most tawdry of decades. Once itself an emblem of modernity’s ambitions, the Euston Arch was destroyed to enable ‘modernization’ of Euston into what we see today.
Barry Windeatt (Keeper of Rare Books)Back to All Blog Posts