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The London & Birmingham Railway 1835-1846


“. . . . the inhabitants are making every exertion to accommodate the public that every day throng this beautiful neighbourhood, which, from the variety of hill and dale, wood and water, combined with the extensive views it commands, is likely to become a place of importance.”

The opening of the railway from Euston to Tring, The Bucks Gazette, October 1837.

We doubt that many, if indeed any of the travellers that pass through Tring Station spare a thought for its history.  Why should they?  With the possible exception of the adjacent Royal Hotel the station offers nothing that is likely to arouse historical curiosity.  Austere functionality now pervades the scene.  As for the railway today, it bears little resemblance to that constructed by Robert Stephenson and his team of civil engineers with their contractors and gangs of navvies.

The following account makes no claim to be a detailed treatise on the history of the London and Birmingham Railway.*  It aims instead to provide readers interested in the history of the town with a résumé of events leading up to the Railway’s arrival at Tring in October 1837, to the construction of the town’s station, and some points of general interest concerning travel in the locality in that age.  Our narrative is in the form of a compilation of notes and historical extracts taken from the sources listed at the end of this booklet.  We would be interested to hear from anyone who can add further information on the history of the London and Birmingham Railway in the locality.

Our thanks go to Michael Bass, Chris Reynolds, John Savage and Russell Burridge, and to staff at the Buckinghamshire Centre for Local Studies and the Hertfordshire Record Office for their kind assistance.

Ian Petticrew and Wendy Austin,

November 2013.

For a  more detailed account of the Railway’s history see . . . .  The Train Now Departing.



“The Bill for the new London & Birmingham railroad has at last passed through both Houses of Parliament. For nearly three years since the original scheme was first drawn up, the struggle has gone on. The greatest opposition has come from the large landowners of Hertfordshire, viz. Lord Essex, Lord Clarendon, Lady Bridgewater, Sir Astley Cooper and others.

In deference to the wishes of these landowners, big alterations were made in the original route. The terminus is changed from King’s Cross to Euston, and at Watford the line is altered to avoid the parks of Lords Essex and Lord Clarendon, and this will involve the construction of a very long tunnel at Watford. The original plan was to carry the line along the Great Gaddesden valley, but this was abandoned, owing to the great opposition from the House of Ashridge. Those who stood in the way of progress were eventually won over by giving them tremendous prices for their land, in some cases three or four times its value. The total cost of carrying the Bill through Parliament amounted to nearly £73,000. The difficulties with the various landowners appeared to be insuperable, but they appear to be over now, and in a few years the railway will be an accomplished fact.”

Tring’s Vestry Minutes, 1833.

Railway opponent, John Cust,
1st Earl Brownlow (1779-1853).

The London and Birmingham Railway Company required the authority of a ‘private’ Act of Parliament before construction of the line could begin.  Among the privileges that such an Act conferred on the Company was that of compulsory purchase, the ability to buy land without the owner’s consent, but at a fair valuation. However, influential landowners who did not wish to sell could oppose the Company’s railway Bill as it passed through Parliament, and they did.

It is not easy to ascertain what the Company thought was a fair price for land in Hertfordshire.  They estimated £183 per acre for land between Kilburn and Tring, and £71 per acre between Tring and Wolverton.  However, the surveyors generally reckoned a reasonable price for agricultural land at that time to be £70 per acre.  The Bridgewater Trustees received £76 per acre for land in Tring, Marsworth and Cheddington, and their tenant, Peter Parrott, £3.60 per acre, giving a total of nearly £80 per acre; and for 43 acres of land in Northchurch, Tring, Cheddington, Marsworth and Horton, they received £130 per acre.  They also received the expenses they incurred in opposing the 1832 London and Birmingham Railway Bill, a sum amounting to £2,178.  Mr. William Smart of Aldbury was paid £140 an acre and Captain Harcourt of Tring £120.  Members of Tring Vestry appear to have considered the amounts awarded to these objectors to the railway scheme to be ‘tremendous’, but several other landowners did accept the railway company’s original valuation.

Railway opponent, Sir Astley Cooper Bt. (1768-1841).

The Company first applied to Parliament for a private Act in 1832.  Their Bill passed through the House of Commons, but was vetoed in the Lords by an influential landowner, Lord Brownlow of Ashridge, who, speaking on behalf of a group of railway objectors, stated:

“That the case for the promoting of the Bill having been concluded, it does not appear to the committee that they have made out such a case as would warrant the forcing of the proposed railway through the land and property of so great a proportion of dissentient landowners and proprietors.”

The London and Birmingham Railway,
Roscoe and Lecount (1839).

The Bill’s failure resulted in the Company wasting Parliamentary and other expenses amounting to £72,869, a huge sum for the time, and it caused outrage.  In order to placate influential landowners who remained unwilling to sell – and thus avoid further opposition when their railway Bill again came before Parliament – the Company was obliged to pay them considerably above market rates.  But when a further application was made to Parliament in the following year – a significant number of objectors’ palms having been greased in this way during the intervening period – the railway Bill went through almost unopposed and passed into law on the 6th May, 1833.  Work could then commence, although the volume of detailed planning, the preparation of drawings and specifications, and the letting of construction contracts by competitive tender was a lengthy task, and it was to be a further 12 months before the first sod was turned.

By the end of 1838, when the line eventually opened, the Company had paid out £537,596 for land against their initial estimate of £250,000.



The great railway cutting at Tring is just one of a number of notable civil engineering features along the course of the London and Birmingham Railway.  Completed almost 180 years ago, it is almost 60 feet deep in places and, at 2½-miles, is the longest cutting on the line.  It took 500 men three years to excavate using picks, shovels and wheelbarrows, and helped along by horse power.  In that time they cut through 1,400,000 cubic yards of chalk, which they then had to lift to the surface for disposal.  This feat of pre-Victorian civil engineering was planned and carried out under the supervision of Robert Stephenson.


Robert and George Stephenson.


Robert Stephenson was born near Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the only son of George and his wife Fanny.  His mother died when he was two years old and Robert was then cared for by his father’s sister and housekeeper.  George Stephenson (1781-1848), a self-made man of scant formal education, was a tough and ambitious father who was determined that his son followed in his footsteps.  Robert received a good education including a short period spent at Edinburgh University, to which was added intensive engineering training.  He soon became his father’s assistant, eventually working with him on projects such as the construction of the Stockton and Darlington Railway.  Following a 3-year mining venture in South America, Robert returned to England in time to oversee construction of the Rocket ― the locomotive that in 1829 won the famous Rainhill Trials ― in the process creating the basic locomotive design template for the remainder of the steam traction era.

In 1830, the London and Birmingham Railway Company was formed and the civil engineering firm of George Stephenson & Son was appointed to make surveys, select the best route and carry the railway through the arduous process of obtaining a private Act of Parliament.  Two outline surveys had already been made; one, via Quainton and Banbury, by John Rennie Jnr., the other, via Rugby and Coventry, by Francis Giles.  Following a detailed examination of the ground, and with some alterations, the Stephensons recommended the route via Rugby and Coventry.  This being approved by the Board, from then on George disappeared from the scene leaving Robert to take over the detailed surveying and planning of the line.  Here, he had to tread a delicate path to avoid upsetting more of the landed gentry than necessary, for this was an age in which they held very considerable influence and the line would inevitably cross some of their estates.

Stephenson’s preferred choice of route for taking the railway over the Chiltern Hills was along the Gade Valley from Two Waters, through Hemel Hempstead, Gaddesden and Dagnal and then on to Leighton Buzzard.  This route crossed land owned by, among others, the influential Earl of Essex and the trustees of the Bridgewater estate, and it aroused such opposition that the Company was forced to find an alternative.  Stephenson’s second choice was to follow the Bulbourne Valley through Berkhamsted and to the east of Tring.  However, taking the railway through the Tring Gap required the construction of a long and deep cutting to enable the railway’s maximum gradient to fall within Stephenson’s target of 1:330 (16 feet to the mile).

Part of the plan of Stephenson’s abandoned route in Dacorum.  At Two Waters, the line
was to have turned into the Gade Valley, passing through Hemel Hempstead and

crossing the ridge of the Chilterns through the
Dagnal Gap.

Having obtained their Act of Parliament, the Company appointed Robert Stephenson Engineer-in-Chief at an annual salary of £1,500 (later increased to £2,000 to equal that paid to Brunel, then building the Great Western Railway).  Stephenson’s contract required him to devote virtually all his time to this exceptionally large and complex undertaking, during which, it is said, he walked the entire route 20 times.  All manner of civil engineering difficulties had to be overcome requiring the construction of cuttings, embankments, viaducts, bridges (including difficult masonry ‘skew arch bridges’ that cross roads and waterways at an angle), cuttings (including two substantial cuttings at Tring and Blisworth) and tunnels, of which that at Kilsby in Northamptonshire is generally considered to be one of the most ambitious civil engineering feats of its age.

Robert Stephenson’s gifts of leadership and organisation were needed during the difficult task of selecting and managing his project team, which eventually numbered sixty.  He was supported by five assistant engineers, under whom were a team of sub-assistants, draftsmen and pupils (in effect, apprentices).  The young men referred to themselves as ‘Stephensonites’ and remained loyal to their chief in later controversies and triumphs.  A contemporary pen portrait tells us that Stephenson had “an energetic countenance, frank bearing, and falcon-like glance . . . . he was kind and considerate to his subordinates, but was not without occasional outbursts of fierce northern passion.”  But the intense pressure of the work took its toll, for the account continues “during the construction of the line, his anxiety was so great as to lead him to frequent recourse to the fatal aid of calomel”, a toxic mercury-based chemical prescribed by English doctors at the time as a universal remedy.

Watford Tunnel under construction, June 1837, by John Cooke Bourne.

The railway opened in stages as work progressed; to Boxmoor, on the 20th July 1837; to Tring, on the 16th October; to Denbigh Hall, and to Rugby from the opposite direction, on the 9th April (the 38-mile gap being bridged by a shuttle coach service); and the line was opened throughout on the 17th September, 1838.  In the meantime the Grand Junction Railway ― constructed, principally, by another famous civil engineer, Joseph Locke ― had reached Birmingham from Warrington, both railways sharing the same terminus at Curzon Street.  There was now a continuous rail link between London and the North-West of England.

Following the line’s completion, Stephenson’s career went from strength to strength.  Among his engineering triumphs was the High Level Bridge across the Tyne (1849), the great Britannia Bridge across the Menai Straits (1850), and the 6,588-feet long Victoria Bridge over the St. Lawrence River at Montreal in Canada (1859).  But the Dee Bridge on the Chester to Holyhead Railway was to cast a dark shadow over his later achievements, for on the 24th May, 1847, it collapsed while a train was crossing, causing in five deaths and nine serious injuries.

Entrance to Watford Tunnel.
An L&NWR postcard.

After 1840, Stephenson was consulted increasingly on overseas railways schemes and began to travel a good deal.  He also became engaged in public activities and in the development of his own business concerns, particularly the locomotive manufacturing firm of Robert Stephenson and Company based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.  In 1847, he broadened his interests further when he entered Parliament as the member for Whitby, a seat he held until his death.  In politics, Stephenson was a Tory of the Right, hostile to free trade and anxious to avoid change in almost any form, which seems paradoxical in a man who was responsible for a great deal of economic and social upheaval.

In 1842, Stephenson was again concerned with matters at Tring when he was consulted by the London, Westminster & Metropolitan Water Company on the feasibility of providing London with water from sources in the Chiltern Hills.  His reports were lengthy and, as to be expected, well-reasoned.  He stated “I am well acquainted with the chalk district between Watford and Tring, and it having devolved upon me, in the course of my connexion with the London & Birmingham Railway, to sink a great number of wells, my attention has been particularly called to the extraordinary quantity of water existing in the chalk . . . .”  Perhaps fortunately for our locality, the water company did not pursue the idea of using the Bulbourne Valley to supply London.

In later life, Stephenson acquired all the outward marks of recognition of a distinguished career.  He declined a knighthood, as had his father, but was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and served as President of both the professional bodies with which he was associated, the Institutions of Mechanical and of Civil Engineers.  With his life’s work completed and the premature death of his wife, he became melancholy, sometimes peevish, and he often returned to visit his childhood haunts in the Northeast.  His constitution, never robust, finally gave way, and Stephenson died on the 12th October 1859, aged 55 (Brunel had died a few weeks previously, aged 53).  There was never any doubt about Stephenson’s burial place and 3,000 people packed Westminster Abbey for his funeral.  The driver of the first engine used on the London and Birmingham line wrote to ask for a ticket – it is pleasant to record that he received one.

Description: Macintosh HD:Users:wendyaustin:Desktop:rs beech sleepers.jpg

“Please to inspect 1000 Black Beech Sleepers and let then be forwarded  to Tring”
R. Stephenson.

Robert Stephenson built the London and Birmingham Railway in accordance with his father’s strict engineering principles as evidenced by the line’s gentle curves and gradients, both of which are conducive to high-speed running.  All those who travel through Euston Station and who walk out onto its forecourt can see a fine bronze statue of Robert Stephenson (below) – and those few travellers who do not hurry past with heads down might pause for a moment or two before it to pay their respects to his memory.

Robert Stephenson, FRS, Civil Engineer:
Statue (1871) by Carlo Marachetti, Euston Station.


Euston to Birmingham gradient profile.
At Birmingham, the line originally terminated at Curzon Street, about three quarters of a mile north-east of New Street Station.



The following notes relating to the railway at Tring were written by Arthur MacDonald Brown (usually known as Arthur MacDonald) some time during the late Victorian era.  They were intended to form a section of a published book on the complete history of the town, and it is apparent that he put much time and effort into its research.  However, although some sections are detailed, others comprise rough notes that were probably awaiting further research before being written up.

Arthur Macdonald (Brown).

Much to the regret of today’s local historians the book was never completed, for as MacDonald said, “I have quailed at the task of putting them [the notes] into proper shape for a parish history, but have amused myself in old age by utilizing some of them in a gossiping narrative.”  In 1940, he did just that when he published a small book entitled That Tring Air to help raise funds for the Tring Nursing Association.

This transcription of MacDonald’s section on the railway is taken from his original writing and, apart from some editorial notes [bracketed in italics], the extracts appear exactly as he wrote them.  In some places they contain their author’s quaint Victorian turn of phrase, in others his rather anecdotal style.  It may well be that modern research and the findings of later writers and railway historians call into question some of the facts and information, but in essence the story of the coming of the railway to Tring remains unaltered.  Although his image (enhanced by a typically late Victorian heavy moustache) suggests a serious gentleman, it probably belies a more light-hearted character, for he also wrote a number of humorous poems, songs and sporting ditties.

Arthur MacDonald was the second son of William Brown, a land agent of Tring, who founded the local firm of estate agents, Brown & Merry.  After attending Berkhamsted School and Jesus College, Cambridge, he became a partner in the family firm in which he fulfilled a distinguished career.  He was an expert in ecclesiastical and lay tithes, as well as in estate management, also undertaking the role of Examiner in Surveying for the Civil Service.

Notes written by Arthur MacDonald (Brown) c.1890.

In October 1837 the London & Birmingham Railway, now the London & North-Western, was opened to Tring.  Two companies were formed in 1830 to form lines from London to Birmingham; one by Oxford and Banbury, the other by Coventry.  They amalgamated and on George Stephenson’s advice chose the latter route.  The first survey had been made in 1825, but the commercial crisis of that year stopped further progress.  The final surveys were made in 1830 and 1831, and Robert Stephenson is said to have walked over the ground no less than 20 times in selecting the best route.  Of course the engineering difficulties were the lightest obstacles that had to be overcome.  The opposition from all classes was almost overwhelming.  The surveyors had exciting times, and had often to adopt stratagems to get their work done.  In one case the owner was so determined in keeping them off his land, and so vigilant in his determination, that the necessary levels had to be taken in the middle of the night, with a dark lantern held on the instrument and another to the staff.  Another Reverend owner had to be circumvented by being watched safely into the pulpit, when the work was snatched.  In not a few cases it came to a pitched battle, and the invaders had to get navvy protectors.

The Route – the direct route from Watford to Leighton would be by way of Hemel Hempstead and the Little
Gaddesden and Dagnal valley, but we have to thank the powerful opposition of the landowners in that district for turning the line out of its course down the Berkhamsted valley and so by Tring.  The opposition to the line was by no means confined to the landed interest; public meetings were held at many places, protesting against railways in general on every conceivable plea.  The tradesmen foresaw the loss of all their business, those who lived within a mile or two of the line expected their houses to be set on fire, the air was to be poisoned, all horses were to emigrate, and all cattle were to be frightened to death.

There is said to have been a public meeting held at Tring to protest against a proposal to bring the line from New Ground to near Grove turn, this being considered dangerously near.  They changed their tune when the line was being made, and wanted a branch, but the opportunity had passed.

The Bill was thrown out by the House of Lords in 1832, seven-eighths of the owners along the line being dissentient.  It was brought in again however and passed in 1833.  The average cost of the land was £6,300 per mile, which at one chain wide is equal to nearly £80 per acre.  The cost on other lines varied from £3,000 to £14,000 per mile.

Robert Stephenson was appointed engineer-in-chief.  The section from Camden to Tring was completed first, Camden being originally intended for the terminus.  The Contractor for the section from Tring to Leighton was named Townshend; he was one of the unfortunate eleven out of the eighteen contractors who became bankrupt over the business.  Contracting on such a scale was new, and the ins and outs of estimating were little known.  There were no leviathan contractors of the modern Lucas & Aird type
[an engineering company founded in 1848 and trading until 1990]

The Tring Cutting – the largest on the line, is well known as a stupendous engineering work, and nearly approaches the limit of depth at which tunnelling becomes preferable.  It passes through the flintless lower chalk ridge of Ivinghoe for nearly two miles and a half.  Its average depth is forty feet; for a quarter of a mile it is 57 feet; a million and a half cubic yards of chalk were removed when it was first made, and they form an embankment to the north six miles long and 30 feet high, besides huge spoil banks of superfluous material.

The work was commenced at Pitstone end, and took nearly three years.  The method of raising the chalk was peculiar and attended with no little danger.  30 or 40 horse-runs were erected – steep inclines made of three or four planks side by side wide enough for the legs of a barrow to stand on, placed down the slope of the excavation.  In the field at the top was a strong post with a pulley upon it; over this a horse drew a rope and chain which passed down the slope and was hooked on to the barrow.  When the barrow was full, the word was given, the horse was trotted out into the field, the navvy hung to the handles of the barrow and ran up the planks in an almost horizontal position, taking his chance of a lump or two falling back on him.  Any irregularity in the motion of the horse, and down went the man, barrow and all, and he had to be very quick to escape falling under it.  All the men were precipitated to the bottom many times, but such is the toughness of the British navvy that there was only one fatal accident.  The engineer, seeing the great risk of the method, invented a kind of lift consisting of a small tram on lines carrying two barrows, but this the men disapproved of and broke, preferring the old method to a labour-saving contrivance.


Horse (or barrow) run in use on the Manchester Ship Canal.

System of ‘ganging’
– the price per cubic yard paid to the men varied with the depth from seven pence to a shilling, and the men formed themselves into corresponding gangs of from seven to twelve, each man thus taking a penny per yard raised by the gang. The contractor found the horses and runs, the men undertaking to dig, raise and deposit the chalk. One of each gang acted as ‘runners’, and they could run 100 barrows in a hundred minutes up a 90 ft plank. The ‘diggers’ too had their dangers. The practice was to undermine a length of some yards, leaving one or two pillars of chalk or ‘legs’ to hold it up, then to cut away the legs and by driving piles into the top, bring down the overhanging mass. A well-known old inhabitant of Tring, Bunce, was engaged in this work, and was cutting away a ‘leg’ when the mass came down. He and his mate were buried in the falling chalk up to their shoulders, but escaped without broken bones.

[Thomas Townshend, 1771-1846, civil engineer and contractor] section commenced about 200 yards north-west of Tring Station; Cubitt [Sir William Cubitt, 1785-1861, founder of W. & L. Cubitt, civil engineers] taking the nine-mile Kings Langley to Tring section [according to company records, the Cubitt contract terminated at the northern end of Northchurch Tunnel, the short section between the Tunnel and Tring Cutting (contract 6B) being let to Richard Parr].  The bridge at Northfield has always gone by the name of the ‘bird-house bridge’, from the circumstance of a Dwight from ‘the hills’, one of the originators of the pheasant breeding business [Matthew Dwight, game farmer], bringing a hut on wheels or ‘bird-house’ down to that point, where he lived and sold beer to the navvies.

The regular navvies or ‘old hands’ commenced the cutting, and thought they could do it without assistance, but it was found necessary to employ quite an equal number of local men when the work got deeper, and they soon showed that they could hold their own with the old hands, not only at digging, in which Tring men have always excelled, and still do so, but at this (to them) new practice of ‘running’.  This excited great jealously among the old hands, which rankled in their minds long after, and on other works a Tring man was in danger of getting his head punched if the others knew where he came from.



Former stone block railway sleepers in use as boundary markers at New Mill, Tring.  The two holes in the top of the block on the right were to hold the oak peg fasteners for the rail chair.  The other blocks are up-turned.  More former sleeper blocks are in use as coping stones on the nearby canal at Cooks Wharf.

A section of line laid on stone block sleepers.

Altogether there were about 500 men employed in the cutting, and they brought some life of a curious character into the neighbourhood.  Ivinghoe was Mr Townshend’s headquarters and pay office, and many of the men lodged there and at the other villages near the line.  There was a lively party of eight at The Bell in Tring, who occasionally gave some trouble to the authorities of public order.  Mr Bull and Mr Philbey were Parish Constables at that time, and the former was called in on several occasions when the navvies were having a row, when he laid about him with his staff of office in a highly business-like and effectual manner.  Mr Philbey, too, had the faculty of arriving with great celerity on the scene of action – he drove furiously a small pony cart and was familiarly but irreverently called ‘Flying Issac’.

‘Tompkins at the Tommy Shop’ is an expression which denotes to every man, woman and child in Tring and the villages round, an emporium where almost everything can be obtained which makes life worth living, from a loaf of bread to a lawn mower.
[Mary Tompkins & Sons, according to a billhead of the time - Wholesale & Retail Ironmongers, Coppersmiths, Braziers, Tin, Iron & Zinc Plate Workers, Stove-grate & Range Manufacturers, trading at 51 & 52 High Street, Tring, now the premises of F. W. Metcalfe & Son] This establishment rose into prominence at the time of the construction of the railway, being the rendezvous for the navvies to get their ‘Tommy’and also their tools. [The navvy knew that he was a helpless being unless he could get his tommy – drink was ‘wet tommy’; and this word came to mean all supplies – beef, bacon, cheese, bread, butter, and tobacco.]

During the excavation many fossils were found, chiefly oysters, nautili, ammonites etc. also numbers of concretions of iron pyrites, popularly known as ‘thunder bolts’, some spherical and some cylindrical, but most irregular and fantastic in shape, and all with the common radiating structure.

At the Icknield road bridge 15 or 16 skeletons were found, and some Roman pottery.  Two urns were found at the Pitstone end, and these are now said to be in the possession of the Antiquarian Society.

The line and bridges
– the lines were originally laid on square stone blocks, instead of wooden sleepers.  These were however replaced throughout by timber on account of the excessive vibration, and many of the old ‘railway blocks’ may be found forming useful bases for shed posts, corner stones, mounting blocks for horsemen etc. in the neighbourhood of the line.
[Some of these may still be seen around the locality – notably at Hastoe Cross and in front of The Pheasant public house in New Mill.]

Another replacement found necessary was the parapets of the road bridges over the railway, which first consisted of open palisades of short cast-iron doric pillars on stone bases.  It was soon found that horses passing over the bridges were terrified by the engines and trains roaring below, in full view of the animals.  These had to be replaced everywhere by high, solid, brick walls.  (I have not seen the old palisades used up anywhere but as the front fence of my own house, where they make a substantial, imposing, and everlasting frontage-guard, the only drawback being their frequent use by the passing boy as a dulcimer by drawing a stick along them, to the detriment of the paint.)

The first locomotive
– the first locomotive was brought down in pieces by canal, and housed in a barn at Pix Farm, beyond Berkhamsted until wanted.  It was a heavy 6-wheeled engine, used to test and consolidate the line and was called the ‘Harvey Coombe’.  There was great excitement to see this wonderful beast when it took its first run down to Tring. One old wiseacre who had been working at the cutting refused to go with the others to see it, remarking that it was ‘Harvest home’ rather than ‘Harvey Coombe’, meaning that it was the signal of their job being finished.  This ponderous joke, after a life of 50 years, is still repeated by the survivors of that time with brimming hilarity.

Tring Station –
it was the intention of the Company to place a station at Pitstone Green at the north-west of the cutting, and perhaps another at New Ground.  The leading inhabitants of Tring, however, finding their town about to be left out in the cold began to agitate for a station at Pendley, but the owners of the Harcourt estate had made such opposition to the line and asked such a high price for the land, that the Company had taken as little of it as possible.  A public meeting was held at the Rose & Crown to memorialize the Directors.  Their reply was that if the land could be obtained at a fair price they were quite willing to make the station at the desired point, but that they were not going to pay a fancy figure, and if the town wished it, they must get the land and if necessary pay the difference.

Mr. John Brown of the Tring Brewery had noted this spot as not only the nearest point to the town, but also as a convenient one for the erection of a Hotel & Posting House; this gentleman not sharing the opinions expressed by the coach proprietors, that horses, vehicles, and roads would be of no further use after the arrival of railways.  On Sunday morning May 7 1837 the brothers John and William
[the father of Arthur MacDonald, author of these notes] Brown set out on a drive to Sunninghill, Berks, to interview Mr. Houghton, the Agent for the Harcourt estate, with a view to applying a ‘lowering’ treatment.  On arriving there, their foe had broken cover and they started off again in pursuit to Ruislip.  Here they received a temporary check, but finally ran into him in the open ascending Harrow Hill, after a rattling day with their old grey horse and chaise.  An appointment with Captain Harcourt was arranged, and finally the two acres of land required were obtained for 300 guineas, instead of the thousand the price asked.  Half an acre was set apart for the station, and in the spring of 1838 The Harcourt Arms now the Royal Hotel was commenced, under the superintendence of Mr. Aitchison, the Railway Company’s architect, and completed in March 1839. [George Aitchison, 1792-1881.  After working on warehouse design he came into contact with some of the directors of the L&B Railway, and devised a system of book-keeping for the works, as well as acting as architect for the intermediate stations.  He also, according to his obituary, gave Robert Stephenson “the aid of his experience in carrying out the structural works on the line”.  Not to be confused with his better-known son, George, architect of Leighton House, London.]

There was some idea of calling the station Pendley, but the name Tring was adopted.  The Station Road was soon formed, and our little town was thus put into railway communication with the outer world after so many vicissitudes, and its station turned out to be one of no mean importance on the line.  It was selected as a principal or first-class station at which all trains stopped, on account of its being at the highest point of the line, and an engine being usually thrown off here, also on account of the purity of the water, which did not fur the boilers.  The level of the rails at Tring Station is about 330 feet above the line at Euston, and 420 feet above the level of the sea.  It is thus about level with the top of St Paul’s.  There is only a short length of the line in Tring Parish (a mile and four chains), from the Northfield or ‘Birdhouse’ bridge to the Icknield Road bridge at the Folly Farm.  The Station is in Aldbury parish.

Aylesbury Branch Line
was constructed by a private company formed at Aylesbury in 1835, the first intention being to leave the main line at the proposed Pitstone Green Station, passing on the south side of Cheddington Hill by Long Marston and Drayton Beauchamp.  When Tring Station was secured, it was to have been made the junction, the branch leaving the main at the Pitstone end of the cutting as proposed.  Finally, Cheddington was chosen as the junction, which has the advantage of being perfectly straight all the way and having no cuttings and very little embankment, and was opened on 18 June 1839.  It was soon after purchased by the London & Birmingham Co.

The opening of the line
– the first portion of the main line completed was that between London and Boxmoor. This was opened in the summer of 1837, and the curiosity to see the new mode of travelling drew a large crowd to Boxmoor from all parts of the country round. Brass bands played, and many performed during the journey. At the end of that year the line was opened to Tring, and in April 1838 the whole line was completed with the exception of the part between Rugby and Denbigh Hall (Bletchley), which was delayed by the great engineering difficulties encountered in making the Kilsby Tunnel. Omnibuses connected the two portions until the line was finished, and the first train ran through from London to Birmingham on 17 September 1838.

In 1836 a Cheltenham & Tring Railway was being projected, this portion of the proposed route starting from Tring Station on the L&B by Grove, New Mill and Drayton, to Aylesbury and Thame.

In 1845, the year of the railway mania, no less than 1,428 new lines were projected, the London & Birmingham and many other companies then paying 10%.  Some of these affected this neighbourhood:

Tring, Reading & Basingstoke Railway was to have joined the London & Birmingham at Pitstone Green and passed near Buckland, Halton, Risborough and West Wycombe.

A second Tring & Aylesbury line was to have left the L&B at the same point as the last mentioned, approached the old branch at Long Marston, and passed through the parishes of Weston Turville and Broughton.

The Buckinghamshire Railway was to have gone down the Amersham and Wendover Valley, from Willesden to Banbury, along the same route from Aylesbury as the present, being intended to work with and relieve the L&B.

The Oxford & Cambridge line would have passed by Aylesbury, Cheddington, and Dunstable.

There was a Tring and Banbury Railway projected, this may possibly be the same as one of those mentioned above.

Receipt issued in 1845 by the projected
Tring, Reading and Basingstoke Railway Company.
The company was dissolved in bankruptcy in September 1846.

By an entry in the Tring Vestry book, 4 April 1845, it appears that application was made for power to rate in the usual manner a line which was to have passed through Betlow, this Lordship being under a special Act as to rating.  The Railway was called the London, Worcester, & South Staffordshire and was to have run from the L&B at Marsworth to Worcester.

In 1846 the London & Northwestern Railway was incorporated, including the London and Birmingham, Grand Junction, and Manchester & Birmingham lines.

Later development
. When the L&B Railway had been opened 17 years, it was found that within a circle of two miles round each station between the Metropolis and Tring the total amount that had been expended in new buildings was only £22,000.  It was then suggested that if a first class pass, available for a few years, were presented to every person who constructed a residence of a certain annual value near the line, all parties would be benefitted.  In eight years, between £240,000 and £250,000 were spent in house-building in those localities, and the amount expended since has been enormous.

Beech Grove, shortly before demolition in 1997.

Tring did not however share in this wholesale suburbanizing, and there is only one house whose owner took the advantage offered by the Company of a first-class pass for 21 years.
[This was William Brown, the father of the author of these notes. The house was named Beech Grove, before demolition for many years the Headquarters of the British Trust for Ornithology.]




“Leaving the Tring Station towards Birmingham the traveller passes under a bridge, and immediately enters one of the most stupendous cuttings to be found in the country. The contemplation of this vast undertaking fills the mind with wonder and admiration.”

The London and Birmingham Railway, Roscoe and Lecount (1839).

Above: an unrebuilt Royal Scot-class locomotive and train in Tring Cutting.
Below: Midland Compound 1114 in Tring Cutting.

A Midland Compound in Tring Cutting

Stephenson was well aware that one of the most labour-intensive tasks along the route would be the excavation of the 2½-mile Tring cutting.  Thomas Townshend (1771-1846), an established civil engineering contractor from Smethwick, secured the contract to construct the 6-mile section of the line from a point to the north of Tring Station, his tender price being £107,250.  Although approaching the end of his career, Townshend was very experienced in heavy earthworks, drainage and canal cutting, having earlier worked on projects for the great civil engineer John Rennie Snr.

Townshend’s responsibilities were considerable.  Not only did they entail the construction of the cutting, numerous bridges and the very long embankment to the north of the cutting, but he also had to build culverts and drains, erect fencing, and lay the rails, blocks, chairs and sleepers.  All this he was required to maintain in good order for a year after completion.

The first page of the contract for excavating Tring Cutting and for other work, including the long embankment to the north. It was signed by Thomas Townshend on 25th August 1834. The contract price of £107,250 included keeping all the works in good repair for one year after completion.

Because of the size of the task, work commenced on the cutting in 1835, well ahead of other work in the Tring area.  Townshend set up his headquarters and pay office at Ivinghoe, probably at the Kings Head, from where he supervised his army of sub-contractors and labourers.  At first, all went moderately well.  Apart from the huge volume of chalk to excavate, it was anticipated that there would be problems with the workings being flooded by groundwater (if not by the weather!):

The excavation, through Tring-hill, is proceeding rapidly.  Mr Townshend, the contractor, has upwards of 500 men employed besides a great number of horses.  It is expected they will intercept the Bulbourne springs when they get deeper.  These springs at present come directly into the Grand Junction Canal . . . .

The Mechanics’ Magazine (vol.23) 1835.

. . . . and as the lower levels of the chalk terrain – which form an aquifer – were reached, so commenced the predicted flooding.  It was also anticipated that weather conditions would turn the bottom of the cutting into a mire, and that this would also hamper progress:

In the event of a sharp frost, the ground, which is a sort of chalk rag, will slake down like lime, and will consequently be a great nuisance after the rail is finished.  The banks of the GJC, [Grand Junction Canal] in the deepest cuttings collateral with the railroad, are more than one to one, yet the slips which have occurred after a frost have been prodigious.”

The Mechanics’ Magazine (vol.23) 1835.

Following the line’s opening to Tring in October 1837, the groundwater encountered in the cutting and the weather combined to make working conditions impossible.  In his history of the line, Peter Lecount, one of Stephenson’s engineers, writes:

The Watford Tunnel was finished, and but little remained in the excavation.  The state of the three succeeding contracts was also very satisfactory.  The North Church
(sic.) Tunnel was finished; and, with the same exertions on the part of the contractors which had hitherto been evinced, there appeared no reasonable doubt but that the works might be all completed, and the line opened to Tring in the autumn.  The quantity of water yielded however by the Tring cutting, in addition to that which had fallen in rain, together with the argillaceous character in the chalk in that cutting, rendered absolutely necessary to stop all proceedings on that embankment.  It had, in fact, been proceeded with, till it was at last quite impossible.”

A History of the Railway connecting London and Birmingham, Peter Lecount (1839).

Stephenson submitted regular reports to the Railway Board relating on the progress of the work and its cost.  In February 1838, he reported that:

The Tring contract, which comprehended the most extensive excavation on the line, is now nearly completed . . . . it has, however, been impracticable to proceed as intended due to the intense and protracted frost, which set in a few days after the beginning of the year, continuing up to the present date, without a single available interval of one day.  The contractors have been urged, and every expedient resorted to, for the purpose of proceeding with the permanent rail, so as to expedite the approaching opening, but without success.  There still remains work which, as nearly as can be calculated, must require three weeks to perform, after a thorough thaw has taken place.”

Lecount summarised as follows:

“The railway opened to Tring in October 1837, as had been anticipated; but a winter of unusual severity and duration, by retarding the remaining works, made the farther opening in January 1838 impracticable; so intense, in fact, was the cold, that the ground was frozen two feet in depth, and although, by means of large fires and using hot mortar, brickwork was in some cases carried on, every one at all conversant with such works, will readily know how much time must be necessarily lost under weather which for weeks kept the thermometer at nearly zero.”

A History of the Railway connecting London and Birmingham, Peter Lecount (1839).

The minute book of the Institution of Civil Engineers (vol. 90, part 4) records Stephenson’s comments on the immense volume of ground water that flooded into the workings:

. . . . The Tring cutting on the L&B Railway presents another forcible example of the constant and rapid absorption of water by the chalk.  In the execution of that cutting a very large quantity of water was encountered, notwithstanding the situation was on the summit of the chalk ridge, forming the actual brim of the basin, where it could not be supplied with any water but such as fell upon the immediate neighbourhood, yet it yielded upwards of one millions gallons per day [50 cubic feet], and continues to yield an extraordinary quantity up to this hour, without any sensible diminution.”

A further difficulty arose when the Grand Junction Canal Company claimed that the excavation had resulted in a considerable loss of water that would otherwise have flowed into the canal’s summit, which lies a short distance to the west of the railway cutting.  Although Stephenson had the flow measured and disputed the argument, the canal company threatened legal action.  To settle the issue, the railway company undertook to build a tunnel through which drainage water could flow from the railway cutting into the canal’s summit, an exercise that added to the cutting’s expense.

Arthur MacDonald’s account (c.1890) helps to confirm and explain this:

“Much water was met with in making the Tring railway cutting, and culverts were laid below the level of the rails on each side, which carry considerable quantities of water to the Canal by a tunnel under Parkhill Farm.  One result of the cutting was to drain Bulbourne Pond entirely.  It was a long sheet of water, three-quarters of an acre in extent, and in the report made in 1838 on the damage, which was assessed at £150, it is described as a very delightful place from which any good-sized fish had been taken . . . .”

This pond – also known as “Bulbourne Water”, for it was quite a large expanse – was on the Grove Estate, at that time in the ownership of the Seare family.


Sale of Thomas Townshend’s assets. Both advertisements appeared early in 1838.  It is interesting to see the wide range of equipment that a railway contractor of the age had to provide, indicative of the private capital that was necessary to undertake such work.

Auction of Townshend’s assets. The Derby Mercury, 24th January 1838.


Bucks Herald, 7th January 1854.

Apart from problems with the weather and the terrain, another blow was dealt when Townshend was forced to relinquish his contract.  He had been hit by rising labour rates and the problem of finding sufficient local accommodation for his large workforce, and his costs began to outstrip his estimate for the work, a familiar story throughout the whole of the construction work.  The railway company had assisted other contractors with loans for temporary housing, but refused to help Townshend.  In October 1837, he filed for bankruptcy in the sum of £24,212.  Townshend was just one of eleven of the original 30 contractors employed on the line to fail, although his failure came as a surprise, as Peter Lecount relates:

“. . . . the person who had the Tring contract became bankrupt – a matter least expected, perhaps, of any.  He was a man of capital talent, and had an established reputation for years as an able contractor.  The works he had on hand were of the most extensive nature, and ought to have paid him well; when, to the surprise of everyone who knew him, he was suddenly declared to be in difficulties . . . . leaving the work at Tring, including the heavy cutting through the chalk, to be finished as best it might.”

A History of the Railway connecting London and Birmingham, Peter Lecount (1839).

The cutting was eventually completed under the supervision of the Company’s engineers using some of Townshend’s staff to control the workforce, its final cost being £144,657 against the contract price of £107,250.

To take on a civil engineering project, such as that at Tring, a contractor needed to engage an appropriately skilled workforce and provide them with a wide range of equipment.  This is evident from the advertisements for the auction of Townshend’s assets, which give some idea of the amount of capital that a contractor required to set up in business.  Further advertisements six months later imply that Townshend’s property was used until work on his contract was complete.  In June, 1838, a further sale was held at Pitstone, in which chain pumps, block cranes, a large Iron Crab windlass, timber and stone carriages, as well as materials from many temporary erections used to supply the needs of the dozens of horses (e.g the contents of several large stables), blacksmiths’ bellows, anvils, vices, and a chaff-cutting machine, were put up for sale.

A farmer’s bridge near Pendley Cottages.

A deep cutting necessarily entails the construction of road bridges, which require a small army of bricklayers, joiners and labourers.  Four bridges cross the Tring railway cutting – at Tring station, a farmer’s accommodation bridge near Pendley Cottages, Marshcroft Lane and Bulbourne (Folly Bridge, where the cutting reaches its maximum depth).

Little can be seen of Stephenson’s original bridges, for they were largely reconstructed when the cutting was widened in 1859 (to three lines) and 1876 (to four lines), and during the electrification of the line in the 1960s, but all remain three-span arches with a new 48 feet centre span.  Jean Davis writes in Aldbury, the Open Village (pub. 1987) that a map of 1840 shows another bridge, which carried the church path across the railway.  This bridge was later removed by the railway company to make way for further development, and the resulting compensation (£140) was used by Aldbury Vestry to build a house for the village school master.





The navigator, known as a ‘navvy’
or ‘banker’.

In his notes, Arthur MacDonald describes the navvy’s working practices and the arduous nature of their existence, which required skill to avoid serious injury.  Today, people generally think of the navvy as Irish; some were, but the majority were English or Scots with a smattering of other nationalities.  In this area, many were local men who, due to the agricultural depressions of the early 19th century, lived in the shadow of the workhouse.  In the public mind, navvies were generally reckoned rough and depraved, and in the towns and villages along the railway’s route they were awaited with apprehension if not trepidation and sometimes with good reason, as the following accounts from the Tring Vestry Minutes illustrate:

14th March 1836. Boxmoor. A great riot took place here last night between the English and Irish Bankers working on the new railroad.

30th September 1836. Berkhamsted. There was a great riot here today.  A party of Irish navvies passing through the town were attacked by parties of navvies working on the L&B railroad.  The Irish navvies were knocked down, severely beaten, stones thrown at them, and dogs were set on them to tear them.  The Irishmen returned again later in the day, and there was a great riot in the town.  Several inhabitants of the town assembled and took some of the rioters into custody.  There has been a lot of disturbances in the neighbourhood with these men, many of whom are but rough uncouth savages, as fierce as tigers.

See also Annex.

In spite of such disturbances, while endorsing the general view, the civil engineer Peter Lecount suggests that acts of violence – presumably on the local populace, rather than among themselves – were rare:

These banditti, known in some parts of England by the name ‘Navvies’ or ‘Navigators’, and in others by that name of ‘Bankers’, are generally the terror of the surrounding country; they are as completely a class by themselves as Gipsies.  Possessed of all the daring recklessness of the Smuggler, without any of his redeeming qualities, their ferocious behaviour can only be equalled by the brutality of their language.  It may be truly said, their hand is against every man, and before they have been long located, every man’s hand is against them; and woe befall any woman, with the slightest share of modesty, whose ears they can assail.

From being long known to each other, they in general act in concert, and put at defiance any local constabulary force; consequently crimes of the most atrocious character are common, and robbery, without any attempt at concealment, has been an every-day occurrence, whenever they have been congregated in large numbers; but they were so thinly scattered over the London and Birmingham Railway, that their depredations partook more generally of a deceptive character, and acts of violence were rare.”

A History of the Railway connecting London and Birmingham, Peter Lecount (1839).

A long account of life as a navvy was written by a well-educated young man whose ambition was to become a civil engineer ― whether he succeeded is not known, for his account is anonymous.  He left a first-hand record of his work on the construction of the line between Watford and Tring, including everyday problems, some of which could arise from a most expected quarter:

“In February 1836 Frazer [an engineering contractor] took a contract to dig ballast at Tring; and I was sent down to have charge of the job; on which there were about 50 men employed.  The job was bravely started, and things went on smoothly enough for the first ten days, when, lo!  It was reported that there was a bogie [gremlin] in the ballast pit.  These men who could defy alike death and danger became panic stricken.  The idea that the pit was haunted filled them with a mortal terror, of which the infection heightened as it spread.  At first the current rumour was that picks, shovels, and barrows were moved from their places nightly by the bogie; then it came to be that earth was dug, barrow-runs broken up, tools spoiled, trucks shunted, and even tipped by his nightly visits . . . . Finally the men struck work in a body.  Reasoning with them was useless; the old ganger, as spokesman for the rest, declared as the result of his former experience that ‘there was no tackling the old un’ [the Devil], and to a man they refused to re-enter the pit.

. . . . Frazer came down the same night, bringing with him a band of chosen roughs from Watford tunnel . . . . Frazer expected much from this gang; and the next morning they commenced work in earnest.  But on the second day they too became possessed with the same superstitious terror as their predecessors; and they also struck.  Persuasives, promises, and threats were alike unavailing; the men would not ‘go agin the bogie’; and the pit was once again deserted.

Frazer raved like a madman.  He was under a penalty to dig so much ballast per week . . . . suggested to set on a gang of farm labourers; of whom there were plenty out of employ.  He assented; and, in a day or two, we were at work again swimmingly; and continued so for a week, when the old contagion showed itself, and another suspension appeared inevitable.  It came at last, but was for some time averted by the allowance of rations of tommy in addition to wages, and by seeing that every man was half drunk before he went to work . . . .”

‘Navvies as they used to be’, from Household Words, Vol. XIII. (1856).

Navvies excavating a cutting near Camden on the London & Birmingham Railway, September 1836,
by John Cooke Bourne.

Many among the local populace became so concerned by various aspects of navvy behaviour that it was felt that something had to be done to point out to them the error of their ways:

“. . . . in the summer of 1836, the fearful depravity of the men working upon the railways, and the demoralizing influence upon the surrounding population, became a matter of public notoriety; and missions were organized by various religious sections of the community . . . .

The object was most praiseworthy; for by no class was reformation more radically required than by railway makers of every grade, from gaffers to the tip-boy . . . . Thus, many well-dressed, and doubtless well-meaning persons, obtained permission to visit the men on the works, during meal times, with the view of imparting religious instruction to them, and did so.  The distribution of religious tracts, and the usual machinery of proselytism, were shortly in active operation and the men’s dinner-hour, instead of being a period of rest and relaxation, was converted into a time for admonition and harangue.”

‘Navvies as they used to be’, from Household Words, Vol. XIII. (1856).

Some of this evangelizing did not fall on deaf or resentful ears, as Berkhamsted local historian Henry Nash writes in 1890:

Some of the men were as brutal as tigers, while there were others who were noble, manly fellows, and who but for their drinking propensities, would have made their mark in the world in any pursuit of life.  There were also a few among the foremen who, in addition to their superior intelligence, were remarkable for their sobriety and for their religious principles.  It is to these men that Berkhamsted is indebted for the introduction of Wesleyanism into the town . . . .”

It is reasonable to suppose that the same applied to a few at Tring, but it is likely that the majority were unmoved and persisted in their favourite pastimes of drinking, pugilistic encounters, and dog fighting.

Apart from the dangers inherent in a navvy’s leisure hours, most of which stemmed from drink and the squalor in which they often lived (contagious disease, such as smallpox, cholera, and dysentery often struck), life in the workings was inherently dangerous in an age when ‘health and safety’ had yet to be thought of.  John Cooke Bourne’s famous picture showing the excavation of Tring cutting (below) illustrates just one significant risk, the ‘horse-run’.  On the face of it, using a horse to haul a man up the side of a cutting, while he guided a barrow loaded with several hundredweights of spoil, might seem straight forward, but when the rope gave away or the horse panicked and bolted, the consequences could prove fatal.

However, before the spoil could be lifted up the horse-run, it was first necessary to cut it out of the sides of the cutting.  This too could prove a dangerous operation:

In excavating a deep cutting, they [the navvies] would work it as much as possible in ‘lifts’ or ‘benches,’ by which the ground was so undermined at the bottom as to produce a large fall of earth.  The last operation was called ‘knocking the legs from under it;’ and if the earth did not readily fall, sharpened iron piles and bars were driven in from above to force down the ground.  From ten to fifty tons would thus be brought away at a time; but not infrequently with one or more men buried under the mass.”

The Quarterly Review, Volume 103 (1858).


Upwards of a thousand men are engaged in making the Tring railroad cutting.  Horses attached to a windlass draw the barrows laden with soil up inclined planks, the labourer merely guiding the barrow.  It is very dangerous work, and unfortunately there have been several accidents.  In Hertford Museum is an engraving depicting the work.  It is dated June 17th 1837.

From the Tring Vestry Minutes for 1837.

Horse runs, drawn by John Cooke Bourne, June 1837.
Top, at Tring Cutting.  Bottom, at the Boxmoor Embankment.

Tunnelling was the civil engineer’s nightmare, for it was impossible to foresee with confidence what lay beneath the surface.  Subterranean streams and, worse still, pockets of quicksand and gravel might be concealed, which, when pierced, would pour into the workings in a torrent until the cavity it occupied was empty.  Then, no longer able to support the weight of the ground above, the cavity would collapse, burying the workings and those unfortunate not to have got out in time.  This incident occurred during construction of the Northchurch Tunnel to the south of Tring station:

The soil through which we were carrying the drift of Northchurch tunnel was of a most treacherous character, and caused many disasters.  Despite every precaution, the earth would at times fall in, and that, too, when and where we least expected.  Thus, in the fifth week of our contract, notwithstanding that our shoring was of extra strength and well strutted, an immense mass of earth suddenly came down upon us.  This came from the tapping of a quicksand.  One stroke of a pick did it.  The vein was shelving and the sand, finding a vent, ran like so much water into the open drift; which was of course speedily choked up.  George Hatley was at once on the spot; and, under his directions efforts were promptly made to clear away the sand, so that the shoring should be re-strengthened if possible before the earth above (deprived of the support afforded by the sand) should collapse.  The most strenuous efforts were made in vain.  There came a low rumbling, like the distant booming of artillery, then followed crashes louder than the thunder, startling us from our labour; and, while we were hurrying away, down came the whole mass of earth, masonry, timber, and sand, crushing five men under it.  Of these men three were dug out alive, and removed terribly mangled – to the West Herts Infirmary; the other two were found dead.”

‘Navvies as they used to be’, from Household Words, Vol. XIII. (1856).

Northchurch Tunnel under construction.
: by John Cooke Bourne, July 1837.  Below: by S. C. Brees, September 1837.

A similar incident occurred during construction of the Watford tunnel, where the terrain is predominantly chalk, but soft chalk interposed with gravel-filled fissures, as much as one hundred feet deep:

The gravel is most abundant in the neighbourhood of Watford, covering the upper chalk which in many places it penetrates, or in other words, the large fissures or rents in the chalk are filled with gravel, and as this latter material is very loose and mobile, it was the occasion of much difficulty and danger in the excavation of the Watford tunnel; for at times, when the miners thought they were excavating through solid chalk, they would in a moment break into loose gravel, which would run into the tunnel with the rapidity of water, unless the most prompt precautions were taken.”

The London and Birmingham Railway, Thomas Roscoe and Peter Lecount (1839).

Such gravel-filled fissures were cut into on several occasions, but on the 17th July 1835, there occurred a huge inrush of gravel.  Ten of those at work in the tunnel were buried alive.  So much for the dangers of the navvies’ work.

During construction of the railway at Tring, some of the workforce are known to have lodged in the town.  What little is known about Tring’s medieval Priory, which stood on the site of today’s Library, come from an account by an unnamed author published in 1838 in Railroadiana, a new history of England.  After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Priory building served various purposes including, from 1718, use as Tring’s House of Correction, later renamed the Workhouse.  It was then converted into a residence for farmer William Beal, part of which he used as a lodging house for ‘travellers of the working class’.

The old Priory building.

An 1837 extract from Tring Vestry Minutes records that:

“The old Workhouse has been converted into a lodging house for travellers.  William Beal, the tenant, is fortunate in having just now a large number of the excavators, or bankers as they are called, engaged in making the new Railroad, lodging with him.”

A year later Railroadiana tells us that over 100 workers were boarded there, all labouring on the construction of the line and the massive cutting through the hills east of Tring.  According to this account, the lodging house was a jolly place, especially on Friday nights when the beer flowed freely in what had once been the monks’ kitchen.  A visitor of the time (clearly not an admirer of Henry VIII, but even less an admirer of monasteries) wrote a ten-verse poem on the subject, four of which appear below:


Strange changes mark the flight of time:
    Three centuries since men wondering saw,
The old abodes of cant and crime,
    Abolished by a despot’s Law.
Heaven with base instruments works good,
    A pregnant instance we have there;
The wretch who shed a consort’s blood,
    Made tyrant priests and monks despair.

And thus perhaps it was that Tring,
    Though at the time it zealots shocked,
Was cleansed by a ferocious king
    From knaves who truth and virtue mocked.
We ask not who successive pass’d
    Next occupants of this secure,
The fabric we behold, at last,
    Came “Heaven directed to the Poor”.

Now industry on every part,
    Its hand has laid in manly strife,
To render each with rustic art
    Appropriate to humble life.
Where monks sung, those who guide the plough,
    And those who dig until nightfall.
And in the Chapel-stable now,
    A horse enjoys the only stall.

The world goes round, I see it here,
    For yonder venerable pile –
Where lazy monks breathed vows austere,
    Is now the scene of cheerful toil.
No more the sternly thundered doom,
    Turns offending brothers pale,
But song and chorus in its room,
    And mirth inspired by home-brewed ale.

When the navvies finally completed their work, Tring perhaps breathed a sigh of relief, although some (as recorded in Arthur MacDonald’s notes) probably missed the additional business they brought to the town.  No doubt after their departure their old lodging house, Tring’s Workhouse premises, needed a good tidy-up:

William Brown – Desirable opportunity for carpenters and builders.  Directed to sell by auction on Wednesday 30 March 1842 at one o’clock.

A large quantity of sound and very useful materials comprised in the Old Rectory (since used as a Workhouse) at the entrance to the town of Tring, which have recently been taken down, sorted, and divided into convenient lots for the accommodation of purchasers.
[These included beams, joists, posts, rafters, braces, floorboards, window frames and 1,000 cu.ft. of solid oak.]

Catalogues will shortly be obtained from Watson’s Printing Office, Berkhamsted.”

The Aylesbury News & Advertiser, 26th March 1842.



Outline drawing of Tring Station as originally built.
The chimney was part of the gasworks that provided coal gas for station lighting.
Our thanks go to Tom Nicholls for bringing this drawing to our attention.  It appears in
First [fourth] series of railway practice: a collection of working plans and practical details of construction in the
public works of the most celebrated engineers
by S. C. Brees (1847).


London & Birmingham Railway Bury 2-2-0 passenger locomotive No. 32 heading a mixed train.

The first carriage is a Grand Junction Railway travelling post office, an example of which is on display at the National Railway Museum, York.  It is followed by a second-class and then by several first-class carriages.  The cylinder-like objects projecting from the carriage roofs hold oil lamps (it appears that second-class passengers didn’t qualify!).



The day of the opening of the line to Tring was blessed with fine weather, and all those of importance travelled along the line.  The whole expedition, which appeared to pass without any problems, was followed by much self-congratulation.  This from the Tring Vestry Minutes:

16th October 1837 – Today the new London & Birmingham railroad was opened as far as Tring.  The Directors and a few friends made an experimental trip in six carriages, and the fineness of the day contributed to the pleasure of the journey.  They completed the distance to Harrow by 25 minutes after nine, to Watford 37 minutes after nine, and to the Station at Boxmoor by 9 minutes before ten o’clock. The train here entered on the new line of rails.

Immediately after leaving Boxmoor Station there is an embankment of very considerable length, at the conclusion of which there is a short cutting of a few feet in depth, and a tunnel immediately following the tunnel is only 300 yards in length, and the inconvenience which has been complained of is passing through these at the earlier part of the railroad, and the want of light therefore was scarcely felt.  An arrangement has been made with a view to remedying this defect entirely, by the introduction of lamps into each carriage; the regulations, it is intended, shall extend to carriages both of the 1st and 2nd class, and the object is to be effected by placing oil lamps in apertures in the roof of each carriage.

The train passed through Berkhamsted Station at precisely ten o’clock, and concluded its journey without any accident or mistake by arriving at Tring (that is Pendley) at 10 past ten o’clock, thus having covered the whole distance from Primrose Hill in an hour and 11 minutes.

The line of rails now laid down does not extend more than 100 yards beyond the station, and concludes there in a deep cutting about 55 feet below the level of the earth, in soil consisting entirely of chalk.  The point at which this excavation is made is the highest point of the whole line of the railway from London to Birmingham, and its level is 300 feet higher than that of the station at Euston Square, a gentle acclivity therefore, extending through the whole distance.  The journey, when the railroad is completed, will be performed from London to Birmingham in eight and a-half-hours, but as soon as the rails are completed the whole distance, there is little doubt that the mails will be carried in little more than four hours, and to Liverpool in eight and a-half, or thereabouts.

The object of the Company at present, however, is not so much to procure speed as to secure the regular passage of their carriages, and every train will be regularly timed on reaching its station.  Several extra engines are now in the course of building, and at the next opening of rails, eight will be kept at all times ready to be called into work, although three only is the number required to be used every day.

18th August 1838 - London & Birmingham Railroad.  Extract from the Directors’ Report.  The number of passengers conveyed to and from London and Boxmoor, has exceeded all expectations.  The numbers being as follows – on 16th ult. – being 28 days from the first opening 39,855, being an average of 1,423 per day ,for which the daily receipts average £153; during the last week, the daily number has advanced to 1,807, the receipts being £189.

17th November 1838 – The L&B railroad is finished all through, and a train started from Euston Grove and reached Birmingham in four hours and a quarter.

The account in the local paper concentrated more on the aesthetic and human aspect of the new phenomenon.  The writer of a very long report of the whole journey is breathless with admiration as he describes the tunnels, embankments and, of course, the “steep, precipitous trenches of chalk which shut out all prospect.”  He goes on:

“. . . . the arches of tunnels, bridges, and viaducts, which in many cases cross the railway, the station-houses, and the various buildings connected with the undertaking are all built with a view to durability; they all exhibit as much taste as could be displayed in such erections, consistent with the strength and massiveness which are peculiarly necessary . . . . The labourers and country folk clustered together in many different places to view this extraordinary rapidity of transportation and greeted the success of it with acclamations . . . .”

Aylesbury News & Bucks Advertiser, 21st October 1837.

It is well known that where a railway opened in competition with a canal, the canal’s trade suffered badly, to the extent that some canals quickly went out of business. What is less well known is that adjacent turnpike roads were similarly affected, the advent of public railways being one of the factors that brought about the end of the turnpike road system.

Following the opening of the London & Birmingham Railway, the trustees of the Sparrows Herne Turnpike (Bushey to Aylesbury, via Watford, Berkhamsted and Tring) soon found they could not afford the cost of bridge repairs, and had to fall back on ancient legislation to oblige the County to pick up the bill. This from the Hertfordshire Session Rolls:

“Letter regarding the Sparrows Herne Turnpike Trust, stating that in consequence of the great reduction in the income of this road occasioned by the London and Birmingham Railway, the trustees find that they are under the necessity of throwing upon the county the repairs of all county bridges on this road, and of 800ft. of the road at each end of such bridges pursuant to the Act 22 Hen. VIII., c. 5, s. 9.  The trustees also request that this matter may be laid before proper authorities in order that the county surveyor or some other person may be instructed to attend to these repairs.  There are three bridges on the road within this county one over the canal near Hunton bridge, another over the mill tail at the bottom of Watford, and the third over the river near the toll house at Watford, and dividing the parishes of Watford and Bushey.”

6th April. 1838


In 1823, George and Robert Stephenson together with two business associates set up the locomotive manufacturing firm of ‘Robert Stephenson & Co.’  The firm was based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and for many years manufactured locomotives for both the home and overseas markets.  Its first four engines, built for the opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, were something of a disaster, but the Rocket, built four years later for the Rainhill Trials, proved to be a landmark in steam locomotive design.  In 1833, Stephenson introduced his Patentee class locomotive.  It too was a tremendous success, and in 1836, William Cubitt, the contractor for the Berkhamsted section of the railway, agreed to use one as a works engine; Stephenson’s aim was clearly to demonstrate its potential to the directors.  The locomotive was shipped to London and then up the Grand Junction Canal to Bourne End, where it was assembled at Pix Farm and, under the name Harvey Combe, was put to work on the line.

The Harvey Combe, pictured at Berkhamsted in July 1837, by John Cooke Bourne.

But when it came to procuring locomotives for the working railway, the Directors awarded the contract to the Liverpool locomotive manufacturer, Edward Bury, who undertook to convey each passenger at a farthing per mile, and each ton of goods at a half-penny a mile, using locomotives built to his specification.

Bury was a believer in small engines.  Those that he supplied to the railway were four-wheelers, so heavy trains had to be hauled by two, three or more locomotives.  Although the service contract with Bury was soon abandoned, he continued in a salaried position as Locomotive Superintendent until shortly after the mergers took place in 1846 from which was formed the London and North-Western Railway.

As for passenger accommodation, at the outset there were only two classes of carriage.  First-class carriages were little more than three stagecoach bodies mounted on a common chassis.  Judging by the Liverpool and Manchester Railway first-class coach exhibited at York Railway Museum, the accommodation was rather cramped by modern standards, but not by those of the time:

“Upon examining the internal fittings up of the carriages, upon which so much of the comfort of his journey will depend, the traveller will find that the first class carriages are divided into three entirely distinct compartments, and these compartments into six divisions, (except in the mails, in which there are only four) so that each traveller has an entire seat to himself, in which he can recline as freely and comfortably as in the most luxurious arm chair; and after the shades of evening have gathered over the scenery; can read the news of the day; or turn over the pages of our little volume; by the light of a lamp which is fixed in the roof of the coach.”

Drake’s Road Book of the London and Birmingham Railway (1838).

But if first-class was cramped, second-class was truly grim.  During the day, this class of carriage was little more than an open-sided truck with an overhead covering, although conditions were marginally better for travellers on the night trains:

“The second class carriages are, however, of a very different character.  These cushionless, windowless, curtainless, comfortless vehicles, seem to have been purposely constructed so that the sweeping wind, enraged at being outstripped in his rapid flight, might have an opportunity of wreaking his vengeance upon the shrinking forms of their ill-fated occupants.  At night, however, the partnership of the railway with Messrs. Rheumatism and Co. is dissolved, and even second class passengers are provided with shelter from the cold and chilling blast.”

Drake’s Road Book of the London and Birmingham Railway (1838).

Third-class carriages arrived on the London and Birmingham line some time later, this unfortunate class of traveller inheriting what had previously been the second-class day carriages, the occupants of which ran the risk of being blistered by flying sparks and cinders, and smothered with dust in the tunnels.  Contemporary illustrations show them with raised umbrellas and parasols for protection, and with pieces of net draped over their top hats.  Train journeys were improved for everyone when it was realised that the stone blocks on which the rails were laid did not lend themselves to a comfortable ride, and they were soon replaced by more vibration-free wooden sleepers.


Because corridor compartments lay many years in the future, none of the carriages gave access to toilet or buffet facilities.  Regarding luggage, this was carried on the roof:

“As was the general custom, luggage was carried on the roofs of the carriages, and amongst the rules of the company we read, ‘Every passenger’s luggage will, as far as practicable, be placed on the roof of the coach in which he has taken his place; carpet bags and small luggage may be placed underneath the seat opposite to that which the owner occupies.’  The practice of carrying luggage on the roof survived on some lines for many years, but in 1845 the Grand Junction and London and Birmingham Railways introduced baggage vans on their trains.”

History of the London & North-Western Railway, Wilfred L. Steel (1914).

Carrying baggage on the roof gave rise to another problem, fire, although this was only one of many difficulties to beset rail travel in the early days:

“The railway guards also had an unpleasant time, for, adhering to old usage they too rode outside on the top of the carriage, where, amidst other disagreeables, their clothes sometimes caught fire.  The roadside stations were enclosed with lofty iron railings, within which the passengers were imprisoned until the train arrived; they were then permitted to rush out to take their places, for which they sometimes had to join in a free fight [not a great change there!] . . . .

The working of the line went struggling towards a state of order.  The rails were found to be too light for the traffic – 56lb. fish-bellied rails in some cases – the stone blocks a failure; fires to luggage on the tops of the carriages frequent; signals by flag and hand lamps insufficient.  The signalmen, dressed in police uniform, had been drilled by Mr. Superintendent Bedford, formerly of the Guards and lately of the Metropolitan Police, and they brought the flag-staff round to the shoulder, as the trains passed, with true military precision.”

Fifty years of the London & North Western Railway, David Stevenson (1891).


The Royal Carriage interior.

The Royal Family did not become patrons of the line immediately.  In 1842, the Company built a private coach for Queen Adelaide (now displayed at York Railway Museum).  In the same year, Queen Victoria took her first rail journey, travelling from Slough to London on the Great Western Railway.  From then on, she became a regular rail traveller.  On one of her earlier trips on the London and Birmingham Railway, the Company provided a four-wheeled carriage, which was centrally heated.  Inside the saloon was a throne-like armchair upon which the Queen sat when in public, and a more comfortable sofa hidden behind curtains for use when travelling.  The roof was domed, its central ventilator outlet being disguised as a royal crown!


When, in 1844, the Queen and Prince Albert first travelled north from Euston, they reached Tring in 52 minutes, where she asked that the speed of her train be reduced:

“. . . . the engine, which was driven by Mr. Bury, superintendent of the locomotive department, was attached, and immediately afterwards, at 22 minutes past nine o’clock, the train started, amidst the cheers of spectators.  It went very briskly . . . . In the centre of it was a magnificent carriage surmounted with a Royal crown . . . . many a labourer and farmer on the railroad side left the labour of the field to look at the Royal special train as it rushed rapidly along . . . . The morning was gloomy and rainy, but, notwithstanding this, and notwithstanding the advanced period of the year, there was something attractive in the landscape as the train approached Tring, owing to the varied and wooded character of the scene.  The drizzling rain which was falling at the time had not deterred a considerable number of persons from collecting together at Tring station.  This station is situated 31¾ miles from London, and was reached by the special train conveying Her Majesty at fourteen minutes past ten o’clock; and here the train halted for a few minutes, in order that the engine might obtain a fresh supply of water.

The crown on the carriage roof disguised a ventilator cowl.

Among the persons assembled at this station were the juvenile members of the neighbouring population, boys and girls, who were drawn up in rows, and who strained their tiny voices to the utmost in welcoming their Sovereign.  Her majesty appeared highly pleased with this specimen of infantine loyalty and enthusiasm.  A sufficient supply of water having been obtained, the train again started on its course, at 18 minutes past ten o’clock, but it was observed that its onward rate was not now so great . . . .”

The Northampton Mercury, 16th November 1844.


The Bucks Herald, 14th October 1837.

At the outset, travelling by train was extremely expensive and only really possible for the well-heeled.  For example, in 1837, at a time when a farm labourer was struggling to maintain a family on about 10s.0d a week, a second-class fare from Tring to London cost 4s.6d.  Conveyance of parcels was more reasonable, for the Company was anxious to earn revenue from goods traffic of all types.  Schedules of fares and timetables were published on the front page of local papers, and any alteration to times was noted meticulously in advertisements placed in later editions (important when one thinks of the distance between Tring and its station).  These advertisements often carried reminders of the rules that applied to travelling on the railway, but one is left to conjecture how rigorously they were enforced (and perhaps wish that some still applied!).  The following are a selection:

“The Public are informed that none of the Company’s porters or servants in attendance are permitted to receive any gratuity, and that a book is kept at every station, where passengers are requested to note down any act of incivility or inattention of any of the servants (stating the number on the collar), and immediate attention will be given to the complaint by the Directors.

Females are in attendance on the ladies at the London, Watford, Wolverton and Birmingham stations, and there is a rest at Wolverton of ten minutes for refreshment.

Dogs will be charged for according to distance but they will on no account be permitted to accompany passengers in the carriages.

Smoking is strictly prohibited both in and upon the Carriages, and in the Company’s Stations. Any Passenger persisting in Smoking after being warned not to do so, is hereby subjected to a Fine of Forty Shillings, and in case of his persisting after a second warning, he will immediately, or (if travelling) at the first stopping place, be removed from the Company’s Premises, and forfeit his Fare.

Any Passenger in a state of intoxication, committing any nuisance, or wilfully interfering with the comfort of other Passengers, obstructing any of the Company’s Officers in the discharge of their duty, or not attending to the directions of the Guard, in cases where the personal safety of himself or any of the Passengers is concerned, will be immediately removed from the Company’s Premises, or in case he shall at the time be travelling, then at the next Station, or as soon after the offence as conveniently may be, and shall forfeit his Fare.”

Table of fares in 1841, by which time third-class had been introduced.

The list of misdemeanours for misconduct and fare dodging goes on and on, with especial emphasis on “wilfully cutting the lining, breaking windows, and defacing the number plates”, or otherwise damaging carriages.

Finally, not to forget the gentry, the rates of conveyance for their horses and carriages (a sort of forerunner of Motorail) were, in 1841 . . . .





To the Editor of the Bucks Herald.

SIR. — How is it that at the important first class railway station at TRING there is neither a book stall nor a refreshment room?  There are many stations of far less importance where both these establishments are thriving.  I do not individually complain at the want of the latter, but any of the many passengers who go up by the 10.30 a.m. fast train (for instance) stopping at no station between Tring and London have cause to grumble that they cannot invest in a newspaper.  I do not know with whom the management of these matters rests, but as I have been told that your arguments were instrumental in bringing telegraphic communication to Aylesbury perhaps you will not refuse to put forth an argument or two upon this question of lesser consequence.  If a book or newspaper stall is not soon established, I shall certainly recommend the Directors of the Shoeblack Brigades in London to despatch one of the most worthy of their ‘shining characters’ to exercise the double vocation of cleaning boots in fresh country air, and vociferating ‘Morning News, Star, and Telegraph,’ and if the spec should answer ‘This Day's Times, Punch, and the Illustrated News,’ and, when anything particular is up, the Bucks Herald, and if he should not be allowed to address the public from the platform he can at any rate station himself outside. . . . .

Yours, &c., M.”
Bucks Herald, 29th October 1859.

Tring Station, probably in the 1950s.  Note the busy goods yard in the distance, now a car park.


In his notes, Arthur MacDonald Brown first referred to Pendley Station, its original name, some 50 years after it had opened.  As he was writing much nearer the event, it follows that his account of how its location came about is likely to be correct, for the oft-repeated local legend that Lord Rothschild opposed the railway being brought through the town is clearly wrong.  Nathan, 1st Baron Rothschild, was born in 1840, just after the railway had opened and his father, Baron Lionel de Rothschild, did not acquire Tring Park until 1872It was Nathan’s opposition to a steam tramway, planned some 50 years later to link Tring Station with Aylesbury, which would have passed his house at Tring Park, that is probably confused with the main line.

The Comte d’Harcourt, absentee owner of the Pendley Estate, demanded such an exorbitant price for land on which to build Tring Station that the Company decided to build their station on a cheaper plot at Pitstone Green, some 3 miles further north.  But when the citizens of Tring got wind of this plan, they drew up a petition and sent a deputation to meet the directors — this from the Company’s minute book, dated the 17th May 1837:

“Memorial signed by 169 inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood of Tring praying that a station may be formed at Pendley and pledging themselves to afford the Company every facility in their power for the attainment of that object . . . . the secretary stated with reference to the memorial that a deputation from the inhabitants of Tring was in attendance”.

The deputation was called in, to be informed that the directors were prepared to build a station at Tring if the townspeople undertook to bridge the difference in price between what the Company was prepared to pay and that demanded by the Harcourt estate.  The minute book continues:

“The deputation expressed themselves perfectly satisfied with the arrangement, and undertook to treat for the purchase in their own account.”

Thus, the town got its station, albeit a good mile and a half from the town centre, for Stephenson’s determination not to exceed the railway’s ruling gradient (1:330, or 16 feet to the mile) had already determined its location.

Tring station has been rebuilt on a number of occasions over the years (more recent architectural tinkerings include the replacement of platform buildings with bus shelters).  It began life as a temporary terminus, erected to serve the extension of the railway from Boxmoor in October 1837.  Although there is no known image or description, it might have looked similar to the temporary terminus at Rugby, which contemporary accounts describe as “a little wooden station of very moderate dimensions” and “in the Swiss style, with a large projecting roof.”

Tring’s temporary terminus was soon replaced by a solid brick building, which the Company designated a ‘first-class’ station.  When the Railway opened throughout in September 1838, its sixteen intermediate stations fell into two categories, first and second class, the distinction being that ‘first-class trains’ (comprising only first-class accommodation) and mail trains stopped only at the first-class stations, while ‘mixed trains’ stopped everywhere.  All the intermediate stations were designed by the Company’s architect, George Aitchison Snr. (1792-1861), who considered his plans for Tring (and also for Rugby) of sufficient merit to exhibit at the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1838.  The building contract, which included an engine shed, was awarded to W. & L. Cubitt for the sum of £1,885:

“London and Birmingham Railway: Amongst the many alterations and improvements which have taken place since the formation of the above line, there is no part which has progressed more with the times than the vicinity of Tring.  As soon as the Company had determined upon making it a first class station (where every train stops) the inhabitants came forward in a very spirited manner, and at their own expense formed a new road direct to the town.  Since then other improvements have taken place, and adjoining to the station has been erected the Harcourt Hotel, a very handsome building, capable of affording every accommodation.  The situation of this station is in a very beautiful part of this county, in the centre of the estate of the late General Harcourt; and in consequence of the demand for houses in the neighbourhood, the present possessors have made arrangements for accommodating the public with building ground at a reasonable rate, so that in a short period we may calculate on this spot becoming an important place.  It has also become quite a sporting district, many gentlemen who reside principally in London finding it so extremely convenient to get to and from, that it is treated as almost nothing to ride 40 miles to cover, and have a good day’s sport.”

Railway Times, 7th December 1839.

While there is no known picture of this station, there is a detailed description as it appeared circa 1840:

“TRING (FIRST-CLASS) STATION: The station at Tring is inconveniently placed in a cutting, as was the original Coventry station.  The offices are on elevations equal to the depth of the cutting, and are approached from the railway by a flight of 18½ 7-inch steps for foot passengers, and a sloped road for the private carriages to be embarked or disembarked at the carriage-dock.  There is a separate passage from the railway for the departure of persons arriving by the trains, and also a separate staircase for the use of the porters.


The original Coventry Station, thought to be similar in appearance to that at Tring (c.1838).
Architect, George Aitchison Snr. (1792-1861).

The offices consist of a booking-office and waiting-room in one, with an entrance-lobby next the road, and exit lobby towards the railway.  The width of this building, which is constructed of brick, is 32 ft. and the depth 24 ft.5 in.  A paved yard extends in front of the offices for a length of 58 ft. being 33 ft. in depth; the front next the railway is enclosed with iron railings.  The urinals and water–closets are conveniently on the north side of the offices and entered from the paved yard.  There is also a porter’s lodge, which is detached from the other offices.

The fixed-engine and boiler-house are about 33 ft. in length and 18 ft. 6 inches in width, and abut on the north side of the paved yard.  The coal-shed, which is contiguous is 23 ft. in length and about 7 ft. wide.  The engine has an 8-inch cylinder and 18-inch stroke; the usual working pressure is 31 lbs. on the square inch.  There are two boilers, with return tubes.  The water-tank is placed over the engine and boiler house; the usual depth of water of 3 ft. 6 in.  The quantity of water which this tank will hold is equal to the supply of eight or nine locomotive engines.  The supply-pipes from the pumps are each of 6 in. diameter.  From the boiler the waste is admitted by a 2½ inch pipe into the water tank, to raise the temperature of the water previously to its being let into the tanks of tenders.  Some of the ballast engines are housed in a shed at this station.

Besides the booking clerk, there are at this station one inspector, three policemen
[in fact signalmen], four porters, and one person to operate the stationary engine.”

The Railways of Great Britain and Ireland, Francis Wishaw (1842).

Marvels of the telegraph. A man committed a robbery at Aylesbury, and decamped by the next train.  The policeman went off to Tring Station, and telegraphed to Euston.  When the thief left the train, he was arrested by one of the police force.  The telegraph wires had caught him.

Tring Vestry Minutes, April 24th, 1858.

Above: Tring Station looking north (judging by the locomotives) probably during the Edwardian era.
Below: Tring station booking office. The Station Masters house is on the left.

A good water supply is important for the operation of steam locomotives, and without public water mains and at 420 ft. above sea level, it was necessary to sink a well (80 ft. deep according to Wishaw) and install a pumping engine (the “fixed-engine” described above) to raise water from it.  A carriage dock was added to the west side of the station to permit the aristocracy to transport their carriages, horses and servants, about which Wishaw tells us that:

“The carriage dock is approached by a siding from the main line, furnished with a 12 ft turntable opposite the entrance to the dock . . . . One horse-box and carriage-truck are kept at this, as at all first-class stations.”
[The term ‘railway carriage’ originates from this early usage.]


Above: Tring Station yard looking south.  The locomotive is probably a Bowen Cooke Prince of Wales.
Below: down Euston Manchester express passing Tring behind Midland Compound 1114.


Although there is no known image of the first station at Tring, there are early plans that show its layout ― very different to that which exists today.  Note the flights of stairs descending to platform level (on the plan, adjacent to the ‘Station Yard’) reminiscent of those at Coventry station (
above); also the waiting rooms and urinals, both facilities that are now long gone!

The following plans are reproduced by kind permission of Russell Burridge:


Above: an undated plan, but probably of the northern end of the station in its earliest form.  Note the garden fronting the Station Masters house, today part of the station forecourt.

Below: an early plan of the southern end of the station. The circles shown on this plan are turntables — referred to at the time as turn-plates”.  They were such a novelty that Osborne gave a complete description of the operation of what he described as a “profound contrivance” in his guidebook (1840).  Referring to those serving the goods shed and cattle dock, he had this to say:

“The mode in which heavy goods and carriages are placed upon the trucks, is well worthy of notice.  At the Station there are several turn-plates on the line; they consist of large flat circular iron plates, of twelve feet in diameter, with two lines of railing on them, the one crossing the other at right angles, the plate turning round on iron rollers beneath, and capable of being moved with very little power.  One of the trucks which is to receive a carriage, or heavy goods, or a box for horses, or a pen for sheep or pigs, is pushed on to one of these turn-plates, and being turned to a right angle, is then passed up a short line of rail to an embankment or stand of the same height as the truck, and the animals, goods, or carriage placed on.  The truck is then taken back to the turn-plate, and turned on to the line again.  By this apparently simple, but in reality, profound contrivance, the heaviest and most cumbrous loads are managed with the greatest ease.”


Below: this plan of Tring Station shows the Harcourt Arms — later renamed the Royal Hotel (now private apartments) — and above it the row of ‘railway cottages’ that stand in Station Road.  The railway is double track — a third track was built in 1859, and a fourth in 1872.


It seems that some of the station’s early structures did not survive for long, for an advertisement placed by land agent William Brown in The Bucks Herald in 1842 announces:

“TO BUILDERS AND OTHERS: To be sold by auction, by Mr. W. Brown.

On Wednesday next at one o’clock at the Harcourt Arms
[later renamed the Royal Hotel], Tring Station.  All the very useful materials comprised in the twelve temporary dwellings erected by the London & Birmingham Railway Company at the Tring Station.  Also the entire roof and materials of the engine-house at the said Station, 45 ft. by 21 ft; two pair of very strong circular folding doors; 17 ft. 6in. by 12 ft. 6in. six strong iron-framed circular windows and frames, 9 ft. wide; and iron piping.  York stone steps, and other useful materials.”


Above: from the days when railway company staff took pride in the appearance of their station. Tring’s Station Master and his assistants pose proudly behind their nicely planted flower bed, the driver of a local service Fowler 2-6-4T looking on.

Below: up express passing through Tring Station behind a Bowen Cooke Claughton.


Late Victorian view of the the Royal Hotel, Railway Cottages, and the original Mission Hall.

Due to its relative isolation, the Company was obliged to provide accommodation for the station staff, and, in 1841, they built a row of eleven cottages at a cost of £1,286.  Sited adjacent to the station and fronting the newly built Station Road, they were numbered 274-284 from Euston.  Rents were reasonable at 2s.6d. and 3s.6d. a week, to which parish council rates amounted to a further 5s half-yearly.  Shortly afterwards, a substantial Station Master’s house – designed to reflect the importance of his position -- was built overlooking the forecourt.


In this scene, the Station Masters house is on the right, the road to Aldbury on the left.

Towards the end of the Victorian era, the Company (by then the London and North-Western Railway) built further cottages in a lane overlooking the railway, while the spiritual needs of the workers were accommodated by the provision of a metal pre-fabricated Mission Hall; this was later replaced by the larger structure known today as the Iron Room.  The original mission hall was moved to Puttenham, where it remains.

John Brown (1795-1890), from a
daguerreotype under glass.

On national census night in 1841, 20 men in the Company’s employment were recorded living in the area of Tring station.  Most lived in the station cottages, three were staying at the Harcourt Arms and six lived at Tring Grove.  They included four locally-born labourers, the better-paid skilled jobs being filled by incomers to the area, including two from Scotland.  Among the occupations listed -- and confirmed by Wishaw’s description above -- are three porters, four policemen (whose responsibilities included operating signals and points), an inspector (of railway police), a collector (of tickets), an engineer (operator of the stationary steam engine supplying water), and two station clerks.  It seems that staff turnover was quite high, for ten years later only two of the original 20 remained.

The Company encouraged house-building in the locality of their new stations, offering incentives in the form of cheaper fairs.  Every ready to take advantage of new business situations, land agent William Brown placed the following advertisement in The Aylesbury News & Advertiser in October 1837

“Contiguous to the London & Birmingham Railway Station, Tring, Herts ―

Mr W. Brown is directed by the Proprietors to submit for public auction at the Rose & Crown Inn, Tring, on 3rd November 1837 at three o’clock, in several lots:

Five acres of truly eligible Freehold building ground within a short distance of the Tring Railway Station, a situation which challenges comparison on the whole line between London and Birmingham, the views from it extending an immense distance over the counties of Herts, Bucks, and Beds, with the advantage of being within and hour and a half’s ride from London.

Printed particulars of the building ground with a plan attached may be had in due time at the Auction Mart, London; Kings Arms, Berkhamsted; Bell, Two Waters; George, Aylesbury; of Mr Faithfull, Solicitor, Tring; and of Mr W. Brown, Land Surveyor and Auctioneer, Tring.”

Two years later, William Brown advertised an auction sale for the mansion and estate owned by William Cooper of Berkhamsted, the pioneer of veterinary medicine.  The advantages for a businessman or banker to live near to a railway station had by now been recognised.  Following lengthy and glowing details of “the capital and delightful residence”, the grapery, greenhouse, pleasure grounds, shrubberies, fishery, and the park of 90 acres, the description continues: “The situation is singularly desirable, not only for its interesting views over a picturesque country, but for its contiguity to the London and Birmingham Railway . . . .”

In his notes, Arthur MacDonald describes how Tring brewer, John Brown, acquired the land on which to build this large hotel.  A canny, business-like man from Dorset, Brown settled in Tring in 1826 where he purchased the High Street brewery from Thomas Amsden.  His modest fortune was ensured when he seized the opportunity to quench the drinking needs of the hundreds of navvies engaged in building the new railway.  He built several public houses in the locality, most in a late-Regency style.

Following the railway’s arrival at Tring, Brown commenced work on the Harcourt Arms Hotel, placing the work under the supervision of railway architect George Aitchison. Brown installed his twin brother as hotel manager and, in March 1839, he was able to advertise the hotel in The Bucks Herald:

“London and Birmingham Railway – Harcourt Arms Hotel and Posting House Tring Station.  The public are respectfully informed that the above Hotel is now open for their accommodation, where every attention will be paid to their comfort and convenience.  Horses and Vehicles always in readiness to convey Passengers from the above Station, and lock-up Coach Houses.”

An old photograph of the Harcourt Arms, later the Royal Hotel.

Railway Times, November 1839

A great sportsman, Brown quickly established the Harcourt Arms as a centre for hunting activities, and the hotel’s extensive yard saw many gatherings of local fox and stag hunts in front of its attractive stable and kennel buildings.  The following appeared in The New Sporting Magazine in 1846:

“. . . . the station of the London and Birmingham Railway at Euston-grove is a proper introduction to a most proper line, where they carry you and charge you like a gentleman: your gentry like good accommodation on good terms.  By this rail you reach Tring in an hour or so, where there is a very excellent hostel, and cherry-brandy to match — the former the Harcourt Arms.  Here Lord Lonsdale has a considerable stud, and other gentlemen hunting with the barons
[the Rothschilds] have their horses.  His lordship has purchased the White Cross harriers, whose kennel is in the neighbourhood — at Tring Grove, I think.”


Bucks Herald, 16th January 1841.

The White Cross Harriers were not used for what was considered the noble pastime of hunting carted stags, such as the Rothschilds promoted, but for the purpose of pursuing ‘bagged foxes’.  When his lordship’s time was limited, the paucity of wild foxes in the vicinity could mean a wasted day.  Accordingly, his foxes (known as ‘bag men’) were housed in cages at the rear of the hotel, stuffed into a bag when needed, released in the country, and recaptured for use on another day.  This method was despised by purists, and Lord Lonsdale became the butt of their humour, as these few lines from a long satirical poem, The Captive Fox, illustrate:

“It was an Earl with ancient name,

Who hunted the fox but preferr’d him tame,

Tho’ his sire had been a keen hunter free

And bold as e’er rode o’er a grass countree.

That sire once mounted his well-bred horse,

And view’d the fox from the hillside gorse.

His son has come down by a second-class train,

Worried a bagman and home again.

There follows a humorous description of the day’s hunting, and ends:

So they dug him out, the Earl and his groom,

The Huntsman and Whip, and the man with a broom,

The fox and the hounds are at Tring again,

And his lordship return’d by the four o’clock train.”

The 1851 census records that the now renamed Royal Hotel had 17 grooms living on the premises, as well as other staff.  Some of the grooms worked as ostlers, for stagecoaches also rumbled in and stopped under (we are told) the central chestnut tree, where horses were changed and passengers disembarked to take rest and refreshment within.  The hotel also appears to have boasted a ballroom, as the advertisement for the Tring Ball proclaims.


Arthur MacDonald was keenly interested in all aspects of agriculture and wrote at length on the subject.  The following are some extracts describing the beginnings of what was first called the ‘Tring Turnip Show’, to which the Harcourt Arms played host:

“On 20th December 1839, at the Rent dinner of the Harcourt estate, at the Harcourt Arms, Tring Station, the conversation turned upon root cultivation, and Mr. Houghton, the Agent for the estate, gave a challenge which was accepted by Mr. John Brown to show 50 swedes next year for a sovereign.”


Bucks Herald, 19th December 1840.

The competition came off on the 18th December 1840, but John Brown did not win.  However, the event gained some renown and was referred to as the ‘Tring Turnip Show’, and at the Rent dinner the following year the idea of a ‘Tring Agricultural Association’ was raised when one of the gathering made a speech:

“. . . . with regard to the cultivation of the soil, I consider it of the greatest national importance that we ought not to stop at trifling improvements, but continue the good work with increased zeal; by doing which, we might expect in the course of a few years to see our produce doubled.  I consider a new light is breaking upon us, and my belief is that the science of farming is now beginning to be known, and I look forward for much benefit from the various clubs formed and now forming, and more particularly the Royal Agricultural Society of England . . . .”

The Vicar of Tring, replying to this toast, proposed “That an association be now formed for the promotion of agriculture and horticulture, called the Tring Agricultural Association.”

By the time of its first AGM in 1841, the Association was in full swing.  There were classes for corn, in which four bushels of grain and an average bunch of stalks had to be shown; also for roots.  The winners were required to state at the dinner the kind of soil; quantity of seed; and method of cultivation of their exhibits.  This gave rise to a discussion on the relative advantages of drilling and broadcast sowing, and “as to whether a wheat crop will remunerate the expense of hoeing.”  One of the most valuable prizes, £3, was given to the largest employer of labour on his farm, and there were classes for cottage garden produce, for long service, and for the largest family supported in ‘religious and industrious habits with the least amount of Parochial relief’.  Prizes were also awarded for the best plough and horse hoe.

Two years later the first premiums were offered for stock, and prizes for the best milch cow and breeding sow were open to “persons occupying not more than ten acres of land and gaining a livelihood chiefly thereby, although not members.”  There were also prizes for labourers’ pigs.  At this meeting, some experiments of a startling kind were described, being no less than the application of electricity for the stimulation of vegetation.  In 1846, we find a ‘Ploughing Match’ announced.  In the seed classes, premiums were offered for White Mustard and for Flax.  At the 1846 Dinner, the president stated that the number of entries had risen from 48 in 1841 to 121 in 1846.  He remarked that:

“. . . . one great cause of our success, and of the high character we have obtained with the public, is that there is more said here by practical farmers than is generally said at meetings of this description, and that we lose less time than some do in bandying compliments with each other at this end of the table.”

The annual agricultural show eventually outgrew the site at Tring Station and, at the instigation of Lord Rothschild, was moved to Tring Park where it gained the reputation of being the largest one-day show in the country.

The original Berkhamsted Station stood adjacent to the Crystal Palace public house.
It was designed in an Elizabethan style with a brick gabled booking hall.




Prior to 1838, the road from Tring to Pendley and Aldbury was described by some writers as “a tortuous route.”  Following the arrival of the railway, it soon became apparent that the popularity of this new form of transport necessitated better communication between the town and its station.  The prospect of a new road caused one newspaper reporter to lapse into purple prose:

“The inhabitants of Tring have held a meeting at which it was agreed to form a new road from the town to the station.  Mr. Kay and Captain Harcourt having given the land for that purpose, and the needed funds raised, buildings are already in progress, and the inhabitants are making every exertion to accommodate the public that every day throng this beautiful neighbourhood, which, from the variety of hill and dale, wood and water, combined with the extensive views it commands, is likely to become a place of importance.”

The Bucks Gazette, 28th October 1837.

Arthur MacDonald, in his notes (c.1890) on the subject, was more down-to-earth and provided a factual description of the alterations necessary to provide it:

“Station Road. At the east end of the town important alterations were necessitated by the construction of the railway, and station in 1838.  The traveller by road from Tring to Aldbury before that date proceeded up the London Road to Dunsley, turned back across the 3-cornered meadow, following the hedge next the present cricket ground, to the point where The Laurels now stands, and which was then the corner of Grove Shrubbery, the latter extending right round to the fir tree near the recreation ground. Skirting the shrubbery, as far as Grove Lane, our traveller would then turn up Cow Lane for a little distance, and strike across what is now Pendley Park, between the Rookery and a small spinney, emerging some little distance short of Pendley canal bridge, this latter part being the ‘Aldbury Road’ mentioned in the Inclosure Award.

There was also a footpath direct from Dunsley across the farm to the point in Cow Lane, opposite the ‘Aldbury Road’, continuing across Pendley Fields (now part of the Park) and the old Pendley Park, to the Aldbury boundary.

At a Vestry meeting held on 18 Jan. 1838 it was resolved to stop this footpath and also the portions of the highway to Aldbury between Dunsley and The Laurels and across Pendley Park, and to replace them by the new Station Road, which consisted of a new piece from Tring to The Laurels, a widening of the old road from there to Grove turn, and another new piece from Grove turn to the Aldbury boundary near Pendley Farm.  The Station Road was opened on the 4th June 1838.  There is no mention in the Vestry minutes of the old road in continuation of that from Dunsley to The Laurels running to the fir tree and across the Recreation Ground and Gravel pit field to Brook Street.  This was not stopped, and is still a public road, though disused.  There is also a public road from the London Road at the bottom of ‘The Twist’ to the Station Road near Grove turn, now used only for a footpath. Both these were claimed by the Local Board as public roads on the sale of the Tring Park estate in 1872.”


The Aylesbury News & Bucks Advertiser, April 1837.

Proprietors of road transport, whether large businesses offering services by Royal Mail stagecoach, or small local coach operators, were understandably worried about the threat of the new ‘iron road’ and its steaming monsters.  Until the opening of the line, they took the opportunity to remind passengers of their past good service, and to reassure them that this would continue.  But as soon as the line opened, all these concerns quickly adapted to changing circumstances and started to offer various ways to reach the new station at Tring:

1837: “Thame – Tring Road connection. There are now four coaches passing through Thame to the railway at Tring, and two more are shortly to come the same road.”

“A new four-horse coach commenced running on Monday last from Oxford to the station of the London & Birmingham railway at Tring, and back daily.  It reaches Tring in time for passengers to proceed to London by the third train, and leaves Tring for Oxford after the third train arrives from London.”

The Bucks Herald, 4th November 1837.

“The Tring Station on the Birmingham railway is two and a-quarter-miles from the town, and thirty-one and three-quarters from Euston Square.  Conveyances attend at this Station on the arrival of several trains, to carry passengers to Tring, Aylesbury, Oxford etc.  Passengers intending to join the trains are desired to be in good time, as the train leaves each place as soon as expeditiously as possible.  No persons are booked on the railway after the arrival of the train in the Station.”

Pigot’s Trade Directory 1838 – entry for Tring.

“A Coach from the Plough Inn, Tring, to meet all the trains, and an Omnibus from the Rose & Crown.

Market Street, Tring: Elizabeth Montague, Post Mistress – Letters from London arrive (by railway) every afternoon at one and night at eleven, and are despatched every morning at four and forenoon at half-past eleven. Letters from the North (by railway) every morning at half-past five, and at twelve, and are despatched every morning at three.”

Pigot’s Trade Directory 1839 – entry for Tring.


Competition for this new source of business soon caused rivalry to surface between operators offering road services from Aylesbury to meet trains to and from the newly-constructed station at “Box Moor,” as advertisements placed in several Aylesbury newspapers during August 1837 illustrate:

“Birmingham and London Railway.
(By Appointment).

Joseph Hearn begs respectfully to announce to his friends and the public generally that he is appointed by the Railway Committee to book and luggage at his offices; The Kings Arms Inn, Snowhill and Griffins, Green Man and Still, Oxford Street where conveyances are appointed to convey passengers and luggage to the station at Euston Square to meet the departure and arrival of the whole of the trains from and to Box Moor.

J. H. begs also to announce that his coaches from Tring to London and from Hemel Hempstead to London are discontinued, and which, in future will meet the respective trains from Tring at Box Moor and also from Gaddesden, Ashridge and Hemel Hempstead at Boxmoor.”


John Elliot, Carrier of Aylesbury: Respectfully informs his Friends and the Public that he intends conveying Passengers and Luggage every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings from the Angel Inn, Aylesbury (where Passengers may secure places) to the Station House at Box Moor, and that he will start from Aylesbury at six o’clock each morning, and leave Box Moor at six o’clock the same evening.  Passengers 2s. each extra luggage to be paid for.”


CHAS. JOHSON, Bull’s Head Inn, Aylesbury respectfully informs his friends and the public that he has commenced running an Omnibus from Aylesbury to Box Moor, and back, daily.

The Omnibus leaves the Bull’s Head Inn every Monday morning at a quarter after five, other mornings at a quarter to six, so as to enable passengers to go by the FIRST TRAIN to London; and leaves Box Moor for Aylesbury every evening at half-past six and arrives there at half-past eight.

In starting this Omnibus C. J. deemed himself justified by the fact that there was no conveyance direct to the Railroad, and that, therefore, those parties who desired to proceed to London by the trains were put to great inconvenience; he had no intention of injuring any individual, but was merely desirous of affording the public that accommodation of which they stood in need.  No sooner, however, was the notice given that he intended starting his Omnibus than Mr. Hearn made arrangements for opposing him by starting a coach from Aylesbury at the same time, to carry passengers at whatever price he could get; his sole object being to drive the Omnibus off the road, in order that the public may again experience that want of accommodation which induced the proprietor to start it, and be again at the mercy of Mr. Hearn’s high charges.  Unable individually to compete with this great monopolist, C. J. places his case in the hands of the public, assuring them that so long as he is properly supported – so long, indeed, as the expenses are covered – the Omnibus shall continue to run, despite all the opposition that Mr. Hearn may bring against it. Passengers 2s.6d. each.”

In October 37, the railway reached Tring and the road operators changed their destination accordingly (for ‘Pendley Station’ read ‘Tring’):

Bucks Herald, 11th November 1837.

The Bucks Herald, 21st October 1837.

Trings first petrol-powered station omnibus, 1914.

On the 10th June 1839, the world’s first ‘branch’ railway opened, connecting Aylesbury with the London and Birmingham Railway at Cheddington.  Engineered by Robert Stephenson, the Bucks Herald’s reporter confidently predicted that “if the pleasure and success of the day may be taken as a type of the future prosperity of this undertaking, it will be amongst the most thriving of the Railroads in the kingdom.”  That optimistic prediction didn’t come to pass – the line closed to passengers in February 1953 – but for many years the citizens of Aylesbury did have a railway connection to the wider world.  How the competing coaching operators fared is another story.




Aftermath of a locomotive boiler explosion c. 1850.
Location and circumstances unknown.

Early civil engineering projects often incurred fatal accidents, and the construction of the London and Birmingham Railway was no exception.  Examples have been given of tunnel accidents at
Northchurch and Watford.  Rather surprisingly, only one death is recorded during the construction of the Tring cutting, and seven altogether along the Tring section of the line, plus various injuries (but in an age when amputation was sometimes the only means of dealing with fractures).  The newspapers of the time took ghoulish delight in printing the details of any accident with a gory outcome:

Shocking accident . . . . a poor fellow, Joseph Hill, met with his death in the following awful manner.  He, in company with several other labourers, was felling a tree upon that part of the London and Birmingham railway which is near the village of Two Waters, when, happening to stand under the tree at its falling.  The poor fellow’s head was literally smashed, his brains scattered about in all directions . . . .”

The Aylesbury News & Bucks Advertiser, 1st April 1837.

A new hospital was opened at Cheere House, Hemel Hempstead, in 1832.  It was recorded that between July 1836 and July 1837, 43 railway accident patients were admitted, six of which were fatal.  At first, the Directors of the railway gave a donation of £21, but as the number of accidents increased they agreed to pay 8s. a week for any employee sent to the hospital. Cubitts, the contractors of the stretch of the line from Kings Langley to the northern end of Northchurch Tunnel, made the same arrangement.  The Governors were so shocked by the “numerous and dreadful cases” that they recommended to the employers concerned that a ganger or some intelligent workman be instructed in applying a temporary tourniquet.  The hospital also did a brisk trade in the supply of trusses. Cases were transported to the hospital along the new line and then onwards by cart.

Cheere House, West Herts Infirmary,
opened in 1832 at a cost of £13,000.

Once sections of the new railway were in use, accidents continued on the operational railway due to locomotive boiler explosions, mechanical failures, run-away trains, railwaymen being crushed underneath or between wagons, and through other circumstances including what today might be described as ‘operator error’:

“Accident on the Railway – on Saturday, a man employed on the railway, in attempting to get into a wagon at Berkhamsted, while the train was going on, unhappily fell and several wagons went over him, by which he was so dreadfully crushed that he died the same night in the West Herts Infirmary.

On Tuesday following, another man was killed on the spot, near Box Moor, by a piece of timber falling on him; and on Wednesday another labourer had his legs fractured on the railway near Northchurch.”

Aylesbury News & Bucks Advertiser, 8th April 1837.

On Saturday last about one o'clock, as a long train of ballast waggons was proceeding along the line towards Two Waters, another train was coming down, when the former one stopped to let the other pass.  The waggons, in starting again, suddenly threw a man off, named William Tomkins, who lived at Tring, and eight waggons passed over the unfortunate mans neck, which severed the head from his body.”

Bucks Herald, 7th September 1839.

“George Hodgkinson, aged 30 years, expired at the Middlesex Hospital in consequence of an accident which befell him on the London and Birmingham Railway.  The deceased was a stoker, and whilst proceeding through Tring overtook a luggage train that had started an hour previously but had been detained from some defect in the machinery.  The deceased and his brother, fearing a collision, jumped off the engine, when one of the up trains was passing at the time, the step of one of the carriages struck him on the right thigh, and threw him with great force on his face, and when raised up the limb was found to be severed.  He was conveyed to hospital, where, after amputation, he died.”

The Yorkshire Gazette, 21st September 1839.

The train which left Aylesbury for London at 11 oclock on Thursday morning, consisting of a second class carriage next to the tender, two first class carriages, and another second class carriage at the end, was passing over the embankment, about three quarters of a mile north of the Northchurch Tunnel, when the fore-wheel of the ending was suddenly separated from it by the breaking of the fore axle (which is four inches and a half thick) between the journal and the wheel.  The engine and tender were in consequence thrown over the near side of the embankment, which is about 15 feet high, and the leading second class carriage over the off side.  The other carriages remained on the road.  The engine-driver escaped without injury ― his assistant was considerably hurt ― and three passengers, who were in the second class carriage, which was overturned, also received severe, though, it is hoped, not fatal injuries.  The following is the official report of the surgeon who attended on behalf of the Company.  The names of the persons who were injured by the accident at Northchurch, Dec. 8th, 1842:―

John Tomlin, of Boxmoor ― severe injury to the head and fracture of ribs.
Mary Bye, of Aylesbury ― severe injury to the head.
John Pemberton, Company
s stoker, concussion of the brain.
Matthew Lowe, overlooker, Berkhamstead ― injury to the back.

On an examination of the fractured axle, it appears that the iron, with the exception of a very small portion, is defective, although not externally apparent, and that the separation is so close to the wheel, that at first view it would seem to have been made by a knife. The circumstances of the accident will be fully reported to the Board of Trade for investigation by General Pasley.”

Yorkshire Gazette, 10th December 1842.

“Shortly before four o'clock on Tuesday afternoon an accident of a serious character, but happily not attended with any fatal consequences, occurred on the London and North-Western Railway, near Tring, through, it is believed, the carelessness of the engine-driver who had charge of the train.  It appears that when the passenger train, which started from London at forty-five minutes past two on the above afternoon, arrived near the Tring station, the engine-driver not regarding the signal which was hoisted to caution him of danger, ran into a luggage train.  In an instant the utmost confusion ensued.  The luggage train being heavily laden, and the passenger train being a long one, the shock was of a very violent nature.  Upon examining the passengers, it was found that several had received severe contusions on various parts of the head and body, and that two persons were very seriously injured.  They were immediately attended to by a medical gentleman, and they are now in a fair way of recovery.  The engine-driver having been questioned as to why he did not attend to the signal, gave such unsatisfactory replies that he was given into custody.  The train was delayed for upwards of two hours.”

Herts Mercury, 24th July 1847.

The Windsor and Eton Express blamed the same incident on “the negligence of the policeman in placing the switches [i.e. points]” and goes on to say that poor Hodginson’s leg was “torn and mutilated in a most fright manner”.  But train accident casualties were not always human, as the Worcester Journal of 8th November 1838 reported; two cattle trains came into collision on the line near Tring, and several of the animals “were much injured”.  Apart from human error, officialdom was sometimes blamed for such misfortunes, and comments from newspaper editors were not uncommon.  This from The Bucks Gazette, October 1837:

“We regret to notice a considerable disregard with respect to the lives of persons employed on the different railways; and a most particular instance of such apathy has been presented in the narrative of the mail-guard being flung from his seat by the shock, we believe, of an opposite train . . . . It appears to us that the accident which took place is solely attributable to the directors, who must undoubtedly ought to take care that a seat should be reserved for the guard inside the vehicle . . . .”

Although many accidents recorded during the days of the London and Birmingham Railway were fatal, fortunately – perhaps luckily – not all were so:

“There was an accident to the Tring train at Northchurch.  The axle of the train broke, and the engine ran down the embankment.”

Tring Vestry Minutes, 8th December 1842.

“Collision on the Birmingham Railway – On Saturday evening the up mixed train, met with an accident of a formidable nature, but which did not, fortunately, cause loss of life or limb to anyone.  Everything went on well until the train passed the Cheddington station, but on entering a deep cutting about two miles from Tring, the train came in violent collision with three luggage waggons, which were most unaccountably left standing on the rails.  Most of the passengers were thrown off their seats, and as soon as they recovered from the shock, many of them got out and scrambled up the cutting, as there was great fear of the express train coming up and dashing the other train to pieces.  The guards, however, immediately despatched men both up and down the line with signals to stop it, and in this they fortunately succeeded.  The three waggons were turned off the rails, the first one completely thrown over, and all of them much damaged by the collision . . . .”

The Times, 23rd March 1846.

“The luggage train from Aylesbury ran off with the gates at the level crossing at (Long) Marston Gate.  The gate-keeper had gone to sleep, and neglected to open them, so the train went through and took them right away.”

Tring Vestry Minutes, 10th August 1846.

Other than railway accidents, there were also incidents connected with the railway:

“On Saturday last, about a quarter before seven, as the Aylesbury omnibus (which conveys passengers to and from Box Moor railway station) was descending the hill at the beginning of Market Street, Tring, at a rather rapid rate, it so overpowered the horses that the driver lost his command over them and it ran with a fearful crash against the premises of Mr. Putnam, baker, and drove one side of the windows completely out, and shattered the glass in all directions, broke the pole and otherwise injured the omnibus; but we are glad to state that the passengers escaped without injury except for being much frightened.  They proceeded without delay, in a carriage lent by Mr. Northwood of the Rose & Crown Inn.”

The Bucks Gazette, 8th July 1837.

“It is lamentable to contemplate that the various railways now in progress – works calculated to improve the condition of all classes, and to exhibit the wondrous effects of enterprise and industry, are on the other hand so productive of evil from the irregularities and crimes of the labourers employed thereon . . . . it appears that the ample wages received by these labourers enable them to congregate at beer-houses and drink to excess, and to concoct plans of outrage so as to render the vicinity of those places where they are employed dangerous in the extreme . . . .”

The Bucks Gazette, 21st October 1837.

This rant continues in the same vein for several more paragraphs, but the writer seems to have a point; this from the Hertfordshire Mercury, April 1835:

“James Howe, James Carrott, Charles Robinson and Joshua Harrowell were charged with stealing some beer, the property of George Garratt.  The prisoners were employed as labourers on the works of the London and Birmingham Railway at Tring.  It appeared by the evidence that Mr. Garratt, of Little Gaddesden, was in the practice of sending beer in a cart to the works to sell to the men, and that on the 10th March the prisoners, and some other of the men, got round the cart, pulled the casks out, and drank the beer from out of them; they refused to pay for the beer.  It did not appear that Howe was engaged in the beginning of the affair, which altogether had the character of a drunken row. – The jury acquitted Howe, and found the other prisoners Guilty.  They were sentenced to one week’s imprisonment.”

A different sort of incident occurred at Tring in November 1838, which caused an indignant rumpus reported in papers all over the country.  Interest was aroused because it involved a distinguished person in the shape of Sir Henry Halford, President of the College of Physicians, who was travelling to London accompanied by a friend, a Mr Lockley.  It seems that the latter gentleman, having suffered some manner of seizure during the journey, was hastily deposited at Tring Station by Sir Henry who then proceeded on his way.  He was greatly criticised for this seemingly unfeeling action, The Examiner probed the affair thoroughly using some investigative journalism:

“. . . . Let the profession and the public hear the plain and naked truth.  The evidence which we have to offer has been received from the lips of the persons, who really did discharge, with care and benevolence, the obligations of humanity on that trying occasion . . . . Is it true, then, that Sir Henry Halford ‘took Mr Lockley out of the carriage, and carried him into the inspector’s parlour?’  Is it true that he even saw either of these things done?  No, is the reply; and, incredible as it may appear, the officers of the railways who took the all but lifeless body of Mr. Lockley from the carriage, did not even conjecture that the President of the College of Physicians was the ‘friend’ or even an acquaintance of the object of their solicitude!  What then did really happen at the station?

. . . . the train having arrived, the officers were beckoned to one of the carriages, and thus accosted by a venerable-looking personage within . . . . Did this ‘friend’ even get out of the carriage?  He did not, but, frightful to relate, actually flew off with the train, leaving his senseless and speechless friend in the open road, supported in a chair placed on the cold clay by the hands of official strangers.

In closing our notice of this distressing subject, we feel it to be our duty to state that Mr. Lockley was treated with marked humanity and attention by the officers of the railway who conduct the business of the station. Tring, it should be know is situated at a distance of two miles from that place, and even the aid of Mr. Dewsbury’s
[the doctor at Tring]
youthful apprentice was not obtained until Mr. Lockley had been moved to Tring, over a rough road in an omnibus.  He was conducted thither and held up in his seat by one of the chief officers of the station and four subordinates of that establishment.  He was put into a bed at the Rose and Crown Tavern, a respectable and well-conducted house, where he received every attention which a kind solicitude could bestow.  He had property in his pockets of the value of upwards of 60 pounds, of which an inventory was taken by the collector of the station and his name and address were found on a card discovered in his pocket.”

It is unsurprising that very soon after his ordeal, Mr. Lockley expired, and although Sir Henry robustly defended his actions the newspapers continued to heap opprobrium upon him.

Fatal accident at Tring Station: On Monday morning, while some coal trucks were being shunted on to a siding at Tring Station, owing to the points being wrongly set the trucks ran into the coal yard and dashed violently into some trucks which were being unloaded.  The force of the collision drove some of the trucks up on to those which were standing in the yard, and smashed and overturned others.  A lad named Higby, who was on one of the trucks, got wedged between the buffers of one truck and the bottom of another which was upturned.  He was frightfully mangled, and killed outright.  Another lad, named Butler, was seriously injured . . . . John Higby, of harrow-yard, Tring, father of deceased, said his son was a general labourer.  He was 17 years of age, and lived at home.  He had been of rather weak intellect from his birth.  He was waiting at the station, as he usually did, to help load the coal. He held the sacks for the men while they put the coal in.”

The Bucks Herald, 6th June 1908.


Station Master at Tring, 1842-1863


In 1846, the London and Birmingham Railway Company merged with the Grand Junction and the Manchester and Birmingham railway companies to form the London and North Western Railway.  By the late 19th century the L&NWR had grown into the largest joint stock company in the world.  However, the great pressure placed on our railway network during World War I. together with little opportunity or resources for proper maintenance left it in a sorry condition, and, when peace returned, it was losing money.  The government of the day aimed to remedy the situation by imposing a merger on most of the 120 railway companies then existing . . . .

“With a view to the reorganisation and more efficient and economical working of the railway system of Great Britain railways shall be formed into groups in accordance with the provisions of this Act, and the principal railway companies in each group shall be amalgamated, and other companies absorbed in a manner provided by this Act.”

From The Railways Act 1921.

In 1923, in what became known as the ‘grouping’, four large railway companies were formed from this merger, the L&NWR becoming a constituent of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS), the direct ancestor of today’s West Coast Main Line.  During the inter-war years competition from road transport intensified, while a further lack of maintenance during World War II. again left our railway system in a very run-down condition.  In 1947, under Clement Atlee’s Transport Act, the majority of the U.K.’s railways were nationalised (together with road transport, waterways and docks, all coming under the unwieldy ‘British Transport Commission’) to form ‘British Railways’.  Although from the travelling public’s point of view controversial, British Railways did set about  modernising our railway network by pruning the deadwood, perhaps excessively!  The first section of the West Coast Main Line to be electrified – from Crewe to Manchester – was completed in September 1960 to be followed in March 1967 by the southern section corresponding to the former London to Birmingham Railway.

Were he to return, Robert Stephenson would find very little resemblance between today’s railway and that which he built.  Although much of the original civil engineering remains it is festooned with high-tension cables and associated paraphernalia, tampered with by trackbed widening schemes and often obscured by modern development.  Another very noticeable change would be to the size and speed of the rolling stock, made possible in part by the heavy gauge, continuous welded steel rail, laid on pre-stressed concrete sleepers in a bed of crushed granite ballast.  Likewise, colour light signals have replaced the top-hatted ‘policeman’ with their flags and signal lamps, stationed in the open at points along the line.  The changes that have been made to station architecture would astonish and probably appal him – one wonders what he would make of today’s utilitarian but æsthetically deprived termini!  Almost none of the Railway’s original station architecture remains, its intermediate stations having being rebuilt (and sometimes relocated) within a few years of its opening.  As a coup-de-grâce, the remnants of its two great termini, at Euston and at New Street, succumbed to the architectural vandalism of the 1960s.


Top: Euston Station in 1838, by John Cooke Bourne.     Below: Birmingham New Street Station c. 1855, Illustrated London News.


At Tring, the railway has seen many changes over the years.  The track-bed has twice been widened, first to accommodate three tracks (1859) and then four (1876), extensive goods sidings have been built and then replaced by car parks, station buildings have come and gone (together with their public conveniences), and the Railway has been electrified.  But a few reminders of the old London and Birmingham days remain; the long straight road leading to the Town, the row of station cottages at its eastern end, and, perhaps, the only true survivor, the Royal Hotel (now converted to apartments).


Riotous behaviour among the railway navvies.

Depositions of Samuel Williams, who says that on the 25th instant from between seven and eight in the morning until six o'clock in the evening, as certain Irishmen were passing through the town of Berkhampstead they were attacked by parties of the labourers working on the London and Birmingham Railway who set dogs upon them. About six o'clock on that evening he saw a party of Irishmen about twelve in number passing through the town, and when opposite to a beershop kept by Mary Foster which is opposite to deponent's house he saw a number of labourers (seven or eight) come out of that house and attack the Irishmen. They first hooted at them and struck them with their fists, and as the Irishman ran away they threw stones at them and set two dogs at them which appeared to tear them. The prisoner, William Stubbs, was one of the labourers who came out of the beershop and appeared to be the leader of the gang. The Irishmen were very much exasperated and came back when the labourers retreated into the house, and several inhabitants of the town assembled and took Stubbs into custody. A large number of railway labourers assembled on the occasion and there was a great riot in the town.

William Morris bears out the above statement and says the Irishmen were knocked down, beaten, and kicked unmercifully; Samuel Williams bears testimony to the above likewise and was present at the taking of the prisoners.

27th July, 1836.


Joseph Elliott, constable, of Hemel Hempstead, deposes that in obedience to a warrant he apprehended Joseph Adams on 21st of August last. Whilst conveying him to detention in his cart he was stopped by twenty or thirty labourers, some armed with great flints and others with spades, and they threw at him and threatened to kill his horse and himself if be did not liberate the prisoner. Two of the men then pulled out their knives to kill the horse. Whilst they were round the deponent the prisoner Adams jumped out of the cart and made his escape. Deponent went after him but could not find him again until the following Sunday when he took him in his own house. Deponent does not know any of the men who rescued the prisoner.

6th September.


Information of John Hughes, sub-contractor of the railway, residing at Box Moor, in the parish of Hemel Hempstead, concerning Joseph Adams, charged with a riot. The said John Hughes states that on the 21st of August last he did let some work on the line of the railway at Box Moor to some men of the county who were working there about six o'clock on that morning, when they were attacked by some men who he had also employed the week before, but who had been discharged on the Saturday night on account of their refusing to work by the piece. Those who continued to work by the piece, about 30 or 40 in number, went there for the purpose of working on the Monday morning, the 21st August, when they were attacked by those who would not work by the piece, numbering 40 or 50, who pelted them with chalk, and hooted at them and abused them and drove them from their work. Their desire was to prevent the workers from working by the piece, and compel them to return to work by the day. The workers were thus obliged to leave their work until informant had been to a magistrate and obtained the assistance of a peace officer. The party persisted in attacks for an hour and upwards, and the prisoner, Joseph Adams, appeared to be one of the ring-leaders. Thomas Greenhill, superintendent on the railway at Boxmoor, confirms the above statement.

6th September.


Osborne’s Railway Guide
, 1840.

Wishaw’s Railway Guide
, 1842.

Notes from the History of Tring
, Arthur MacDonald (Brown), c.1890.

Tring Vestry Minutes
, 1835-1848.

History of the Railway connecting London and Birmingham
, Lt. Peter Lecount R.N., F.R.A.S., C.E.

George and Robert Stephenson
, Michael Robbins, pub. 1966.

Extracts from the correspondence of Robert Stephenson.

Archive copies of The Times, The Aylesbury News & Bucks Advertiser, The Bucks Gazette, and The Bucks Herald, and other daily and local newspapers


A History of the London & Birmingham Railway
, Vol.1, London to Bletchley, Peter Richards and Bill Simpson, pub. 2004.

History of Hemel Hempstead
, Susan Yaxley, pub.1973.

, pub.1838.

Tring Gardens
, Wendy Austin, pub. 2006.

Railways of Dacorum
, catalogue to accompany exhibition 2000, C. J. Goldsworthy.

The Mechanics’ Magazine
, Vol.23, 1835.

Tring and the Railway, Hertfordshire Past and Present
, No.19, article by Peter S Richards, Spring 2012.

The New Sporting Magazine
, 1846.

Pigot’s Trade Directories.

Census returns for 1841 and 1851, and sources as quoted in the text.


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