A gift from Roscoe acknowledged by Locke

The thank-you note

There is an interesting letter from Joseph Locke to William Roscoe. It conveys a brief but respectful acknowledgement of the gift of Roscoe's "late work". The connection between the two is unexpected as they are a generation apart and from very different contexts, Locke an up-and-coming railway engineer and Roscoe a polymath in his twilight years. The note raises some interesting questions.

The location

The letter is dated March 21st 1827 and is sent from Crown Street. Whether Locke was living on Crown Street or writing the letter during a break in his work for the company is unclear. Many of the early employees of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway Company lived within walking or easy riding distance of the Crown Street plot but the street itself probably had few if any houses on it at that time. The odds are that Locke was sitting at his work desk while composing the brief note.

The date

The date is also significant given the resignation of Vignoles on 22nd February 1827, just a month previously. Vignoles and the Rennies had demonstrated the feasibility of the new route to Parliament's satisfaction in 1826 but the Directors were looking for levels of engagement and engineering know-how that the experienced (and now ultra-motivated) Stephenson was best placed to deliver. Vignoles seems initially to have operated as "co-engineer" with Stephenson before being frozen out due to an error in surveying the Wapping tunnel.

Locke moves to Crown Street

Locke was the son of an old friend of Stephenson's and had served an apprenticeship with him. At the start he worked at the Manchester end of the track and was charged with solving the problem of running the line across the supposedly impassable Chat Moss. With the departure of Vignoles he was switched to the western end (within a month according to the letter date) and, in particular, the challenge posed by the long tunnel to the docks. His role at Chat Moss was taken by Dixon who famously fell into the bog during his first encounter and was much discouraged by the experience.

It seems geographically unlikely that Locke was resident in Liverpool while dealing with Chat Moss although he may have been aware of Roscoe's attempts to drain the Moss for agricultural use back in the 1790s. Roscoe lived on his farm there for a while after quitting Allerton Hall following his bank's failure in the depression at the end of the Napoleonic wars.

Roscoe at Lodge Lane

By 1827, however, Roscoe was 74, a widower and in failing health with his two daughters caring for him at his final address, 180 Lodge Lane (Roscoe House on some maps).

Henry Booth, the company Secretary, also lived on Lodge Lane which raises the possibility that Locke was staying with him temporarily and was introduced to Roscoe as a neighbour. They would have had Chat Moss as a topic of mutual interest and it is possible even on limited acquaintance that Roscoe recognised the potential in the 22-year old Locke and accordingly gifted him the book. By this stage Locke was effectively Stephenson's main assistant ("resident") engineer and Roscoe may have been impressed by the responsibilities incumbent on one so young. The letter is addressed "Dear Sir" so it seems unlikely that Locke and Roscoe had been close acquaintances prior to this time.

There were other potential opportunities for the two men to meet. It is plausible, for example, that Locke, like Booth and Stephenson, was a Unitarian and might therefore have encountered Roscoe at the Renshaw Street chapel. Roscoe was also co-founder of the nearby botanic gardens and may have been concerned about the impact of the Crown Street development on the precious plants located there. Finally, Roscoe must have been a friend or acquaintance of the majority of the Directors and, indeed, had family ties to Moss.

What was Locke doing at Crown Street?

The fact that Locke was working from Crown Street rather than the company's base in Clayton Square is interesting. Firstly, it suggests that there was a building for him to sit in and, secondly, that the familiar Crown Street station may have been built for office use as early as 1827. This would be significantly in advance of the arrival of track through the small tunnel from the Chatsworth Street cutting. The tunnel was finished in 1829.

Of course, levelling the ground at Crown Street would have taken significant time and effort so it is equally possible that Locke was sitting in a temporary wooden hut. The attraction of using the station building for offices, however, would be having something visible to show proprietors while conversely having an edge-of-town base where the engineers might be less susceptible to unsolicited visits from anxious investors. Unfortunately, I have yet to locate maps or source material that pin down the actual construction date for the Crown Street railway offices.

However, In 1828 Thomas Worsdell began work on carriage building, most likely at Crown Street, and again suggesting that significant infrastructure building work was underway on the adjacent Millfield site at this time.

According to Carlson (p.187), Stephenson had more than two dozen immediate subordinates and while not all of these were Liverpool-based, it might signify a need for office space. Subsequently staff in the station building included Booth and meetings of the Directors were held there on a regular basis.

The long tunnel

The primary focus at the western end was initially on the long (Wapping) tunnel to be used for goods traffic down to the docks. This went under the Crown Street site and the extant chimney there dates from the later introduction of steam-hauled trains running up from the docks. This coincided with the introduction of a second tunnel to Crown Street and its conversion to a maintenance and coal yard.

The main shafts ("eyes") for removal of spoil from the unprecedentedly long Wapping tunnel down to the docks were at White Street (top of Duke Street) and Mosslake fields. It has been suggested, however, that there may also have been a smaller one at Crown Street (and elsewhere) that was subsequently reused for the chimney. Locke's presence at Crown Street would therefore be adjacent to one of the excavation sites.

blog edge hill excavation.jpg

Construction of the long Wapping tunnel from the Chatsworth Street cutting (Pyne)

The content of the letter

The bulk of the letter comprises an elegantly constructed sentence of 31 words, the gist being that Locke anticipates benefitting from the "enlightened observations" contained in the book. Conscious of Roscoe's high repute, he ends by recounting the "great pleasure in being thought worthy of your kind attention" and signs off "With great respect".

The handwriting is a cursive script that is delightfully legible even with its elegant ornamentation. Legibility, of course, would be a highly desirable attribute for an engineer annotating plans and sketches for use by others. Stephenson's handwriting by contrast is almost too regular to make reading straightforward while Roscoe's is rather workman-like with little by way of any flourish. While the details are scant, Locke and Roscoe both attended school for a time. Locke in his youth was something of a prankster who left his schoolwork until the last minute but nevertheless excelled. Stephenson, of course, was largely home-tutored and self-taught.

Roscoe's "late work"

Roscoe was a polymath with particular interests in art, history, politics, finance and botany. Which book comprised the "late work" given to Locke is not stated. Roscoe wrote two books of note, one successful (on Lorenzo de Medici, Florentine despot/patron of the Italian Renaissance), the other less so (on Pope Leo X, who later restored the fortunes of the Medicis after a decline following Lorenzo's death). Both books had been published some years earlier but were reissued several times as new editions. While there were other works, my guess would be the that the gift was the biography of Lorenzo.

One of the criticisms made of Roscoe's biographies was his tendency to elaborate on the basis of limited information about his subject. He spoke Italian but never visited Italy and depended on purchase and loan of sources as well as the onsite research of a friend, William Clarke.

Books at that time were valuable items and, whereas Roscoe might have had some complimentary copies to disburse, Locke is an interesting choice of recipient. Perhaps it was an attempt to broaden the horizons of the young engineer or recognition that the breadth of vision already existed. Of course, it might also have the benefit of keeping the name of Roscoe alive in the minds of the new technological elite. That said, Locke was a well-rounded if painstaking individual and, like Roscoe, he became an MP and had a love of poetry.

A fleeting connection?

Whether Locke and Roscoe stayed in contact is unclear. Locke was heavily engaged on railway work in Liverpool and elsewhere while Roscoe's health continued to deteriorate leading ultimately to his death in 1831. There is no evidence that Roscoe ever used the railway. However, some years later Locke appears to have made a reciprocal gift of two shares in the Grand Junction Railway to the wife of one of Roscoe's sons. The fate of the book is sadly unknown.

While Locke remained in the shadow of Stephenson during his time at Liverpool, his railway building subsequently eclipsed that of his master and mentor. The present day West Coast Main Line is mostly due to Locke who was also active in France, Spain and Portugal. Sadly, however, he died relatively young (55) as did his peers, Robert Stephenson and Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

The letter is a testament to a poignant interaction between two famous men at opposite ends of their public careers.