Collection of Material relating to Early Railways in Britain

  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 237 Coll-463
  • Dates of Creation
      19th century - 20th century
  • Language of Material
  • Physical Description
      7 letters or documents, 19 albums containing several hundred photographs (1.5 linear metre)
  • Location
      Dk.6.19/2; Dk.7.46/56; Gen. 715/8; Gen. 1697-1715; Gen. 1790, no.259; Gen. 1939/3/iii; Gen. 1956/7/8; Gen. 2169/142

Scope and Content

The material is composed of: instructions by T. Telford 'respecting the Glasgow and Berwick line of Railways', 1809; letter about land for the Edinburgh and Glasgow railway, 1840; letter from the Directors of the North British Railway with a proposal to extend the proposed line from Edinburgh to Dunbar as far as Berwick to link up with the English railways, 1843; letter of Adam Black to Bailie Gray about the Atmospheric Railway, Trinity Hospital, Edinburgh, 1846; an account of the laying of the foundation stone of the Caledonian Railway Terminus in Edinburgh, 1847; measurement of work at Peebles Railway Station, 1854; letter about a proposed light railway in the Cairn Valley, Dumfriesshire, 1896; and, several albums of photographs of British steam locomotives from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Administrative / Biographical History

The first railroad built in Great Britain was the Stockton and Darlington railroad, opened in 1825. It used a steam locomotive built by George Stephenson but was practical only for hauling mineral trains. In order to help exploit rich veins of coal in the area, the original plan had been to employ draft horses for the pulling of wagons along the railroad. Instead, the promoter of the plan - Edward Pease - commissioned Stephenson to build a steam locomotive for the line. Railway transportation began on 27 September 1825 when the first public passenger train pulled by the engine 'Active' (later renamed 'Locomotion'), ran from Darlington to Stockton carrying 450 persons at 15 miles (24 km) per hour.

Interested parties in the cities of Liverpool and Manchester then called on Stephenson to build a 40-mile (64-kilometre) railway line to connect the two cities. The Liverpool and Manchester Railway opened in 1830, and was the first modern railroad. It was a public carrier of both passengers and freight.

When the Liverpool-Manchester line was nearing completion in 1829, a competition was held for locomotives. Stephenson's new engine, the 'Rocket', which he built with the assistance of his son, Robert, won with a speed of 36 miles (58 km) per hour. Eight locomotives were used when the Liverpool-Manchester line opened on 15 September 1830, and all of them had been built in Stephenson's Newcastle works. From this time on, railway building spread rapidly throughout Britain, Europe, and North America.

In Scotland, it had been coalmining that stimulated the first railway or waggonway building. In the eighteenth century tracks existed in East Lothian between Tranent and Cockenzie and at Inveresk near Musselburgh. Indeed part of the land upon which the Battle of Prestonpans took place in 1745 was taken up by one of these early tracks. These waggonways also connected canals with collieries. The first line in Scotland to experiment with steam power was the Kilmarnock and Troon Railway in Ayrshire in 1816 or 1817.

The North British Railway begun in 1846 had become, by 1922, the largest Scottish railway, although the Caledonian Railway linking with England regarded itself as the principal railway in Scotland. Others were the Glasgow and South Western Railway, the Highland Railway, and the Great North of Scotland Railway.

By 1870 Britain had about 13,500 miles (21,700 km) of railway. At their greatest extent in 1914, there were about 20,000 miles (32,000 km) of track, run by 120 competing companies. The British government combined all these companies into four main groups in 1923 as an economy measure. When the Second World War began in 1939, Britain's railways were placed under government control and in 1947 the Transport Act nationalised them. The railways were taken over by the British Transport Commission (BTC) in 1948 and given the name British Railways. The BTC divided Britain's rail network into six (later five) regions on a geographic basis.

A 1962 law replaced the BTC with the British Railways Board in 1963. The board's management emphasized mass movement over major trunk lines and the closing of money-losing branch lines and depots - the so-called Beeching cuts. Between 1963 and 1975 the board shortened its routes from 17,500 miles (28,000 km) to 11,000 miles (17,000 km) and cut personnel from about 475,000 to about 250,000. As part of a modernization program, steam locomotives began to be replaced by diesels in the 1950s, and this was followed in the 1960s by electrification. A programme of reconstruction included the installation of long, continuously welded rails, and new signalling systems. By the 1970s, electrification had extended to Glasgow. With track improvements and high speed trains (the InterCity services) travel times between the major conurbations were cut.

In 1993, the British government passed legislation that restructured British Rail prior to its sale to the private sector. A new state-owned company, Railtrack, was created in 1994 to own and manage the system's track, signals, land, and stations while British Rail itself was split up into about 25 train-operating units that could be franchised to private-sector operators. In 2002 Railtrack was replaced by yet another authority - Network Rail. Current train operators (in 2002) include: Connex, GNER, Virgin trains, Midland Mainline, South West TrainsArriva Trains Northern, Anglia Railways, Central Trains, and Scot Rail.

Conditions Governing Access

Generally open for consultation to bona fide researchers, but please contact repository for details in advance.

Acquisition Information

Telford instructions, purchased November 1968, Accession no. E68.36. Atmospheric Railway, acquired November 1973, Accession no. E73.42. NBR letter, purchased 1974, Accession no. E74.14.


Item at Dk.6.19/2 not examined (October 2002). The biographical/administrative history was compiled using the following material: (1) Keay, John. and Keay, Julia (eds.). Collins encyclopaedia of Scotland. London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1994. (2) Encyclopaedia Britannica.  British Railways [Accessed October 8, 2002].

Compiled by Graeme D Eddie, Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Division.

Other Finding Aids

Important finding aids generally are: the alphabetical Index to Manuscripts held at Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections and Archives, consisting of typed slips in sheaf binders and to which additions were made until 1987; and the Index to Accessions Since 1987.


Check the local Indexes for details of any additions.

Related Material

The local Indexes show other references to railway related material (check the Indexes for more details): a pencil note on 'Railway traveling' by 'JB' on folios 1-2v of ledger of Professor J. Black, 13 December 1799, at Gen. 874/XI; the Glasgow and Paisley line referred to in a commonplace book, 1828, at Gen. 567D, p.78; new railway at Malines, France, mentioned in a letter of T. J. Torrie, 1835, at Gen. 1996/9/90; progress on the railway to Preston and Lancaster mentioned in a letter from Babington to Jardine, 1838, at Dk.6.20/4; meetings about the Caledonian railway in Dumfriesshire mentioned in a letter, at Dk.20/254; propesed railway in southern Scotland mentioned in letters, 1841, at Gen. 886/2, nos.19-10; travel by railway mentioned in letters of T. J. Torrie, 1841, at Gen. 1996/8/31, 37; and, letter of Cooke to Torrie suggesting she should 'bespeak the invalids carriage', 1847, at Gen. 1996/12/42.