Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

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Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 150,275 pages of information and 235,386 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Leicester and Swannington Railway

From Graces Guide
1843. Manager is G. W. Gill.
Bronze Ticket. Image published in 1894.

The Leicester and Swannington Railway (L&S) was one of England's first railways. It was built to convey coal from Swannington and Coalville to Leicester, where a station was built near the river Soar at West Bridge. This line put the Leicestershire coalfields in as good a position as those of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, which, because of their water communication, had been giving better facilities, even though the distance was greater.[1]

A detailed account of the railway, written by C. R. Clinker in 1954, is available online[2]


1796 Lord Rawdon in a speech at the Castle in Leicester spoke of the need to make the Soar navigable to Loughborough and then a cut or 'railway' from Swannington to the Bafon at Loughborough. This is the earliest reference to a railway found in The Times newspaper. [3]

In 1828 William Stenson observed the success of the Stockton and Darlington Railway and with John Ellis, and his son Robert, travelled to see George Stephenson where he was building the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.

The engineer for the railway was Robert Stephenson, with the assistance of Thomas Miles, while his father raised much of the capital for the line from friends in Liverpool. The line had, at first, two inclined planes. One at Bagworth, was 43 chains in length, on a gradient of 1 in 29, and was self-acting. When in 1849, a line from the Midland main line at Leicester was built to join the West Bridge Railway ar Desford, the gradient of the latter was improved, and the Bagworth incline dispensed with. The other was the Swannington incline, which is still in use and is on a gradient of 1 in 17, falling from the Leicester direction.[4]

1830 The line was sanctioned.

1832 'Leicester and Swannington Rail-road. —The driving and arching of the tunnel, on this new line of road, was completed on Saturday last, and the laying down of the railway will commence forthwith. The Leicester tunnel is a full mile in length, sixteen and a half feet high, and twelve feet wide ; and has been completed in the most scientific and satisfactory manner by the contractors, Messrs. Copeland and Harding, in the short period of eleven months. This, when we consider the seemingly hazardous nature of the operations, which were directed through an immense sand-hill, may be reckoned among the highest proofs of modern peiseverance and skill. Twelve miles of the Leicester and Swanington railway will opened in May, and the whole line will be finished in September next. Mr. George Stephenson, the successful constructor of locomotive engines for the Liverpool and Manchester rail-road, is the superintending engineer.'[5]

1832 The railway was opened on July 17th, 1832 to bring coal from pits in west Leicestershire to Leicester.

For the first months it was under the management of George Vaughan, the manager of the Snibston Colliery and he was succeeded by Ashlen Bagster.

Five locomotives were built by Robert Stephenson and Co for the line. The first was Comet, shipped from the works by sea to Hull and thence by canal, its first trip being on the opening day in 1832, when its 13 foot high chimney was knocked down by Glenfield Tunnel.

The second engine, Phoenix was delivered in 1832. Both these had four-coupled wheels and were sold in 1836 to work in the construction of the London and Birmingham Railway.

1833 The next engines were Samson and Goliath, delivered in 1833. They were initially four-coupled, but were extremely unstable and a pair of trailing wheels were added. This 0-4-2 formation was also used for Hercules, the next engine to enter service. These were the first six-wheeled goods engines with inside cylinders and, after the flanges were taken off the centre pairs of wheels, were so satisfactory, that Stephenson decided never to build another four-wheeled engine.

On almost its first run, at Thornton crossing, Samson collided with a horse and cart on its way to Leicester Market with a load of butter and eggs. Although the engine had a horn, it clearly was not loud enough, and at the suggestion of Mr. Bagster, the manager, the engines were provided with the first steam whistles.

1833 Contract placed with Copeland and Harding for construction of the Soar Lane Branch. A small lifting bridge was provided to cross the Leicester Navigation. See Soar Lane Lifting Bridge. Designed by Robert Stephenson and built by the company in its own shops, the wooden lifting section was guided by four pillars, over which the counterweight chains ran in grooved wheels. During the design phase, it was agreed to amend the height above water level from 11ft 4in to the 9ft 10in which the Leicester Navigation Considered sufficient. The movable section was 28ft 6in long and 11ft 6in wide, carrying a single track. It was brought into use on 4 October 1834. The bridge was replaced by a new one of almost identical design in 1845, also made in the company's shops. 'Parts of it have been retained in the existing bridge'.[6]. The bridge was rebuilt and displayed at Snibston Discovery Museum until 2015 when the museum closed. The iron components have been saved. Historical notes and photos of the bridge at Snibston, together with recent photos of the original location, may be found here.

By 1834, traffic had increased to such an extent that more powerful engines were needed and the next to be delivered was Atlas, the first ever six-coupled 0-6-0 inside cylinder design. Although inside cylinders were more difficult to build and maintain, and, in the early days, prone to breakage of the crank axles, the engines were more stable than their outside cylindered counterparts. The design was so successful that it was the basic pattern for many goods engines over the next hundred years. The cramped space between the wheels, was a factor in the choice of a wider gauge in some railways overseas.

So far all the engines had been provided by Stephenson, but the directors decided to try one of the locomotives of Edward Bury. Stephenson was, of course, extremely influential in the running of the line, but agreed provided the Bury engine was tested fairly. Accordingly the Liverpool arrived in 1834. An 0-4-0, it proved unequal to the loads hauled by Atlas. The next engine bought for the line was Vulcan, an 0-6-0 by Charles Tayleur and Co. The last two were by the Haigh Foundry, Ajax, 0-4-2 and Hector, 0-6-0. This last engine was so powerful that it became the pattern for engines built for the Manchester and Leeds Railway, the North Midland Railway, the Great Western Railway and the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.

Coal and quarry traffic made the line profitable, but with increasing competition, various schemes were afoot, and a group of Leicester and Tamworth financiers expressed an interest in buying the line.

1844 A company was formed to to construct Erewash valley line

In August 1845 the directors sold out to the Midland Railway, which lost no time in improving the line.

Passenger trains on the stub to Leicester (West Bridge) ended in 1928, although coal traffic continued until 1966. The pits at the Swannington end were worked out by 1875, but the incline found a new lease of life lowering wagons of coal to a new pumping station at the foot that kept the old workings clear of water, so preventing flooding in the newer mines nearby. It closed in 1948, but the winding engine was dismantled and is now at the National Railway Museum at York. The site of the incline now belongs to the Swannington Heritage Trust.

Passenger trains on the line ceased in 1964, but the track is still intact despite the end of coal mining in west Leicestershire in the 1980s. There are sporadic plans to reopen it to passenger traffic.

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. The Engineer 1924/10/17
  2. [1] Leicestershire Archaeological Society
  3. The Times, Thursday, Jul 22, 1790
  4. The Engineer 1924/10/17
  5. Northampton Mercury - Saturday 17 March 1832
  6. [2] 'The Leicester and Swannington Railway' by C. R. Clinker, Leicestershire Archaeological Society: see p.74 and Plate II
  • [3] Wikipedia
  • The Midland Railway: Its Rise and progress by Frederick S. Williams. Published 1875.