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 – Rugby, men and odd shaped balls.

Rugby School

Rugby School, Warwickshire (MAP: OS Town Plans 1:500 – published in 1887)

Nearly two centuries of Rugby’s history are written in the stones that stand around Rugby School, where in 1823 William Webb Ellis is said to have first picked up the ball and run, hence inventing the game of rugby football.

Although the evidence for the story is doubtful, it was immortalised at the school with a plaque unveiled in 1895.

Webb Ellis was born in Salford, Lancashire in November 1806. After the death of his father, his mother decided to move to Rugby, Warwickshire so that William and his older brother Thomas could receive an education at Rugby School with no cost as a local foundationer (i.e. a pupil living within a radius of 10 miles of the Rugby Clock Tower).

After leaving Rugby in 1826, he went to Brasenose College, Oxford. He played cricket for his college, and for Oxford University After graduation he entered the Church and became chaplain of St George’s Chapel, Albemarle Street, London and then rector of St. Clement Danes in The Strand.

He never married and died in the south of France in 1872. His grave in “le cimetière du vieux château” at Menton in Alpes Maritimes was rediscovered by Ross McWhirter in 1958 and has since been renovated by the French Rugby Federation.

The players then were more numerous: in 1839, when Queen Adelaide visited the School, it was School House versus The Rest.  The School House team numbered 75 boys and The Rest 225.

A significant event in the early development of rugby football was the production of the first written laws of the game at Rugby School in 1845, which was followed by the ‘Cambridge Rules’ drawn up in 1848 leading to the formation of the Rugby Football Union in 1871.

The code was originally known as “rugby football”; it was not until after the schism in England in 1895, which resulted in the separate code of rugby league, that the sport took on the name “rugby union” to differentiate it from the league game. Despite the sport’s full name of rugby union, it is known simply as rugby throughout most of the world.

Despite the doubtful evidence, the current Rugby World Cup trophy is named after Webb Ellis.

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