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Lords left a-leaping in efforts to block the railway pioneers
2:26pm Monday 16th June 2008 in Stockton & Darlington
Lord Darlington was desperate to stop the railway. So desperate, in fact, that he tried to break the bank.
He ordered all his tenants to save Backhouses’ banknotes and, in early 1819, had them all presented at the counter on Darlington’s High Row.
But the Backhouses were prepared: Jonathan had sped to London, raised the necessary gold, dashed back to Darlington and seen off his lordship’s dastardly plan.
The Earl was opposed to the railway simply because, somewhere near Ingleton in Teesdale, it ran through one of his precious fox coverts – man-made thickets where foxes could live until his lordship’s hounds drove them out.
In February 1819, Lord Darlington was offered concessions by the railwaymen, but he refused to countenance them. So the railwaymen decided to gang up on him in London.
Seven of the leading pioneers went to London to try to push the Bill that would allow them to build their line through Parliament. They were William Chaytor of Croft, Leonard Raisbeck of Stockton, Thomas Meynell and Benjamin Flounders of Yarm, and Edward Pease, Jonathan Backhouse and Francis Mewburn of Darlington. They divided into pairs and harried and harangued every MP and peer they could lay their hands on.
It was a tough job. Mewburn later remembered: “The difficulties, pain and anguish which I endured during my sojourn in London while soliciting the Bill can scarcely be imagined.”
Lord Darlington was so confident that victory was his that he stayed at home in Raby Castle and indulged himself in a spot of hunting.
His Lordship had the Lord Chancellor, Lord Eldon of Windleston Hall, on his side and he was probably then the most powerful person in the land. If Eldon took against something, it was inevitably lost.
But the first sign that the railwaymen were getting somewhere came when Eldon cracked.
He was caught by the House of Lords chaplain annotating the Bill during prayers. The chaplain was outraged, particularly because Eldon was regarded as the country’s “prop and mainstay of the Church and the Protestant religion”.
When the chaplain chastised the Lord Chancellor, Eldon exploded: “Damn it, you would do so too, if you were worked to death as I am!”
The second sign that the railwaymen were making progress came as the Bill approached its Second Reading on April 5.
Its opponents had determined that this was when it was going to be unceremoniously booted out, but they soon realised that the mathematics was going to be close. They sent a letter to Lord Darlington at Raby Castle demanding his immediate return.
His Lordship, naturally, was out hunting when the letter arrived.
A servant had to scurry around the estate to find him, and in a spluttering fury he had to call his hounds off a fine scent and dash to London – replicating the mad journey he had forced Jonathan Backhouse to undertake a few weeks earlier to save the bank.
Just like Backhouse’s dash, Darlington’s was successful. The first Stockton and Darlington Bill was defeated by 106 votes to 93.
But the majority of 13 was far from emphatic.
One member of the House of Lords gave Lord Darlington a piece of peerly advice: “Well, if the Quakers in these times, when nobody knows anything about railways, can raise up such a phalanx as they have on this occasion, I should recommend the country gentlemen to be vary wary of how they oppose them.”
Emboldened, the Darlington pioneers dismissed the old Stockton contingent’s conciliatory offer of a joint approach and again asked George Overton to survey another line – and this time avoid His Lordship’s fox covers! They bought off Lord Eldon – actually they bought three-and-a-quarter acres of the Windlestone estate from Lord Eldon at such a generous price that this lordship forgot his opposition – and Overton engineered a line which was nine miles shorter and spared the fox coverts.
This made the line very crooked, but as Edward Pease remarked later when someone complained about its crookedness: “Thee must remember that they were the crooked ones with whom the railway had to deal when it was in the making.”
Everyone was happy – except Colonel William Chaytor of Croft. Although his family had been involved in the project since its very beginning in 1767, and despite owning a colliery that was going to be connected, the colonel took exception to Overton’s new plans which dropped the Croft branchline.
He resigned from the committee in July 1819, muttering darkly: “I see no chance of success...when you have failed or given it up, I will then make an attempt.”
But Chaytor was a blip who barely registered on the railwaymen’s radar.
As 1819 turned into 1820, they confidently prepared for the final Parliamentary push.
Then, on January 29, 1820, they were stopped dead in their tracks. King George III died. He had reigned for 60 years – not all of them with his marbles in strictly the right places – but inconsiderately chose this year of all years to depart. And with him went the House of Commons. New king, new elections. There would be no Parliamentary action until 1821.
Once again, the railway was on hold.
• "Thee must remember that they were the crooked ones with whom the railway had to deal when it was in the making," said Edward Pease later in life. The "crooked ones" were the landowners who were not in favour of the railway and forced it to take a circuitous route around their fox coverts. Some landowners might have gone further: in this 1875 sketch by Theodore West, three surveyors are being seen off a field through which they wish to build a railway line by a big bull. The landowner at the gate, far right, wearing a top hat, looks as if he has come from a fox hunt and is presumably Lord Darlington