Early limestone railways of south-east Wales

Van Laun, John

October 1999

Thesis or dissertation

© 1999 John Van Laun. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Although in one sense this is a study in regional or local history, its findings have much wider implications which are of national significance. Britain gave to the world the Industrial Revolution and, as a corollary, the railway. Evidence which throws new light on the evolution of railways is therefore of high importance to historians and archaeologists of industry. Such evidence, it is suggested, is presented in this thesis. It relates mainly to the evolution of that most essential component of any railway, its track, and to the industrial archaeology of what was the leading iron-producing region of its day.

From the 1790s into the 1840s South Wales and, in particular, the Heads of the Valleys was much the largest producer of iron in Britain. To feed the works with raw materials there was a major system of railroads and tramroads which, except perhaps for the North-eastern coalfield, was by far the most extensive in Britain and therefore in the world. Even the tramroads of Shropshire, though tight-packed, were much smaller in extent. As it turned out, the North-east had the greatest influence on the Railway Age, with South Wales not remaining in the vanguard of progress for long. However, it was in South Wales that the first all-iron edge rail was used, and South Wales developed the tramroad to its highest form. Here too, among the precursors of the Railway Age, elements of the public railway were forged.

There are three components to the South Wales network. First, the feeders which ran from the limestone quarries of the northem outcrop to the furnaces can be followed for about 100km in total. Although a fair proportion of this distance is now buried by tarmacced roads, within the quarries themselves lie around 20km of traceable routes. Second, a quite different set of lines led to the furnaces from the coal and iron ore mines, which lay closer than the quarries to the ironworks; but if underground track were included their mileage would be huge. Third, the exit lines from the ironworks to the ports, canals and nearby markets (as far away as Kington and Hereford) add a further 190km. Another guide to the enormous mileage built comes from the 10,500 tons of rails cast at Ebbw Vale between 1808 and 1816. If these were 3ft plates of a fairly standard 45lb apiece, they would total nearly half a million, or enough to complete about 220km of tramroad. This from only one ironworks over a mere nine years.

So rich an area can only be studied in detail bit by bit. This thesis is therefore restricted to the limestone feeders of the northern outcrop, which archaeologically are the most fruitful. Most of the exit lines have been obscured by later railways; the coal and iron ore feeders are either underground and inaccessible or, where on the surface, have often been tipped over by later workings or destroyed by land reclamation. The limestone quarry feeders therefore provide the best opportunity to record early railways in South Wales.

Many of the quarries which supplied the works remain as they were abandoned nearly a century ago. These vast monuments cover an area in excess of 4.5 square kilometres. The importance of the archaeology of the quarrying industry has been established by English Heritage with the publication of a Step I report as part of the Monuments Protection Programme. But the future of the South Wales quarries is not assured. Many could be re-developed through the Interim Development Orders granted in 1947, at a time when they were regarded as eyesores with no particular relevance to our past. Owners of largely unproductive areas of moorland are constantly looking for ways of increasing income. Quarrying for roadstone offers a lucrative return, and provides some jobs in largely rural communities which, theoretically, stimulate local economies. In the relevant counties output, mostly for roadstone, grew from 1,343,000 tons in 1895 to 15,515,000 in 1974.3 It is this threat which in part prompted this study.

Although a great deal of attention has been devoted to the history of railways in South Wales (as in the rest of Britain) after 1830, relatively little has been given to their evolution. While previous studies have established the outline - notably Macdermot, Marshall, Lee, Barrie, Clinker, Baxter, Rattenbury and Hughes - these were mainly related to identifying the subject or concentrated on existing lines and documentary sources. Limestone railways have been largely ignored (with the partial exception of Rattenbury and Hughes), and little industrial archaeological survey has hitherto been done.

My work, then, breaks new ground. It is intended as a contribution not to business or economic history, but rather to industrial archaeology and the history of technology. As such it combines extensive fieldwork with a detailed study of the history of limestone feeders from documentary sources, some printed but mostly in the National Library of Wales, Gwent Record Office and similar repositories. The result throws a completely new light on the artefacts of early railways, and especially on their permanent way. This has allowed for the first time a provisional typology to be made, and improved our understanding of the influences at work.

Department of History, The University of Hull
Lewis, Michael
Ethos identifier
Qualification level
Qualification name
Filesize: 85 MB
QR Code