by John Morrison


85: Wheels of Industry

For a few days back in the 1830s, George Stephenson, the railway pioneer, made Milltown his headquarters. Having arrived, of necessity, in a stagecoach pulled by four lathered horses, he was as exhausted by the journey as the horses themselves. The experience of bouncing along badly-maintained turnpike roads had left him sore, bone-shaken and more convinced than ever that rail - not road - represented the future of travel.

As he sat in the Stoic - then Milltown's foremost coaching inn - he relived every bump and pothole of his trip from London to this Godforsaken outpost in the middle of nowhere. No-one had to tell George Stephenson, of all people, that twenty-seven hours in a rickety coach was about twenty-four hours too long to endure this particular journey, cooped up with people for whom personal hygiene seemed low down in their priorities. Nevertheless, once he'd drunk a few tankards of ale, thawed out in front of the fire and mopped up the last of the gravy from a bowl of mutton stew, his mood began to improve.

Poring over his maps and charts, he began to appreciate the difficulties of building a railway line through such hilly terrain. But George Stephenson had already proved, beyond all doubt, that he was not a man to let such problems defeat him. He relished the challenge. Even a simpleton would realise, from the most cursory glance at the map, that our valley was the missing link in the railway system around the North. You could ride the rails to within ten miles of Milltown, from east or west, but then you would - literally - hit the buffers, and have to transfer to a horse-drawn coach to make that last laboured climb across the Pennine hills.

Fifty years earlier, an army of navvies had dug a spur of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal across this inhospitable landscape, with sets of locks, stacked up like staircases, to counteract those steep gradients. So it was really no great surprise that the loudest voices to be raised in protest against the coming of the railway were the directors and trustees of the Milltown Canal & Navigation Company. Speed, they suggested, was of little importance, especially when carrying goods. They pointed out that an average journey time by barge of twenty hours from Milltown to Manchester seemed perfectly acceptable. 'Canal rage' (though they failed to point this out) was unknown.

Their complaints were in vain; George Stephenson knew that the railway's time had come. The local mill-owners knew it too, and representatives of the industrial towns in the vicinity were dispatched to meet the great engineer, and put forward water-tight arguments as to why the railway should come through their communities.

This is how a small deputation, comprising the great and the good of Milltown, came to sit down with George Stephenson in the back parlour at the Stoic. They didn't assemble here merely to gorge themselves on a splendid dinner and, it must be said, a rather fine madeira. They knew that the fortunes of this small South Pennine textile town depended largely on whether the railway tracks came through town... or kept their distance.

George Stephenson, an experienced trencherman, cheerfully accepted their hospitality, but kept them waiting until the sweet course before announcing that Milltown would indeed be served by its very own station on the Leeds-Manchester railway line. With the valley being so narrow - and other routes being impracticable - it could hardly be otherwise.

Another army of navvies was mustered to build the line. They were housed in a hastily-erected shanty town on the outskirts of Milltown. It was known as Dodge City, being thought of in the same breath as one of those lawless wild-west frontier towns, before anyone brave sufficiently brave (or foolish) could be persuaded to wear the marshal's star. The navvies had a reputation for being drunk and loutish, especially at the end of the week when that hard-earned cash was burning holes in their pockets. Indeed it was largely their raucous patronage of the Grievous Bodily Arms that brought the pub a reputation it still carries to this day. The navvies never went near the Stoic; that, after all, was where their bosses drank.

By the standards of polite society (the kind of people who were being persuaded to cover up their piano legs) the navvies may indeed have seemed an undisciplined rabble. Yet Dodge City boasted shops, schools, clinics and chapels, and the navvies laboured indefatigably with pick and shovel to create the viaducts, cuttings and tunnels needed to take the line across the Pennine watershed. For a few weeks - until Isambard Kingdom Brunel, no less, pulled his finger out - the line boasted the longest railway tunnel in the world.

Those who had made good livings from wool and cotton were eager to invest in the railway. Some of those share certificates - printed in florid copperplate script, with an impressively large red seal at the bottom - still turn up occasionally at Milltown fleamarkets. And if you wander into the Stoic today you will find a little brass plaque commemorating George Stephenson's stay here, and the fateful meeting that brought the railway to Milltown. Well, you would be able to see the plaque, except that it's currently hidden by a poster for an Easy Listening Kareoke Night.

It's still a thrill to arrive in Milltown on George Stephenson's railway line. The train rattles past a succession of unassuming little textile towns: places where people still point at aeroplanes. In the company of these communities, Milltown shines like a diamond in the rough, or a plain but good-hearted lass surrounded by trollops.

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