Thursday 21 April 2022

All Change at Crewe!

The world’s first inter-city railway was the Liverpool and Manchester, which opened in 1830. More railways soon followed. The first to enter Cheshire was the Grand Junction between Birmingham and Liverpool, which included the station we know today as Crewe.

On June 30th 1837, Parliament passed an Act authorising a railway between Chester and this new station. Its story is told through items in our Archives and Local Studies collections.

The railway might not have gone to Crewe at all. A line from Chester to Winsford was considered that would have been the shortest to link with the growing rail network.

The ‘father of railways’, George Stephenson, was chosen to engineer the line. He knew that railway building was already a difficult and expensive business and that this route would require tunnels and climbs through Delamere Forest.

He soon picked a longer, flatter route across 20 ½ miles of the Cheshire countryside. It would go directly through the township of Monks Coppenhall and meet the Grand Junction Railway at Crewe Station.

The man tasked with building the line was Thomas Brassey. Born near Chester in 1805, he has been called the world’s foremost railway builder of the 19th century. By the time of his death in 1870 ‘Cheshire’s Brunel’ had built an impressive 1/3 of the railways in Britain, 1/20 of the railways worldwide, and numerous engineering works such as Runcorn Bridge and Chester Railway Station.

Work on the railway began with optimism, but heavy rains in Autumn 1839 slowed construction down. Costs also rose as landowners began to realise the value of their land to rail companies. The railway’s investors soon couldn’t commit the capital needed to complete the line and work came to a standstill. In October 1839 the Chester and Crewe directors voted to sell the unfinished railway.

Rescue came when the Grand Junction Company absorbed the line and in May 1840 construction resumed. Local newspapers were finally able to announce that the grand opening would take place and publish the first passenger timetables.

The railway opened on October 1st, 1840. It had an immediate impact on everyday life. Travelling between Chester and Monks Coppenhall by coach took 2 1/2 hours and cost 8 shillings, whereas the same journey by rail would now take just 1 hour and cost 4 shillings. Cheaper and quicker travel across Cheshire and to places like Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and eventually London was now accessible for the people of Cheshire. Passenger numbers grew quickly in the 1840s.

With the railway now a reality, Crewe was no longer just one of the stations on a single line and greater changes occurred that left an indelible mark on the history of Cheshire.

Early on, the Grand Junction Company saw Crewe station’s potential as a hub to link to Britain’s growing rail network. There was also the promise of linking with Ireland through an extension of the Chester and Crewe line to Holyhead. In 1840 they made plans to move their workshops and locomotive works from Edge Hill to Monks Coppenhall, just across the township boundary from Crewe station.

The company built 200 cottages ready for its workers and the rapidly developing settlement soon adopted the name of the station, marking the beginning of the town of Crewe as we know it today.

By 1842 Crewe station was the focus of 3 major railways. As more lines were opened it became a busy junction and in 1861 it was rebuilt to cope with the traffic. Over the last 185 years it has grown further and today has 12 platforms.

The Locomotive Works opened in 1843, marking the start of a great tradition of industry and engineering in Crewe. By 1848, it had over 1000 workers and built one locomotive per week. Production grew steadily in the 19th and 20th centuries and at its height the Works employed 20,000 people. The last locomotive ran off the line in 1991 and the site is now occupied by the Crewe Heritage Centre museum.

Today, passengers continue to use the Chester and Crewe railway to cross Cheshire and reach the rest of Great Britain and Ireland. The journey from Chester to Crewe takes around 20 minutes whilst Crewe to London takes around 2 ½ hours, something which would have been unthinkable in 1837.

Crewe is seeing major development and is currently bidding to become the home of Great British Railways (GBR), the new national rail operator from 2023. The railway station could also play an important role as a hub in the planned HS2 network.

185 years since it was first approved, the Chester to Crewe railway is still changing life for the people of Cheshire and connecting them with each other and the world beyond.

These railway records and more are available to view at Cheshire Record Office in Chester. Transcriptions of several Crewe Works and railway companies’ staff registers can also be found at our web site here for Crewe and here for four companies covering parts of Cheshire, Shropshire, Hereford and Wales.   

And look out for our next blog, which continues the story of railways with the Chester to Holyhead line and the 175th anniversary of one of Cheshire's most famous rail disasters. (This was published on 5th May 2022, read it here.

Thursday 7 April 2022

The Thomas Cross Affair: Hard Times in the Chester Leather Industry

On December 16th, 1871, leather-cutter Thomas Cross was brought before Chester’s magistrates on the charge of theft.

He had been seen taking some leather as he left the City Road-based factory of Collinson, Gilbert and Co, at the end of the shift. He was taken to the office of his supervisor, Mr Gee, where he was searched and four pairs of soles found on him. According to the local press, he apologised profusely and 'appeared to be in great trouble at being found out'. He had worked with the firm for some five years, and asked Gee not to turn him in.

His request was denied, and his home searched by the police. A further three pieces of leather were found, bringing up the total monetary worth of his theft to six shillings - about £20 in today’s money. Cross elected to be tried by the magistrates and was sentenced to two months imprisonment. His trial was covered by three local newspapers.

His wife, Sarah, and their three young children - Elizabeth, Arthur and Emily - spent Christmas without him. Given the timing of his crime, it’s not unreasonable to think he may have done it with the expenses of the festive season weighing on his mind.

That Cross was short of money is perhaps surprising. His job took skill. No two pieces of leather are the same - hand-cutting tough and inconsistent strips of material to get the highest number of uniform shoes with the least waste of material requires both strength and artisanal precision. You might expect this to be a well-paid role.

But Cross was working in the leather industry during some major changes in the trade. In the United States, new types of machinery were automating the process, and British companies were slow to adopt them. Often, they still relied on ‘putting out’ work - getting very low-paid workers to complete different tasks of cutting and assembling materials in their own homes.

William Collinson, Cross’ boss, wanted to modernise the trade in Chester. His City Road factory was built between 1864 and 1866 and employed over 250 workers who made use of new patented machinery and new ways of organising the work.

All work was done on site, with tasks segregated by gender. Women used sewing machines to assemble the tops of shoes while men worked on a steam-driven circular file which buffed imperfections out of the cuts of leather. The factory was able to turn out some 2-3000 pairs of boots every week.

An excited journalist wrote about the factory in the Chester Observer in May 1866, describing it as “one of the finest buildings to have recently sprung up in Chester.” He called it a “matter of pride” that Chester was now able to compete with towns such as Stafford and Northampton, long recognised as the centres of the shoe and boot trade.

However, despite the glowing write-up and adverts in the local press which proudly proclaimed the factory’s “new principle” of production, the factory was not as modern as it may have seemed. While the sewing and buffing had been mechanised, riveting (pinning the upper and lower parts of a shoe together) was still being done by hand.

Just one year after re-opening, the factory re-introduced ‘piece work’ (paying workers for the shoes they produced, not the hours they put in), provoking a strike amongst women mechanists at the factory. There were a few new machines, but old habits lingered on.

Making matters worse for the Cestrian trade, the shoe and boot producers of Leicester had developed automatic riveting machines in the 1850s, giving them a technological edge over the northern producers. Now American imports and the Midlands firms were both putting the pressure on.

Cross may have worked a skilled job, but he was working in an industry that was in decline locally as it failed to modernise machinery or working practices. Stagnating wages and job insecurity may have led a number of workers in the trade to turn to petty theft to boost their incomes.

Cross was certainly not the first to steal from the factory. In 1866, Jeremiah Evans, who manned the engine, had been caught attempting to flog a set of boots he had stolen from the premises. Cross’ trial was covered with the headline ‘CAUGHT AT LAST’, suggesting a wider spate of thefts.

Collinson’s adverts in the local press around the time of Cross’ arrest focused on end-of-year sales of excess and spoiled stock, hinting at some difficulties with the business. By 1875, he sold the factory to a rival firm (Alfred Bostock) based out of Stafford. They didn’t fare much better and sold the factory to a rope manufacturer by 1892. Today the site is occupied by The Old Harkers Arms, which seems to be doing better than its predecessors.

Despite a boom in shoemaking in the early 1800s, by the end of the century the industry was in terminal decline in the city. In 1911 the number of shoe workers employed locally was just a third of the number when Cross was arrested.

We don’t know why Cross and his family left Chester. The publicity around his theft, arrest, and trial may have caused them to leave out of shame or lack of work. However, by 1881, the censuses show that they were living in Birmingham, where the leather trade was more stable, and where he continued his craft.

Hopefully he and his family enjoyed much happier Christmases than that of 1871.

Some Further Reading:

Raphael Samuel, ‘Workshop of the World: Steam Power and Hand Technology in mid-Victorian Britain’, History Workshop (No 3), 1977

David Holmes, Development of the Boot and Shoe Industry in Leicester During the Nineteenth Century, Leicestershire Archaeol. and Hist. Soc., 83 (2009)

S. I. Mitchell, ‘Retailing In Eighteenth- And Early Nineteenth-Century Cheshire’, Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire (1981) pp.37-60 

A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 1, the City of Chester: General History and Topography, ed. C P Lewis and A T Thacker (London, 2003), British History Online