Cheshunt's Palmer railway

Colin Wilson

A Palmer railway showing the trucks and the gate system. Image from the Jack Edwards collection
Courtesy of Hertfordshire Archives & Local Studies ref DE/Je/4/479
Hebert's development of the Palmer railway. Image from the Jack Edwards collection
Courtesy of Hertfordshire Archives & Local Studies ref DE/Je/4/476

Some unconventional ideas create amusement on the basis of ‘who could ever have thought that could work’. The Palmer railway is one instance where the ‘daft’ idea did work. While this article is not specifically about Hertfordshire, the idea did have roots in the county. It also expands on two images in the Archive’s collection.

Nicholas Blatchley has already written an article about the Palmer railway in Cheshunt, the second of its type in England. It was designed to transport bricks the short distance to the River Lea. For the opening ceremony a special barouche style car was built, but it has not survived. That may be the only time passengers were carried, but opinions vary. An image in the Jack Edwards collection shows what the railway may have looked like, but it may not be an image of the one in Cheshunt (note the hills in the background). It includes the idea that a gate system could allow roads to be crossed.

But that’s nothing like the end of the story – and there were successes. Palmer’s book was published in 1821, and reprinted just 2 years later. Hence it must have elicited some interest.

Jack Edwards’ collection has an image of a later development – a proposal by Luke Hebert to use the monorail and sail power to transport fish from the South coast to London. You have to wonder if relying on the wind direction would be a good idea and how long the journey would take. If the wind was from the south, maybe the fish smell would reach London before the goods. Interestingly there is a steam train and a horse-drawn coach in the background.

Go forward half a century to the Philadelphia Exhibition of 1877, and Mr Le-Roy Stone exhibited a monorail. Steam powered, its coaches were large enough to have two levels. Further developments took place in the United States, Canada, Australia and Germany. One proposed in Canada was 100 miles long, from Levis to Kennebec. A link between New York and Washington was proposed in 1895. It was thought trains could run at 120 mph. 1897 saw a development whereby the rail was raised and lowered hydraulically to create a gradient meaning the train would be gravity powered. This did not progress past the design stage.

There were further proposals to construct monorails in London. But it was in Germany that the idea really took hold. A monorail was built between Barmen and Elberfeld, a distance of over 8 miles, opening in 1901. It lasted until damaged in 1943 during World War II, but was rebuilt by 1946. By the end of 1954 the trains had run 150,000,00 km conveying over 800,000,000 million passengers.

The Listowel and Ballybunion Railway, in Ireland, was opened in 1888 but closed in 1924. The designer was Charles Lartigue. He had already constructed a 90km prototype in Algeria to carry esparto grass. A benefit of elevation was that it would not be covered by sand. It was carried on A frames rather than single posts. It has now been reconstructed as a tourist attraction.

The two benefits of monorails were cost and safety. They were less than half the cost of conventional railways and a quarter the cost of underground lines. As they were constructed like panniers hanging each side of the rail, they were inherently stable, allowing higher speeds.

In other words, what may have seemed to be a fanciful idea did have serious developments. And the first two of this type were in London and Cheshunt.


DE/Je/4/476 and DE/Je/4/479. Images at HALS in Jack Edwards collection

Unusual Railways, by B G Wilson and J R Day, pub Frederick Muller, London

More Unusual Railways, by J R Day, pub Frederick Muller, London is Nicholas Blatchley’s article Website accessed Feb 2023 has a biography of Palmer. Includes a more detailed drawing of his monorail and search for film clip 91411. Has a film of the Listowel & Ballybunion railway from 1931

This page was added on 24/02/2023.

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