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A Brief History of Waggonways

To transport coal from the pithead to the consumer horse-drawn wains or pack horses were employed. The cost of transporting coal by these methods, typically up to 10 miles, often over rough roads, was assumed to double its price in the 18th Century. Much of the coal from the Derwent Valley was shipped south, mainly to London, and transporting it to the loading dock was a significant cost consideration.

In the early 17th Century Huntingdon Beaumont devised special “ways” for coal waggons, using wooden rails to reduce the cost of overland transportation. The first use of this method was in 1604 in Nottinghamshire. In 1605 a further waggonway was laid in Cowpen, near Blyth, however, this only remained in operation until 1614. Crawcrook waggonway, which existed in 1663, was possibly the first example that remained in operation for a prolonged period. Although not widely used elsewhere, due to the favourable conditions of the Tyne and Wear valleys, waggonways were extensively used in the north east to move coal to the river and load it onto boats, via Staiths, for its onward journey.

Key to waggonway routes were gradual downward slopes, following a shallow gradient and without sharp curves. Where the natural landscape did not permit this; cuttings, embankments, bridges and tunnels had to be constructed. Gravity assisted the downhill travel of the loaded waggons which, when empty, were pulled back uphill by horses. Where steeper slopes were encountered “inclined planes” were used where a rope and pulley allowed the weight of the loaded waggon to haul empty ones back up the slope.

Initially the rectangular beech wood rails were fixed to oak wood sleepers, with a of a gauge of around four feet. In use rails became worn after a few years and required replacement. An oak rail with a replaceable beech “wear strip” was later used. From around the 1760s wrought iron plates, fixed to the wooden rail, were used to reduce wear and friction. Cast iron rails were introduced in Shropshire in 1767 and whilst more robust than the wooden rails they were prone to brittleness and breaking under heavy load. From early in the 1800s wrought iron rails were widely adopted to replace cast rails. Waggonway rails required use of flanged wheels. Claimed to be more efficient than waggonways; tramways were developed in the 19th century. Using inverted and opposed “L” shaped rails, which allowed flangeless wheels, they were used in other areas, but not common in the north east.

In addition to the technical challenges encountered in building a waggonway commercial obstacles were faced. Landowners charged “wayleaves” (a fee) for allowing waggonway routes to cross their land. This practice became a means of effectively controlling access to the rivers and was ruthlessly exploited by some landowners; many of whom also held interests in competing collieries.

From the 1820s steam powered locomotives began to replace horse drawn waggonways. With operating costs of between one third and one sixth that of horses, the age of the railway was under way.

WAGGONWAYS – an in-depth look at Waggonways in the Land of Oak & Iron


The ever-changing network of waggonways played a major role in the coal industry of the northeast. Much of that network is no longer visible to the casual observer but traces are still to be found.

Given this importance, waggonways were chosen as one of the main themes for mapping and research activities. A sub-group was formed to look specifically at the Coal Industry. Initially the research involves mapping the
Waggonways; their routes and associated features. In time this will be progressed to Collieries and Railways.


In order to be able to map the Waggonways and create an accurate database it has been necessary to evolve a methodology to address a number of matters, namely, Provenance and Citations, a Bibliography of Source Material, Establishment of Time Periods, Index of Waggonways, Mapping Conventions, and Management of Mapping Progress

Provenance and citations

This matter was detailed in Between the Lines No.5 February 2019.

Bibliography of Source Material

Research was undertaken, in this respect, by members of the sub-group from which a Bibliography of Source Material has been compiled, and is set out in a separate document. Analysis of the sources revealed that to fulfill the remit of the sub-group a small number of books, maps, articles etc. would provide most of the information required. These documents are largely derived from primary source data contemporaneous to
relevant time periods, thus providing a high level of provenanced information.

Establishment of Time Periods

The Historic England research report “Early Railways in England – Review and Summary of Recent Research” by D Gwyn and N Cossons makes reference in Chapter 3 to four time periods of Historical Development: The early mine railway – 1553 to 1603; The wooden waggonway – 1603-4 to 1770; The early iron railway – 1770 to 1830; and The early railway’s contribution to the Stephenson era – 1830 to 1840.

In their book, “A Fighting Trade” Bennett, Clavering and Rounding contrast and advocate a chronology for Tyneside coal-carrying railways which cuts across distinction between early railways and their successors: involving a ‘classic wooden way’ period of 1600 to 1775; an ‘age of invention and transmission’ from 1775 to 1825; and an ‘era of rope and steam’ lasting until 1950. (Bennett, Clavering and Rounding 1990).

There are clearly some similarities between Gwyn and Cossons, and Bennett, Clavering and Rounding in defining time periods. However, as the remit of the sub-group relates specifically to the area covered by the work of Bennett Clavering and Rounding then it was decided that their time periods should be adopted.

Index of Waggonways

In compiling this index it was obvious that details of the waggonways would be found in three books, namely “A Fighting Trade”, Bennett, Clavering and Rounding; “Railways before George Stephenson”, Turnbull; and “The Early Railways of the Derwent Valley”; Turnbull. However, it also became clear that the waggonway names detailed by Bennett, Clavering and Rounding were not always the same as those used by Turnbull for the same waggonway.

The index of waggonways has been set out in a spreadsheet, which provides cross-referencing of waggonway names and has been used to manage
progress by the sub-group in mapping individual waggonways.

Mapping Conventions

Volume 2 of “A Fighting Trade” contains maps showing the routes of waggonways on Ordnance Survey maps. In order to plot the waggonway routes it is apparent that a great deal of research was undertaken by the authors which included the use of 18th and 19th century plans of waggonways etc.. Some 83 such plans are referenced in the book. Bennett, Clavering and Rounding were not certain of all sections of a number of waggonways and consequently used a mapping convention to distinguish between certain waggonways: probable waggonways and possible waggonways. The sub-group were of the opinion that the mapping work by Bennett, Clavering and Rounding showed a high level of accuracy and, have therefore used their work in its entirety for the waggonway maps.
There are, however, a number of gaps between the maps of Bennett, Clavering and Rounding and the extent of mapping required to include all waggonways within the boundary of the Land of Oak and Iron map. It has, therefore, been necessary to utilize other sources to fill in those gaps.
The diagrammatic maps in Turnbull’s books “Railways before George Stephenson” and “The Early Railways of the Derwent Valley” have been used as a starting point. This information has then been used in conjunction with 1st edition OS maps and other relevant sources to plot the waggonway routes. The plotting of the waggonways has followed the convention in Bennett, Clavering and Rounding to distinguish between certain, probable and possible waggonways. The information and plans contained in the book “Beamish South Moor Coal Mining and Wooden Waggonways Stanley/Beamish 1739 – 1779” by John E Purcell has filled in the gaps for the Stanley and Beamish area. The work of Andrew Hoseason, “The waggonways of Washington” has provided the necessary information for waggonways in Washington and adjoining areas. (to be found on the Facebook Page https://www.facebook.com/WashingtonWaggonways/ (RHu)

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