Archive: George Stephenson’s writings

Liverpool and Manchester Railway brought several world firsts. IMechE archivist Karyn French delves into George Stephenson’s writings

The Liverpool and Manchester Railway was opened on 15 September 1830 to link the two cities. It was the first public transport system that did not use animal traction power and the first to provide a scheduled passenger service.

The initial 1823 survey for the line was carried out by William James but was considered defective and in 1824 George Stephenson was appointed engineer in his place. Stephenson was replaced too after further mistakes were made, possibly owing to the absence of his son Robert. George and John Rennie were then appointed as engineers, and they chose Charles Blacker Vignoles as surveyor.

But the crossing of Chat Moss peat bog (pictured top) saw both Rennies and Vignoles resign and brought the return of George Stephenson as engineer, with Joseph Locke as his assistant. The construction of the line itself was not the only engineering feat accomplished in order to overcome the topography and geography of the route: the crossing of Chat Moss is well known for its ingenuity but permanent civil structures were also built.

The most notable of these is the Sankey Viaduct, which is the world’s oldest major railway viaduct still in use. It was built by Stephenson and allowed the line to cross the Sankey Canal while leaving enough clearance for sailing vessels to pass below. It is 183m long, with nine round-arched spandrels on sharply-battered piers. Its arches are of 15m span and 21m high. The gradient of the viaduct had to be suitable for the locomotives. It was this that Stephenson seemed most concerned about in his reports. He commented that the nature of the supports required further consideration. He thought consideration should be given to driving piles close to the canal. He was also concerned about the piers; although these were completed in 1829 Stephenson was writing in 1832 (the viaduct was not considered complete until 1833). I cannot find any evidence that his advice was taken and his alterations made but if you know differently please email

Where the viaduct solved one problem by going above, the Wapping Tunnel (pictured bottom) in Liverpool solved another by going beneath ground. It was the first tunnel in the world to be bored under a city. It is 2km long and was open from 1830 until 1972.

Originally the railway out of Liverpool was to run north along the docks but landowner opposition made this impossible. The new route required considerable engineering works in addition to the tunnel. The 1-in-48 gradient was much too steep for the locomotives of the day. So a stationary steam engine was installed at Edge Hill to haul wagons by rope up from the Park Lane goods station at the South End Docks. The goods wagons were connected to locomotives at Edge Hill for their onward journey.

At Edge Hill cutting, the tunnel can be seen flanked by another Stephenson tunnel, Crown Street Tunnel, and a later addition, a short tunnel of 1846 that allowed an increase in freight traffic. The Crown Street Tunnel was bored from a deep cutting at Edge Hill and ran to the passenger terminus station at Crown Street, the world’s first public railway station. This station was later abandoned for the more central location of Lime Street.

Edge Hill was the site of another engineering spectacle, the Moorish Arch where the railway’s opening ceremony took place and where Stephenson was required to provide a dramatic and decorative feature.


The IMechE Archive has reports by Stephenson, and illustrations. These are online 

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