At just over thirty miles, the railway between Liverpool and Manchester covered a relatively short distance. But, as the world’s first twin tracked and timetabled passenger railway it signalled the start of the railway age and ushered in the modern age.
At the start of the nineteenth centuries Liverpool and Manchester were fizzing with capitalist energy. Liverpool was well into its ascent as a great port, cementing its place as a leading hub of the British Empire. Manchester was a little behind the curve, developing its role as a manufacturing centre but with its glittering future as Cottonopolis in sight.
The towns (they would only be granted city status in 1880 and 1853 respectively) lay just over 30 miles apart in North West England. The burgeoning trade between the two towns was already conveyed via turnpike roads and a network of canals (the Bridgewater Canal, Leeds and Liverpool Canal and the Mersey and Irwell Navigation).
The existing transport network was barely coping with the daily increasing tonnage of cotton goods being sent from Manchester to Liverpool for export. In 1824 alone 409,670 bags of American cotton arrived in Liverpool; the bulk was destined for Manchester to be processed into cotton goods.
Deliveries took too long, adding considerably to the expense of production. The canals needed between 12 to 18 hours to get a load between the towns. Travel times were little better on the turnpike and even express passenger services took over five hours to cross the 36 miles.
Perhaps more pressing, it was felt that the canal owners were extracting extortionate profits over their monopoly route. The Bridgewater Canal was delivering the Duke of Bridgewater an extraordinary annual return of 50% on his initial investment. Shares in the Mersey and Irwell Navigation Company had increased in value from £70 in 1736 to £1,250 in 1825 and still managed to pay an annual dividend of £35 a share.
Was the solution to import technology from the coal fields of England’s industrial North East and build a railway? The supporters of a railway certainly thought so. Their first prospectus promised:
“the transit of merchandise will be effected in four or five hours, and the charge to the merchant will be reduced at least one-third.”
It seemed an obvious solution: the towns were so close together and there were no obvious barriers – no intervening mountains or great rivers. What could possibly stop progress steaming down the Mersey valley? The project started well with the appointment of George Stephenson, an engineer who had forged a strong reputation by building reliable and profitable wagonways around Newcastle.
It soon turned out that the direct route between Liverpool and Manchester was not quite as suitable as first imagined. There were three main obstacles: Lord Sefton, Chat Moss and the canal owners led by the Marquis of Stafford. Stephenson would be pitched against some of the most powerful figures of the nineteenth century aristocracy and a natural barrier of boggy peatland and mosses that seemed impassable.
At Croxteth Hall, Lord Sefton brooded over the encroaching signs of modernity all around his vast estate. These lands had been granted to the Molyneux family by William the Conqueror, and Croxteth had been the family seat for generations. Located six miles from the centre of Liverpool, the estate formed a vast collar of open space around the town. And Lord Sefton had no intention of letting the railway pass through his land.
William Philip Molyneux, who would go on to become the Second Earl of Sefton, had opposed the surveying of the land, banning any entry to his estate. He would go further than this, hiring a gang of heavies to intimidate and chase away the surveyors. Stephenson responded by hiring a team of prize fighters to defend his team.
Lord Sefton was finally overcome by the promoters obtaining a Parliamentary bill. The Liverpool and Manchester Railway Bill was finally passed by a large majority in 1826. This left the canal owners to deal with. In the end, the biggest single investor in the Manchester and Liverpool Railway was the owner of the rival Bridgwater Canal. The Marquis of Stafford’s £100,000 bought 25% of the railway’s capital, the right to appoint three directors and, at a stroke, eliminated one of the major obstacles to completion. The Marquis had read the economic runes, and calculated the best source for future profits.
The only obstacles left to the railway promoters were now the natural impediments. The Manchester and Liverpool Railway would have to either go over or around Chat Moss, over the River Irwell and under the Cheshire Pennines. Of these, the vast expanse of Chat Moss seemed like an insurmountable obstacle.
Initially, Stephenson attempted to fill the bog by dumping vast quantities of spoil onto the peat. This failed, with the Moss’s seemingly insatiable appetite swallowing up however much debris was emptied into it. Stephenson’s solution was to build the line on a floating wood and stone foundation. At first considered madness, then dangerous it was eventually hailed as a “great triumph of engineering”.
Even when the railway was built, it still faced trials and tragedy. On the opening day, one of the main proponents was crushed to death and the celebrations in Manchester were curtailed amidst rioting at the presence of the deeply unpopular conservative Duke of Wellington.