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The Mansfield &Pinxton Railway

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The Old Mansfield Society has published a book, by John Vanags, on the history of the Mansfield and Pinxton Railway, which opened in 1819 and used horse-power to pull its wagons. The major benefit of the line was the easy carrying of coal into the town at a time when it was not technically practical to work the deep coal seams under Mansfield. These extracts from John's book show that the welfare of the people of Mansfield was not necessarily the first thought in the railway promoters' minds:

Promoting the railway scheme, 1813-17

In a letter from Sir William Coke to John Coke, in 1813, it was stated that there was to be a delay for one year in promoting the scheme, and that this would be beneficial to them. The interests of the Cokes in their mines at this time were more important to them than the promotion of the railway. John Coke wished to extend the workings of his Pinxton Colliery by leasing the mineral rights under adjacent land, and "Any contract for the coal which adjoins the Pinxton Colliery would be made upon much better terms in the absence of so extensive a market as Mansfield is likely to afford." The same letter also reveals the fact that John Coke, who becomes the main figure in this railway, is in a poor financial situation and seems to remain so for a number of years. William Coke, before going to India, had promised to support John Coke with his mining interests. In a letter dated May 2, 1815, to D'Ewes Coke he states "I hope that from this month the Colliery will make a profit. I am glad to have been able to make an advance to relieve John for a time from the urgent calls of the Mansfield bank."

An earlier letter from William to D‘Ewes, March 3 1815, puts the hoped-for profit in a somewhat sobering perspective, and explains much of the Cokes' subsequent behaviour "The .... opening of fresh markets for our coal is now a serious consideration" ... "as long as our own colliery was the only one at the Pinxton end we could sell the quantity we always sold by water and land sale" ... "having a railroad to Mansfield ... or not was a question more for the consideration of the Mansfield people than ourselves. Yet the case becomes greatly altered when there is a probability of there being an insufficient demand for what is got. In the event (which I suggest to say is thought very improbable) of the scheme being at any time received, it becomes I think our manifest intent to support it."

The railway scheme was dusted off once more; with a revised route that went south of the River Erewash. D‘Ewes Coke did a great deal of work trying to recruit investors, but support does not seem to have been instantaneous. He tried in December 1816 to obtain a contribution from the Cromford Canal Company towards the expense of making the railway; the Company replied with a copy of their previous resolution of May 31 1809. Mansfield lawyer George Walkden, in a letter to Thomas Clarke, the Duke of Devonshire’s agent, asked him to try and get the Duke to support the scheme. In it he described the need for the railway to Mansfield. The growth of canal transportation had ruined Mansfield’s main industry of malting; it could no longer compete, and three quarters of its malt kilns had gone. A railway would enable the people of Mansfield and the surrounding area to get the same benefits of cheaper goods those towns close to canals and railways received. The area around Mansfield had an "incalculable quantity of stone" which "cannot be sufficiently disposed of for the way of a better mode of conveyance." The letter finished by asking for support and stated that the building of the line will help the local Parishes by providing work for the unemployed in "these heavy and oppressive times" and avoiding the need to raise a rate for aid.

There was another side to the picture though. In December 1816, the Duke of Portland received a petition from a number of colliery owners who held leases from him. Ben Chambers (Tibshelf), Pearson & Goodwin (Blackwell), Robert & Wm. Booth with Richard Haslam & Co. (Hucknall), Henry Wilson & Co. (Skegby), and Peter Webster (Dunsil). As their landlord they said that they thought it was his duty to protect them from the proposed railway. The loss of business would lead to them closing, thereby denying the Duke their rents. The workers would then be dependent on the Poor Rate, which would have to increase. Their market was almost entirely confined to Mansfield and its neighbourhood, and the Pinxton Colliery would be capable of supplying all the coal towards Mansfield. They mention that wherever the railway would cross the roads that they use, sale yards would be established which would lead to their complete exclusion from the market. Another point raised was that the turnpike roads "which have been made for and are entirely supported by the sale of our coals" would suffer. After seeking advice, however, the Duke decided that the proposed railway would not be so damaging as they claimed.

By early February 1817 the railway scheme had obtained enough subscribers to be able to ask, through adverts in the local newspapers, the Nottingham Journal and the Derby Mercury, for 5% of the amounts they had subscribed. The immediate need was to finance a new survey, again to be made by William Chrishop, and probably for payment to Josias Jessop who supplied the construction estimate. He calculated the cost at £22,800 and the line would be completed three years from the time of commencement. On April 1 1817, the official list of subscribers was put down on paper for presentation to Parliament. The capital which was obtainable amounted to £19,100.

The scheme was presented to Parliament that month as a Bill. John Coke and the Duke of Portland were confident that it would have a successful passage because it had done well in the Committee stages. However, there was some very strong opposition to the Bill. George Canning wrote to Sir William Coke, who was in Colombo, giving details of the opposition, and in another letter to Sir William, John Coke wrote that Mr. Howard Molyneux and Mr. Chambers of Tibshelf, both colliery owners, were doing their utmost to raise a party in Parliament to throw out the Bill. "Chambers and Molyneux say that the railroad will entirely destroy their collieries."

In the same letter John Coke says that if and when the Bill is passed, work should begin immediately due to the low price of metal and labour. He also mentions his poor finances, especially with having to pay off the bank and says "I shall find myself very much involved in difficulties unless you have taken steps for advancing your subscriptions." Communication between England and Colombo was very slow.

The opposition on the later stages was greater than expected and on May 6 John Coke received a letter from a Mr. Walker asking him to come to London. He called in on Mr. Molyneux on May 17 "... to announce a petition from Mansfield against the clauses he had obtained in the Railway Committee." In another letter to Sir William Coke, June 8 1817, John thanked him for the £1000 sent and said that it had relieved him of a great deal of anxiety. Referring to the railway Bill he wrote "I am sorry to say though that we are not come out of Parliament with flying colours. Mr. Molyneux and his Party having forced upon us a clause to prevent the tonnage of our coal to Mansfield being ever lower than 2s per ton which he did in order to make the price of our coal so high at Mansfield that he might still continue to sell his with profit, and he carried his point in Parliament to my great mortification in spite of the Duke of Portland and the Duke of Rutland whom D‘Ewes had interested to support us by his friends which he did earnestly. But they were both overcome by superior activity and industry on the part of Mr. Molyneux. . . . The effect of the clause above-mentioned must be to diminish the sale of our coal at Mansfield and I have on that account suffered great mortification from it being adopted."

©2000 John Vanags