Notes on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway

Henry Booth promoted his railway in an 1830 book

Henry Booth (1789-1869), the vigorous Secretary and Treasurer of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway Company, published a history and description of the line (Reference 1) in the year it was opened for traffic, and his account is valuable for the insight it gives to his feelings and expectations at the time. Booth's life and accomplishments are described in Reference 2. He thought of the L & M not as something new, but a splendid development of the railway that was already familiar. The Stockton and Darlington, he points out, was a single track with 'sidings' every quarter-mile, 25 miles from Witton Colliery to Stockton-on-Tees, carrying 300 - 400 passengers a week, a small quantity of merchandise, and a large coal traffic. Its Act was passed in 1823, and the road was opened on 27 September 1825 to general acclaim. The L & M, he points out, will have a very different mix of traffic, and was built more substantially, for fast and heavy traffic, with 35 miles of double way. When it was opened to the public, it was opened throughout and ready for traffic, it should be noticed.

A plan and profile of the line is given, showing the tunnel and 1 in 48 gradient from Wapping up to Edge Hill, the Whiston and Sutton planes of 1 in 96 separated by the Rainhill level, the crossings of roads, including the 34° skew bridge at Rainhill, a smaller skew bridge at Winton near Eccles, the massive Sankey Viaduct, and the famous 4-3/4 mile crossing of Chat Moss, where Rocket gingerly tread on the first day of 1830 to test the firmness of the embankment. Booth is apologetic about the lack of scenery on the route, but points out that the traveller will ride high in valleys, where he is used to riding low, and low on hills, where he is used to riding high, because of the level way, and will have other novel experiences. He is cautious about mentioning high speeds, for fear of frightening intending passengers, though he knows they are easily possible. Curiously, all the plates in the book that show trains on the line, show them running forward on the right-hand track!

The discussion of the choice of motive power is given detailed attention. Horses were soon eliminated, because of the heavy traffic expected, so the choice was between stationary engines and locomotive engines. Stationary engines were proposed for the Edge Hill incline, as well as for the Whiston and Sutton banks, but locomotives proved themselves so capable that a stationary engine and rope was used only down to Wapping, locomotives being exchanged for the rope at Edge Hill. The Rainhill trials proved the superiority of Stephenson's locomotive, and Booth does not omit mentioning his part in redesigning the boiler. The Edge Hill incline was 1980 yards long, inclined 3/4" to the yard, whitewashed and gaslit to overcome the fears of passengers. Coke fuel was used for the first time on the L & M, as required by its Act, which forbade smoke, and after initial doubts was found satisfactory. There was, incidentally, some trepidation concerning the operation of locomotives in tunnels, which gave rise to curious proposals in the technical press. As far as the L & M was concerned, the point was moot, since the Edge Hill tunnel was operated by a stationary engine.

Of 31 miles of railway, 18 miles were laid on stone sleepers, 13 miles on oak or larch transverse sleepers. The transverse sleepers were used across Chat Moss, and on the other new embankments, so that settlement could easily be accommodated. Sleepers were placed 3 feet apart between centres, as was customary. The rails were Birkinshaw's patent rolled wrought-iron T-rails, weighing 35 pounds per yard, slit so the lower edge of the web resembled the fishbelly cast-iron rails used earlier, which were too brittle and too short. These rails were 5 yards long, greatly reducing the number of rail joints, and heavier than the 28-pound rails used on the S & D. 35 miles of double way required 3847 tons of rail, at 12-10-0 per ton. 1428 tons of cast-iron chairs were used, with metal keys to wedge the rails in them, and spikes to fix them to oak plugs, which were seated in holes in the stone sleepers. The chairs were simply spiked to timber sleepers. One foot of ballast was placed beneath the sleepers, one foot beside them. The width of the railway was 30 feet. The line was relaid with heavier rails as early as 1837, since locomotives rapidly became heavier.

This construction was copied exactly for early United States railways that could afford it, because it was literally the 'state of the art.' It was still imperfect, however, since it was not of uniform elasticity and pounded badly under the heavy, fast trains. Parallel rail and the general use of ballasted transverse timber sleepers was soon found to be the solution, which was proved on Joseph Locke's Grand Junction Railway within a few years. Britain adopted bull-head rail, while in America the original design was superseded for most construction by the much cheaper but lighter and less durable wooden track with bar rails. By the time this required replacement, around 1850, flat-bottom wrought iron rail was widely available and was adopted, though still largely imported from Britain, as the bars had been. Booth's term siding was used for passing loops in America ever after, and trains ran on the right-hand track there.

Kyanising, the process for preserving wood with a mercuric chloride solution, named after its inventor, was investigated by Booth as a treatment for the ropes used in the damp Edge Hill tunnel. It did preserve the appearance of the ropes, but the cellulose fibres were attacked by the acidic solution, so the treated ropes proved weaker than the untreated. Some method of preservation was necessary in any case for softwood sleepers, after which they could give as good service as hardwood. The very poisonous mercuric chloride was superseded by the new Creosote, a gas-tar product, in 1839.

Booth published the first Book of Rules for the railway in 1833, in which the signal colours of red for stop, green for caution, and white for clear appeared. He organised the Conference of Railway Chairmen and Managers that met in the Queen's Hotel, Birmingham (Curzon Street Station) on 19 January 1841, chaired by George Carr Glyn (1797-1873), Chairman of the London and Birmingham Railway. This meeting promulgated rules of operation based on those of the Liverpool and Manchester, in which the signal colours and standard hand signals were included. These rules were appended to the House of Commons Select Committee report for that year, and helped to forestall legislation on railway safety that had been threatened. The rules were published at once in the United States, and were very influential there. In fact, the hand signal for stop consisting of a white light waved up and down was widely adopted, although a white light waved back and forth later became the standard stop hand signal, after some degree of standardisation was achieved. The L & M Rule Book for 1839 is included as an appendix in Whishaw (Reference 3).

In October 1830, the Stephenson 2-2-0 Planet ran from Edge Hill to Manchester in an hour [today in 2000, trains take one hour from Liverpool to Manchester]. A special train for the Duc d'Orleans in May 1833 made 38 mph across Chat Moss. These easily attainable high speeds made the management nervous, so a time of 1-1/2 hours for the trip was strictly enforced thereafter. In 1837 this was shortened to 1-1/4 hours. Drivers were paid by the trip, which naturally encouraged higher speeds so that more trips could be made in a day. Some drivers were soon making over 2 per week, instead of an expected 30s. These speeds were remarkable, and were what set the new steam railway apart from the tramway.


  1. Henry Booth, An Account of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (Liverpool: Wales and Barnes, 1830)
  2. Henry Booth, Henry Booth (Ilfracombe: A. H. Stockwell, Ltd, 1980)
  3. Whishaw, The Railways of Great Britain and Ireland (London: 1840)

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Composed by J. B. Calvert
Created February 2000
Last revised 10 February 2000