Cuffley Industrial Heritage Society

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The Ellesmere Canal


This ambitious scheme arose from a meeting of local landowners in 1791. Seeing the advantages to trade being derived from canals in England, they decided to link the Atlantic ports of Liverpool and Bristol by a series of waterways between Chester, Ruabon and Shrewsbury. With overwhelming public support, the Ellesmere Canal Company was set up and the eminent civil engineer William Jessop appointed Consulting Engineer.


Authorised by Act of Parliament in 1793,  Thomas Telford, then aged 36 and County Surveyor for Shropshire was “appointed Sole Agent, Architect and Engineer to the Canal” with Jessop retaining his consulting role.


The plan involved an ascent of more than 300ft up from the Cheshire plain, with one long tunnel and two aqueducts.  The canal was carried across the dramatic landscape of the Ceiriog and Dee valleys by the Chirk and Pontcysyllte viaducts, and through several tunnels including Chirk.


Routes to Ireland

With the Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland in 1800, created a demand by the politicians for improvements to the journey times to Ireland.  At the time, Porth Dinllaen on the Lleyn peninsula and Holyhead were both seen as potential ports for the Irish crossing.


W A Madocks (see below)  championed the former, and invested in the development of Tremadog and the embankments across Traeth Mawr which created Porthmadog,


But it was Holyhead which was chosen, and resulted in parliament commissioning Telford to improve the road from the Welsh borders to Holyhead, now mostly known as  the A5.


As railways replaced the stage coach, the Chester & Holyhead Railway became the third of our routes to Ireland.  Opened in 1850, it was built for speed, as emphasised in 1857 when the first ever water troughs were installed near Mochdre (3 miles east of Conwy).  Their purpose was to eliminate stops for water,  allowing steam locomotives to pick up water at speed by lowering a scoop into the trough several hundred metres long located between the rails.


One of its most important structures is the Britannia bridge over the Menai straights. The admiralty demanded a clear headroom of  100ft.  Robert Stephenson,  the railway’s engineer conceived a wrought-iron box-section tube through which the trains would travel.  Such a novel construction required validation, but fortunately the bridging of the Conwy provided  the opportunity.  Conwy bridge has two 400ft fabricated tubes which were floated into place.  Britannia was altogether more spectacular – the twin tubes consisting of two 230ft spans and two 460ft spans supported on three piers the central one being 221ft high. Sadly this magnificent structure was damaged by fire in 1970, which weakened the tubes. They were taken down and replaced by the double deck bridge we see today.

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2003 Page 2 of 7 Study tour case notes

William Alexander Madocks MP (1773 – 1828)

Madocks was the third son of an eminent and rich King’s Counsel,  in a family of North Wales landed gentry of several  hundred years standing. On his father’s death, William inherited little, the estates being entailed to his eldest brother, so it was assumed that he would follow a career in law.

However, Madocks possessed a desire to do something about the poverty in the area of North Wales and had aspirations to create industry and employment.  His achievements were the result of enthusiasm and hard work and despite frequent brushes with his creditors.

As well as the creation of Tré Madoc (now Tremadog) which he personally designed with all the elements of a model new town ….

he also built embankments to reclaim land around the estuary of the river Glaslyn, the first in about 1800. In the major construction of “The Cob” the embankment right across the estuary his purpose was to eliminate the difficult and risky crossing of Traeth Mawr. Prior to the cob, this was desolate marsh and tidal sandbanks.  It’s successful opening in 1811 was followed by disaster in 1812 when a storm tide created a breach of a 100 yards in it.  With help from the local populace it was rebuilt but took two years because of Madocks precarious finances.  In its creation, the force of the water through the narrow sluice gates  accidentally created the deep water harbour which became Portmadoc.

The Festiniog Railway

The vast mineral resources around Blaenau Ffestiniog were the inspiration for the railway, to improve the transportation of slates to the outside world. Previously this was achieved on the backs of mules, or on sleds or basic tramways down to the river Dwyryd. From there it was taken in small boats to Ynys Cyngar to be transhipped in to coastal vessels to be taken to the new industrial towns springing up and needing slates for all the housing for their workers.

In the early 1820s, the availability of the much better harbour at Porthmadog inspired Madocks and others including Lord Newborough (owner of Glynllifon) to consider a railway from the quarries to Porthmadog utilising the Cob.


This narrow gauge line (approximately 2ft between rails) was authorised by Act of Parliament in 1832, opened in 1836 and never formally closed.  As such it is the oldest extant railway company in the world.

The original route had one pair of inclines to carry it over a rise. This was soon replaced by a tunnel from which time the entire line down to the Cob was on a continuous down gradient, sufficient for the trains of wagons to run by gravity, controlled by brakesmen riding on top of the slate wagons.  These trains were hauled up empty by horses which were stabled in Boston Lodge. At Blaenau the horses transferred to a Horse Dandy at the rear of the train for the ride down.


Whilst it is less than 15 miles long including its branches around the quarries, yet it has many claims to fame. It introduced the first steam locomotives on a narrow gauge railway  in 1863 and we still have both of them  (Princess and Prince).  Prince is almost certainly the world’s oldest locomotive still working on its original railway.


When in 1869 the first double-engine Little Wonder was introduced to increase train capacity, engineers, diplomats and  dignitaries from all over the world beat a path to Portmadoc to learn about this new technology.


Following the success of Little Wonder an improved engine was ordered from Avonside Engine Company and delivered in 1872. In 1877, the company decided that a third double-engine was required, and that it should be built “in-house” at Boston Lodge, only the boilers being constructed externally, by Adamsons . This engine became Merrdin Emrys now the oldest articulated steam locomotive in existence.

2004 Study tour case notes

C I H S Study trip notes