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A life-size Train Set for a Lord

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: May 21, 2014

By Ned Williams

  • The Alma, with its distinctive dome, which ran on the Earl's railway from 1856

  • The Agenoria at work around 1870. The little engine is still in one piece today, at the railway museum in York

  • The old Level Street crossing, where the Earl's railway approached Round Oak Steel Works

  • Author Ned Williams at the launch of his book, with a surprise visit from Isambard Kingdom Brunel

  • Transferring coal to a canal boat at Ashwood Basin in the 1920s

  • A slag bowl wagon crossing Level Street in 1959

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IN THE nineteenth century a sprawling railway network was built for the Earl of Dudley to link his collieries with the canal system and his own ironworks at Brierley Hill in the southern part of Staffordshire – an area which become known as the Black Country.

The railway is usually known as 'The Earl of Dudley's Railway' or sometimes, to cause confusion, it is called the Pensnett Railway. The existence of this railway may lead you to imagine an ermine-robed member of the aristocracy busily playing with his toy train-set, neatly laid out on the lawns of his estate, but really it's not quite like that.

Just prior to the birth of the Industrial Revolution, Britain was undergoing great changes in many areas of life. As important as the Industrial Revolution was, the great re-distribution of land in the eighteenth century engineered by the Enclosure Acts was equally significant. The acts relating to the parts of South Staffordshire that are relevant to this story not only awarded a great deal of land to the Ward family – the Earls of Dudley – but they also gave him all sorts of rights, particularly mineral rights and rights in matters of transport and infrastructure. Some members of the land-owning aristocracy took little interest in such things, but the Ward family embraced the Industrial Revolution and used the rights acquired through the Enclosure Acts to become entrepreneurial in this new world of steam, coal and iron, of turnpike roads, canals and railways.

Of course, the important thing is that they did not do all this with their own hands – it was undertaken on their behalf by 'agents'. The enterprises might carry his Lordship's name but the real vision, zeal and interest in the 'new technology' of the day had to come from his Lordships' subordinates.

In the case of the Earl of Dudley's Railway it is rather frustrating to think that his Lordship probably had little to do with it. This is a pity as it was quite a pioneering achievement when the first stretch of line was opened in 1829. The locomotive Agenoria hauled coal trucks full of 'passengers' from Pensnett to a canal basin a few miles away in a well-attended carnival-like event.

Surely the Earl of Dudley should have broken a bottle of champagne over the engine's lofty chimney? But he is conspicuous by his absence in the reports of the event. He didn't even own the engine! (The engine still exists today and can be found in the National Railway Museum in York.)

Another problem is that the Earl of Dudley is not one person. During the life of the railway, from 1829 to the 1980s, there were several men who took the title. Even the title has a complicated history in which the Earldom ceases and is later re-created! After the Second World War, the coal and iron industries were nationalised and thus the Earl of Dudley no longer owned such enterprises.

Despite all this remoteness from the ownership of his railway, the network did have a unique existence as a result of belonging to the Earls of Dudley. It was a 'private' railway in every sense. It was not built as a result of the normal legislation that governed the authorisation, construction and operation of Britain's public railway system. It could be argued that the railway existed without any legal status at all – so perhaps it was to be likened to someone's 'train set', laid out within the boundaries (more or less) of one's own estates. Perhaps today such a line could not exist!

The Earl of Dudley's Railway did cross public roads, occasionally traversed other peoples' property, and did have physical connections – 'junctions' – with the growing nineteenth century public railway system, but it did so seemingly only on the whim of his Lordship, or the wheeling and dealing of his agent. What a pity that we have no record of the Earl himself donning overalls and playing trains by leaping onto the footplate of one of the line's many engines and puffing off to inspect his canals or ironworks! However this forty mile long railway network did come close to seeming like being part of the Earl's personal property in two ways. Firstly in the names of the engines, and secondly in the way the railway became a passenger carrying railway once a year from 1928 until 1938 to convey empoyees at the Round Oak Steel Works, known to everyone as The Earl's, to the annual fetes held in the grounds of Himley Hall.

The locomotives on the Earl of Dudley's Railway generally carried names of members of the Ward family. Sometimes simply Winston, Jeremy or Billy, or sometimes something more titular like Lady Patricia or Lady Morvyth.

Did the engines and their namesakes ever come face to face? What we do know is that when the engines were scrapped in the 1960s no one suggested giving the nameplates to relevant members of the family. Other locomotives carried the names of royalty.

As made clear above, the fact that the railway ran along the side of the Earl of Dudley's estate at Himley Hall was possibly an annoying reminder to his Lordship of the proximity of his industrial enterprises, but for ten years it enjoyed the privilege of bringing his workforce to the estate to enjoy the annual fete, held in August. The railway had to borrow coaches from the Great Western Railway to provide such a service, and the passengers were not really provided with proper stations where they could board of leave the trains. Over bridges on the system provided very little clearance for passage of trains and it must have been a great fear that a fete-going passenger might be de-capitated even though temporary bars were bolted across the windows.

People who later provided reminiscences of these trains on the Earl of Dudley's Railway often describe how close they came to encounters with the members of the Ward family at these pre-war fetes, but never once do they mention a member of the Earl's family actually travelling with them on his railway.

How strange that the Earls of Dudley owned a life-size railway – something that many would envy – but never enjoyed 'playing trains'.

Ned Williams' book The Earl of Dudley's Railway is now in bookshops, including the Bugle shop in Cradley Heath.

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