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Street Tales: Wollaton Wagonway

6 February 17 words: Joe Earp

We delve a little deeper into the history of our city's streets to give you the tales they never would've taught you at school...

“News has reached me of Master Beaumont’s efforts to move coal from Strelley to Wollaton Pits. His new invention will carry coal with wagons, with small wheels made from a single slice of oak, running on wooden rayles. I return home enlightened by this insight and possible cure for heavy loads our roads are yet in unmade condition.” Lord Willoughby, 1603

And that, friends, is the first statement announcing the construction of Britain’s first ever railway, right here in Wollaton, Nottingham. The idea was the brainchild of the ‘coal businessman’ Huntingdon Beaumont who, despite being a mining engineer and entrepreneur, was a hopeless businessman.

Born in 1560 in Coleorton, Leicestershire, Beaumont’s parents were Sir Nicholas and Anne Beaumont. By Elizabethan standards, they were a well-to-do family who owned coal-bearing lands and made their money as mining entrepreneurs. This upbringing in the coal industry had a major impact on the young Huntingdon, inspiring him to make his own way in mining.

In 1601, Beaumont turned his attention to Nottinghamshire. He leased ‘pits’ from Sir Francis Willoughby – the first being in Wollaton, and then a further one two years later in Strelley. While running these pits he introduced various improvements such as boring rods and horse-driven pumps. However, his new invention of carrying coal in horse-drawn carriages that ran on wooden rails impressed Willoughby the most.

The exact layout of Huntingdon’s new track system is not known, but if you go to Old Coach Road, just off Wollaton Road – in between The Wollaton and The Wheelhouse – you’ll be pretty much in the right spot.

Made from wooden rails, the ‘overland’ line was approximately two miles long, stretching from Wollaton to Strelley. Work on laying the track began in October 1603 and the Wollaton Wagonway was completed exactly one year later, at the cost of around £170 (that’s roughly £36,600 in today’s money). It was built to carry coal from the Strelley Pits to a distribution point near Wollaton Lane (now Wollaton Road), where most of the coal was then taken onwards, by road, to Trent Bridge and then further downstream by barge.

The Wollaton Wagonway was used for thirteen years before being abandoned. Beaumont was gaining little profit from his venture, and by 1615 complaints were made that he was overworking the pits. He wrote to Sir Percival Willoughby – who had inherited Sir Francis’s estate – “…this year will prove worse by £1,000 than ever mortal man could have imagined. In respect of the unreasonable weather which has greatly diminished our sale and much increased our charge. I most truly say that it poureth down on me, I fear the very drowning of me.”

Beaumont was ‘let go’ by the Willoughbys after the expiration of his lease, and he moved on to try his luck in Northumberland. His ventures there also failed. Over a long period of time, Huntingdon Beaumont lost huge sums of money, for which he ended up in prison. He sadly died in Nottingham Gaol in 1624.

Despite Huntingdon’s failings, his legacy lives on. His simple wagonway was the basis of the modern-day railway systems, and he can be credited as an influence on great engineers such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel and George Stephenson.

illustration: Eva Brudenell

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