SLHS: William James


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William James. father, also called William, ran a legal business in Henley and was the local Justice Of The Peace. His mother Mary Lucas was a local landowner of Kings Norton.

Our William was the second eldest of 7 children and received an excellent education at Kings of Warwick. In 1794 he served as an officer in the Warwickshire Yeomanry. He then qualified as a Solicitor at Lincoln’s Inn in London but didn’t go on to become a Barrister. With his heritage and legal know-how came a great deal of confidence. Apparently he was slightly overbearing but was a rather far sighted person and later on, after his death, his daughter certainly claims that

“he was the first great agitator and originator of the system of passenger transit on the railways”

All was going well and in 1793 he married a wealthy local Dinah Tarleton. However in 1797 there was a downturn in business economics and so  William side-stepped to become a Land Agent for the Dewes of Wellesbourne Hall, the Earl Of Warwick at Warwick Castle and then plenty of others. They owned land far and wide. He speculated in land ownership himself and coal was discovered in some he owned in Staffordshire. However the markets for this commodity were further south yet the roads were poor and so transport by land was unreliable and expensive. He thus added to his portfolio an interest in running canal companies. He was Deputy Chairman of the Stratford Canal Company which was started in 1793 but ran out of money at Kingswood in 1802. Eventually in 1810 more share money had been raised, William became Chairman and work was started again. The up and down route wasn’t easy and so he commissioned the Edstone Aqueduct to save locks and water. Stratford was reached in 1816. Those intervening years were further productive and in 1813, seeing a connection to the sea and the port of Bristol, he bought all the shares in the rather derelict Upper Avon River from Lord Windsor. A lot of business had to be serviced in Stratford and so the canal passed the Espley’s Brickworks, the gas worksFlowers Brewery and Cox’s Woodyard.

Further Information..

Specialist Articles

Two thoroughly researched articles by local author:

Online Material

  1. National Archives are over-brimming with detail about his life: 

  2. Steam Index has made a brief review of his contributions to history:

  3. Details of Wiliiam James’ Planned rail route to London:

  4. Henley Museum, at time of writing, makes no mention of James here:

Engineering In General

  1. Biography Of Engineers:    European Route Of Industrial Heritage

● Father Of Railways

b Henley-in-Arden 1771-1837

● These items have aspects that uniquely contribute to national or world history.

Canals were slow to construct and slow to operate yet at his collieries haulage wagons were set on rails and so in 1802 he started looking at rail transport. He envisaged a rail network around the country. His enthusiasm for the medium propelled him to do much of the surveying for many prospective routes himself and he worked with George Stephenson -notably on the Liverpool Manchester Railway. However local land owners were less than impressed with the idea and often attacked him and his men.

His duties spread him across many disciplines and many geographical areas. in 1821 he commissioned the great John Urpeth Rastick (a close colleague of Trevithick and later to be one of 3 judges at the Rainhill Locomotive Trials of 1829) to build him the standard gauge Stratford to Moreton Tramway which later branched to Shipston. If successful his Central Junction Railway would extend to Oxford and London. It opened in 1826 carrying limestone north and his coal south along the route.

He continuously had big ideas yet the profits were not yet coming in fast enough and in 1822 he was put in King's Bench Prison in Southwark and then incarcerated for bankruptcy. Whilst these two years hit him hard he continued to draw maps for his forthcoming railway networks in the south of England.

In 1827 William was asked to improve the estates of Anna-Maria Agar of Lanhydrock and so he moved to Bodmin in Cornwall. Whilst there he draw up plans to develop the ports of Devoran and Truro and build a railway from Fowey to Padstow. Sadly none of these ideas came into existence under his management.

Map of England’s Central Junction Railway WJames 1820

(Click picture for larger version)

At this point he had 8 children. His eldest, yet another William, held many patents with his father. However in 1830 his first wife died. He then married Elizabeth Butt who bore him 2 more children.

In March 1837, whilst under his never ending workload and really rather over-weight, whilst traveling in a mail coach he contracted pneumonia and died at Bodmin.

The great George Stephenson was a very cautious man and it is said that without William’s gusto British railway systems would have got off to a much slower start. Others say that George and he were rivals. I don’t see that. George merely took up where William, who through an entrepreneural hole in his cash flow had became bankrupt, had to leave off. And likewise Brunel picked up the routes that our William had first envisaged if not surveyed.

He was a great man who based his businesses around a great town. Maybe one day it will be reconsidered whether it was G Stephenson who will be seen as The Father Of Railways for example: Network Rail


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Last update: 15/04/2024

Created: 27/08/2023