John Ratcliffe Chapman

A photographic portrait of John Ratcliffe Chapman taken in America.

The contractor responsible for building the railway line through Woodlesford was John Ratcliffe Chapman. Remarkably he was only 23 years old when he was given the job by the Leeds based directors of the North Midland Railway but as he already had significant experience and was recommended by the line’s chief engineer, Robert Stephenson, their faith in him wasn’t misplaced. It took just under two years to finish the job which involved employing several hundred navvies and the blasting of thousands of tons of rock. In the meantime whilst he was living locally Chapman found a wife and with her and his profits he then set off to build a new life as a farmer and inventor in the United States. In his day he and his father were responsible for several important early main line railway contracts but the details of their contributions and family background have only recently come to light.

John Ratcliffe Chapman was born on 9 January 1815 and baptised at Revesby parish church in south Lincolnshire. His father was John Chapman who had married widow Isabella Showler, nee Lyon, at the same church on 5 July 1814. The dates indicate she was pregnant when the wedding took place, which was not uncommon. John and Isabella went on to have four more children, two sons and two daughters, who survived into adulthood – Charlotte born 1816, William, 1819, Isabella, 1822, and Issac, 1824. Their baptisms and later census entries place the family home at Medlam House on the fenland to the south of Revesby and just to the north of Carrington. Baptism records from St. Paul’s church at Carrington, built in 1816, suggest an extended Chapman family lived in the area. John Chapman, who was recorded as a bachelor when he married, was listed as a farmer and one of only five freeholders qualified to vote in Revesby parish in the poll book for parliamentary elections in 1818 and 1823. He also owned land at Frieston (modern spelling Freiston) to the east of Boston.

The link to civil engineering and contracting becomes clearer from notices placed in newspapers. The first, in the Stamford Mercury, is dated Friday 26 October 1810 when John Chapman was based at Susworth on the banks of the River Trent to the south west of Scunthorpe. There, along with a William Wright, he was advertising for “bankers and canal cutters” to start work immediately on excavations of peat marl and soft clay at Scotter Common following an enclosure act passed in 1808. The men could have “constant employ all winter” and were to work with either carts or barrows. Probably not enough men came forward as a further notice, again asking for a hundred workmen, was placed the following January. It referred to the “drainage and embankment of Scotter Common. The work is now letting at an advancing price, and all peat moor,” it read.

In October 1811 Chapman had moved south to Donington where he was again looking for a hundred “bankers and canal cutters” to work on the South Forty Foot Drain between Bourne and Boston. He was still there in June 1813, based at the Red Cow Inn, and advertising for 200 men.

A year later his business appears to have grown larger as more men were needed for another scheme and following his marriage his home address was also mentioned in a notice placed in the Stamford Mercury on 23 September 1814. It reads: “To Bankers. Wanted immediately, Four Hundred workmen as Bankers, to execute the Works on the Witham Navigation, between Lincoln and Boston. Good prices are given, and plenty of new materials, now lying on the work. Apply to John Chapman, on the work, or at his house in the parish of Revesby.” Another notice in the Cambridge Chronicle referred to “canal cutters” and offered a price from “10 to 12 per floor.” The contractor’s base was at Bardney about 20 miles to the north of Medlam.

A modern view of Medlam House near Revesby in Lincolnshire.

The history of the fens and its marshland people stretches back at least 4,000 years. After the Roman invasion the rivers were made more navigable and man made channels, or dykes, were cut. Amid much opposition from long established fenland dwellers the first significant attempts to drain the marshes took place after royal decrees in the early part of the 17th century. Stretches of rivers were straightened, banks were built, and sluices installed to control the flow of water. Later in the mid-18th century there were large schemes for land drainage and enclosure. It was a continuation of this activity that John Chapman was engaged in for the proprietors of the Witham Navigation Company.

One of the key actors in all this was the scientist Sir Joseph Banks, famous for his botanical discoveries on Captain James Cook’s voyage to Australia and the Pacific. Banks’ ancestral home was at Revesby Abbey and towards the end of his life he was actively engaged in land drainage, enclosure and farm improvement. He died in 1820 but had known Isabella Chapman’s first husband, William Showler, a farmer and grazier. He was praised by Banks in the Annual Register in 1807 for his ability to cultivate spring wheat in fields growing turnips in winter. It seems certain that he would have known Isabella’s second husband and may have been instrumental in his employment. Another connection would have been Sir Joseph’s land agent, John Parkinson, who created the industrial village of New Bolingbroke, just to the north of Medlam.

Most of the drainage channels near to the Chapman farm were planned around the turn of the 19th century by John Rennie and dug following acts granted in 1801 and 1803. During that work a steam engine was used for the first time on the fens to pump water. The system is known as the Witham Navigable Drains and covers an area north of Boston of about 100 square miles. The Medlam Drain, running south from Revesby Bridge is close to the Chapman farmhouse and John senior was possibly involved in its construction. In October 1819 he advertised again in the Stamford Mercury for 200 “workmen as bankers” to excavate the Steeping River at the southern end of the River Lymm about 15 miles to the east of Medlam. Constant employment throughout the winter was guaranteed. A further notice was placed the following February stating that 150 workmen were still needed. The contract followed another survey by John Rennie and an act of parliament passed in 1818.

The Medlam Drain close to the Chapman’s farmhouse.

Having established a large workforce it’s likely John Chapman continued to carry out drainage and canal contracts in the following years. One engineer who he was probably close to was Thomas Townshend. Born in Yorkshire in about 1772 he had many years worth of canal construction behind him including in Lancashire with Rennie and in Ireland. In 1812 he was appointed engineer on the Witham Navigation and was in charge of the work around Bardney in 1814. Knowledge of Chapman’s ability to put together and command a large workforce of skilled craftsmen and unskilled labourers may have led Townshend to recommend him for other projects, possibly including the Birmingham Canal which he built from 1825.

John Chapman’s origins are obscure and there are conflicting records indicating his birth year. It could have been as early as 1770 or as late as 1781. There appear to be no baptisms with his name in or near Revesby in that period so it’s likely he came from elsewhere. One possibility is that he was connected to the engineer William Chapman (1749 – 1832). Born into a Quaker family in Whitby he was the first to design skew bridges whilst building canals in Ireland. He later worked on several harbour and dock projects including in east London and Hull. Fenland drainage was another of his specialities and he wrote a number of letters and pamphlets on the subject including “Observations on the Improvement of Boston Haven” in 1800 and another in 1814 objecting to plans for changes to the rivers Welland and Witham. He is now jointly credited with John Buddle for the design of the Steam Elephant, an early locomotive which railway historians had assumed was the work of George Stephenson.

A Wikipedia entry for John Ratcliffe Chapman claimed William Chapman was his father but this was incorrect. However there may be a grain of truth in the assertion and they might have been related. A hint that the family roots were not in south Lincolnshire is the marriage of John Chapman’s sister, Sarah, in Hull in 1819 to Thomas Soppit, an exciseman. His father, John Soppit, was the port surveyor of excise in Newcastle until his death in 1822. Sarah was buried in the same plot as John at All Saints’ church in the city following her death in 1826 after living for a number of years at Byker Buildings about a mile away. There’s also an interesting reference in a short family history written by a descendant of John Ratcliffe Chapman in America in 1946. It didn’t name his father but said he had been an inventor as well as a civil engineer and a “co-worker with Stevenson (sic), inventor of the locomotive,” a model of which he had given to the British Museum. This may have been wrongly interpreted by the Wikipedia writer to have been referring to William Chapman. Alternatively John Chapman may have been related to a man of the same name who in 1765 was appointed as assistant engineer to Langley Edwards, a contemporary of the Yorkshire born civil engineer John Smeaton. Edwards was responsible for several mid-18th century drainage schemes in south Lincolnshire including in the Black Sluice district where John Chapman worked as a contractor half a century later.

Following the Steeping River contract there are no further notices by John Chapman for labourers or craftsmen but having built up a sufficient workforce he may not have needed to advertise for men. Much later a short obituary said he had been a “contractor for roads and other public works,” but didn’t state where or when. Still active as a farmer and a leading member of Revesby society he also built up a substantial property portfolio. In 1818, for instance, he appears to have been the owner of a brick built corn mill along with a house, barn, stable and an acre of land at Hagworthingham, about 13 miles to the north east of Medlam. It was put up sale by private contract or otherwise by auction at the Bull Inn at Horncastle. The price and particulars were obtainable from “Mr. John Chapman at Revesby” or from the office of Thirkhill and Rogers, solicitors in Boston. It’s possible he had acquired the property using the profits from his contracting business.

The period after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 and into the 1830s was one of great poverty for agricultural workers, especially in the fens as the common land they had previously used for grazing animals was drained and enclosed. Many turned to theft and poaching to feed their families and were a constant challenge to freeholders like Chapman. In November 1824 “some evil-disposed person, or persons” broke into one of his outhouses and stole a number of fowls and two “hempen halters,” ropes used to tether animals. Through the auspices of the Tattershall and Coningsby New Association for the Prosecuting of Felons a 15 guinea reward was offered for their discovery and conviction. Appropriately the treasurer of the association was a solicitor by the name of John Bogg!

A notice from the Stamford Mercury in November 1824.

Later in the decade there were similar cases. In October 1827 John Chapman’s name was at the head of a list of 12 landowners and tenants complaining about “pot hunters, poachers and unqualified people” from the Sibsey area. They had allegedly destroyed game on the West and Wildmore fens as well as on the estate of Joseph Banks’ widow. The public notice declared that if any of them were found trespassing again they would be prosecuted “according to law.” The threat didn’t seem to scare anybody though as the following December Chapman offered a reward for the recovery of two rams “stolen or strayed” from a pasture near Medlam. It’s pretty likely they ended up providing Christmas dinner for several poor families.

Two years later, during the harvest, the hunt was on for four agricultural labourers who had walked off with two of Chapman’s nearly new steel bladed scythes with which they had been cutting his corn. A detailed description of the men and their clothing was given and a 5 guinea reward was offered. One of them was a Yorkshireman, about 50 years old, who wore “a blue velveteen jacket and a red waistcoat.” This time an informant came forward and a few weeks later, at a court at Louth, Robert Ashton, 33, a ”respectable looking farmer’s servant” was found guilty of stealing one of the scythes. He got off relatively lightly as he was only sentenced to 6 months hard labour and a public flogging. Another man, charged with stealing bacon, was sentenced to be transported as a convict to New South Wales for seven years.

John Chapman had his own brush with the law when he was charged with being involved in the murder of a baby. Newspaper accounts of his arrest and trial indicate that his robust defence of his property rights may have set some in the local community against him.

The case concerned a two month premature “male bastard child” who died very shortly after his mother gave birth at her family home in February 1826. She was 19 year old Mary Ann Pearson who had been a servant in the Chapman household the previous summer. John Chapman was present at the birth in the middle of the night and took the dead body away in his greatcoat pocket to bury it in one of his pastures three miles away. Suspicious neighbours, knowing the girl was pregnant, called in the parish authorities. The clear implication was that Chapman was the father and at an inquest doctors were of the opinion that the child had been born alive. The coroner’s jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against Mary Ann with her mother, Elizabeth, and Chapman as accessories. All three were charged but Mary Ann was too sick to be sent on remand to the gaol at Lincoln Castle. Chapman and Mrs. Pearson only escaped imprisonment when they stood bail worth over £2,000 which must have come from him.

By the time the criminal trial took place, at the Crown Court in Lincoln in early July 1826, it was Elizabeth Pearson who was the main defendant. She was said to have squeezed the baby’s head and “wilfully and of her malice aforethought did kill and murder it.” Chapman, “a man of considerable property,” and her daughter were accessories.

One of the witnesses, a widow with six children, said she had offered to help at the birth but had been told to go home by Mrs. Pearson. A couple of nights later neighbours watched as Chapman returned to the house several times where he was allegedly seen sitting on Mary Ann’s bed “and frequently kissing her.”

At the trial two doctors gave opinions that the baby was alive when it was born but had never breathed. They claimed it could have survived but Elizabeth Pearson had not tied the umbilical cord after cutting it and the baby had bled to death. “A child may live half an hour without breathing, and then be saved, if proper measures are used,” said one of the doctors.

Luckily for John Chapman the judge was skeptical and said there wasn’t enough evidence to warrant a conviction. Even if the child had been born alive there was no proof that Mrs. Pearson was actually present at the delivery he said. He was also lenient about the attempts to conceal the birth saying it didn’t prove murder and it was “natural that the mother should be anxious to preserve her daughter’s character.” The jury quickly returned a not guilty verdict on Mrs. Pearson so the other charges fell and they were acquitted. What Isabella Chapman thought of all this is unknown although it doesn’t seem to have damaged her husband’s reputation. A couple of years after his trial he was selling off a 56-acre farm to “any person with a small capital.” With “first-rate land,” part grass and part arable, it came with a house, barn, stable and dovecote and was “within a short distance of Boston.”

The size of John Chapman’s land holdings is revealed in a notice he placed in the Stamford Mercury in October 1830 when once again he was complaining about poachers and trespassers. As well as lower class “unqualified people” he was also irritated by “gentlemen” who he “obliged not to sport over his “estates and extensive liberties.” Presumably these were fellow farmers and landholders who were shooting game birds or hunting foxes and other animals on horses with dogs or on foot. The land was in several parishes surrounding Medlam including Boston, Freiston, Tumby, Old and New Bolingbroke, Revesby and 500 acres of woodland 12 miles away at Tower on the Moor.

By the 1830s Chapman had transferred his allegiance to the Revesby and Mareham le Fen association for prosecuting felons and was one of at least 40 members who attended their annual dinner and meeting at the Red Lion in Revesby. Not that they were totally effective as a report from May 1835 shows. It was about the “intolerable nuisance of dogs kept by persons unable to maintain themselves.” The finger was pointed at John Huggins, a rat catcher of New Bolingbroke “whose circumstances border on extreme poverty.” He had six dogs he couldn’t afford to feed and which were apparently roaming about day and night and causing “annoyance to the neighbourhood.” One of the “rapacious” animals had worried three lambs in a field belonging to Chapman and were only stopped from killing them by his shepherd.

A Stanhope and Tyne Railway locomotive.

Although there are no other newspaper references to John Chapman’s contracting business after the early 1820s it appears it continued through that decade and into the 1830s. The evidence comes in his will dated 1 July 1834 drawn up not in Lincolnshire but in South Shields in the north east of England. Circumstantially it suggests he was involved with the Stanhope and Tyne Railway built to carry limestone, lime and coal over a 34 mile route from Weardale and north-west Durham to the River Tyne.

The will didn’t include an extensive listing of Chapman’s property or wealth but simply devised his estate to his wife. On her remarriage or death it was to be divided between his five children. Three executors were named – two Lincolnshire farmers, Henry Kirton of Revesby and William Soulby of Stickney, along with John Richardson, a “gentleman” of Old Bolingbroke. The link to the Stanhope and Tyne Railway comes in the names of four men who witnessed the document. One of them, Joseph Kent of 19 Salisbury Street off the Strand in London, is a bit of a mystery. He appears to have made a living in the legal profession acting as an agent or witness. His name appeared in several advertisements in the Morning Advertiser from 1832 but he came a cropper in November 1834 when he was sent to the Fleet Prison as an insolvent debtor, although he was quickly released. A notice of his petition to the debtor’s court in the London Gazette stated that he had recently been travelling in Northumberland and Durham.

The three other witnesses are more interesting. Christopher Akenhead Wawn was a young up and coming solicitor and probably drew up Chapman’s will. His father, also Christopher, had started as an apprentice on collier brigs taking coal from the Tyne to London and European ports. He’d risen to be a master mariner owning a fleet of vessels some of which were captured during the Napoleonic Wars. As a prominent Wesleyan he sat on a Newcastle committee campaigning to abolish slavery. Two of his other sons were also well known on Tyneside – Thomas William Wawn was a ship builder and John Twizell Wawn became a Liberal M.P.

A card advertising Thomas William Wawn’s company.

Christopher A. Wawn also acted for the third witness to Chapman’s will who signed his name Richard Parr. He was indeed a contractor on the Stanhope and Tyne Railway and as was standard practice a notice, dated 4 August 1834, inviting “all persons having any claim or demand on Mr. Richard Parr, late of South Shields, engineer,” was placed in the local papers around the time that the northern section of the line was nearing completion. Claims were to be sent to “Mr. C. A. Wawn, in order that same may be examined and discharged.”

In the same week a poster was issued advertising an auction sale of Parr’s equipment at a stable yard adjoining the railway on the 8th and 9th of August 1834. It shows he had a substantial operation as there were 16 draught horses, a smith’s shop with tools, a quantity of timber and “a locomotive steam engine, from 35 to 40 horse power.” The contents of his house, including “mahogany tables and chairs, bedsteads, beds and bedding, kitchen requisites, and  two excellent double barrelled guns by Manton,” were also auctioned off.

Parr’s middle name, after his mother, was Bates. He was born in 1797 and came from a Leicestershire farming family. He married Mary Dodson at Eagle in Lincolnshire in 1821 and they were at Spalding when their first daughter was born in 1823. There he had a contract for improving the turnpike road between Bourne and Spalding. An indication of his less than honest methods comes from a court case when he was sued for not fully settling his account by a farmer who had carried materials for him. He lost and had to pay damages. He may have had contracts on other road works and possibly canals in that period and become friendly with John Chapman in Lincolnshire.

Richard Bates Parr.

Parr then moved through Rutland to Northampton in 1829 and there’s evidence he made a bid to repair the bridge over the River Ouse at Olney in Buckinghamshire in 1830. Leaving his family behind in Northampton he moved north to Norton near Stockton-on-Tees where, in partnership with William King Kent, he was a contractor on roads and bridges. They were then joined by another partner, John Watts, to build part of the Clarence Railway before Parr moved to the Stanhope and Tyne which was built between 1832 and 1834. Kent was most likely a sleeping partner and may have been related to Joseph Kent, the first witness to Chapman’s will. He was an attorney’s clerk in London who was said by those who knew him to have been a man “of character so bad, that they would not associate with him.” In 1827 he was appointed deputy surveyor of the royal forest at Salcey in Northamptonshire. Knowing nothing of forestry management over the next few years he lined his own pockets by illegally felling and selling off thousands of old oak trees with no proper oversight by the Commissioners of Woods and Forests. He was eventually caught and tried at the Old Bailey in 1836. He was sentenced to 14 years transportation and sent to Tasmania where he died in 1840.

After the Stanhope and Tyne Richard Parr had a contract at Dudley in Worcestershire to build two reservoirs followed by a spell at Bristol before working as an agent for contractors building new docks at Newport in Monmouthshire. Moving back to Bristol he was an agent for a contractor on the Great Western Railway, but then his shady practices were again revealed when he was sued as an insolvent debtor in November 1836. There’s no record of him being sent to prison and he was living at Corsham in October 1837 when he and another man were assaulted. Their attackers were gaoled for six weeks. After that Parr appears to have recovered sufficiently financially to win a contract for a section of the Bristol and Exeter Railway at Uphill to the south of Weston-super-Mare. During that work he was declared bankrupt leading to his household effects and construction equipment being sold off to pay his debts in May 1839. Seemingly unperturbed he quickly formed a partnership with a Tewkesbury stonemason and another man from Cheltenham. Under the name Parr, Holder & Company they won a contract for part of the South Eastern Railway’s Redhill to Tonbridge line near Godstone in Surrey, but the partnership was dissolved in August 1840. Parr’s brother-in-law, George Dodson, was also a railway contractor with work on the same section of the line. A year later they, along with one of Parr’s brothers, sailed for New York with their families and eventually settled in western Ontario.

If there was a long standing relationship between Richard Parr and John Chapman then he too may have had contracts in the north east of England in the late 1820s and early 1830s including the Clarence Railway. The final signature on his will adds to the evidence that he almost certainly was a contractor on the Stanhope and Tyne as it comes from the line’s resident engineer, Thomas Elliot Harrison. Born in 1808, the son of William Harrison, a Sunderland ship-builder, he rose to become one of the top men in his profession during the Victorian era and for many years was the chief engineer of the North Eastern Railway. At the age of sixteen Harrison was apprenticed to William Chapman, the possible relative of John Chapman mentioned above, who at that time was building Seaham Docks on the Durham coast. After they were finished Harrison moved to London where, between 1830 and 1832, he worked for Robert Stephenson preparing plans for the Wolverton to Rugby section of the London and Birmingham Railway. Then, influenced by his father who was one of the shareholders in the Stanhope and Tyne, he was appointed the line’s resident engineer in sole charge of the day-to-day construction whilst Stephenson was retained as consulting engineer. 

Thomas Elliot Harrison became chief engineer of the North Eastern Railway.

Much of the eastern section of the Stanhope and Tyne was over hilly and undulating country and was built with a series of rope worked inclines, either self acting or with the rope powered by steam engines. The western section to the quay and coal drops at South Shields was over more level ground and was designed for locomotive haulage. One of the first notices inviting tenders from “earth workers and contractors” for the formation of cuts and embankments between Hownes and Healeyfield near Consett was signed by Harrison on 27 September 1832. He was based at Annfield House near Pontop colliery and the contract was to be let a week later on 6 October.

The line was built using wayleaves whereby landowners were paid rent for the right to cross their estates rather than by compulsory purchase under an act of parliament. No plans or other paperwork from its creation appear to have survived so apart from the notice and poster naming Richard Parr in 1834 the names of other contractors have not been recorded. If John Chapman was one of them he may have been amongst the “party of gentlemen” who took part in a celebration of the opening of the western section on 15 May 1834. “A splendid dinner” was laid on for over 400 people but the occasion turned to tragedy. Between 40 and 50 navvies who’d worked on the line were being lowered down one of the inclined planes in four wagons when the rope broke and the wagons ran away. A man operating one of the steam engines managed to block their path with other wagons and when they crashed one man was killed. A nine year old boy was injured but he too died a few hours later. Others broke bones when they jumped off the wagons whilst they were running away. John Chapman may well have been involved in this incident, or witnessed it, and it may have provoked him into drawing up his will a few months later.

Another reason for the will may have been the impending wedding of Chapman’s eldest daughter Charlotte to John Sumner, a farmer from Kirkby on Bain, a few miles north of Medlam. It took place three week’s after the will was signed and, as if to underline John Chapman’s standing in the community, a marriage notice in the Stamford Mercury described him as a “civil engineer and an extensive undertaker of public works.”

If they hadn’t become acquainted previously it’s almost inevitable that whilst in County Durham John Chapman met Robert Stephenson and, as the family history claims, his father too. The suggestion that he was an “inventor and civil engineer” therefore rings true, although neither the British Museum nor the Science Museum have a record of the model he his supposed to have made. That Robert Stephenson was convinced of John Chapman’s abilities becomes clearer by what happened next. Within a few months of making his will in South Shields he was engaged on the new railway between London and Birmingham – “the greatest public work ever executed either in ancient or modern times,” as one contemporary writer put it. Along with the Grand Junction Railway and the constituent companies of the Midland Railway it would soon link the capital to the great industrial cities of the north of England and then Scotland. Today it’s part of the West Coast Main Line carrying passenger trains at 125 mile per hour. It was probably the largest and most significant civil engineering project of John Chapman’s life and one that would prove to be his last.

A photographic portrait of Robert Stephenson taken in 1856 three years before his death.

After a railway from the Midlands to London was first proposed by the land agent and surveyor William James in 1820 an act for a line was finally passed in May 1833. Four months later, following his initial survey of the 112 mile route as part of the parliamentary process, Robert Stephenson was, at the relatively young age of 29, appointed chief engineer by the London and Birmingham Railway Company. He then set about recruiting assistants who helped him carry out a more detailed survey taking levels every chain (22 yards) enabling detailed plans and drawings for bridges, tunnels and other structures to be drawn up by draughtsmen. By May 1834 he was reputed to have walked 12 times along the whole length of the line. Negotiations took place with property owners, their agents and lawyers for the purchase of the required land which was then staked out by the assistants.

As John Cordy Jeaffreson wrote in his “Life of Robert Stephenson”: “He not only had a full survey made, showing every natural feature of the route, but prepared complete drawings for every work that was to be executed, in all its details, accompanied with full descriptions and specifications and accurate calculations of all the labour and material it would require. As each portion of the line was thus mapped out it was let to a contractor, who engaged to complete the work for a certain sum, and at the same time specified the exact sum charged for each portion of the contract. In those days there were no gigantic contractors, a contract for £100,000 being regarded as very large.” As the work progressed the plans were used by assistant engineers to certify the exact quantity of work each contractor had accomplished and they were paid accordingly each month.

John Chapman bid successfully for two adjacent sections out of a total of 30 contracts let between May 1834 and October 1835. From the evidence above, there’s very little doubt he won because he had demonstrated his abilities to Robert Stephenson in Durham. According to Jeaffreson the original detailed contracts and drawings were kept “as documents of legal testimony” after being signed by Stephenson and each contractor. Three copies of each contract were then made, one for the directors, one for Stephenson and one for the assistant engineer who supervised the work.

Signed on Monday 2 February 1835 Chapman’s contracts, 2F and 3F, were in the fourth out of five districts each with its own assistant engineer and sub-assistants. This district was overseen by a committee of directors based in Birmingham and ran north for 24 miles from Wolverton, through the Roade cutting, up to and including the Kilsby tunnel. It’s assistant engineer was initially Frank Forster, born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1800. He had gained experience as a viewer or agent in coal mines in the north east, then at pits near Swansea and in Lancashire, before joining Stephenson in about 1830.

Contract 2F (the F stood for Forster) was 5 miles long running in a north westerly direction from north of the village of Blisworth, alongside the Grand Junction Canal, to the south of Bugbrooke in Northamptonshire about 66 miles from Euston station. Compared to other more extensive excavations like the Roade and Tring cuttings it was a relatively easy section which had 9 embankments and 12 bridges, the most striking of which was made of six ribs of cast iron across the canal near Blisworth. It was one of three similar designs for bridges on the line, the first railway to use cast iron arches. “The bridge, indeed, though not perhaps remarkable for its great span, is one that justly deserves notice for the extreme care bestowed by the designer on the minutiae of all its parts, and the great rigidity given to it by the system of trussing so well adapted to the purpose,” noted the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1856. Its pre-fabricated parts, bricks, stone and eventually the rails were delivered by boat to the wharves along the canal. The price for the 2F contract was set at £53,400 which converts to about £3,600,000 today.

An original drawing of the cast iron bridge across the canal at Blisworth. (London and North Western Railway Society.)

The adjoining Stowe Hill contract, 3F, just to the north was much shorter at one and a quarter miles. It had 4 bridges plus a straight tunnel, 484 yards long. The price agreed was £23,050, roughly worth £1,500,000 today. The tunnel was about 60 feet below the main road carrying mail coaches to and from Holyhead, the Roman built Watling Street, now the A5. For each contract Chapman had to pay for a form of insurance known as a bond. The bonds were held by two Lincolnshire men who must have been friends or business acquaintances. They were farmer and merchant William Alington Hildebrand of Welton le Wold and Thomas Hopkins, a Boston solicitor. If Chapman didn’t complete the work as stipulated, or if he became insolvent, they would have had to hand over 10 per cent of the value of the contract to the railway company. Both contracts had to be completed by the start of November 1837.

In a book written with the help of Lieutenant Peter Lecount, one of the line’s assistant engineers, the Liverpool born author Thomas Roscoe described the scene. “From the summit of the hill, above the tunnel, are views of the most extensive and agreeable character. Looking southward, the eye stretches over an immense expanse of richly cultivated country, the line of railway running nearly parallel with the Grand Junction Canal towards Blisworth, and in the extreme distance is the town of Northampton; while to the north, picturesque landscapes rise before the view, including the fine old church and village of Flore, and the high ridges of hills around Weedon and Daventry; and to the west is the very pleasant and cheerful village of Stowe surrounded with beautiful scenery.”

The tunnel was excavated from the ends and four shafts 8 feet in diameter. Roscoe described the architecture of the different designs of the tunnel mouths. “That to the south consists of two massive piers, projecting boldly from the side walls, with a cornice through the whole length; while the north entrance is in the castellated style, with a bold machicolated parapet, the coping however and mouldings being continued quite through without being broken into embrasures, and has retaining walls with buttresses continued to the foot of the slopes,” he wrote.

Although main line railways were a new phenomenon several of the contractors on the London and Birmingham did have some railway experience including on the Liverpool and Manchester line and the Leicester and Swannington. Others had built docks and some, like Chapman, had constructed canals. Robert Stephenson and his directors are known to have wanted to employ reliable men with some security behind them, not just those offering the lowest price. One of the contractors was Thomas Townshend, previously known to John Chapman on the Witham Navigation. Unfortunately he overstretched himself on the Tring cutting in 1837 and was unable to pay his workforce their wages. His contract had to be taken over and completed by the railway company although he made a quick recovery and was able to pay off his debts within a few months.

Tring cutting by John Cooke Bourne.

It’s been estimated that at the peak of construction about 12,000 men were working on the London and Birmingham Railway. That suggests an average of a little over 100 per mile although they wouldn’t have been evenly distributed with the greatest concentrations employed on digging out cuttings. A conservative estimate therefore is that John Chapman had between 400 and 600 men on his works of just over 6 miles. They may not have all been recruited directly by him with many coming via subcontractors but it’s likely a substantial number of his reliable “bankers” made the journey of about 100 miles or so from Lincolnshire. Previously when they weren’t engaged on “public works” they would have either been unemployed or working as agricultural labourers paid daily.

Others would have come from towns and villages close to the line in Northamptonshire and the nearby counties. The passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834 ended parish handouts to healthy unemployed men and their families. If they wanted to be fed they had to go into workhouses nicknamed “bastilles.” This meant many men turned to railway employment rather than their previous practice of a combination of seasonal farming work supplemented with parish relief in the winter months.

The navvies, as they became known, had a poor public image and were feared for their rough and ready ways. They were prone to fights after overindulging on beer and whisky, although many of the older men must have had to support wives and children back home or living with them near the works. One graphic but exaggerated description of them comes in “A History of the English Railway. Its Social Relations and Revelations,” published in 1851 by John England. “Impetuous, impulsive, and brute-like, regarded as the pariahs of private life, herding together like beasts of the field, owning no moral law and feeling no social tie, they increased with an increased demand, and from thousands grew to hundreds of thousands. They lived only for the present; they cared not for the past; they were indifferent to the future. They were a wandering people, who only spoke of God to wonder why he had made some so rich and some so poor; and only heard of a coming state to hope that there they might cease to be railway labourers,” wrote Francis.

The book was dedicated to the financier and bank owner George Carr Glyn, the second chairman of the London and Birmingham and the first of the North Midland. It may reflect his sentiments. Interestingly Francis was well aware of the navvies’ fenland connection: “Rough alike in morals and in manners, collected from the wild hills of Yorkshire and of Lancashire, coming in troops from the fens of Lincolnshire, mostly dwelling apart from the villagers near whom they worked; with all the strong propensities of an untaught, undisciplined nature; (they were) unable to read and unwilling to be taught.”

A description of the navvies’ temporary accommodation in “huts constructed of damp turf, cut from wet grass, too low to stand in upright, while small sticks, covered with straw, served as rafters,” also bears a similarity to the basic mud huts, thatched with reed and turf, which had been common in the fens.

Samuel Smiles, in his biography of the Stephensons, was another writer who recognised the contribution of men from the fens. “Some of the best came from the fen districts of Lincoln and Cambridge, where they had been trained to execute works of excavation and embankment. These old practitioners formed a nucleus of skilled manipulation and aptitude which rendered them of indispensable utility in the immense undertakings of the period. Their expertness in all sorts of earth-work, in embanking, boring, and well-sinking – their practical knowledge of the nature of soils and rocks, the tenacity of clays, and the porosity of certain stratifications – were very great; and, rough-looking as they were, many of them were as important in their own department as the contractor or the engineer.”

Smiles’ description of the typical navvy could have been the one given of the Yorkshire labourer who walked off with John Chapman’s scythes: “He usually wore a white felt hat with the brim turned up, a velveteen or jean square-tailed coat, a scarlet plush waistcoat with little black spots, and a bright-colored kerchief round his Herculean neck, when, as often happened, it was not left entirely bare.”

The way in which the men joined together in a “butty gang” about 10 or 12 strong was described by Smiles. It sounds similar to the way in which coal miners worked and were paid. “These men would take a contract to cut out and remove so much “dirt” – as they denominated earth-cutting – fixing their price according to the character of the “stuff,” and the distance to which it had to be wheeled and tipped. The contract taken, every man put himself to his mettle; if any was found skulking, or not putting forth his full working power, he was ejected from the gang. Their powers of endurance were extraordinary. In times of emergency they would work for twelve and even sixteen hours, with only short intervals for meals.”

As 1835 progressed there appear to have been no major problems on John Chapman’s two contracts, either from an engineering standpoint or with his workforce and the local communities. In his studies of the line’s construction Mike Chrimes of the Institute of Civil Engineers says that Stephenson’s overall approach was more concerned with a lack of progress than with haggling over prices. Chapman was probably one of the contractors who were given advances so they could acquire wagons and steam locomotives enabling them to move earth more effectively. A detailed description of an excavation wagon favoured by Robert Stephenson is preserved in the company’s records. Just over 6 feet square it had standard gauge flanged wheels designed to run on a temporary railway track. Its body had to be made from “good English oak” carried on a cast iron underframe with a central pivot. In the cuttings wheelbarrows full of earth were loaded into several wagons by the navvies. They were then drawn by horses or a locomotive towards the edge of an embankment. As each wagon was detached it was bumped against a wooden block where it was designed to tip up allowing the earth to fall over the edge and build up to the level of the track. In a letter at the end of November 1835 to Captain Constantine Richard Moorsom, one of the railway’s two secretaries, Stephenson wrote: “With contractors who understand the work and with adequate capital you will not have to do any more than urge them on and serve notices. With others the Company may need to enter the works and provide materials, as you have already had to in two cases.”

A drawing of one of the bridges on the Bugbrooke contract by John Cooke Bourne.

Meteorological records indicate there was a dry summer in 1835 but in the autumn there were heavy rains. Nearby, at the start of October, “the unfavourable state of the weather precluded great numbers” attending the Bedfordshire Agricultural Society’s annual meeting. Stephenson inspected the works near Bugbrooke in the second week of December and in a letter, written from Weedon on the evening of Thursday the 10th to Moorsom in Birmingham, said they were “progressing satisfactorily.” The following morning he was planning to inspect the Stowe Hill tunnel before proceeding to Kilsby. After that things began to go wrong. The winter months don’t appear to have been out of the ordinary but probably the colder temperatures combined with poor living conditions and the stresses and strains of the job meant that three of the contractors under Frank Forster developed serious illnesses, John Chapman included. The state of their health was reported on the 30th of December by Forster: “There seems a sort of fatality among our contractors. Nowell has been seriously ill and is still very weak. Chapman is very ill of inflammation in the region of the heart, and poor Hughes is lying in an almost helpless state at Northampton, of a paralysis of the limbs.” The use of the word “fatality” proved to be prescient as within three weeks all three were dead.

The first to die was Joseph Nowell who passed away in the middle of the night on Tuesday 12 January 1836. He was 51 and had been sick since the end of November. According to a relative, probably one of his two eldest sons who he was in partnership with, he had caught a chill when he went out without his topcoat. The Nowells were a family of quarry owners, masons and builders from Dewsbury in Yorkshire. They had previously worked on canal construction and the Marsh Lane tunnel on the Leeds and Selby Railway. They were engaged on the difficult Kilsby tunnel contract and a longer nine and a half mile section at Harrow. Joseph’s brother, James Nowell, had a three-mile contract at Leighton Buzzard and two others for the viaducts at Wolverton and across the valley of the River Rea in Birmingham. Joseph’s body was taken back to Dewsbury where it was buried in the parish church a week after his death. His youngest son, James, who was only 6 years old when his father died, became the doctor and surgeon at Woodlesford in the 1860s after being brought up by his widowed mother in Leeds.

John Chapman died three days later on Friday 15 January. An obituary in the Stamford Mercury, identifying him as “Mr. John Chapman of Medlam in Revesby,” said he had died at Flore and gave his age as 65. A shorter notice in the Northampton Mercury said he was 66. He was buried on Thursday 21 January in the graveyard at All Saints church in Flore overlooking the River Nene, a mile to the north of the Stowe Hill tunnel. The register gave his age as 55. No cause of death was reported but he probably had a heart attack. Years earlier during the trial at Lincoln he’d had to give his age and birthplace to the authorities at the court. In the “felons” book it states he was 49 in 1826 and born at Grainthorpe south of Cleethorpes in North Lincolnshire. Given the seriousness of the trial it’s likely this was an accurate record and suggests he was born in 1776 or early 1777. There are no possible baptisms in Grainthorpe parish in that period but there was one, on 11 December 1776, not far away at North Somercotes of a John Chapman, the child of John and Eleanor. 

John Chapman was buried at All Saints church at Flore in Northamptonshire.

Whereas John Chapman lapsed into obscurity the next to die three days after him – “poor Hughes” – warranted a glowing obituary in The Times. He was William Hughes, “at the top of his profession as an engineer on the grand scale,” and had the Blisworth contract to the south of Bugbrooke. Born in 1779 into a Monmouthshire family, he’d served an apprenticeship with the canal engineer John Duncombe. Following a period as a coal mining engineer he was employed by Thomas Telford on the Caledonian Canal, opened in 1822. After that he’d been engaged to deepen the River Clyde and carry out drainage work at Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland. “In two particulars Mr. Hughes stood pre-eminent – there was no work which he could not execute, and no act of generosity which he could not perform,” claimed the obituary placed as a paid for advertisement. Hughes was buried at Gayton between Bugbrooke and Blisworth where he’d taken a house with his wife and children.    

These sudden deaths must have caused consternation for Robert Stephenson and his assistants. On the same day as Hughes died a deputation of the Birmingham directors, along with the chief engineer, started a three-day inspection of the works in their division as far south as Blisworth. In their report, presented at a committee meeting at their offices on Waterloo Street in Birmingham on Friday 22 January 1836, “from circumstances which have come to their knowledge,” they regretted that they couldn’t place their confidence in Joseph Nowell’s son, Jonathan, to complete the Kilsby tunnel and recommended that the contract be taken into the company’s hands. William Hughes’ son, also called William, met the deputation at Blisworth and proposed, as his father’s executor, to proceed with his contract. He pledged himself “to a liberal supply of materials” and stated that he had the requisite funds. He was living at Gayton and expressed “his earnest desire to meet the wishes of the directors by pushing on the works as fast as possible conforming to the views of Mr. Stephenson in the mode of execution.” He said he’d procure the necessary locomotive engines and anticipated completing the contract by February 1838, two months earlier than estimated by the engineer. In the end his enthusiasm was misplaced. The excavation of the Roade cutting took even longer to complete than the Kilsby tunnel and despite valiant efforts young Hughes had to throw in the towel and hand his contract back to the company a few months later. A further 7 out of a total of 30 contracts were also taken into direct control before the line was finished.

In the Birmingham directors’ report there was only a brief mention of John Chapman’s death and there was no mention of the state of the Bugbrooke and Stowe Hill contracts. There’s nothing to confirm that John Ratcliffe Chapman was working with his father but subsequent events suggest he must have been closely involved and had returned to Lincolnshire to console his mother and finalise his father’s affairs. As with William Hughes it seems to have been the case that the contract was deemed to be part of his father’s estate. A document, now preserved in the Lincolnshire archives along with his father’s will, indicates that he had to engage in a legal process so he could take over the contract which was one of his father’s “goods, chattels or credits.” Supported by the landlord of the Peacock Inn in Boston and a plumber and glazier in the town he applied on 17 February 1836 to the court of William Battine, a judge with the title of Chancellor of the Diocese of Lincoln. £400 had to be handed over along with signed statements from the three original executors renouncing their role and recognizing him as the will’s sole executor. Armed with this legal power he was able to administer his father’s will and assume responsibility for the contract.

A letter dated Wednesday 9 March, reported to the board of the London and Birmingham two days later, stated that the will had been administered and John Ratcliffe Chapman proposed to carry on and complete the contracts. Throughout this period the minutes show regular monthly payments to “John Chapman” for certified work.

A train heads towards London on the Bugbrooke section of the West Coast Main Line in June 2021.

Admittedly contracts 2F and 3F were easier than Kilsby and Blisworth but it seems John junior was able to smoothly step into his father’s footsteps. There’s no evidence he’d been sent away to be educated, or had served a formal apprenticeship, but his later expertise with telescopic sights shows that he was familiar with surveying instruments. He had just passed his 21st birthday when his father died so man management may have not been one of his initial strengths leaving him reliant on the goodwill of foremen and subcontractors.

Another source of help would have come from Frank Forster and his four assistants who would have been keen for the work to carry on without interruption. They were all not much older than the young man from Medlam with most of their fathers having a similar engineering or industrial background.

Hedworth Lee was born in 1813, the son of an iron founder from Bishop Wearmouth in County Durham. Later he continued his association with Robert Stephenson as the engineering manager of the Chester and Holyhead Railway. Edward Dixon was also from Durham, the son of a colliery owner. Born in 1809 he was educated at Ackworth school near Pontefract before working with his brother at Chat Moss on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. He went on to become the resident engineer on the London and Southampton Railway followed by employment on several railways in the Midlands. Thirdly there was John Brunton, born in Birmingham in 1812. He was a pupil at a foundry in Cornwall before helping to build a colliery railway in South Wales. He eventually moved to Scotland and lived until 1899.

Another was Charles Lean, a Cornishman born at Wadebridge in 1806 where his father was a mining agent. It’s possible he worked with Chapman for a few months in 1836 before he and Frank Forster were moved to take control of work at Kilsby after the Nowell brothers gave up their contract. There in November 1836 he was supervising a party of bricklayers floating on a raft in the partially flooded tunnel. Steam pumps were employed to keep the water level down but they couldn’t cope. As the men were in danger of being jammed against the roof Lean jumped into the water and swam with a towing rope in his mouth pulling them to safety at the bottom of the nearest working shaft where they were lifted to the surface. In recognition of this heroism he was given a silver trowel when the final brick was cemented into place in June 1838.

After John Chapman died work on his contracts appears to have continued without interruption whilst his son was sorting out his affairs. Stephenson was in London at the company’s offices at the Eyre Arms Tavern in St. John’s Wood at the end of January 1836 when he wrote again to Moorsom to report that the tunnelling at Stowe Hill was reaching the ends. There the material was looser and heavier and he had ordered Forster to add half a brick to the thickness of the brickwork. He was again on site around Bugbrooke a few days later to find that slips had taken place on some of the embankments. “I have examined them and find that they arise from natural divisions existing in the clay through which water continually oozes, giving rise to a description of movement almost beyond control, as the tenacity with which clay holds water renders the ordinary drainage ineffectual. The difficulty will in my opinion be best met by making the slopes 4 to 1 instead of 2 to 1 and dividing the surface into ridges not more than 6 feet wide,” he wrote. It meant that extra land had to be bought to increase the slopes and Forster was requested to send Moorsom plans of where this was needed.

With William Hughes junior struggling in the Roade cutting Frank Forster and George Phipps came up with a plan to help him with the high Blisworth embankment at the north end of his contract. There it butted up with the Bugbrooke section two chains to the south east of the iron bridge over the Grand Junction Canal and close to an impressive stone bridge over the Northampton to Towcester road. The first idea was to take 100,000 cubic yards of earth from a hill a couple of miles away on Bugbrooke Downs to the south of the line but fearing that would take too long, and conscious of allowing time for the embankment to settle, they proposed an alternative which involved taking 20,000 cubic yards from the Banbury Lane cutting on the Bugbrooke contract. The difference of 80,000 cubic yards would come from buying seven acres of land just to the south of where the two contracts met and excavating it to a depth of 5 yards. Forster sent his plan in mid-April 1836 to Joseph Sturge, one of the railway’s Birmingham directors, a wealthy Quaker prominent in the movement to abolish slavery. John Ratcliffe Chapman was asked to help and costed the work at 11 pence per cubic yard including the extra wagons and rails he would need as well as a temporary bridge over the canal. Forster said the sum was “rather high” but was keen to get the embankment underway and finished during the coming summer. A memorandum of agreement, with a slightly different plan at 10 pence per cubic yard, was drawn up at the end of April stating the work had to be completed by 14 July 1837.

Shortly after the joint agreement with Chapman and Hughes the Birmingham directors started monthly inspections of their division. Joseph Sturge and fellow Quaker Timothy Smith of the Birmingham Bank were responsible for the eleven and a half miles of line covered by the Blisworth, Bugbrooke and Stowe Hill contracts. One incident they were informed of was a complaint for damages after workmen trespassed on land near the works. No doubt there were injuries and possibly deaths involving the navvies but there’s only one newspaper report of a fatality and that was away from the line. It happened on a Saturday night in May 1836 when a quarrelsome navvy was causing trouble at the Rose public house in Bugbrooke. The landlord asked labourer George Garner to throw him out but another navvy, Henry Morrison, started a fight with Garner which ended when he fell and died from an injury. He left a wife and four children. A couple of weeks later Thomas Rogers, “employed on the rail-road at Bugbrooke,” caught his frock on a chain, cut his leg and was taken to the Northampton Infirmary for treatment.

The northern portal to Stowe Hill tunnel.

At the end of June 1836 Stephenson reported difficulties with the ground conditions at the north end of the Stowe Hill tunnel. He said it was impossible to continue with “close tunnelling” and a “cut and cover” method was needed to complete the work. A quantity of timber was needed to support the excavation and he was ordered by the directors to obtain J. R. Chapman’s consent in writing to the changes in the contract before proceeding. With all the additional work it seems the young inexperienced contractor was running short of cash and on Saturday 2 July he wrote to Frank Forster asking for a £1,000 advance to pay his men their wages. It was readily agreed to by the directors at their meeting the following Friday.

Despite the advance Chapman was still in financial difficulties and had to go cap in hand to Stephenson. In a letter from Flore to the railway’s offices in London on Wednesday 11 August he wrote: “Sir, I am under the necessity of soliciting you to apply on your behalf to the committee for a loan of £3,000 or £4000. I have advanced upon the works up to this time upwards of £12,000. I have working materials which have cost £8,000, bricks, stone and other returnable materials worth £3,000, as well as a percentage in the company’s hands of £5,000. The more I forward the work the more capital it requires which I cannot raise situated as I am, unless under a disadvantage. If you require any further information, I shall be happy to give it. I am sir, yours very respectfully, John R. Chapman.”

In the following few days it’s likely he met the engineer in person to plead his case because a week later Stephenson wrote from Weedon to Captain Moorsom enclosing the letter and endorsing his request. “From the large quantity of rails which his contracts require (being much divided) I have no doubt that the statement he makes is correct. His embarrassment at present arises, I understand, from the way in which his father’s property was left. The contracts are both in the most satisfactory state, and if pecuniary aid is given him I have no doubt they will continue to advance as they have hitherto done.” There’s no documentary evidence that a loan was agreed but it seems a likely outcome given Stephenson’s support and Chapman’s continued activity.

By the end of August a report by Frank Forster indicates that some of the permanent way was being laid as a mile’s worth of sleepers “double way” were “immediately required.” They were to be delivered to Worster’s Wharf near Blisworth and another mile’s worth were wanted at Buckby Wharf. The biggest difficulty at this time of year was the harvest and the obligations of many of the navvies to their landlords in their home villages to take part in bringing in the crops. As a result they left for a few weeks and it caused construction to slow down. “All the works on the line are suffering from want of men,” reported Stephenson on 1 September 1836. The Blisworth contract, which needed more labour, was badly hit and no man was allowed to pass through the area without being offered work. A number of stone cottages were built by the railway company in an attempt to attract navvies as a lack of accommodation meant they preferred to work on other parts of the line. Job adverts were placed as far away as Scotland and in the Birmingham and Northampton newspapers but with little success. Mirroring his father’s earlier appeals for workers Chapman advertised in the Stamford Mercury on Friday 16 September 1836: “To Bricklayers. Wanted, a few good hands, who may obtain employment through the winter, by applying at Mr. Chapman’s works on the London and Birmingham Railroad, Bugbrooke, near Northampton.”

At the end of October Frank Forster was moved to Coventry to take over the northern section of the line although he still retained responsibility for the Kilsby tunnel. His transfer was as a replacement for Thomas Longridge Gooch, another of George Stephenson’s apprentices. Earlier he had been a secretary and draughtsman on the Liverpool and Manchester and was now taking day-to-day control of construction on the Manchester and Leeds line. Promoted to take Forster’s place was George Henry Phipps, a sub-assistant at Weedon. Born in 1807 in Kentish Town he was an apprentice with a firm of mechanical engineers before moving to Newcastle in about 1828 where he worked on the production of “Rocket.” He’d initially been employed as a draughtsman at the Eyre Arms where his speciality was bridge design and mathematical calculation. His obituary in 1888, following a long and varied career, noted he had been involved with the Stowe Hill tunnel so must have known J. R. Chapman well and also been acquainted with his father. 

A detailed inspection of the works in the Birmingham division carried out in January 1837 confirms the younger Chapman had recovered from his financial difficulties and was doing well. 400,437 cubic yards of earth had been excavated on the Bugbrooke contract and moved to make nine embankments. 150,791 cubic yards still needed to be cut and tipped. 845 lineal yards of permanent way had been laid. “The works throughout this contract have progressed nearly to completion in a very satisfactory manner with the exception of the largest embankment which yet requires 111,000 yards to complete, which will no doubt be effected in the course of next summer. The average rate of the last 6 months does not here apply as a guide as the building of bridges for roads and streams has unavoidably interrupted the progress of the Bugbrooke embankment,” said the report. On the Stowe Hill contract 68,139 cubic yards had been excavated to form two embankments with 14,585 remaining to be moved. Only 46 and a third yards of the tunnel still needed to be finished. “The progress of the embankments is retarded until the completion of the tunnel, but the quantity to be moved is small. There can be no doubt as to this contract being completed before the stipulated period expires.”

All seems to have gone well in the vicinity of Bugbrooke during the rest of 1837 and further south trains started running between Camden and Tring in October. The plan was to open most of the line in January 1838 apart from a 35 mile section between Denbigh Hall, just north of Bletchley, up to Rugby. It included the difficult Blisworth and Kilsby sections but “a winter of unusual severity and duration” held up the excavations and the laying of the rails on stone blocks and wooden sleepers. The icy weather was still causing delay when the shareholders met at Dee’s Royal Hotel in Birmingham in the third week of February 1838 to hear a report from Robert Stephenson. However he was confident that a few weeks “after the breaking up of the frosts” the road would be completed between Tring and Denbigh Hall and between Rugby and Birmingham.

Bugbrooke and Stowe Hill were nearly finished or “closed” when Stephenson wrote his report. “In the Bugbrooke contract the excavations and embankments throughout are closed; but it will be necessary to deposit an additional quantity of material upon one of the embankments, in which there has occurred a very extensive slip. About two miles and a half of permanent way remain to be laid. The Stowe Hill contract is in a satisfactory state, as regards the prospect of completion. The tunnel has been finished some time. A small quantity of excavation is yet to be brought from the south end of the tunnel to the embankment at the north end of the contract. There are about 600 yards of permanent road to be laid.”

At this point there were still 400 yards of the Kilsby tunnel to be excavated but it was only the unfinished deep Roade cutting on the Blisworth contract that was causing Stephenson “particular anxiety.” In the event the temporary terminus at Denbigh Hall opened on Monday 9 April 1838 and through passengers between London and Birmingham were forced to change to stagecoaches to travel by road around the unfinished section. On Sunday 24 June, four days after the last brick was cemented into place on the Kilsby tunnel, the 9.30 a.m. train from London ran through to Birmingham and the southbound 10.00 a.m. train from there was also booked through to Euston. This means that at least a single line was in operation. Trains appear to have run through only on Sundays at the discretion of the engineers for the next few months and the stage coach arrangement was kept in place for weekday trains until the full opening on Monday 17 September.

John Ratcliffe Chapman’s men must have been well on the way to completing the work at Bugbrooke and Stowe Hill by the middle of March 1838 as by then he was in a position to bid for the contract for a branch from the main line to Aylesbury. Just under 7 miles long and running in a straight line from a junction at Cheddington it had been sponsored by the great and good of Buckinghamshire’s county town and surveyed by Stephenson in 1835. A prospectus issued in December that year declared: “The levels of the proposed line to be peculiarly favourable and convenient for constructing a railway, and such an undertaking will most materially improve the country through which it passes, and also afford a direct communication from places now difficult to access.”

As if the sponsors were licking their lips in anticipation of huge profits the prospectus continued: “The produce of the surrounding country, such as cattle, butter, poultry, cream and other articles would be daily conveyed to the markets of London, and thereby render the fertile Vale of Aylesbury the stock farm of the Metropolis.” A direct line of communication would also be made with the “manufacturing districts of the north of England, thus affording an additional and most extensive market for the consumption of agricultural produce.” Prior to the railway it had taken more than three days for cattle to be driven along roads to London and the subsequent loss in weight had reduced their value.

There were grand plans to extend the railway to Oxford but after the act for the line was quickly passed in May 1836 Medley’s, a local bank, failed in January 1837 and many potential shareholders got cold feet. With the help of London based subscribers the scheme for the short branch was revived in early 1838 and contractors were invited by a notice dated Tuesday 6 March to bid for the “whole of the works” including embankments, culverts and fences. As appears to have been standard with most contracts of the era the contractor had to provide all necessary materials, apart from rails, chairs, and fastenings, and keep the line in repair for one year after completion. Drafts of the contract, with plans, sections, and specifications could be examined at Stephenson’s office at 35 Great George Street in Westminster or at the company secretary’s office in Aylesbury.

Sealed tenders had to be written on specially printed forms and delivered no later than Friday 30th of March at 11 o’clock “in the forenoon.” The directors, under the chairmanship of farmer and magistrate George Carrington, were scheduled to meet the following day at the White Hart Inn in Aylesbury to make their decision. Anybody making a bid, or a person authorised to act on their behalf, had to attend. John R. Chapman was duly successful and as with his father’s contracts on the London and Birmingham had to enter into a bond, with two named sureties, for properly completing the contract on time or face a penalty of not less than 10 per cent of the gross sum agreed.

Chapman claimed he could finish the job by the end of November that year which gave him only eight months. His price was less than the engineer’s estimate and the suspicion is that by then he had been taken under Robert Stephenson’s wing and given a glowing reference. Whilst quietly persuading the directors to decide in the 23 year old’s favour he may have tipped him off about how much to bid. This seems to be backed up by a letter written towards the end of June 1838 to the London based shareholders by the company’s deputy chairman, solicitor Thomas Tindal. Giving a glowing report on the “general progress of the undertaking” he praised “Mr. J. R. Chapman, one of the most experienced contractors of the London and Birmingham line.”

Chapman was still based at Flore in March 1838 but was quickly in action placing an advertisement in the Northampton Mercury which appeared a week after he was appointed. It was addressed to: “Fencers, Wood Dealers, and Others,” seeking a subcontractor to supply 13 miles of “post and rail fencing” along with three quarters of a mile of park paling. Then, as now, erecting fences to keep the works free of invading farm animals and curious humans seems to have been the order of the day. The Railway Times reported that the contractor had “commenced operations” just over a week later on Easter Monday, 16 April, and it’s likely that many of the navvies had been re-employed from the Northamptonshire contracts, possibly travelling at least some of way by train. Chapman moved to a rented house at Long Marston, a couple of miles south of the works about half way along the line.

A month later the Bucks Herald reported that the work was going on “with spirit and activity at the terminus in the parish of Cheddington, and presents a lively and animated appearance. We heartily wish it success.” A paragraph in the Railway Times was even more enthusiastic: “The whole of the land required for this railway has been purchased and the aggregate prices are considerably below the parliamentary estimates. There is indeed so little to be done, that the contractor calculates on finishing in October. The country is perfectly level, and there is not a single bridge over or crossing under the railway throughout the line.” There was only a small embankment of about 365 yards and a shallow cutting a third of a mile long and no intermediate station. Although it was built for a double line of rails only a single track was laid.

By Saturday 23 June, the date of Thomas Tindal’s letter to the London shareholders, a deal had been done to let the railway to the London and Birmingham. They would provide the staff and trains for an initial five year period. “By the report of the resident engineer it appears that the contractor is advancing in his works with great rapidity, that about one-third part of the earth work of the whole line is completed, and that the brick work is also in great forwardness, and the embankment is made to the point of junction with the London line,” he wrote.

On Thursday 28 June the pace of work probably slackened a little as Chapman, his men and the country celebrated the coronation of Queen Victoria. Thousands of those who could afford it travelled by train for the first time from the Midlands and the North via the London and Birmingham line to take part in the festivities in the capital. There were celebrations too in towns and villages including at Bugbrooke. The church bells rang out and local worthies provided an “excellent hot dinner of roast beef, plum pudding, and ale, for every man and boy, and tea and cake for all the women, girls, and children.” A train was able to steam north from Blisworth carrying “a most excellent band” to perform at the coronation pole “which was raised (topped with a tasteful and lasting crown) amidst the shouts of the people, the band playing God Save the Queen.”

Around this time John Ratcliffe Chapman appears to have been sufficiently confident in the reliability of his navvies to leave them hard at work near Aylesbury and bid for the Woodlesford contract on the North Midland Railway about 5 miles south east of Leeds. Once again the implication is that he was “tapped up” by Robert Stephenson who had taken over from his father as the line’s principal engineer. He may also have informally persuaded the directors that Chapman was the best man for the job.

An initial visual determination of the route for the 72 mile North Midland between Derby and Leeds had been made by George Stephenson in the summer of 1835. He was accompanied by his former apprentice and secretary Frederick Swanwick who commissioned a number of local surveyors to carry out a detailed survey and draw up plans to put before parliament. After the line was approved Swanwick became the resident engineer.

Stephenson senior’s vision was for a continuous line of railway from London to Scotland and in 1834, when he met the energetic York draper and politician, George Hudson, the future “Railway King,” Hudson is reported to have said to him: “Mek all’t railways come to York.”

Eventually Hudson got most of his wish but perhaps the place where the trains of “all’t railways,” or at least three of them, actually met was near Methley just along the Aire valley from Woodlesford. Here the Leeds to Derby line had a triangular junction with Hudson’s York and North Midland enabling trains from York to reach Leeds and also travel south. Following the abandonment of a plan for the Manchester and Leeds Railway to run parallel to the North Midland from Normanton into Leeds their trains shared the same tracks through Methley and Woodlesford up until 1848. (From 1849 until 1857 trains of the Great Northern Railway from London also used the section from Methley to Leeds. Woodlesford must have been an early trainspotters dream location!)

George Stephenson.

George Stephenson was the engineer for all three of the first companies whose trains travelled through Methley and the reason it became a key location was his conviction that his lines should be built almost flat because the early locomotives weren’t powerful enough to cope with steep gradients. He also preferred his railways to run along the centre of valleys so that coal and stone could easily be moved downhill to the main line from collieries and quarries on both sides. Hence his decision to place the North Midland in the Aire valley before turning south into the Calder valley at Methley. Within a few years more powerful locomotives were designed enabling engineers to chose straighter routes but by then most of the Stephenson lines had been built.

The original plans showed the North Midland leaving Leeds close to the southern bank of the River Aire, which it crossed twice, to a point near to staiths at Rothwell Haigh on the Aire and Calder Navigation, a waterway system from Leeds and Wakefield to the Humber estuary. It had been in existence since 1700 and had been developed to make it easier to transport woollen cloth to Hull for export. Over the years it had grown to include the import of wool from East Anglia, shipments of grain and other agricultural produce, and large quantities of coal, glassware and pottery.

From the 18th century coal from pits on Rothwell Haigh was carried on a wagonway or tramroad running down an inclined plane to be shipped away by barges on the Navigation. Close to the staiths the wagonway went under a humpbacked bridge on the Leeds to Barnsdale Bar turnpike road opened in 1820. The bridge was named after nearby cinder ovens for making coke which was also distributed on the waterway. From the staiths the new railway then ran roughly parallel to the Navigation through Woodlesford as far as the hamlet of Wood Row before it swept southwards through Methley to cross the River Calder and it’s associated canal just to the west of a place known as Fairies Hill.

To say the directors of the Aire and Calder were apoplectic when they found out about this route is probably an understatement. The waterway’s shareholders, known as undertakers, had over the previous 15 years or so invested an enormous amount of capital in the system. More warehouses and docks had been built in Leeds; a long canal from Ferrybridge to the new docks and town at Goole had opened in 1826; and following a survey by Thomas Telford in 1828 a seven feet deep canal, running parallel to the river, all the way from Thwaite lock to Allerton Bywater was constructed between 1833 and 1835 under the supervision of the Leeds based engineer George Leather. This section had six new locks including those at Fishpond, Woodlesford and Lemonroyd. It was mirrored by a similar, but shorter, canal alongside the River Calder between Castleford and Wakefield.

The work at Woodlesford included a new channel cutting off a bend in the river and the demolition of an old lock leading into a length of canal known as the Cryer (or Crier) Cut which was then abandoned. The contractor was Mark Faviell, a Yorkshireman who lived on a large farm on the Isle of Axholme in Lincolnshire: “The extensive works intended to be executed.….will greatly facilitate the dispatch of goods from Leeds to Goole. They are to be completed in a very short time, a greater number of workmen, it is supposed, will be required than can be supplied by the neighbourhood,” reported the Stamford Mercury in March 1833. The following August, in the same paper, Faviell advertised for 100 masons to apply to him “on the works” at Oulton. The Faviell family had a long association with the area. Mark had married Mariah Bourn at Rothwell church in 1807 and their son, Jeremiah Bourn Faviell, married a daughter of Edmund Dawson, a local coal agent and colliery owner. Following her early death he married a second daughter. In 1835 he was given a contract on the North Union Railway in Lancashire linking Preston to the rest of the system. A couple of years later he and his father or brother were given the contract to build the Victoria Bridge in Leeds. Another of Mark’s sons, William Frederick Faviell, was a contractor on the Leeds and Thirsk Railway from 1846 and the Great India Pensinsular Railway in the 1850s. In the tight knit world of early railways it’s perhaps no coincidence that Mark Faviell junior was a sub-assistant engineer on the London and Birmingham.

On the Aire and Calder Navigation, from its early days, boats had mainly used the rivers apart from short lengths of canal bypassing mills and their dams. Shortages of water in the summer months and freezing conditions in the winters often hampered trade for weeks on end. The new seven feet deep canals meant heavier and wider boats could be used all year round in all but the harshest winters. The Navigation’s shareholders had grown used to very large dividends and they perceived the new cross country railway system as a threat to their near monopoly, especially in the shipment of coal. They had to make a large reduction in their charges in 1835 after unsuccessfully challenging the creation of the Leeds and Selby Railway and so when the proposals for Stephenson’s new lines were made known they determined to oppose them. Their chairman was Sir John Lowther whose coal, from pits on his Swillington estate on the northern bank of the Aire opposite Woodlesford, was carried by the Navigation from Astley staith.

The opposition took the form of petitions to Parliament claiming the North Midland would severely affect their interests and, on a technicality, that the plans and lists of landowners on the route hadn’t been submitted according to parliamentary rules. One of the members of a Navigation sub-committee dispatched to London to oppose the North Midland bill was John Blayds of Oulton Hall, the largest landowner in the Woodlesford area. Waterway shares had been in Blayds’ family for generations and it seems he had decided that if he wasn’t able to stop the railway crossing his land he was going to do his damndest to give the promoters a hard time. He was well aware of the coal and stone underneath his property, although much of it had yet to be exploited. In addition to the waterway’s petition he presented his own, with similar wording, and to this end in early 1836 he had a plan drawn up of the Water Haigh area to the east of Woodlesford village showing the line of railway, canal and river. It stated he owned 3,000 acres locally and that “the whole of the coal, as well as the stone, in the coalfield must be shipped from staiths on the new canal.” Three possible points were given for the staiths suggesting the railway would have to provide bridges under the line to allow for the transport of the coal and stone to the waterside.

An 1836 plan showing John Blayds’ land in the Water Haigh area coloured green.

Another petition, this time against the Manchester and Leeds bill, was by Lady Gordon of Temple Newsam who owned land at Fairies Hill. John Blayds petitioned against this bill as well. It showed he owned “a considerable quantity of land,” warehouses and other buildings where the railway divided into three long sidings to the south east of Leeds Bridge. As well as the perceived threat to his pocket Blayds’ opposition may also have had a purely “us versus them” political element. Like his father before him he was an Anglican allied to the Tory party. Both had served on the old Leeds Corporation, a self-perpetuating form of local government made up of members from elite families. It was abolished by the Municipal Corporations Act in 1835 which created a borough council voted into office by a much more representative middle class electorate of ratepayers.

The new council had a majority of Liberals, many of whom were dissenting Methodist manufacturers supporting the railways. Just before they were abolished the old corporation had given away to Anglican churches and charities £6,500 in government bonds, known as consols paying annual interest, and £500 worth of shares in the Leeds to Wakefield turnpike road. The new council claimed the money belonged to the city’s coffers and fought an acrimonious five-year legal battle to get it back. It’s in this context that perhaps at least part of John Blayds’ animosity to the railway, and its directors, should be viewed. Interestingly though William Beckett, a partner in Beckett & Blayds bank, a fellow defendant in the case and a Navigation director, also had 29 £100 shares in the North Midland. John Blayds’ younger brother, Thomas, had taken over from his father as a partner in the bank in 1827 and he too held 10 railway shares so perhaps the brothers were hedging their bets.

In an attempt to push the North Midland as far away as possible from its waterway through the coalfield near Leeds the Navigation commissioned George Leather to survey an alternative line. His plan called for a junction with the Manchester and Leeds to the east of Wakefield before the line ran roughly north passing to the east of Carlton village near Rothwell. It then crossed Rothwell Haigh before descending into Hunslet. Leather had also surveyed a continuation through hilly country heading north from Leeds towards Newcastle which had been initially backed by the North Midland’s supporters. However in the House of Lords committee Leather’s plans were picked apart by Frederick Swanwick who was called as a witness. He explained that he’d already investigated a similar route but had discounted it because it would be much more expensive and harder to build as it needed deeper cuttings, higher embankments and tunnels. Hence the decision, along with George Stephenson, to set the line in the valley bottoms and link up with the York and North Midland to connect to the north.

Frederick Swanwick.

After several months of hearings the North Midland obtained its first act of parliament at the end of June 1836. To assuage the Navigation a clause had been added to compensate them for “loss, damage or injury” where the line passed close to their operations on the approach to Leeds. Another clause detailed strict specifications for the bridges crossing the River Calder and canal at Fairies Hill. John Blayds’ objections were met with a provision that the railway had to build “not less than three openings or passages, with good and substantial archways or viaducts,” in the embankment which ran through Woodlesford. Other bridges nearby required by the act included one for a quarry between Woodlesford and Fishpond lock which had its own short tramroad to the canal; one leading to the Woodlesford paper mill; one on Fleet Lane for Fleet Mills; and one for the road from Fleet Mills to Wood Row. Lastly there was a reference to what is now known as Bridge 238 crossing the Aberford Road near Woodlesford station: “In crossing a certain other road called the Oulton Road the said company hereby incorporated shall and they are hereby required, at their own expense, to divert the said last mentioned road so as to carry it under or over the said railway by another good and substantial archway or viaduct of the width of 25 feet and the height of 16 feet.”

The 1836 act enabled construction to start on the southern end of the line, including its longest tunnel at Clay Cross, but no satisfactory agreement could be made with the waterway’s directors for the works from Fairies Hill into the centre of Leeds. A second act was passed in 1837 but that failed to come up with a solution. A truce was only reached after another survey by Frederick Swanwick and an on site inspection by Robert Stephenson in April 1838. He recommended that £20,000 be paid in compensation to the Navigation for agreeing to the line from Fairies Hill through Woodlesford to the cinder ovens at Rothwell Haigh staiths. He also approved a deviation from the original route for the last few miles into Leeds. A third act was given the royal assent on 1 July 1839 and it gave permission for the deviation taking the line a mile or so to the east of the River Aire. It involved a bridge over the Leeds to Barnsdale road, demolition of buildings in the centre of Hunslet and a long cutting on the approach to a station at Junction Street off Hunslet Lane close to the terminus and coal staith of the Middleton Railway. This is the line of railway still in use today apart from a truncated section to the old terminus. From 1846 it was only used for goods traffic following the construction of an extension of the main line through Holbeck into the city centre.

The wrangling with the Navigation caused a long delay in the letting of the Woodlesford and Methley contracts but after a letter from Swanwick, “suggesting the propriety of letting them immediately,” the Leeds based directors resolved to advertise that they would be let on Friday 22 June 1838. The decision was to be taken “at one o’clock precisely” at their committee room in Benson’s Buildings on Park Row in the town. In the same letter the engineer advised the Leeds directors, who were responsible for the northern division of the railway from Treeton, to the east of Sheffield, to Leeds, that that 2,000 tons of rails would be needed in the coming months.

The adverts were placed in many regional newspapers. Below is the text of the version which appeared in the Newcastle Courant on Friday 1 June.


To make the Railway, with all the Excavations, Embankments, Bridges, Culverts, Drains, Diversions of Roads, and Streams and Fences complete; including the Laying and ballasting of the permanent Way, and furnishing the necessary Blocks (but exclusive of the Rails, Chairs, Pins, and Wooden Sleepers,) from a Point on the high Ground near the Church, in the Parish of Methley, in the County of York, at the Distance of 39 Chains, or thereabouts, North of the Centre of the River Calder, and terminating at a Point 18 and a half Chains, or thereabouts, South of Fleet Lane, in the Township of Oulton-with-Woodlesford in the Parish of Rothwell, in the said County, being a Distance of one Mile and 60 Chains, or thereabouts, and to keep the same in Repair for one Year after Completion.


To make and maintain the Railway in like Manner, from the Termination of the above Contract No. 10 to and terminating at a Point eight Chains, or thereabouts, North of a Line, called Bullock Lane, in the Township and Parish of Rothwell aforesaid, being a Distance of two Miles and 32 Chains, or thereabouts.

Drafts of the Contracts, with Plans and Specifications of the Works, will be ready for Inspection at the Engineer’s Office, in Chesterfield, in the County of Derby, and the Railway Office, in Leeds, on and after Friday the 1st Day of June, 1838. Printed Forms of Tender may be had on and after the above Date, at the Railway Offices in London, Leeds, and Chesterfield, and no others will be attended to. The Tenders must be delivered at the Railway Office, in Leeds, on or before one o’ Clock on the said 22nd Day of June, 1838, under a sealed Cover, addressed to the Secretary, and endorsed “Tender for Works,” and the Parties tendering, or Persons duly authorised by them, must be in Attendance at the Time of Meeting.

The Parties whose Tenders are accepted will be required to, enter into a Bond, with two Sureties, for the due Performance of their Contract, in a Penalty of not less than 10 per Cent. on the gross Sum contracted for, and the Names of the proposed Sureties are to be specified in the tender. The Directors will not bind themselves to accept the lowest offer. The Contractor (if he require it) will be furnished by the Company with a Counterpart of the Contract, at his own Expense. By Order, Leeds, May 22nd, 1838. Henry Patteson, Secretary.

The engineer’s estimate for the Methley contract was £23,000 and for Woodlesford it was £47,000. Both had high embankments but the higher price for Woodlesford reflected the fact that it was 52 chains or 1,144 yards longer and a deep cutting had to be blasted out of the sandstone rock on which the village was built. Another cutting had to be made for the Aberford Road which was to be diverted a few yards to the west so it could pass under the railway. When the tenders were opened there were five bids for Woodlesford from: Mawson and Davison (£44,287), Taylor and Sharpe (£37,100), Stephen Clarke (£57,573), Storey and Briggs (£50,685), and D. Sharpe and Sons (£39,800). There were four bids for Methley, all above the estimate, from Mawson and Davison, Storey and Briggs and Sharpe and Sons, plus one from the firm of Hugh McIntosh which already had the Altofts contract and four others on the southern division between Treeton and Derby. Born in Scotland in 1768 McIntosh was one of the titans of early 19th century contracting and had built canals, docks, sewers, bridges, roads and buildings including Buckingham Palace. In Yorkshire from 1834 he built a dock for steam boats at Goole and must have known Woodlesford and Methley well as his men had worked on the new canal nearby a couple of years earlier.

For a reason which isn’t obvious in the Leeds directors’ minutes, “after examination and consultation with Mr. Swanwick,” they resolved to adjourn their decision for a week. What appears to have happened is that Swanwick was pressing for the experienced and reliable McIntosh firm to be given both contracts. This was frustrated however because when they met the chairman had received a letter from McIntosh’s agent, a Mr. Horn, “declining to tender for the Woodlesford contract, the period within which it is specified to be completed (1st January 1840) being in his opinion too short.”

Taylor & Sharpe, based at Lenton near Nottingham, had got cold feet too. They wrote that “on a re-perusal of their estimate for the Woodlesford contract, and comparing it with the specification, they had found errors to the amount of £6,000,” and requested leave to withdraw unless the company were willing to meet the deficit. Mawson and Davison and D. Sharpe were questioned in person by Swanwick “but from their replies as to the amount of capital, number of wagons etc., necessary to complete the work within the time” he couldn’t recommend them. Mr. Briggs was also questioned but he wouldn’t take the Woodlesford contract unless he was given £4,000 and three months additional time. Nobody from the other two firms could be bothered to turn up.

After deciding to accept McIntosh’s tender of £26,655 for the Methley contract the directors resolved to delay the award of the Woodlesford contract for a month and re-advertise it to be let on Friday 21 July 1838. At the same time they instructed Swanwick to immediately begin buying the necessary plant “for proceeding with the construction of the work to meet the possibility of no eligible tender being presented on that day.”

A plan of the line through Woodlesford station. It shows landowners and the deviation of the Wakefield to Aberford turnpike road.

In anticipation of the work getting underway on the disputed section between Methley and Leeds the North Midland’s directors and their solicitor, Richard Ecroyd Payne, had to finalise agreements for the purchase of land through which the railway passed. In early July the chairman, wool wholesaler James Hubbard, reported that he had visited Woodlesford to meet the brewery owner Henry Bentley whose seven acres was cut in half by the line. He had agreed to the sum of £3,250 for the severance and damage to his house and garden. Aware of possible future problems with coal mining subsidence affecting the line they appointed William Locke, a colliery agent based at Rothwell Haigh, “to view and value for the company in cases of dispute.” Most of the land on the Haigh, with the rights to mine coal underneath it, was owned by William Stourton, 18th Baron Stourton, of Allerton Castle near Knaresborough. Locke was the father of Joseph Locke, an engineer apprenticed to George Stephenson who went on to engineer the Grand Junction Railway connecting Birmingham to Lancashire and two other lines completing the west coast route to Scotland.

Another agreement was made with John Blayds who by now had come round to the inevitability of the railway. He was to be paid £3,418 19 shillings for 9 acres of land and a further 12 acres for “embankment materials” although he had to make a refund if not all of it was needed. Other landowners were compensated for their land and its severance. A little later a deal was struck with Lord Stourton who agreed to sell for £2,100 just over 7 acres for the Woodlesford section, subject to arbitration. One of his tenants was farmer Issac Rimington Tetley, brother of Joseph Tetley, founder of the well-known Leeds brewery. From about 1820 the Rothwell Haigh coal was mined by a company owned by brothers John and Joseph Charlesworth, although previously it had been exploited by the Fenton family for a over a century. One of their descendants, Kirkby Fenton, was still a coal master with collieries in other parts of Yorkshire and near Swannington in Leicestershire. He lived at Leventhorpe Hall on the north bank of the river opposite Woodlesford and for his 3 acres of land he added £1,500 to his fortune.

John Blayds. He changed his name back to John Calverley in 1852. (Tim Bradley Williams collection.)

The director’s minutes reveal that when the Woodlesford contract was finally let the engineer’s estimate had been increased by £3,000 to £50,000. The new figure wasn’t included in the newspaper advertisement, identical to the earlier one, but the bidders would have been given it, along with the completion date, when they inspected the draft contract and plans. Stephen Clarke of Eringden Grange near Hebden Bridge (£57,573) and D. Sharpe and Sons of Dewsbury (£44,700) were again in the running. They were joined by Joseph Willett of Rochdale (£54,153) and William Hutchinson of Haydon Bridge in Northumberland who put in the highest bid (£60,847). John Ratcliffe Chapman’s address was given as Northampton and his tender (£58,112) was accepted. There was no minute of any conversations with the bidders about their abilities to complete the contract but, as with the Aylesbury Railway, the directors may have been swayed by an opinion from Robert Stephenson about the work at Stowe Hill and Bugbrooke. There’s no doubt that Chapman was held in high esteem from a glowing survey of the whole line published in the Derby Mercury at the end of the following October. The author must have had access to details of each contract as he wrote that although Woodlesford presented heavy works “no doubt is entertained that the responsible and efficient contractor will effect his task in the time specified.”

However, the Leeds directors were clearly worried about getting the line finished by the beginning of 1840. At the same meeting as they awarded the Woodlesford contract they heard that some of the contractors on the line north of Rotherham were “not proceeding to the satisfaction of the engineer.” Using a carrot and stick approach they agreed to increase prices to expedite the work but warned that if they didn’t finish on time they would “strictly enforce the penalties” in the contracts.

As with Aylesbury Chapman was quickly in action advertising in the Leeds Mercury for “fencers, wood dealers, builders and others” for the supply and putting down of the fencing. He wanted 400 sleepers of scotch, beech, or elm to be supplied and delivered, along with timber beams called scantlings 7 feet 8 inches long by 2 inches and a half wide. The sleepers would have been for a temporary railway to convey spoil from the cuttings to be tipped to create the embankments. Stables for horses were to be built as well as workshops and sheds. “Labour” was required suggesting he was keen to take on local men and perhaps navvies who’d been employed elsewhere in Yorkshire. One ideal source would have been the local quarries, developed in the 18th century, which sent sandstone shipments on the Aire and Calder Navigation. Without doubt skilled local masons would have been subcontracted by Chapman to build the culverts and bridges needed for the contract. Most of the structures are still in place today. 

What’s also evident is that he was still using at least a core of reliable men brought from south Lincolnshire, either directly or via Stowe Hill, Bugbrooke and Aylesbury. Census records show that after the railway was finished two brothers stayed on and married local women. Both had been born within a few miles of Revesby and both became gangers or platelayers employed by the North Midland and then the Midland Railway in Woodlesford. William Boyes, born at Welton-Le-Marsh in 1810, was the eldest and the records consistently identify him as a railway labourer until his death in 1883. Edward Boyes, born in 1814 in the Bolingbroke area, seems to have done a little better as he became the “superintendent” of the local gangers. In April 1848 he was in charge of a team relaying the line when John Elmsley, an unemployed spindle maker, was run over and killed about a mile from Woodlesford by the 7.30 a.m. Leeds to Manchester passenger train.

Another of the navvies may have been Thomas Ward Glover born at Thurcaston near Leicester in about 1814. In the 1841 census for Woodlesford he was recorded as a platelayer with a young son born there in 1839 or early 1840 several months before the railway opened.

As well as labour a considerable quantity of hardware and tools were needed in the construction, the extent of which was revealed when most of it was sold at auction in 1841. It included a six horsepower stationary steam engine and a complete blacksmith’s shop. There were lathes, planing machines, drills and bits, files, vices, hammers, tocks and dies. 120 tons of “T pattern” malleable iron rails were used on the temporary railway along with 80 “two yard earth wagons” with 30 inch wheels and 31 inch axles. At some point a locomotive steam engine and tender “with six wheels, two pair five feet coupled, and sixteen inch stroke” was acquired.

A drawing of one of the culverts on the Woodlesford contract.

During August 1838 the North Midland’s solicitor was still concluding agreements with landowners and tenants on the Woodlesford contract so it’s likely only preparatory work was done initially. John Ratcliffe Chapman may have returned to deal with matters in the south because an advertisement appeared in the  Northamptonshire Chronicle on Saturday 1 September which confirms that his London and Birmingham Railway contracts were now completed. Signed by Constantine Richard Moorsom those who had claims against Chapman were invited to send them to the company’s offices “in order that they may be considered and discharged if well founded.”

On Tuesday 11 September 1838 the Woodlesford and Methley contracts were formally laid before the London board, chaired by George Carr Glyn at 13 George Street near the Mansion House in London. It’s doubtful whether the contractors had to appear in person but if he had been there it’s likely that Chapman returned north on a London to Birmingham train through the Kilsby tunnel after the line was fully operational. It’s possible he then took a train to Manchester on the Grand Junction Railway which had opened in July 1837. A stage coach ride across the Pennines would have followed. An alternative would have been the Ebor or Pilot coaches direct from Birmingham which ran everyday except Sunday via Derby and Sheffield, a journey taking more than 13 hours.

Other contractors were having difficulties with navvies who had left to take part in the harvest when work began in earnest on the Woodlesford contract towards the end of September or early October 1838. The minutes of the Leeds directors’ meeting on Friday 21 September show various amounts paid out of the “plant account” to suppliers of equipment but it’s not clear if the money was then deducted from the regular payments Chapman received. George Ogden Brown, a Sheffield timber merchant, was paid £441 for earth moving wagons. A further £336 was handed over a few weeks later. Day Brothers of Sheffield charged £315 for wheels and the same amount in November. A steam engine from the foundry of James Kitson and Charles Todd in Hunslet cost £500 and another for £400 came from Bingley & Company, also in Leeds. These were probably the engines sold in 1841. At the meeting on Saturday 27 October Swanwick was instructed to pay a bill for £900 to the Bradford firm of Waddington and Crosland for wagons. A couple of weeks later £935 was authorised for the iron founders Butler and Taylor of Stanningley. This may have been for the rails for the temporary railway or for the main line.

Just as the directors were finalising the land deals for the last sections into Leeds and looking forward to getting the line opened they started to have a headache brought on by clashes between English and Irish navvies. The trouble broke out south of Barnsley where work had already been held up by a typhoid outbreak near Greasebrough earlier in the year. The first disturbance was on Wednesday 10 October between Darfield and Swinton and was apparently caused by the English believing the Irish were undercutting them by working for lower wages. As their “mud hovels” were pulled down and destroyed about three to four hundred Irish retreated south arming themselves with spades and wooden staves from broken down fences. After a standoff near Rotherham the contractor, John Stephenson, calmed the Irishmen down by giving them free ale as he sheltered them in a goods yard belonging to the short branch which linked the North Midland to Sheffield. Yeomanry troops were sent for and there were more threats the following day but little violence. After this an appeal to the Home Office resulted in a detachment of Metropolitan policemen who were deployed from London to keep the peace. At least two of them stayed on to work full time for the railway – Timothy Glenman was appointed stationmaster and Henry Blackmore foreman of porters for the station at Leeds.

There were similar fights nearer to Woodlesford in 1839, the first just after Easter when English navvies on the Methley contract, who’d been drinking heavily over the holiday, intimidated Irish labourers on the adjacent section of the York and North Midland. Then in June near Oakenshaw, to the south of Wakefield, about 200 Englishmen chased a group of Irish towards the Chevet tunnel and troops from Leeds were sent for. The contractor there, Joseph Thornton, described his Irish workers as an “inoffensive and hard working set of men.” None of this trouble seems to have affected the Woodlesford contract as far as can be ascertained from press reports.

At their meeting on 16 November 1838 the directors authorised a first payment of £3,000 to John Ratcliffe Chapman. This must have been after Frederick Swanwick or his northern division assistant, Thomas Dyson, had inspected the work and verified it had been carried out according to the contract by signing a certificate. Similar amounts were disbursed every month until the work was completed. At the same meeting a letter was read from Swanwick reporting that the works had been “unavoidably delayed by the late rains.”

Part of one of the original engineering drawings for the Woodlesford contract. It was signed by Frederick Swanwick and John R. Chapman.

Not long after Chapman was paid he journeyed south to visit the Aylesbury line and whilst en route was accused of what has now become a classic railway misdemeanour – travelling in a first class carriage with a second class ticket! After travelling from Birmingham to Pendley station, now Tring, he was stopped by a porter and asked to pay extra. As a “caution to railway travellers” an account of the incident appeared in the Essex Herald describing how he’d been shown into the carriage by a railway servant. On alighting he was told he had to pay 5s. 6d. extra which he refused to do. Presenting his business card he said he would write to Richard Creed, the London and Birmingham company’s secretary in London. The Pendley porter was having none of it: “Mr. Chapman was then given into custody, but liberated after an hour and a half’s confinement.”

Perhaps there was some bad blood between them as Creed wrote back “giving no satisfaction.” Unable to identify the man in Birmingham Chapman had to, “through either the ignorance or malignity of the fellow,” pay a £2 fine and 12s. 6d. costs “besides anxiety and other unpleasantries.” The case was taken up by The Morning Advertiser, the bible of the licensed trade and second only in circulation to The Times. In an editorial it said similar complaints were constantly seen in the metropolitan and country papers of the rudeness of railway employees to passengers and “unnecessary inconveniences inflicted by their overbearing conduct.” Calling for government action well in advance of William Ewart Gladstone’s railway regulation act of 1844 it went on: “The public have a right to contemplate the time when all lines of social or commercial communication throughout the country may be in the hands of the directors of the railways. The new creation of a monopoly is no trivial matter,” it thundered.

John R. Chapman may have returned to Aylesbury to oversee the completion of the construction work and pay off his subcontractors. However trains didn’t start running until several months later. Robert Stephenson’s plan was to open the line in January 1839 but he took the blame as the delay had been caused by a lack of ballast coming from the London and Birmingham, a contingency he hadn’t bargained for. The first locomotive, named Lord Wharncliffe, arrived on Wednesday 22 May and pottered up and down the line giving rides to local worthies for a couple of days before the official opening on Monday 10 June. There’s no mention of Chapman’s name in connection with the celebrations but he was remembered as the contractor when the Bucks Herald published its centenary edition in 1932.

Back in Yorkshire work on the Woodlesford and Methley contracts slowed down in early 1839 over a dispute with the owners of a private or “occupation” road leading to the Fleet Mills site on the River Aire owned by the Navigation. There were three mills for corn, oil, and flint along with about ten houses for the mills’ tenant, manager and workers, plus a barn, stables, cow sheds and piggeries. Fleet Lane from Oulton was the main access road and had been badly damaged by Chapman and McIntosh’s men using it to carry materials to their respective sites. The owners refused to allow further access unless the North Midland agreed to pay a “reasonable portion” of the cost of repairing it. They threatened to take the dispute to Christopher Paver, the area’s land commissioner, but the directors caved in and paid the full asking price, “it being clear that much inconvenience and loss would arise to the contractors by the stoppage.”

A cross section through one of the culverts on the Woodlesford contract. It shows the stone blocks on which the rails were laid.

With several contracts under his belt John Ratcliffe Chapman seems to have wanted to expand his business even further and put in bids for a section of the Eastern Counties Railway in Essex. There were four tenders in all for a total of 12 miles of line from Brentwood to Colchester. Also bidding was a fellow North Midland contractor, John Waring. He had a two mile section north of Clay Cross towards Chesterfield and a slightly longer length of the York and North Midland through Castleford. The tenders were opened on 29 July 1839 but there’d been a mix up by the engineer as to how ballast was to be obtained and it was decided to ask for fresh tenders. In the end both Chapman and Waring were unsuccessful and the company decided to undertake two of the contracts themselves. With a lack of finance this part of what became the Great Eastern Main Line wasn’t finished until 1843.

At this point no work had been done on the deviation line between the end of the Woodlesford contract and the terminus in Leeds. The directors though anticipated no serious objections to the third North Midland bill in parliament so towards the end of February they instructed Frederick Swanwick to prepare the plans and specifications.

Just over a month later it’s possible John Ratcliffe Chapman was in Birmingham again where he may have taken part in a meeting of contractors at the George Hotel with John Stephenson in the chair. The original purpose of the meeting is unknown but before they finished the participants resolved to collect money to present a testimonial to Robert Stephenson. Jeaffreson, in his biography, said the main reason for this was the way in which he had handled disputes between contractors and the companies they worked for. “To arbitrate in such disputes, and to adjudicate in such difficulties, Robert Stephenson was by temper, information, and reputation, peculiarly fitted; and it adds not a little to his fame that in nearly all the disagreements between directors and contractors he was appointed sole umpire. The course thus commenced on the London and Birmingham line was continued on the North Midland, the Derby Junction Railway, and the York and North Midland. Whenever a contractor on one of his lines was contending with directors about the terms of an agreement, it was left with Robert Stephenson to arrange the difference,” he wrote.

As Chapman must have felt grateful to Stephenson for allowing him to continue with his father’s contracts, and for the subsequent work at Aylesbury and Woodlesford, he was only too happy to contribute the standard amount of £5. In the Railway Times he was listed among the 250 or so contractors, iron founders and other suppliers who joined in raising more than £1,250. Jeaffreson said £200 was subscribed at the initial meeting and as Chapman’s name was 19th on the list it suggests he was actually there. The testimonial, printed on silk, and a service of plate, the centrepiece of which was an inscribed silver candelabrum, was presented the following November at a dinner at the Albion Tavern in London. Stephenson’s father was also there but no list of attendees was published so it’s not clear if John R. Chapman made the journey.

Thomas Dyson. Born in 1771 he lived at Sandal with his wife Catherine during construction of the North Midland. He died in 1852.

In the middle of April 1839 a row broke out with Thomas Dyson, the assistant engineer on the North Midland, who had more day-to-day contact with the contractors on the ground than Frederick Swanwick whose office was in Chesterfield. Chapman was only 24 years old but Dyson, born at Newington near Bawtry, was at the age of about 68 a much older man, “of indomitable energy and industry,” with considerable experience under his belt and probably used to getting his own way. As a young man he’d gained experience on fenland drainage and canals. Later he’d been the resident engineer on the Leeds and Selby Railway before he resigned in 1832. He’d then worked with contractor Mark Faviell on the new canals for the Navigation beween Leeds and Allerton Bywater including the long section from Woodlesford to Methley.

The row was about masonry on one of the bridges or culverts. It didn’t come to blows but was serious enough for Dyson to complain to the Leeds directors at their meeting on Friday 19 April. Called in first he accused Chapman of “totally disregarding” written and verbal instructions by constructing masonry contrary to the drawings and specifications. When the contractor was questioned he denied the charges and said the masonry was being built according to the drawings given to him. He pointed out that one of them had an error in the marking of the quorn, or corner, stones and “complained of the hardship of having to sustain loss in consequence of the errors of the company’s officers.” The directors explained that the contract enabled the engineers to make alterations but Chapman was indignant. He said he would call in an architect, or another competent person, to make an inspection, before pulling it down and making a claim on the company for extra work. Wisely the directors decided on a compromise and that since only verbal instructions had been given, “in order that no misunderstanding may arise,” Thomas Dyson was told to make sure any future alterations were given in writing.

The North Midland’s struggle to obtain satisfactory access into Leeds was finally won when their new bill, approving the deviation route, was given a third reading in the House of Commons on Wednesday 1 May 1839. It had been steered through the procedures by Edward Baines, one of the Whig/Liberal members elected for the borough of Leeds after the Great Reform Act. Just as the good news came through the Yorkshire based directors inspected the whole of the works between Treeton and Woodlesford by walking “nearly the whole distance” of 37 miles, according to the Leeds Mercury. “The works in every part of the line were found to be proceeding most satisfactorily, so as to afford the best ground for expecting that the whole line will be completed by the time specified in the contracts, namely the close of the present year and we hope that early in the Spring of 1840 the travelling and carrying business of the line will be in full operation,” said the paper.

A few days later the drawings and specifications for the two final contracts were finished by Swanwick’s team of draughtsmen and were ready for inspection at the company’s offices. The first, a mile and 12 chains in length mainly in Rothwell township, ran from the end of the Woodlesford contract near the cinder ovens into Hunslet. The cost was estimated at £10,000. The final section, measuring two miles and 36 chains to the terminus had more earth works including a long cutting and had an estimate of £63,000. The directors resolved to let the contracts at their meeting on 17 May and sent out a circular to ten firms, most of which already had work on the line. Probably because they were too keen to get the work underway they hadn’t allowed enough time for sensible tenders to be calculated so the letting was adjourned for twelve days.

There were six bids for the Rothwell section including one from John R. Chapman at exactly the engineer’s estimate but he and the others lost out to John Mawson from the Rotherham area whose bid of £10,322 18 shillings and 6 pence was accepted. Chapman, who must have been very confident of his abilities by now, also put in a tender for the Leeds contract at £66,720 but this work went to Bray & Duckett of York who bid £57,622, undercutting the estimate by more than £5,000.

One of the characters on the railway was surveyor Henry Clarkson. Born in 1801, in his book Memories of Merry Wakefield, he recounts how he was recruited by Swanwick for the initial survey of the line south of the town in the autumn of 1835. After some fun and games dodging landowners initially opposed to the railway he was kept on to re-survey and lay out the northern division as well as negotiate with landowners. During this time he had offices at Walton, Altofts and then at the Crooked Billet at Thwaite Gate. His final task was to supervise an accurate measurement of the line from Masbrough to Leeds using “an exquisite steel chain” 22 yards long. “This measurement was done with such extreme care, that I should think the measured distance could not have varied more than two or three inches from actual reality, and the time occupied over it was about seven days,” he wrote.

At least three men died in accidents as the Woodlesford contract was being executed. Two of the accidents happened in early March 1839 with the inquests carried out by the coroner for the Honour of Pontefract, Christopher Jewison, who was also the governor and bailiff at the debtors’ gaol in nearby Rothwell. The Leeds Mercury reported that an inquest on William Mason, 21, had taken place on Friday 8 March at the White Hart inn, known locally as The Buck. Nothing else was said apart from that he had been “killed on the North Midland Railway.” The following day the Two Pointers down the road and just a few yards from the works was the venue for an investigation into the death of George Hartley “who was killed by a railway wagon passing over his body.” He was only 15 years old. The verdict in both cases was “accidentally killed.” In a mark of respect on the following Sunday about 360 of the workmen, “having white rosettes fixed in their hats,” marched behind their dead colleagues’ coffins as they were carried over a mile to Rothwell churchyard where they were buried. The priest who carried out the burials made a point of writing “killed on the rail road” under both their names in the burial register. Mason’s origins are difficult to ascertain but it’s possible that George Hartley was the son of a collier born near Tingley in 1823.

Three months later there was another fatal accident. It happened on Tuesday 4 June 1839 and gives further proof that a number of navvies from Chapman’s home county were employed by him. The victim was Henry Jackson “from Lincolnshire” who was about 17 or 18 years old. He’d been in charge of a team of three horses dragging five earth wagons to be tipped onto one of the embankments. After something went wrong with a chain he had jumped off the first wagon in an attempt to fix it but fell under and was run over by all five wagons. His left thigh and arm were broken and he had internal injuries. He was taken by road to the Leeds General Infirmary but died shortly after arriving. A couple of months later Chapman donated £22 1 shilling to the Infirmary as a new annual subscriber.

It wasn’t until early July 1839 that the solicitor started the process of acquiring extra land for the intermediate stations on the line north of Rotherham. From Leeds they were Woodlesford, Normanton, Oakenshaw (for Wakefield), Cudworth Bridge (for Barnsley), Darfield, and Adwick for Wath. At Wakefield and Barnsley a horse drawn service of omnibuses was introduced to meet trains as both stations were over 2 miles away from the towns.

The station buildings on the North Midland were designed by architect Francis Thompson. The two storey one at Woodlesford was less ornate than many of the others but its distinctive design, with a square central block and wings, was similar in plan to the single storey Wingfield station in Derbyshire. At the end of the Cudworth up platform there was an identical building to Woodlesford’s. It appears to have been used solely for staff quarters as there was a Thompson single storey booking hall on the down platform there. Woodlesford was built from local stone and by the early 20th century had been covered in whitewashed pebble dash obscuring some of the original features. Whilst the lower storey included a ticket hall and separate waiting rooms for gentlemen and ladies, the upper storey is thought to have been for living accommodation for the stationmaster and other employees. The upper floor was removed and some of the windows bricked up after a house overlooking the station entrance, solely for the stationmaster’s family, was built in 1866. A contemporary railway plan of the area also shows a terrace of four houses for staff above the cutting in which the down platform was located. The work on the buildings, the low staggered platforms, a goods yard shed and a loading bay wasn’t finished when the line opened.

The area between Methley and Leeds in the summer of 1839 must have been a scene of frenetic activity as an estimated number of between one and two thousand men were hard at work, probably in shifts, day and night. The deepest cuttings were in Hunslet approaching the terminus and at Woodlesford where the line went through layers of sandstone, shale and coal, deposited around 300 million years ago. Extra excavations were needed to place the deviation of Aberford Road in a cutting. Gunpowder was used to blast the rock into fragments before it was loaded into wagons and hauled to be dumped to make the embankments, a process known as “end tipping.” Ideally each contract was balanced so there was enough material in each cutting for the embankments on either side. If the cuttings were short then land on either side of the line had to be acquired and earth and rock from there had to be dug out to build the embankments.

The railway bridge over Aberford Road in Woodlesford. This view shows the deep cutting which had to be excavated to alter the previous alignment of the road. Apart from the brewery chimney in the background, now demolished, and the addition of a footbridge for pedestrians little has changed since the bridge was built in 1840.

Gunpowder for the contractors was stored in a warehouse in the centre of Leeds and had probably been delivered there from manufacturers by boat along the Navigation or the Leeds and Liverpool canal. In early October the directors heard that the Leeds mayor, wool merchant William Smith, had been told in a “private communication” that there was “great alarm” amongst the people living nearby worried that the warehouse might blow up. Luckily for the company the fears don’t seem to have been published in the papers and the secretary swept the problem under the carpet by saying he’d been told that “some time ago” a small quantity of the explosive had been kept in the warehouse overnight. The contractors had since made other arrangements to avoid the storage and it was unlikely to happen again, he told them.

By the second week of October 1839, when the Leeds Intelligencer had sight of a report by Robert Stephenson, much of the construction work on the southern section of the North Midland was nearing completion. Only a short length of the mile long tunnel at Clay Cross south of Chesterfield had still to be excavated and on many of the contracts the rails were being laid. 19 miles of permanent way had already been finished. Near Rotherham the paper implied that from Monday 7 October trains had been running from near Greasebrough along a single line of track and onto the branch to the centre of Sheffield. The coal they carried gave an inkling of the line’s future as a major artery linking Yorkshire’s collieries to the south. At Altofts the abutments of the bridge over the Navigation’s canal and a viaduct over a diversion of the River Calder had been finished whilst the arches were being “turned.” Notice of the auction sale at Woodlesford of 15 “superior draught horses in excellent working order” on the morning of Wednesday 23 October suggests Chapman’s steam locomotive had taken over as the main means of hauling the earth wagons onto the long embankment towards Methley.

Wet weather continuing through November seems to have been the main problem slowing down the work but there were no further significant issues reported to the directors during the winter months. In March 1840 the directors started to appoint staff for the Leeds station. On the recommendation of Richard Creed of the London and Birmingham they appointed Alfred Creag as the chief clerk on a salary of £250 a year. He left in 1842 to take up a senior role on the Birmingham and Derby Junction Railway. With Swanwick declaring the works were proceeding more to his satisfaction the directors wrote to Robert Stephenson, who was still the chief engineer but engaged in a growing number of other projects, requesting him to visit them “at his earliest convenience” to get his opinion on how the railway should operate.

Quite late in the day Henry Bentley applied to make a road at his own expense under the railway at Woodlesford. Since he had opened his brewery just to the north of the line in 1828 he had lived on the premises but he was in the process of building a new mansion for his family to be called Eshald House in its own grounds on the south side. The bridge over the Aberford Road must have been completed at this point so Bentley’s new access road needed a separate bridge adjacent to it and part of the embankment would have had to be pulled down. Swanwick agreed to the proposition as long as it was finished by the middle of May. It was built to the same design as the other bridges and Bentley must have employed a large team of local masons as it was quickly completed. It’s still in use over a footpath but most of the brewery has been demolished and replaced by housing.

The heavy work on the Woodlesford contract must have been completed in April 1840 as another auction sale of “valuable horses” took place Friday 1 May 1840. There were twelve of them of “superior draught possessing great power, good action, and in excellent working condition,” along with 20 sets of trace gear. By then the two lines of track were probably being laid. In the cuttings Robert Stephenson’s preferred method was to lay the rails on iron chairs fixed to large stone blocks, about 2 feet square and a foot deep. The rails ran across the blocks diagonally, a method first introduced on the London and Birmingham. The rails on the embankments were placed on transverse wooden sleepers preserved in a “kyanised” mercury solution, a process named after its inventor, John Howard Kyan. Broken stone, cinders or “burnt” stone was used for the ballast which was 2 feet deep around the stone blocks and 18 inches for the wooden sleepers. Stone walls or fences made of upright wooden posts and horizontal iron rails were erected on the boundary of the railway property. Wooden posts marked every quarter of a mile, the one showing 68 miles from Derby was placed in the cutting a few yards towards Leeds at the end of the down platform. The current post showing 190 miles on the up platform wasn’t installed until after the Midland Railway extended its operations to St. Pancras station in London in 1868.

In his review of railways published in 1842 the engineer Francis Whishaw said some of the stone blocks on the North Midland were of red sandstone “which is not favourable for such a purpose.” This indicates they may have been quarried at Woodlesford where the rock near the surface was known to be soft and easily eroded as opposed to the much harder “blue stone” deeper down which wasn’t reached until the 1850s. A few years after the line opened the stone blocks were replaced by wooden sleepers. According to local gangers some of the blocks were still lying around a century later as was a length of the original rail displayed on the up platform. A local source said it was placed in the Cusworth Hall museum near Doncaster by the Wakefield historian John Goodchild but its whereabouts now are unknown. 

Having cut the village of Woodlesford in half the railway company had built two bridges and a short road tunnel to maintain links between houses on the hill above the line and the more industrial area below on land bordering the Navigation’s canal. It included quarries, the brewery, two potteries, a lace producer, the paper mill and a pub. The mill, and a large area of farm land, was owned by Joseph Crompton Oddie, an eccentric unmarried character who lived at a large house called The Laurels. One of the bridges was constructed for his private access. The tunnel was for carts and workers to reach the mill, the Boot and Shoe Inn and the canal side. Oddie was paid for parts of his land but in May 1840 he claimed damages of £65 because construction work had dirtied the spring water on which the mill relied and it had to temporarily stop production. Another complaint came from the trustees of the Wakefield and Aberford turnpike who threatened legal action. They were unhappy with the formation of the diversion of their road and both Richard Ecroyd Payne and Thomas Dyson were told to order J. R. Chapman to quickly make an improvement. The cost was deducted from his payments.

Eager to start earning serious revenue the North Midland opened the 40 mile southern section of the line between Rotherham’s Masbrough station and Derby on Monday 11 May 1840. There was no formal ceremony but a dinner was held at George Stephenson’s house near Chesterfield that night after he had accompanied George Hudson to Derby. At their meeting on Friday 5 June the directors heard from Swanwick that the double line of track as far as the Leeds station was nearly finished and they resolved to open the line for a special train all the way through to Derby and back on Wednesday 30 June. The full public weekday service of six trains in each direction between Leeds and Derby, carrying passengers and parcels, was to start the following day and a timetable was printed in the newspapers. There were four trains each way on Sundays. Initially all of them stopped at Woodlesford where wealthy first class passengers could load their carriages and horses on to wagons via a specially built ramp. The wagons could then be attached to up and down trains via two wagon turntables.

With the completion of the York and North Midland and a line between Hull and Selby it was then possible to travel all the way from Leeds, York and Hull to London in about twelve hours with a half hour stop at Derby for “refreshment.” Birmingham was also connected but it took until the opening of the Summit tunnel under the Pennines on Monday 1 March 1841 for trains to reach Manchester directly via Normanton. The first class fare from Leeds to London was £2 17s 6d. With a labourer paid about 10 shillings a week it would take a long time to even save enough for a second class ticket at £1 15s. A pound in 1840 was the equivalent of about £60 today.

After the track was finished but before the official opening there were a couple of test runs of one of the two locomotives built for the North Midland by James Kitson and David Laird at their Airedale foundry in Hunslet. The factory was close to the Leeds station and connected to it by a short length of track. The runs took place on Tuesday 9 June 1840, the first in the morning from Leeds to Oakenshaw and back, a distance of 12 and a half miles each way. Described by a reporter from the Leeds Times as a large engine moving “in gallant style” these are the details he gave. It had a 14 inch cylinder with an 18 inch stroke and a 6 feet in diameter driving wheel made to a Stephenson patent without flanges. A separate 6 wheeled tender was capable of carrying 950 gallons. Despite having to slow down in places the locomotive covered the distance to Oakenshaw at an average speed of about 21 miles per hour and returned slightly faster at 22.5 m.p.h. 

The tender must have been crowded because as well as Laird and Kitson, who probably did the driving and firing, and Thomas Dyson, who had intimate knowledge of the route, the chairman, James Hubbard, had invited several friends along for the ride. They included his fellow director, wool dealer and alderman George Goodman, and brewer Henry Bentley whose enthusiasm for the line must have been whetted by the prospect of increased profits now that his beer could be sent further afield. After the morning run Laird and Kitson were joined by fellow engineers William Hewitson and Wyndham Harding for a more ambitious return trip to Sheffield which was reached in 58 minutes excluding stops for water. The reporter seems to have been invited along for this trip as well as, in flowery prose, he described features on either side of the line: “We have a full view of the wealthy and populous borough of Leeds, with its magnificent factories, lofty chimneys, and tasteful steeples, the hills surrounding and beyond it, extending to the distant moors, and scattered over with the villa residences of its opulent merchants and manufacturers.” He wrote of the engine: “She was pronounced by the best and most scientific judges both at the Leeds depot, and again at Sheffield, as a masterpiece of power and perfection workmanship.” Note the use of the female gender to describe locomotives was becoming common usage by this time.

It was probably the same Laird and Kitson locomotive reported to have hauled a passenger train the 39 miles from Rotherham to Derby on Friday 12 June, three days after the test run. Under the headline “Extraordinary Speed On A Railway” the Leeds Mercury said that by the time the train reached Derby there were “no less’ than 500 passengers, most of whom were going to the fair in the town. The journey was completed in an hour and 25 minutes giving an average speed of over 27 m.p.h. Returning with only the tender attached the engine was said to have run 10 miles in 8 minutes between Belper and the Clay Cross tunnel, an incredible speed of 75 m.p.h. Somebody was probably telling porkies!

A week later members of the Geological and Polytechnic Society of the West Riding of Yorkshire requested to “inspect the line with a view of acquiring knowledge respecting the geology of the district.” Permission was granted as long as there was no interruption to the works but it’s not clear if they were given their own train. An outcrop of coal in the Woodlesford cutting would have been of particular interest to them and “an extensive section of the geological appearances on the line of the North Midland Railway,” was exhibited at their meeting in Wakefield the following October.

Accounts of the grand opening by reporters from the Leeds newspapers differ in their details but it was clearly a triumphant occasion with “countless spectators” on every wall and bridge. There were around 600 passengers in 34 or 36 carriages drawn by two Stephenson built locomotives, numbered 60 and 61. The leading engine was driven by Frederick Swanwick. Another two pushed from the rear. Standardised railway time across the country had yet to be introduced but the reporter from the Leeds Times must have referred to his pocket watch. “At precisely two minutes past eight the final signal was given and the train left the station amidst the cheers of a vast number of persons who had collected in various parts commanding a view of the scene,” he wrote.

The train took about 13 minutes to reach Woodlesford where it stopped for two minutes. All the reporters consistently described the stop as at Oulton but this may have been a misunderstanding as the two adjacent villages were united in the Oulton-with-Woodlesford township. They may also have been confused by Henry Bentley’s premises named as the Oulton Brewery, probably in an effort to conjure an image of rural tranquility as opposed to Woodlesford which had more industrial activity. Later it was renamed Eshaldwell Brewery after the source of its water.

There was no mention if anybody boarded the train during the brief stop but its more than likely that John Ratcliffe Chapman and Henry Bentley took the trip. John Blayds probably stayed away given his earlier opposition. There was another stop at Methley for the engines to take on water. At Oakenshaw a train from the York and North Midland was attached and the two steamed together to Derby where they arrived at seven minutes past one and the passengers were given lunch. After only just over an hour the trains set off back to Leeds to the sound of a band playing the national anthem. Both portions passed through Woodlesford about half past six but didn’t stop as the dignitaries were heading for a dinner and speeches at the Music Hall on Albion Street.

The two cottages nearest the camera on Station Lane overlooking the Woodlesford cutting were built for railway staff not long after the line was completed. This photograph was taken in the early 1900s when the far one became the village post and telegraph office.

After the line was completed the pressure on Chapman would have relented but he still had to keep his connections with Woodlesford for a further twelve months as stipulated in his contract. Work on the station building had to be completed and maintenance of the track carried out. With more time on his hands it was during this period that he fell in love with a local girl. She was Mary Pollitt, born in the Huddersfield area in February 1824, so was only 16 years old when the railway opened. Her father, Henry, was a plumber and glazier by trade and had married widow Grace Clayton (nee Cheetham) in Leeds in 1823. A few years later they moved to Woodlesford where their family included Mary’s half sister, Elizabeth, from Grace’s first marriage.

Henry Pollitt’s skills suggest he was employed in the construction of Henry Bentley’s brewery in the late 1820s. By 1829, as well as his plumbing work, he had a licence for the Bentley owned Two Pointers pub in the village, less than a hundred yards from the future railway line. Pollitt seems to have been favoured by Bentley as he wanted him to take on a new establishment, with a stable and rooms for travellers, to capture trade on the Wakefield to Aberford turnpike. Unfortunately the magistrates, John Blayds amongst them, at the brewster sessions responsible for licensing, refused to transfer the licence from the Two Pointers which was said to be “in a very dilapidated state, not worth repairing, and very deficient in accommodation.” With Bentley’s backing Henry Pollitt appealed to the West Riding quarter sessions court held in Knaresborough. However it refused the application on the grounds that it was evident the new pub and its rooms weren’t needed as the turnpike road already had “an excellent house,” the Lowther Arms half a mile away at Swillington Bridge, and another at Garforth Bridge. There may have been some collusion here between John Lowther and John Blayds, both of whom were turnpike trustees and both may have opposed Henry Bentley’s rapidly growing new business.

Eventually the new pub did obtain a licence with Henry Pollitt as landlord. When it was let in 1844, after Henry had returned to Huddersfield to become a provision dealer, it was described as “a spacious and excellent inn” with stabling for eight horses, and offices “well adapted for carrying on an extensive business.” There are no records of precisely when the Pollitt family moved there but Henry is consistently described as a beer house keeper in trade directories throughout the 1830s and Chapman may have first met his future wife at one of the pubs when he arrived to take on the Woodlesford contract. If he didn’t stay at one of them he would have certainly visited both and got to know Mary and her family well. A railway directors’ minute in August 1840 shows they supported an application by the inhabitants of Oulton and the neighbourhood for a licence for one of Henry Bentley’s properties which would “be a convenience to the North Midland Railway.” Five minutes walk from the station it was marked on the first Ordnance Survey map of the area as the North Midland Hotel. Later it was renamed the Midland Hotel. Both it and the Two Pointers survive today.

Meanwhile, after the railway opened, Chapman was involved with several items of tidying up around Woodlesford and he continued to receive monthly payments. One of the issues was a complaint from the elected surveyor of the township’s highways who wanted £10 to repair Field Lane, a re-routed road. It was later renamed Station Lane. The solicitor was ordered to pay “if less will not satisfy him.” The difficulties with the turnpike trust were resolved when they were handed £45 and took into their possession the deviation of the road. In February 1841, starting on Wednesday the 10th and for the next two days, the whole of Chapman’s “valuable materials, machines, 6 horse power condensing steam engine and boiler” were put up for sale by the Leeds auctioneer Thomas Hardwick “upon the premises near the station.” A month later John may have travelled south by train to receive the proceeds of the Aylesbury line plant sold on Wednesday 24 March. The sale, near the junction at Cheddington, was organised by William Brown, a land agent and auctioneer. Catalogues could be obtained from his offices in Tring and Aylesbury and also a Mr. D. Montague at Cheddington who may have acted as the contractor’s local agent. A third sale took place back in Woodlesford on Wednesday 14 April. This included 120 tons of iron rails, the locomotive with its tender, and 80 earth wagons.

A notice advertising the sale of John Ratcliffe Chapman’s “valuable materials” was printed in the Leeds Intelligencer.

It’s not clear when the station building was finished but as late as March 1841 the directors wrote to Francis Thompson to ask what was being done. In May a fence had to be repaired after two sheep broke through and were killed by a train. The contractor may have helped to clear up after a gate from a field and a large water tub were thrown onto the line on Saturday 4 December. “They were providentially discovered and removed before the passing of a train, or the consequences might have been serious,” declared the Northern Star. A £5 reward was offered “for the discovery of the perpetrator of this outrage, and it is to be hoped, whoever the party is he will be found out, and receive the punishment his heartless conduct deserves.” It may simply have been vandalism by drunken locals but could also have been the action of Chartist activists. Chapman’s last payment, of £1,917 10s 6d for the contract to build the line and for the station, wasn’t authorised until Christmas Eve 1841.

There is no record of a marriage between John and Mary. She was single and living with her family in Woodlesford when the census was taken on Sunday 6 June 1841 but he wasn’t recorded in the village and neither was he with his mother who still lived at Medlam House in Lincolnshire. As Mary’s father paid rent for two pews at their nearest church, St. John’s in Oulton, it’s highly likely the marriage took place there between June and the end of December 1841. Unfortunately those six months are missing from the register.

In the new year of 1842 John and Mary left England for North America. According to the family history they went on a sightseeing “wedding tour” but this may have been a deception to keep Mary’s parents happy as John had with him 90,000 dollars worth of cash and securities. The equivalent today is a few thousand short of three million dollars or around two million pounds, hardly the amount you would carry even if you were an extravagant holiday spender. The money would have been the profits from his contracting business and perhaps the sale of some of his father’s estate in Lincolnshire. It seems certain that John had no immediate intention of returning. Indeed it would be not until 16 years later that the couple paid the first of several visits to England with their family.

The ship the Chapmans chose to travel on was the Britannia, the first in its class of six wooden hulled paddle steamers built in Glasgow for Samuel Cunard of the British and North American Royal Mail Steam-Packet Company. It had only started a year round transatlantic service between Liverpool, Halifax in Nova Scotia, and Boston in 1840 after Cunard had won a contract from the Royal Mail. The ship could carry 115 passengers, all in the same class, and 225 tons of cargo. It had an 82 strong crew. A live cow was kept in a padded space on the deck to provide fresh milk.

The Britannia carried John and Mary Chapman to America.

The Britannia was scheduled to leave on Tuesday 4 January 1842 although passengers could go on board the previous day to look round. Some of them sent their heavy luggage on ahead by train addressed to the captain of the ship at Coburg Dock. John and Mary would have travelled across the Pennines from Woodlesford by train a couple of days before the ship’s departure. Bradshaw’s Railway Companion shows five trains a day from Leeds to Manchester on weekdays and four on Sundays. Only North Midland trains to Derby were timetabled to stop at Woodlesford but it’s known that first class passengers were given preferential treatment and Chapman may have been able to request a stop by a train from the Manchester company. The most likely service is the one leaving Leeds at 10.30 in the morning arriving at the Oldham Road station in Manchester at 2 p.m. A mile and a half cab ride was then necessary to reach the station for Liverpool where a first class only train left at 5 p.m.

After the Britannia had manoeuvred into the Mersey channel overnight the last of the passengers who weren’t already on board were ferried in small boats to the ship during the morning of the 4th. The captain, 30 year old John Hewitt, “a well-made, tight-built, dapper little fellow with a ruddy face and a clear, blue honest eye,” was the last to arrive followed in the early afternoon by papers and mail bags sent overnight by train from London.

The description of the captain comes from none other than Charles Dickens who was one of the passengers on his first visit to America to capitalise on his fame after the serialisation of the The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club in 1836. As the Liverpool Standard reported, his presence in the town and short stay at the Adelphi Hotel drew a large crowd of onlookers: “A great many persons were on the pier head to see Mr. Dickens off, and we are certain there was not one present who did not heartily wish to have shaken him by the hand, and bid him bon voyage.” On his return to England six months later he wrote American Notes, the opening chapter of which gives graphic details of the voyage and includes a short portrait of the Chapmans who shared the exclusive “ladies” cabin with him, his wife Kate, a Scottish woman and a Yorkshireman and his bride: “Fourthly, fifthly, and lastly, another couple: newly married too, if one might judge from the endearments they frequently interchanged: of whom I know no more than that they were rather a mysterious, run-away kind of couple; that the lady had great personal attractions also; and that the gentleman carried more guns with him than Robinson Crusoe, wore a shooting-coat, and had two great dogs on board. On further consideration, I remember that he tried hot roast pig and bottled ale as a cure for sea-sickness; and that he took these remedies (usually in bed) day after day, with astonishing perseverance. I may add, for the information of the curious, that they decidedly failed.”

Dickens use of the word “mysterious” may have had something to do with John’s desire to keep secret the amount of money he was carrying. He also told a white lie about his and his wife’s ages. Five days into the journey he celebrated his 27th birthday but on arrival in Boston he told an immigration official he was 30 and his wife was 20. He did however say they wished to settle in the United States.

The birthday celebrations may have been a little muted as it was a very stormy crossing with many passengers spending most of their time in bunks in their tiny cabins stricken with sea sickness. When they could they played cards rolling around in the saloon or the ladies cabin. Writing home to a friend Dickens described the voyage: “We had a dreadful passage, the worst, the officers all concur in saying, that they have ever known. We were 18 days coming, experienced a dreadful storm which swept away our paddle-boxes and stove our lifeboats, and ran aground besides, near Halifax, among rocks and breakers, where we lay at anchor all night. After we left the English Channel we had only one fine day, and we had the additional discomfort of being 86 passengers.”

After stopping off at Halifax the Britannia, with its relieved passengers, reached Boston after dark on the evening of Saturday 22 January having taken about four days longer than usual. Grateful for their safe delivery the day before they landed many of them gathered in the saloon to start a collection to buy a token of their appreciation for the captain’s “nautical skill and his indefatigable attention to the management and safe conduct of the ship, during a more than ordinarily tempestuous passage.” A committee was formed of two American merchants with Dickens as treasurer and secretary. Their chairman was 23 year old George Augustus Constantine Phipps, an aristocratic army officer on his way to a posting with the British forces in Montreal. Known as the Earl of Mulgrave he later became a Liberal politician and then served as the governor of Nova Scotia and three states in Australia. £50 was raised and a week after they arrived in Boston a four piece wine set with an inscribed silver salver was presented to Captain Hewitt at the Tremont Theatre.

Whilst Dickens was being wined and dined by American society John and Mary Chapman set off with their dogs on their travels. How or why they ended up in the vicinity of Chittenango in eastern New York state about 7 miles south of Lake Oneida and 300 miles from Boston isn’t mentioned in the family history, but perhaps it’s no coincidence that it lay on a major transport corridor. The Erie Canal, built between 1817 and 1825 linking the state capital Albany in the east on the Hudson River to Buffalo on Lake Erie in the west, ran close to the town. It opened up agricultural markets and enabled a flourishing trade all the way from the interior to New York City on the coast. Then, as in Great Britain, the railroads had followed, and by 1842 it was possible to travel all the way by train from Boston. John would certainly have been aware of these developments and there’s a possibility he had a relative or acquaintance who may have been involved with the waterway or the railroads. On the other hand the Chapmans may have just decided to get off the train to have a look round. Before they settled down they stayed for a while with a Charles Falkner (or Faulkner) and it’s possible he may have already been known to them before they left England.

Named after his father, Mary’s first son was born in November 1843. A second, Issac Henry, followed in May 1845. About this time John bought about 600 acres of land just to the east of Lakeport on the shores of Lake Oneida. There he built a square two storey house which was very different to the usual design of a settler homestead. Two side wings were designed for bedrooms and every room had a fireplace with ceilings 12 feet high. At the rear was a single storey kitchen wing. Another at the west-facing front had a bow window. The brick for the house was brought by boat on the canal system to a pier built out into the deeper water in the lake. The family history by their great granddaughter, Margaret Chapman Aubeuf, relates that for many years the Chapman estate was one of the show places of the county. “Mary loved flowers and laid out beds after the English fashion east of the house, with gravel walks and hedges, possibly like the home she had known in England. Between the house and Oneida lake were the farm buildings, almost a dozen of them, for all sorts of purposes and all separate. There were hay barns, cow barns, horse stables, carriage houses, a smokehouse, a cornhouse, a creamery and kennels,” she wrote. Members of the native Oneida nomadic tribe visited annually to hunt and fish nearby.

To the disapproval of his neighbours John initially seems to have spent most of his time living the hunting, shooting and fishing life of an English country gentleman employing an experienced farmer and labourers to cultivate the land. He bought horses, bred a pack of hounds and fashioned a new type of “spoon” hook for catching fish on the lake. From his youth he had a keen interest in guns and he is remembered across America for the patented invention and manufacture of a telescopic rifle sight and a four-barrelled revolving rifle. They were used by Union Army soldiers in the American Civil War. “The Improved American Rifle,” a book he wrote, was published in New York City in 1848 and is still referred to by military historians. In the 1850 census his real estate was valued at $6,000. Ten years later it had doubled and his personal estate was given as $12,000. By 1870 it had dropped a little to $10,000 but the land had grown in value to $40,000. In the 1850s he opened an account at the new bank in Chittenango. For a while he dispensed justice on a local court and was a property assessor for the calculation of tax bills. Later the Madison County Times would recall that his friends were given “a royal welcome and the finest wines were kept. His face and manners were those of an educated and well bred Englishman and he was proud of it. He was honest and upright. He was a Democrat in politics and in early life took an interest in political affairs,” it said. 

An illustration from “The Improved American Rifle.”

By the middle of 1860 Mary had given birth to nine sons. There were no girls. A newspaper story reproduced across the States in 1885 described them as a “remarkable family” whose average height was six feet and average weight 214 pounds. “They are all robust, healthy young men and make a group whose equal it would be hard to find.” John himself was 70 years old by then but still 6 feet 1 inch tall with a weight of 216 pounds. Mary weighed 204 pounds and was 5 feet 1 inch in height.

With a growing number of mouths to feed and with his bank account dwindling John branched out into cheese making and built a factory on his land. As new immigrants arrived he sold small plots to them. Much of the cheese was exported to England where it was sold cheaply to workers in the industrial cities. In July 1872 he wrote to the editor of the Utica Weekly Herald complaining about the poor service he and his fellow producers in Madison County were getting from the New York Central Railroad. In the hot weather it was taking too long for the cheese to reach agents in New York City and they were refusing to accept it. Explaining he had at one time employed 700 men and boys on his railway contracts he lambasted the system whereby British factory owners kept wages low so they could dominate international markets. “Britain’s power and very existence depend upon cheap food, and as long as Americans are fools enough to supply her with food staples, at a loss, and buy her manufactures instead of manufacturing at home and making a home market for the products of her soil, just so long England shall prosper, just so long America will suffer,” he wrote. The editor agreed. “Plainly Mr. Chapman hits the nail on the head. We must adopt a more diversified system of farming, encourage home manufactures and build home markets, instead of longer remaining dependent upon England,” he noted.

Towards the end of their lives John and Mary’s fortune had been spent and they had to move in with one of their sons to be looked after. Their house was sold to another family and slowly the land went too. Mary passed away in July 1898 and John followed six months later. They are buried together in the Whitelaw Cemetery a few miles from where they lived. Several generations of other families have now been brought up in the house John built in America. Back in England untold numbers of passengers and millions of tons of freight have been carried on the railways he and his father helped to build and many of their bridges, embankments, cuttings, and a tunnel are still in use today.

The northbound platform at Woodlesford. The Pottery Lane bridge built as part of John Ratcliffe Chapman’s contract is still in use today.

Furze family

John and Clara Furze at Stewards’ Row in about 1905 or 1906. Back row from left to right: Hilda, Lily, George Henry, Gertrude and Jane. On the left of the photo Clifford is standing behind Annie. Oliver and his older brother John are behind Evelyn between their parents. Minnie is on her mother’s knee.

This is the fascinating story of the Furze family, and their descendants, who lived in Oulton, Woodlesford and Rothwell from the 1870s. It’s been pieced together from genealogy websites and other publicly available sources including newspapers and archives. It starts hundreds of miles away in Cornwall where family historians have traced the name back to a Peter Furze who married at St. Buryan near Penzance in 1711. Little is known about his descendants lives during the 18th century but they appear not to have moved far. 

More details begin to emerge with Peter’s grandson, Matthew Furze (1814 – 1853), described as a blacksmith in the 1841 census living at St. Just in Penwith which was a centre of tin and copper mining. Ten years later he was labelled as a “tin dresser” smelting tin from the mined ore. Two of Matthew’s sons, John and Matthew, also became tin dressers and continued to live with their mother after she was widowed and remarried to another blacksmith. The heads of all the adjacent families on North Row in St. Just in the 1861 census had occupations linking them to the mining industry. The situation was much the same in the early 1870s. Matthew, the elder brother, was still a tin dresser, unmarried and living with his mother who’d been widowed again. She earned money making baskets, presumably selling them to miners for carrying ore. John had married Harriet Oliver from Sancreed in 1863 and with young children to support he became a tin miner which would have brought in more money.

By 1871 John and Harriet Furze had had five children although the first died when he was only a few months old and a girl died when she was three. Then at some point in the next few years John brought his wife and surviving children to live in a house on Quarry Hill in Oulton, probably not long after his mother died in 1876. Matthew came too. Why they chose Oulton is a mystery but it may have been because of a depression in the tin and copper mining industry which was then facing stiff competition from abroad. Many new mines were opening up across the British Empire and the United States using migrant labour. In what’s been dubbed “The Great Emigration” 20,000 miners are believed to have left Cornwall to find work overseas in the first 6 months of 1875 alone. Presumably John and Matthew came to Yorkshire with a plan to use their skills to work in the coal industry either as miners or in some other capacity on the pit top. Curiously though when the 1881 census was taken after they had been “up north” for a few years they still gave their occupations as tin miners.

Just before Christmas 1880 the Furzes were still on Quarry Hill when Eliza Ann, the eldest daughter, was one of a number of local passengers who were injured when two trains collided head on at slow speed just outside the Midland Railway’s Leeds Wellington station. She was only 15 years old and seems to have been working as a domestic servant. It’s not known whether she was employed in Leeds or had been into town on a shopping trip, perhaps for Christmas presents. She was on the train to Woodlesford which had just departed in the dark about 5.40 p.m. when at slow speed it ran into an incoming train from Derby.

The locomotive of Annie Furze’s train home crashed into an incoming train from Derby just after it had crossed the Leeds and Liverpool canal. It had travelled on the line marked in red but should have been on the line coloured blue.

Badly shaken up Eliza’s left leg was crushed and her face bruised. Luckily no bones were broken and unlike others from Woodlesford, Oulton, Methley and Normanton she wasn’t taken to the Leeds General Infirmary. Her train was on the wrong line. Two other passengers died as a result of the collision which was blamed on a signalman, although the driver, a shunter and Midland Railway managers were also criticised in the official report. Also named as injured passengers were two local businessmen. Jabez Richard Seanor was the owner of the Rothwell match works and William Henry Kitson, who lived at Beech Grove house in Oulton, was an engineer and part of the family that owned factories in Hunslet making steam locomotives. He had patented a new form of railway wheel and founded the Leeds Wheel and Axle Company at Armley in 1866.

Eliza Ann still hadn’t fully recovered by the following April when the 1881 census was taken. It described her as a “domestic servant – out of employment.” The accident though doesn’t seem to have put her off travelling by train because she moved to London where in 1886 she was living at The Rookery near Clapham Common when she married a fruiterer called George Vale. He then became a fishmonger and poultry seller and with several children in tow they ran shops in Bristol, Cardiff and Birmingham before moving to Leeds so she could be closer to her relatives.

The 1881 census also shows that the Furze family had moved from Quarry Hill round the corner to what was then a recently built terrace off Midland Street. Their four roomed house was on what was later to become Kitchener Street but in the 1880s and 90s it was rather clumsily known as 7th Block, New Woodlesford. When the census was taken Harriet Furze and her son John were back in Cornwall on a visit to her parents in St. Just. There her father, George Henry Oliver, at the age of 61, was still working as a copper miner. John, born in St. Just in 1869, is the man with the moustache in the photograph. In the first few years after coming to Yorkshire he had attended St. John’s school on Calverley Road. It was a so-called “National” school established much earlier in the 19th century by the Calverley family of Oulton Hall giving an elementary education to poor children and closely allied to the Church of England. Even though there were paid headmasters and headmistresses the Oulton vicar acted as school manager and attended weekly to teach compulsory religious lessons in the separate boys and girls classrooms.

When the Furze family moved from Quarry Hill to the other side of Midland Street they crossed the border from Oulton parish into Woodlesford so John became eligible to attend the new “board school” in Woodlesford. Built as a result of the 1870 Education Act, and after lobbying by the brewer Henry Bentley, it was funded by the rates and controlled by an elected committee. Readings were made from the Bible but an Anglican religious education wasn’t imposed, as at Oulton, and as a result the Woodlesford school attracted children from the many Methodist families in the area. John Furze’s name, dated 2 March 1880, was the second entered in the boy’s admission register by the headmaster John Longbottom when the school opened and started to enrol pupils. This may indicate that John’s parents were indeed chapel goers and may have moved house deliberately so that he could go to the new Woodlesford school even though he wouldn’t have been expected to stay very long. 

Up to 1893 children were permitted to leave school at the age of 10 but John Furze stayed on until he was nearly twelve just before his trip back to see his maternal grandparents in Cornwall. A few weeks earlier, at the end of February, he’d been awarded a prize for passing the Standard III examination in reading, writing and arithmetic. Only two other boys in the school achieved higher grades in Standards V and VI. It was also recorded that John had the best attendance having been present on 335 days out of a possible 336. He even beat the headmaster’s son by a day! The prizes were presented at an evening event by the clerk to the school board committee, architect Robert John Smith, who’d supervised the erection of the school buildings and headmaster’s house in 1879 and early 1880. Also there was Henry Bentley who gave what was described as an “entertainment” to all the 200 or so children using a magic lantern which projected coloured slides onto a screen.

Nothing is officially recorded about John Furze in the next few years until his marriage, at the age of 19, at Rothwell’s Holy Trinity church in September 1887. His bride was Clara Taylor, the daughter of a bricklayer living at Swithen’s Street in Rothwell. She was also 19 and had been born in Hunslet before her parents moved back to her mother’s birthplace presumably to be close to relatives to help with childcare. Clara was heavily pregnant when she married and her and John’s first son, George Henry Furze, was born just three weeks later. It was common for couples to marry after a pregnancy was confirmed and often the wedding didn’t take place until months after a birth. However this meant the child had to be registered with its mother’s surname which could cause difficulties later in life so it looks as though John and Clara made every effort to tie the knot before George Henry arrived. Both of them signed their names in the register showing that Clara too had had a good school education. One of the witnesses was John’s younger sister Annie who was only 17 when she married coal miner Arthur Webster from Methley at the same church a few months later. The other witness was Joseph Learoyd, a coal miner who had married John’s aunt Constance. She’d also come with the family from Cornwall. Joseph worked in one of the pits owned by the Gascoigne family near Garforth.

Clara Furze.

John Furze was living in Rothwell and working as a telegraph clerk when he married, a skilled job where he would have had to operate a machine sending words and numbers by code. To receive messages he had to be able to read the machine and write down the messages in longhand on slips of paper. He may have been employed at the post office on Commercial Street run by Andrew Marshall where the town’s first telegraph office was opened in 1878. This was after a branch line had been installed running down Woodlesford Lane, now Park Lane, from a junction with a circuit along the main road from Leeds through Oulton and Methley. Previously a telegraph service had been available since at least the mid-1850s at the post office in Woodlesford as it was close to wires by the side of the Midland Railway. By 1887 there may have also been telegraph equipment at some of the Rothwell pits as the Charlesworth company had underwritten the installation of the branch line. It’s possible therefore that John was working in a pit office. His occupation in the 1891 census as a colliery weighman appears to back up this theory. With an address at Edmonson’s Yard near the centre of Rothwell there’s no doubt he was by then working for Charlesworths, an association that lasted until the First World War. His position as weighman, weighing tubs of coal as they came to the surface, suggests he was responsible directly to the Charlesworth management. He would have worked alongside a  checkweighman, elected by the miners to make sure John’s calculations of the coal mined by each group of men or “motty” were correct. The checkweighman was usually a trade union activist and John wouldn’t have lasted long if he had been found to have been fiddling the scales in favour of the company.   

Railway Terrace Rothwell.

With pretty much clockwork regularity John and Clara had 11 children between 1887 and 1905, four boys and seven girls. If it had been a “shotgun” marriage it was a lasting one. During the 1890s they lived on Alpine Terrace off Spibey Lane and then in about 1900 moved to Railway Terrace on Wood Lane, sixteen houses occupied by Charlesworth employees and those working for the railway running though Rothwell. The 1901 census details 13 family members living at 15 Railway Terrace including John’s widowed father who was working as a fish merchant, possibly in connection with his son-in-law. It must have been a pretty packed house!

Ten years earlier “grandad” John had moved from New Woodlesford to a house at the bottom of Quarry Hill on the short terrace known as West View opposite the Oulton Institute. At the time he was employed as a labourer at Bentley’s brewery. After his wife died in 1900 he moved in with his son. Later still he moved to Foxholes Terrace at Methley where he was a colliery lamp cleaner. He moved again to Nettleton Street in Bottom Boat before he died at the age of 76 in 1920. His older bachelor brother Matthew, who had come with him from Cornwall in the 1870s, finally married at the age of 56 in 1895. His wife, born Jane Myers, had been widowed twice. In 1901 he was employed as a labourer at the Lemonroyd sewage works and was living with her in the same house on West View acting as step father to her children from both her previous marriages. He was buried at Oulton in 1904 after passing away whilst a patient in the hospital ward at the workhouse on Rothwell Haigh. It was later renamed St. George’s Hospital. Jane was 65 when she died in 1917.

The eldest of the Furze children at Railway Terrace was George Henry who was 13 when the census was taken in 1901. He’d already left school and was employed at the station just across the road as a messenger boy. His job probably involved running around the district informing business owners that shipments had arrived for them at the goods shed. He may also have delivered small parcels using a bicycle. Probably as a result of his father’s occupation as weighman he then left the railway and became an apprentice fitter for a company making weighing machines or scales. He was still doing this when, like his father, he married young at the age of 19 in 1907. His bride was Annie Boulton from Lands Row at Lee Mount near Stanley. Her father, Thomas Henry Boulton, was also a fitter and George Henry may have worked with him. The marriage took place at the Wesleyan chapel on Mount Road in Stanley. The couple moved to York and then Scarborough where he had his own business as a scale maker. In the 1930s they had moved back to live on Waterloo Lane in south east Leeds but he retired early due to ill health.

One of the shafts at Newmarket Silkstone colliery as John Furze would have known it.

In 1902 John Furze moved his family to Stewards’ Row at Patrick Green or Royds Green Lower as it was marked on Ordnance Survey maps. Administratively the terrace was in Oulton and appears to have been built for the families of men working at Newmarket colliery which dates from the 1820s. A steward was the old name given to a senior miner in charge of a whole pit or part of one. It looks therefore as John Furze moved to Stewards’ Row because he had been promoted. The family were still in the same house for the 1911 census when John gave his occupation as colliery surface foreman. Further evidence that he was part of the Charlesworth management comes from a newspaper report of an inquest held at the Ship Inn at Lee Moor in November 1911. It was into the death of  a 40 year old Methley born miner who had worked in the Silkstone pit at Newmarket for about ten years. John Furze represented the Charlesworth company along with the pit’s “certified” under manager, Squire Robert Chadwick.

Alfred Leonard had died at home on Canal Lane in Stanley during the night but his wife Clara believed it was a result of two accidents at the pit including the latest when he had trapped his left hand which had turned septic. James Milne Hermon, a Wakefield doctor, carried out a post portem. This showed Alfred had been suffering from heart disease for several years, the doctor believed his death was unconnected to the accidents, an opinion accepted by the coroner. This would have meant that Clara was unable to claim an accident benefit from the miners’ insurance fund although she probably received a basic widow’s payment.

By 1911 there was a bit less pressure on bed space in the Furze household. The eldest daughter, Gertrude, married a wool washer in 1907 and moved to live in Bradford with him, although her three year old son was staying with his grandparents when the census was taken. Another daughter, Lily, had also spread her wings and was a kitchenmaid at Clayton Hospital in Wakefield. A year later at the Stanley chapel, she married a market gardener from Kirkburton near Huddersfield. He was nearly 20 years older than her and later became a tax collector. In 1921 her younger brother Oliver was living with them and working as a coal miner at Lodge Mill colliery near Lepton not far from today’s National Mining Museum. Later he went to live in Nottinghamshire and worked as a machinist in a ball bearing factory. After giving birth to six children Lily was widowed in 1923 and sadly passed away just a couple of months later, apparently from an infection she caught at a dentist’s surgery. She was only 31 years old. Her children were split up and cared for by relatives. One of them had Down’s syndrome and was a patient at Oulton Hall hospital until his death in 1943. Another departure from Stewards’ Row in 1911 was Jane, known as Jennie, who was born in a house on Swithen’s Street in 1890. Two weeks after the census she married miner William Sydney Hartley from Lee Mount at the Stanley chapel. They lived nearby for the rest of their lives.

Hilda Furze, at the age of 17, was also away from home in 1911 employed as one of four servants by a distinguished surgeon, Walter Smith, who carried out pioneering operations at the Leeds General Infirmary. His wife was one of the first women to qualify as a doctor in England and joined the health department of Leeds Corporation. In April 1915 Hilda married Robert William Haynes who had worked in a shoe factory in Burmantofts with his father. A daughter, Hilda, was born a few months later but Robert was killed on 3 May 1917 whilst serving with the 18th Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment during the Battle of Arras. A year later she married George Hutchinson Maltby, a Leeds tram conductor who later became a tram driver. A romance may have started as she was travelling between Leeds and the tram terminus outside the Black Bull in Rothwell before the long walk to her family home along Royds Lane.

In 1914 John Furze’s name was connected to a serious legal case known as “Leaf v Furze” which had long lasting implications for workers’ compensation funds and which is still quoted in textbooks today. Several court hearings took place and they reveal that he was general secretary of the Charlesworth company’s miners’ compensation scheme for all it’s collieries in and around Rothwell including the Fanny, Rose and Beeston pits, the Jane pit at Robin Hood, and Newmarket Silkstone.

Martin Henry Leaf and his wife Elizabeth Ann nee Wilkinson at a family wedding.

The case was brought by Martin Henry Leaf, a 49 year old miner with eight children who lived at New Scarborough near Tingley. He had contributed to the Charlesworth fund for eleven years but had left in January 1912 for a job with another colliery company. When he was examined by their doctor he was rejected because he was diagnosed with miner’s nystagmus, a form of rapid eye movement brought on by working in poorly lit conditions underground. Other symptoms included headaches, anxiety, insomnia and depression. Martin applied for his old job back but they wouldn’t take him on again. Subsequently, probably with help from the union – the Yorkshire Association of Miners – he claimed £100 compensation from the Charlesworth scheme because he had developed the nystagmus whilst working for them. His claim was rejected so he took them to court in Leeds and the judge awarded him £50. 

Not content to pay up the Charlesworth directors decided to appeal and the case of “Leaf v Furze” was heard in July 1914 by two judges sitting in the the King’s Bench Division of the High Court. The only newspaper locally to report it was the Yorkshire Factory Times which supported the trades unions. Leaf’s barrister argued that nystagmus was a recognised industrial disease under the Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1906 and therefore he should be given compensation. The judges agreed and dismissed the appeal.

Taking the case to appeal must have cost J. & J. Charlesworth Ltd. a significant amount of money, probably more than the claim itself was worth. The directors must have been fearful of opening the floodgates to similar claims from men who had left who could prove that their disease had begun at a Charleswoth pit, with the 1906 act stating they coud make a claim within twelve months of leaving. The result was that the company would have had to increase its own and its workers’ contributions to the insurance scheme to cover the extra liabilities.

John Furze is believed to have left his job at Newmarket around the time of this episode but it’s not known if he took the blame for mishandling the claim. He was only 45 so wasn’t old enough to retire and take a pension. One possibility is that the court hearings took their toll on his own health. The electoral register for 1914 shows that he lived in two separate properties in the Royds Green area in the same year, probably meaning that he and Clara, and their remaining children, moved out of Stewards’ Row which would have been tied to the Charlesworth job. One story passed down the generations says he became an oil works foreman. It’s pretty certain that the oil works was the one not far away at Ouzlewell Green which manufactured a greasy substance called oleine for the woollen industry. A small factory had been built in about 1908  next to the branch line of the Rothwell railway which led to the Newmarket pits. Some of its shareholders were railway officials and directors. In early 1915, when John Furze may have worked there, there is a report of councillors complaining that effluent discharged from the works was polluting the beck as far away as Oulton. 

John Furze in about 1915.

Within a couple of years John and Clara moved to the centre of Leeds. Their address in the 1918 electoral register was 73 Vicar Lane and this may have been where he was a grocer and tobacconist, as passed down in the family history. A year later they were at 2 Nelson Street just across the road. This was the address of Tate’s Temperance & Commercial Hotel where he had taken over from the previous proprietor, a man called Fred Tate, formerly a mechanic, who’d run it for at least a decade. The name of the hotel, which had rooms overlooking Vicar Lane, suggests there was a link to John and Clara’s teetotal Wesleyan Methodist background but he was probably the leaseholder rather than freeholder. No alcohol would have been served. There were many similar hotels around the country designed to attract commercial travellers who moved from place to place gathering orders for their firms. There was even a Commercial Traveller’s Christian Association which had a monthly magazine “On The Road”, funded in part by advertisements from the hotels.

Clara Furze died at the age of 52 in February 1921 and John had to run the hotel alone with the help of his 16 year old daughter Minnie. His grandson John Fisher, who was still at school, also lived there. There were four female employees – a housekeeper, a cook, a chambermaid and a general servant. Occupying rooms on a long term basis were a piano tuner, an accountant’s clerk and a chemist. They all had jobs in Leeds. On the night of the census in June there were 34 other guests, all of them men apart from one married woman. They came from all over the country and had a variety of occupations ranging from electrical engineer to brush maker, railway porter and freelance journalist. There was even a town crier! Thirteen of them had connections to organisations for the blind. With occupations making mattresses, baskets, skips and brushes they would have been mainly ex-soldiers who had been blinded by gas during the First World War. Some of them were unemployed and they were probably in Leeds for a conference of their trade union, the National League for the Blind, which had campaigned for better wages and working conditions since 1893.

The County Hotel occupied the site of Tate’s Temperance and Commercial Hotel.

Most of the properties on Nelson Street were pulled down in the 1930s to make way for Eastgate and the temperance hotel was either demolished or became part of the County Hotel on the same site. That building still stands occupied by apartments today. A few months after the death of his first wife John married Clara Pullan Holmes, a spinster who was about four years older than him. The daughter of a Hunslet forgeman she’d lived most of her life at home helping her widowed mother run a small dairy and may have met John whilst delivering milk to the hotel. They married in October 1921 but before that John had invested £3,800 (worth over £110,000 today) by buying the freehold of a pub, the Fox and Hounds Inn at Bramhope. Previously it been owned by members of the Lawson family, Victorian industrialists who had made their money making machinery for spinning flax, hemp and jute. The pub was put up for sale by them in March 1921 when it was said to have a large local trade as well a lucrative income serving holiday customers on their way to Otley and Ilkley. It was sold on the 5th of April according to a short report in the Leeds Mercury. John was still only 52 and probably bought the pub in consultation with his future second wife with the intention that they would spend the rest of their days there close to the countryside rather than in the drab and smokey centre of Leeds. 

The details of the transaction come in a report in the Yorkshire Evening Post of a court case at Otley at the start of May 1922. What appears to have happened is that the licensee and landlord, Joseph Harrison, who’d been there for about 15 years, was refusing to budge. With the help of a lawyer John Furze then used provisions in the Rent Restrictions Act, brought in during the war in 1915 to prevent landlords from exploiting and overcharging tenants, to enable him to evict the landlord. It involved an esoteric interpretation of the rateable value of the pub’s outbuildings. During his evidence John said he’d had to take lodgings in a back-to-back house on Galway Terrace in Hunslet and had to put his furniture in storage. The judge sided with him but allowed an appeal. Harrison lost and the West Riding alehouse records for the Otley division show that John became the licensee in August 1922. This is backed up by the electoral register for 1923 which shows John and Clara living at the Fox and Hounds. However they were only there for about a year because they then sold the pub to Tetley’s brewery in August 1923 and a new licensee took over.

It was passed down through the Furze family that John ran the Brown Cow in Whitkirk for a while before he was sacked. He also had a shop at 223 Harehills Lane in Leeds where he died from a brain haemorrhage and heart failure in January 1924. He left £566, worth about £24,000 today. His second wife passed away in 1928 and was buried with other members of her family at Beeston.

John Furze junior is believed to be the man standing in front of a Foden steam wagon at some point between 1920 and 1923.

Meanwhile two of John’s sons had been in the army during the First World War. Clifford, born in 1898, served with the West Yorkshire Regiment and then became an attendant in a mental asylum. In 1919 he married a woman from Southwell in Nottinghamshire and moved to live near Kirkburton where he was employed at the Fourth West Riding Lunatic Asylum at Storthes Hall between Penistone and Huddersfield. It was later renamed the West Riding Mental Hospital and Clifford was still there as a “male mental nurse” in 1939. His daughter worked in the kitchens at the same hospital.

The third son, also called John and born in 1899, was a soldier with the Lincolnshire Regiment and Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment, known as the Sherwood Foresters. A report in the Yorkshire Evening Post in May 1918 indicates he was with the Lincolns at the time and had been promoted to lance corporal but had gone missing. An address at 13 Vicar Lane was given and it was stated that he had previously been employed at I. Goldman, a tailoring or shoes business on Lady Lane. His full military record seems to have been destroyed so it’s unclear what happened. Undoubtedly he survived and was awarded the British War and Victory medals.

John Furze junior pictured in the Yorkshire Evening Post in 1918.

After the war, at Leeds register office in 1920, John Furze junior married Olive Smith who’d been born at Kippax in 1895. In the 1921 census he was a haulage contractor working on his own account from home at 42 Beckett Street in the St. James district. Olive’s occupation was given as “home duties” although she may have been involved with John’s business. They were boarders, with their 10 month old baby Arnold, in the home of James Hopkinson, a boot maker and repairer, and his wife. The haulage business may not have been much of a success which perhaps explains John Furze’s glum expression in the photograph of a steam wagon. Records show it had works number 10038 and was built by the Foden company at their factory near Sandbach in Cheshire. It was bought new by Furze and Smith in 1920 and had registration number MA 3805. They sold it to a firm in Driffield three years later but it’s not known if they acquired another vehicle. Descendants of the family believe the man sitting in the cab was William Smith, possibly Olive’s brother, who married John’s sister Annie in 1917. They had two children but he died in 1926. A few years later she married a bricklayer and lived with him at Lower Mickletown.

By 1939 John Furze junior had become an employee at a shoe factory as a “clicker” cutting leather for shoes and boots. His eldest son was a bus conductor, whilst Maurice, born in 1924 was an apprentice fitter. They lived at Doris Grove which backed on to the Burmantofts works of the Leeds Fireclay Company, well known for its terra cotta materials known as “marmo” used for facing buildings. They also made a variety of household fittings including baths, lavatories, sinks and drainage pipes. It’s possible therefore that John’s haulage business could have been connected to the works in earlier years.

May Sybil Leslie

May Sybil Leslie.

Her name has largely been forgotten but May Sybil Leslie, who grew up in Oulton and Woodlesford, was a remarkable woman who broke down barriers and made several significant scientific discoveries. She was born in 1887 and was one of the first working-class girls from Woodlesford to win a scholarship to secondary school in Leeds. After graduating in chemistry from the University of Leeds she worked with two world famous Nobel prize winning pioneers of radioactivity and the nuclear age. During the First World War she ran a laboratory doing critical work on the development of explosives.

It’s impossible to say with any certainty what the early influences on May Sybil were and what propelled her into a career in science, a highly unusual occupation for girls at that time, but there are clues from her family background and childhood. Her two older siblings were teachers and her father became a bookseller so they must have been well read and interested in “self improvement.” Her maternal grandfather died before she was born but he had been a labourer at Bentley’s brewery so she may have been aware of the stone square fermentation system used there which was based on the discoveries of the Yorkshire chemist, Joseph Priestley. Following the succces of a number of boys who gained scholarships from Woodlesford before her it also appears that her teachers recognised her talent and encouraged her to follow them.

Ancestry records indicate May Sybil’s paternal grandfather was Henry Leslie from the village of Abbotshall near Kirkaldy in Fife. Born in 1823 he became a blacksmith and seems to have migrated at a young age to Lancashire either as a boy with his parents or as a young man after he had served an apprenticeship. May Sybil’s father, Frederick, was born in Rochdale in 1843 but he and his family are missing from the census until he is located in 1871 at Bedminster Down near Bristol working as a coal miner. He was lodging at a beer house with another miner from Kearsley near Bolton suggesting the pair had gone south in search of work.

Fred Leslie then returned north and was still employed as a miner when, at the age of 32, he married Elizabeth Dickinson, 29, at Woodlesford church in November 1875. The service was conducted by the parish’s first vicar, Charles John Hussey, and the register was signed by Elizabeth’s older brother, Joseph, and the parish clerk, Edward Jellyman. It’s possible Fred moved to Yorkshire to work at a new pit between the railway and the canal in Woodlesford which started production in about 1872.

Fred Leslie.

Edward Jelleyman may have witnessed the marriage, acting as the best man, because Fred was new to the area and had no friends to call upon. On the other hand they may have known each other before either of them came to the village. Edward had been born in Gloucester where he worked first as a dock policeman before becoming a railway guard. In about 1860 he moved with his young family to Bradford and it’s possible he met Fred travelling on a train. By 1871 he was living on Station Lane in Woodlesford earning a living as a tin plate worker and from his duties as the parish clerk.

May Sybil’s mother’s roots in the area were much deeper. In 1841 her parents, John and Elizabeth Dickinson (sometimes spelled Dickenson), and three older sisters and her brother Joseph were living at “Far Quarries” in Oulton. John was a labourer and came from Swillington but his wife and all the children were born in Oulton. They lived in a house or cottage in the same row as quarry owner Ann Burnill. The 1851 census gives the address as Burnill Yard, off Hobb Lane or Midland Street, and by then John was clearly working at the brewery. He later became a drayman. Two more children had come along before May Sybil’s mother was born in 1846 and baptised at one of the Methodist chapels in Oulton.

Elizabeth Dickinson was 15 years old when the 1861 census was taken but wasn’t living with her parents. She probably had some schooling in Oulton but, as was common, she would have gone into domestic service as a maid when she was 12 or 13 years old. A girl with the same name and age was working as a house servant for a widowed “gentlewoman” in Bramley in 1861. The census says she was born there but this could have been a mistake. Ten years later she was definitely back in Oulton and employed as a housemaid in the home of general practitioner Christopher Jewison who lived at the large house called The Elms off Farrer Lane. Jewison had gone to medical school in London and was a member of the Royal College of Surgeons so this connection of Elizabeth to an educated man with a library of scientific books could have had an influence on her and her children.

One story May Sybil Leslie would have been told as a child was about the tragic death of her grandmother Dickinson who was killed in an accident getting off a train 16 years before she was born. Whether any of the details were given to her isn’t known but they have been preserved in a coroner’s report which is kept by the West Yorkshire Archive Service.

The inquest was held at the Midland Hotel, close to Elizabeth Dickinson’s home, on Tuesday 24 January 1871. The first witness was her eldest daughter, Mary Ann, who was married to brewery labourer Thomas Harrison. They lived next door to her mother on Hobb Lane. She said Elizabeth was 67 years old, rheumatic, and subject to dizziness but enjoyed good health. On Saturday afternoon she had seen her mother leave with her 10 year old granddaughter, Frances Harrison, to go to Leeds to stay overnight with one of her other daughters. The next time she saw her was the following afternoon lying dead in the waiting room at Woodlesford station.

It transpired that on Sunday afternoon Elizabeth Dickinson and her granddaughter had caught the 2.15 p.m. train from Leeds Wellington station. It was one of only three local trains that ran on a Sunday stopping at all the stations between Leeds and Derby. Frances told the inquest that Elizabeth was in a compartment sitting close to the carriage door. As the train was arriving at Woodlesford, but before it came to a stop, Elizabeth put one foot on the carriage step, or footboard, and was trying to put her other foot onto the platform but she slipped and fell with her head towards the engine. Frances said a porter had opened the door whilst the train was still moving but neither she nor any of the other passengers had got up to get off. Her grandmother had lived for about 20 minutes after she was injured.

Another passenger, Arthur Riley, an engine cleaner who lived in Hunslet, had a slightly different version of what happened. He said he saw a man open the door and get out. Elizabeth then got up. He told her to wait but she took no notice of him and as she put one foot on the platform she fell sideways between the footboard and platform.

From the evidence of the train’s guard it was clear that Elizabeth had fallen and been crushed between the train and the platform. Edward Riley, a Leeds resident, said he had applied his brake and as the train was just coming to a stop he saw Elizabeth wedged between the footboard of a carriage and the side of the platform. Her feet were on the ballast and she was crushed “about the bottom of her back.” He said he had to get the driver to reverse the train about a yard to get her free. “She seemed to be insensible and blood flowed from her mouth. The space between the footboard and platform is about 5 inches. There did not appear to be any ice on either,” he said. The coroner recorded that it had been an accident and Elizabeth was buried the following day in the same grave at Oulton as her husband who had died the previous year.

The remaining houses on Chadwick’s Row in Oulton. The census appears to show the Leslie family lived at what is now 11 Quarry Hill. The houses are believed to have been built in about 1857 by Wilson Chadwick. He was married to Jane Burnill, daughter of Oulton stone merchant George Burnill.

After their marriage in 1875 Fred and Elizabeth Leslie lived at an address in Woodlesford where their first child, Olive, was born in 1876. She was baptised at Oulton St. John’s church suggesting they moved to Chadwick’s Row on Quarry Hill in Oulton about the same time. They were still there when the 1881 census was taken and Fred was still working as a miner, although he would have been at a different pit as the Woodlesford colliery closed down in 1878. A son, Harold, was born in 1878 and also baptised at Oulton. Living next door were mechanic Samuel Holt, his wife Mary, and their six children. All of them had been born in Rochdale suggesting Fred knew Samuel from his youth in Lancashire.

Evidence that Fred had “aspirations” for himself and his children comes in a report from the Rothwell Times in August 1878 showing he was a member of the Woodlesford and Oulton Mechanics’ Institute. The report gave the results of an examination set by the Science and Arts Department in South Kensington which had been created by the government in 1853 to improve training in science, technology and design. Fred was just one of five local men who had taken courses in building construction, geometry, perspective, modelling, and freehand drawing taught by joiner Herbert Lockwood, the 21 year old son of master joiner and builder George Lockwood. Mining engineer and architect Robert John Smith, who came top of the class, and Fred Leslie, who came second, were awarded a Queen’s Prize each for their results. 

By the time May Sybil was born in August 1887 the Leslies had moved to Cloverfield Villa, a much larger house on Midland Street which had previously been the home of the village doctor, James Nowell, and his family. The house was technically in Woodlesford and as a result May Sybil was baptised at All Saints church by the vicar, Arthur Irvin. During the 1880s Fred Leslie gave up coal mining and became a sign writer. His name appears amongst more than 40 “commercial” businesses in Woodlesford in the 1888 Kelly’s Directory of the West Riding. In the Leeds edition he was listed under “Writers and Grainers.”

A year later Fred was appointed by the Hunslet Rural District Council as the lamplighter for Oulton responsible for turning on and lighting the gas street lights in the evening and turning them off again late at night. He was paid 11 shillings a week, only about half of the normal wage for the period, so he must have needed an additional source of income to supplement what he earned from sign writing. The distance he had to cover seems to have been greater than the Woodlesford lamplighter, William Hulme, who was appointed a year later and only paid 9 shillings and 6 pence.

An extract from an Ordnance Survey map showing Chadwick’s Row on Quarry Hill in Oulton. Cloverfield Villa is the building next to the Midland Hotel with trees behind it. The boundary between Oulton and Woodlesford ran down Midland Street.

The 1891 census shows the Leslie family still in the same house but by then Fred gave his occupation as a school board attendance officer. The board was an elected committee of the Oulton-with-Woodlesford township and one report from 1891 says Fred had complained to them about the payment of his salary of £3 15 shillings a month “which had been somewhat irregular in the past.” They decided that in future he should receive his cheque on the night of their monthly meetings. 

The board had been established under the 1870 Elementary Education Act mainly to supervise the new school at Woodlesford which started in temporary accommodation in 1878 before the purpose built school opened in March 1880. As a Church of England “National” school St. John’s at Oulton was run differently and managed by the vicar with regular inspections, and financial support, coming from the Calverley family at Oulton Hall. At both schools there were separate classrooms for infants, boys and girls, each with their own head teacher. Officially they were referred to in the plural as the Woodlesford Board Schools and the Oulton National Schools.

Fred Leslie’s job was to enforce the law and chase up persistent absentees and truants. From 1880 to 1893 it was compulsory to go to school between the ages of 5 and 10 but the 1870 act allowed school boards to pass local by-laws making attendance compulsory between the ages of 5 and 13. In theory children over the age of 10 could leave provided they had reached a certain standard. This could vary from place to place and it appears the Oulton-with-Woodlesford board set a high standard leading to most children having to stay at school until they were at least 12.

One entry in the Oulton boys’ school log book, by the headmaster Ernest Boothroyd in September 1892, says he was handed a list of names of children who’d been taken on by a farmer to pull peas. They were all under 12 and in Standards IV and V. The log book doesn’t record what action was taken but presumably the farmer, the children and their parents were given a severe talking to by Fred and threatened with being taken to court if they didn’t go back to school.

Olive Leslie.

The Leslie family’s connections to St. John’s school were even deeper when May Sybil was growing up because both her sister and brother became “pupil” teachers there. This meant that from about the age of 13 they were serving a 5 year apprenticeship under the headmaster and headmistress and taking regular examinations enabling them to become fully qualified teachers. As a result May Sybil must have watched her brother and sister at their studies and perhaps her own academic abilities were enhanced by them practising on her! She would certainly have had access to the many books, bought and borrowed, they would have brought home.

Olive and Harold are referred to in the Oulton school log books which recorded daily activities and inspections. Olive, for instance, won a medal in 1890. Two years later she was one of three girl pupil teachers working with the headmistress, Sarah Ann Parish. In September, when her friend Amy Lee was away sick, she had to cope with teaching in Standards II and III whilst Effie Poole looked after Standard I. The same month she taught a lesson on how to cook sago. In October 1894 she gave a “criticism” lecture to Standard II on “The Tweed” whilst a month later Harold gave the same class a lesson on “The Lake District.” These were probably lessons where their teaching abilities were assessed.

With her brother and sister to take her to school and watch over her there May Sybil Leslie started as an infant at Oulton not long after she was 3 years old. This would have been in 1890 or 1891. From the infants she went into the girls’ school where she completed Standard I, but then in May 1895, when she was seven and half years old she transferred to the Standard II class in the girls’ school at Woodlesford. Why this happened is unknown but it was probably a combination of factors. Woodlesford was a much newer and larger school so her parents may have thought she would do better there. Olive Leslie had already left to attend college and her brother went away to study at St. John’s College in York for two years in 1895 so that may have been a reason. Perhaps it was simply because Woodlesford was marginally closer to their house and May Sybil wouldn’t have to walk along Aberford Road which, although it had very little traffic, may have been deemed too dangerous for her.

Cloverfield Villa.

Another reason May Sybil changed schools could have been the reputation of the headmistress and “certificated” teacher at Woodlesford who Fred Leslie would have known well. She was Kate Sidebottom who’d been in charge since 1890. Born in 1868 she had impeccable educational credentials as both her parents, Edwin and Martha, were teachers in charge of the National Schools at Altofts. Kate continued to live at a house called The Hollies with them and would have commuted daily by train from Altofts station.

Since her appointment she’d done much to improve the quality of the girls’ school and as a result examination scores had gone up and more money had been added to the school budget. In her first full year in 1891 Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools had reported that “considerable improvement” had been made but reading, writing and spelling required improvement. Arithmetic was very good in all the standards but grammar was weak. Needlework was good.

In February of 1894 Kate applied to the school board for an increase in her salary of £75 a year but they turned her down. A year later she wrote to them again. Her letter was read out at the board’s meeting and published the following Friday, 1 March 1895, in the Rothwell Times: “I now venture to renew my application, and trust you will be able secede to my request. I may mention that I have now been in the schools close on 5 years, and at the last four examinations have received “excellent” grants. The average has also increased from about 76 to 120 last year. Extra subjects have been taken and this year drawing, kindergarten, etc. are added. After taking these statements into consideration, I feel sure you will see that a higher remuneration is due to me,” she wrote.

Board member William Henry Newsome proposed an increase of £5 a year. Arthur Irvin, who was the chairman, suggested £10. “Miss Sidebottom is a good teacher and well worth keeping. The school, under her management has been worked up to a high state of perfection, and the board has every justification in making the advance,” he said. This persuaded Newsome and he altered his resolution to £10, which was seconded by William Downes, a miner and shopkeeper, and unanimously carried.

As it turned out Kate Sidebottom only taught May Sybil Leslie for about 18 months because she resigned in November 1896. Her father had died in 1894 leaving a substantial amount of money, worth more than £300,000 today. The 1901 and 1911 census returns show that neither Kate nor her mother continued to work, so it looks as though they both had enough income to retire on. One thing that may have happened though, during those lessons in 1895 and 1896, was that Kate may have been the inspiration that led May Sybil into a scientific career. The evidence is slim and relates to Edwin Sidebottom who, in 1869, won a second class certificate in a science class for schoolmasters at the Wakefield Industrial and Fine Art Institution. Science wasn’t a separate subject in elementary schools at that time. They concentrated in the three Rs – reading, writing and arithmetic, so Edwin showed an unusual interest. It’s possible therefore that he passed this on to Kate who then gave some scientific instruction to her pupils, including May Sybil.

One of the largest gatherings in the Woodlesford school year was the annual presentation of prizes to successful “scholars.” As the Rothwell Times reported: “It was always an interesting event, and one in which the parents, as well as the children, took especial delight.” The first attended by May Sybil was on an evening in December 1895. She hadn’t been there long enough to be given a prize, in the form of a “beautifully bound and carefully-selected book,” but she would have witnessed other girls and boys coming top of their classes for the previous school year and being applauded as they went up to collect their books.

The event that year also stood out because it marked the installation of an “honours” board which had been made to celebrate the success of seven children from the school who had won scholarships and gone on to secondary education in the previous decade. All of them were boys up to that point. The board, made by joiner Walter Lockwood out of dead walnut with a frame of polished oak, had been paid for by the vicar’s wife, Constance Irvin, daughter of the brewery owner Henry Bentley. A “distinguished” guest was invited to unveil it and make a speech. He was the Armley linen manufacturer and Liberal MP for Leeds East, Thomas Richmond Leuty. An active member of the Headingley Congregational church he had lived in Woodlesford when he was a boy in the 1850s. He handed out prizes to the boys, his wife gave the girls their books, and Mrs Irvin looked after the infants.

Thomas Richmond Leuty.

As the Rothwell Times reported: “Many representatives of the leading families of the village,” were in the audience. The unveiling took place shortly after eight o’clock. “As many of the parents and inhabitants, with the school board members and officials, as could find room in the boys’ department, prepared for the unique ceremony of unveiling the tablet. The boys, under their teaching staff, took a deep interest in the gathering, and were a pattern of good behaviour, obedience, and attention, throughout the whole ceremony,” it said.

There was a round of applause during Arthur Irvin’s speech when he said he believed Her Majesty’s Inspectors considered it was a village school “second to none in Yorkshire.” For many years the boys’ department had been awarded “the highest grants, and were noted for their general efficiency.” At the next inspection they hoped to receive “excellent” reports in all three departments.

Thomas Leuty untied a string to reveal the board with the names of the seven boys and the years  they had been awarded a scholarship written in gold leaf. The first was William Henry Cook, son of the Woodlesford stationmaster who’d gone to Leeds Boys’ Modern School in 1886. He later became a railway clerk.

Of the others the one that stands out in relation to May Sybil Leslie’s future career is Bilton Langstaff who won a West Riding county scholarship in 1893. Born in 1880 he was the son of Henry Langstaff who had a grocery shop opposite the school which also sold stationery and newspapers. Bilton was one of seven successful candidates out of seventy on the outskirts of Leeds. His grant covered school fees and railway fares to a secondary day school for two years with an option for a third year if his examination results were good.

Forging a path that Sybil May would soon follow Bilton studied in Leeds and obtained bachelor’s degrees in both arts and science. In 1908 he married Beatrice Waide, daughter of Woodlesford’s leading Methodist, printing factory owner Thomas Waide. By 1911 Bilton was teaching science at Goole Secondary School. He was ordained a Methodist minister and, after several years as headmaster at Thorne Grammar School near Doncaster, in 1925 he established a boarding school for boys at Rhos-on-Sea near Colwyn Bay in North Wales.

Whether May Sybil was aware of Bilton’s achievements after he left school isn’t known but it’s clear that the teachers and the school board must have come to recognise the importance of a grounding in scientific and technical subjects for all their pupils, boys and girls. Also, reading between the lines of the speech given by Thomas Leuty, although he didn’t mention girls specifically, as a radical Liberal he must have championed their secondary education. Speaking of national education policy he said  they had “not yet reached finality.”

“Not one of them would feel satisfied with the great educational machinery of the country, until every child within the shores of the kingdom had an opportunity of getting the highest and most complete education the country could afford, so as to fit them for any walk of life they might aspire to. The ladder from the board school to the university should be made more accessible, so that the best talent in the country, whether coming from the working classes or the rich, should have the opportunity of rising and coming to the front,” he is reported to have said. Reflecting his position as a Liberal factory employer he spoke about trade and the necessity of a thorough system of education, “so as to fit the rising generation for successfully coping with all foreign competition.”

For the next three years of her education Sybil May’s headmistress was Agnes Fawcett. The daughter of a boot maker, she came from Dent near Sedbergh in the Yorkshire Dales which at that time was still in the West Riding. When she was a girl an assistant school mistress had stayed with her family which may have been the catalyst for her to become a teacher. She did her training at a college in Ripon and started at Woodlesford on 1 December 1896, probably her first appointment as a certificated teacher. It’s possible she applied for the post because Woodlesford and Dent were connected by the Midland Railway via Leeds enabling her to make regular trips home to see her parents.

During the week Agnes was a lodger in the home of Thomas Nettleton whose son, William, taught at Oulton school. It may have been through him or through social or professional gatherings of teachers that she met her husband, William Peaker. One step further up the education ladder, he was the son of a Hunslet school headmaster and had studied science in Leeds, most likely at the Yorkshire College, the forerunner of the city’s university. This raises the possibility of William being another source  of encouragement for May Sybil to sit for the necessary examinations to enable her to develop her talents. After they married in 1901 William and Agnes Peaker lived at Beeston Hill and he became a technical teacher at one of the Leeds secondary schools. One of their sons, Gilbert Fawcett Peaker, won a scholarship to study mathematics at Cambridge. In 1927, after several teaching posts around the country, he was appointed the assistant to the Director of Education in Coventry. In 1960 he was awarded a CBE for his work as an inspector at the Ministry of Education.

No memoirs or letters by May Sybil Leslie concerning her childhood appear to have survived so many of these suggestions about the influences on her are speculation. Undoubtedly she must have had an innate talent but it’s clear that without the encouragement of her parents, her older siblings, her teachers and influential community leaders like Arthur Irvin, she may not have succeeded. In the wider world interest in the education and training of the working classes in late Victorian England also played its part as did ideas of female emancipation, although they were slow to become accepted amongst the largely male political establishment, locally and nationally.

A key factor may have been the closeness of her home to Leeds and the opportunity to easily reach one of the city’s secondary schools. Had May Sybil lived much further away in a more rural location the daily journey might not have been possible. The school register shows that her last day at Woodlesford school was Friday 28 July 1899, the end of the school year and just two weeks short of her twelfth birthday. The school closed at 4 p.m. after the girls had been given intensive cookery lessons on the last three days of the term so they finished the course before the holidays.

The reason for her withdrawal was given as “Higher Grade” showing she must have already passed an examination and been awarded a West Riding scholarship to go to the Leeds Central Higher Grade School. The register shows that Edith Waide went there before May Sybil in 1898 but as the daughter of a factory owner her father may have paid her school fees and travelling expenses. Most of the other entries in the register say “Required at Home” or “Left the Village.” Some say “Gone into Service” which meant that the girls concerned went to “live in” as domestic servants in Leeds and elsewhere. Four girls from Oulton school with working class backgrounds had gone to the higher grade school in 1897.

The Leeds Central Higher Grade School.

May Sybil Leslie’s secondary school had been established by the Leeds School Board in 1885 in a room attached to the Oxford Place Chapel near the Town Hall. In 1887 a decision was taken to invest £40,000 in a brand new multi-storey building, with accommodation for 2,500 children, on a site at the junction of Woodhouse Lane and Great George Street. When the new school opened in 1889 it was described as “one of the finest and largest of its kind the kingdom.” The new building had physics and chemistry laboratories, workshops and a gymnasium.

Many of the teachers had been educated at universities. From the beginning there were separate girls and boys departments and in 1890, when he announced 16 new scholarships to the school, the self-made Leeds industrialist George Bray stipulated that they should all be open to girls as well as boys. The school attracted fee paying pupils from middle class families outside the city and there was some controversy that they were being subsidised by Leeds ratepayers who payed more than those outside the city boundary.

Leeds Wellington station in October 1903, a scene which would have been familiar to May Sybil Leslie. To reach her secondary school she would have had to pass close to Leeds Town Hall which is just visible in the background.

Little is known about May Sybil’s time at the higher grade school. The 1901 census records that she was living with her parents in Woodlesford so she must have travelled by train into Leeds on schoolday mornings, returning in the evenings. Olive and Harold were also back at home and employed as fully qualified elementary school teachers probably at Oulton National Schools. They were still at Cloverfield Villa in 1902 and paying an annual rent of £15 when the house was sold to a new landlord for £340 at Oliver and Appleton’s Exchange Auction Mart on Lands Lane in Leeds.

In June 1905, when she was 17 years old, May Sybil won a West Riding major scholarship to the University of Leeds to study chemistry, physics and mathematics. The amount was about £65 a year for three years and in the examinations less than 10 per cent of candidates were successful. The grant was topped up by an Emsley scholarship of £20 a year from a £1000 fund bequeathed in 1886 by Thomas Emsley of Burley-in-Wharfedale to the Yorkshire College. It had been founded in 1874 to provide “instruction in such sciences and arts as are applicable or ancillary to the manufacturing, mining, engineering and agricultural industries of the County of York.” Its first student was Shadrach Stephenson from Methley and its possible he was known to the Leslie family as he became the manager at Bower’s Fleakingley Beck pit near Swillington where many men from Woodlesford were employed. After a period combined with colleges in Manchester in Liverpool as part of the federal Victoria University the Yorkshire College was granted a royal charter by King Edward VII in 1903 and it became the University of Leeds.

About the same time as Sybil started there her parents moved to Park View Terrace in Halton where Fred became a bookseller, perhaps to liquidate some of the volumes his children had accumulated during their studies. The house was half a mile from Cross Gates railway station and about the same distance from the electric tramway along York Road. It’s possible therefore that the move was made to enable their daughter to continue to live at home with more options for travelling in to the centre of Leeds for her studies.

Elizabeth Leslie.

At the university May Sybil attended lectures given by Arthur Smithells, a professor who took a keen interest in the science education of girls and women. Whilst at Owens College in Manchester he had taught at a nearby high school and was quoted as saying: “The first teaching I ever attempted was in a girls’ high school, and I have at least a first-hand knowledge of a wrong way of doing it!”

With Smithells’ support May Sybil was awarded a Bachelor of Science with first class honours in chemistry in 1908. She then received a university research scholarship to study with Harry Medforth Dawson. Born in Bramley he was 11 years older than her and had built up a reputation as an expert in physical chemistry. They published a joint scientific paper in 1909 and as a result she was given a Master of Science degree. Recognising her talent the university council nominated her for the prestigious 1851 Exhibition Science Scholarship, open to students worldwide from a fund created from the profits of the Great Exhibition held at the Crystal Palace in London. The nomination was reported in the Leeds Mercury in March and the following September, under the headline “Leeds Girl’s Striking Success,” it proudly announced that she had won the £150 a year grant. “This is the first time in the history of the University that the 1851 Exhibition Science Scholarship has been awarded to a woman student,” it said.

Harry Medforth Dawson.

With the grant May Sybil decided to study with one of the most celebrated scientists of the Edwardian era, Marie Curie, at her laboratory in Paris. Originally from Poland she was the first  woman to win a Nobel prize in 1903. Following the discovery of X-rays by Henri Becquerel in 1895 she had used a device invented by her husband, Pierre, to measure small amounts of electric charge coming from uranium. Subsequently she coined the term “radioactivity” and developed its theory. She deduced there must be other radioactive elements and discovered polonium in 1898, naming it after her native country, and then radium. Tons of uranium ore had to be crushed and distilled to find tiny quantities of these elements, a process that must have been harder than looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.

May Sybil Leslie as a young woman.

Knowledge of the two years May Sybil Leslie spent in Paris lay dormant in the Special Collections archive at the University of Leeds for nearly a century until it was re-discovered by Canadian researchers Marlene and Geoffrey Rayner-Canham and published in their books about women scientists, “Chemistry Was Their Life” and “Devotion to Their Science: Pioneer Women of Radioactivity.” One of the letters they found was written by Professor Smithells introducing May Sybil to Madame Curie: “This lady is of very high personal character and of exceptionally good intellectual abilities. She studied chemistry for three years and distinguished herself greatly. I am sure you would find her in every way an earnest and excellent worker.”

The Canhams speculated that May Sybil’s work in Paris, which involved dealing with kilogram quantities of minerals in huge jars and bowls, must have been “a completely new experience.” This would have been true compared with her time in the labs at Leeds but possibly not from her childhood, it being a reasonable assumption that at least some of May Sybil’s abilities in chemistry were acquired through learning to cook with her family and at school in Woodlesford!

Marie Curie only spoke a few words of English so May Sybil didn’t interact with her a great deal apart from attending lectures at the Sorbonne: “She does not speak English at all nor does she appear to understand spoken English except a few scientific terms. She speaks very quickly and to the point and is very quiet in manner but by no means languid,” she wrote. Many of the male students came from Poland and lacked English but May Sybil made lasting friendships with two other women on the course, one from Norway, the other from Sweden. They continued to correspond and whilst on holiday together years later they sent a postcard to Marie Curie from Scotland.

May Sybil spent two years in France although she returned to England each summer to help Arthur Smithells with a domestic science course he ran in Scarborough. Whilst there she would have easily been able to visit her brother and sister. Olive had become the head teacher of the school at Wintringham in Ryedale, a few miles from Malton in the North Riding, and Harold was in charge of Hunmanby school near Filey in the East Riding.

Harold Leslie.

In 1911 the West Riding education authority offered May Sybil the chance to train at their new college at Bingley but she wasn’t keen on the idea: “My lack of experience will probably be an insurmountable difficulty in the way of my obtaining such a post but can at any rate make the attempt,” she wrote to Smithells.

In the event she decided not to take up the offer and instead applied to work with yet another scientific titan, Ernest Rutherford, at his laboratory in Manchester. A fellow winner of the 1851 Exhibition scholarship, he had already been awarded a Nobel prize in 1908 and for “splitting” the atom in 1917 he would come to be known as “the father of the nuclear age.” The fact that May Sybil was associated with not one but two of the most creative and influential scientists of her age shows that she too must have been highly gifted. A reference from Curie to Rutherford called her an “assiduous and intelligent worker.”

After publishing further articles May Sybil went into teaching, possibly because she would be guaranteed a regular income. She spent two years as science mistress at a girls’ high school in West Hartlepool and then in 1914 moved across the Pennines to the University College of North Wales at Bangor where she fitted out a small physical chemistry laboratory. With the outbreak of the Great War, as Ernest Rutherford invented a device for detecting German submarines now known as sonar, and Marie Curie set off for the front line with mobile X-ray vans, May Sybil applied herself to the dangerous business of making explosives. 

As many of her female contemporaries from her school days in the Woodlesford area went by charabanc to pack shells at the massive Barnbow works near Cross Gates, May Sybil was given a job as a research chemist at a government munitions factory in Liverpool. Later she moved to another establishment at Penrhyndeudraeth in North Wales. The work involved understanding the production of nitric acid and dealing with large amounts of it needed for making trinitrotoluene, TNT. Up to then the job had been done by men but many of them had volunteered to join the army and the shortage of qualified staff meant that May Sybil was quickly promoted to be in charge of the laboratory, a highly unusual role for a woman.

Alfred Hamilton Burr.

After being awarded a Doctor of Science degree by the University of Leeds in 1918, mainly for her war work, May Sybil spent the next ten years teaching there, one of the few women on the staff. In 1923 she married Alfred Hamilton Burr, who she had met in Liverpool. He had become a lecturer in chemistry at the Royal Technical College in Salford and for the first few years of their marriage she must have travelled regularly by train across the Pennines as she continued to lecture in Leeds. She also wrote chapters in what became a classic textbook on inorganic chemistry. In 1925 the couple sailed from London to Marseilles on the Ranpura to take a delayed honeymoon in the south of France.

In 1929 May Sybil moved with her husband to his native Scotland where he taught at Coatbridge Technical College near Glasgow. After he died in 1933 she moved back to Leeds to continue researching with a guaranteed income as a warden of one of the women’s halls of residence at the university.

Hilda Marsden, Harold Leslie’s wife.

Towards the end of her life May Sybil was looked after by her widowed sister-in-law who was the same age and appears to have inherited her house. Hilda Marsden had married Harold Leslie in Leeds in August 1913. In the Great War he left his teaching post to serve as a gunner in the Royal Field Artillery and in 1919 was invalided home because of sickness. He died at the end of April 1920 but a few months earlier was well enough to father a son. Frank Marsden Leslie was born in August 1920 and, no doubt taking his inspiration from his aunt, when he grew up he became a nuclear physicist.

May Sybil Leslie died at home her home on Rigton Lane at Bardsey on 3 July 1937, a few weeks short of her 50th birthday. She’d been working until a month earlier. An obituary in the Yorkshire Post said she was “one of the University’s most distinguished woman graduates.” No cause of death was given but it’s highly likely that she died from a cancer, possibly caused either by the chemicals she had handled or by the radioactivity she encountered in Paris and Manchester. Its harmful effects were poorly understood at the time and Marie Curie herself had died in 1934 from anemia believed to have been contracted from her long-term exposure to radiation.

In an obituary for the Journal of the Chemical Society her friend and colleague Herbert Dawson remarked that up to that point she was the only woman Leeds graduate who had been given a science doctorate. As a teacher “she was exceptionally gifted and spared no effort to remove the difficulties encountered by students in their contact with scientific problems.”

He went on to remark that as an undergraduate she could easily have succeed in English if she had for some reason wanted to give up chemistry. “To her intimate friends she was known as a woman of the highest ideals, of wide human sympathies and of great earnestness of purpose. Her reticence and innate modesty limited the circle of her acquaintances, but such restriction would doubtless count for very little in comparison with the respect and sincere regard of those who were privileged to enjoy her confidence,” he wrote.

May Sybil Leslie photographed when she was on the staff of the University of Leeds.