The thread about the “Edinburgh & Leith Atmospheric War;” when rival concerns fought tooth and nail at the height of “Railway Mania,” for the right to build an improbable, vacuum-powered railway from Edinburgh to Leith

An initial version of this thread was written in December 2020. It has been substantially updated and expanded since then, you can see the original here.

In 1844, Britain was in the grip of a stock market bubble called the “railway mania”. Rival companies vied to build lines here, there and everywhere, and attracted ever increasing financial speculation. In Edinburgh, three principal schemes were converging at a central locus that would later become known as Waverley Station; the Edinburgh & Glasgow – running between those two cities – the Edinburgh, Leith & Granton – running north to a ferry terminal at Granton through the Scotland Street tunnel, with a branch to Leith – and the North British Railway – entering the city from the east and Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Railway mania reaches Edinburgh; the E&G in green, the EL&G in Yellow and the NBR in brown.
Railway mania reaches Edinburgh; the E&G in green, the EL&G in Yellow and the NBR in brown. Overlaid on an OS 6-inch map of the period.

These railways favoured orthodox steam locomotives to provide their motive power, with occasional assistance by rope haulage for steep gradients,e.g. the Scotland Street Tunnel. However there was an exciting new technology which promised cleaner, faster and more economical railways that would be cheaper to build; the “Atmospheric Railway”.

This name does not come from them having a particularly romantic ambience, it is because they are propelled – in theory – by atmospheric pressure. In principal the scheme was simple; a slotted tube was laid between the railway tracks and every few miles there was a pumping house which exhausted the air from the pipe, creating a vacuum. A piston in the pipe was pushed along by the atmospheric pressure behind it; if you attached a train to that then you could propel it too. The trick to get it working was how to connect the train and the piston without breaking the vacuum. This required a longitudinal valve (in practice, long leather flaps) to seal the tube; a trick that nobody ever managed to pull off reliably.

The atmospheric railway system was patented in 1839 by Samuel Clegg and the Samuda brothers. They set up a demonstration of the system at Wormwood Scrubs in West London. This impressed the directors of the Dublin & Kingstown Railway in Ireland who felt it would be suitable for an extension of their line from Kingstown to Dalkey. This was a 1 3/4 mile branch and began operation on 19th August 1843. It persisted for a full 9 years until a small locomotive was brought in to do the same work. The Dalkey scheme attracted the attention of the London & Croydon Railway, who in 1844 built a short 1 1/4 mile atmospheric expansion of their mainline from London Bridge station to Bricklayers Arms. This was to try and reduce congestion on a steep section of the line with a number of stops and starts. The whole thing though was a “sad fiasco” which consumed a huge amount of capital and was terminated in 1847.

Contemporary illustration of the Saint-Germain atmospheric railway in France. Note the vacuum tube between the rails and the slot in its top, sealed (in theory) by the leather flap valves
"Croydon Atmospheric Road", from the Illustrated London News, October 11th 1845
“Croydon Atmospheric Road”, from the Illustrated London News, October 11th 1845

These were small schemes and most sensible railway engineers steered well clear of the obvious complexities of the system for larger scale application, but the great Isambard Kingdom Brunel was an exception. He was captivated by the promise of this modern and unconventional technology and proposed it for the 51 mile South Devon Railway, to help overcome the steep curves and gradients. The father of modern British railways, George Stephenson, denounced the idea as “a great humbug” before it even got going. Brunel’s own locomotive engineer, the eminently sensible Daniel Gooch, said he “could not understand how Mr. Brunel could be so misled. He had so much faith in his being able to improve it that he shut his eyes to the consequences of failure.” Brunel however remained convinced and the force of his reputation carried the scheme through; the South Devon opened its first atmospheric section in September 1847, at least a year later than planned. By September 1848 it was abandoned, having “rapidly disintegrated throughout its entire length“.

A surviving section of track and vacuum tube of the South Devon atmospheric railway. CC-BY-SA 2.5 Chowells
A surviving section of track and 15 inch vacuum tube of the South Devon atmospheric railway. CC-BY-SA 2.5 Chowells

Despite these hiccups, for a brief period from 1845-1846, the “railway mania” investment bubble was briefly joined by “atmospheric fever.” And once again, Edinburgh and Leith were in on it, with not just one but two atmospheric schemes were proposed. And not just two schemes; two in direct competition, running from the same start and end points, less than 100m apart, each backed by a considerable array of the councillors, merchants and notable figures of both the City and its port. And so commenced the brief but petulant Edinburgh and Leith Atmospheric Railway War of 1845.

The rival Edinburgh & Leith atmospheric schemes were both formed at some point in June 1845; each claimed to be the original and genuine scheme and that the other was a pretender. In one corner was the Edinburgh & Leith Atmospheric Railway (which we shall call the Atmospheric Route) and in the other was the Edinburgh & Leith Atmospheric Direct Railway (which we shall call the Direct Route.) The engineer to the former was John Miller, who designed the Almond Valley Viaduct for the Edinburgh & Glasgow Railway and also Granton Harbour. The latter had George Gunn, also a railway engineer, but one who had hitherto acted in support of another, including Miller himself.

The Atmospheric Route proposed to run a railway from a terminus in the Low Calton – with a connection to the “Waverley” stations – through the Greenside Valley, under London Road and then through the market gardens parallel to Leith Walk. It then continued around the west of Leith Links to a principal terminus near the Assembly Rooms at Constitution Street. From here, branches ran to the docks, with one possibly a small passenger terminus for the Forth ferries and the other going over (or under) the river to the wet docks. A service every ten minutes was promised.

The Direct Route originated at a station near West Register Street, with an onward connection to one or more of the “Waverley” stations. It ran underground down Leith Street, possibly with an intermediate station in the vicinity of York Place, and continued underground in a “cut and cover” tunnel a few feet below the surface to Elm Row. Here it re-surfaced to run in a semi-recessed trench down the entirety of Leith Walk, the proposal being to provide regular bridges across this road.

A drawing in the “Lighthouse” Stevenson collection showing the “Direct route” at Union Place. CC-BY NLS
A drawing in the “Lighthouse” Stevenson collection showing the “Direct route” at Antigua Place. The tunnel roof was to be just 2.5 feet below the surface. CC-BY NLS

While this proposal might seem absurd today – Leith Walk is almost end-to-end 4 storey tenements and is Scotland’s most densely populated neighbourhood by quite some margin – bear in mind that the street is all “made up ground”; it’s a former defensive feature, so easy to dig out, and that in the 1850s it was nothing like as built up as it is today. It was very lightly developed with few large or important buildings, and almost pastoral in character. It was intended to use an “inclined plane” (i.e. gravity) to provide downhill locomotion to Leith and the atmospheric principle to get back up the hill to Edinburgh. There would be two tracks but only the uphill would be powered, this would cut costs but greatly reduce operational flexibility; they did however hedge their bets and publicly did not preclude themselves from using normal steam locomotives “should they prove expedient.”

What the Leith Walk atmospheric railway of the “Direct route” might have looked like. London Illustrated News illustration of the Dalkey atmospheric railway in January 1844

There two atmospheric schemes not only had each other to contend with, additional pressure placed on both by the conventional railway of the Edinburgh, Leith & Granton, – already building a line from Scotland Street to North Leith via Bonnington (yellow line on the route map below) – but were now also lodging a bill with Parliament to build an extension from Bonnington across the Water of Leith to South Leith (the pale yellow line). In November the North British Railway joined in and announced their intention to tunnel through the eastern end of the Calton Hill to get from their existing mainline at Croft-an-Righ to the top of Easter Road, down which they would run a horse-drawn tramway to a terminus in the vicinity of Queen Street (pale brown line).

Atmospheric Fever in Edinburgh; the "Atmospheric Route" in red and the "Direct Route" in cyan. The pale lines are the proposals to reach Leith by the EL&G and the NBR. Note the darker blue line of the Edinburgh & Dalkeith railway approaching Leith via Niddrie from the east. Overlaid on an OS 6-inch map of the period.
Atmospheric Fever in Edinburgh; the “Atmospheric Route” in red and the “Direct Route” in cyan. The pale lines are the proposals to reach Leith by the EL&G and the NBR. Note the darker blue line of the Edinburgh & Dalkeith railway approaching Leith via Niddrie from the east. Overlaid on an OS 6-inch map of the period.

The Atmospheric route got their preliminary announcement published first on October 7th 1845, a day before the Direct route. They were seeking a capitalisation of £100,000. The following day the Direct route announced they were seeking £200,000 and accused the Atmospheric route of financial impropriety by issuing considerably more shares to the public than they were actually available. The Direct route stated that they were proposing their scheme lest “the independence, usefulness and commerce of [Edinburgh & Leith] are gone forever”.

Initial invitations to purchase shares were made by both schemes in the Caledonian Mercury and Evening Courant in June 1845, but there was almost instantly a problem arose. One of the merchants listed as backing the Atmospheric Route denied any connection with it and that his name had been put against it without his knowledge. As did the stock exchange said to be dealing in the sale. As was the stock broker claimed to be acting for the railway! All three immediately took out their own personal adverts in the next days Scotsman to this effect. This pattern of disinformation and using the columns of the newspapers to fight a proxy war was one that was to continue.

Scotsman, 18th June 1845

By October, both schemes were ready to issue their shares. Adverts to this effect were placed in the Edinburgh papers and also in Glasgow too (each city having its own stock exchange at this time). The Direct route was careful to point out in their advert that all other railway schemes proposed to Leith were “inutile and insufficient“. Despite the improbability of two such rival schemes, with the railway investment boom being what it was the shares of both concerns were oversubscribed. Adverts were placed in newspapers seeking to buy and surplus share and each company seemed to spread gossip that their opponent had not allocated their shares in an equitable manner. As a result, the companies had to place further adverts in the newspapers to reassure investors of the fair nature of their allocation.

A blank share certificate of the Edinburgh & Leith Atmospheric Direct Railway

And then the “phoney war”, hitherto conducted through the newspaper columns alone, suddenly got a lot more real. In the early hours of October 19th 1845, Sunday, a representative of the Atmospheric route pinned copies of its parliamentary notices in public on the church doors of Edinburgh & Leith (this was actually a legal requirement as a way to circulate official notices around the public – it was not until the 20th century that churches would have dedicated public notice boards for this purpose). However, when the faithful came to worship on the Sabbath later that morning, it was found that the Direct route had also been out and had replaced all the notices with their own.

Martin Luther also fixed his controversial notice to a church door

The Atmospheric route was outraged, offering a reward of £50 if the perpetrator could be apprehended. The Direct route denied all complicity and reiterated that they were the original scheme and the opposition were “plagiarists”, out to serve not the public but only their own interests.

Reward notice offered by the Atmospheric route

The next task for both schemes was to collect the deposit money for their shares, complete their surveys, plans and engineering proposals and prepare their bills to go before parliament for approval. While this took place, after the outrage on the Sabbath, the skirmishing returned to tit-for-tat adverts placed in the newspapers by the solicitors of each scheme. The details of this are tiresome and childish, each consistently blamed the other for forcing its hand and making it respond. On October 29th, both companies took out extensive, self-important adverts in the Scotsman in side-by-side columns in which they each reiterated the authenticity of their own schemes and attacked that of their opponent. Both besmirched each other as not acting in the interests of the travelling public and merely being moneymaking schemes for their backers. Each also claimed to be the original railway proposal and that the other was a mere copycat.

The Direct route consistently positioned itself as the “bona fide” and original scheme, thereby having the right of putting forward their bill to Parliament. It said that its rival “thereby created in the public mind a just and general dissatisfaction” and that that the criticism of their scheme had been “inveterate and persevering“. However, they were repeatedly vague about the specific details of their proposed route – beyond it just being more “direct” than the competition. The reality differed; their route was less than 50m to the west and the distance saving marginal. By choosing the route down the middle of Leith Walk – rather than the sensible parallel one of its rival through undeveloped ground – they gave themselves a far more expensive and complex construction proposition.

Neither company was prepared to back down, and both published notices proclaiming their intent to lodge a bill with Parliament. When the notices of intent were made to Parliament, the Treasurer’s Committee of the Edinburgh Town Council made it known that they would act in dissent, “inasmuch as it was proposed by these companies to take possession of the whole of the public markets beneath the North Bridge.” On November 20th, the Direct route “[had] the pleasure to inform the Shareholders” that their engineer had assured them their plans and surveys were nearing completion in order that they could be lodged with Parliament.

The sparring continued over the festive season as both companies tried to get the other to withdraw their bills. And then on January 29th 1846, in a surprise notice in the Caledonian Mercury, the Direct route threw in the towel and indicated that they agreed to give the Atmospheric route their “cordial cooperation and support”. After seven months, the war was over. Two days later it was announced that the Atmospheric route had lodged their bill with Parliament.

Notice in the Caledonian Mercury
The surrender notice, in the Caledonian Mercury

But when the bill came to be read, the railway took the unusual action of immediately asking for more time. This was reluctantly given despite their opponents trying to use this as an excuse to have it thrown out; the Trustees of Heriot Hospital, who owned much of the land over which the railway was to run, and the competing Edinburgh, Leith & Granton having objected. The road ahead for the Atmospheric route was now clear, and with their focus back on the project and not fighting the competition, they evidently finessed their route, as the plans prepared for the bill are different from those described initially. A station has been inserted at Blenheim Place and at Duke Street, and the terminus is now at the harbour. The freight branches to the wet docks were still there, with an awkward approach over (or under) the lower drawbridge

The final route of the Edinburgh & leith Atmospheric, from Scotland’s Railway Atlas by David Spaven, from a map in the collection of the NLS.

The company pressed on, but despite its triumph in the “Atmospheric war”, all was not well. Over Christmas, the Bank of England had increased interest rates. It was becoming obvious to many that the railway bubble was exeactly that, and that the investments might not be a sure fire winner, and began to get cold feet. Indeed this may have been what caused the Direct route to withdraw; was it a strategic withdrawal rather than a tactical surrender? The Atmospheric route‘s investors were evidently getting unsettled, and on April 6th, at a Meeting in the Waterloo Hotel in Edinburgh, a general meeting was called at the demand of key backers.

An 1845 newspaper cartoon warning over the dangers of “Railway Mania” financial speculation

Asked to account for its progress, the committee stated that they had spent £670 in Edinburgh and £2,000 in Leith on ground for the termini, and a further £250 towards the Town Council for rights to run through the ground in their ownership. Construction costs were estimated at £160,000 and £1,000 had been set aside to cover the costs to date of the Direct route in a conciliatory gesture for their co-operation. It was noted that a deputation from the committee had been on a fact-finding visit to the Croydon Railway’s atmospheric operation and found its principal to be “most admirably adapted for the projected line.” This is interesting considering the persistent difficulties of that undertaking. The committee estimated that running costs would be 4d per mile, which was challenged by a key shareholder who countered that in Parliament the respected railway engineer Joseph Locke had stated that ordinary locomotives were costing 10d per mile and that the Croydon atmospheric was running up the incredible amount of 2/10d per mile.

The shareholders went on the record to say they were unhappy that the recent changes in the financial markets had made the scheme far less attractive and that huge additional costs (these were not specified, but one assumes they were for engineering) had made themselves known. The complainants made a motion to circulate the full details of the undertaking’s most recent reports amongst the shareholders and return at a further General Meeting on April 16th once there had been a chance to read these. The shareholders were clearly having second thoughts, time was pressing as they were due in Parliament to have their bill read as soon as May 4th, and one wonders if they were just looking for an excuse to call the whole thing off.

The General Meeting meeting was duly held, with the engineer Mr Miller and the patentee of the atmospheric principal, Mr Samuda, in attendance. on the 16th. By a majority of 462 votes to 309, it was decided to proceed with the bill – but to have one more vote to confirm this before going in front of Parliament. The naysayers, led by a Mr Berry – probably George Berry esq., chairman of the Leith Chamber of Commerce – retired to the Cafe Royal to plot their next move, and took out an advert in the Caledonian Mercury asking their sympathisers to join them. Two days later they published a letter in the Scotsman challenging the vote, on the grounds that shareholders accounting for 2/3 of the stock had not been present at the General Meeting and it was not therefore quorate. The solicitor acting for this group invited those seeking to wind the company up to sign a petition to parliament, copies of which were held in various locations around Edinburgh, Leith and Glasgow. Within 24 hours, the holders of 2,000 shares, or 40% of all the stock, had signed. The race was on to end the Atmospheric route.

A final General Meeting was due for the 18th May, just 2 weeks before they were due in Parliament, for the shareholders to finally decide the fate of the scheme.

The meeting would never take place. On Saturday the 16th May, the “Committee of Management regre to announce to the Shareholders that the Select Committee of the House of Commons to whom the Bill for this Company referred, has found the preamble not proven“. Parliament would not read the bill. The Edinburgh & Leith Atmospheric Railway was dead. The shareholders now set about attempting to recover their investments, the management gave them 8 days to lodge their requests and set about winding up the company and liquidating their assets – the land at the Low Calton and behind the Leith Assembly Rooms that had been purchased for stations. The ground purchased for stations was quickly sold by public roup (the Scottish version of an auction).

On September 1st 1846, at a General Meeting held at the Waterloo Hotel, the company formally voted itself out of existence and agreed to return its remaining balances to the shareholders. Of the £20,000 raised by the Atmospheric route, £11,000 had been spent and little had been achieved apart from the acquisition of a few parcels of land and the creation of much bad blood amongst the merchant and political classes of Edinburgh and Leith. The subscribers at least got back 18s in the pound, or 90% of their investment. For all too many in the railway speculation boom, a failed scheme meant financial ruin. The engineer, John Miller, attempted to take legal action against the company in December 1846 for loss of dividends. I am unclear if he succeeded.

Although they promised so much, atmospheric railways were riddled with insurmountable technical and operational challenges. The problems included, but were not limited to:

  • The leather flaps that were required to seal the vacuum wore out and froze as hard as wood in the winter
  • The vacuum tube was constantly fouled by dirt and water, needing constant cleaning
  • The pumping engines frequently failed; they were just not reliable enough to keep up the constant work required to provide the vacuum. If a steam locomotive failed, it could be uncoupled and replaced, if a large pumping engine suffered the same fate, every train on that section of line would fail
  • Construction costs were far higher than promised
  • Operating costs were far higher than promised, as a result of the fuel consumption of the stationary engines and the constant maintenance and replacement needs of the vacuum tube
Contemporary illustration of the Saint-Germain atmospheric railway. Note the connection to the propulsion piston under the carriage floor

Footnote. Little more was heard of either scheme ever again, although in 1868 when the engineer to the Atmospheric route – John Miller – was standing for parliament, he was charged in a letter to the Edinburgh Evening Courant by one James Aytoun of having acted with impropriety with regards the scheme and fundamentally having lined his own pockets at the expense of the investors. James Aytoun, esq. was an advocate who had at one time been a prominent supporter of the scheme, but who had become a dissenting voice within it and ended up losing money by his account. It was Aytoun who had seconded the formal motion winding up the company in September 1846.

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