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Rain does not stop play

A shaky tale of the rail

Helen-Frances Pilkington 19 September 2018

When the clock struck three, her eyes alighted on a bundle of papers. Here, in her hands, was the original poem...

Editor's note: We are pleased to present the tenth installment in our series, The League of Imaginary Cats. Read more about the Series in our accompanying editorial, and use the navigation links at the top right to catch up.

3 August

Flamsteed House

My dear Eliza,

We had a delightful evening meeting Commander and Mrs Denham. I hope you are feeling better today and the effects of your cold will not be of long duration. Anyway, I mean to cheer you up by regaling a little of the evening. I do hope we will see more of the Commander and his wife during their stay in London, even though the Observatory is some distance from the Royal Society. He wears his uniform well and, coupled with a high hair line, has a most distinguished air.

The Commander has done much hydrography we find, both here and abroad in France. You know the fondness of my husband for poesy, even verses on natural philosophic and technological topics. The kind Commander even assented to my dear Mr Airy’s request for a poem on his experiences measuring the vibrations emanating from railway locomotives as they thundered past at such speeds, and entertained us with it. The Commander promised Mr Airy a fair copy of his poem, which I hope you will enjoy, being a little in the style of Mr Keats, if Mr Keats had ever written on technological matters. When I am in possession of it, I will visit you directly and divert you with ‘O sweet Fancy let loose’ &c.

I am, my dear sister, your most sincerely affectionate and obliged

Richarda Airy


The researcher glanced up from her screen after reading this letter, which was to be auctioned in two days hence. A previously unknown letter revealing the existence of an unknown connection and an unknown poem. She knew much of the Denham archives, and had taken a post in the National Library of Australia Manuscript Collection to further her work. Perhaps a copy of this poem was to be found in one of the several boxes marked ‘Miscellaneous’?

The next day she strode into the archives as soon as they opened to begin her search. The first box contained several photographs, fading and yellow, of people she knew not. The second contained many documents highly pertinent to her grant-funded research. including many communications with London’s scientific luminaries. After being waylaid by several fascinating letter and papers, she remembered her original purpose and requested the next box of ‘Miscellaneous’. When the clock struck three, her eyes alighted on a bundle of papers. Here, in her hands, was the original poem. Sharpening her pencil, she began to transcribe.


Lines written after the railroad experimentation in Liverpool


Liverpool, O Liverpool that city

Maritime of commerce whose climes pity

Not the intrepid experimenter

Attempting their observations. Wetter

A place, I have not yet been despite

Channels surveyed. Permit me on my plight

To relate for you the nefarious

Foe of northern weather tempestuous.

Lodging at the King’s Arms in Water Street

A most urgent epistle did me greet

From Beaufort, requesting my horizon

Mercur should measure railroad vibration

And report back. O the rain of that evening!

The urgency requested. O how unfeeling

Were those liquid drops pattering our heads

As (Jackson and I) London Tavern-wards

Bent our steps around mail coaches stopped

The gleaming horses by grooms attended

And the latest news from town expected –

This was not to be. Aft, Ol’ Dick bellowed,

“Stephy’s Rocket goes puff, puff, puff,

Husky’s leg comes off, off, off,

Missus shouts ah! ah! ah!

And we all say tara ra ra!”

This tragic tale of woe and disaster,

Tugging the heart strings of each auditor

And impressing the daring of such an

Enterprise not seen since the way Apian,

Is five years old. Curbing our frustration

And choosing a table yonder, Jackson

And I raised our glasses to “Isabel”

Mourning that with us she did not dwell.

The day ahead we began to plan, map spread

Out, the locale for measuring. Noted

A view of the Spire of St George nearby

To the new built railroad for I to spy

Through my sextant. “Thatsh not an inshtrument!

Thatsh two horse shoes joined upon which I shat!”

Grasping the sextant, arms flailing about,

Our orator narrowly missed a clout

From the rafter as a skimming motion

He did commence but an observation

Was not made as, directing the sot to

Focus on the lantern, he toppled so.

And awakening him we were unable

So carted him off to a nearby stable.

“Come,” said I to Jackson, “We’d better head,

Before the night rowdies, and be abed.”


At the Wapping docks, there is a tunnel

Over two thousand yards long to funnel

Wagons laden from the port to Edge Hill

Joining with the passenger line to Rainhill

And onto (Milton’s dire land) Manchester.

Tobacco, wine, salt, cotton and timber,

The world has come to Liverpool unseen

Behind walls eighteen feet high. Merchants keen

Stride all around whilst dockers heave

And navvies toil, the trade expansive

From Docks: Old, George’s, King’s, Queen’s, Duke’s, Brunswick’s,

Salthouse, Clarence and Waterloo. A quick

Mention of our station and instruction

Gained our entrance to the locomotion.

Alas poor Jackson and I were foiled

By that spectre Mammon. Cargo loaded,

The weary dockers trundled their wood carts

To and fro and despite all our best arts,

The mercury horizon would not quiet

Into a serene expanse, still and set,

But would ripple and tremor with every

Rumble and clatter. Trying verily,

The measurement could never be found

Upon this heaving, shaking, moving ground.

Retracing our steps to the London Tav’n,

Refreshment (trencher and small beer) partak’n,

We set off past St George’s up Lord Street

Then Church Street and Paladian Ranleigh Street

Before climbing higher along Brownlow Hill

And aiming for the cutting of Edge Hill

Station, nestling below, qua pedestal

Supporting its arches classical

Demarcating one platform from t’other.

Into the hill, two tunnels burrowed are

The left from Wapping and the right Crown Street

Terminus from. A train did us greet,

Pulling into the station, belching white smoke,

And deafening, especially when with coke

Filled and whistling to depart. This meeting

Left me somewhat deafened, my ears ringing,

Senses consumed by the locomotive:

Its brutal power, its energy restive,

To trample people, time, and space. Minutes

Passed. The ground still trembled. Observations?

Small wonder that the Lords Admiralty

Were concern’d for t’reliability

Of the Royal Observatory

From the new extension of the railway

Past Greenwich to Dover. Retracing our

Steps, Jackson and I, perpendicular

To the tracks, walked. Despite the dwelling

Nature of the streets, no chance of settling

The mercury. Laden carts rumbled by.

Hailing the driver, we learnt the heavy

Load was for the new terminus

Building in Lime Street. Being desirous

Of assisting, the carter mentioned its

Fifty five feet wide shed, cast iron columns,

And its neoclassical screen façade,

Aiming to be Liverpool’s calling card.

No measurements today for Jackson

And I, so we departed to come

To the central King’s Arms for nourishment,

And sweet Fancy’s soothing dream comfort.


South to Parliament Street wound our steps

Wearily, hesitantly as morning creeps:

A new, Ionic porched, housing terrace

Where fields stood not long ago in this place.

Unpacking the horizon and sextant

We located a flat plane to await

The next goods train to emerge to the air

From Wapping tunnel. The mercury bare

Did not cease its trembling, though it would

Quieten, this was not to silence. Could

This be? Away from further building works

To raise successors to classical arts

Maritime, away from commerce, away

From all, and yet quiet, it would not stay.

Afar, the disturbance was heard to draw

Near, horses neighing, hooves pounding before

Our gaze rested upon His Lordship and

His huntsmen. Hailing us, Sefton, his land

Crossing, of our experimentation

Enquired. Learning that the commotion

He had creat’d prevented our progress,

Sefton made apologies then a guess

That the weather should turn later this day

So to our lodgings we returned to stay.


The drops patter gently on the window.

They have done so sadly all morning. So

With the sky showing no signs of lightning,

I took a sheet of paper and, sharpening

My pen, requested the pleasure of an

Interview with the Directors who ran

The railway. O Urania fair!

Influence Zeus! Grant us favour, not despair!


To Captain Denham, 

                                 The Directors would

Be honoured if Captain Denham should

Present himself at their offices on

Monday to discuss his proposition.

On Bold Street, there is the Lyceum Club

With an excellent library, and is a hub

For news. It’s one of the buildings charting

Liverpool’s enthusiasm being

In favour of Grecian architecture.

The reading room is beneath the glazed door

In a rotunda form. Passing along,

I picked Coleridge to read anon.

Dear Rain! I ne’er refus’d to say

You’re a good creature in your way.

Nay, I could write a book myself,

Would fit a parson’s lower shelf,

Shewing, how very good you are –

What then? sometimes it must be fair!

And if sometimes, why not to day?

Do go, dear Rain! do go away!

Coleridge, you have the measure of it

I thought, as I returned through mud and grit.


The bells started peeling in my slumber

Then in my waking. Sunday. Church. Under

The bed I located my polished boots

And smarter hat. With Jackson in cahoots,

We sauntered down the Strand for the sea air

To un fog the head before turning clear

Inland at the Old Dock to Hannover

Street, then the new Duke Street terraces – over

Pedimented – leading to Canning

Street’s Ashlar terraces before giving

Way to St Bride’s, a miniature paean

To the Acropolis (from etchings seen),

Its portico of six columns toped

By a pediment. Rev’d Stewart preached,

On Pentecost with great clarity.

I left cheered by God’s gift of Liberty.

In my perambulations back from church

From a group of urchins I had to lurch

To avoid them as they emerged from a hole

Betwixt houses in Duke Street. Like a mole,

I followed the subterranean track

To the inner court. There loomed a great stack –

Three stories high with steps to cellars – that

Housed a family per floor. On each side sat

Many young beggars. Filth lay all around

Due to poor sanitation. On the ground,

Rocked one child, back and forth, another moan’d,

Another, with piteous gaze, soft groan’d.

Squalor and deprivation ne’er had I

So beheld, not e’en aboard (verily)

A crowded ship. Five hundred square feet for

A whole family! Little wonder, the per

Capita in reports give Liverpool

Such a high count. He’s a man not a mule.

Slaver “ships” beached behind respectable

Dwellings in this city commercial.

I did what I could to relieve their needs

Before my sombre steps led me inn-wards.


After another rainy upward trudge

I arrived, sodden. Removing the sludge

From my boots, I dampened both chair and floor

Awaiting my interview. The white door

Opening, I was ushered in. Mr Moss

And Mr Booth thanked me for my timeliness

And expressed interest in my instructions.

On relating that came my directions

From Capt. Beaufort at the Admiralty,

My auditors listened attentively.

I explained my troubles to date namely,

The weather, and the bustle of life daily,

And so requested if the Directors

Would consider night time locomotives.

“Where’s the profit in that?” queried banker

Moss. “There is none,” replied Mr Sandar.

“But consider the favourable report

That Captain Denham would pen – that aught

To persuade us of the merit of complying,

And the profit from the transporting

Of Admiralty property from this

Expanding maritime city – Yes,

Captain Denham, to your proposal,

We agree. When do you wish to trial?”


The next day’s evening I was to be found

At Parkside, close to that fatal ground,

Awaiting the first train to pass along

And dearly hoping the rain would be gone

Before then. A bleak spot. Level terrain,

As far as the eye could see. Where’s the train?

Nowhere. Compass out. Pole Star. About there,

Behind the clouds. Never mind. Mercur

Dish on stone. Lie down aligned to Pole Star.

Wet. Where is the train? Detected from afar

By the Mercury ripples. Repack kit

And start walking again, searching a fit

Distance permitting our observations.

Jackson, with care recording our motions,

Halted our walk after several hundred

Paces as the next train was due. I sped

Into position, whipping out sextant

And mercury horizon. “O please grant

This,” I murmured, rocking side to side

As I skimmed with my sextant. My pride

At stake to locate Polaris. I held

The star in my sights. Slowly I lowered

It to the mercury. The mercury was

Sufficiently calm to reflect. Success.

I held the star to the horizon just

To be sure. The reflection stayed. “Forecast,

Is for more rain Capt,” said Jackson, helping

Me up. Nine four two feet by our pacing

Is the distance from the tracks. But how far

Until the mercury is unmov’d? Bar

More rain, we set off to ascertain this

Fact. At once we repacked not to miss

The opportunity for a second

Positive sighting. Jackson beckoned

Me, nothing the third train should arrive soon.

Resetting, by the light of the pale moon,

My instruments, I awaited the train.

Bright Polaris was in my sights again,

And lowered to the horizon mercur.

Still and silent was the night. Sure

Was my hold on Polaris reflected.

From his spy-glass, Jackson the train followed

As it traversed its tracks, passed under

Bridges and crossed the expanse. No tremor

Whatsoever disturbed the reflection.

One thousand, one hundred feet. Vibration

Bounded. Another success. Returning

To the inn, we soon commenc'd our sleeping.


The end of commerce heralded next our

Latest measurements in the environ

Of Wapping tunnel. How the strata would

Under our feet change my findings? Could

The geology muffle tremors

To prevent their detection? Jackson returns

With the information that we, ninety

Five feet above the tunnel, stand. Shortly,

The train passed through the tunnel as agreed.

The mercury did not move. Success. Led

On by our triumph, we hurried several

Streets back. Seventy feet vertical

Between us and the puffing train. Doffing

My hat to passing ladies awaiting,

We stood for the timetabl’d train. It announced

Itself as the still mercury rippled,

But I did not lose Polaris. “One more

Street back should circumscribe the limit for

Observations,” I said. A rain drop hit

The mercury. Circles of ripples flit

From the site of the impact to the glass

Edge. Its beauty transfixed Jackson. “Alas!

Come on! Let us remove the mercury

Under the porch of this house,” I quickly

Said, rearranging my stance to maintain

My sights on Polaris. As thought, wane

The ripples did not but rather heighten.

Sixty five feet vertical will flatten

Not the vibrations. It’s the upper limit.

Hastily storing all my equipment,

We dashed down the hill in the pouring rain

To the inn to recount the gain

To Scientia of our endeavours

Before the last post to London departs.

With the note despatched, tavern-wards I returned.

Aft, by the roaring fire, Ol’ Dick bellowed

“Stephy’s Rocket goes puff, puff, puff”


I wonder whether Miss Elizabeth was diverted by these lines. mused the researcher. Another question for another day, I think. With that thought, she removed her glasses, stood up, returned the material, switched off her desk light and departed.

What shall we choose? Preserving scientific accuracy or enhancing our infrastructure?

The railway from London Bridge to Greenwich was completed in 1835 and opened in 1836. The ultimate intention was to extend the railway along the river to Woolwich to reach Dover. However, in order to extend the railway, it had to pass close to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. 

The Royal Observatory undertook the positional astronomical observations essential for maintaining the accuracy of the navigational tables used on board the Empire’s ships, using liquid mercury as one of the mirrors in the reflective telescope on the mural circle. While it was possible to create sufficiently large solid mirrors for the mural circle telescope, they required such cleaning and polishing that the Observatory would not have been able to make all the observations it needed to – hence the mercury mirror. There were concerns that the rumbling of trains would vibrate the mercury, destroying its smooth reflective surface and thus preventing the crucial observations. Therefore, the critical questions were (i) how close could the trains pass, (ii) how heavy could they be and (iii) at what speed could they go before the work of the Royal Observatory would be impeded?

Henry Mangles Denham (1800–1887), son of Henry Denham of Sherborne, Dorsetshire, was a Commander in the Royal Navy with a strong interest in hydrography. In 1827, as a Lieutenant he surveyed the coast of France, and between 1828 and 1835 he surveyed the Bristol Channel, Liverpool port and Milford port, receiving a promotion to Commander as a result. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1839, and was knighted in 1866 for services to hydrography. In 1826, he married Isabelle, daughter of Reverend Joseph Cole of Carmarthen.

Sir Francis Beaufort (1774–1857) was the hydrographer of the Royal Navy and responsible for making charts of the seas of the world to enable the safe passage of British and foreign shipping. Beaufort presided over this task from 1829 until his death, when over 1,000 charts had been issued. Beaufort is primarily remembered for his Wind Scale, relating the actual wind speed to observable events.

Our story is based on two letters from the published correspondence on the extension of the Greenwich railway, which can be found in the House of Commons Papers, volume 38 (reproduced below). These are some of the earliest experiments undertaken in order to understand the effect of the vibrations from trains on the accuracy of scientific instruments.

No.4: From Captain Beaufort, R.N. to Commander Denham, R.N.

Admiralty, 22 June 1835


A question of considerable importance having come before the Board, and which has been referred to me for an opinion, I should feel exceedingly obliged if you would try a simple experiment for me, by which my opinions would be fortified.

The case is this: – The Greenwich Railway Company wanted to be allowed to carry their arches and railroad along the lower edge of Greenwich Park. This was at once refused by the Ranger, and indeed by Government, upon which the Company has submitted another proposition, viz., to go under the Park through a tunnel, and, consequently, to approach so much nearer to the Observatory, in order to have the perforation covered by the hill. In the nearest point, it will be within 600 feet of the instruments, and as the most valuable of all our observations with the two great vertical circles are made by reflection from quicksilver, it has been suggested that the rapid transit of a train of wagons at the tail of a steam-carriage would cause so much tremor in the mercury as to render the observations impracticable.

But it would be childish to be guided by opinions and suggestions, when the fact can be distinctly ascertained by means of the Liverpool and Manchester Railroad, and I, therefore, want you to take your artificial mercury horizon to that railroad, and watch the contact of a star or the sun in altitude with a telescope when the train is passing at two or three different distances, till you come to the outer limit of vibration, or, in other words, to the distance at which the mercury is no longer affected.

After you have tried this on the surface, I wish you would then try the same experiment in the neighbourhood of the tunnel, as I presume that the results will be very different; and as Government is waiting to give a positive answer till I report on this part of the subject, I am sure you will do me the favour of replying as soon as you conveniently can.

I am, &c.

F. Beaufort

Perhaps the alt of a spire of corner of a house, measured by telescope in the sextant, would do, if the sun or star be not favourable.

No. 5: From Commander Denham, R.N., to Captain Beaufort, R.N.

Liverpool, 2 July 1835

Dear Sir,

Having this evening completed a series of observations on the vibratory effects of the Liverpool and Manchester Railroad, according to your desire of the 22nd ult., I hasten to hand you, by the closing post, the result thereof.

I find the vibration of trains of 120 tons, at a speed of 25 miles per hour, affect the mercury as far as 942 feet laterally with the rails, on the same level, and on equal substratum; but the vibration perfectly ceases at 1110 feet; whilst directly over the tunnel, no vibration is detectable at 95 feet distance, though quite discernible at 65 feet vertical distance.

To account for the delay of my reply, I should observe, that although I found no difficulty (except weather) in ascertaining the effect contiguous to the open line of road, yet I could not profit by the usual routine of traffic intercourse, in reference to the tunnel, inasmuch that the stipulated houses completely so blended with the hours of carting-carriages and bustle, as to preclude any satisfactory result. I am, therefore, indebted to the co-operative accommodation of the Directors, who allowed trains of extra weight, and at extra speed, to pass down at night house, when the busy hum was completely suspended.

Trusting the foregoing may be acceptable to the object of enquiry, I beg to subscribe myself, Dear Sir, Your’s faithfully

H.M. Denham, Commander

It is proper to remark on the above, that Commander Denham’s experiments depended upon observations made with a sextant, and that the limits of tremors in the mercury would be far more extensive if viewed by the high magnifying powers used with the mural circle.

The Liverpool and Manchester Railway was opened in 1830. Costing around £820,000 (around £5m in today’s money), the opening ceremony was held on 15 September with many leading figures of the day in attendance, including the Prime Minister, Lord Wellington, and Liverpool’s MP, William Huskisson. At one point, the trains stopped at Parkside Station to take on more water and several passengers took the opportunity to alight and wander about on the tracks. One of those who alighted was Huskisson. Talking with Lord Wellington, Huskisson did not notice the approaching locomotive until it was too late – attempting to clamber into Wellington’s carriage, he swung on the outwards-opening door into the path of the train, which ran over his leg. While a new land speed record of 40 mph was set (on tracks only tested for 20 mph) in an attempt to get Huskisson medical attention, he died later that day from his injuries. Since then, we have had an uneasy relationship with railways: sometimes celebrating them, sometimes fearing them.

Sadly, Denham's experiments did not prove conclusive, with many more variations on them performed in the 1830s and 1840s – including consideration of the impact of geological differences – before the plans to extend the railway through Greenwich were shelved. The plans were not revived again until the 1870s, when the movement of a drain created sufficient insulation against the vibrations caused by a train in a tunnel to enable the railway to be built.

Further reading

Michael Freeman, Railways and the Victorian Imagination (Yale University Press, 1999)

Simon Garfield, The Last Journey of William Huskisson (Faber and Faber, 2002)

Christian Wolmar, Fire & Steam (Atlantic Books, 2007)