Mineral Lines

Early Railways




Early Railways


Transport of coal and metal ores from mines was a great problem as the first method used was a packhorse, which could only carry about 3 hundredweight of goods.  Where possible, these were replaced with a waggon pulled by three horses and that could move the equivalent of 20 packhorses.  The waggons tended to turn tracks into muddy quagmires and, as they moved to the sides to find firmer ground, made the tracks very wide.  This was unpopular with landowners as it spoiled a lot of their land and it sometimes led to them refusing access.  As a result, experiments were carried out using wooden planks over which the waggons passed.  This then led to wooden rails being laid down in parallel, with rails usually being 3½ inches x 4½ inches thick and fixed to wooden sleepers.  These were known as waggonways or tramways and they reduced friction on the wheels, thus allowing horse-drawn waggons to move along more easily.  Another benefit was that horses could now pull loads of up to 13 tons, a fourfold increase on previously.  The first recorded use of a tramway, using a flange to keep the wheel on the rail, was in 1604 when Huntingdon Beaumont constructed the Wollaton Waggonway to transport coal from mines at Strelley to Wollaton, near Nottingham. It has been suggested that the system may have been in use in Shropshire before that date but there is no documentary evidence. 


The first recorded use of a wooden railway in Shropshire was in Broseley in 1605, by Richard Wilcox and William Wells for carrying coal.  It ran for ½ mile from a mine in Birch Leasows via Birch Batch to Calcutts and the River Severn (known locally as the Jackfield Rails). The line crossed the land of James Clifford, lord of the manor and rival coalmaster and, perhaps in anticipation of his opposition, Wilcox and Wells had sought a licence from the Privy Council for its construction. Within week, Clifford's men had attacked and seriously damaged the railway and soon afterwards built his own railway from his mines near Calcutts to the river.  Those rails were removed by Wilcox and replacements of them by Wells. There is a reference to Clifford’s waggonway in 1606 as using “tylting railes”, ie an incline down to the River Seven. By 1608 Clifford had also laid rails from mines west of Calcutts.  A number of waggonways were constructed in the area from the mid-17th century onwards :-


1686 – “Benthall Rails” from mines at Benthall to the River Severn


1692 - 1,500 yards from Lane Pit to the River Severn


1692 - from mines in Madeley Wood to the River Severn


1702 – by Richard Manning and Lancelot Taylor from Broseley to the river via Tarbatch Dingle


1706 - from a pit in Lloyds Dingle to the River Severn, with a 'wind' and chain to let coal and ironstone waggons down the steep hillside


1700s – from Broseley, west of Corbatch Dingle to the Tuckies

1728 - by William Forester and William Hayward to carry ironstone from Little Wenlock to Meadow wharf on the River Severn

It seems that the average dimensions of wooden rails were 6ft x 8 inches x 4 inches but other sizes were in use.  The early wagons had 4 wooden wheels 1 foot in diameter.  To reduce wear, some rails were fitted with metal strips on top, although this meant that wheel then took the wear instead.  As a result of this, wooden wheels were replaced by ones made of iron and in 1729 the Coalbrookdale Ironworks began to produce iron wheels, with an inside flange to run on the rails, and the Horsehay Ironworks produced the axle-trees. The wagons at this time were 10ft long and 4ft wide, pulled by 3 horses and carrying 2½ tons.  The extra weight led to the wooden rails, even with a metal strip on top, starting to break because of the weight and hardness of the wheels, which were about 3 hundredweight each. 

Waggon with wooden wheels

Waggon with iron wheels


Meanwhile more waggonways were built :-


1730s – J U Smitheman was buying large numbers of iron wheels for railway waggons from the Coalbrookdale Company to be used in Madeley


1741 – from Lane Pits to Ludford Wharf.  The waggons on this used iron axles and wheels.


1747 - from the Horsepasture Mines to a wharf on Watling Street.


1747 - 8 miles from Hollinswood to Sutton Wharf on the River Severn


1747 - to the Shrewsbury Canal west of the Trench inclined plane


1747 - from Priorslee to the Wrockwardine Wood inclined plane


1748 - by the Coalbrookdale Company at Lake Head


1748 - by John Wilkinson from Willey Furnace to River Severn

1750 - 2 miles by the Coalbrookdale Company from Forester's mines at Coalmoor to the Coalbrookdale Furnaces

1755 – by the Coalbrookdale Company from Horsehay Furnaces to Coalbrookdale Ironworks via Dawley and Coalmoor.  There was a 112 yard gravity incline at Jigger’s Bank.



Waggon descending Jigger’s Bank [W. Williams 1777]


Waggon at bottom of Jigger’s Bank [G. Perry & T. Vivares 1778]

1755 – by the Coalbrookdale Company from Horsehay Furnaces to mines at Lawley and Ketley.  This was 16ft wide and ran from Horsehay, northwest of Dawley Green and via Dawley Bank


1757 – by the Coalbrookdale Company between Horsehay Furnace and Ketley Furnace

1758 – three by the Coalbrookdale Company from coal and ironstone pits to the Madeley Wood ironworks

The next development was to replace the wooden rails with ones made completely of iron and this idea is usually credited to Richard Reynolds, who purposely did not patent the idea so that it could be used by everyone. He experimented first in the yard at Coalbrookdale Ironworks and there is an entry in the ledger on November 1767 for “100 iron rails 111cwt. 2qtr. 11lbs @ 7/-“.  The experiment was successful and by August 1768 the Coalbrookdale Company was regularly producing iron rails at 1½d each.  No doubt the company replaced its own wooden rails first and used these to impress customers to buy them.  There seem to have been two types of iron rail, one type being 6ft long, 334 inches wide and 114 inches thick, with four projecting lugs (3 inches x 334 inches) to enable them to be fixed to the sleepers. The other type was only 3ft long and 2 inches wide.  This type of rail was known as “edge rail” and relied on the flange being on the waggon wheel.  The section of waggonway from the Coalbrookdale Ironworks to the river was later described “… the tram plates are 5 and even 5½ feet long and lie in cast iron chairs.  The tramroad at Coalbrookdale comprises really two; a small one of twenty inch gauge, which is worked with small receptacles, lies in the middle of a large one of 36 inches gauge”.  Another development was to replace the wooden sleepers with stone blocks, which were sturdier.


Waggonway Below Coalbrookdale Ironworks [W Law 1845]


Another type of rail was invented by John Curr from Sheffield, which came to be called a plateway. This had L-shaped iron rails or plates, 3ft long and 4 inches wide, having on the inner side an upright ledge or flange, 3 inches high at the centre and tapering to a height of 2 inches at the ends.  The purpose of this was to keep flat waggon wheels on the track. Since plateways were cheaper than edge rails, both types were in use until the early 19th century, when it was accepted that the flanged wheel had a better performance on curves. 


Dual Gauge Waggonway at Coalbrookdale [IGMT]

Reconstructed Plateway at Blists Hill Museum [B. Trinder]

Unflanged Waggon on Plateway [IGMT]





A later innovation in the early 19th Century, called the Birkenshaw Rail, had a T-shaped cross section and was very like the rails used today.  However, apart from being used on tramways between Madeley Court Ironworks and local mines, it did not catch on locally. in Meanwhile, more tramways were being built :-


1769 – by the Coalbrookdale Company to Park Furnace


1786 - 1,000ft by William Reynolds in the Tar Tunnel

1788 - by the Coalbrookdale company from Horsehay Furnaces to mines at Donnington Wood.  By this time the Company had over 20 miles of iron railways.

1794 – by the Coalbrookdale Company from the bottom of Brierly Hill, along Lincoln Hill to the River Severn

1799 – by Thomas Botfield from Hollinswood to Sutton Wharf on the River Severn

1799 - from the Shropshire Canal to Bedlam Furnaces, Lloyds Pit, Meadow Pit (via an inclined plane), Shaw’s Pit, Madeley Court Pit, Tweedale Ironworks and Hales Pits

1800 - from Lincoln Hill Limeworks to Bedlam Furnaces, via a tunnel

1800s - in a sandstone mine at Madeley Wood and an ironstone mine at Ironbridge, from the latter an inclined plane ran down to the River Severn.

1800s - from Doseley Wharf on the Shropshire Canal to Deepfield Colliery at Little Dawley

1800s - from Horsehay Furnaces to Dawley Castle Furnaces, running over Pool Hill Bank across the Pool Fields in front of Dawley Church.

1801 - from the top of Brierly Hill incline to Horsehay Furnaces. 

In 1801, Richard Trevithick had built a full-size steam road locomotive at Camborne.  He took out a patent for his high pressure steam engine and, In 1803, in conjunction with Richard Reynolds, built a stationary engine at the Coalbrookdale Ironworks. The Company then built a rail locomotive for him but little is known about it apart from a drawing preserved at the Science Museum. The design incorporated a 4½ inch single horizontal cylinder enclosed in a return-flue boiler. A flywheel drove the wheels on one side with a stroke of 3ft through spur gears, and the axles were mounted directly on the boiler, with no frame.  On the drawing, the piston-rod, guide-bars and cross-head are located directly above the firebox door, thus making the engine extremely dangerous to fire while moving. It was designed for a tramway with a gauge of 3ft. Whatever the layout of the locomotive it did not run for long, as there was a fatal accident followed by an enquiry. The whole episode was hushed-up and the locomotive converted into a stationary engine.  A replica of this locomotive, based on the drawing, has been built and can be seen at Ironbridge Gorge Museum.

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Drawing in Science Museum

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Modern Replica

Yet more horse-drawn tramways were constructed -

1812 - from Old Park Ironworks to the Shropshire Canal at Hinkshay

1810 – by the Coalbrookdale Company from Coalbrookdale Ironworks to the Shropshire Canal near Dawley Castle via the Lightmoor valley.

1817 – by the Coalbrookdale Company from Brandlee to the Shropshire Canal near Dawley Castle, with feeders from Portley and Deepfield Collieries 

1820 -  by the Coalbrookdale Company from Horsehay Furnaces to Coalbrookdale Ironworks via Lightmoor Dingle

1824 – by the Madeley Wood Company from Gleedon Hill to the River Severn about ½ mile west of Buildwas Bridge

1827 -  along the riverside at Jackfield connecting several lines running to the river from the area east of Broseley


1844 – 1 mile by the Lilleshall Company from the Shrewsbury & Newport Canal at Lubstree Wharf to the company's various works


1849 – the main line railways from Shrewsbury to Birmingham and Stafford were laid through East Shropshire and steam locomotives had arrived.  It would not have been long before horse-drawn transport on all the tramways would have been replaced.

Between 1851-55, the Lilleshall Company began to replace its extensive tramway system with a private standard-gauge railway network, linking Priorslee and Snedshill Furnaces with the company's other works. By the First World War, there were 26 miles of track that carried 1½ million tons of goods a year. It linked with the Great Western Railway at Oakengates and the London & North Western Railway at Donnington. The network was closed in 1959.