Back in 2017 I started researching a story for gaming, little realising that two years would quickly slip past until we have now reached the 175th Anniversary of the Battle of Saxby in mid to late November 1844.
Origin: Reading through a stack of railway magazines that have been given to me to pass on to my Railway modelling family, I found an interesting gaming scenario in Back Track magazine in an article “The Battles Of Saxby” by Tim Warner, Winter 1988, Back Track Vol 2, No.4
Not all landowners during the railway mania boom were too happy to have their land cut up by railways or too impressed by the compensation money offered.
The 6th Earl of Harborough at Stapleford Park was one of these who robustly defended his land using his estate workers against the trespassing surveyors of the Midland Railway Company and their team of navvies and prizefighters.
Pistols were allegedly drawn by surveyors, clubs and iron pointed staves carried and bare fists used. Artillery was even mentioned! The estate Fire Engine was deployed as a primitive water cannon and the railway company was threatened by letter that:
“We have barricaded the towing path and have in readiness a few cannons from Lord Harborough’s yacht. If you force us to use them, as a last resort, the blood will be upon your hands.”
What could have led to this armed brawling?
The Earl of Harborough and Disraeli’s fears would be seen at the time as not without founding, with the rise of Chartism and the spread of Revolutions across Europe in the late 1840s.
This is the bit with the primitive water cannon …
Fire engines, yacht cannons – you couldn’t make this scenarios up.
The Earl of Harborough continued to make life difficult for the surveyors and Midland Railway Company.
Disraeli’s novel Sybil version aside, the coming or blocking of the railway is a strong theme in Mrs Gaskell’s series of Cranford stories written in the early 1850s but set in the 1843/4 period of our Battle of Saxby.
Lady Ludlow refuse to sell any of her land at Hanbury Court or Hall to the railway company, preserving the estate for her profligate absent son, Septimus. He later sells the land anyway secretly to the company. The land agent Mr Edmund Carter is killed in an accident at the railway workings. This all featured in the recent BBC version of Cranford set in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cranford_(TV_series) and the Christmas special when the railway finally arrives in 1844 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Return_to_Cranford
The Earl took to civil disobedience rather than civil war …
Assaulting officials such as a customs officer or watchman was not out of character for the Naughty Earl who had several times in the 1820s and 1830s been in court or featured in newspapers and court cases. More on him in another blogpost.
The Cuckoo Tunnel collapse of fine trees (or their valuable timber) should be viewed with the fact that this was a Capability Brown designed landscape .
It is possible to scout using Google Earth and Street View some of the surviving terrain.
The Earl of Harbororugh had the ‘misfortune’ to have 6 daughters but no son to take the estate on and carry on the title.
Tim Warner has also written an article on other contested railway lines in his article https://www.le.ac.uk/lahs/downloads/WarnersmvolumeLXI-7.pdf
That was one article. other accounts of the ‘Battle of Saxby’ – other accounts bring out different aspects of the story and characters.
Stapleford Park website (now a hotel and country park) notes that around 1770, Lancelot “Capability” Brown was commissioned to turn the 16th century deer park into the idyllic landscape of today, so no wonder the 6th Earl was fond of the trees and views.
Syston And Peterborough Railway Wikipedia entry
Here is how the story is told on the Syston And Peterborough Railway Wikipedia entry, which explains some of the ; railway politics’ and financial pressures to get the line finished.
“However, because of the railway politics of the time, the Syston And Peterborough Railway was supported by George Hudson who was involved with the Midland Counties Railway which, was in the process of merging into the new Midland Railway.
The Midland Railway at that time was the main line from London to the North East of England, via Derby, Leeds and York. The Midland adopted the Syston And Peterborough Railway line ‑ along with the Nottingham to Lincoln Line ‑ as part of urgent moves to hinder the expansion of the Northern and Eastern Railway northwards from London to York (Hudson’s base) .
“The route was surveyed in 1844 and plans lodged with the various county offices on 30 November 1844 …” [According to Tim Warner’s article, the Battles of Saxby happened around the 12 to 14th November 1844, so this was cutting it fine.]
“The engineers for the line were George Stephenson and Charles Liddell. The surveyor was J.G. Binns
This is probably Jonathan ‘George’ Binns, Chief Surveyor Midland Railway 1816-66, known as George, who was from a Quaker family, so would normally have been a social reformer and opposed to violence as a means to an end.
Jonathan’s older brothers Charles and William from a Lancaster literary and farming family were also involved in railway surveying.
“Surveyors, the Quakers and Railways are topics which are closely linked, so that it is not perhaps so surprising that Charles came into contact with George Stephenson, the great railway engineer, and was engaged as his private secretary. Stephenson settled in Chesterfield (Tapton Hall) in 1838 intent on developing the mineral resources of the area. In 1837, together with his son Robert, Joshua Walmsley MP (Charles’s father-in-law), George Hudson (The Railway King) and others, he established George Stephenson & Co., and Charles Binns was appointed the General Manager, a post which he held until his retirement on ill-health grounds in 1884.
While Charles does not seem to have ‘practised’ as a Quaker, certainly his family connections with the Friends seem to have made him a ‘good’ employer, by Victorian standards, being especially keen to develop educational facilities for the Clay Cross area. The reverse of the coin was that in 1872 Charles announced that the assistance the Company gave to the employees and their families would be withdrawn should the men be so presumptuous as to found or join a trade union.”
The cost estimate was £7000,000, or £15,000 a mile. Even before the Act [of Parliament] was passed there were problems where the line approached the estate of the Earl of Harborough.”
The original Midland railway plan was to follow the course of the Wreake through Stapleford Park. The River Wreake is a tributary of the River Soar. Between Stapleford Park and Melton Mowbray, the river is known as the River Eye and becomes the Wreake below Melton Mowbray. The river was canalised in the late 18th century, though after the building of the Syston and Peterborough railway in the mid 19th Century, the canal was disused and fell into ruin.
“Not only did the Earl refuse to sell the land, he put up notices forbidding the surveyors entry to the Park.”
So the scene is set for a confrontation with the railway company:
“A group of surveyors, walking along the towpath of the Oakham Canal, were confronted by Lord Harborough’s men and ordered to return to where they had come from.
Since it was a public right of way, the surveyors refused, whereupon they were arrested and put in a cart, presumably to be taken before a magistrate. They were stopped by a policeman who pointed out that the surveyors were in the right, so they were simply tipped out into the road.”
“In what became known as the “Battle of Saxby”, the Midland Railway men returned with reinforcements, to meet a similarly enlarged force of estate workers. The railwaymen were chased away …”
The railwaymen “returned two days later, early in the morning, to find Harborough’s men waiting for them once more. The mayhem came to the attention of the authorities, who imprisoned some of the Midland men and fined some estate workers for damage to surveying equipment.”
“In spite of his Lordship’s opposition, however, the Syston and Peterborough Railway Act was passed on 30 June 1845. The law was now firmly on the Midland side, but Lord Harborough continued his opposition. Even though the Act included an amendment which would take the [railway] further away, there was another brawl which resulted in him driving his carriage full tilt into the railwaymen.”
This record is listed at the National Archives at Kew:
Midland Railway. Branches and Deviations from the Syston & Peterborough Railway: Robert Stephenson, Charles Liddell, engineers. J.G. Binns, surveyor. Deposited 30 Nov. 1845. Act 9 & 10 Vict. c. li. [including]
Northern Deviation from Melton Mowbray. In Melton Mowbray, Thorpe Arnold, Brentingby & Wyfordby, Saxby, Wymondham, Edmondthorpe (Leics.); Whissendine (Rutland).
“This amendment included a tunnel under the Cuckoo plantation, his Lordship’s favourite part of the park. Unfortunately it collapsed during construction, and most of the spinney fell into it. The Earl was furious and a further Act of Parliament in 1847 arranged for yet another deviation.”
How the story ended – after Lord or Earl of Harborough’s death
Lord Harborough’s Curve around Stapleford Park was a nuisance for the express trains.
“In 1880 when the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway built a branch from Bourne in Lincolnshire to Saxby, the opportunity was taken to reduce the curve with Saxby station being moved in the process.”
“Lord Harborough had died in the meantime [in 1859] and the estate had been bought by Lord Gretton of Burton upon Trent, who was more sympathetic to the railway. The Midland had, after all, made his fortune by taking his beer all over the country and, indeed, his son was later to build the Stapleford Miniature Railway within the park.”
“Although most of the branches are gone, or at least no longer support regular passenger services, the Syston and Peterborough Railway is still in daily use as part of the Birmingham to Peterborough Line.”
The Oakham Canal
Invested in by the 4th Earl of Harborough in the 1790s and skirting the edge of the Stapleford Estate, this was the towpath that gave access to the Earl’s land by the Midland Railway Surveyors. The Canal was not a financial success for the backers such as the Earls of Harborough.
“Railway companies arrived in the area in November 1844. When they were approached by the Midland Railway company about proposals for the Syston and Peterborough Railway, the shareholders recommended negotiation. A deal was struck, with the Midland Railway paying £26,000 and 200 fully paid up £40 shares for the canal.”
“In 1844, the canal had carried 31,182 tons of goods upwards, with around 72 per cent of it being coal, and grain and wool amounting to 4,120 tons had passed down the canal. The lack of a proper water supply had resulted in the canal being closed for nearly five months during the dry summer of 1844. The construction of the railway was authorised by Parliament and a second act to allow the canal to be sold and abandoned was obtained on 27 July 1846.”
“The railway from Syston to Melton Mowbray opened on 1 September 1846. It would be more than a year before the sale of the canal was finally completed, on 29 October 1847, but just six months after that, the line from Melton Mowbray to Oakham opened on 1 May 1848. The purchase price enabled a final distribution of £44.35 to be made on each of the original shares.”
The Melton Waterways Society has proposed a restoration of the Melton side of the project: https://meltonwaterways.org.uk/2017/08/02/map-melton-mowbray-navigation-oakham-canal-updated/
Stapleford Park Wikipedia entry
Further reasons for the Earl’s objections become clear – his financial interest in the canal network, rapidly being challenged by railways. It was a clash of cultures and between then rising and failing modern transport technologies.
“The 6th Earl objected to a proposal in 1844 to run the Syston and Peterborough Railway through Stapleford Park along the course of the River Eye. Its construction would threaten the struggling Oakham Canal, of which he was a shareholder.”
“The dispute led to a series of brawls and confrontations between the Earl’s men and canal employees on one side and the railway’s surveyors on the other with up to 300 involved in each skirmish.”
Up to 300 on each side gives an idea how large this skirmish was when it comes to gaming this scenario.
Syston and Peterborough Railway website
Excellent mapping of the area and annotated Google Earth pictures of the remains of Lord Harborough’s Curve can be seen on this useful website:
This excellent website gives a further interpretation of the story.
The ‘Battle Of Saxby’ from the Syston and Peterborough Railway website
“Stapleford Park is an estate lying four miles east of Melton Mowbray; in 1884 the owner was Lord Harborough. The Oakham canal, in which he was a major shareholder, skirted the estate to the north.”
“In October 1844 the Midland Railway announced the intention to build the Syston to Peterborough line, and Lord Harborough was approached as one of the major landowners on the route. He made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with the new line.”
The reason or pressure for invading his land by distraction and force becomes more obvious:
“The deadline for getting approval from Parliament was a tight one so the Midland Railway set about surveying the route without the agreement of his Lordship, and the surveying team soon came to blows with staff from the estate.”
“Things escalated to the extent that hired thugs were brought in by both sides, culminating in a mass brawl on November 16th  which the few local police could do little to prevent. The surveying chains ended up in the canal, and the railway side gave way. Court appearances continued into April 1845, from both sides, and the skirmishes entered local folklore as the ‘Battle of Saxby’.”
“In mid 1846 the Midland Railway decided to look for an alternative route; by this time the two outer sections of the line were open and the hold up was costing a great deal of money.”
The Canal Company in which Lord Harbourough had a financial interest was failing, especially due to a lack of water supply in dry weather, an ongoing problem that had shut the canal throughout half of 1844.
“They had originally intended to curve the line around the Park on the route of the canal, which the Midland Railway had bought for that purpose, but now they surveyed a shorter line to the south of Stapleford, which would tunnel under the Cuckoo Plantation to hide if from the big house. Work began on this diversion, but unfortunately the tunnel was very shallow and it collapsed, taking much of the plantation with it. All work stopped and there was stalemate again.”
this was the loss of the trees that so upset Lord Harborough, the landscape he wished to preserve.
“Desperate to get the line open, the Midland Railway accepted that they would never get the cooperation of Lord Harborough so they built their line in a tight curve well to the north of Stapleford Park on land not contested by His Lordship; he was paid £22,000 by the Midland to finally resolve the dispute.
Lord Harborough’s Curve
“It was far from ideal; the curve meant that speeds had to be kept low which became more of a problem as the years passed and expresses were more tightly timed. The station serving Saxby was built at the beginning of the curve, well away from the village but ironically very well placed for Stapleford Hall. Construction costs, on the other hand, were far less because there was now no tunnel to build, saving £35,000.”
“Not until 1892 was the situation fully resolved, by which time Lord Harborough was long in his grave; the curve was eased and a new line constructed very much on the alignment that had been planned in 1844, with a new junction station and a branch to meet the Midland & Great Northern Railway at Little Bytham. The main line was four tracked around the curve as far as Wymondham Junction.”
The old trackbed of Lord Harborough’s Curve can still clearly be seen, a relic of the days when landowners were all powerful and even George Hudson had to accept defeat.
The Midland Railway development was driven by George Hudson (1800 – 1871) was an English railway financier and politician who, because he controlled a significant part of the railway network in the 1840s, became known as “The Railway King” – a title conferred on him by Sydney Smith in 1844 (the year of the Battle of Saxby). After financial scandal in 1849, Hudson became bankrupt, lost his Sunderland seat as MP and was forced to live abroad to avoid arrest for debt.
Gaming the Battle of Saxby will be a future blog post
Curiously, Wymondham a few miles to the North-East of the Saxby Battle is the site of one of the last surviving 19th Century navvy houses.
Blog posted by Mark Man of TIN 24 November 2019 – 175 years on.