Monthly Theme: Firsts at St. Helens Archive

For this month’s theme, Firsts, Tawny Whitfield from St. Helens Archive Service, writes about the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, and its impact on St. Helens.

The year 1829 was a very important year for St. Helens. During the Industrial Revolution, the town became witness to a plethora of ‘firsts’, including a certain piece of machinery that would help shape the town’s industrial and economic structure for years to come; steam engine locomotives. 

Fixed steam engine locomotives had already been established across the country for about 25 years. However, as the Industrial Revolution continued to soar with more factories being built, reliable transport was needed for the ever-growing demand of goods such as coal, wood, and food. Before 1830, journeys were made entirely by road or canal, and due to the poor conditions of the turnpikes and roads, most journeys took up to 36 hours or more. 

This eventually led to the building of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. A few years later, a competition was held in Rainhill St. Helens to see if new and improved locomotives could provide access. This competition is famously known as the Rainhill Trials. The prize was £500, and the right to operate services across the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. 

Image 1: St Helens Archive Service ref no: NPC/2/1/112 – Black and white print of George Stephenson’s Cottage, Emmetts Brow, Earlestown, Newton-le-Willows, Lancashire c.1920s. 

Stephenson’s Cottage was reputedly where George Stephenson stayed during the building of the Newton section of the Liverpool and Manchester railway line. 

Work began on the railway under the engineer George Stephenson in 1826, and by 1828; the Sankey Canal Viaduct (also designed by Stephenson) was beginning to take form. Construction was completed by 15th September 1830. The ‘railway’ was regarded the very first of its kind, being able to carry both cargo and passengers for longer periods; trains as we know them today. Before 1830, there were no well-established passenger carts for people to travel in and cargo was mainly transported by horse-drawn carts. 

mage 2: St Helens Archive Service ref no: PH/1/70 – Black and white photograph showing a bust of the civil engineer Robert Stephenson c.1850.

The Rainhill trials began on Tuesday 6th October 1829 and continued for 8 days, drawing a large crowd of about 15,000 onlookers from across the country. Robert Stephenson’s Rocket won, finishing first. It was the only locomotive out of the five that took part to not break down or withdraw. Robert was also the son of George Stephenson, who had almost 20 years of experience behind him and became known as the ‘Father of Railways’. George was a professional in coal and had learned from an early age how it was used. This helped him design and fashion the best locomotives, paving the way for new ideas. George’s work in helping establish new tunnels, embankments and viaducts led him and his son Robert to build the first practical steam locomotive on 25th July 1814. 

Image 3: St Helens Archive Service ref no: NPC/2/13/2 – Stephenson’s Rocket 

After the Rocket’s success, the era saw a rise in business and jobs for the working people of St. Helens and the wider Borough. St. Helens grew from farmlands to an industrial hotspot, supporting mining operations and glass manufacturers. The Rainhill Trials and the Liverpool and Manchester Railway also put St Helens on the map by becoming home to the world’s first railway viaduct: the Sankey Viaduct also known as The Nine Arches. 

mage 4: St Helens Archive Service ref no: PRI/09 – Aerial of the ‘View of the Viaduct (Nine Arches) over the Sankey Canal on the line of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway c.1840s. 

Bibliography – 

– Singleton, David – Liverpool and Manchester Railway, The Dalesman Publishing Company, 1975. St Helens Archive Service – Classification B35.7 (60). 

– Thomas, R.H.G, The Liverpool and Manchester Railway, B.T.Batsford Ltd, 1980. St Helens Archive Service – Classification B37.7 (60). 

– Smiles, Samuel, The Lives of George and Robert Stephenson, 1979. St Helens Archive Service – Classification D52 STE

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