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Waxell's 1802 description of the Surrey Iron Railway

Originally published in 1805 and newly translated from Russian by Alistair Pirie

Translator's Introduction

Lev Waxell's short paper in Russian describes the Surrey Iron Railway and the railway or tramway used for the modernisation of the London Docks, based on research during his visit to England in 1802. It was published in St Petersburg in 1805 (28 pages including dedications etc. and diagrams). The purpose of the paper was to promote the idea of horse-drawn railways in Russia. It was dedicated to Count Nikolai Petrovich Rumyantsev (then Russian Minister of Commerce). The British Library's copy is addressed in manuscript to Christian Ivanovich Trusson, who was a major-general of engineers in 1805, and had responsibilities for military supplies and transport, including canals. For 21st century railway historians, the paper may constitute a significant source about these very early railways in England.

The paper begins by discussing the advantages of railways over canals. Surrey manufacturers and traders along the line of the River Wandle had first thought of a canal from Croydon to Wandsworth to connect with the Thames, but had been persuaded by the advantages of a railway (powered by horses: there is no mention of steam or any other means of power). Railways were seen to be more practical, economical and efficient in relation to the terrain, use of land, cost, and speed of transportation. The railway would avoid the disruption to operations in winter when canals freeze over, and the disruption to water supplies (and water power for manufacturing) that would have been caused by the water requirements of a canal. Plans are mentioned to extend the railway to Portsmouth, allowing a 24 hour delivery time from London.

A technical description of the Surrey Iron railway follows. This explains how horses can pull five or six times the load they could manage with a road wagon provided the railway is kept as level as possible, and gives details of the costs of construction and diagrams of the rails. These were formed of one-yard long cast-iron plates, shaped with a flange on the inside to keep wagons on the track, and supported by stone blocks. The track was doubled to allow travel in both directions, with eight crossovers along the 7 mile length of the line. The diagrams show primitive points.

A final section discusses contemporary ideas for extension of the use of such railways for transport to and from London. This focuses on information obtained from a 'Mr. Vogon' about a railway used in the modernisation of the London Docks. This informant seems to have been William Vaughan, a leading promoter of the modernisation of the London Docks that was being carried out at the time. This railway had a 3ft 4in gauge, and its rails were mounted on wooden supports, which had been found to be adequate – stone blocks were not needed. Costs for the London Docks railway were much lower than for the Surrey Iron Railway, and the reasons are explained.

The author, Lev Savelyevich Waxell, was a grandson of Sven Waxell (1701-1762), a Swedish sailor who was second-in-command to the Dane Vitus Bering (1681-1741) on a Russian expedition to explore the northern Pacific and the Arctic in 1740-41. Sven Waxell assumed command when Bering died on Bering Island, close to the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska, named as a result of the expedition. Sven Waxell settled in Russia and wrote an important account of the expedition.

Lev Savelyevich Waxell (c. 1776-1816 or maybe 1836) was a colonel in the engineers and a corresponding member of the Russian Imperial Academy of Sciences. He also had archaeological interests: his other known published work was a description of ancient monuments discovered on the shores of the Black Sea. On his visit to London in 1802 he is said to have bought and taken back to Russia the inn-sign from the 'Tsar's Head', an inn then in Great Tower Street. The inn-sign was a portrait of Peter the Great, who frequented the inn during his visit to London to learn about ship-building in 1698, leading to its later name.

The paper has been translated from a photocopy obtained from the British Library, who have rights to copyright of the diagrams (reproduced here with permission).

Description of the iron road established in the County of Surrey in England in 1802 1

I. On the advantages of the iron railway 2

Iron railways are now much in use in England; experience shows that in some cases such railways are preferable to canals, and involve lower costs, both for their construction and for their maintenance. In places where it is not possible to construct canals, they provide a complete answer to these difficulties, and sometimes they are much more advantageous.

An example of this is the iron railway which was begun in the past year 1802 in the County of Surrey. This province of England has a large number of manufactories, factories, mills and works of various kinds, the operation of which requires continual carriage of heavy loads of coal, iron, lime, etc.: the proprietors of these concerns and participants in their trading, taking account of all the inefficiencies and costs entailed in the normal method of carriage of these loads needed for their manufactories, decided to undertake all possible steps to eliminate these inconveniences in order to achieve the easiest and most advantageous method of ensuring this transportation. Their first intention was to dig a canal leading from the Thames; but consideration of the local conditions and the characteristics of the terrain convinced them that the establishment of an iron railway would be much more advantageous and preferable to a canal for the following reasons. The County of Surrey is deficient in water courses from which the canal to be undertaken could draw its water. Only the River Wandle could have remedied these deficiencies: but on its banks a large number of important manufactories and water mills have been built, and the loss of water would put a stop to their activity and cause damage to this chief source of internal trade in the province. Construction of a reservoir (reservoir [in English]) was considered unsatisfactory because the soil is friable and allows rain water to flow through it, producing sources and springs which irrigate the country. In these circumstances, therefore, a reservoir which cut off the flow of rain water to those sources would be highly prejudicial to the fertility of this province. Even the River Wandle would be liable to dry up completely if it was deprived of the flows which fill it. There would be no alternative but to use steam engines to supply the canal with water from the Thames, but that would require great expenses and would not meet the economic requirements of the proprietors of manufactories situated in the County of Surrey.

Against this, what advantages did the construction of an iron railway offer? Besides the fact that the country would not be deprived of the water needed to irrigate the land, communication by such a road is much faster and more responsive: for experiments have shown that a third of the time can be saved compared with a canal or ordinary roads. The route of the railway can be set at will to link without difficulty to the numerous manufactories situated near to it. Its repair and maintenance does not require great costs. The area of land required for a 4-rail 3 railway amounts to 4 acres per English mile (about one and a half desyatines 4), but for a canal 9 or 10 acres (between 3 and 4 desyatines) are required per mile. On any canal bridges must be built a certain distance apart to permit communication between villages lying on the opposite sides, which is completely unnecessary with an iron railway. Finally it must be added that the freezing over of a canal in winter completely closes down transport activity; there are examples in England where iron railways are now being constructed to replace some canals to avoid this interruption in the delivery of freight.

Consideration of such important advantages made the whole community turn to a decision in favour of a railway. An appropriate sum was collected by subscriptions, and the railway now extends for 7 English miles from Wandsworth, a village lying close to the River Thames, to the town of Croydon. Its continuation to Portsmouth is being arranged, and it is estimated that it will be possible to transport any load on it from the Thames to that coastal town in 24 hours at any season of the year, which it would not be possible to achieve with any canal.

II. Description of the iron railway

The iron railway consists of four rails, along which wagons and carts run in both directions. 5 Since these rails are rather smooth, the movement of the wheels is attended by much less friction than on ordinary roads, from which it follows that transportation is effected with very great ease, and that, with this facilitation, a horse can pull an incomparably larger load than usual without exhausting its strength; trials show that on an iron railway one horse can pull as much as five or six horses; and that, without exhausting it in the slightest, the load it pulls can be from five to six English tons (*), i.e. from 320 to 384 puds 6. However it is necessary to ensure that the railway is always level, since all its advantages and all its benefits depend on the lack of friction from the ease of its level motion.

The rails which constitute the iron railway are made from cast iron plates 7, each being one arshin 8 long and about 2½ vershoks 9 wide. Figures 3 and 4 show them from both sides. But it should be mentioned that at crossing points with other tracks, much larger and thicker plates than usual are used.

The plates are joined together with cast iron nails and fixed to stones cut to a cube shape: (see Fig. 5); these stones provide the base for the railway; they have holes drilled in them so that wooden plugs 10 can be driven into them into which are hammered the cast iron nails joining the two plates.

At points on the iron railway junctions are made to factories situated close to it. In these cases a cast-iron switch-blade 11 a-b is used (see Fig. 6), which is secured at a, and can be turned to a-c when a loaded wagon or cart needs to be sent in that direction.

In addition, each English mile there are four cross-overs from one track 12 to the other. This is done with the intention of avoiding any slowing down or halting of freight transport when repairs are being made to one of the tracks.

The contractors who undertook the construction of the railway received about 4000 pounds sterling per mile, and undertook to maintain it for three years. (*) An English ton is equivalent to 64 puds.

III. ADDITIONAL COMMENTS to supplement the description of the Croydon iron railway, regarding the use and benefit of such [rail]ways for the works being carried on in the London Dock which is now being constructed, and with an indication of the costs of building such [rail]ways in England.

The importance, benefit and advantages to be gained from iron railways have now become so evident in England that they are now regarded as an essential requirement for the capital, where immense amounts of supplies of all kinds have to be brought in and all kinds of surplus goods have to be taken away. It is probable that in the course of time all the roads leading to London will be provided with this facilitating means of delivering and removing loads on carts and wagons, which are ceaselessly moving into and out of the city in a way that can hardly be credited. All trading cities are in this situation, and London all the more so, with its extremely extensive commercial connections with the interior of Great Britain. The London Dock now under construction, which surpasses the recently completed West India Dock in its splendour, magnificence and beauty, has experienced the greatest benefit from construction of these [rail]ways for the most convenient execution of the works. In this Dock between 1200 and 1500 workers are employed each day, and it can be definitively shown that the railways built there have taken the place of the same number of workers. Mr. Vaughan 13, one of the leading participants in the building of the London Dock, communicated to me the following information about the iron railways used for it.

These [rail]ways, just like the Croydon iron railway I have described, are made of cast iron plates or beams, each one English yard (yard [English]) long; the beams are laid as rails and fixed on wooden supports 14 made from the strong timber used for shipbuilding; it has been found that these wooden supports fully meet the requirement, and cost much less than the cut stone cubes used for supports on the Croydon iron railway; the distance from one rail to the other is 3 feet and 4 inches, and the weight of each beam is 44 pounds.

Including the cost of the plate[s], the nails, the wooden supports to link the plates and the wages of the workers, every yard of railway at the London Dock costs 16 shillings and 3 pence, which amounts to 1,430 pounds sterling for each mile*.

The cost for levelling and laying out of the site designated for the [rail]way varies greatly, since it depends on the unevenness of the surface soil; and since in more or less any case it is necessary either to remove or to fill in the soil, it is not possible to estimate them.

(*) An English mile has 1760 yards or English arshins

At the London Dock this part of the work cost from 4 to 9 pence per yard, amounting to from 29 pounds 6 shillings and 8 pence to 66 pounds 0 shillings and 0 pence per mile; assuming the average cost would apply to normal soil conditions, i.e. 6½ pence per yard, it comes out at 47 pounds 13 shillings and 4 pence per mile.

In the same way it should be noted that a great difference is bound to arise depending on whether there is a long or short distance from the place where the aggregate and sand for the bed for the railway can be obtained: also on the distance or nearness of the manufactories and factories where the cast iron plates are made, for the costs vary greatly depending on the convenience of delivery of the necessary materials.

But from the foregoing it is possible to conclude that, as shown in the table below, a two-rail 15 iron railway will cost 1500 pounds sterling per mile, and doubling that amount, a four-rail 16 iron railway will cost 3000 pounds sterling.


The price of 4000 pounds sterling per mile mentioned by me in the description of the Croydon railway differs from the price mentioned immediately above for the following reasons:

1.) the supports for fixing the plates on the Croydon railway are made of stone and cutting them required much unnecessary work and costs.

2). On the Croydon [rail]way besides crossings and junctions from the [main] track it was proposed to make eight crossovers from one track to the other per mile: for this plates of special size and form were used, which is why a much greater quantity of cast iron was used 17.

3). Even the ordinary plates were much thicker than those used in the London Dock.

4). The delivery of the materials cost much more, and finally.

5). The contractors undertook to repair and maintain the railway for three years.

Drawing accompanying the original document. © The British Library Board (1396.f.32 pg 25)

It is assumed that an iron railway can be built with labour costing 15 shillings and 3 pence per yard, and it will require about 20 pounds sterling per English ton (64 puds) weight of cast iron.

If and when an iron railway is dismantled it can pay back part of its costs from the sale of the cast iron at the relevant price.

Carts used for carrying different kinds of loads at the London Dock cost different amounts, but the ones that could carry 2½ tons weight (160 puds), or about one and a half thousand bricks, cost 12 pounds sterling each; and the ones that could carry one English cubic yard of soil cost 9 pounds 12 shillings and 0 pence.

IV. Explanation of the drawing

Fig. 1. Plan view of the [cast iron] railway showing the bases for the rails 18.

Fig. 2. Plan view of the railway when the bases for the rails have been covered up [filled in level with the ground].

Fig. 3. View of a cast iron rail section from above.

Fig. 4. View of it from below.

Fig. 5. View of joined cast iron rail sections.

Fig. 6. Plan view of switch 19 on the railway.

Note: The scale at the bottom right of the drawings is labelled 'scale of six English feet'.

Notes on the text

1. Original title: DESCRIPTION / of the iron road (Iron Rail Way [in English]) / established in the County of Surrey /[in] England in 1802, invented / for the most convenient and easy / carriage of various / loads and burdens, / with horses. / Prepared / by Collegiate Counsellor / and member of various learned societies / L. Vaxell. Original imprint: ST PETERSBURG / at the medical printing house / 1805. / With the permission of the St Petersburg / Censorship Committee. Original dedication: TO HIS HIGHNESS / COUNT / NIKOLAI PETROVICH / RUMYANTSEV, / [this work is] dedicated / with the deepest respect / and sincerity by / The Author / Lev Waxell. Manuscript dedication of this copy: To His Excellency / Christian / Ivanovich / Trusson [indecipherable formula of politeness] / From the Author

2. The expression used throughout the paper literally translates as 'cast iron road'. The language and style of this paper is archaic, and this is not the normal Russian for 'railway' – literally 'iron road', using a different, more generic word for 'iron'

3. Literally 'stripes', and not the normal Russian for 'rail' on a railway. In this text, 'stripe' sometimes seems to be used for 'rail' and sometimes for a two-rail track. Here it clearly refers to individual rails

4. Desyatine was an old Russian land measure, equivalent to 2.7 acres or 1.09 hectares

5. There is no reference in the body of the text to Figures 1 and 2. In these, a puzzling difference in gauge is apparent. This may be due simply to an inaccuracy in the drawings; otherwise it would have probably merited mentioning in the text

6. Old Russian measure of weight, equivalent to 16.38 kg

7. Literally 'beams'. The Russian word for a metal plate is used in Section III, alongside 'beam', apparently meaning the same thing

8. Old Russian measure, equivalent to 71 cm. At other points the text also uses this synonymously with an English yard

9. Old Russian measure, equivalent to about 4.4 cm

10. Literally 'nails'

11. Literally 'bolt', but it clearly refers to the switch-blade shown in Figure 6

12. Literally 'stripe', but here it seems to be referring to each pair of them

13. The Russian transliterates as Vogon, but this seems to have been William Vaughan (1752-1850), a leading promoter of modernisation of the London Docks. See for information on this subject. It includes a reference to a wooden railway but suggests that a proposed iron railway was never built

14. Not the Russian word for a railway sleeper, but presumably referring either to something like one or to a Brunel-style longitudinal support. The drawings do not seem to help on that point

15. i.e. single track

16. i.e. double track

17. There is an unexplained inconsistency between the eight crossovers a mile mentioned here and the four crossovers a mile mentioned in section II on page 4. Since the same Russian word is used, this seems to be an inconsistency on the author's part rather than any problem of translation

18. Not the modern Russian for railway rails. Literally 'bars'

19. Not the modern Russian for railway points, which has the same idea of sharpness as English. This uses the concept of turning, so 'switch' or 'turn-out'

© GLIAS, 2014