In the first decade of the 17th century, the rails of the first wooden waggonways were laid in the North East constructed by Huntingdon Beaumont, an entrepreneur from Nottingham. They carried coal from his pits at Bedlington, Cowpen and Bebside to the River Blyth at Bedlington. From here it was shipped to London, where coal from the ‘Great Northern Coalfield’ was in demand.
A waggonway is a four wheeled all-wooden truck designed for carrying coal, running on wooden rails, and pulled by a horse or allowed to roll downhill by gravity. At the time, they were a revolutionary technology and a huge leap forward in the transportation of coal, allowing much bigger loads to be moved with the same power. This in turn drove the development of the coalfield and the start of the industrial revolution. Eventually waggonways could be found all over the North East and they became so closely linked to the Tyneside coal industry that they were known throughout the rest of Britain as ‘Tyneside Roads’. It is no coincidence that the North East was the area where waggonways took greatest hold, because unlike in other areas of the country, canal building was impossible due to deep valleys and steep hills.
Like all technology, things evolve and as steam power gradually replaced horsepower, the term “waggonway” became obsolete and was superseded by the term “railway”. However, the waggonways of Tyneside developed the use of the flanged wheel, which became a key element in the development of the railways.