The Canal Railway

Taken from an article in The Northampton County Magazine, August 1928

Two Old Railways
by the Editor

Roper & Cole map of Cotton End showing the canal railway

 A CORRESPONDENT writes that recently he saw a map of Northampton, dated 1807, in which the terminus of a railway is shown not far from the South Bridge in Cotton End, and as the first railway in the world, that from Stockton to Darlington, was opened in 1825, he asks if there is an explanation.

It may be said at once that the map is correct. There are many references to the railway which ran from Blisworth to Northampton in the early years of last century. The Northampton Corporation objected to it. The Assembly in 1809 resolved:-

"That this Assembly has observed with regret a railway substituted for a canal by the Grand Junction Company, a mode of communication equally as injurious to this town and neighbourhood as to the Canal Company, experience having fully proved it to be inadequate for the purposes intended, inasmuch as the articles that are conveyed along it are unavoidably subject to great waste, breaking and pilferage, the communication is much more difficult and expensive than it would have been by water, and nearly all perishable articles of merchandise are prevented from passing along it."

Notwithstanding my categorical answer and this extract, an explanation is required.

In Elizabethan times the conveyance was by packhorse, which gave place, slowly, to carts, and then to heavy waggons. For persons, chaises and coaches succeeded. Roads generally were execrable, and were only slowly, very slowly, improved. Rivers were the best means of transport, but their direction was fixed: they could neither be augmented nor multiplied. Sydney Smith is credited with thanking the wisdom of providence in placing rivers near the large towns. In the first half of the eighteenth century the river Nene was navigable from the sea only as far as Peterborough.

In Yaxley Church, near Peterborough, there is a monument to Thomas Squire, who died in 1759, "merchant, native, and once inhabitant of this town." The inscription goes on to state that the deceased "at his own expense undertook to make the river Nene navigable from the city of Peterborough to Islip, near Thrapston, in the county of Northampton, where he afterwards lived upwards of 20 years, to see it answer his own wishes as well as the expectation of the publick."

Cooke's history of Northamptonshire, several editions of which were published before 1820, says "after several ineffectual attempts to extend the navigation, it was at length accomplished in the year 1762, when boats laden with coal came up by Oundle, Thrapston, Higham Ferrers, and Wellingborough, to Northampton. The navigation is, however, still very defective and incomplete, but it is capable of being rendered highly serviceable to the town on its banks."

A little later we come to the canal era. The Grand Junction Canal runs through Northamptonshire, entering the county from Leicestershire at Welford, passing through Crick, Weedon, Blisworth to Cosgrove in the south, and thence into Buckinghamshire for London. At Welton, near Crick, there is an arm which joins the Oxford Canal at Braunston, and at Cosgrove a branch runs through Passenham and Wicken to Buckingham.

When this canal was in the making considerable difficulty was experienced in cutting the tunnel between Blisworth and Stoke Bruerne, and in carrying the canal on an embankment further south. The Northampton Mercury, on the last day of August, 1805, printed the following:

"Grand Junction Canal - We are happy to announce the completion of nearly all the great works which were going on upon this important and extensive line of inland navigation, rendered peculiarly interesting to Englishmen by forming an immediate connection with the British capital, and the numerous canals which intersect and cross each other in all directions between our great manufacturing towns and works. On Monday morning last, the stupendous embankment between Wolverton and Cosgrove, near Stony Stratford, was opened for the use of trade. Boats navigating the Grand Junction Canal will now avoid the delay, labour, and danger, of passing eight locks."

Northampton, apparently, was anxious to have water communication with the Grand Junction Canal, and a branch was early projected joining the Nene, navigable to Northampton, with the canal at Blisworth. So impatient were the promoters that they determined on laying a railway (we should call it a tramway now, but that word had not then been popularised).

These railways were no new things. They had long been used underground, and overground, by most collieries. At first they were of wood, afterwards of cast iron. They were also used for connecting works and industrial towns. In the long period in which the Blisworth canal tunnel was being constructed, a railway was laid overground from mouth to mouth for the conveyance of stores and even of merchandise. The motive power on these railway lines was provided by pit ponies, horses, and human beings.

The railway from Blisworth to Northampton was opened in October, 1805, and a great deal was expected from it. The resolution of the Corporation of Northampton shows that the expectations were not realised. The branch canal was finished in 1815, and the railway was dismantled. Some few of the rails were actually thrown into the canal, whether as the most economical way of disposing of them, or from sheer mischief, cannot now be said. The course of the railway was close to the present course of the canal, and terminated at Cotton End. A carrier's advertisement in 1805 ends: "George Osborne likewise informs his Friends and the Public, that he has on Sale, Wednesbury Coals, Coke, and Slates, at the Rail-Road Wharf, in Cotton End."

Northampton Mercury, Saturday 1 Nov, 1806

Capital House, Wharf and Malting.

To be LETT, to the Best Bidder, At the Ram Inn, in the Town of Northampton, on Thursday the 6th Day of November inst. at Five o'Clock in the Afternoon, subject to such Conditions as shall be then and there produced,
A Capital MESSUAGE or TENEMENT, in good Repair, with useful attached and detached Offices, situate in the South-Quarter, in the Town of NORTHAMPTON, now in the Occupation of Mrs. Alice Peach.
—Also, an extensive and convenient-' WHARF YARD, and an excellent MALTING, adjoining the said Messuage, with all requisite and convenient Buildings thereto belonging.
The above Premises are most eligibly situated by the navigable River Nine, very near the Grand Junction Wharf, from whence is a direct Communication, by the present RailWay to the Grand Junction Canal, and are capable of carrying on a very extensive Trade.
*** For further Particulars, apply to Mr. Theo. Jeyes, Solicitor, Northampton.

Northampton Mercury, Sat, 17 Aug, 1805

C. Mills,
(At his Agent's, Thomas Bridges, No. 57, Mark- Lane, London,)
BEGS Leave to inform his Friends and the Public, that the Canal and Iron Railway from London to Northampton being finished, and by Boats to Wellingborough, he will deliver WINES, &c. at NORTHAMPTON, free of Carriage, to those who will be pleased to favour him with their Commands.—Prime Old Port (in Wood), Ditto, from One to four Years (in Bottles), prime Pale Sherry, ditto BROWN,Ditto, CLARET, East and West-India Madeira, Calcavella, Lisbon, Mountain, and every other Description of Wines and Foreign Spirits, of the first Qualities, and at the lowest Prices.

*** Orders addressed to Mrs. Mills's, Abington-Street, Northampton, or to No. 57, Mark-Lane, will be Punctually attended to, and thankfully acknowledged.

*** Bottles and Hampers returned free of Expense, by sending them to Mr. George Osborn, Cotton-End Wharf, Northampton.

London, August 9th, 1805.

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