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Elizabeth's Story - The Railway Arrives

Following the first railway - the Stockton to Darlington line of 1825, a largely horse-drawn affair but using steam engines for hauling coal - the first truly passenger railway, the Liverpool/ Manchester line was opened in 1830. With the two "giants" of the age, George Stevenson and Isambad Kingdom Brunel in full competition, the drive to provide railways to every corner of the land had started. By the early 1840s, the main trunk lines from London were in place but, even then, it is unlikely that most people in the land had ever seen a railway engine.

In the Nottingham area, the Midland Counties Railway was formed early with backing and initiative coming from the local coal-owners anxious to safeguard their markets for coal. The early aim was to connect Pinxton to Leicester but their first venture was to build the Nottingham to Derby line which was to open in 1839. It was that line, serving Beeston as it did, which was to have a dramatic effect on the lives and prosperity of Richard Harwood, on Beeston and, ultimately and inversely, on the canal.

Opposition to railways came from predictable sources - including the canal companies, the road lobby and the landowners. In Beeston, agreement with the landowners was obtained early, although the route was changed before eventual adoption.

Richard Harwood's land was not directly involved but it is evident that, from the start, he saw the opportunities the railway could bring. Even though he had been so close to the canal for his livelihood, he saw the opportunity that the railway in Beeston would bring - and he welcomed it. The diary entry got August 18 1838 tells it all:

Fine day this morning, Father laid the first block of the railway after which all the Contractors, the Engineers and several of their friends dined here on the grass pot. They spent a very merry day; there were about 34 of them. Miss Beckworth cooked for us and Aunt Alice came with father in the cart to assist us.

It seems that this sudden rush of business was unexpected but accepted with open arms; obviously not expecting this direct opportunity, Aunt Langford and Aunt Betsy had left for a few days to visit relatives in Asby just days earlier. With only two days notice, Mr Joseph Taylor - of Messrs Taylor, Johnson & Sharp, the contractors for this section) had called to give orders for the party and a message had to be sent to Aunt Alice to come and help.

Interest in the railway had become widespread in the village. The diary entry for 30 March 1838 reads :

Father and I went in the evening to hear Mr Rowen lecture on (the) loco motive engine and the general construction of Railways which he explained cleverly (in my weak opinion in such matters), The room was very crowded and warm.

The Beeston stretch was part of a 6 1/4 mile section which included the stations of Beeston, Long Eaton and Sawley and ran from the Station House on Carrington Street, Nottingham as far as Long Eaton. It was a relatively uncomplicated engineering problem, having very light embankments and only slight gradients; bridges were required at Lenton and over the Erewash River. Four miles of the line were to be perfectly straight and no curve was less than half a mile in radius, Compared with the engineering challenges being faced in other parts of the country, by Brunnel and others, this stretch was extremely straight forward.

Construction took about seven months and involved vast resources - at times about 5000 men and 500 horses as well as locomotives and stationery engines. For the local stretch, red sandstone was brought from Lenton Hill, the property of John Wright, esq. All this activity generated much interest amongst the population of Nottingham and the effected villages and the Nottingham press had much to report which they did with unbridled enthusiasm, making a great effort to explain to a readership which had not seen anything like it before.

At the end of April 1839, Elizabeth recorded in her diary:

April 22 - Fine dry day. The steam engine on the railway came up today. We saw it pass.

April 23 - Dull day with little rain. A steam enginge (with) the carriages full of gentlemen came up today and past about half past 2 o'clock. Father, Aunt Langford and I went to look at it. It moved majestically and beautifully along. There was a very great many people to see them pass. A very handsome engine.

The next edition of the Nottingham Review had more to say about this trip:

On Thursday, the chairman, Mr Oake, esq of Riddings, accompanied by several of the directors and the Secretary, made another trip to Long Eaton, the distance is between 7 and 8 miles and although in consequence of the line of road not being quite complete, they were at some points compelled to slacken their speed, the distance was accomplished in 15 minutes and their return in 16 minutes; thousands witnessed this, to the majority of the inhabitants of Nottingham novel, mode of travelling and their gratification was unbounded at the flying like speed with which the carriage, one of the First Class and a beautifully constructed vehicle, passed them.

Critics of the coming of the railway had forecast that the noise and speed of the passing trains - noisy, smokey monsters - would cause fires from sparks and that farm animals would die of fright. On the latter point, the writer did little to re-assure the reader !

The effect upon the horses, cows and sheep which were grazing was ludicrous beyond conception, they started off, stopped, stared with astonishment, kicked up their heels, bellowed, neighed and bleated, then away they ran and kept repeating the antics so long as they could either see or hear the ponderous machines ...

Many, however, saw the wider benefits of the railway's arrival and anticipated the wider changes which would occur. The Review of 3 May 1839 contained and enthusiastic letter from a reader:

Enlivened by these pleasing anticipations of the future, I accompanied a friend (having previously obtained an order from a director) on a pedestrian ramble over the line of railway from the Nottingham station. After proceeding a short distance we turned round to survey the town and environs when, oh what a glorious scene burst on the sight. My friend, with enthusiasm exclaimed, 1what has not Nature done for Nottingham? Here is a scene, unrivalled for richness and varied beauty'. As we proceeded, the villas of Mr Wright, Mr Lowe, Mr Fellows and others, on our right and the Trent winding its silvery course beneath the Grove and gardens of Clifton on our left, presented objects of continued interest and pleasure .. the comfortable station-houses, erected for the convenience of setting-down and taking-up passengers and goods for the different villages, were inactive preparation for commencing these duties which will suddenly change the stillness and monotony where none but the solitary husbandman or merry milkmaid have passed to the bustle and actively of commercial enterprise.

Things were obviously about to change at Beeston Rylands and at the other previously isolated areas which straddled the line to Derby.

Late in May, 1839 the line was complete and all was ready for the opening. Elizabeth writes in her diary:

May 27 - Fine day. One of the steam engines of the railway came with ten carriages.

May 29 - Fine day. A steam engine and one carriage came today and went to Derby, the first that had gone.

May 30 - Fine day. The Railway line from Nottingham to Derby was opened but not for the publick till June 4. There were four engines, the first three had six carriages each and the last two - they looked very beautiful. Most of them has Union (J)acks flying. There were several hundred people to see them pass.

This official opening was lavishly reported in the Nottingham press, although the Review paused to "regret that Nottingham has been left out of the great lines which traverse the Kingdom". Nevertheless, it rejoiced in the coming of this new amenity. Those 400-500 lucky enough to hold official gold printed invitations were able to take their reserved seats on one of the trains which Elizabeth, one of thousands, saw pass on that day. As the train moved from the Nottingham station that day at just after 12.30pm, it did so to the pealing of the bells of St Mary's church, the waving of flags, the cheering of the spectators and the band of the 5th Dragoon Guards playing "God Save the Queen". The spectators had poured out from everywhere:

The sides of the road, for almost the whole distance, were lined with spectators, particularly the ends of the lanes leading from the different villages contiguous to the line, which were literally crammed with anxious lookers-on. Tops of trees, roofs of houses, spires of churches along the line - all contained something in the shape of living forms who seemed to have hazarded their necks on purpose to have sight of the rapidly moving trains.

Excerpts from the diary are included by kind permission of Nottinghamshire Archives.