The Wollaton Wagonway (or Waggonway), built between October 1603 and 1604 in the East Midlands of England by Huntingdon Beaumont in partnership with Sir Percival Willoughby, is commonly credited as the world's first overground wagonway and is therefore regarded as a significant step in the development of railways. Nevertheless, its primacy has been recently questioned, it being suggested that a wagonway at Broseley in Shropshire was earlier, though not referred to until slightly later.
The wagonway was the earliest form of railway. Although modern historians are uncertain as to whether it evolved or was invented, it is known that, between the Autumn of 1603 and 1 October 1604, a waggonway (wagonway) had been built near Nottingham, by Huntingdon Beaumont who was the partner of Sir Percival Willoughby, the local land-owner and owner of Wollaton Hall. It ran for approximately two miles (3 km) from Strelley to Wollaton to assist the haulage of coal. The actual track gauge is unknown, some websites state it was 4 ft 6 in (1,372 mm)  however no documentary evidence exists to support such statements although Lewis' work (1970) on early wooden railways, and the practicalities of horse haulage, suggest a gauge close to that dimension is plausible. Earlier waggonways may have been built, but the Wollaton Wagonway is the earliest surface-level waggonway on record anywhere in the world, and therefore remains credited as the first.
|“||alonge the passage now laide with railes, and with suche or the lyke Carriages as are now in use for the purpose.||”|
The above is from Sir Percival Willoughby's agreement with Huntingdon Beaumont dated 1 October 1604. Sir Percival was Lord of the Manor of Wollaton and Huntingdon Beaumont was the lessee of the Strelley coal pits. They worked the Strelley mines in an equal partnership.
Comparatively little is known of the wagonway. It cost £172 (equivalent to £36,627 in 2015), and ended at Wollaton Lane End, from where most of the coal was taken onwards by road to Trent Bridge and then downstream on the River Trent by barge. The wagons or carriages were drawn by horses on wooden rails. The Strelley mines were worked only until about 1620, by which time all readily recoverable coal had probably been mined. The wagonway was presumably then abandoned.
The success of the Wollaton Wagonway led to Huntingdon Beaumont building other wagonways for his other mining leases near Blyth in Northumberland. A continuous evolution of railways can be traced back to the Wollaton Wagonway.
- Hylton, Stuart (2007). The Grand Experiment: the Birth of the Railway Age 1820-1845. Ian Allan Publishing. ISBN 0-7110-3172-X.
- P. King, 'The First Shropshire Railways' in G. Boyes (ed.), Early Railways 4: Papers from the fourth early railways conference (Six Martlets, Sudbury 2010), 70-84.
- Huntingdon Beaumont’s Wollaton to Strelley Waggonway
- UK Consumer Price Index inflation figures are based on data from Gregory Clark (2016), "The Annual RPI and Average Earnings for Britain, 1209 to Present (New Series)", MeasuringWorth.com.
- Smith, R. S. (1957), "Huntingdon Beaumont Adventurer in Coal Mines", Renaissance and Modern Studies, I: 115 to 153.
- Smith, R. S. (1960), "England's First Rails : A reconsideration", Renaissance and Modern Studies, IV: 119 to 134.
- Lewis, M J T (1970), Early Wooden Railways, Routledge Keegan Paul, London, England.
- Smith, R. S. (1989), Early Coal Mining Around Nottingham 1500 - 1650, University of Nottingham (out of print).
- New, J. R. (Nov 2004), "400 years of English railways - Huntingdon Beaumont and the early years", Backtrack, 18 (11): 660 to 665.
- New, J. R. (2014), "Wollaton or Broseley? The gap narrows", in Gwyn, Dr. D., Early Railways 5, Six Martlets Publishing, Sudbury, UK, pp. 1–11
- Lewis, M. J. T. (2006), "Reflections on 1604", in Bailey, M. R., Early Railways 3, Six Martlets Publishing, Sudbury, UK, pp. 8–22
- Ashworth, W. (1986), The History of the British coal industry, Oxford University Press, p. 168
- Waggonway Research Circle: The Wollaton Wagonway of 1604. The World’s First Overland Railway, August 2005