Dinner with the Stephensons – part one

A dinner that took place 175 years ago this Sunday is a welcome reminder of the challenges facing railway engineers past and present, writes Alan Marshall in the first of a festive two-part post.  

A festive feast with historic railway significance

The Dun Cow - the scene for the Stephensons late night...

The Dun Cow – the scene for the Stephensons late night…

SUNDAY 23 December 2012 marks the 175th anniversary of a unique railway event — an ‘orgy’ of food and drink involving the leading engineers of the London & Birmingham Railway, celebrating the success of their chief engineer Robert Stephenson and the fact that, after more than three long years of battling against almost overwhelming odds, Kilsby Tunnel, extending over 2,432 yards on the Warwickshire/Northamptonshire border, was finally nearing completion ahead of the full opening of the first trunk railway line ever to reach London.

That event — “an orgy of a polite and orderly variety,” according to L T C Rolt’s biography of father and son George and Robert Stephenson — took place at the ‘Dun Cow’ inn, still open for business today, at Dunchurch, near Rugby, starting with Robert Stephenson’s arrival at 5.30 p.m. and continuing until the last remnants of the group staggered out at around eight o’clock the next morning!

Dinner with the Stephensons

Robert Stephenson

Robert Stephenson

The repast began with Francis Foster, the L&BR’s Chairman, having Robert Stephenson seated on his right, and father George on his left. A correspondent for ‘The Railway Times’ wrote: “It would have done any man’s heart good to have heard the deafening applause which followed when the healths of the father and son were drunk.” Many of those present, including both Stephensons, were moved to tears, it  reported.

Robert finally left the table at 2 a.m. — but according to ‘The Railway Times’ the party was by no means over. George Stephenson was voted into the chair, which he occupied until 4 a.m., to be followed by Robert’s assistant Tom Gooch who eventually “rose and tottered off” at six o’clock, but “some few choice spirits” continued “until they heard the clock strike eight.”

Rolt dryly observes: “There must have been some aching heads and disordered livers among the engineering staff of the L&BR for some days after.”

The Stephensons’ vision is still with us today 

That the London & Birmingham Railway — commenced in 1834 and opened throughout between Birmingham Curzon Street and London Euston in September 1838 — is still with us today as the southern, and busiest, section of the West Coast Main Line, owes much to the vision of the early railway pioneers, such as Robert Stephenson and his father George. It should also, perhaps, be a reminder of how foolish are those today who say 250mph is too high a design speed for HS2, given that the new railway could be with our successors not just in the 22nd Century but quite possibly in the 23rd!

Unlike today, the L&BR was built without the assistance of much in the way of mechanical aids but mainly by the brawn of navvies, many of whom lost their lives in the process, and the assistance of thousands of horses; 1,200 navvies alone toiled on completing Kilsby Tunnel.

Today’s opponents of HS2 claim that major projects invariably exceed their cost estimates — although recent ones, including HS1 and the Olympic Park, have been built within budget — but this was also certainly true of the London & Birmingham Railway.  The original estimate was £2.4 million, but the Directors were shocked to find the whole project had cost them well over twice this — £5.5 million.

Kilsby Tunnel

Kilsby Tunnel took over three years to complete because of the need to overcome enormous and almost-overwhelming quicksands that trial borings had failed to reveal. The tunnel was estimated to cost £99,000, but the actual figure was more than three times over budget, at £320,000.

Robert Stephenson’s desire to avoid steep gradients and to follow the natural contours of the land, together with opposition to his line from many of the landed gentry, also meant his railway followed a curvaceous route which has been an inhibiting factor ever since to achieving modern high speed operations without the aid of tilt — and it is doubtful that Robert Stephenson ever envisaged his line would be carrying trains as frequently as every three minutes at 125mph, as happens at peak times today!

London-bound train enters Kilsby tunnel

London-bound train enters Kilsby tunnel

For reasons that were never entirely clear the L&BR, like many other early railways (Brunel’s Great Western was the great exception) adopted a restrictive loading gauge, maybe because the size of the structures, such as bridges and tunnels, were influenced by those built previously by canal engineers.

Certainly, Robert Stephenson went on to build railways abroad — including in France, Belgium, Austria and Norway — and these all adopted a much wider and higher structure gauge.

Part two follows……

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