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Britain’s first railway? Business and Beaumont

Two lines originally thought to have been built around one year apart fight it out for the claim to be the ‘first’ British railway – this post explores the history of one of them. Huntingdon Beaumont was born at Coleorton in Leicestershire in around 1560, the youngest son of Sir Nicholas and Ann Beaumont. They exploited the rich supplies of coal within their estate and it is here that the young Huntingdon learned the business of mining. Driven by his insatiable energy, clear vision, but a reckless streak, in 1601 he moved to Nottinghamshire, and using what he had learnt at his parents’ mining business leased and worked coal pits at Wollaton, Strelley and Bilborough. His expectation was that once mined the coal would be moved to the River Trent and then onto the local and national markets. But the enterprise was a failure. Cracking local markets was easy, but entering local ones was far more difficult. This and the result of further failed mining ventures in Northumberland from 1608, again through his continued inability to tap the London coal trade, and an ostentatious standard of living, resulted in him dying as a debtor in Nottinghamshire gaol in 1824; his business partners having long-since deserted him. [1]

Within the tale of Beaumont’s tale of failed entrepreneurialism possibly lies the origin story of Britain’s railways. What made the young Beaumont stand out from his contemporaries was the ingenious tools employed in his mines – machines to pump water out of mines and boring rods –  although where he originated them is unclear.[2] Most notable amongst his many and varied devices was the waggonway (in this post I will use the spelling of the time). Between the Autumn of 1603 and 1 October 1604 he constructed a line from the coal mine at Strelley to Wollaton, where it was shipped by road to the river Trent. The agreement between Beaumont and Sir Percival Willoughby to build the line – the Lord of the Manor of Wollaton and lessee of the Wollaton pits – stated that ‘alonge the passage now laide with railes, and with suche or the lyke Carriages as are now in use for the purpose.’[3] The waggonway was considered a marvel in the Nottinghamshire area, one contemporary noting that they were ‘new and extronaiary inventions and practices for the spedy and conveyance of the said coals.’[4] Baumont also built three waggonways at his northern ventures to take coal for transshipment at the river Blyth and then on to London – although how much actually reached there is unclear.

The virtue of waggonways for mine owners was that they reduced operating costs and thus potentially represented a significant increase in productivity. The laying of rails on the ground reduced the friction on wagon wheels, meaning one horse could pull considerable loads easily, displacing an estimated twenty-four pack-horses and around three four-horse wain carts – the traditional means of moving goods. Mining companies adopting this nascent technology could thus achieve considerable operations savings, particularly in the cost of stabling and fodder. The downside was that the initial outlay on a waggonway was usually high, and in the mid-1700s it was sometimes in the region of £750 per mile. Wooden rails lasted also had a short life at around three years, meaning maintaining the way was costly.[5]

Beaumont’s fall was thus the product of the heavy investment in waggonways, machinery and expensive leases of mines, in addition to his sumptuous standard of living, combined with the fact that his income stream did not cover his debt obligations.[6] This failure should not however obscure his achievements; his realisation of the need to cut operating costs through technology and improving transport links from pithead to river were all ahead of their time and are a testament to the ingenuity and forward-thinking he brought to his business affairs. The suggestion has even been made that if Beaumont had lived within his means, he may have been a success and his death may not have been so ignominious.[7]


[1] R S Smith, “Huntingdon Beaumont, adventurer in coal mines,” Renaissance and Modern Studies 1 (1957), 115-53

[2] Ibid., 115

[3] “Huntington Beaumont,” Wikipedia, Jan 3, 2015, accessed Jan 11, 2015, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huntingdon_Beaumont

[4] Paul Nix, “Huntingdon Beaumont’s Wollaton to Strelley Waggonway,” June 30, 2013, accessed Jan 11, 2014, https://nottinghamhiddenhistoryteam.wordpress.com/2013/07/30/huntingdon-beaumonts-wollaton-to-strelley-waggonway/

[5] Maurice R. Kirby, The Origins of Railway Enterprise: The Stockton and Darlington Railway, 1821-1863, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 1991), 10-11

[6] Lewis, “Reflections on 1604,” 11

[7] Smith, “Huntingdon Beaumont, adventurer in coal mines,” 13


1 Comment

  1. Paul Burke says:

    A most interesting article. I have been interested in Beaumont and the Wollaton railway for some years now, and I have become convinced that the key to his activities is his attempts to carry coal to the London market. The local market simply wasn’t big enough to make the kind of profits required to pay off serious investment in transport infrastructure, and his remarkable proposal to canalise the River Leen and divert it directly to the Trent, away from its then course through Nottingham, is evidence of his desire to get his coal to the greater market as fast as possible. Sadly the cost of taking coal almost a hundred miles down the Trent to Hull and shipping it thence to London made the price higher than Newcastle coal, and the scheme failed. Which might explain his attempt to enter the Northumberland coalfield.

    It is this consideration that leads me to wonder if the now widely accepted route of his railway, from Strelley to Wollaton Hall’s back gate via the Old Coach Road, isn’t a mistake. Apart from the moderate uselessness of taking it to Wollaton Hall (Willoughby didn’t want the coal, only the profits), it’s still a mile from the Leen, and I wondered if he wouldn’t have built it to somewhere close to the river. Casting round for a more likely location, I noted that, a couple of hundred yards from where the Wollaton lane crossed the bridge at Radford and at the eastern edge of Wollaton Park, there was a building marked on the First Edition OS map as “New Coleorton Fm”. It’s just over two miles from Strelley if a little deviation is made to avoid the worst of the hills and keep the gradient to about 1 in 45 to 1 in 50 (all the possible routes have about this gradient)..

    Two hundred and odd years after Beaumont, and not evidence perhaps, but who in Nottingham had heard of Coleorton in 1835 or at any time after about 1620- they had their own coal? I suppose only access to the Middleton Collection and the time and dedication to wade through a thousand boxes of manuscripts and maps would give any information of this, assuming it was on the Wollaton estate at all.

    It’s probable that the route is beyond recovery now, with the entire ground churned up in the last eighty years or so, unless we can dig up part of that last stub of Old Coach Road- I’d expect to find some sort of ballast, perhaps colliery waste, if the railway was on that route.


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