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. 
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. 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.’ 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.’ 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.
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. 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.
 R S Smith, “Huntingdon Beaumont, adventurer in coal mines,” Renaissance and Modern Studies 1 (1957), 115-53
 Ibid., 115
 “Huntington Beaumont,” Wikipedia, Jan 3, 2015, accessed Jan 11, 2015, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huntingdon_Beaumont
 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/
 Maurice R. Kirby, The Origins of Railway Enterprise: The Stockton and Darlington Railway, 1821-1863, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 1991), 10-11
 Lewis, “Reflections on 1604,” 11
 Smith, “Huntingdon Beaumont, adventurer in coal mines,” 13