Liverpool & Manchester Railway

The Liverpool and Manchester Railway was the world’s first inter-city rail line, and the world’s first public railway to be operated entirely with steam locomotives. 

The Liverpool and Manchester Railway was the world’s first double-track, intercity railway, and the first to employ locomotive haulage in its entirety. The railway was the brainchild of William James, who received support from various prominent businessmen from both cities, allowing him to bring his vision to reality. The railway company was officially formed in May 1824, with various surveys being taken by prominent engineers such as the Stephensons and the Rennies. The Liverpool and Manchester proved to be an eminent success early its in life, as it carried hundreds of passengers daily between the two cities.


The early industrial revolution in Britain brought much change to the country’s landscape. With the genesis of new technology such as the stationary steam engine, the textile industry in Manchester increased dramatically. However, raw materials would be shipped from Liverpool to Manchester, and finished goods would be transported to Liverpool, a major port city, to be shipped. The only options for transport between these two cities were canals, which were overcrowded, slow, and expensive for shippers. The turnpike road between the two cities proved treacherous, slow, and overcrowded, especially during less than ideal weather conditions, as the road would turn to mud. Oftentimes, wagons would overturn, damaging the goods being transported.

A.B. Clayton/Public Domain

Many officials and merchants from both Liverpool and Manchester believed there could be a more effective mode of transport. Many turned towards the successful Stockton & Darlington Railway, which effectively became the world’s first commercial railway to utilize locomotives. With prominent engineers such as George Stephenson and Timothy Hackworth advancing steam locomotive technology, and vehemently promoting it across the country, the idea of a railway between the two cities gained feasibility.

The plan came to fruition when Liverpool merchant Joseph Sanders and owner of Manchester’s largest mill, John Kennedy began promoting the ideal of a railway between the two metropolises. These two men were soon joined by William James, a land surveyor who promoted the idea of railways, as he realized the success of both the colliery lines and the Stockton & Darlington Railway, and wanted to expand the idea onto a much larger scale. James had long imagined a railway between the Lancashire cities, and was pleased that his plans were coming to fruition. Thus, with much support from prominent merchants in both cities, the Liverpool & Manchester Railway Company was formed on 20 May 1824. Businessman and merchant, Henry Booth was appointed secretary, and later joined Stephenson in promoting the use of locomotive traction on the railway.

Hugh Llewelyn

Surveying the Route

Because George Stephenson had experience with the construction of railways, he was appointed chief engineer and was put in charge of surveying the line. However, the committee deemed Stephenson’s survey inaccurate, as Francis Giles, an engineer who worked for the Rennie’s, stated that Stephenson’s survey crossed Chat Moss, a peat bog in the town of Salford, that stretches 10.6 square miles. Stephenson suggested that the price to cross Chat Moss would be £40,000($49,926.60 USD), however, Giles believed that it would cost around £200,000($249,633 USD). Additionally, Stephenson’s survey crossed the boundaries of several land owners, who were against the construction of the railway.

Thus, John and George Rennie were appointed chief engineers, with engineer Charles Vignoles as the lead surveyor. The new survey avoided the opposing landowners, therefore, it received Royal Assent in 1826. However, Vignoles separated himself from the railway, prompting Stephenson’s return. Stephenson often clashed with the Rennies, and wanted full control of the construction. Unable to agree with the maladroit Stephenson, the Rennie’s retired from their positions, once again granting Stephenson the role of chief engineer, with Joseph Locke joining as his assistant.

Surveying the route proved treacherous, as wealthy landowners loathed the idea of a railway operating on their land. To deter the surveyors, the landowners hired thugs to attack the men. Because of the eminent danger, the surveys were performed at night, with other individuals serving as decoys. After three surveys, parliament approved the construction of the railway on 6 April 1826, with George Stephenson at the helm of the engineering operations. Stephenson, experienced with railway construction, would encounter various engineering obstacles throughout the way, including the crossing of a large bog in Salford called Chat Moss.

Henry Pyall/Public Domain

Manchester Opposition and Draining Chat Moss

With Stephenson back at the helm, and the survey approved, work on the line could now commence. However, much controversy stemmed from how the railway would enter the city of Manchester. In 1825, when Stephenson conducted his first survey, he planned to enter the most industrious area of the city, where various warehouses and businesses were located. However, many landowners feared the railway would lower property values, and vehemently made every effort to block the railway’s entry. Additionally, companies that had monopolies on water transport opposed the railway, as it would hinder their profits significantly. Nevertheless, after much negotiation, the properties owned by the opposing parties were purchased by the railway and utilized for station buildings and goods warehouses. However, opposition continued poignantly, spearheaded by the city of Manchester, as the local government was opposed to the operation of locomotives on their land, and a fine of £20 ($24.75 USD) would be issued every offense. Nevertheless, the location for Manchester station, Liverpool Road was decided and construction commenced.

Despite the opposition, progress continued. The first major obstacle faced by Stephenson was the crossing of Chat Moss bog. The bog had to be drained in order for railway construction to be feasible. Draining the bog was no easy task, as drainage ditches had to be dug beneath the bog. This task was undertaken by Robert Stanner, who was a major contractor for the railway. With the assistance of a few other contractors, the bog was soon drained enough that it was suitable to begin construction. It was imperative that Chat Moss was completed, as a temporary railway was laid to assist in transporting workers throughout the route. To stabilize the roadbed, various forms of trees, bushes, and other brush were stacked at the bottom. Once completed, the final cost of crossing the bog was £27,719 ($34,299.49 USD), much less than Francis Giles had predicted years earlier.

To test the strength of the elevated roadbed through Chat Moss, Stephenson’s Rainhill Trial winning “Rocket” was utilized to haul a lengthy train of passenger carriages and goods wagons. The locomotive hauled the train across the bog multiple times, averaging a speed of twenty-four miles per hour. Upon inspection, the roadbed did not sink or buckle under the train’s weight, therefore, assuring the workers that their efforts were not in vein. Furthermore, subsequent tests utilizing Rocket were conducted while hauling a train weighing forty-five tons at sixty miles per hour across Chat Moss, the heaviest to have crossed the bog so far during this time.

Rainhill Trials

With construction on the railway progressing rapidly, much controversy ensued over whether steam locomotive traction would be utilized on the line. Many argued that stationary steam engines, hauling carriages with cables would be sufficient, others preferred the antiquated power of horses. Stephenson vehemently advocated for the steam locomotive, and was eager to demonstrate its capabilities to the railway’s directors. To settle the dispute, the directors of the railway decided to have a trial that would showcase the capabilities of the locomotive, deciding on whether it is a feasible form of motive power for the railway.

The trials were to be held at Rainhill, as it encompassed a section of flat land between the two cities. The competition was to be held in October 1829, with three prominent individuals judging the affair. John Urpeth Rastrick, of Foster, Rastrick, and Company, a prominent locomotive builder from Stourbridge. Nicholas Wood, a familiar face to George Stephenson, as he was employed at the Killingworth colliery while Stephenson was constructing his earliest examples of steam traction. Lastly, John Kennedy of Manchester, who was a prominent figure in the Manchester textile industry.

The railway’s directors established a set of rules for the trials, which the engineers must of adhered to in order to win the competition. Maximum weight of the locomotive must be no greater than six tons, and its wheels must be sprung. A cost limit was determined, as the locomotive was to cost no more than £550 ($680.62 USD) to build. To win the competition, the locomotives had to meet these requirements in addition to reaching 10 mph.

Locomotives must be mounted on springs and weigh not more than six tons with water if carried on six wheels or not more than 4½ tons if carried on four wheels. They must consume their own smoke. A six-ton locomotive must show itself capable of drawing ‘day by day’ a gross load of twenty tons at ten miles an hour, a five-ton locomotive fifteen tons and so on in proportion to weight. Steam pressure was not to exceed 50lb per square inch, but the Company reserved the right to test the boiler up to 150lb hydraulic.

The competition was to have five competitors, George Stephenson’s son Robert, who entered “Rocket”, a revolutionary design that subsequent steam locomotives would emulate for over a century. Timothy Hackworth, who was employed as locomotive engineer at Shildon for Stephenson’s Stockton and Darlington Railway, entered his “Sans Pareil”. The locomotive was constructed at the Shildon shops, and was worked on after dark on many occasions due to his prior engagements to the railway. Ericsson and Bratihwaite entered their “Novelty”, which encompassed a small, lightweight design, and was a favorite amongst the crowd at the trials. Timothy Burstall entered his “Perseverance”, however, it experienced much ill luck, as it was damaged during transport when the road wagon carrying the locomotive overturned. The locomotive arrived at the trials days later, but did not perform sufficiently for the judges. Brandreth entered his Cycloped, which was not a steam locomotive, rather the locomotive was powered by a horse on a treadmill. Cycloped’s time at the trials ended when the horse fell through the wooden treadmill belt. In short, Rocket, Sans Pareil, and Novelty were the only serious competitors in the trials.

The first day of the trials on 6 October 1829 attracted over ten-thousand spectators. Novelty was a favorite amongst the crowd for its simplistic design and eloquent performance. Unfortunately however, a variety of boiler issues plagued the locomotive, and it was decided to remove it from the competition. It is believed that prior to the boiler issues, the Stephenson’s were concerned that it would win the trials.

Hackworth’s Sans Pareil entered the trials slightly overweight, however, the judges allowed Hackworth to demonstrate its capabilities. The locomotive performed sufficiently, however, a cracked cylinder ended its time at the trials. Additionally, the locomotives return flue boiler increased fuel consumption, as much of the coke was throw from the stack unburnt. The locomotive’s vertical cylinders hindered performance as well, as they hindered the locomotive’s performance at high speeds. Many supporters of Hackworth cried foul at this shortcoming, as the cracked cylinder was cast by the rival Stephensons. However, this is unlikely, as Hackworth had twenty cylinders cast and chose the ones he believed to be best suited for his locomotive.

Rocket was considered far superior to other competitor’s entries, as its 0-2-2 design, and even weight distribution powered its way to victory. The locomotive reached a top speed of twenty-five miles per hour while hauling 13 tons. It’s performance is readily attributed to its multi-flue boiler design and light weight, as fuel efficiency was considerably superior to the other locomotives. Rocket performed nearly flawless, and was deemed winner of the trials, the £500 reward, and the contract for constructing locomotives for the railway. Although Rocket won the trials, the railway purchased Sans Pareil for use on goods trains, as its vertical boiler proved insufficient for quicker passenger trains. After winning the trials, Robert Stephenson and Company produced eight examples of the type, before progressing to the new standard, the Planet type.

Manchester Terminus

Despite opposition from numerous parties, the Manchester station was to be named Liverpool Road. Station building was a task unbeknownst to many of the engineers, as Liverpool Road was one of the world’s first railway stations. Aside from the station building, the world’s first railway goods warehouse was built by David Bellhouse Jr., which was constructed similar to the railway’s rivals, the canal companies. Within a few months, the warehouse was complete and held a number of goods from food to clothing materials.

Liverpool Road was structured to have an entrance for the first class passengers, and a separate entrance for the second class. The first class waiting room encompassed grand decor, and a platform to enter the carriages with ease. However, the second class accommodations were far less glamorous, as the waiting room was rather drab, and passengers had to climb up into their respective carriages. In order to ride the railway, reservations were to be made twenty-four hours in advance of travel time. Liverpool Road was decommissioned for passenger service in 1844, when the line was connected to the new Manchester and Leeds Railway, however, it operated as a freight station until 1975. Today, the station is home to the Manchester Science and Industry Museum, and houses the original Rocket and Sans Pareil, along with a Novelty replica.

Opening the First Inter-city Railway

On 15 September 1830, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway was opened to the public. Stephenson’s locomotives, Rocket and sister locomotive, Northumbrian, were operational on the first day of service, of which eight trains were planned to operate. Among the attendees were the Duke of Wellington, the Prime Minister, and various other dignitaries from throughout the country. As the inaugural trains departed Liverpool for Manchester, massive crowds waved them off at Liverpool Road.

Apart from a minor derailment thirteen miles outside Liverpool, the railway’s first day of operation was smoothly progressing. Unfortunately, tragedy struck at Parkside, where the trains had stopped to refuel. While the locomotive refueled, the crew had asked the passengers to remain in their respective carriages, however, upon the arrival of the Duke of Wellington’s train, various dignitaries decided to alight, including MP for Liverpool, William Huskisson, who had gone to strike up a conversation with the Duke. However, on the neighboring set of metals, a train led by Rocket was approaching rapidly. Huskisson began to panic and grab the door of the Duke’s carriage, however, the door swung open and he fell onto the adjacent track, and was struck by Rocket causing fatal injuries to his leg. Northumbrian, which was hauling the Duke’s train, was detached and transported Huskisson to Eccles, where he sadly passed. This event is believed to be the world’s first railway fatality. The event caused the Duke to request the cancellation of the remainder of the day’s events, however, crowds of hundreds were reveling in Manchester, and they feared threats of violence if they had returned to Liverpool, thus, the two trains somberly made their way towards Liverpool Road.

Upon arrival, many of the revelers began encroaching the rail line, blocking entry into Liverpool Road. Drivers were given permission to proceed at walking pace, gently pushing the unruly crowd aside. Many protesters were present, throwing rocks and vegetation at the Duke, who refused to alight and requested to return to Liverpool. Only three locomotives were available, thus, the Duke and other patrons were hauled back to Manchester via a long rake of twenty-four carriages, dealing with protesters the entirety of the duration in Manchester. During the 19th century, the news media reveled in gruesome stories, thus, news of Huskisson’s death spread like wildfire. The early railway pioneers feared that this negative publicity would hinder their efforts, however, it only fueled the railway mania, as  the news helped the remainder of the country and the world realize that inexpensive railway transport was feasible.

Locomotives and Rolling Stock

The locomotive utilized on the railway were Stephenson’s Rocket and Plane type, both revolutionary machines in their heyday. The locomotives utilized many advances developed by Stephenson in his nearly twenty years of locomotive building. After claiming victory at the Rainhill Trials, Stephenson constructed eight more Rocket types, including the Northumbrian, which hauled the Duke’s train during the opening day festivities. Credit to Henry Booth is in order for the Rocket’s success, as he recommend to Robert Stephenson to utilize the multi-flue boiler. Additional locomotives types were utilized, including the 0-4-0, such as the Sans Pareil, the 2-2-2, and 0-4-2 types.

Rocket Technical

BuilderRobert Stephenson & Co
Date Built1829
Whyte Configuration0-2-2
Driver Diameter4ft 8 1/2 in
Trailing Bogey Diameter2 ft 6 in
Axle Load2.65 tons
Weight4.3 tons
Boiler Pressure50 lbf
Cylinder Size8 in x 17 in
Max Speed30 mph

The Planet type introduced after the Rocket was common on the railway, as this was the first locomotive to include the standardized buffer and chain coupling, a feature that all subsequent locomotives would emulate. The Planet was the first 2-2-0 locomotive, and the first locomotive to be mass produced, as eighteen of the type were produced by the Stephensons. The Planet was also the first locomotive to encompass completely horizontal cylinders, similar to Rocket’s after its modifications. The Planet type was utilized throughout Britain and Ireland, and was one of the first operable locomotives in the United States.

Original Rocket on display at the Science Museum, London
Hugh Llewelyn

Planet Technical

Date Built1830
Whyte Configuration2-2-0
Driver Diameter5 ft
Axle Load4,820 lbs
Weight4.32 tons
Boiler Diameter3 ft
Boiler Tube Plates6 ft 6 in
Cylinders/Size2, 11 inx16 in

The passenger carriages on the railway were designed by father and son, Thomas Clarke and Nathaniel Worsdell, from Liverpool. The frames and wheelbases of the first and second class cars were rather similar. The first class cars had a roof protecting the passengers from the elements. The roof also allowed luggage to be stored atop the carriage, creating a more spacious interior for the passengers. Seats in the first class carriage were upholstered, and included upscale decor throughout. The first class carriages were laid out in three separate cabin formations, separating passenger from one another. Although, the responses to the first class carriages did not all emit praise. According to Anthony Dawson’s book “The Liverpool and Manchester Railway”, many passengers considered the carriages “claustrophobic”. Additionally, lack of lighting meant for a journey in the darkness after nightfall, until 1834, when oil lamps were installed.

Second class carriages were much simpler, as they lacked shelter from the elements, and passengers stored their luggage underneath the seats. The interior was drab, with un-upholstered seats, and had small holes in the floorboards as a drainage system in the event of a rain shower. The second class carriages were very unpopular with customers, as they believed they were detrimental to their health and had been an attempt by the railway to force passengers to purchase a first class ticket. According to Dawson, many passengers referred to them as “pneumonia wagons”. These complaints encouraged the railway to later add a canopy over the second class carriages.

Whether passengers were first or second class, they were in for a rough ride, as they lacked buffing gear until 1833, which was initially only installed on first class carriages. After fitting the carriages with buffing gear, the quality of the journey vastly improved, as the carriages did not violently clash together.

L&MN Carriage Technical

BuilderThomas Clark, Nathaniel Worsdell
Height5 ft
Underframe16 ft
Carbody15 ft 6 in.
Wheels3 ft diameter
Wheelbase7 ft
Doors4 ft 6 in
Compartments (First Class)3. Dimensions: 6 x 5 ft
Storage (First Class)60 lbs
Buffing GearAdded in 1833. Screw couplings added 1836.

Railway Operation

The railway swiftly gained popularity, as more than 1,200 passengers traveled on the railway daily, a significant increase from the 250 daily passengers that were initially projected. First and Second class were the most common tiers of service available on the railway. First class patrons received upholstered seats and a roof to shield them from the elements, second class passengers lacked the upholstered seats, and the cars were open, however, a roof was added later. First class trains had priority over second class, as first class trains operated much quicker. For the wealthiest of passengers, the option of transporting their road carriage was available, utilizing their own dedicated flat wagon.

The railway’s performance was so stellar, that many stage coach operators lost their work. The price of riding the railway was significantly less than the stage coach, was much quicker, and was less treacherous, as stage coaches were prone to toppling over. Many passenger rode the railway for the pure speed that the train encompassed, as many have never traveled quicker than the pace of a horse. British actress Fanny Kemble, who frequently traveled the railway, explains how traveling on the railway made her feel as is she were flying:

When I closed my eyes, this sensation of flying was quite delightful, and strange beyond description; yet strange as it was, I had a perfect sense of security, and not the slightest fear.

Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester.


In addition to speed and efficiency, the L&MR was the first railway to introduce a form of signaling. In the case of the L&MR, signaling was provided by police, signaling with hand gestures, whether or not the line ahead was clear. Because of the increasing railway use, seven-hundred people were employed at the railway, ranging from the world’s most experienced railwaymen, to stagecoach employees who had lost their livelihoods due to the railway, and were desperate for work. The railway was expanding so rapidly, that Liverpool Road station no longer had the capacity to hold all the railway’s patrons, thus, farther east, Hunt’s Bank Station was built, which linked with the Manchester and Leeds Railway. Today Hunt’s Bank is called Manchester Victoria, and continues to serve Manchester daily.

Although passenger traffic was an element of the past at Liverpool Road, goods traffic was booming, as the industrial revolution was fueled by the railway. Seemingly endless shipments of various types of goods from throughout the world were being shipped on the railway, and were arriving in droves.

Lasting Legacy of the L&MR Railway

The Liverpool and Manchester Railway operated as singular entity for fifteen years, as in 1845, it was amalgamated into the London and Northwestern Railway (L&NWR). The original line remains in use today as a secondary railway between the two cities. Although the railway experienced a rather short lifespan operating on its own, it fueled railway mania in Britain and throughout the world. The railway exemplified the capabilities of rail travel, and that it was a feasible mode of transport. Due to the railway’s success, by 1846, over 9,500 miles of railway were planned to be constructed throughout the country. The influence of the L&MR fueled railway growth in North America, as construction on various rail lines in the United States and Canada commenced, which, in turn fueled the industrial revolution in North America and encouraged settlement in the west.

The L&MR revolutionized railway travel, as they pioneered advances such as buffer and coupling systems and standardized locomotive design and production, as Robert Stephenson and company produced Rocket and Planet types en masse. Because of these successes, and the subsequent expansion of the world’s railway network, goods were being produced and transported at rates never before seen.

Prior to the railway, people only traveled as quick as a horse would pull their carriage, however, the genesis of the rails introduced extraordinary speed and efficiency, allowing people to travel to their destinations within hours rather than days. Stephenson feverishly championed the steam locomotive, disregarding anyone discouraging his ideals. His perseverance shaped the modern world, as the railway constantly continues to evolve for future generations.

For further information about the legacy of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, historian Andrew Dawson has published a highly descriptive book regarding the construction and operations of the railway. Dawson’s book is available here (link to Amazon).

Science and Industry Museum, Manchester website.







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