1829 THE RAINHILL TRAILS
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.
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
EVER A MAN OF ACTION, WELLINGTON IMMEDIATELY CHALLENGED HIM TO A DUEL
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