THE TRANSPORT SYSTEM THAT ALMOST WAS -
Thomas Webster Rammell was born at Streete Court, Westgate on Sea, Kent in 1815; he became a Civil Engineer and emerges into history with his first patent in 1846. He was subsequently to file over twenty-
Propelling trains by compressed or rarefied air was not a new idea; Medhurst in 1810 had proposed small pistons sucked through tubes to carry letters, and Vallance in 1827 extended this idea to passengers. Pinkus, in 1835, adopted the alternate method of having a small traction pipe between the lines of a conventional railway, to form the Atmospheric Railway; this was improved by Clegg and Samuda in 1839 and four examples were built -
Rammell's first patent was merely a resurrected Samuda system, adapted for inner city use by employing an elevated continuous loop line running on each side of the street. It was published in 1857, as 'A New Plan For Street Railways'. The system had been such a conspicuous failure, however, that Rammell was forced to revert to the earlier ideas of Vallance and Medhurst.
From 1858 to 1864 Rammell filed four patents that define the basis of his life work -
In 1859 Rammell in partnership with a well known engineer Josiah Latimer Clark, promoted the formation of The Pneumatic Despatch Company Limited, with themselves as engineers. He was to repeat this procedure of enlisting as a partner a well-
After preliminary trials at the Soho works of Boulton and Watt in Birmingham in 1860, and on the site of Battersea Power Station in 1861, the Pneumatic Despatch Company re-
In September 1863 work started on a 4.33 km line from Euston to the General Post Office in St Martins le Grand. 1130 mm gauge trucks ran in a 1245x1370 mm cast iron tunnel laid beneath Drummond Street; Tottenham Court Road; St Giles' High Street; High Holborn; Holborn Viaduct; Newgate Street and St Martins le Grand. The route avoided the Bedford Estate, as the Duke had objected to the direct route. The pumping station was provided centrally at 245 High Holborn on the site of the 'Bull and Gate'.
About this time Rammell met his future wife Francis (Fanny) Soars, then the twenty eight year old wife of solicitor Benjamin Soars, his brother Harby's partner.
In 1864 Rammell filed his most important patent, detailing the operating mechanisms of the Pneumatic Despatch (then in the course of construction), and more significantly the detailed construction of a larger passenger-
Passengers were carried for two months, thirty at a time, paying six pence for the return trip. From the upper Sydenham station the carriage would roll by gravity through the open portal doors, an engineer at the side of the entrance would operate a control to close and bolt the doors, and a valve would be opened to blow air into the tunnel between the doors and the carriage (sealed to the tunnel by bristles). The carriage glided smoothly to the bottom station, a telegraph informing the engineer at the valve when to shut off the pressure. Braked to a halt, the telegraph would be used to give the signal to start exhaustion, and the carriage would be blown by atmospheric pressure back up the tunnel. Passing the extract 'throat', it would compress the air in the remainder of the tube by its acquired momentum, pneumatically braking it, and forcing open the upper doors (by this time unbolted), just in time for it to re-
Two pneumatic passenger railways were promoted in the 1864 Parliamentary Session, but were rejected, and the Pneumatic Despatch, though having completed the Holborn Station, were running into financial difficulties and the opening of the first section was continually set back. In the 1865 Session, however, Rammell was more successful with the Bill for the Waterloo and Whitehall Railway. This time he had enlisted the assistance of Sir Charles Fox, prominent civil engineer and Paxton's collaborator in the construction of the Crystal Palace. It was a magnificently ambitious undertaking, involving the second sub-
At this time neither the Victoria Embankment nor Northumberland Avenue had been constructed, and Great Scotland Yard was tucked at the bottom of Northumberland House's garden, behind the wharves of the mediaeval waterfront. The railway was to commence in an iron and glass station 4.8 mt. below Great Scotland Yard, proceed in a brickwork tunnel 3.88mt in diameter (accounts vary) to the river, and then via three (or four) iron tubes forming a sub-
The Pneumatic Despatch meanwhile being held up by the construction of the Holborn Viaduct concentrated on completing the first section of their line between Euston and Holborn, which was finally opened in November 1865; the distinguished guests availing themselves of the novel experience of lying in the trucks and being blown and sucked back and forth. Rammell's press handout ensured a gratifying coverage of the event, and optimistic prognostications. The operation was almost completely self acting, the trucks being 'buffered' to a stop by the sealed section of the tube, and operating the 'lock gate' doors by trigger mechanisms within the tube.
Construction began on the Waterloo and Whitehall in October 1865, and Sir Charles Fox became an almost embarrassing convert to the Pneumatic Railway, depositing in November a proposal for a Mersey Railway linking Liverpool and Birkenhead on the pneumatic principle, and in December holding a meeting of distinguished interested parties to eulogise the pneumatic railway and explain his proposals. The Bill was smoothly passed, and Sir Charles and Rammell filed two more Pneumatic Railway proposals, an extension of the Waterloo and Whitehall and another Thames crossing. The Pneumatic Despatch had meanwhile run foul of the Metropolitan Board of Works and Bazalgette for disturbing the Fleet Sewer.
By May l866 the Waterloo and Whitehall was well advanced, under the the well-
At this point disaster struck in the form of a country wide catastrophic economic collapse, triggered by merchant bank Overend and Gurney suspending payment, causing a public run on the banks on 'Black Friday' which broke seven permanently and five temporarily and boosted the Bank Rate to an unprecedented 10%. Many companies went down, and those that survived found raising capital impossible in the cautious aftermath. By mid 1867 the Mersey Railway proposals had collapsed, and the Waterloo and Whitehall had run out of money despite another optimistic press 'puff'. One great section of tube had been completed by Samuda and was still in his yard, the northern land works were complete, and some of the southern. Covering all eventualities the company obtained further Acts for abandonment and extension of time with further powers to raise capital. In 1868 the scheme 'which had attracted so much attention all over the world' was sadly put in abeyance.
Holborn Viaduct commenced in 1867, and in 1869 the Pneumatic Despatch finally threaded its way through the foundations to terminate at the GPO terminus finished in 1872. By this time Rammell seems to have lost all connection with the undertaking, Latimer Clark and Robert Sabine acting as engineers. The line was finally opened in August 1872, and the potential demonstrated to the Post Office -
Despite repeated interviews with the Postmaster General the Duke of Buckingham was unable to obtain concrete assurances from the Post Office that a regular service on a commercial basis could commence, and in the absence of this the economics of keeping full steam up all the time for such experimental service as was allowed was unsupportable and the Company ceased operation in October 1874 The system that had cost close to £200,000 lay derelict and faded rapidly into oblivion.
In the Parliamentary Session of 1872 Rammell made his last serious bid to construct a pneumatic passenger railway with the South Kensington Railway. This was to run from a station interconnecting with the Metropolitan and District at South Kensington station a distance of 866 mt to the Albert Hall, under Exhibition Road as far as an intermediate station at the lower entrance to the Royal Horticultural Society's Gardens (the Science Museum is now on the site ), and then bending left to the Hall. A brickwork tunnel 3.4 x 5.2 mt at a gradient of 1:48 accommodated a six-
Rammell was removed from Fellowship of the Geological Society in 1872 for non-
Whilst the Metropolitan Board of Works was apparently utilising the handy trench of the Waterloo and Whitehall railway for re-
In a desperate series of ploys he first economised by £10,000, and then issued a second prospectus in 1876, reproducing an 'Influential Memorial' from all the foremost engineers of the day that he had sent to the Commissioners, petitioning that they should endeavour to 'encourage and support' the proposals as a vital experiment in the history of transport. It is an extraordinary document, signed by (amongst others) George Robert Stevenson, Gregory, Barlow, Bazalgette, Bramwell, Whitworth, Siemens, Hayward, Pole and Latimer Clark; nineteen names in all. A significant absentee is Sir Charles Fox.
However the Commissioners were not to be moved, and neither were the investing public, and after playing his last card -
Rammell was nothing if not persistent, and continued to patent modifications to the pneumatic railway, and in 1881 deposited a Bill, subsequently withdrawn, for the Mid-
After moving to Watford to be near his only relatives, his widowed sister Elizabeth and her children, he fought his last battle with diabetes anaemia and died in December 1889. Three days later he was buried in an unmarked pauper's grave in the local cemetery. Francis Rammell passed out the rest of her days in Bournemouth, dying there, also in poverty, at the age of eighty two in 1915.
Nothing fails like failure, and Thomas Webster Rammell and his actual and projected works had long before fallen into oblivion as though they had never been. But at the height of his success his influence had not only suffused Britain, but the world -
Those ideas and works may have been forgotten, but his works were periodically to re-
When in 1898 the Baker Street and Waterloo Railway was constructed under the river at the same spot as the Waterloo and Whitehall, a large depression was encountered which caused some trouble and was ascribed by some to the removal of the piers for the sub-
The most spectacular re-
The question remains as to the viability of the pneumatic railway -
It remains for us, as well as Thomas Webster Rammell's Shade (wherever it may be), to await the final verdict of the research projects in progress before we can truly say he laboured in vain.
Copyright Roger J Morgan March 1977