Waggonways played an important role in the development of the Railways of Britain, from the 17th century onwards. They set the principles for today’s railways, but instead of using steel or iron rails they generally employed wooden rails to guide and support the vehicles travelling upon them. When this method of transportation first developed is unknown but suggestions have been made that systems of wheel guidance were in use certainly in Roman times but possibly even from Assyrian times. In 1557 a German engineer, Georgius Agricola Agricola, produced a work known as “De Re Mettalica” (“of the nature of metals”). In this book, written in Latin, are pictures of a European mine employing wagons on wooden rails for the movement of spoil and ore from the work face of the mine to the surface. It is a generally held belief that this is the first documented evidence to suggest that railed-ways were in use in central Europe at that time. One illustration in the book is of a mining wagon, named a ‘canis’, or dog (‘Hund’ in German). These vehicles ran on wooden planks laid to a narrow gauge, presumably to allow it to fit through the narrow mine tunnels. An iron prong protruded from beneath the ‘canis’ and fit between the two planks which not only acted as a means of load distribution but also a s a guide for the vehicle as the wheels were not flanged. A physical example of a vehicle, believed to be from the 16th Century, for use on rails was on display at a Berlin Museum during 1937. This vehicle unlike that mentioned above was flanged and ran on rounded wooden rails, and was used in gold mines in Transylvania. The benefits of using railed-ways in mines allowed miners to move heavy loads along the narrow tunnels with ease and is a practice still carried out today in mines around the world.

In Britain the use of wooden rails to move heavy vehicles was not restricted to within mines. In areas such as the north east of England they were also used to transport coal from the mines to the navigable rivers of the Tyneand Wear for transhipment around the country. Unlike modern railways, these were not of a permanent nature. At that time the landowner would lease the mines to an individual or group for working, taking payment for the amount of coal carried across his land. It was often a condition that the lessee could build a temporary waggonway for the movement of the coal by means of a ‘wayleave agreement’, essentially permission for access over the land for that individual or his representatives, for the time the mine was worked. The ‘ways’ did not need parliamentary permission to be built as they were on private land. Once the mine was abandoned, due to its being exhausted or due to the cost of mining further, the wayleave expired. It must be remembered that at that time mining was undertaken using hand tools and there were not the methods available for mass excavation that were to develop during the industrial revolution. In 1758 the Middleton Railway of Leeds operated a private colliery wagonway. They wanted to extend their boundaries beyond that of the owners but the only way to do this was to apply for an act of parliament. When the act was passed this allowed the railway to purchase as much land as was needed for its extension but made several conditions one of which applies to railways today and that is to fence off the railway so that pedestrians could not gain access to the track.

The general waggonway was laid as a pair of parallel wooden beams attached to cross beams of a much shorter length acting as support to the running rails. The sleepers were buried in pit spoil to hold them in place and provide a level surface. This is where we get today’s method of railway building from. Some ‘ways’ used ‘L’ shaped beams where the wagons wheels were guided by the external upright running along the wheel others used vehicles with flanged wheels. The sizes of the waggonways system could be quite large depending on the size and number of pits to be served. The waggonway would often be built on a down hill slope so gravity came in to play taking the wagon down the gently descending gradient, while on the return journey the horse would pull the wagon back up empty or with a delivery for the pit head.

The first British waggonway is believed to have been constructed at Wollaton near Nottingham. From there Huntingdon Beaumont, believed to be the developer of this system of transport, moved to Northumberland where the system was to take hold on a large scale. Many mine workings in that region became connected to the navigable rivers of the Tyne and Wear by waggonway. The reason for this wide use of waggonways in the north east of England must be based on the nature of the geology of that area. Not only was it the source of much high quality coal relatively easy to access and extract but the main issue was that there were no practical river routes from the hills of the Tyne and Wear Valleys to the rivers themselves. For centuries navigable rivers had played an essential part in the development of communities. The richest towns and cities located on or close to rivers allowing boats or ships to gain access for the despatch of produce. For example the coastal ports of East Angliacarried out great trade in cereal produce for delivery to London, which was unable to cater for itself, the city dependent on navigable waterways until the railway era.

The ease with which waggonways allowed the movement of coals from Northumberland saw thousands of people employed in this industry, many of whom ‘live by conveying them in wagons and waines to the River Tyne, as observed by William Gray in his work ‘A Chorogrpgia’ published in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1649. The distinction between wagons and waines is that those that were used on the railed-ways were the wagons while those that went by the conventional road were waines. The use of the waggonways was a much faster and cheaper form of transportation than taking goods by pack horse, or waine. As the ‘ways’ allowed the quicker movement of more goods in one batch production and distribution rates increased resulting in more traffic. This resulted in the waggonway being a victim of its own success as the wooden rails soon wore down. To resolve this many waggonway had two layers. This saw a foundation plank laid on the sleepers with replaceable, thick wooden strips laid on top making them easily replaceable with the minimum of disruption. By 1767 the working of cast iron was improving with many waggonways replacing the wooden strips with cast iron. Later ‘ways’ it is estimated could carry between 10-13 tons of coal in one journey.

As technology and manufacturing processes developed, waggonways owners started to experiment with other forms of traction counterbalance systems and stationary steam engines. By 1800 there were about 1500 miles of industrial railway in Britain made up of many different concerns that were not necessarily connected. The most prolific area for the use of waggonways having approximately 150 miles being north east England with over two million movements each year. This wide spread use saw waggonway systems referred to as ‘Newcastle roads’. It is interesting to note that the majority had a gauge of 4′ allowing the use of wagons or waggons large enough to hold a chaldron of coal, about 53 hundredweights.

After all this time it is believable that there would be no remains of waggonways. However, in 1996 at Fencehouses, Lambton coke works in Durham, one of the extensive lines of the Lambton wagonway was found in tact and in situ! It is the largest discovery of its kind in Britain.

Advances in metal processing up to and during the Industrial revolution were to be the end of waggonways throughout much of the country except the north east. The use of cast iron rails on ‘plateways’ often referred to as ‘tramways’ minimizing the cost of having to replace the wooden rails.  It is interesting that the very same area that still retained waggonways in to the 19th century was also the same that took on the new technology of harnessing moving steam engines to such an extent it was to revolutionize transport throughout the world. Richard Trevithick had tried his moving steam engine on a Cornish plateway, where it failed to gain the support it required due to its breaking the cast iron rails because of its weight. In the north east, where they could not use locomotives on waggonways they instead used locomotives on a new type of rail which has developed in to what we use today, known as the ‘Edge Rail’.