Northamptonshire was home to one of the earliest railways and within a century, had several hundred miles of line and over seventy stations. However, many lines were hard to build and the railways missed large parts of the county until later. The railways replaced canal transport, but were in turn replaced by road transport. Today, Northamptonshire has only six train stations.
The Blisworth Hill Railway
Northamptonshire’s first railway was built in 1800 to connect two portions of the Grand Junction Canal. The canal had opened the same year, except for a 3½ mile stretch between Blisworth and Stoke Bruerne due to building difficulties. As the road between the villages could not cope, the canal company built a horse-drawn railway to transport goods. It was completed in 1801, but soon became redundant when the Blisworth Tunnel opened in 1805 and there was no longer a break in the canal.
After this, it was two decades before another railway was built in Northamptonshire. In this time, steam locomotives had been developed and rails improved. The first public steam railway was built in the 1820s and the first intercity line in 1830. In 1838, trains arrived in Northamptonshire with the London and Birmingham Railway.
The London and Birmingham Railway
The famous railway engineer Robert Stephenson planned the route to cross the county between Kilsby and Hartwell, missing Northampton. Quickly, a myth arose that this was because Northampton had opposed the railway. However, this was not true. The main reason was that 18th-century steam trains did not have enough power for the steep slopes of the Nene Valley.
There was opposition to the railways in Northamptonshire though. Local elites, such as the Thorntons of Brockhall and the Wakes of Courteenhall, were worried about the line crossing their estates. Canal and road companies opposed the trains because it threatened their business. As did towns like Towcester and Daventry, which had good road traffic, but would be missed by the railway. However, an Act of Parliament was passed in 1833, allowing the construction of the London and Birmingham Railway.
The ‘navvies’ (short for navigators) who built the railway were mostly local. They were well-paid compared to farm labourers, but it was hard and dangerous work.
The Northamptonshire section of the line was the most difficult to build. The railway company met the same problems of valleys and ridges that the canal company had faced earlier.
The largest difficulty was the Kilsby Tunnel, which was built on quicksand that flooded the site. After one contractor died and several others left, the railway company had to take over the construction. Robert Stephenson used thirteen beam engines to pump 1800 gallons of water per minute for nineteen months in order to beat the quicksand. The tunnel was not finished until June 1838. It had cost three times its estimate and claimed twenty-six lives.
At Roade, there were difficulties creating the cutting. The clay was very hard when dry and slippery when wet, causing accidents. There were also frequent landslides. There were so many casualties during the work that the Northampton Infirmary had to increase its number of beds. Over 800 navvies worked on the Roade Cutting. Those not from the village set up camp, built themselves cottages, or lodged with locals. When typhus and smallpox broke out, the newcomers were blamed.
The Northamptonshire section of the line was the last part to be finished. Trains began running in April 1838, but passengers had to transfer to horse-drawn carriages in Northamptonshire until September. When the whole line opened, the train took 5¼ hours from London to Birmingham. It included four stations in the county: Roade, Blisworth, Weedon, and Welton.
Railway construction continued for the next sixty years in a period of expansion. Most of England’s main lines were built between 1850 and 1875, some which passed through Northamptonshire. Cross-country and smaller lines were also built. Northampton was finally connected to the Birmingham line by the ‘Northampton Loop’ in 1882, giving the town a direct train to London for the first time.
The economic impact of the railways varied across the county. The trains quickly ended river transport on the Nene and slowly replaced canals as the main transport for goods and materials. The railways also reduced road traffic through Daventry and Towcester, having a negative effect. Plus, none of the railways started or finished in Northamptonshire. They were a corridor, and places like Helmdon and Moreton Pinkney suffered as the train lines directed activity towards other towns.
However, most towns along the railway routes prospered. The boot and shoe trade and other industries grew with the arrival of the railway as goods and materials could be transported by rail. Trains also gave many people the chance to visit London or the seaside for the first time.
The railways were generally a safe form of transport. However, accidents did happen. The first recorded passenger train accident in Northamptonshire took place in June 1839. A passenger train had a head on collision with another train at Roade Station and people were thrown from their seats. Luckily, no one was killed. In a less fortunate accident, a passenger train derailed in September 1898 as it passed through Wellingborough Station at sixty miles per hour. A Royal Mail trolley had fallen on to the tracks and caused the train to crash. Seven people were killed and many others injured, some seriously.
Mergers, nationalisation, and decline
At the beginning of the 20th century, the railway network in Northamptonshire was at its largest. It had several hundred miles of line and over seventy stations. Some large towns even had more than one.
There had been intense competition between rail companies in the mid to late 19th century and many had merged. In 1923, they were grouped into four large companies. However, this this did not change much in Northamptonshire.
The government controlled the railways during both world wars and women took on every job except driving and firing the trains. In 1948, the government took over the railways more permanently when they nationalised the train companies.
However, the railways began to decline as road transport became cheaper and new, lighter industries needed railways less. The Northampton-Banbury line was the first cross-country railway to close in the county. By 1960, most of the smaller passenger services had been withdrawn and complete closure soon followed. At the same time, many major roads in Northamptonshire were rebuilt as dual carriageways. There are only six train stations left in the county today.