[From H Stowell Brown, Notes of my Life, 1888]



I HAVE sometimes wished that I had continued on the Ordnance Survey, but I had made up my mind to become a mechanical engineer. Mr., afterwards Dr. Carpenter, of St. Barnabas, Douglas, was acquainted with one of the directors of the London and Birmingham Railway, and through Carpenter I obtained permission to go to the Company’s works at Wolverton, whither I accordingly went in the month of August, after little more than a month of Ordnance Survey.

And here begins a new chapter of my poor history. The London and Birmingham was then the pride of English railways. It was indeed the best line of railway in the world, and I don’t know a better even now. It was the greatest of Robert Stephenson’s achievements. He had tried his ‘prentice hand in the construction of the Liverpool and Manchester, and this larger work was his masterpiece. To this day on going from Liverpool to London, after going over the Trent Valley, the traveller, as he proceeds from Rugby to the metropolis, feels that he is on a firmer, smoother, better road. He is then on the old London and Birmingham. It had been opened throughout about two years when I entered the Company’s service, Wolverton station, fifty miles from London and sixty from Birmingham, was regarded as a half-way house, and every passenger-train stopped there ten minutes for refreshments. I believe the Company’s original intention was to take the line by Northampton, and to have their engine-works there, but the wiseacres of that town fought against the Bill, and so far succeeded in cutting their own throats as to divert the line, not allowing it to come within five miles of them. It was a grand mistake; they shut themselves out of the world. When they wanted to go to London or Birmingham they had to jog along those five miles to Blisworth station in omnibuses. Had the engine-works been built at Northampton, the town would have added to its trade perhaps £2000 a week, besides all the profit of building works and houses. For many years Northampton had to be satisfied with a branch line, and now (1879) after more than forty years the original design is in part being carried out by means of a loop from Roade to Rugby, whereby the long tunnel at Kilsby will be escaped. Had the Northampton people been wise that tunnel need not have been made.

The engine-works were then established at Wolverton. They consisted at first of a large, square building enclosing a quadrangular yard, and ordinary smith’s shops, turning and fitting shops, erecting shops, pattern shop, iron foundry and brass foundry, with an engine-shed, and the number of men employed was about five hundred When I went to Wolverton there were not more than about twenty houses for the workmen. The majority of the men lodged in the villages round about—Old Wolverton, Corgrave, Castlethorpe, Haulope, Bradwell, Calverton, and in fire towns of Stony Stratford to the west and Newport Pagnell to the cast. Wolverton is in Buckingharnshire, on the border of Northamptonsiijre, and in the valley of the lazy Ouse, which creeps through the railway, half a mile north of the station. Like the parishes which surround it, its occupation is wholly agricultural, with the addition of lace-making, carried on in the cottages by the women and children. The country is prettily adorned with many goodly trees, and many quaint and picturesque old churches; Haulope with its noble spire being particularly fine. Beneath the trees is embowered the little church of Corgrave, where lie the remains of Dean Mansell. But more interesting is Olney, fragrant with the memories of Cowper and John Newton. It is also a pleasant walk to Wotton Abbey on one hand, and to the stately Stowe near Buckingham on the other. The geological structure of the district is the well-known oolite, so common in Northamptonshire and neighbouring counties. The two towns, Stony Stratford and Newport Pagnell, were, as they still are, very dull, dead-alive places. They had just been shorn of their glories. Each, situated on one of the great roads from London to the north, had seen many coaches pass through it every day. The railway had superseded every one of them. No longer was heard the guard’s horn, no longer seen the well-appointed equipages, each with its four fine horses, and its proud driver with a bunch of flowers in his button-hole. Looking along the Stratford High Street, one saw on either side many sign-boards swinging in the wind—’ The Cock,’ ‘The Bull,’ ‘The Cross Keys,’ and at Old Stratford ‘The Saracen’s Head.’ The number of inns, large and small, was numerous, each being patronized by its own coach or coaches. But now, small indeed was the custom at these once busy hostelries; and the grass grew long in Stratford Market-place, and we railway folk were looked upon with much disfavour. We had ruined the trade of the town; but yet I should think that after all Stratford lost little by the change. Most of the wages paid at Wolverton came into the hands of the Stratford shopkeepers, and not less than £100 was spent in the Stratford publics on every Saturday night by the ‘station - men,’ as they were called. And not a few of the ‘station-men ‘ also, when they saw that the daughters of Stratford were fair, took them wives who fared much better than they were likely to have done but for these strangers. Still the talk of the townspeople was full of sad references to the good old coaching days.


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