History - Ffestiniog Railway
Part 1 - A Railway Is Born
In the 1700s, when Porthmadog and Blaenau Ffestiniog did not
exist, this part of Wales was a remote mountain area. In the
last few years of that century, W.A. Madocks had acquired
land and soon afterwards carried out land reclamation
projects culminating in the great embankment - 'The Cob' -
right across the Glaslyn estuary, literally creating a new
harbour, called Port Madoc, known today as Porthmadog.
The workmen for this huge project were housed in a building
at the eastern end of the Cob, where the workshops of the
Railway are now situated. Since Madocks was the MP for
Boston in Lincolnshire, he called the building 'Boston
Lodge'. The Cob took 4 years to complete, but only a year
later partial rebuilding was required when high tides and a
storm breached it.
At a similar time, high up in the mountains around Blaenau
Ffestiniog, slate deposits were being exploited in small
quantities and laboriously taken by pack animal and farm
carts over rough roads down to the River Dwyryd. Here the
slate was loaded into river boats for transport downstream
where it was loaded yet again, this time into sea-going
sailing ships. This long-winded system was expensive both in
the time taken and the quantity of broken slates during
In 1830, shortly after Madock's death, Samuel Holland, who
was quarrying slate at Rhiw, joined Henry Archer, a young
businessman from Dublin, to promote the Festiniog Railway,
incorporated by Act of Parliament on 23 May 1832. James
Spooner from Worcestershire was responsible for the survey
and construction of the Railway. The route, whose final mile
crossed the Cob, enabled loaded slate trains to run down by
gravity while the horses that were used to haul the empty
wagons back up the line could ride, feed and rest in 'dandy'
The 23.5 inch gauge (just short of 2 feet), corresponding to
that being used in the quarries, was wide enough to allow
the horses to work efficiently when pulling the empty wagons
and narrow enough to enable the Railway to negotiate the
sharp curves made necessary by the mountainous terrain. The
wagons were small enough to be loaded easily and man-handled
in the quarry and at the port.
As slate traffic increased, the horse and gravity system of
operation came under strain and thoughts turned to the form
of power then making such an impact on transport elsewhere -
the steam engine. But in the 1840's, steam locomotives on so
narrow a gauge were thought impracticable; in fact carrying
passengers was illegal on new railways of less than the
British standard gauge of 4 feet 8.5 inches.
These factors delayed the introduction of steam and it was
only after Charles Easton Spooner (James' son) took control
of the Railway in 1856 that he looked more closely into the
question of steam locomotives and eventually contracts were
signed with George England and Co., London, for four small
locomotives. In July 1863 'The Princess' and 'Mountaineer'
were delivered and they entered service in October. The
other two, 'The Prince' and 'Palmerston', arrived in 1864.
In the same year, the Board of Trade gave the Railway
permission to run passenger trains, the first on a narrow
gauge in Britain. The four-wheeled carriages were very low
to keep the weight as central as possible and some of these
unique vehicles survive as part of the Railway's valued
heritage. From 1866 primitive carriages also offered a cheap
service for quarrymen.
As traffic increased two more, slightly more powerful
engines, 'Welsh Pony' and 'Little Giant', arrived in 1867.
By then the limitations of a single line were also becoming
restrictive due to the sheer quantities of slate being
transported and in 1869 an Act was passed permitting the
line to be doubled.