‘No such pusillanimous spirit…’
To understand why a railway was being constructed across the difficult terrain of Bowness Moss, it’s necessary to go back to the 1850s.
On September 2nd 1857, John Brogden and his son Alexander celebrated the opening of the Ulverston & Lancaster Railway with a déjeuner, ‘served up in elegant style’ for numerous high-ranking guests at Furness Abbey. On the Thursday of the same week, the workmen who had been employed on the railway ‘were treated to an excellent and substantial dinner’ in Leighburn Park, also provided by Brogden, ‘their respected employer’. Having been ‘liberally regaled with ale’, the 550 or so men spent the afternoon ‘in foot racing, sack racing, and steeplechase.’ The scene is far too easily imagined.
Brogden senior was then 59 years old, and Alex was thirty-two [1825-1892], and Brogdens had been involved in the building of railway lines since 1838. In the late 1840s, the company had also diversified into iron ore mining in the Furness area: Furness was not connected with the mainline railways so the haematite had to be shipped out by sea, an inconvenient and expensive means of transport. It was from this basis – their expertise in setting up railway and mining companies – that Brogdens had decided to link Furness to the main line via a new railway, the U&LR.
Their engineer on the U&LR had been James Brunlees ([1816-1892] who, as the son of a gardener and land-steward’s assistant has an interesting back-story), and that railway had famously crossed, by means of two elegant viaducts, the wide estuaries of the Kent and the Leven that flowed into the unstable reaches of Morecambe Bay.
Meanwhile, the mining of haematite in West Cumberland was increasing year on year, the ore being sent to the smelting works in the south of Scotland either by ship, or by railway up to Carlisle and then via the westward dog-leg through Gretna to Lanarkshire.
It’s little wonder therefore that, just a few years later, the Brogdens and Brunlees discussed shortening that journey by building a new railway and a long viaduct that would cross the Solway Firth itself. They had the expertise – and they perhaps liked the idea of another big, showy project, that would not only showcase the grandeur of their vision, but would also bring in considerable revenue by capturing the market for the transport of ‘Cumberland ore’.
The Solway Junction Railway Act 1864
Following a period of considerable politicking and bluffing amongst the various railway companies that would be affected, the first Solway Junction Railway Act was passed by Parliament in 1864, enabling the SJR company to raise capital to build a railway linking the Caledonian Railway (CR) near Kirtlebridge in Scotland, to the Maryport and Carlisle Railway (M&CR) near Brayton in Cumberland, by crossing the Solway Firth.
By then, Alex Brogden had been appointed Director of the company, and he contracted James Brunlees, a tall, spare man almost ten years his senior, to be the engineer and to design the viaducts across the River Wampool and the Firth.
Their intention was that the SJR would be open for business within two years.
The Sod-cutting Ceremony, Tuesday 26th March, 1865
The ceremony took place in Annan, where a public holiday had been declared, ‘a great day for Annan, and Annan did its best to make it memorable.’ The procession, the crowds, the déjeuner and the multiple speeches, are recorded minutely – including the interjected ‘hear, hears’ and ‘laughter’ – in the Carlisle Journal for Friday March 31st 1865.
There were banners and decorated arches, and more than 500 people processed – carters, lorries with a blacked-up ‘King Cotton’ and a steam-operated loom; the police, the Rifle Volunteers, school-children, the clergy, ‘representatives of various trades’, the Freemasons lodges; there was a cart bearing a printing press from which programmes ‘were scattered in the streets’. An important component was the ‘silver spade and silver-mounted mahogany barrow for the work of the day, borne shoulder-height by four navvies in the smock frocks, red neck-cloths, and white nightcaps of the order.’ And then of course there were the MPs, the town clerks, and the Directors and shareholders of the SJR and other railways – clearly no-one was to be left out.
Eventually, Mr Ewart, the MP, was presented with the silver spade by Alex Brogden, and ‘he cut the first sod and raised it in the air on the spade amid the loud cheers of the assembled multitude.’
Mr Cunningham no doubt profited handsomely from his foresight:
Images courtesy of Cumbria Image Bank
A cannon was fired, prayers were offered, the procession re-formed – and in due course the dignitaries entered a decorated pavilion for their déjeuner à la forchette. Very many speeches accompanied the meal, but the company’s Director, Alex Brogden – who professed himself ‘too young to have achieved [this] position’ – reiterated the raison d’être for building the SJR:
‘We have started a railway which will bring into economical development the great mineral resources of Cumberland, and convey them by a shorter and more economical route to the destination where they have to be consumed. … There are 200,000 tons of ore to be carried from Cumberland to Scotland annually, which will be carried one shilling per ton cheaper than they are now carried …’
The project was started, the team was ready to go: designer and engineer-in-chief, James Brunlees; resident engineer Mr Alexander McKerrow; the main contractors Waring Bros. & William Eckersley, and Mr George Potter who ‘had charge of the works on their behalf’ (The Railway News, Feb 13th, 1869).