Friday, 17 September 1830. James Scott, Station Superintendent, resplendent in top hat, dark blue frock coat (with gilt ‘company buttons’) and white trousers checks his pocket watch.  Ten minutes to seven o’clock. All was bustle around him as passengers - all of them of the first class – clambered up into the primrose-yellow coaches, which sat waiting for them. Glancing along the train of four coaches; resplendent with the exciting names of Experience, Traveller, Despatch, and Victory. Fussing around are the porters, heaving heavy trunks and portmanteaus onto the roofs of the carriage. Seated on top, wrapped up from the elements in their watch coats are Johns and Hargreaves, the guards. It is their job to keep a good look-out for any dangers and to apply the brakes on the coaches upon which they are sat. Hargeaves, more senior of the pair, takes his place on the rearmost carriage facing forward and puts on his special wire-mesh spectacles to guard against any soot getting in his eyes. Johns takes his seat on the front carriage, but facing backward so as to be in visual communication with Hargreaves. In case of danger they each have a red, a green and a white flag.

A first-class coach, as depicted by Isaac Shaw in 1831. (Author's collection, The Liverpool & Manchester Railway, Amberley Publishing)

Some of the more curious gentlemen are dallying around North Star, the iron horse at the head of the string of coaches. Painted olive green with black lining-out she presents a compact, purposeful, look with her pair of large five-foot diameter driving wheels and powerful cylinders, set nearly horizontally, alongside the firebox. On her footplate are Thomas George and his mate John Wakefield. Suddenly the safety valve lifts with a whoosh, scattering inquisitive pigeons and passengers alike.

Interior of the replica first-class coach, which sat six persons almost knee to knee: 'upholstered in French grey cloth with buttons and lace to match ... the upholstery is carried to a considerable height above the seats, padded head rests being included'. (Lauren Jaye Gradwell, 2016, The Liverpool & Manchester Railway, Amberley Publishing)

At five minutes to seven, Scott instructs the large brass bell on the platform to be rung, to inform passengers still dawdling in the waiting room to hurry up, that their train will be leaving at seven o’clock sharp and there would be only a 50% refund on the cost of their 7s (about £10 in 2016) tickets. If any passengers had a complaint, they could write it in the ‘Passenger’s Diary’ found below in the booking hall. The tickets themselves are oblong slips of bright pink paper and had to be purchased the day before, and included the name, address, details of any next of kin, and the reason for travelling. Once booked, a passenger was assigned a numbered seat in a named coach. Each of the coaches sat eighteen in three sumptuous compartments, lined with French grey cloth; the seats stuffed with horse-hair and provided with arm - and head - rests; carpeted throughout and as plush as any drawing room of the best sort. It was a tiny padded cell of luxury.

One minute to seven. Scott nods to the bugler stood to attention at the head of the train. All the train doors are closed. The luggage is secure. The guards are in their seats. With a twitch of his gloved hand, Scott signals to the bugler; he puts his instrument to his lips and sends off the train with the opening strains of ‘I’d be a butterfly’. Wakefield responds with a brief toot on his own bugle; Thomas George eases open the regulator and for a few moments North Star is lost in a cloud of steam from her open drain cocks. With a barely perceptible whoof, she begins to slowly move away, the polished steel valve levers beginning their hypnotic dance as she clatters over the Water Street Bridge and on to Liverpool, where they would arrive 90 minutes later.

The precarious position of the guard, perched on the coach roof, is readily demonstrated: it is easy to see how they could freeze to death on a cold winter's night. (Matthew Jackson, The Liverpool & Manchester Railway, Amberley Publishing)

Such, perhaps, was the scene at Liverpool Road Station, Manchester on the first day of operation of what was the world’s first inter-city railway 186 years ago. Whilst not the first public railway (that was the Lake Lock Railroad in Yorkshire (opened in 1796)) nor the first to exclusively use steam traction (that was the Middleton Railway, Leeds, in 1812) it was the first double-track mainline inter-city railway; the first to have a working timetable; a written set of rules and regulations; and the first to develop a code of signalling and safety instructions. The Liverpool & Manchester, despite various false starts and the tragedy of the formal opening (15 September 1830) changed the world, not only in how people travel, but in what they wore, and what they ate.

Henry Booth, the Secretary and Treasurer wrote:

The most striking result produced by the completion of this Railway, is the sudden and marvellous change which has been effected in our ideas of time and space. What was quick is now slow; what was distant is now near.

9781445661889

Anthony Dawson's new book The Liverpool & Manchester Railway is available for purchase now.