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First in the world: The making of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway

Published: 20 December 2018

The Liverpool and Manchester Railway was the world's first steam powered, inter-urban railway designed to transport both passengers and goods. Its Manchester terminus was Liverpool Road Station, now home to the Science and Industry Museum.

The railway opened in 1830 amidst teeming crowds, sparking a revolution in trade and travel that spread around the world. Yet this success did not come without its share of controversy, protest and even tragedy. Read on to discover the challenges faced by the engineers and inventors who shaped train travel, what the railway's first passengers experienced, and why the Liverpool and Manchester Railway helped to change the world.

Why a railway?

Goods traffic was at an all-time high between Liverpool and Manchester in the 1820s. Liverpool was the country's main port for raw cotton, and Manchester's mills devoured as much of it as they could, sending heaps of finished textiles back to Liverpool and out across the world. But journeys between these two hubs of manufacturing and trade were expensive and slow.

Goods would arrive in a shorter time from New York to Liverpool than they could afterwards be conveyed from Liverpool to Manchester.

The Observer (September 1830)

Merchants and manufacturers, as well as passengers, were forced to choose between canals or roads. However, canal boats meandered to Manchester in 12 hours, while dangerous horse-drawn coaches and wagons took three hours, as they thundered down congested, narrow and winding roads. They frequently crashed, damaging goods and injuring passengers. People were desperate for an alternative.

Land agent and railway enthusiast William James believed he had the solution. Together with Liverpool merchants Joseph Sanders and Henry Booth, he gathered together a committee of merchants, bankers, engineers and politicians. From this group came the first directors of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.

Plan of the proposed route of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway by George Stephenson Science Museum Group Collection
Plan of the proposed route of the Liverpool to Manchester Railway by George Stephenson, 1824

Building bridges

A team of surveyors set out to measure the railway's route, but many landowners opposed the railroad cutting through their land. They hired thugs to attack the men and their equipment, halting surveys. The surveyors took to working by moonlight, sneaking onto the land at night with decoy teams to distract the thugs.

He would ask, how any person would like to have a rail-road formed under his parlour window?

Sir Isaac Coffin, MP for Ilchester (April 1826)

It took three surveys, but the railway was finally approved on 6 April 1826. Engineer George Stephenson took on the challenge of building the railway. He confronted rivers, valleys, hills and Chat Moss, a four mile stretch of bog that swallowed the rail tracks. After four years, Stephenson and his team had built 63 bridges across Lancashire's valleys, and floated rail track on tree trunks and shingle across the length of Chat Moss.


The Rainhill Trials

As the tracks were laid, the railway's directors quarrelled about what should pull the railway's carriages and wagons. Stephenson championed the steam locomotive, whilst others preferred stationary steam engines with thick ropes to haul wagons up the track. Others thought old-fashioned horsepower was best. To decide, the directors declared a competition for 'Engineers and Iron Founders' to present their solutions. £500 was on offer, roughly £34,000 nowadays.

Communications were received […] from professors of philosophy, down to the humblest mechanic, all were zealous in their proffers of assistance.

Henry Booth (1830)

Five contestants faced each other: Cycloped, Perseverance, Novelty, Sans Pareil and Rocket, the locomotive devised by George Stephenson's son, Robert. People were fascinated. Over 10,000 people crowded to Rainhill and witnessed Rocket's success, and the victory of the steam locomotive. 

You can read the full story of the Rainhill Trials on the website of our sister museum, the National Railway Museum.

Opening the rails: 15 September 1830

Manchester and Liverpool were fired up by railroad fever. Crowds clustered at stations all along the track, anxious to witness the railway's grand opening. Dignitaries including the Prime Minister the Duke of Wellington and the Austrian ambassador crammed into the carriages for their momentous journey from Liverpool to Manchester.

Carriages, all bedight with scarlet and gold, and filled with gallant gentlemen and gaudy dames (for all the carriages were open), and there was such a flying of flags, and such smiling and bowing, that I was fain to think myself very small sitting on my bench.

Mrs M.M. Sherwood (September 1830)

People waved and cheered as the eight locomotives and their carriages steamed passed. Others threw stones. One journalist reported spectators crowding round the tracks, trying to rip them up. Soldiers and cavalry lined sections of the railroad to protect the passengers and carriages from the masses. As with many leaps in technology, people worried how it would affect their livelihoods.

A print of an engraving, captioned 'The opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Sept 15, 1830, with the Moorish Arch Age Hill as it appeared on that day'
Science Museum Group Collection More information about A print of an engraving, captioned 'The opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Sept 15, 1830, with the Moorish Arch Age Hill as it appeared on that day'

The passengers were jubilant, but then, part way to Manchester, tragedy struck. The locomotives stopped to refuel, and passengers clambered down onto the tracks only to see Rocket charging towards them. In the confusion and panic, William Huskisson, MP for Liverpool, fell with his leg beneath Rocket's wheels. He was taken to a nearby doctor, but later died from his wounds.

After this disaster, the Duke of Wellington favoured returning to Liverpool, but others feared this could lead to a riot in Manchester. The procession continued but the passengers no longer waved at the bulging grandstands or cheering crowds.

Journalists delighted in spreading gruesome tales of Huskisson's death. The railway directors feared this would frighten away passengers, but railway fever only grew. Potters and artisans cashed in on the celebrations, producing souvenirs of every type.

Liverpool Road Station

With no template to follow, creating a railway station that could handle passengers and goods was a step into the unknown for the builders of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.

David Bellhouse Junior took on the construction of the world's first railway goods warehouse. He took inspiration from the railway's rivals, modelling his designs on local canal warehouses. After just five months of building work, the warehouse was ready to house goods of almost every description, from cotton to coal and butter to bananas.

One of a series of aquatints of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, titled 'Entrance into Manchester across Water Street' engraved by H. Pyall, after Thomas Talbot Bury and published by R. Ackermann, London, 1831
Science Museum Group Collection More information about One of a series of aquatints of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, titled 'Entrance into Manchester across Water Street' engraved by H. Pyall, after Thomas Talbot Bury and published by R. Ackermann, London, 1831

In the new passenger station, departing travellers booked tickets and awaited their trains. First- and second-class passengers had separate booking halls and waiting rooms, with first-class facilities offering a grander experience. A first-class ticket also bought quicker train services, and passengers were treated to enclosed carriages with upholstered seats. Second class passengers had slower trains and carriages with low wooden sides and only a small canopy to protect them from the elements.

There was no platform outside the passenger station. Instead, passengers had to scale the carriages from ground level, aided by porters. Passengers arriving at Manchester were dropped further up the track, away from the station.

Passenger travel

People flocked to the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. The company expected 250 passengers a day, but after only a month 1,200 passengers were travelling by rail. Journeys were twice the speed and half the price of stagecoaches. Coach drivers, inns and stables lost work and cartoonists joked that horses would soon have lives of leisure.

Satirical print showing horses made redundant by the advent of the railway; in foreground three horses playing as street musicians, with passing train receiving a hind kick from indignant horse in background. Science Museum Group Collection
Satirical print showing horses made redundant by the advent of the railway

Before the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, most people had never travelled faster than a horse could carry them. To them, train travel might have felt like a rollercoaster. Passenger Dr James Johnson was unnerved by 'the deafening peel of thunder, the sudden immersion in gloom and the clash of reverberated sounds in confined space', whilst actress Fanny Kemble was awestruck, calling the locomotives 'tame dragons'. 

When I closed my eyes, this sensation of flying was quite delightful, and strange beyond description; yet strange as it was, I had a perfect sense of security, and not the slightest fear.

Fanny Kemble (August 1830)

Workers were needed to keep up with the increasing demand for rail travel. After just a year, Liverpool and Manchester Railway staff numbered over 700. The first enginemen had worked on the railway's construction and were the most experienced in the world. The new porters and guards came from the impoverished stagecoaches, competent and desperate for work. 

Goods traffic

The railway was more popular than expected and passenger demand soon outgrew Liverpool Road's facilities. A bigger station was built at Hunt's Bank, which also linked to the new Manchester and Leeds Railway. Hunt's Bank was later renamed Victoria Station, and still serves Manchester today. 

By 1844, Liverpool Road Station only accepted goods traffic, but trade was booming. In one record shipment, workers hauled nearly 500 tons of cotton off 100 trucks. Near endless streams of livestock and raw materials travelled into the warehouses. For nearly 150 years, Liverpool Road Station was bursting with produce from all over the world, providing Manchester's manufacturers access to a global market.


The railway's impact

Passengers and goods could now travel between Liverpool and Manchester quicker than ever before, boosting trade and industry. The railway helped fuel Manchester's growth into a booming manufacturing centre.

Communication improved as trains flew up and down the rails carrying newspapers and mail filled with information and new ideas. People could travel on business, look for work and even visit the seaside. The railway broadened their horizons and increased their opportunities.

Railway developers nationally and internationally wanted the same advances. They copied the pioneering Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Between 1830 and 1845, over 35 lines sprung up all over Britain, in a period known as 'Railway Mania'. The success was reported abroad, and the Liverpool and Manchester became the blueprint for hundreds of new railways around the world.

When the road [Baltimore & Ohio Railroad] is completed, locomotive carriages will be used similar to those now in operation on the Liverpool and Manchester

New York businessman (1830)

Suggestions for further research

  • RE Carlson, The Liverpool and Manchester Railway Project 1821–1831 (Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1969)
  • TJ Donaghy, The Liverpool and Manchester Railway Operations 1831–1845 (Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1972)
  • F Ferneyhough, Liverpool and Manchester Railway 1830–1980 (London: Robert Hale, 1980)
  • The Science Museum Group Liverpool and Manchester Railway collection