The Pont Valley Network

Main Menu

About Us
Opencast Petition
The Village Forum
NOTT Campaign
Wildlife and Ecology
News & Press Releases
Pont Valley Photo Albums
Web Links
Partners and Providers
Pontburn Valley People and Places
   Leadgate Caretakers
   Pontburn Valley Stories
   Clifton House
   Uncovering the Old East House
   The Wooden Waggonways
   The Western Way
   Lanchester Common
   The Pitman
   The Townships and Manors
   Coal and Coal Mining
   What's In a Name?
   The WW1 Soldier-Pilot
   Blast from the Past
   Where We Live Now
   Our Friends in Slaley
   Bantling Lime Kilns
   Boundary Stones Project
   Neil's Tubs - Uncovering the Past!
   Graffiti Space!
   Got Something to Say?
   Valley View House, Leadgate
   Going to Pot
The Village Challenge
Site Map
Site Search
Contact Us

Search Web Pages

Log In



The Wooden Waggonways

The Wooden Waggonways

The wooden waggonway was a railway; no more, no less. It arose as a necessary link between colliery and waterside when fast growing cities which could be supplied by sea abandoned wood in favour of coal as domestic fuel. Bristol drew on the coalfields of Shropshire and South Wales, Dublin on Cumberland, Edinburgh on Fife and, above all, London on the Great Northern Coalfield. No foreign City was under a like necessity, and so Tyne Thames coal trading was seen abroad as uniquely and powerfully English. The first waggonways, that were called in their time 'Newcastle Waggonways', were known elsewhere as the English coalways.

For nearly three centuries Newcastle was synonymous with coal. The unparalleled growth of the Tyne trade first called the railway into being, and then itself became dependent on the spread of an ever- extending networks of waggonways. By 1728, a mid point between their introduction and the first appearance a century later of public railways, there was already on the south side of the Tyne about fifty miles of double track line. If we add that to the ways running to the north bank or to the Wear, as well as the maze of branches to individual pits, the total was well over 100 miles. Neither coal nor waggonways can be understood apart.

The reason for the introduction of waggonways was two fold, cost and handling capacity, and they were of equal importance. Today the cost of transporting a load of, say, gravel 30 miles would equal the cost of its extraction. For 17th Century coal the costs doubled after only two to three miles; but waggonways extended this distance to about ten miles. As on the roads today, large loads offered economies on manpower and horsepower costs. By the mid 1700’s the waggon held one Newcastle chaldron, a measure not of weight but of volume, but amounting effectively to 53cwt, 2.65 tonnes of coal.

At this time there were roadless parts of Britain where coal was carried by packhorse and transported this way, the load of a single chaldron waggon would have required over 24 horses and one man. The two wheeled cart, then usually a box bodied tip- cart called a ‘cowp’, was clearly more economic in horsepower, but not in manpower. In 1695 its content was fixed at 8.75 cwt and its principal virtue was that it did relatively less damage to the roads, such as they were.

The immediate predecessor of the waggon, and for a long time its rival, was the coal wain. Equally box bodied, it reminded traveller Celia Fiennes in 1698 of a 'dung pott', the vehicle used in London to collect 'night-soil. The wain was four wheeled, and carried a ‘fother’ of 17 ½ cwt which was one third of a waggon load. Because it had to operate where there were no roads it was equivalent of today’s four wheeled drive vehicles and was correspondingly powerfully engined. It was drawn by two horses with two oxen, saving the cost of men rather than that of animals, and at great expense at the time, for oxen are painfully slow.

The immediate running of a chaldron waggon with its single horse and driver were clearly far lower than those of three coal wains needing three drivers, six horses and six oxen. Yet investment and maintenance charges made the calculation of advantage far more complex. For small producers, the wain maybe offered more flexibility for other uses, therefore it was not cost alone which persuaded coalowners to invest in waggonways.

Given tarmac, the seventeenth century coal trade might never have developed the railway. In modern times, what has allowed road transport to defeat rail has not been a matter of motive power, for they both use diesel engines, but all weather roads provided and kept open by public money. The proliferation of four wheeled drive vehicles in green lanes today is beginning to teach us what the seventeenth century knew only too well; unmade roads will bear a wain for about six months in the year and their use in wet weather soon renders them impassable. Major collieries had dedicated wain roads of their own, with deep ditches to keep them dry, and colliery managers repaired the surfaces regularly as best they could by having brushwood and stones tipped into the mud. Despite this, no colliery using wain transport ever achieved a regular annual export of over 20,000 tons. By then, a great colliery expected to sell twice that quantity and wains imposed an absolute limit on growth.

What is more, wain roads were least use when prices were highest. It was usually in April, when the winter storms in the North Sea subsided, that the first collier pinks, or later brigs, reached the Tyne from London, and brisk sales began after a dead season which had lasted from Christmas Eve. It was often not until June that the wains could run to load them. Records of coal owners’ correspondence is full of anxious enquiries whether ‘the wains are on yet’. Similarly, a wet autumn could close the roads prematurely, and with them the pits, for coal could not be stored long in the open. Waggonways ran from April, or at latest May until Christmas as heavy rain and snow did stop them, but only temporarily and they could compensate for delays, and make the best use of tides, by working on clear nights. Against the 20,000 tons limit on a wainroad, there are waggonways known to have carried in excess of 200,000 tons in a year. The building of a waggonway became a necessary condition for opening up any large colliery.

The Newcastle waggonway is justly so called in the sense that the town created an industry of a size and kind that made the use of waggonways at once commercially feasible and inescapable if its market was to be supplied. Tyne coal created the waggonway in the same sense that Middle Eastern oil created the pipeline. But the transport technique itself was not created on the Tyne. The rails were made of wood four or five inches thick and five or six inches broad. There is nothing new in using wood as a travelling surface. Three thousand years earlier, Neolithic man had used it for carrying trackways across bogs, and by the Middle Ages end to end planks for barrow ways had become standard mining practice underground. What was new was the use of the flanged wheel, introduced around 1670, probably somewhere in the East Midlands.

Nothing is known of the engineering of these Midlands waggonways, but on the Tyne there was never any question of merely laying the new ways directly on the ground. The increased loads made the preparation of the track bed necessary. The early waggonways were built from rails, often oak, birch or ash from 5ft to 8ft long, pinned by wooden pegs onto sleepers laid on ballasted tracks. Once the sleepers were laid on the ballast and rails pinned onto them, ashes or other material was then beaten firm against the under surface of the rail to strengthen and make it more rigid. The ballasting, from a variety of materials, (ballast from the colliers’ holds returning from London, clinker from salt pans, cinders, ground, broken stone and even small coal) was laid between the rails, sometimes completely burying the sleepers. Outside the rails it was raised even higher, nearly as high as the rails, where it formed a small footpath for the waggon man to walk on alongside the track. It was then graded off to allow rainwater to percolate through and run off into the gutters and ditches dug alongside the track.

The effects of weather, alternate sun and rain, wear and tear caused by waggon wheels and the effect of rot and horses hooves on the sleepers, all led to rapid wear and tear. Usually rails lasted 3 years under moderate traffic, but under heavy traffic one year was more the maximum life.

To lengthen the life of the way a ‘double way’ was introduced, where a second layer of rails was laid on top of the first, the lower or under rail being made of cheaper softer wood such as imported pine from Scandinavia, and the top rail lasted longer as it could be almost completely worn away before being replaced. The sleepers could now be covered completely with ballast thus preventing them being worn by horses’ hooves.

The waggonways were built with two tracks laid side by side, the main way and the bye way. The mainway carried the full chaldron wagon, down gradient and then on the bye way the horse pulled the empty wagon, up gradient. The gauge was generally about 4ft but it wasn’t uncommon for some coalowners to build their waggonways to a strange gauge to prevent other owners from being able to take their waggons down that track. This happened most notably at Beamish, when Davison of Beamish Hall did this to prevent the most powerful cartel of owners, known as the Grand Allies, from using his tracks without paying for the privilege.

The wooden rails were unsatisfactory when wet. Not only were they greasy and dangerous especially on descending slopes, but they offered a greater resistance to the wheels due to they sinking into the rails more and they wore out on the curves. To overcome this, thin wrought iron plates were laid upon the rails and nailed down, lessening the resistance and preventing the wooden rails from wear. It is not known when these plates were introduced. As early as 1716 ‘thin iron plates were nailed upon the wooden rails, whenever a steep descent or sharp curve rendered the draught harder than usual’. The men who tendered the way or renewed the plates were termed ‘platelayers’, the term used today for the permanent way men of the Railway Companies.

The first waggonways, those before the 18th century and those in the first decade of the 18th century, were built to serve existing established collieries which had generally been opened before the English Civil War period. They were able to expand to meet increased demand post Civil War by using these new efficient infrastructures.

As the distance to the staithes on the rivers was short initially, the way could be laid with no large engineering problems, such as cuttings and embankments (or cuts and batteries as they were known then). As the collieries close to the rivers began to exhaust coal measures the ways were extended more and more, encountering increasingly complex engineering problems, thereby leaving a lot more evidence of their existence that we can recognise and celebrate today.

Waggonway costs depended on two things; the engineering and wayleaves. Wayleaves were granted by freeholders of the land generally, giving ‘leave’ for a ‘way’ to be built across their land for a fee. The restrictions on the building of the way varied, some landowners allowing cuts and batteries with the proviso that the land be restored when the wayleave was relinquished; while others would not allow ‘ the soil to be disturbed’. A typical wayleave is one granted in 1692 to Hon. Charles Montague, who was given leave to ‘lay a waggon way from ye pitt or pits of Gibside to ye said Rivers of Darwent or Tyne; and to fix, lay and place in along ye said lands and grounds railes, sleepers, or other wood, iron or timber, for ye making of said waggonway…… and to lead and carry all other materials and to imploy workmen and workhorses in and about ye mending and repairing of ye same; as occasion shall be or required, and to cutt and make trench or trenches, for ye carrying away ye water from ye said waggonway and to make bridge or bridges with timber, earth or stone where ye said waggonway is uneven by too great descents or ascents upon ye said waggonway, grounds as there be occasion’

Rents which in the first instance were paid on the yardage of the waggonway, rose in value the nearer the way approached the staithes or the shipment point. Later, rents were calculated on the traffic. The cost of acquiring wayleaves was sometimes a bitter struggle between the colliery owners and the landowners, sometimes tellingly themselves colliery owners. ‘and when men have pieces of ground between the colliery and the river they sell leave to lead coals over the ground, and so dear that the owner of a rood of ground will expect £20 per year for this leave’
In this instance a rood is five and a half yards and this wayleave would be about £7,000 per mile per annum.

In a petition to Parliament in 1696, the Company of Hostmen of Newcastle, the very powerful and influential group of coal owners stated ‘that of late years the colyeries adjacent to the river of Tine are so such wrought out that the coal owners have been forced to advance their works several miles further from the river of Tine into the country, to dig for fresh supply….by means whereof they are under a necessity of carrying their coals through other mans grounds…. Who for their damages occasioned by granting such liberty exact such extravagant rates from your petitioners for wayleaves…. As is no small prejudice and discouragement to the trades and will tend to the enhancing of the rates and prices of coal in the Kingdom’

As was to be expected from such a lucrative income, quarrels and legal actions abounded, attempts were made by some a acquire land and wayleaves, to stifle the trade of a rival; or as in the case of William Cotesworth of Gateshead, to have a finger in every wayleave ‘just to play the tyrant over the coal owner’. In 1716 he received an income of £3000 a year on some land at Whickham whose annual value was about 2s per acre.

The wayleave difficulties led to a combination of coal owners to combat the excessive charges, a combination which later used it’s power in regulation of the Vend (the quantity of coal a colliery produced) to limit it’s output to a fixed quota.

Out of this combination grew the ‘Grand Allies’ of 1726, a partnership of the most prominent and influential coal owners in the Durham Coalfield; the Liddells, Montagues and Bowes, which formed to share waggonways and to protect and grant wayleaves. They also paid landowners not to grant wayleaves to business rivals.

A waggonway is shown as serving one colliery which it often did, but one colliery could consist of a series, sometimes dozens, of pits scattered over a wide area. Each pit was linked into the main way by its own way, which was often lightly laid and engineered with a minimum of cuttings or embankments. In an account of the coals wrought and led from the Tanfield Moor colliery in 1742, it lists 22 pits which produced 600,000 tons.

Many of the waggonways in North Durham, on the Tyne and the Derwent were built by various members of the Bowes family throughout the 18th century. In 1699 William Blakiston Bowes inherited the Gibside estate along with the Hutton and Northbanks collieries, which at that time were being worked by Charles Montague and the Wortleys, all relatives of Bowes. They together built the Dunston waggonway, which meandered across Whickham fell to Dunston staithes, collecting coal from various pits, which were either beside the main way or connected to it by short waggonways. This route was truncated in 1723, the traffic being transferred to the newly built Western Way, which had been built by Bowes on a better gradient and extended to serve other collieries.

Not being on good terms with either the Bowes or the Montagues forced Sir William Clavering and Thomas Bramwell to construct their own way from their Byermoor, Lintz and Bucksnook collieries. In 1710 they began collecting the wayleaves required to build a route down the eastern side of the river Derwent. One such wayleave was acquired or thought to have been acquired under dubious circumstances and shortly after the opening of the Bucksnook way, the track in this section was torn up by Bowes’ sympathisers, led by Lady Bowes herself. You can see where the Queen Mother got her indomitable spirit.

Naturally there were law suits (waggonway disputes dominated the courts throughout the 18th century), from which Lady Bowes managed to extricate herself, but William Cotesworth, the Gateshead coal owner, had to make reparation to Sir John Clavering. Both men were implacable enemies and the situation was later made more difficult when Cotesworth acquired shares in the Bucksnook colliery and had full use of the waggonway for his waggons.

In 1721, Lady Clavering, who had acquired Sir John’s interests on his death, along with Bowes, took their traffic off the Bucksnook Way and put it on the steeper Western Way. ‘Last Monday we began to lead down ye new waggonway which is ye beginning of my profit, it is a work of such great importance and crosses so many mountains and vales, which are all levelled that I can compare it to nothing more properly than to ye Via Appia’ wrote William Bowes in the typical flamboyant phrases of that period, when the Western Way was opened in 1721.

Unfortunately this way had some steep runs, especially down roughly what is now the steep road from Burnopfield to Rowlands Gill, which in the wet weather was dangerous and the waggon drivers preferred the less dangerous Bucksnook way. The records point to a lot of crashed waggons and expensive maintenance work and this way led to vast improvements to the rudimentary braking systems on the waggons in order to cut costs and save lost profits. This Via Appia is the Western way that led from Derwenthaugh and the newly constructed staithes on the north side of the Derwent to Lintz and then to Pontop and finally to its terminus at Billingside, a journey of 9 ½ miles and an engineering marvel of the day, now threatened by UK Coal.

The wooden waggonways were being phased out and were starting to be replaced by iron by 1810. John Bailey who travelled County Durham in 1810 to write his Agricultural Survey commented that wooden ways were still extensive and cost 5s per yard, but that substitution by iron rails was occurring.

The staithes were themselves a modern efficient piece of technical engineering, the Keelmen who ferried the coal to the collier ships waiting at the mouth of the Tyne have their own romantic story and the trials of the Colliers who would run along the coast of England back and forth to London in their hundreds, braving the perils of the North Sea, could fill a series of chapters. But this story is about the importance of waggonways to the heritage and culture of our area, perched as we are on Pontop Pike. More importantly the necessity to preserve these main ways for tourism and education purposes and to point out the location of one of the greatest of them all, ranking equally to some of those that crossed the gorge at Causey and which are superbly preserved for visitors there by the County Council. Let us now look at the great Western Way. We leave this chapter with a quote from the author Daniel Defoe who wrote in 1726: ‘They are dug in a pit of vast depth in the ground, sometimes 50, 60 to 100 fathoms, and being loaded, for so the miners call it, into a great basket or tub are drawn by a wheel and a horse to the top of the shaft or pit mouth, and there are thrown out upon the great heap, to lie ready against the ships come into the port and to demand them. They are loaded again into a great machine, or waggon, which by means of of an artificial road, called a waggonway, goes with the help of but one horse, and carries two chaldron or more at a time; and this sometimes 3 or 4 miles to the nearest river or water carriage they come at; and then they are either thrown into or form a great storehouse, called a stathe, made so artificially, with one part close to or hanging over the water, that the Keels can come close to or under it, and the coals at once shot out of the waggon into the Keels which carry them away to the ships; which I call the first loading upon the water. From the keels they are thrown by hand into the ships, which is the second loading. From the ships being brought to London they are delivered by the Coal- meters into coal lighters or vessels on the river, which is the third loading. From these lighters into the great West Country barges, suppose for Oxford or Abbingdon, which is the fourth loading. From these barges they are loaded into carts and wagons to be carried to the respective country Town to the last consumer which is the fifth loading. But if you include the account of this digging and loading into the wagons, this makes seven several removes, all of which adds to the expenses and heights of the price of coals’

Even then, customers were complaining about the price of goods, but perhaps Defoe did it in a more articulate and romanticised way than others may have chosen.

Created on 18/06/2007 08:27 PM by rmr
Updated on 21/06/2009 09:04 PM by dshields
 Printable Version

Comments - Make a comment

The comments are owned by the poster. We are not responsible for its content.

Pont Valley Forum

Why not join the Pont Valley Forum - an email mailing list discussing anything and everything related to life in the Pont Valley.

Send an email to

Join via web page

What's Related

These might interest you as well
Web Pages

Photo Albums



Link Manager

Contact Details

Pont Valley Network

Clifton House
17 St Ives Road
Co. Durham

01207 582385