Trent Valley Transport Before Railways
The Trent Valley, by its very nature, is a natural routeway. It provided easy passage for the invading armies of the Romans, the Saxons and the Norsemen, as well as for peaceful settlers, and many of these peoples left their place names behind them. The existence of the Iron Age fort at Borough Hill, near Walton, is proof that the Celtic people felt the need to control the movement of hostile warriors along the valley. The many ‘pill boxes’ of the 1939-1940 era show that the wartime government considered it highly likely that a Nazi invasion would follow this route.
The Romans built a military road along the middle of the valley and this would have been used by merchants as well as soldiers. Indeed, the River Trent would have been navigable by small craft carrying merchandise as well. In addition to these primary lines of communication there were two slightly higher, drier and parallel routes to these, one on each side of the valley. The eastern route linked Drakelow, Walton and Catton, whilst the western route ran through Tatenhill, Dunstall, Barton under Needwood, Wychnor and Alrewas. A cross valley route, using a ford over the Trent at Walton, was responsible for Walton and Barton becoming important settlements at cross-roads.
The route of the Roman road may have followed the route of an even earlier road called Rykneld Street. In due course this became a Turnpike Road and for much of the way it is followed by the present A 38 trunk road. Turnpike Roads were kept in a reasonable state of repair by local communities, but other roads were very poor and often impassable. It was not until the last quarter of the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century that men like John Metcalf ( 1717-1810 ), Thomas Telford ( 1757-1834 ) and John Macadam ( 1756-1836 ) developed improved methods of road building. However, it was a long time before these innovations affected the smaller roads.
Thus it was that, when the first stirrings of the Industrial Revolution began to be felt in the 1750’s, the roads were incapable of carrying the heavy, bulky raw materials, such as coal, limestone and iron ore, which industry was to require in ever increasing quantities.
It was to meet this need that canals began to be built. In 1766 Parliament gave its consent to the construction of the Grand Trunk ( or Trent & Mersey ) Canal to link the Rivers Mersey and Trent. It was the finance of Josiah Wedgwood and the skill of the engineer James Brindley which made this possible. The years leading up to 1777 would have witnessed large bands of migrant workers, or ‘navies’, working in the neighbourhood of Fradley, Alrewas, Wychnor and Barton under Needwood. This must have caused some disturbance to quiet agricultural communities.
The Trent and Mersey Canal provided the answer for the transportation of bulky goods. It was ideal for carrying goods which did not deteriorate in transit and for which speed was of little importance.The canal provided the only efficient means of transport for the next sixty years and it is clear that the Industrial Revolution would not have come about so quickly without it.
In 1775, James Watt improved on earlier inventions to produce an efficient steam engine which had a dramatic effect on many aspects of industry. It replaced human, animal and water power, and it provided the motive power to drive machinery, work bellows and hammers, and pump water. However, it was the translation of this ” stationary ” steam engine into a moving steam engine, that is to say, a locomotive, which heralded the railway age which started towards the end of the eighteenth century.