EMIAC 88(2): Transport Innovations of the Butterley Company

Crich, 9th May 2015

Conference Details


Transport for raw materials and finished goods was the key to the initial success of the Butterley Company in Derbyshire from its foundation in 1790. The location of the works was directly above a tunnel on the Cromford Canal, with a shaft from the works yard linked to a unique underground wharf known as the "wide hole". A horse drawn railway was built using flanged rails and stone sleeper blocks to bring limestone from Crich to the canal and this acted as the model for many more canal feeder railways engineered by Benjamin Outram, who was one of the partners in the company.

The historical significance of these innovations has become increasingly apparent at a time when there is threat to these remains through redevelopment of the Butterley Works site. The speakers at the conference will report on the latest research results, and the afternoon visits will give a chance to view some of the surviving above ground features.

It is hoped to launch the Derbyshire Record Society’s publication of the first minute book of the Cromford Canal Company at the event.


Organised by Derbyshire Archaeological Society and held on Saturday 9th May 2015 in Crich.

The conference programme:

09:30 Registration with tea/coffee

10:00 Welcome

10:05 The Cromford Canal and the Wide Hole

10:50 Break

11:00 The Butterley Company and railway construction, 1790-1830

11:45 The Butterley Gangroad

12:30 EMIAC Business Meeting

12:45 Lunch

13:45 Site visits:

either a two-mile walk following the Butterley Gangroad on minor roads and field footpaths to the Cromford Canal and returning by bus.

or     a tour to the Butterley Works at Ripley with a look at part of the Butterley Gangroad en-route.

16:30 Tea and departure

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a cross-section of the 'wide hole' access to the Cromford Canal
Access to the Cromford canal.

Image courtesy of Derbyshire Archaeological Society.

Conference Report

Hugh Potter

Following a meeting of local business men in Matlock in 1788 it was proposed that a canal should be built linking the area to the Erewash Canal. William Jessop surveyed the route. Construction started in 1789 and the Cromford Canal Company formed with Jessop as principal engineer and Benjamin Outram as one of his assistants.

The following year Benjamin Outram and Company (BOC) was founded as a coal and iron enterprise; having purchased 200 acres of the Butterley estate the Butterley Works was established.

In 1791 Outram took over construction of the canal with plans to carry it through a tunnel under Butterley Park. Butterley Reservoir situated on the hill above the tunnel provided water for the canal. Water flowed from the reservoir directly into the tunnel via an adit 600 yds into the tunnel from the western portal. BOC negotiated with the canal company to have an underground wharf, known as the wide hole, constructed on the southern side of the canal and directly beneath a proposed furnace location.

When the 2,966 yd long tunnel opened in 1794, it was the third longest canal tunnel in the world. At only 9 ft wide it caused a bottle neck to traffic, which could only travel in any one direction at specified times.

Rich coal and ironstone seams were exposed during the construction of the tunnel which enabled the newly formed Butterley Works to quickly expand into an ironworks as well as a mining operation.

The 60 yd long wide hole was located about 880 yds from the western portal. The width of the tunnel is about 16 ft allowing allowing traffic to pass the wharf whilst boats are being loaded/unloaded. Two loading shafts connected directly to the Butterley Works above.

A short branch tunnel ran from the wide hole to the company's collieries, Butterley Carr pit.

In 1898 the tunnel closed after suffering a collapse; it reopened four years later but with much reduced traffic. It closed permanently in 1900 after a further partial collapse.

The tunnel was listed as a scheduled monument in 2013.

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Philip Riden

The Butterley Company was founded in 1790 as Benjamin Outram and Company only taking on the name Butterley after Outram's death in 1805. During the early years the company developed as a coal and iron company with its own source of limestone, necessary for iron making. It became a major supplier of cast iron L-shaped plate rails to many quarries for transporting raw materials to the nearest canal and sometimes for linking quarries.

Whilst L-shaped plate rails had been used underground in mines for a very long time, they had not been used extensively above-ground. Philip Riden considered factors that led to the company's importance as a supplier of plate rails.

The company owned a limestone quarry at Crich; it used its own plate rails to build a tramway from the quarry to its limekilns at Bullbridge and to the Wharf on the Cromford canal for shipping to its ironworks in Ripley. This helped Outram, Riden believes, to better understand both the civil and mechanical engineering requirements for a tramway. He may have been the first to relate rail weight (lb per foot) to its carrying capacity. Evidence suggests he was the first in the East Midlands to use stone blocks as sleepers. Outram understood the need for well laid ballast and good turned wheels for improved performance.

With the introduction of wrought iron rails, Butterley's cast iron rail business declined because they didn't invest in the new processes.

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Trevor Griffin

A year after setting up Benjamin Outram and Company in 1790, the first blast furnace was established at the Butterley Works. Although coal and ironstone was available within the estate, limestone was needed for the production of iron. Outram's wealthy patron Francis Beresford purchased land for limestone extraction at Crich and leased another quarry.

At about the same time Beresford purchased land adjacent to the Cromford Canal at Bull Bridge for use as a wharf, later known as Amber Wharf. Lime kilns were built there and were in operation by 1793.

The Gang Road was built to connect the initial limestone mine at Crich with Amber Wharf from whence the limestone could be taken by barge to the Butterley works. It passed Fritchley in a 90 ft long tunnel constructed using the cut and cover method, which is now recognised as the first railway tunnel. It seems that the original plateway was constructed in a hurry. Outram supplied cast plate rails from 1796 and introduced stone sleepers with the plateway having a gauge of 3 ft 6 in. The line was worked by gravity with horses being used to pull the empty wagons uphill on the 1 in 30 gradient.

In 1813 William Brunton, an engineer with the Butterley Company, constructed one of the first steam locomotives. He called it a mechanical horse or traveller; although it ran on four wheels, it propelled itself by means of a complicated mechanism resembling ski sticks that pushed against the rails.

By the 1840s the quarries at Crich were proving difficult to work so land was purchased and a new quarry, known as Hilt's, opened up nearer to Crich. A new 700 yd long branch line was constructed from the Hat Factory to Hilt's Quarry; this included a 500 yd double-track rope-worked self-acting incline with a gradient of 1 in 15.

The North Midland Railway opened between Derby and Normanton in 1840 passing close to Amber Wharf. In 1846 the Midland Railway received approval to construct a branch line Amber Wharf to Crich; this was to have been a mineral line to replace the gangroad. The "Railway Bubble" had burst and it was never built.

Despite this, however, the Butterley Company modernised its gangroad by re-routing it following the alignment and works that had been proposed by Midland Railway. The stretch between the Hat Factory and Fritchley had been completed by 1849 and the lower section to the wharf by the early 1850s. New sidings were built by Midland Railway between the main line and the lime works adjacent the wharf.

At about the same time the gangroad was converted from a plateway to an ordinary narrow gauge railway having a gauge of 3 ft 10½ in; this permitted the new flanged wheels to run on either the plate rail or the new edge rail during a transition period.

Chaplins of Glasgow supplied a 4-wheeled vertical-boiler chain-driven locomotive to the Butterley Company in 1869. It seems likely this was used on the gangroad as there are accounts of the chimney having to be lowered to allow it to pass through the tunnel. A loco shed was built at the Hat Factory.

The operation continued to expand with new 3ft 9 in gauge locos until the start of the First World War with output peaking c. 1907. Modernisation continued during the 1920s though output was very erratic.

In 1933 it was decided to close the limeworks business; the track remained in situ until the drive for scrap iron to service the Second World War. The Fritchley tunnel was used as an air raid shelter; it was filled-in during the 1970s.

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Additional material

The following websites provide additional background to the papers presented:

Please note: Although checked at the time of writing, NIAG cannot be held responsible for the validity of these links or the integrity of these sites.

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Images taken during the visit

example of Outram's cast iron plate rail
An example of Outram's cast iron plate rail.
Part of the Butterley Gangroad north of Fritchley
Part of the Butterley Gangroad north of Fritchley.
Site of a blast furnace from 1790 at the Butterley works.
Site of a blast furnace from 1790 at the Butterley works.
The works entrance showing the octagonal gatehouse
The works entrance showing the now-listed octagonal gatehouse.

Images courtesy of Terry and Jane Waterfield taken during the visit.

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