Thursday, July 31, 2008

Father of the Railways

‘Twenty years ago these projects, or rather that from this coal district, was of much interest to my mind and its completion in 1825 may be said to have given birth to all others in this world.’ So reflected Edward Pease, who died 150 years ago today, in his diary about the start of the Stockton and Darlington Railway. Pease is sometimes dubbed ‘The Father of the Railways’ because of the crucial entrepreneurial role he played in launching that first public railway. Although his diaries do not start until 1838, long after that particularly historic event, they are nevertheless interesting and informative. They are also freely available online.

Pease was born in Darlington, Yorkshire, in 1767, and was educated at a Quaker school in Leeds. By 14, he was already working with his father, a wool merchant, eventually though he became a successful merchant in his own right. Around the age of 50, he turned his attention to the idea of a horse-draw railway line to link the coal mines in County Durham with the port at Stockton-on-Tees, in northeast England. In 1821, he won approval for the plan from the British Parliament.

There are various versions of what happened next, and the story is colourfully told by The Northern Echo’s History Pages website. In essence, though, Pease held a historic meeting with the engineer George Stephenson (often also called ‘The Father of the Railways’) and Nicholas Wood, a colliery manager. At this encounter, it was agreed that the project should be a ‘railway’, i.e. protruding rails laid on sleepers which wagon wheels wrapped around, rather than a groove in the ground, tramway-style, into which carriage wheels slotted. And, it was at this meeting that Stephenson convinced Pease to use a steam-powered engine rather than horses. According to Wikipedia, this meeting happened on the very day of the original Parliament Act, and a new Act of Parliament was then required to accommodate the changes.

The Stockton and Darlington Railway opened on 27 September 1825. Here is what Joseph Tatlow, author of Fifty Years of Railway Life in England, Scotland and Ireland (available on the Infomations website, among others), says about it. ‘The day brought an immense concourse of people to Darlington, all bent on seeing the novel spectacle of a train of carriages and wagons filled with passengers and goods, drawn along a railway by a steam engine. At eight o’clock in the morning the train started with its load - 22 vehicles - hauled by Stephenson’s ‘Locomotion’, driven by Stephenson himself. Such was its velocity that in some parts of the journey the speed was frequently 12 miles an hour. The number of passengers reached 450, and the goods and merchandise amounted to 90 tons - a great accomplishment, and George Stephenson and Edward Pease were proud men that day.’

Pease himself, however, did not attend the great event, since his son, Isaac, had died the day before. He and his wife Rachel Whitwell had had three other sons, two of whom became MPs. Pease himself, though, carried on doing good works in his retirement, supporting the anti-slavery movement, for example, and Elizabeth Fry’s prison reform campaign. The Tomorrow’s History website, the regional local studies site for the North East of England, carries a photo of the man taken around 1855, just a few years before his death on 31 July 1858 - 150 years ago today.

It was to be another half century before Pease’s diaries were published, with the title The Diaries of Edward Pease, the Father of the English Railways. They were edited by his great-grandson, Sir Alfred Pease, and published by Headley Brothers in 1907. The book is freely available online at Internet Archive. Alfred dedicated it ‘to my eldest son Edward Pease born 1880, the senior representative in the latest generation of the descendants of my great-grandfather, Edward Pease born 1767’. Apart from the diaries, the volume contains detailed biographical sketches and lots of appendices with titles such as ‘A Quaker Wedding’, ‘Edward Pease’s Fruit Trees’, ‘A Labourer’s Letter on the Start of the First Railway’, and ‘Growth of the Port of Middlesborough’.

Unfortunately, the diaries only begin long after the historic first steam locomotive railway, but here are two extracts from 1841, one giving a sense of Pease’s involvement with the railway, and the other his Quakerishness.

‘Tues., Mar. 30. A day of great bustle and unsettlement from the opening of the Great North of England Railway. Twenty years ago these projects, or rather that from this coal district, was of much interest to my mind and its completion in 1825 may be said to have given birth to all others in this world. For the cause of humanity, at least, I believe them to be useful and being in the permission of infinite Wisdom hope they may not be wrong, but I desire to acknowledge with thankfulness that my mind is broken off or weaned from all new schemes.’

‘July 31 1841. Went to Southampton and had a welcome reception from my cousins, Rolles Driver and Sarah. Had to regret in this family a departure from simplicity in speech, furniture and attire. Whilst much of sincerity of desire may dwell in the bosoms of those who possess and do these things my belief is that the spirit of truth as lived in and obeyed, would do away with all connected with this part of the pride of life and so refine the spirit that its enjoyment would be, etc.’

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