Friday, December 31, 2010

"Northampton's Loss, Wolverton's Gain" An early Urban Myth.

Wolverton as a railway town was an accident. I think I can safely say that. The original planned route from London to Birmingham would have taken the line closer to Buckingham and had this proceeded no line would have come close to the old village, but once the new route had been forced on Stephenson the course of the line took it through the Wolverton estate. If a station were to be erected there it would be with the intention of serving Stony Stratford and Newport Pagnell. Most of the towns on the new line were quite small. Leighton Buzzard, with a population of 3,500, and larger at the time than Watford, was by far the largest community. The only significant centres were Northampton and Coventry, and given Northampton's size and labour pool, it may have made sense to the directors to establish their service and maintenance depot at Northampton. Housing and a local work force would have been at hand.  In the end this did not happen and the route went to the east of the town and a station was established at Blisworth. 

Within a very short time the railways transformed the way people did business and Northampton, in a few years, found itself at a distinct commercial disadvantage. Four miles, which seemed insignificant in 1837, now represented a significant amount of time. In edition, the cost of cartage added to the cost of purchase and distribution.  In 1845, when the Blisworth to Peterborough line was opened, Northampton got its first station at Bridge Street. Really, the town had to wait until 1875, when a loop main line began just past Roade cutting to offer an uninterrupted journey from either London or Birmingham to Northampton.

In the meantime the London and Birmingham Railway directors settled on the greenfield site of Wolverton, at the mid-way point between London and Birmingham and with a useful road and canal link already in place, as the site for its new engine depot. It also meant that they had to face up to building new accommodation for the workers, and like good Victorian businessmen who believed that everything was possible, accepted the challenge.

Wolverton was born.

It was not long before a story was in circulation that Northampton had turned down the opportunity to host the railway in favour of protecting the coaching trade. Hugh Stowell Brown, who was in Wolverton in 1840, mentions this in his autobiography and a Times reporter, visiting Wolverton to cover the consecration of St George the Martyr, came across the story and recounted it in his article, May 29th 1844,

The circumstance under which the town was called into existence may be worth relating. When the Birmingham Company’s bill was first introduced to the notice of Parliament it was proposed to establish a central station at Northampton, a town which, from its own importance and its central position upon the contemplated line, appeared to be a most eligible position fot the Company’s works. The shortsightedness of the Northampton people, all at that time engaged or interested in coach traffic, prevented the perfecting of the arrangements. After a vast deal of opposition, attended with great expense to all parties, they succeeded in forcing the Company to abandon their project, and select another spot on which to carry on their works. As there was no other town of sufficient importance eligibly situate on the route, the managers wisely sought a counterbalance for the disadvantage. They saw that if they lost some facilities by placing their station remote from a town, they would gain by the increased steadiness and regularity of their workpeople. Accordingly, Wolverton, a healthy spot, many miles from any place of public resort, was selected as a site for a large station, and there, as we said before, the Company have founded a colony of engineers, which is rapidly flourishing while Northampton is going to decay.

This is a good story and quite plausible. Why would a main line railway bypass a town of the size and importance of Northampton? Why indeed?


The problem with this story is not its plausibility but that other than these two anecdotal accounts, which were being repeated a century later, there is not a shred of factual evidence to support this account. The kind of information you would expect to find, correspondence between the LBR Board and the burgesses of Northampton is not to be found; there is not a single board minute, not a survey, not a single enquiry regarding land purchase. There is, in summary, no official record anywhere that Northampton was considered for the route.


David Jenkinson, in his book The London and Birmingham Railway: A Railway of Consequence, makes this observation:
This town (Northampton) stands on the Nene and to reach it, Stephenson would have to descend a gradient steeper than 1:330, though in all conscience not too much steeper; even so, he ignored it, preferring instead to head through Blisworth on a near straight and level alignment and cross the Nene at Weedon, albeit at the cost of a huge cutting through soil and rock at Blisworth and a not insignificant embankment and viaduct at Weedon. (p. 16)
The probable facts are that Stephenson and his associates in this new enterprise were more concerned about linking London and Birmingham than they were about picking up trade en route. The course of the whole line scarcely touches significant centres and even where it does the stations are a mile or more away from small market towns, such as Harrow, Watford, Tring and Leighton Buzzard. Weedon may have been deliberately selected because of the important military establishment but apart from that the Company may not have given too much thought to having a station in important medieval towns such as St Albans and Northampton.

Most likely it was the astonishing and immediate success of the railway that led people to hanker after a rail line and railway station of their own and the immediate issue was addressed by branch lines to  Aylesbury, St Albans and later Northampton. In the mean time the nearby station, even up to four miles away, was regarded as "their" station. Reporters for the Northampton Herald in 1838 noted with some satisfaction that Blisworth, "their station" was to be a first class station. Similar sentiments were expressed by Newport Pagnell about Wolverton.

Thus we have an early example of what we now call an urban myth. A short time after the railway opening people may have felt some surprise that Northampton had been by-passed; someone may have suggested that it was opposition from Northampton commercial interests that led to this state of affairs an the story grew in the telling. Wolverton people may have felt some pride in getting one up over the larger town and may have been only too happy to relate the story to the Times reporter in 1844, who clearly took this at face value. The story was also told to me by my grandfather over 100 years later, so this version was truly embedded.

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