Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - HOME FRONT - Jad Adams is a writer and Fel­low of the Royal His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety


he rail­way age was born in a his­toric com­pe­ti­tion that would de­fine the fu­ture of rail trans­port for the rest of the cen­tury.

Rail­ways were noth­ing new: horses pulled trucks along rail­way lines around mines and other in­dus­trial works. Lo­co­mo­tives such as Richard Tre­vithick’s road and rail steam ve­hi­cles had been seen by your an­ces­tors for 25 years. Some might have at­tended a ‘steam circus’ where they paid a shilling to see a lo­co­mo­tive puff­ing around a track.

Steam was known to be the power of the fu­ture, but the ques­tion was: what form would it take? The con­tro­versy was be­tween sta­tion­ary and mov­ing en­gines. Sta­tion­ary wind­ing en­gines would haul loads along a rail, pulled by a chain or cable, while lo­co­mo­tives moved along rails ‘un­der their own steam’.

The ques­tion was whether lo­co­mo­tives had the speed and power to deal with heavy loads more ef­fi­ciently than horses or sta­tion­ary en­gines. The own­ers of the Liver­pool and Manch­ester Rail­way staged the Rain­hill Tri­als in Lan­cashire to see the best lo­co­mo­tives in ac­tion. The ‘pre­mium en­gine’ would have the chance to run on the new line which linked the in­dus­trial pow­er­house of Manch­ester with the great north­ern port, so there was ev­ery­thing to play for. Of­fi­cially the prize awarded by the three judges was a sum of £500, but ev­ery­one watch­ing and tak­ing part knew the real prize was to be cho­sen as the form of trac­tion on the new rail­way.

The tri­als were an­nounced in April; com­peti­tors had six months to build a win­ner. On 6 Oc­to­ber 1829, a crowd of 10,000 spec­ta­tors gath­ered to see the gleam­ing machines put through their paces, in the most im­pres­sive demon­stra­tion of me­chan­i­cal lo­co­mo­tion ever seen.

Com­peti­tors had to prove their ca­pac­ity to haul a weight 20 times up and down the one-and-a-half mile track – to rep­re­sent thee dis­tance be­tween Liver­pool and Manch­ester – reach­ing speeds of ten miles an hour. Ten lo­co­mo­tives en­tered the tri­als, but on the day only five took part.

One en­try was horse-driven, a tread­mill on rails that the horse moved by run­ning on the spot, but the Cy­cloped bro­kee down early on. All the other en­tries were steam ve­hi­cles. The Per­se­ver­ance was dam­aged on its way to the tri­als when the cart con­vey­ing it fell over, and the un­for­tu­nate en­gi­neers spent the early days of the tri­als try­ing to fix it. A very heavy ve­hi­cle, Sans Pareil, suf­fered a cracked cylin­der on the fifth day and with­drew. Now there were two: the Nov­elty and the

Rocket. The Nov­elty was eas­ily the crowd’s favourite, it was sim­ple, ele­gant and fast. It reached a top speed of 28 miles per hour in demon­stra­tion runs, but a wa­ter feed pipe burst and the ce­ment used to seal the joint with the boiler needed five days to set.

Your fore­bears watch­ing from the stands – and the rail­way man­agers – must have won­dered if any steam-driven ve­hi­cle in ex­is­tence could ac­com­plish the task.

The last com­peti­tor was the Rocket, built by a fa­ther-and-son team from New­cas­tle-upon-Tyne. Ge­orge Stephen­son had been born poor, but he de­cided to use what mea­gre in­come he had to ed­u­cate him­self and only learnt to read and write at the age of 18. He worked on col­liery machines and re­ceived a lucky break when a pump­ing ma­chine broke down. He of­fered to fix it, and so im­pressed his em­ploy­ers that he was of­fered a job as an en­gi­neer.

As he rose to bet­ter paid jobs, his son Robert was able to have an ed­u­ca­tion and he too showed him­self to be a bril­liant en­gi­neer. Ge­orge founded Robert Stephen­son and Com­pany to make lo­co­mo­tives, with Robert as the pub­lic face as his ed­u­ca­tion and mid­dle class ac­cent gave him the re­spectabil­ity de­nied to the older man, who spoke in broad Northum­ber­land.

There was lit­tle in­no­va­tion in the lo­co­mo­tive, Robert Stephen­son’s ge­nius was in per­fect­ing ex­ist­ing tech­nol­ogy, like the 25 cop­per pipes which ef­fi­ciently re­cir­cu­lated hot ex­hausts through the wa­ter tank to raise the tem­per­a­ture and im­prove the pro­duc­tion of steam.

The Rocket cov­ered 35 miles in just over three hours, haul­ing 13 tons of loaded wag­ons. It won; the com­pany was awarded the con­tract to pro­duce lo­co­mo­tives for the new rail­way; and Stephen­son’s de­sign be­came the tem­plate for most steam en­gines for more than a cen­tury after­wards.

Divine rights

From this year your Catholic an­ces­tors will have had po­lit­i­cal rights se­cured by the Ro­man Catholic Re­lief Act. This al­lowed Bri­tain's Catholics to sit in West­min­ster and to hold any of­fice un­der the Crown – ex­cept­ing prime min­is­ter.

The prime min­is­ter who saw it through was the Duke of Welling­ton, hero of the Napoleonic wars. The ma­jor­ity of mem­bers of his own Tory party op­posed it and he had to rely on the sup­port of the op­po­si­tion Whigs to pass the act. Welling­ton had no real en­thu­si­asm for Catholic eman­ci­pa­tion, but he feared a revo­lu­tion in Ire­land more, so it was a po­lit­i­cal ne­ces­sity.

His op­po­nents felt the as­cen­dancy of the Angli­can church was threat­ened and there­fore, be­cause the Crown was be­stowed by the church, the very monar­chy was en­dan­gered. The Earl of Winchelsea called the Act “an in­sid­i­ous de­sign for the in­fringe­ment of our lib­er­ties and the in­tro­duc­tion of Pop­ery into ev­ery de­part­ment of the State.” Ever a man of ac­tion, Welling­ton im­me­di­ately chal­lenged him to a duel. They met with pis­tols on Bat­tersea Fields (now Bat­tersea Park) on 21 March 1829. Hon­our was sat­is­fied when Welling­ton aimed wide and Winchelsea fired his pis­tol into the air.

Up in smoke

The east arm of the gothic cathe­dral York Min­ster was se­ri­ously dam­aged by fire this year. The per­pe­tra­tor was not hard to find, be­cause he had pre­vi­ously left threat­en­ing plac­ards on the min­ster’s rail­ings, giv­ing his ini­tials and ad­dress. Jonathan Martin, a non­con­formist min­is­ter, was tried in York Cas­tle. The trial at­tracted pub­lic­ity be­cause Martin’s brother was the sim­i­larly named John Martin, a fa­mous artist of apoc­a­lyp­tic bib­li­cal scenes.

He was found guilty on the charge of


ar­son, which should have re­sulted in a death sen­tence, but the judge de­clared him not guilty on the grounds of in­san­ity and he was de­tained in Beth­lem Royal Hospi­tal.

Wives for sale

If you en­counter le­gal doc­u­ments re­lat­ing to your anc ces­tors from this time, the ey may re­fer to a ‘ feme sole e’ who was an un­mar­ried wom man who had the right tot own prop­erty and could make con­tracts in her own name. A mar­ried woman was a ‘ feme covert’: shee was un­der the le­gal l doc­trine of ‘cover­ture’. Mar­ried women hadhd no legall l iden­tity, as their rights were ‘cov­ered’ un­der their hus­band’s. Scot­land had a sim­i­lar prin­ci­ple, but it was never so fixed and bind­ing as in Eng­land. Re­ports of wife sales were at their peak at this time – but that fact throws up the usual prob­lem of re­ported ev­i­dence: does the in­creased num­ber of sto­ries in news­pa­pers mean there were more wife sales or just more news­pa­pers to rep­port them? Or was it tthat with a dde­vel­op­ing sse­ri­ous­ness in sso­ci­ety, there was moore in­ter­est in the sur­rvival of this crude praac­tice? TTyp­i­cally a wife wou­uld be taken to a maar­ket, with a symm­bolic halter of a rope or a rib­bon. TThere may have be­been a no­tice of the in­tended sale in a news­pa­per; theh very pub­lic na­ture of the event was a key part of it. A be­nign way of un­der­stand­ing the prac­tice is to say it per­mit­ted sep­a­ra­tion and new re­la­tion­ships at a time when di­vorce was dif­fi­cult for the rich and im­pos­si­ble for the poor. In a wife sale, a woman could move to a new part­ner in an open way and her hus­band would be sim­i­larly free. It was a pub­lic dec­la­ra­tion that no one in this trans­ac­tion should be ac­cused of bigamy; and that the woman would not suf­fer the pub­lic dis­grace of ac­cu­sa­tions of for­ni­ca­tion or adul­tery.

Re­ports of­ten show women as will­ing par­tic­i­pants. As a woman was re­ported to have said when her hus­band showed him­self re­luc­tant to sell her in Wen­lock mar­ket in Shrop­shire, “Let be yer rogue. I will be sold. I wants a change.”

The usual prices were be­tween two shillings and six­pence and five shillings. Some­times much higher sums are re­ported which in­di­cates that peo­ple high up the so­cial scale who could af­ford 50 guineas were us­ing this method of re­ar­rang­ing their re­la­tion­ships. The price was some­times only a glass of ale, which sug­gests a less than af­fec­tion­ate mar­riage bond had been bro­ken.

Stephen­son's Rocket com­petes for the chance to run on the Liver­pool and Manch­ester line

The Rocket won the Rain­hill Tri­als in 1829 and took the con­tract to run on the Liver­pool and Manch­ester Rail­way

The last pho­to­graph of Robert Stephen­son, pic­tured with his fam­ily in 1855

A wife be­ing sold at Smith­field Mar­ket in Lon­don in the 1820s

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