The Wooden Wagonways of Britain

Aug 11, 2017 0 comments

Two hundred years before the first steam locomotive carrying passengers chugged out of the Heighington railway station in the English town of Newton Aycliffe in 1825, British engineers were laying wooden tracks across the island connecting coal mines to canal wharfs. These wooden trackways, called wagonways, were the world’s first true railroads, and the predecessor to steam-powered railways.

The history of rail transport goes back further than you think. According to the Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, “in basic terms, a railway is simply a prepared track that guides vehicles so that they can’t leave the track”. By that argument we can say that railways date back to the rutways of ancient Greece and Rome where two parallel channels were cut into the surface rock to guide wheels along a specific route. One of the most important rutways are located in the Isthmus of Corinth. They were built in 600 BC and were in use until the 1st century AD.


A coal waggonway, circa 1870.

By the Middle Ages wooden wagons carrying coal and running on guided trackways had become standard mining practice underground. These tubs, known as “hunds”, ran between two widely placed wooden rails. A guide pin attached to the axle of the front wheels kept the hunds on course.

The use of flanges to keep wheels on the rails was first observed in the Wollaton Wagonway, built in 1604 in the East Midlands of England, near Nottingham, by businessman Huntingdon Beaumont. It was the world’s first overground wagonway. Pulled by horses, the waggonway transported coal from the mines at Strelley to the distribution point at Wollaton over a distance of 3 km. From there the coal was taken onwards by road, to Trent Bridge and then further downstream by barge. The wagonway increased coal transport by several orders. Before long wooden waggonways had become the principal means of transporting coal from major collieries across Britain. Their construction were also the largest civil engineering projects of their time, requiring major capital investment for the funding of the cuttings, embankments, railway and the building of bridges.

Until the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the rails were made of wood and were fastened down, end to end, on logs of wood or "sleepers", placed crosswise at intervals of two or three feet. In time, it became a common practice to cover them with a plate of iron, in order to add to their life and reduce friction. This caused more wear on the wooden rollers of the wagons and towards the middle of the 18th century, led to the introduction of iron wheels. But when the iron sheaths began to buckle under load, they were replaced by wholly iron rails, and  wagonways had begun to take the shape of a modern railroad.

The transition from a horse-drawn wagonway to a fully steam-powered railway was a gradual evolution. The first recorded use of steam power on a railway was in 1804, but the initial run was found to be more expensive than horses. There was also some doubts whether smooth wheels could obtain a proper grip on smooth rails. George Stephenson, who built the first steam locomotive in 1813, showed that grip was no problem. He also argued successfully in favor of steam locomotives when a new horse-drawn wagonway was proposed for the mines at West Durham, Darlington.

In 1825, the Stockton and Darlington railway was completed. On 27 September the same year, between 450 and 600 people sitting on empty wagons meant for transporting coal left a small station at the town of Newton Aycliffe, becoming the first passengers of the world’s first steam-powered train on a public rail. The rest, as they say, is history.


A wagonway at Beamish. Photo credit:


Photo credit:


Parts of the Willington Waggonway under excavation in 2013. 


Parts of the Willington Waggonway under excavation in 2013.


Parts of the Willington Waggonway under excavation in 2013.

Sources: The Pont Valley Network / Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums / Wikipedia


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