Railways in Britain
Coal mining developed rapidly in Britain in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, but there were problems in moving coal from the mines to the nearest river for shipping to a port. Early in the 17th century, miners in Northumberland and County Durham hit on the idea of loading their coal into wagons, and hauling them along tracks made of wooden planks and rails. Sometimes horses pulled the wagons along the tracks, and sometimes teams of men pushed the wagons themselves.
A major problem with this system was that the wooden rails and wooden wagon wheels soon wore out, or broke. In 1740 Quaker ironmaster Abraham Darby II made a big improvement when he fitted his wagons at Coalbrookdale with cast iron wheels with an inner flange and cast iron axles, though he was still using wooden rails. In 1767 Richard Reynolds, then the manager of the Darby ironworks, replaced the wooden rails with cast iron ones, laid on wooden sleepers.
In 1818 a small group of Quaker businessmen, including Edward Pease and his son Joseph from Darlington, Benjamin Flounders and the banker Jonathan Backhouse, met to discuss the possibility of building a railway from Darlington, passing several collieries, to the port of Stockton.
Any new railway needed a special bill in Parliament, and their plan ran into fierce opposition and was initially rejected, because the line would have run close to one of the fox-covers of the Duke of Cleveland, a keen hunter. Edward Pease then altered the route, and Royal assent for the Stockton and Darlington Railway was finally granted in 1821.
The delay proved very significant, as in April 1821 Edward met George Stephenson and recruited him as an engineer for the railway. The original intention had been that the coaches would be horse drawn, just like all the others now in existence. However, George convinced Edward that steam engines were the future for railways, and that he could build them. The Pease family then put up much of the capital that enabled Stephenson to establish a company in Newcastle, where he built the locomotives.
In September 1825 Stephenson drove the first steam locomotive, carrying 80 tons of coal and flour, for nine miles along the railway. A passenger coach was also attached to carry the dignitaries to the opening ceremony. The Darlington – Stockton railway was the first public steam railway in the world, and was soon followed by many others.
The railway network grew under the guidance of Edward's son Joseph, who opened the Stockton & Middlesbrough branch in 1828. Stephenson continued to experiment with different engine designs, resulting in the famous Stephenson Rocket in 1829.
In 1833 Joseph became the first Quaker to enter Parliament and the railway interests passed to his brother Henry. In 1838 Henry opened the Bishop Auckland & Weardale line, followed by the Middlesbrough and Redcar line in 1846. Henry wanted to traverse the Pennines and in 1854 he started the Darlington & Barnard Castle line, which opened in 1856.
Railways were a wonderful solution to transport problems elsewhere too, and Quakers were often involved. For example, Manchester and Liverpool were trade centres whose population grew rapidly in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Although there were connecting canals their routes were much longer than the thirty miles between the two towns. In 1824 a group of merchants, including Quaker philanthropist and anti-slavery campaigner James Cropper, went to see the Stockton and Darlington railway. They soon began building the Liverpool and Manchester railway, which opened in 1830. From the beginning, it carried freight, but also offered passenger services.
Quakers were also responsible for two innovations that improved the way these new passenger railways worked - timetables and tickets. James Cropper produced a 12-page timetable for the Liverpool and Manchester railway, probably the first railway timetable ever. It was the forerunner of Quaker George Bradshaw’s Railway Companion, published in 1839. Bradshaw's became a household name for anyone using the railways.
The second innovation was the railway ticket. In 1839 Thomas Edmundson, another Quaker, was appointed station master at Milton, on the Newcastle and Carlisle line. He was unhappy that customers paid their fares directly to him without receiving a receipt. Consequently he introduced the railway ticket, which came into general use with the creation of the Railway Clearing House in 1842.
Railways were soon built connecting the Midlands to London, again due to the need to transport coal. Quaker farmer, and future MP, John Ellis, provided much of the finance required. He, James Cropper and Birmingham Quaker John Sturge then became directors of the London & Birmingham line, which opened in 1833-4.
Additional railways were soon added and were gradually organised into larger networks. In 1854 Quaker Henry Tennant was responsible for bringing together several small rail lines to form the North Eastern, which had over 720 route miles.
Many Quaker businesspeople saw the commercial advantages of railways for both freight and passenger travel. The unexpected bonus was that they made it much easier for Friends to travel and meet together, for all manner of reasons, and further strengthened the connections between them.