Joseph Marchington

Chuckling Joe and the Tramroad
by Crichton Porteous


Crichton Porteous is the nom de plume of Leslie Creighton Porteous who was born at Leeds, Yorkshire, on the 22 May 1901. It is believed that he grew up somewhere in the Manchester area and that some of his school holidays were spent in the Peak District of Derbyshire. It was in the Peak District that his love of the countryside developed and while still a youth he began writing articles about outdoor life for boys' magazines.

On completion of his education he became a farm worker and after a few years of this he joined Hulton newspapers where he became a sub-editor. He then worked for several more papers before eventually becoming the assistant editor of the northern edition of the Daily Mail, which was printed in Manchester.

Following his marriage, he moved to the hamlet of Combs, near Chapel-en-le-Frith, Derbyshire, and simultaneously he resigned from his position at the Daily Mail to become a free-lance writer. His first book, Farmer's Creed, was published in 1937 but only after he had rewritten it five times. Over the next three decades he wrote about one book a year as well as numerous short stories and articles.

In 1944 he moved to a cottage at Two Dales near Matlock, Derbyshire, and among the books that he wrote there were two, Toad Hole and Broken River, that were set in the Derwent Valley. By the mid-1960s he decided that his career as a writer was drawing to a close. At length, he retired in 1971 but he remained at Two Dales until his death in January 1991, his death being registered at Chesterfield under the name Leslie Crichton Porteous.

One of his books is a biography, published in 1955, about a character nicknamed Chuckling Joe who lived all his life around Chapel-en-le-Frith. Chuckling Joe was Joseph Marchington who was born at Chapel-en-le Frith in 1871 and died in 1962, aged 90 years. He married Alice Capper in 1899 and the couple lived on Manchester Road, Chapel-en-le-Frith, where he was employed as a Drayman at the railway station. One of the chapters in this biography is entitled 'The Tramroad' and it describes the operation of the Peak Forest Tramway in a highly romanticized manner, particularly the inclined plane at Chapel-en-le-Frith. However, although the description is interesting for the details it provides, it is curious in that it only describes the transport of goods up the tramway from Bugsworth Canal Basin towards Chapel-en-le-Frith and the inclined plane. No mention whatsoever is made of the tramway's main purpose, which was the transport of limestone and burnt lime from the quarries around Dove Holes down to the Peak Forest Canal at Bugsworth.


Porteous, Crichton, 1954. Chuckling Joe. London: Phoenix House Ltd.

The chapter about the operation of the Peak Forest Tramway is reproduced below but with notes to explain in greater detail some of the interesting and sometimes controversial issues raised.

The Tramroad

An unusual feature in Joe's younger days was a tramroad (Note 1The Peak Forest Tramway.), as he called it. Before the railway arrived, the inhabitants had been dependent for most heavy goods on a canal (Note 2The Peak Forest Canal.) that came into the hills by a winding way, and with many locks - sixteen in a row up one rise - (Note 3Marple Locks.) and ended at a village a little way to the west (Note 4This is Bugsworth (now Buxworth), which is seven miles to the south east of Marple.). From this canal someone (Note 5The Company of Proprietors of the Peak Forest Canal in 1794.), before Joe was born, had conceived the idea of running a line through to another village much higher up (Note 6Dove Holes.), and to certain limestone quarries. This line passed under the main street (Note 7Buxton Road.) fifty yards beyond the last houses of Townend (Note 8Townend, Chapel-en-le-Frith.), not very far from Warmbrook Farm.

Naturally this tramroad fascinated young Joe, and continued to do so as he grew up, for the chief motive-power was horses (Note 9Horses were used to haul waggons up the tramway from Bugsworth. In the opposite direction, waggons coasted down it under the action of gravity.). There were a warehouse, a big yard, and a row of stables just below the main street (Note 10Buxton Road, Townend, Chapel-en-le-Frith.), for it was an important unloading place for local supplies and also for several villages in a long dale to the east, which had only roads in and out (Note 11This is the route taken by the A6 trunk road.). Here, too, the more or less level line (Note 12The line was not level. There was a gently rising gradient from Bugsworth.) from the canal 'port' (Note 13Bugsworth Canal Basin.) took a sharp climb, so steep that horses could not face it (Note 14The inclined plane at Chapel-en-le-Frith.).

But perhaps this line is worth describing in more detail, as a record of the primitive transport (Note 15Far from being primitive the design of the tramway was quite ingenious as it enabled waggons to travel down it under the action of gravity. As gravity is free, the only cost was that of the labour.) with which for 120 years Joe's, and a number of other villages, had to manage. At the 'port' (Note 16Bugsworth Canal Basin.), goods were shifted by hand cranes out of barges (Note 17More often referred to as boats or narrow boats on narrow canals.) into the tramroad trucks. Each truck weighed sixteen hundredweight and would carry up to two tons (Note 18Actually between 2 and 2½tons.). As many as forty trucks (Note 19The Company Bye-Laws stipulated that the maximum number of waggons in a train or gang was not to exceed twelve. However, it is known that this by-law was not rigorously enforced.) were sometimes run together (in a 'gang'), the total weight being normally about 120 to 150 tons (Note 20The total or gross weight was, therefore, actually between 110 and 130 tons, the nett weight being between 80 and 100 tons.).

From the wharf (Note 21Bugsworth Canal Basin.) the gang set off for the village (Note 22Townend, Chapel-en-le-Frith.) hauled by five horses in line attended by a man and youth (Note 23The workman in charge of a gang of waggons was a waggoner and the youth who assisted him was an apprentice.), who took them the two miles to a half-way trough, where the horses were unhooked and rested (Note 24Horses could drink from a horse trough and rest.). Here there would usually be a down gang waiting, brought there of their own weight (Note 25That is, under the action of gravity.), a man in charge as a brakeman (Note 26This is incorrect. The waggoner was responsible for controlling the speed of a descending gang of waggons to not more than four miles per hour.

The Company Bye-Laws stipulated that the speed of descending waggons was not to exceed four miles per hour but this was not rigorously enforced and speeds of up to six miles per hour were not uncommon.

The brakeman worked in the contol cabin on a tower at the top of the inclined plane and it was his job to control the movement of waggons over the plane.
); or if no gang had arrived one soon would, and after it would come a boy from the village with another five horses (Note 27The village would probably be Townend, Chapel-en-le-Frith.

Horses were regularly changed when they were tired.
). Now the man who had come up from the wharf (Note 28Bugsworth Canal Basin.) took over the down gang as brakeman (Note 29Waggoner, not brakeman.), and left the lad who had gone with him to return with the horses, while the man and youth from the village (Note 30Townend, Chapel-en-le-Frith.) hooked up their five horses and took the gang 'forrard' on the remaining two miles (Note 31To Townend, Chapel-en-le-Frith.). When the tramroad was in its heyday three gangs were taken down each day in this way and three were brought up.

At the village junction shunting took place (Note 32This was the marshalling yard at Townend, Chapel-en-le-Frith.), those trucks for the farther villages being made up into fresh gangs, an old, wise horse being retained for this work. When a gang was ready, this horse towed it to the foot of the climb, known as 'the incline', where the trucks were hooked on a wire hawser (Note 33This was an endless steel rope two inches in diameter.). At the top was another marshalling area, another warehouse, and another row of stables - for eight horses. This was the Top o' th' Plain (sic) (Note 34'Plain should read Plane.). The outstanding building was the control cabin, of wood, on tall stilts, like an early lighthouse (Note 35This is the tower where the brakeman worked.). The man on duty there (Note 36The brakeman.) had a clear view of the slope, and all over the marshalling area just below him. Between the stilts was an iron wheel, ten feet in diameter, with a grooved edge, and set on a perpendicular axle (Note 37This was the brake drum and it was 14 feet in diameter, not 10 feet.). Around the groove ran the steel hawser. When the bottom gang was ready a huge white board (Note 38This board was hexagonal.) on long pole was turned broadside as a signal, then the control man gave a sign to his mate, who removed the chocks holding back a loaded gang at the top, and over it went, its weight hauling up the gang on the other line (Note 39A maximum of eight loaded waggons in a gang were permitted to descend the inclined plane.). In fog a big bell jangled as signal. If the big wheel was spinning too fast, then the man in the cabin could screw a brake down on the rim and delay the wheel somewhat by friction (Note 40The speed of waggons on the plane was contolled by a band brake integral with the rope drum. The brakeman operated this from the contol cabin by pulling on a long lever, using a block and tackle to do this, if necessary.).

Each gang was taken on from the Top o' th' Plain (sic) by a four-horse team in-line for a mile or so to another half-way point, the highest of all (Note 41The maximum height of the tramway occured at a point under one mile from its terminus near Dove Holes, so it was not half-way as stated here.), the gang rolling two farther miles after that by gravity. All the horses used - twenty-five to thirty regularly in the seven miles - were retired from ordinary railway delivery duties through city streets, their feet knocked up by the rough setts in those days (Note 42This sentence is erroneous. Horses for use on the tramway were bred locally, one family doing this being the Marchington family. They operated haulage teams on the upper level of the tramway as well as having their own farm.). When hauling a gang, they trod on earth between the narrow lines (Note 43The lines were laid to a gauge of 4 feet 2 inches.), there being no sleepers, each rail being spiked on to squared blocks of gritstone (Note 44These were the stone sleeper blocks, which were not squared being of random shape, but the upper and lower surfaces were parallel. Sleeper blocks were also made from sandstone and, occasionally, even basalt near the summit.

Transverse sleepers of wood or concrete were not used.
) set firmly in the ground at twelve to eighteen-inch intervals (Note 45This is erroneous. Stone sleeper blocks were set at intervals of one yard to match the length of cast-iron rails, which were one yard long.). I have thought that it must have been rather nice for old horses jaded by city labour, this life along the line, for it passed three-quarters of its length through valley fields, and the remainder along the lip of a tree-deep gorge, as attractive as any in the Peakland (Note 46In this sentence the author is indulging in fantasy, as the life he describes only existed in his own imagination. Although the horses were well cared for, the reality was that life was harsh for them.). Certainly the men who worked the line liked their employment, for Joe says they very seldom left, and there was much disappointment when the line shut down (Note 47The last recorded gang of waggons to travel the complete length of the tramway occurred in 1922. This was from the limestone quarries of S Taylor Frith & Company.

The Peak Forest Tramway was legally abandoned on the 31 July 1925.

There were perils, of course. Joe often rode up to Top o' th' Plain (sic) sitting on the edge of a waggon in a gang and says he never thought anything about it then; but he has often wondered since at the risk, for he remembered the hawser snapping on several occasions, both gangs crashing down to the bridge over the main road (Note 48This was Buxton Road Bridge, which was over the tramway, not the main road.). Under this bridge there was only a single line, the gangs being hooked up and unhooked on a short level on top side. Immediately the old horse that did the assembling was released, it departed into its stable, a cave cut out of rock at the side, like an air-raid shelter (Note 49There is no known cave by the tramway and it was probably a refuge in the boundary wall. The term, air-raid shelter refers to the Second World War and is out of historical context.). There was a similar cave (Note 50This cave was a refuge in the boundary wall where workmen could stand while waggons passed by.) for the two men who worked at the bottom (Note 51···· of the inclined plane.), so that neither ever got struck down when waggons ran away.

Other men, however, seem to have risked greater danger every day, on the lengths where the gangs ran by gravity. Fully laden, they could get up great speed. The brakeman (Note 52Waggoner, not brakeman.) rode standing on the end of a waggon chassis, holding on to a waggon edge. By each pair of wheels hung a short chain with an iron pin on the end (Note 53A number of these chains have been found and they did not have a pin at one end. A chain consisted of three links with a hook at each end, one being smaller than than the other. In use, the smaller hook was hung over the side of the waggon container.). When a gang was beginning to speed too much, the man had to bend down, and thrust this pin (Note 54'threw this hook', not 'thrust this pin'.) between the iron spokes, the wheels thus being locked (Note 55The waggoner threw the large hook into a wheel to lock it, a process known as 'spragging'.). Think how adroit the man had to be. Think if he slipped or lost balance, or failed to time his thrust (Note 56'throw', not 'thrust'.) rightly, or the chain snapped! Also it was seldom enough to brake one pair of wheels or one waggon, and he had to move along the rocking gang to the next ···· perhaps perform the same operation on five or six waggons. Moreover, a wheel might be left skidding very long or it would get red hot and wear badly (Note 57Wheels did wear badly and breakages, as a result, were commonplace.), so that the man had to make his way hand over hand, jerk the pin and peg (Note 58'hook', not 'pin and peg'.) through spokes, or trip another wheel. To release the peg (Note 59'hook', not 'peg'.) he had a short iron bar he used as a lever, but obviously there must have been considerable risk in this operation, too. Yet Joe did not recall any employee being killed, and only remembered one accident, a brakeman getting an arm broken. "It were great ta watch them, they could do it like snuff."

Towards the end, the Board of Trade obliged the Company to provide iron platforms on each waggon with a guard rail for the brakeman (Note 60Waggoner, not brakeman.), but the actual wheel-locking remained as perilous as ever (Note 61The author is quite correct in what he states here but there is no evidence that the instructions of the Board of Trade were ever implemented.).

Another friend, not Joe, remembered a boy, a mischief with several pals setting some waggons going and trying to peg a wheel (Note 62'sprag a wheel', not 'peg a wheel'.). Overbalancing or being hit, he fell on the track and was cut in two (Note 63This is a recorded event, it did happen.).

The extension of the railway line seriously lessened the amount of freight carried on the tramroad, and eventually made it uneconomic (Note 64This refers to the construction of the Midland Railway line.). When first I got to know Joe the line remained intact but dead. There was grass between and over the rails, and it was pleasant to stroll in peace where once all that traffic had run. Then eventually most of the buildings were taken down, the stone used elsewhere, the rails were removed, and only the gritstone blocks were left (Note 65This refers to the stone sleeper blocks.). After more years the land was even offered for sale, and was bought in short lengths by many different persons, so that now in many places crops grow where once trundling gangs passed half-a-dozen times each day.

In October 1941 I was out with Joe when he pointed to a man going laboriously on two sticks and said, "'e were th' last man as worked on th' old tramroad, 'e were there till th' lines were took up." I believe Joe added that the man had been one of the horse-drivers, though I am not sure.

The last man to work the control cabin (Note 66This refers to the hut used by the brakeman at the top of the inclined plane.) -- he did the job for thirty years -- died about the beginning of the Second World War. Even in that war a part anyway of the tramway served a useful purpose. In the seven miles there was one tunnel, 150 yards long, with a single track penetrating a high bluff half-a-mile north of the village (Note 67This is Stodhart Tunnel, which is the oldest railway tunnel in Derbyshire as well as being the oldest surviving railway tunnel in Britain. It listed as Grade II* because of its importance but it is now on the At Risk Register of English Heritage.

The village referred to is Townend, Chapel-en-le-Frith.
). The length which included this tunnel was bought by a big industrial concern (Note 68Ferodo Ltd, manufacturer of brake linings.) and the tunnel used for storage of valuable papers from air attack, the ends being strongly sealed. Open again after the war, the tunnel has since been used for safe-keeping of highly inflammable chemicals (Note 69For a period it was used as a laboratory by Ferodo Ltd.). But the most lasting relic of the tramway is likely to be in the village (Note 70Townend, Chapel-en-le-Frith.) some distance from the defunct line. It is a strongly built, double-fronted house on a corner very nearly opposite Joe's boyhood home (Note 71The location of this house is unknown.).

"It were built wi' sixpences," said Joe one day as we passed; and I learned that the builder had for many years been the carter at the village junction (Note 72The tramway marshalling yard at Townend, Chapel-en-le-Frith.) when the tramroad was in its most prosperous period. "Th' sixpences were th' tips 'e get fer deliverin. 'e built it when 'e retired."