William James

William James was a land agent with interests in mining and canals, and adventurer who became involved in surveying early railways. His most significant transport ventures were the Stratford Canal and the Stratford & Moreton Railway. There has been a body of opinion that he had been unjustly treated by history, and may have been unfairly usurped by George Stephenson. Macnair considered at length below and Gordon Biddle in The Oxford Companion to British Railway History give more balanced assessments. According to Marshall he was born in Henley-in-Arden on 13 June 1771 and died in Bodmin on 11 March 1837. He was educated at Warwick & Winson School. His most important work was the Stratford & Moreton Railway, the remains of which are still visible in Stratford, the remains of which are easier to find on the ground in Stratford than in Biddle's Britain's historic railway buildings. Biography by N. Billingham in Skempton (pp. 357-8) where he is described as "railway promoter".

See Rly Mag., 1899, 5, 33 and 364 for articles by R.R. Dodds on The father of railways on formation of Committee to raise funds for statue in Liverpool.

Macnair, Miles. William James (1771-1837): the man who discovered George Stephenson. Oxford: Railway & Canal Historical Society, 2007. 144pp.

This is an extremely interesting and thoroughly researched study which not only gives considerable insight into a complex character, but also throws some light upon George and Robert Stephenson, and several other aspects of early railways, such as the involvement of Robert Stevenson (the man mainly associated with lighthouses) in the transfer of early railway technology. The work is supported by over 450 numerical references, James' patents, and four paintings by Robin Barnes, and for this reason alone it cannot be dismissed. Nevertheless, at the end of the study one is tempted to conclude that history has not been unkind to James. The Central Junction Railway remained a paper railway and Macnair must be criticised for failing to examine its obvious shortcomings, notably its proposed transit of the Chiltern Hills which was eventually to be on route followed by the M40 (which enjoyed? the benefit of late 20th century rock moving machinery). In a way it is rather like James' quest for coal at Bexhill; that is a product of excessive imagination. Unquestionably, James did have a role in translating a transport mode which was initially considered as a means of moving heavy freight, notably coal, into a passenger carrying network, although the network concept was inherent in the road coaches.

Patents via (Macnair): asterisk (*) indicates taken out by William Henry James (William James's son)
4913/1824. Hollow cast-iron rails and their uses.
4957/1824* Four-wheel drive for steam road carriages.
5117/1825* Construction of railway carriages and rails
5186/1825* Self-cleaning water-tube boiler
6297/1832* Improvements to the design of steam carriages, etc
9473/1842* Elevated and pneumatic underground railway
10,411/1844* Regulating the speed of trains

In each case Macnair provides an extended abstract which gives an excellent idea of what the patent covers, and inmost cases this is supported by drawings and diagrams.

Hunter Davies' biographical study... of George Stephenson is not only beautifully written, but clearly shows the relationship between the Stephensons and James as the brief extracts (below) show:

It is relatively easy to see why Robert Stephenson found William James so attractive. He was big and fat and jolly, a great talker, full of enthusiasm and ideas. Most of all, he was a brilliant persuader, being as fluent on paper as in speech, so unlike poor old George. Many of his letters, published later by his daughter,.show some nice turns of phrase. 'By the speed and cheapness of steam carriage on railroad, space is nearly destroyed: Talking, as he always was, about the great benefits which railways would bring, he said that a railway 'tends, to bless the land through which it passeth'.


His [those of James] words, as usual, were more fluent and flowery than his deeds. His attention was indeed being seriously diverted, as he tried to keep other projects, and himself, afloat but his prose was certainly convincing.