A drive in a steam engine, 1830
Is this the first ever account from a steam railway passenger?
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The motion is imperceptible, and the feeling of moving so quickly most exhilarating…
The rabbit holes of research bring me this week to the journal of Anne Chalmers. Not a great deal is known of her life, and historically speaking she stands in the shadow of her father, Thomas Chalmers (1780–1847), a major figure in the Church of Scotland; aside from being a member of the clergy, he was an economist and vice-president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Port Chalmers in New Zealand is named after him. But this isn’t his story.
Anne Simson Chalmers (1813–91) was the eldest of Thomas’s six daughters and was born at Kilmany in Fife, Scotland, although they moved to Glasgow, St Andrews and then Edinburgh while she was still a child. In 1836 she married William Hanna, another minister, author of several theological works and later Thomas’s biographer. The two ministers were later part of the ‘Disruption’ of 1843 which led to them being part of the breakaway, more evangelical Free Church of Scotland.
Anne’s daughter Matilda edited a selection of her letters1 (including an autobiographical note by Anne herself) and the journal we’ll dip into here.2 Matilda recalled her mother always referring to her spouse as ‘Mr Hanna’ on the grounds that “she didn’t know him well enough to call him by his Christian name”. Anne’s journal covers a trip which she took in 1830 (when she was still a teenager): “On Saturday 1st of May, Papa, Mamma, and I embarked in that celebrated steamship the United Kingdom for London…” They travelled to various cities and regions of England, returning home on 10th July. She recounts meeting luminaries such as the poet Coleridge (“I can give no idea of the beauty and sublimity of his conversation. It resembles the loveliness of a song”) and the elderly abolitionist William Wilberforce, and describes a trip to Regent’s Park Zoo, all in a lively and engaging manner. She also gives an account of a very early trip on a steam train which I think has been overlooked – in fact, I believe it might be the world’s earliest ever description of a steam train journey by a passenger.
Let’s first set the scene with some snippets of her visits to the industrial Midlands and North of England…
Monday, 21st June. We left Birmingham at eight o’clock. Mrs. Patrick Chalmers and I being the sole occupiers of the inside, and Papa, Mamma, and John occupied the top, and Mr. MacDonald accompanied them the first stage, as far as Lichfield, where we were allowed twenty minutes to see the Cathedral. We walked quickly through the aisle among the lofty pillars that had stood for ages in solemn grandeur, and had only time to see the chapter-house hastily, and I observed Lady Mary Wortley Montague’s monument as we were leaving, and would have called the attention of the others to it, but just then the horn blew and off we flew, each with their cloaks flying in the wind, and Papa with his greatcoat, like the picture of Christian or Hopeful climbing the hill Difficulty. So we crossed the green, and ran down the street till we reached the coach, and skipping in, away it drove. Then we passed through Abbot’s Bromley, then Uttoxeter and Cheadle, where we took in a little passenger, then Leek, where the passengers appropriately dined, and where we set out the little passenger, but took in a woman. We were joined by an inquisitive man at Macclesfield, to whom Mrs. Patrick Chalmers was very communicative, and told him where she lived and where we had been, and that Papa’s and Mamma’s watches had stopped, and many other particulars, and he began to question me, but I did not give him so much information. We passed through Stockport, the most disagreeable smoky town I ever saw, built of red brick. There are houses all the way from Stockport to Manchester, so that they almost appear the same town. Manchester is a most horrible town, built of smoky-looking red bricks. Its atmosphere consists principally of the black smoke that issues forth in dense clouds from thickly-scattered tall red chimneys…
Tuesday, 22nd June. After breakfast, Miss Barbour, Mrs. P. Chalmers, Mamma, and I, accompanied by Mr. Allen, set out to see some manufactories.
We first visited the tape-making, and were shown some machines going up and down and round and round, which set in motion all the machinery in about twelve rooms, and was the cause of as much noise as might have deafened a mole. Then we saw some pirns [bobbins] dancing the lancers, which produced braid. Then we visited reed-making and the iron foundry, and returned to have some lunch. Then we went out with the intention of driving round the town, but had only time to see the printing of cotton, which is somewhat like printing floorcloths…
[And now we come to the ‘railroad’. The world’s first public steam railway was the Stockton and Darlington Railway, which opened in 1825 to serve the coalmining industry; and early lines open to passengers included the Canterbury and Whitstable (opened May 1830 – but not fully locomotive powered). Hot on their heels was the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (the L&M), which officially opened on 15th September 1830. George Stephenson’s legendary Rocket locomotive had won a contest (the Rainhill Trials) in 1829, and he and his son Robert developed the rolling stock for the L&M. A test run is known to have run from Liverpool to Salford on 14th June 1830,3 carrying two passenger carriages and seven coal wagons, less than two weeks before Anne describes her own encounter with the new age of steam.]
Wednesday, 23rd June. I left Mr. Barbour’s with Papa in the coach for Liverpool; our companions were two ladies, one of whom was a great chatterbox, and would not allow Papa to read. We were met at the Old Swan by Messrs. Chs. and Patck. Parker and Mr. Wilson, who took us to Aigburth in two phaetons; Papa and Chs. in one and us in the other. We stopped to look at the railroad and saw one of the engines move…
Friday, 25th June. Ann and I having been with difficulty rescued from the dominion of Morphy, breakfasted at eleven o'clock, and then set off in a carriage with Mr. Hoffender, Papa, and Mary Rose, although it was pouring of rain, to have a drive in a steam engine. Mr. Charles and Pat rode in the phaeton. Upon arriving at the destined spot we climbed a steep bank to await its arrival, but after standing in the rain for some time we were told it had passed an hour before, so we returned the way we came; but before we had gone far we passed the railroad and saw the steam engine in propria persona. There had been some mistake about it which I did not take the trouble to comprehend, but we got into the waggon and rode five miles in it in ten minutes, sometimes faster and sometimes slower, and once at the rate of thirty-four miles an hour. The motion is imperceptible, and the feeling of moving so quickly most exhilarating; we wrote each a sentence while we were at full speed, and would have done so with perfect ease had not the rain, which was very heavy, blotted the writing. Afterwards we went to the entrance of the tunnel and met there Mr. De Cappleton and Mr. Scoresby.4 We here entered a waggon, and being pushed off, the motion accelerated, and we passed through the tunnel one mile and a quarter in four minutes. It was very cold at first. After leaving the tunnel, Pat, M. Rose, Ann, and I were sent off in a post-chaise—I mean in a crab (a machine which moves sideways)—to Aigburth…
[On Saturday the Chalmers party left for Manchester again, and soon other events provided new distractions – such as the death of George IV…]
Sunday, 27th June. On going to the breakfast-room, the first thing I saw was a newspaper surrounded and intercolumniated with black. My worst fears were confirmed by Papa telling me that the King was dead! … Some regret him on political grounds, others because they must buy new black gowns, but few really feel for him.
I’m no railway buff, and welcome others correcting me, but I can’t find any reference to Anne’s trip in accounts of the L&M. Another passenger’s account is widely quoted – that of the actress Fanny Kemble, who gave a fantastically vivid report of her trip in a letter:5 “You can’t imagine how strange it seemed to be journeying on thus, without any visible cause of progress other than the magical machine, with its flying white breath and rhythmical, unvarying pace, between these rocky walls…” But that letter was written on 26th August, a full two months after Anne’s account.
The official opening of the railway, on 15th September, has gone down in history, not least because of the unfortunate death of the MP William Huskisson, who fell under a train while trying to talk to the Duke of Wellington. But for some charming first impressions of this world-changing new form of transport, we must turn to 17-year-old Anne Chalmers.
To her friend Anne Parker, written 1826–7.
William Scoresby Junior was the pastor of the Floating Church for seamen in Liverpool, and had been one of the passengers on the trial run of 14th June. He had originally been opposed to railways.