North Midland Railway

Plan of the North Midland Railway through Woodlesford showing how the Wakefield and Aberford turnpike road was diverted away from Bentley’s brewery. (Courtesy Midland Railway Study Centre at Derby.)

Below is a description of how the North Midland Railway came to be built through Woodlesford. It’s extracted from “The Midland Railway – Its Rise and Progess” by Frederick Smeaton Williams which was first published in 1876.  

On a beautiful morning in the autumn of 1835, a yellow post-chaise might be seen emerging from the New Inn, at Derby, and taking its way up the Duffield Road into the country. It contained two gentlemen: George Stephenson the engineer, who had come over from his residence at Alton Grange in Leicestershire, and his secretary Mr. Charles Binns. They had started on an enterprise of no common importance to find the best route for a new line 72 miles in length, from Derby to Leeds.

The project was, we believe, one of the fruits of George Stephenson’s fertile brain; but the responsibility of carrying out the work had been undertaken chiefly by Leeds and London men. Mr. George Carr Glyn, the banker, Mr. Kirkman Hodgson, Mr. Frederick Huth, the German merchant, Mr. Josiah Lewis, of Derby, and others, were on the first directorate, and in such hands the work was likely to succeed. 

It is true that the inside of a post-chaise did not seem the likeliest place for surveying the hills and dales, the roads and rivers, of more than 70 miles of country, and the top of the vehicle might, on some accounts, have been preferable; but it was the only means of conveyance then available for any such purpose. Ever and anon the travellers would alight, and walk for miles, surveying the various routes, examining the landscape from different points of view, recording the result of their observations on the old-fashioned county map they carried, and storing away fragments of the stones that indicated the changing geological formations over which they passed.

As the engineer and his secretary journeyed on together, many a problem would “Old George” curiously and laboriously solve, and many an anecdote would he tell of other days, of the toils of his boyhood, of his tender love of all things living, fostered when, as a little lad, he was wont to take his father’s dinner to the engine in the wood, where he lingered and watched birds and beasts and fishes; tales of how he at one time had resolved to emigrate to America; of how he narrowly escaped, as he playfully said, of being made a Methodist; and of how he intended to carry on the vast and varied projects which he had then in hand on the Birmingham and Derby, the York and North Midland, and the Manchester and Leeds Railways. 

In determining the route which the North Midland line should follow, George Stephenson had to decide between strongly conflicting claims. From Derby to Leeds is a series of valleys, through which flow the rivers Derwent, Amber, Rother, Don, Dearne, Calder, and Aire, affording a route from south to north, available for the conveyance of the vast mineral traffic which the district would eventually yield.

To the west of these valleys, among the great hills of Yorkshire, were the towns of Sheffield, Barnsley, and Wakefield, to approach which by the main line would involve enormous earthworks, bad gradients, and vast expenditure. The engineer made his choice: he preferred minerals to men: he would take the lower or valley route; the towns must be satisfied with branches. 

Having thus decided, another problem awaited solution. Should he skirt the ranges of hills which on either hand closed in the valleys along which his line should run, and curve to the left or right according to the ground and the gradients? But such a course would involve this serious inconvenience: that the collieries in the bottom of the valley, and those on the slopes of the opposite range of hills, would have to drag their heavy loads up to the level of the line; whereas by placing the railway itself in the middle of the valley raised only to the point necessary to avoid the floodings of the rivers, both sides of its course would be equally served, and the branches from the pits on the higher ground would all slope downwards to the line.

Such an arrangement would obviously be the best for all mineral purposes, and would also supply a short and level course from south to north. To these opinions George Stephenson inclined, and the more so because he had laid it down as an axiom that no gradient on a mineral line ought to exceed 1 in 330, or 16 feet in a mile. Eventually the North Midland Railway was laid out at that gradient, except for a short distance south of Clay Cross Tunnel, where the gradient is slightly increased. And George Stephenson always, and not unnaturally, regarded the North Midland as one of his favourite lines.

A sketch of one of the original under bridges on the Woodlesford contract.

The decision of the engineer, however, was not adopted without a fierce contest both within Parliament and without. Mr. Charles Vignoles avowed his preference for a high level route; and he proposed a line which should serve as a continuation of the Erewash portion of the Midland Counties, through the ridge up to Clay Cross and down to Sheffield. He also had surveys taken northwards to Leeds and southwards to London; for as engineers were at that time the chief promoters of railway extension, it was expected that they should be prepared to justify to Parliament the comprehensiveness and practicability of their proposals. The arguments for and against the high and low levels were submitted to the committee, not on lodged plans for competing schemes, but on the North Midland Bill proper.                                                

The views of Mr. Vignoles were supported by Lord Wharncliffe and by other influential persons interested in Sheffield, some of whom announced their preference for a line to run from Chesterfield direct through Sheffield, and thence over the hills to the north; but the plans proposed involved “excavations and embankments from 90 to 100 feet deep and high,” from one end of the route to the other. Some engineers of less adventurous spirit urged that the line should, a few miles north of Chesterfield, bend westward, and, having touched Sheffield, should turn again eastward along the valley of the Don. Mr. Leather, the engineer, was a chief advocate of this scheme; and the war of opinion thus waged, at length induced George Stephenson to reconsider whether some more adequate accommodation could not be provided for Sheffield; and Mr. Frederick Swanwick, “the resident,” was instructed to endeavour to find an available route to that town.A local committee also was appointed to promote the same object. But after once more trying the levels by way of Dronfield, it was ascertained that the gradients would be so severe that, according to the power of locomotives in that day, the route would be impracticable. In fact, the tenour of the engineer’s report was that to take the line through Sheffield with gradients equal to those of the valley route would necessitate the formation of 8 or 10 miles of tunnels. Since that decision was pronounced a third of a century has passed away: the impracticable has been achieved, and a direct line runs today via Dronfield, over the high level route, into Sheffield. 

In making even the surveys for the new railway many difficulties and some adventures were encountered by the engineers. Thus when Mr. Swanwick was running his levels a few miles south-east of Wakefield, he learned that numerous watchers had been placed across his path, and that other precautions had been adopted, to prevent his intrusion on the estates of Sir William Pilkington. But the inventive genius of the engineer was not unequal to the occasion. Running the risk of being brought before the magistrates, as Mr. Vignoles had been not long before, on a charge of night poaching and trespassing, the engineer gathered together a large staff of assistants, and made his survey while Sir William, his watchers, and all other honest folk were supposed to be safe asleep in bed.

It subsequently happened that, in some negotiations that took place in the library of the unsuspecting baronet who meanwhile had become more propitious to the undertaking he opened a drawer for a plan of the part of his estate through which he understood the projected line was to pass, “and,” he added, “no other survey has ever been made of it. “His surprise may be imagined when the representatives of the Company, as blandly as they could, at the same time unrolled their own documents, and showed that they were perfectly familiar with every acre of the district which he had so jealously protected. 

On another occasion, when making their surveys in the same neighbourhood, the engineers found their course obstructed by a high wall. Over it Mr. Swanwick at once climbed, in order to ascertain his whereabouts, and he then saw a fine wooded park spreading out before him.

A section through one of the bridges.

This proved to be the sacredly-preserved domains of the celebrated traveller and naturalist, Mr. Charles Waterton, who prided himself that here he could give a hearty welcome to every bird and beast that chose to avail itself of his hospitality; and by affording them abundant food and a quiet retreat, induce them to frequent a spot where they would feel themselves secure from all enemies; a spot where the shyest birds were so well aware of their security that they cared no more for spectators than the London sparrows for passengers.” No wonder that instinctively the engineer shrank from the commission of so fragrant an impiety as even to linger there with thoughts of a railway in his breast, and he at once decided to carry his line further to the west.

He was fortunate, as events proved, in this determination; for Mr. Waterton was peculiarly susceptible on the matter of the inviolable sanctity of the home he had provided for himself and his feathered friends, and he had odd and energetic modes of expressing his wrath. Moreover his anger had been especially excited because the Barnsley Canal had dared to wind its way, and to climb up and down by sundry locks, almost at the very gates of Mr. Waterton’s park. One day, not very long after Mr. Swanwick had concluded his surveying expeditions, it devolved upon him and upon Mr. Hunt, the solicitor of the projected line, to wait upon Mr. Waterton, in order, if possible, to secure that gentleman’s concurrence in the undertaking. On approaching the house by the drawbridge over the moat, the visitors rang the bell; Mr. Waterton himself answered it, and curtly demanded their errand. The solicitor in his gentlest tones intimated its nature. “Come in,” said Mr. Waterton. The visitors obeyed; and Mr. Hunt explained the object they had in view. Mr. Waterton answered only with a portentous grunt. “We are anxious,” said Mr. Hunt, ” to obtain the favour of your assent to the line passing through’ your property.” Mr. Waterton gave another grunt. “What reply may we return? ” inquired Mr. Hniit, one of the blandest of men, in his blandest manner. “You may say,” ex-claimed Mr. Waterton, “that I am most confoundedly opposed.” “May I be allowed to record that as your decision? ” continued the solicitor.

Mr. Waterton once more grunted. “I trust that if you cannot give your assent to the bill you will be neutral?” “Well,” replied Mr. Waterton, “I will be neutral on condition that you will faithfully promise me one thing.” “Pray, sir, what is it?” “It is that you take care that your railway, when it is established, shall ruin those infernal canals.” Mr. Hunt could only in his most winning accents assure the irate naturalist that, while he could perhaps scarcely pledge himself to the entire destruction of the canal property, yet that those whom he represented would, he had no doubt, be delighted to do their best for the attainment of so laudable an end. 

“And now,” said Mr. Waterton, who had by this time aired his amiability,” come, gentlemen, and see my museum.” They did so; and after examining a number of curiosities, which Mr. Waterton had brought from various parts of the world, the little party came to the top floor of the house, and there Mr. Waterton threw open a window, and looked out upon the grounds. “That,” he said, “is a safe refuge for all the birds of the air. Everything is secure. No gun is ever fired here. I understand,” he added somewhat abruptly, “that a fellow of the name of Swanwick, one of your engineers, once came into my park intending to bring the line this way. As sure as I am alive I would have shot him.” ” Allow me,” gently interposed Mr. Hunt, “to introduce to you my friend Mr. Swanwick.” ” A good thing you didn’t come,” added Mr. Waterton, laughing ; “I should have shot you !” 

The bill and the plans of the North Midland Railway were completed amid the intense excitement involved in the preparation of a vast number of other schemes. George Stephenson and his engineers had several important works on hand; yet everything had to be finished by the date inexorably determined by Parliament. Early and late they laboured on, till flesh and blood could hardly bear the strain. But within six hours of the time at which the documents must be deposited, an experienced draughtsman might have been seen working upon North Midland plans with the most painstaking love of his task, adding foliage to the trees in the parks, and touches of beauty to his handiwork generally. 

Suddenly several post-chaises dashed up at the door. The engineer leaped out, snatched up the daintily finished plans, laid them on the ground, remorselessly stitched them together, as quickly as possible corded them up in bundles, and then sent them flying away to Wakefield, Leeds, and other towns at which, before the clock struck twelve, they had all to be delivered. 

When the bill came before Parliament, serious difficulties had to be encountered. It had originally been intended that the line should be carried up the valley to the left of Belper, and on through the village of Milford; but the Messrs. Strutt expressed apprehension lest the works should interfere with their supply of water from the river, and they succeeded in driving the line to the east of the town, through a long dismal cutting, where nothing can be seen either of the railway or from it. 
The Aire and Calder Navigation, too, was a formidable antagonist to the new undertaking. “That body,” said Mr. George Carr Glyn, “was perhaps the most opulent and influential of all that were connected with canals. They might be said to possess almost a monopoly of the traffic of a great part of Yorkshire. They were naturally very unwilling to encounter rivalry; and he did not blame them for it. They had accordingly met the Company with the most inveterate opposition from the very first, both in Parliament and elsewhere.”

A culvert.

Eventually, in the House of Commons, the North Midland Company carried its bill; but in the House of Lords the canal interest so far prevailed as to secure the insertion of clauses which would have cramped the energies of the Company, and been seriously injurious to its prosperity. After the bill had passed, the Railway Company endeavoured to come to terms with the canal. But the latter insisted, at the outset of the negotiation, that they should be reimbursed all the expenses they had incurred in resisting the Railway Company in Parliament. “This,” said Mr. Glyn, “was like the conduct of the schoolmasters who extracted from the pockets of the pupils the cost of the rod where-with they themselves were to be flogged. The directors did not feel themselves at liberty to accede to terms so unjust and so extravagant; and, therefore, the negotiations were for the present in abeyance.” They hoped, however, by deviation from the parliamentary line in the neighbourhood of Leeds to overcome all difficulties, and an explanation of the course of action to be taken by the Company would hereafter be given, should the Navigation persist in its “extortionate demands.” 

In the early part of the following year (Feb. 1837), it was announced that arrangements for the commencement of the North Midland Railway had been made. The Clay Cross Tunnel, and other heavy works, were let. A site had been obtained for the terminus at Derby, which gave easy access to the Birmingham and Derby, and Midland Counties lines and Station. Application was about to be made, to Parliament for powers to effect some modifications of the line, at Belper, and elsewhere, and to secure increased land for station purposes at Leeds. “The proprietary,” said the report of the directors, with pardonable complacency, “is highly respectable, and affords an undoubted proof of the estimation in which this undertaking is held by the public.” The executive engineer’s office was established in Chesterfield; and arrangements were completed for the successful prosecution of the work. 

In the summer of 1838 a bird’s-eye view of the course of the North Midland line would have presented many a scene of interest. Thousands of men were at work; nearly all the contracts were proceeding with energy; and where it was otherwise, “steps had been taken to remove all cause of future complaint.” The station at Derby had been marked out; the embankment near it was coming into shape; the Derby and Nottingham turnpike was being lowered; the tunnel at Milford was being made. At Belper Pool, the temporary bridge over the Derwent was finished, and the masonry was proceeding rapidly.

 At Wingfield, the heavy earthworks, comprising 350,000 cubic yards, were being excavated; and at Clay Cross 400 yards of tunnel had been completed, and six 15-horse whinseys were at work at the six shafts, from the bottom of which men were tunnelling at twelve different faces, besides the ends. To bore through a hill full of wet coal measures was of course, in effect, to make a vast drain into which enormous volumes of water poured, which had to be pumped away; while at night the huge fires that blazed on the summit of the ridge lit up the rugged outline of the gangs of men, gave a strange and lurid colouring to the spectacle, and helped to make the spot the great wonder of that country side. 

In other parts of the line difficulties had to be encountered, difficulties which have since become the commonplaces of the profession, but which then taxed the ingenuity of the engineer. Immediately to the north of what is now the Ambergate Station is a bold eminence, through which a cutting and a tunnel had to be carried. While making the excavations it was ascertained that the upper half of the hill rested on an inclined bed of wet shale, as slippery as soap.

The mass was too lofty and too steep to allow of the removal of the whole; yet the ordinary shape of a tunnel would not afford sufficient strength to resist the enormous pressure. Accordingly it was resolved so to construct an elliptical tunnel of blocks of millstone grit that the flat arch of the ellipse should receive the weight. But the work had not been long completed when it was found that the solid stonework was splintered to such an extent as to endanger the safety of the structure. Fresh means had therefore to be provided: first, by the removal of some of the superincumbent mass, and by the drainage of the shale bed, that the material should be in part deprived of its unctuous character; and then, by lining most of the tunnel with iron ribs, it became, in fact, a double tunnel, of millstone and of iron. 

About a mile north of this work a perhaps more serious difficulty had to be overcome. Across the path of the future railway lay the Amber River and the Cromford Canal, so near together but at such different levels that the line must pass over the one by an embankment and bridge, and almost at the same moment under the other; and yet the works must be, if possible, so constructed as to avoid stopping the navigation for more than a few hours. As the line where it passes under the canal was itself to be an embankment, the foundations of the piers which were to carry the aqueduct overhead had necessarily to be laid at a considerable depth, and thence they must be raised to a sufficient height to support an iron trough which was to carry the water.

This trough was made the exact shape of the bottom of the canal, was fitted together closely, was then floated to its destination, and was finally sunk on to its resting place without disturbing the navigation, or being thenceforth itself disturbed. At this point, known as Bull Bridge, we have, therefore, a remarkable series of works. At the bottom is a river, and over it there are in succession a bridge, a railway, and an aqueduct; on the top ships are sailing, and underneath trains are running. 

Among the heaviest earthworks on the line were the Oakenshaw cutting and embankment, which required the quarrying and tipping of some 600,000 yards of rock. There was also the Normanton cutting, from which 400,000 yards of stuff had to be removed. Yet the whole line, with its 200 bridges and seven tunnels, was completed in about three years, at an outlay of about 1,000,000 a year. 

The North Midland line, as thus constructed, has two summit levels. It ascends nearly all the way from Derby, until, at the south end of Clay Cross tunnel, it is 360 feet above the sea. It then falls till it reaches Masborough, where it again begins to rise, and it continues to do so as far as Royston, from whence it slopes downward to Leeds. 

The opening of the North Midland Railway, which took place on the 30th June, 1840, was celebrated in a manner similar to that adopted by the Midland Counties Railway directors. A train, consisting of thirty-four carriages, containing some 500 passengers, and drawn by two engines, left Leeds at eight o’clock in the morning, was joined near Wakefield by a number of carriages from the York and North Midland line, and arrived at Derby at one o’clock. Here it was welcomed by the cheers of a crowd of spectators; and here, on the station platform, two long lines of tables had been spread with ample provisions, at which the visitors, solaced by music, stood to take their luncheon. After duly celebrating the honours of the occasion they returned home, well satisfied that they had witnessed the commencement of a new era in the history of English locomotion. 

Those who are familiar with the North Midland Railway as it is, and who see the enormous traffic that rolls through the busy and growing population that environ it, may have some difficulty in understanding what the distinct was only thirty years ago. When many of its largest and richest iron fields had been untouched; when the Ambergate lime-works, and the Clay Cross collieries were unknown; when Staveley was only a name; when Sheffield was but half the size it now is; when neither South Yorkshire nor Derbyshire had sent, except by sea, a ton of coals to London; and when the new North Midland quietly ran over sixty miles of almost undisturbed coal-fields, the line was but a phantom of what it is to-day. Since then, slowly and painfully, often under the pressing needs of its own poverty, yet constantly inviting and rewarding the enterprise of others around, the new Company has had to live on from hand to mouth, and gradually to develop for others the wealth it might some day be permitted humbly to share. 

In the early part of 1841 the directors were able to report that the traffic on their line was increasing. The quantity of minerals conveyed was almost outstripping the accommodation at the disposal of the Company ; and very considerable additions to the traffic were expected fron the Clay Cross collieries and coke-works, while the latter would afford the Company the means of obtaining coke at a much lower cost than heretofore. The North Midland Railway would also be used for conveying the produce of these kilns as far north as Barnsley. 

The increase of accommodation required for additional works involved an increase of capital; and this was raised by new shares issued at 35 per cent, discount. Meanwhile strenuous efforts were made to diminish expenditure. It was reported by a committee that a considerable number of the Company’s servants might be discharged; that some of the salaries had been fixed at too high a scale; and that other reductions might be made. 

The spirit in which some who were connected with the Company laboured to improve its position, may be illustrated by a fact that ought to be mentioned. When Mr. Robert Stephenson had retired from the general management of the North Midland, it was considered desirable that he should be retained as superintendent of the locomotive department, at a salary of £1,000 a year a sum which was secured to him by agreement. But when the committee, to which we have referred, held their meeting, Mr. Stephenson not only gave valuable suggestions as to the best course that should be pursued, but, to set an example of the economy he wished to be practised, he wrote a letter, requesting that half of a considerable balance due to him might be cancelled, and that 400 a year might be deducted from his salary. These sacrifices were the more to be  commended, because Mr. Stephenson had recently incurred losses to the amount of £10,000. 

At this meeting, held in August (1841), a motion was introduced, that proprietors should be permitted to travel free to the half-yearly meetings of the Company. The chairman replied, that it was most desirable that these meetings should be largely attended, but that there was no precedent for the course recommended ; the matter, however, was one which the proprietors must decide for themselves. The motion was carried. 

During this year it was decided that for the future the report and accounts should be circulated a few hours before they were formally submitted to the proprietors. “There were, however,” said the chairman,” strong objections to an earlier publication, principally as taking off from the interest of the meetings. “In those days it was also the practice for the shareholders to be summoned simply by advertisement ; and when it was proposed that each proprietor should have a circular forwarded him, the chairman, Mr. G. C. Glyn, demurred, on the ground that such an arrangement would be, in banker’s phrase, “unusual.” 

At the spring meeting, in 1842, the directors were able to report ” a continued increase in every branch of the revenue,” notwithstanding “the unexampled distress which still pervaded the commercial world.” The dividend declared was at the rate of 3 per cent, per annum. It was stated that the management of the Company would for the future be carried on at Derby, instead of being conducted also in Leeds and London. Mr. G. C. Glyn now retired from the office of chairman, and was succeeded by Mr. Newton. 

The early part of 1842 was a time of disappointment to the shareholders. Complaint was made of extravagant outlay in the erection of unnecessary premises and in the furnishing of refreshment and waiting rooms, some of which, it was declared, with the hyperbole of disappointed proprietors, were “more like drawing-rooms in palaces, than places of comfortable accommodation; “and chagrin was expressed that, notwithstanding much retrenchment of expenditure, the dividend was at the rate of only two per cent, per annum. The Board could only share these regrets, and consent, however reluctantly, to the appointment of a committee of seven shareholders to examine” the position and future management ” of the Company. 

The report of this committee was presented in the following November (1842). It stated that delay in its presentation had originated from the fact that, though it had been forwarded to the chairman of the directors two months previously, with a request for its immediate publication, the Board had declined to comply until they had prepared an answer which could be circulated at the same time. A lengthened debate followed, in which it was insisted upon that, as the Committee of investigation had recommended deductions to the amount of nearly 18,000 a year, and the directors had since admitted that £11,000 might be saved, the case of the committee was substantially proved, and that the administration of the Board was not deserving’ of confidence, This view of the matter was generally accepted; but Mr. Newton replied, that his colleagues were unanimously of opinion that the recommendations of the committee could not be carried out with safety to the public. “Then, may I ask,” said a shareholder, “the intentions of the directors? ” The chairman answered that he really could not tell; and in the midst of confusion he declared the meeting dissolved, and vacated the chair. 

The directors appear, however, to have done their best to carry into effect the wishes of the proprietors. Six of the old directors resigned their seats, and were replaced by the members of the late committee of inquiry; and the new Board endeavoured to accomplish various reductions of expenditure which had been previously proposed.

There are several other histories of the Midland Railway including The Midland Railway – A New History by Roy Williams, Midland Railway – Its Rise and Progress by Frederick Smeaton Williams, The Midland Railway by Cutherbert Hamilton Ellis, and The History of the Midland Railway by Clement Edwin Stretton.

An elevation of one of the culverts under the line.