When is a railway not a railway?

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The Surrey Iron Railway, Wandsworth, London: Ordnance Survey Old Series 1805

The Surrey Iron Railway (SIR) was first public railway independent of a canal to be built by Act of Parliament (1801).

Although private railways were already in operation around Britain these were used exclusively by the owners of mines and quarries for moving their own goods. The SIR was different, it levied Tolls allowing independent goods hauliers to use their own wagons (with wheels at a suitable distance apart) pulled by horses.

Opened in 1803 it ran for approximately nine miles along the side of the River Wandle from Wandsworth Wharf, on the River Thames, towards Mitcham and Croydon

The Surrey Iron Railway is famous for being the first company in the world to include the word “railway” in it’s title.  Despite this it was not what we today would recognise as a railway.  It was actually a plateway, where vehicles with plain wheels ran along flanged rails.

The track comprised iron L-section rails 4ft 2in (1.27m) apart secured onto stone blocks. The trucks were horse-drawn, typically 8ft x 4ft x 2ft deep and weighing about 1 tonne. They could carry 3 tonnes of coal, lime or grain. One horse could pull up to ten wagons but the usual number was about four.

The original plan for a transport connection between Wandsworth, on the River Thames, and the Wandle Valley had been for a canal, but doubts about the availability of water led to the adoption of a plateway.

The railway was only briefly successful financially. It lost much traffic after the Croydon Canal opened in 1809 and continued to decline as steam railways took hold. The advent of faster and more powerful steam locomotives spelled the end for horse-drawn railways. In 1823, William James, a shareholder in the railway, tried to persuade George Stephenson to supply a locomotive. Stephenson realised that the cast-iron plateway could not support the weight of a locomotive and declined and railway was finally closed to traffic on 31st August 1846.

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From a fleece to a coat in 24 Hours

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Newbury, Berkshire – Map: Ordnance Survey Old Series 1817

In June 1811, John Coxeter,  a well-known cloth manufacturer, the owner of nearby Greenham Mills, took on the challenge of the making of a legendary coat for Sir John Throckmorton.

Coxeter, is reported to have said “So great are the improvements in machinery I have lately introduced into my mill, that I believe that in twenty- four hours I could take the coat off your back, reduce it to wool, and turn it back into a coat again”.

So impressed was Sir John with Coxeter’s claim that not long after the conversation had taken place, Sir John Throckmorton laid a bet of a thousand guineas that at eight o’clock in the evening of June the 25th, 1811, he would sit down to dinner in a well-woven, properly-made coat, the wool of which would come from fleeces still on the sheeps’ backs at five o’clock that same morning. Most thought the feat impossible and it was not long before his bet was eagerly accepted.

Promptly at five o’clock operations commenced, and no time was lost in getting the sheep shorn, the wool was washed, spun, and woven. The cloth was manufactured, dyed and prepared by four o’clock in the afternoon. Just eleven hours after the arrival of the two sheep in Coxeter’s mill-yard. The cloth was now put into the hands of the tailors. Mr. James White, together with nine of his men, began the process of turning the cloth into a “well woven, properly made coat”. For the next two and a quarter hours the tailors were busy cutting out, stitching, pressing, and sewing on buttons and at twenty minutes past six Mr. Coxeter presented the coat to Sir John Throckmorton, who, before over five thousand people who had gathered to watch, put on the coat and sat down to dinner with 40 invited guests in time for dinner to be taken at eight o’clock that evening.

Throckmorton won his 1000 guineas and John Coxeter had the sheep roasted for the crowds that had gathered to see the fun, as well as donating 120 gallons of beer in one of the greatest publicity stunts of the age.

The original coat is still displayed at Coughton Court near Alcester the seat of the Throckmorton family since 1409.

Newbury, however, has its own version of the coat, produced when the feat was repeated in 1991 – knocking a further hour off the record!

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Shakespear’s birthplace

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Shakespear’s birthplace, Henley Street.  (MAP: 1886 – Town Plan, Scale: 1:500)

Shakespeare’s Birthplace is a 16th-century half-timbered house situated in Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, where it is believed that William Shakespeare was born in 1564 and spent his childhood years. Shakespeare is also known to have spent the first five years of married life in this house with his new wife, Anne Hathaway.

The house itself is relatively simple, but for the late 16th century it would have been considered quite a substantial dwelling. John Shakespeare, William’s father, was a glove maker and wool dealer, and the house was originally divided in two parts to allow him to carry out his business from the same premises.

The building is typical of the times and was constructed in wattle and daub around a wooden frame. Local oak from the Forest of Arden and blue-grey stone from Wilmcote were used in its construction, while the large fireplaces were made from an unusual combination of early brick and stone, and the ground-floor level has stone-flagged floors.

The plan of the building was originally a simple rectangle. From north-west to south-east, the ground-floor consisted of a parlour with fireplace, an adjoining hall with a large open hearth, a cross passage, and finally a room which probably served as John Shakespeare’s workshop. A separate single-bay house, now known as Joan Hart’s Cottage, was later built onto the north-west end of the house, and the present kitchen was added at the rear with a chamber above it.

The ownership of the premises passed to William on John Shakespeare’s death.

William already owned his own property in Stratford and had no need for the Henley Street premises as a home for himself or his family. Consequently, the main house was leased to Lewis Hiccox, who converted it into an inn known as the Maidenhead (later the Swan and Maidenhead Inn).

Under the terms of Shakespeare’s will, the ownership of the whole property (the inn and Joan Hart’s cottage) passed to his elder daughter, Susanna, upon his death.

In 1649 it passed to her only child, Elizabeth, and then in 1670 to Thomas Hart. Hart was the descendant of Shakespeare’s sister, Joan, whose family had continued as tenants of the smaller house after her death in 1646. The entire property remained in the ownership of the Harts until 1806.

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Moreton. More to Chew on!

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Moreton, Chew Valley, Somerset (OS County Series 1:2,500 – Published 1885-1886)

Chew Valley Lake is a large reservoir in the Chew Valley, Somerset, England, and the fifth-largest artificial lake in the United Kingdom, with an area of 1,200 acres (4.9 km²). The lake, created in the early 1950s and opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1956, provides much of the drinking water for the city of Bristol and surrounding area.

Under the waters of Chew Lake lies the small hamlet of Moreton. It was mentioned in the Domesday Book and, at the time of its drowning, included a mediaeval chapel, a moated house and a mill. Roman buildings and flints were also found on the site.

Before the lake was created, archaeological investigations were carried out that showed evidence of occupation since Neolithic times and finds of Roman artefacts. Excavations found evidence of a thriving community in medieval times and what is reportedly the remains of the Nunnery of Santa Cruz.  Moreton was also the site of gunpowder mill in the 18th century.

Prior to the flooding of the reservoir excavations of the surrounding area were carried out. The excavations found evidence of habitation dating from the Old, Middle and New Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age. Evidence included implements such as stone knives, flint blades and the head of a mace, along with buildings and graves.

What evidence is left of the area of Moreton today? The historical maps are now the only way to view the details of the landscape and understand the generations of occupation of Chew Valley.

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Charles Dickens birthplace

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Map: County Series town Plan 1:500 – published 1874

Charles Dickens birthplace

Charles John Huffam Dickens was born at 1 Mile End Terrace (now re-named 393 Old Commercial Road), a secluded and peaceful area of victorian and regency buildings, on 7th February 1812. When Dickens was born, Britain’s Navy was still at war with Napoleonic France and Charles’s father, John Dickens worked as a clerk in the Navy Pay Office.

This was his parents first home and they were to remain in Portsmouth until the winter of 1814 when his father was recalled to London. Charles later remembered that when they left the town it was covered in snow.

Dickens completed the first of his Christmas stories, A Christmas Carol in just six weeks, with the final pages written in early December of 1843. The story met with instant success and critical acclaim and the phrase “Merry Christmas” was popularised following the appearance of the story and has remained as part of Christmas around the world ever since.

Merry Christmas from Cassini.
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One Arm, One Leg and a Beehive.

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The Montpelier Tavern and Tea Gardens (MAP: Greenwood’s Map of London – 1830)

“The Montpelier Tea Gardens, Walworth, London. A compact place noted for a small maze at the bottom of the garden. Tea, hot rolls, good wines, spiritous liquors, &c. Large parties provided for.” – J.Feltham, The picture of London 1804.

The Montpelier Tavern and Tea Gardens, typical of public pleasure grounds on the southern fringes of Georgian London, though never quite on the scale of the nearby Surrey or Vauxhall Gardens, were in existence by 1787. First owned and run by a John Bendall, the gardens possibly date from the mid-1770s. During the Napoleonic wars the local Volunteers paraded there.

The Montpelier Gardens were also home to the Montpelier Cricket Club (The Beehive Ground) which was formed in 1795, becoming one of the strongest clubs in south-east London. In 1845 their ground was taken for development and so they moved to new premises at the Oval and became one of the founders of the Surrey Cricket Club.

The gardens themselves must have gone by about 1850. The tavern was replaced in the later Victorian period by a music hall, which in turn became a pub, which survived until the early 1940s.

The tea gardens in front of the tavern were reported to be a large, irregular space, neither square, round, nor oval, but a sort of compound of all three forms in one. One of the features of the Montpelier Gardens was a cold bath enclosed in a wooden shed near the entrance to the grounds. Each person desirous of its benefit had to pay one shilling for its use. Bendall laid out the South Western portion of his domain as a small labyrinth or maze, which, though inferior in extent to the one at Hampton Court was considered to display a great ingenuity in design.

On 10 and 11 August 1796, The Beehive Ground in Walworth hosted a cricket match was played for high stakes – in this case 1,000 guineas, with the players selected (by two noble lords) from the pensioners of Greenwich Hospital: eleven men with one leg against eleven with one arm. The match began at ten, but about three a riotous crowd broke in, demolished fences and a number of spectators fell through a stable roof, stopping the proceedings till six o’clock, when play was resumed. On the second day the teams reappeared, being brought to the ground in three Greenwich stage-coaches. The match was played out to a conclusion, with the one-legged men beating the one-arm eleven by 103 runs.

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Map of the month – Webb, Dover & JellyFish

Captain nWebbDover, Kent (MAP: OS Revised New 1:50,000 – published in 1898)

Captain Matthew Webb was born at Dawley in Shropshire, one of twelve children. He acquired his ability to swim in the River Severn at Coalbrookdale.

At age twelve Webb joined the merchant navy, starting with a three-year apprenticeship. Later, whilst serving as second mate on the Cunard Line ship Russia, he attempted to rescue a sailor, who had fallen from the rigging of the ship, by diving into the sea in the mid-Atlantic. Webb swam for more than half-an-hour, but the man was never found. Webb’s daring won him an award of £100 and the first Stanhope Medal, and made him a hero of the British press.

In 1873, Webb was serving as captain of the steamship Emerald when he read an account of the failed attempt by J. B. Johnson to swim the English Channel. He became inspired to try himself.

On 12 August 1875, he made his first cross-Channel swimming attempt, but strong winds and poor sea conditions forced him to abandon the swim. Just 10 days after this first abortive attempt, on August 24 1875 Webb dived from Dover ’s Admiralty Pier and headed towards France. Porpoise-grease helped insulate him against the cold, but couldn’t prevent the pain of numerous jelly-fish stings. Tantalisingly close to the French shore strong currents prevented him from completing the last few miles for several hours; but eventually the currents slowed and his steady breast-stroke won out. Webb walked ashore some 21 hours and 45 minutes after he left England. His zig-zag course across the Channel had totalled over 39 miles (64 km). He was an instant national hero.

After his record swim, Captain Webb basked in national and international adulation, and followed a career as a professional swimmer. He licensed his name for merchandising such as commemorative pottery and wrote a book called The Art of Swimming. A brand of matches was named after him. He also participated in exhibition swimming matches and stunts such as floating in a tank of water for 128 hours… don’t tell David Blaine.

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