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, has sometimes been credited as the world's first overground wagonway and therefore regarded as a significant step in the development of railways. Its primacy has been recently questioned because of a wagonway built at Prescot, near Liverpool, sometime around 1600 and possibly as early as 1594. Owned by Philip Layton, this line carried coal from a pit near Prescot Hall to a terminus about half a mile away. Also, a wagonway at Broseley in Shropshire was probably earlier.
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 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 but some websites state it was 4 ft 6 in (1,372 mm). 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.
|“||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 £37,271 in 2016), 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.
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- P. King, 'The First Shropshire Railways' in G. Boyes (ed.), Early Railways 4: Papers from the fourth early railways conference (Six Martlets, Sudbury 2010), pp. 70-84.
- "Huntingdon Beaumont's Wollaton to Strelley Waggonway". Nottingham Hidden History. Retrieved 23 August 2017.
- UK Retail Price Index inflation figures are based on data from Clark, Gregory (2017). "The Annual RPI and Average Earnings for Britain, 1209 to Present (New Series)". MeasuringWorth. Retrieved 6 November 2017.
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- 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