The Early Railways of Leeds by Anthony Dawson
The City of Leeds (and surrounding area) has a long and fascinating railway history, including the first public railway (the Lake Lock Rail Road of 1796 near Wakefield) and perhaps the earliest Railway viaduct, built near Flockton in 1758. Indeed, Leeds was once home to the highest concentration of locomotive builders in England; famous names such as Kitson, Manning Wardle, Fowler, Hunslet, Robert Hudson, Hudswell Clarke all had their works here. It was also in Leeds that Lion – aka Titfield Thunderbolt – was built in 1838, in the ground floor of a converted mill in Hunslet by Todd, Kitson & Laird.
Leeds has three internationally important claims on railway history, thanks to the pioneering Middleton Railway.
It was here that in 1758 that Charles Brandling obtained the first Act of Parliament for a railway. Brandling, owner of the Middleton Estate and its collieries, ordered to secure various wayleaves and legal agreements for his embryonic Middleton Railway which was to carry his coals from his pits to staithes on the River Aire near Leeds Bridge. This was the result of ‘cut throat’ competition between the three major colliery owners in Leeds: Brandling (Middleton), William Fenton (Rothwell) and Joshua Wilkes (Beeston), with each trying to undercut the other as to the price of coal in Leeds. Brandling’s Act of 1758 stated he would supply coal at 4¾d per corf (a corf being an old measure of coal, approximately 210lbs) for a period of sixty years – the best his rival Fenton could do was 6d per corf for a period seventy years. Under his Act, Brandling was to supply no less than 22,500 tons of coal per year and the first waggon load of coals was brought down the Middleton Railway in September 1758; the local Press referring to the railway as being ‘of such general Utility … beneficial to every Individual within this Town.’
But the story of the Middleton ‘firsts’ does not end there: in 1808 the Brandlings appointed John Blenkinsop as their manager at Middleton, and around 1810 he experimented with a low-pressure condensing single-cylinder steam locomotive but it was not a conspicuous success. In 1811, believing plain iron wheels on iron rails would not have sufficient adhesion for a locomotive to be able to move itself he took out a patent for a rack-and-pinion system of railway and in the following year introduced the world’s first commercially successful steam locomotive. These two engines had been built by Matthew Murray of the Round Foundry in Leeds and were named Prince Regent and Salamanca. The pair started work in June 1812, one of them hauling the first train load of coals from Middleton pits to Leeds in twenty-three minutes. Two more locomotives were built for the Middleton Railway, attracting international interests with visitors from France (Monsieur Andrieux), Prussia (Dr S. H. Spiker, Librarian to the King of Prussia), and even the future Tsar Nicholas I of Russia who travelled to Leeds to carry out an inspection. Blenkinsop’s engines – despite two of them blowing up – remained in use for nearly twenty years.
Not only was the Middleton the first railway to be built under an Act of Parliament and the first to commercially use steam traction, it was also the first standard-gauge railway to be preserved. The Middleton had been nationalised in 1947 as part of the National Coal Board, but despite it being the railway’s bicentenary year, the NCB announced it would be going over to road haulage in February 1958. Although the future seemed bleak for the little railway, a special train was organised in June, carrying 300 passengers on a bicentenary trip in cleaned up coal wagons. But, by August 1959 coal was leaving the Middleton pits by road, and by 1967 the coal traffic over the line had all but dried up. This is where the enterprising students of the Leeds University Union Railway Society became involved. Under the leadership of Dr Fred Youell, the society had the idea of acquiring a short stretch of railway line as a museum on which to display preserved artefacts, and the Middleton Railway was suggested – but the Leeds University Union had other ideas and did not approve of one of its societies running a railway. Thus in December 1959 the LUURS formed the Middleton Railway Preservation Society, and entered into negotiations for the use of the line. During Rag Week 1960 it operated its first train, comprising of a Swansea & Mumbles tramcar hauled by a Hunslet Diesel and driven by Dr Youell wearing Leeds Academic Regalia. During the week over 7,000 passengers were carried, and what had started as a [temporary] passenger service gave rise to another, even more radical idea: why not run a goods service? And so it was that a group of volunteer railwaymen commenced running a commercial goods train in September 1960, carrying scrap metal, thus becoming the first standard-gauge railway in the world to be preserved and run by volunteers.
Although mainline steam in Leeds ended in 1968 – Leeds Central and Leeds Wellington stations had closed 1966-1967 – and the last steam locomotive for industry was turned out from Hunslet’s Jack Lane works in 1971 for export to Indonesia, steam still survives in Leeds where it began in 1812. For over fifty years the preserved Middleton Railway has carried happy passengers from its Moor Road terminus to Middleton Park and is home to a flourishing collection of locomotives which once bore ‘Leeds’ on their works plates.
Anthony Dawson's new book The Early Railways of Leeds is avialable for purchase now.