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Roade Railway Cutting, Northampton

Roade Cutting - London & Birmingham Railway.

Dug 1834-1838: 56ft deep & 1.5 miles long. A major civil engineering challenge for the world's first long-distance inter-city railway.

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About Roade Railway Cutting, Northampton


The building of the railway dates from the days when railway engineers had little experience of the effect of gradients on locomotives. In fact, railways were aligned much as the canals had been, following the land with the easier gradients, and only using tunnels and embankments where absolutely necessary. With this in mind, the ruling gradient of the line was to be predominantly 1 in 330, hence the requirement for the huge cutting at Roade. 

Making of the Cut

The first eighteen months of construction were beset with problems and progress was soon hampered by severe flooding. Samuel Smiles wrote, “for a year and a half the contractor went on fruitlessly contending with these difficulties and at length he was compelled to abandon the adventure”. Such was the seriousness of the situation Robert Stephenson resided in the locality to supervise the works personally. 

Interest in the project was high. One correspondent recorded – ‘A regular army, upwards of 800 strong, and consisting of stone masons, miners, labourers, boys, etc., headed by experienced engineers, and aided by steam and horse power, with “all appliances and means to boot," were brought up to the attack. Over the construction period countless navvies were injured and a considerable number killed. 

The size of the excavations at Roade, according to the original estimate, would have totalled 800,000 cubic yards. However, as a consequence of the additional work found to be needed extending the length and width, the total quantity removed was approximated to be one million cubic yards. This does not take into account the work required to form the adjoining embankments. The original estimate for the works was calculated to be £112,950. However, delays, landslides and necessary additional works escalated this figure to in excess of £310,000 (in excess of £20 million in today’s money). 

Roade Station opened on 2nd of July 1838 and the railway began operating passenger services on the 17th September. 

The Cutting was widened and deepened between 1878 – 82 to accommodate an extra two lines for the Northampton Loop. 


In 1831 the population of Roade was 553, residing in 113 houses. The prime sources of employment were farming and related local industry. The excavation of the Cutting would require a considerable workforce offering an alternative source of employment to many local men and boys for the duration of its construction. However, the local labour supply was wholly inadequate to support such a task, and the population was to be considerably increased by native journeymen and Scottish and Irish ‘navvies’, who came to the area in search of employment. 

Coming of The Navvys

The impacts of such vast numbers descending upon the area and its economy were soon to be felt, including the clogging up of the highways with carts and wagons containing all the needful things and impediments to support a somewhat nomadic lifestyle. Roade and the neighbouring settlements were inadequately provisioned or prepared to give lodgings to all the men to be employed. To ease the accommodation burden the railway company erected a number of burnt brick and limestone cottages within the village, and a small number of others close to the site of the bridge to carry the Courteenhall - Blisworth road. Some were accompanied by their wives, or with ‘female companions’. Others found comfort with the local womenfolk, 'the females were corrupted, many of them’, said a contractor of the mid-Northants villages in the early 1830s, 'and went away with the men, and lived amongst them in habits that civilised language will scarcely allow a description of’…...’ 

John Francis in his ‘History of the English Railways’ wrote – ‘The dread of such men as they spread throughout the rural community was striking, They injured everything they approached, from their huts to the parts of the railway they were working on, over corn and grass they tore down embankments, injured young plantations, made gaps in hedges with no regard to damage of the property invaded. Game disappeared from the most sacred preserves, game keepers were defied, and the country gentlemen, who had imprisoned country rustics by the dozen for violating the law, shrank in despair at the railway navigator. They defied the law, broke open prisons, released their comrades and slew policemen’.  


A consequence of the considerable population increases and the building of rudimentary accommodation, with little or no sanitation, was a serious outbreak of typhus and smallpox in the lodgings and shanties. This quickly spread into the village and it was said that there were over 100 funerals in 12 months, against about 6 normally. 

The navvies were paid once a month, sometimes less frequently. Payment was made in a local ale house (the New Inn probably) resulting in them drinking their wages over the following days, selling their shovels for more beer and fighting and rioting. 

The Navvys


The navvies’ impact on a rustic and traditionally rural population both enlivened it and challenged the status quo. It was an enormous drain on resources, and upset and aggravated the local gentry. Poaching bothered the landowners throughout this period. Navvies were good at it, ‘the best in the world, they boasted’, and since they roamed about in gangs, nobody dared to challenge or attempt to apprehend them.

The Navvys poaching


Lawlessness continued to be a problem and the local populace had become enraged by the serious increase of criminal activities in the surrounding area. In desperation the following notice was placed in the Northampton Mercury in 1837: 

“In consequence of the numerous depredations which have been committed in Roade and several adjoining parishes in which the works of The London & Birmingham Rail Road are now in progress


Will be held in the Cock Inn, in Roade, on Wednesday next, the SEVENTH of JUNE, at 11 o’clock in the forenoon, for the purpose of taking into consideration the propriety of appointing one or more POLICEMEN or SPECIAL CONSTABLES for the better protection of the property and protection of individuals during the progression of the said works.” 

Despite the increased policing, criminal activities continued until the navvies left for work elsewhere. However, not all the navvies were without morals and principles as some brought with them to Roade the Wesleyan Methodist faith. For a short period they were allowed to worship in the Baptist Church but their enthusiastic form of worship was frowned upon and they were forced to move to a rented room attached to the end of Yew Tree Terrace. They were again forced to relocate after the congregation suffered mocking and ridicule from people outside the building during services. They moved again - to a rented cottage in Barn Lane, owned by a Baptist! 

When the navvies finally departed, in an anonymous letter to the Northampton Mercury, a correspondent observed, - “… as they now gradually withdraw from the works, leave bills unpaid in all the villages where they could obtain credit with trades people or those who let lodgings; the losses sustained are in many areas severe. And not only does the district suffer in a pecuniary way from the visits of these freebooters, but fellows have taken many women from the neighbourhood, and in some instances the wives of decent men and mothers of families, who have been induced to rob their husbands and abscond … "


When the Cutting was excavated, the Duke of Grafton, with other local horticulturists, planted its sides and spoil banks with diverse species of trees and shrubs to mask the scar in the landscape. This planting was repeated following the completion of the Cutting’s widening in 1882. Roade Cutting featured in The Northampton Independent in a July 1936 article headed ‘The Romance of Roade Cutting’ which enthused upon the great diversity of mature trees and shrubs bedecking its banks and ridges. The numerous species listed included - Ash, Acacia, Holly, Larch, Sycamore, Lilac, Maple, Oak, Holm Oak, Common, White and Black Poplar, Pine, Rowan, Willow, Whitebeam, Laburnum, Elder, Privet, etc. Quite how such a great diversity coexisted was put down to the mixture of soils and minerals which had been thrown up and blended from the excavations.

In 1986, Roade Cutting was awarded the status of a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) under section 28 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The citation stated that - “This is a new site identified as of national importance in the Geological Conservation Review. Roade Cutting exhibits one of the most complete Bathonian (Middle Jurassic) sections in central Northamptonshire, potentially exhibiting complete Rutland Formation and White Limestone sections together with the basal Forest Marble (Blisworth Clay). The cutting is particularly important because it shows the typical rhythmic rock units developed within the Rutland Formation in this area”.


landscape view of model 

 This entry with thanks to Roade Local History Society

History of the English Railways - John Francis


National Transport Trust, Old Bank House, 26 Station Approach, Hinchley Wood, Esher, Surrey KT10 0SR