EDWARD BURY, 1794 – 1858

Writers of railway history have not been kind to Edward Bury.  He has been derided as a builder of tiny, old-fashioned engines, obstructively stuck in the past while greater men were pushing locomotive development forward.  He has been accused of being too commercially-minded, wangling orders for his own firm from railways which employed him as a manager.  Any grudging admission of his engines’ worth is always explained away be giving the credit to his foreman and later partner, James Kennedy.

A lot of this is unfair.  Originating in the railway power-politics of the 1830’s and 1840’s, this story was nurtured by writers of the ‘Stephenson first, the rest nowhere’ school after Bury was safely dead, and was widely propagated in the 1890’s by that creator of so much railway mythology, Clement Stretton.  Since when, Bury’s low status has been taken for granted.

In this year of his bicentenary some reassessment is overdue.

Edward Bury, F.R.S., M.I.C.E., member of the Smeatonian Society, Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, was born in Salford, Lancashire on 22nd October 1794, the son of a wealthy timber merchant, and was given a good education at Chester.  In his youth he was something of a model engineer, and after a spell as a partner in Gregson & Bury’s steam sawmills in Liverpool, he set himself up there in 1826 as an engineer and ironfounder.

His first locomotive Dreadnought, an 0-6-0 with horizontal outside 10” x 24” cylinders with an intermediate shaft and chain drive to the wheels, was intended for the Rainhill Trials of October 1829, but was not ready in time.  It is said to have had a cut-off valve and so was one of the earliest – perhaps the first – locomotive to work expansively.  It did some ballasting on the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, then under construction, from March 1830 but was ‘much objected to’ because it was on six wheels.  It was sold to John Hargreaves and thereafter worked on the Bolton & Leigh Railway.

Bury’s second engine was a four-wheeler but the objection this time was the size of the wheels: at 6' diameter they were described as ‘dangerous’ by the Liverpool & Manchester’s Engineer, George Stephenson.  As originally built – it appeared in July 1830 – it has a boiler, according to Edward Woods, ‘with a number of convoluted flues’ whatever that means.  Bury’s widow said it was a modification of the French patent i.e. Marc Seguin’s multitubular boiler patent of February 1828.  After rebuilding in May 1831 it had a boiler containing 131 tubes.  This engine, Liverpool, established Bury’s standard design practice: simple wrought-iron bar frame inside the wheels with only two bearings on each axle, horizontal inside cylinders and a round firebox in the form of a vertical cylinder with a hemispherical top and a grate with was D-shaped in plan.  The 6' coupled wheels were the largest seen up to that time, but after a high-speed derailment at Atherton on the Bolton & Leigh line in July 1831, they were reduced to 4' 6”.  In this form Liverpool can be seen passing Parkside in one of the famous Ackermann ‘long-prints’ dated November 1831.

This was a remarkable design then (when Stephenson and allied firms were using outside wooden frames plus four internal sub-frames): it was obviously the product of some serious thinking, and it lasted.  In gradually increasing sizes, the same frame design – rectangular-section bars for the top members and round-section bars for the bottom trusses – it was continued for twenty years.  From Bury’s exports to the U.S.A. the bar-frame became standard there.  The domed-top firebox likewise increased in size over the years; it too was taken up by American builders such as Norris, Rogers and Baldwin and was used by them into the mid-1850s.  Some increase in grate area within the frame was possible in making the base rectangular, but further enlargement meant the abandonment of the round box altogether, as in Bury-built engines from 1848.  The advantages of the large steam space in the Bury firebox pointed these American builders in the direction of the wagon-top or taper boiler (1850).

Bury built a few more engines for local buyers (the Liverpool & Manchester would take only one, Liver, their No. 26, and insisted at Stephenson’s urging on outside frames) but an export trade with the U.S. was quickly established.  In the 1830s Bury sold 28 engines there, more than any other British maker except R. Stephenson & Co with 35.  Bury was the Stephensons’ biggest competitor at this period and they had good reason to worry about him.

In a trial between Bury’s Liver and Stephenson’s Planet for six days in June 1832 the Bury engine was found to do the same work while burning less coke – 0·49 lbs per tone per mile against Planet’s 0·54 lbs – and this despite an attempt by a Stephenson partisan to feed Planet with better coke while also screwing down its safety valves.

Bury established himself at the Clarence Foundry & Steam Engine Works in Love Lane, Liverpool, not far from the Clarence Dock and backing onto the Leeds & Liverpool Canal.  The works eventually covered 3 acres and at its height employed 1600 men.  About 415 locomotives were manufactured there, as well as all manner of other metal goods, from marine engines to church bells.  There was a separate boiler yard at the other end of Liverpool in Harrington (now Cary) Street with a shipbuilding yard close by, off Sefton Street.  The Clarence Foundry had a frontage to Love Lane of about 400 feet, south from the corner of Burlington Street; the site today is covered by Eldonian Avenue, Jack McBain Court and some other streets.

As his foreman Bury took on James Kennedy (1797 – 1886) a millwright from Edinburgh who had previously been with Stephenson in 1824/5 and Mather Dixon & Co. from 1826.  In 1842 Bury made him a partner and with the addition of Timothy Abraham Curtis the firm was thereafter known as Bury, Curtis & Kennedy.  It has been claimed that James Kennedy was the brother of the Rainhill Trials judge, John Kennedy, but this is untrue.  One of Bury’s early fitters was James Edward McConnell, later of the Birmingham & Gloucester Railway and the London & North Western Railway; others were William Fernihough of the Eastern Counties Railway, William Paton of the Edinburgh & Glasgow Railway and Frederick Parker, Manager of Doncaster Locomotive Works.

By the standards of the time, the management was enlightened; an American visitor in 1843 was surprised to find the working day was only ten hours with wages of 26 to 30 shillings a week.  The Clarence Foundry had a reputation for good workmanship, which is borne out by the long life of many of its products.

Some 42 locomotives were built by Bury, Curtis & Kennedy for railways in Ireland: thirty for the Great Southern & Western, four for the Belfast & County Down, five for the Belfast & Ballymena and three for the Newry, Warrenpoint & Rostrevor Railway.  They were all delivered between the years 1845 and 1849.

Edward Bury’s name will always be associated with that of the London & Birmingham Railway, but as with other aspects of his life, many misleading statements have been made.

After their experience with Stephenson & Co. certain Liverpool directors of the London & Birmingham came to distrust the Newcastle firm.  In particular they disliked the Stephensons’ near-monopoly in locomotive manufacture.  They pushed a rather reluctant Edward Bury into the position of contractor for locomotive power.  Under this contract the L&B would buy engines as recommended by the contractor, who agreed to maintain them and operate the trains at a fixed rate per mile.  Before deciding on this ‘contract system’ for running their line, the L&B Board had taken advice from experts in the field, including Joseph Pease of the Stockton & Darlington and Robert Stephenson himself.  The replies were encouraging: this seemed to be the most economical way to run a railway.

The contract was signed in May 1836 and Bury prepared designs for passenger and goods engines; sets of large-scale drawings and specifications were sent out to locomotive builders who responded in some cases with offers to build.  Bury wanted every engine to be exactly like every other, though by different makers.  This was the very first scheme of standardisation of parts, despite claims which have been made in this regard for Joseph Locke and Daniel Gooch.  Sadly, he was far ahead of his time; the various firms would not work to the drawings.  Some didn’t see why it was important.  ‘Well, it works, doesn’t it?’ was their attitude.  Engines by Benjamin Hick of Bolton were the best, according to Bury ‘extremely well made’; those by Hawthorn ‘less inaccurate than the others’.  Not only did some engines deviate from the drawings, engines from the same maker differed from each other.  The wheels of an engine by Maudslay, Son & Field of Lambeth ‘would not fit under any other on the line’.


Bury arranged for the coke and water arrangements along the line and in October 1836 selected the site for the Central Engine Repairing Station about half-way between London and Birmingham where the rails were to cross the Grand Junction Canal, near the village of Wolverton.  This works and its surrounding cottages became the first of the planned railway towns, serving as a model for the later Crewe and Swindon.

The 112½ mile line was opened throughout between London and Birmingham in September 1838 – a new rapid transport system linking the capital with the industrial Midlands and North.  It set out to be businesslike – the trains had a uniform appearance unadorned by needless frills.  Unlike lesser lines there were no names on engines or carriages, simple numbers sufficed; there were no glamorous liveries; engines, carriages, staff uniforms, everything was a sober, plain green.  Bury operated this railway efficiently and the Board had good reason to congratulate itself on its choice of so competent an organiser.

Bury’s contract had been framed on a train speed of 22½ mph which had seemed reasonable in 1836, but the Post Office soon began asking for faster trains and at Bury’s own request the contract was annulled.  From January 1839 he was employed as manager of the Locomotive Department at a salary of £1000 as a minimum when the dividend was under 7% with an extra £200 for each 1% above that figure.  The L&B was soon paying a 10% dividend.

The original complement of locomotives for the main line and its 7-mile Aylesbury Branch – 60 passenger 2-2-0 and 30 goods 0-4-0 and all to the same basic design – was delivered by June 1841.  The earlier passenger engines had 12” x 18” cylinders, but the goods engines and the last 22 passenger engines built from 1839 had 13” diameter cylinders.  From 1841 Bury began fitting new 13” cylinders to the older engines.

No additions to the locomotive stock were made until 1845; from July 1844 Bury was able to dispense entirely with the rope-worked incline between Euston and Camden.  The L&B was running smoothly and its trains were being worked cheaply.

But Bury’s ‘small engine’ policy was not without its critics, and some of the directors wanted ‘big’ engines.  In 1845 it was decided – for the first time – to carry coal.  In the same year the long branch to Peterborough, with hopes of a large cattle traffic, was opened.  The board bypassed Bury and negotiated directly with Stephenson for some long-boiler 0-6-0s.  26 were obtained by subcontracted orders from the firms of Tayleur, Longridge and Nasymth: from the first they were a disaster.  They looked much bigger than the four-wheelers but were no more powerful than Bury’s own latest designs, were less versatile and were badly made.  In December 1846 half of them were in Wolverton for repair and others had been sent back to the makers.

Meanwhile, the L&B had become the southern half of the newly-formed London & North Western Railway and engines from other sections were sent south to help out.  In November 1846 a very fed-up Bury wrote to the General Manager that he intended to resign.  Surviving correspondence shows that this came as an unwelcome surprise to the Board; Bury worked on, and attended Locomotive Committee meetings until March 1847.  Compare Clement Stretton’s fanciful account: ‘The L&NWR directors ordered that Bury’s 4-wheeled engines were not to be employed on the express trains…..Mr. Bury firmly refused to carry out the orders……24 hours settled the question.  Mr. Bury had to go’.  Vivid, but pure fiction.

In fact, detailed records exist showing that 10-carriage trains were being regularly worked from Euston by single 13” 2-2-0s at the end of 1847 despite more than 60 ‘big engines’ acquired since Bury’s departure.  And despite all the stories of seven engines on one train and chronic double-heading, two engines were only used on the heavier trains, usually of more than 20 carriages and this was whether or not they pulled by Bury’s or ‘big’ engines.

The (English) Great Northern Railway appointed Bury as Locomotive Superintendent in February 1848 and the Board was sufficiently impressed by him to make him also General Superintendent in June 1849.  He prepared the first plans for Doncaster Locomotive Works.

Bury left the GNR in March 1850 after complaints that he was placing orders for ironwork with firms with which he was associated.  According to the diary of R.B. Dockray of the L&NWR, Charles Fox of Fox, Henderson & Co was ‘the presiding fiend in this….. His imagination and malevolence will supply abundance of suspicious facts.  I shall be curious to know how so experienced and I believe really upright a man as Bury will clear himself’.  The items in question were 25 to 30 sets of spare carriage wheels – a minor item when Bury was then involved in seeking tenders from nine firms (none of them Bury, Curtis & Kennedy) for 20 goods and passenger engines.  Perhaps it was a slip; perhaps he was too busy trying to get the GNR started.

His successor on the L&NWR was J.E. McConnell, his former fitter, at £700 a year.  McConnell (who was born at Fermoy in 1815, of Scottish parents) is most famous for the ‘Bloomer’ singles of 1851, so successful that they ran the southern L&NW expresses until Webb’s ‘Precedents’ took over in the late 1870s.  There is irony in the fact that the acclaimed ‘Bloomer’ design came directly from a group of six engines delivered to the L&NWR in 1848 from Bury, Curtis & Kennedy.  Apart from a slight overall enlargement, the main difference was that the ‘Bloomers’ were on one-piece iron plate-frames, probably because they were built by Sharp Bros, where Charles Beyer was in control.  The rest of the design was a straight ‘lift’ from the Bury engine, plus a fancy brass dome.  The ‘Bloomer’ went on to be the basis for Webb’s ‘Precedent’ but that is another story.

Despite building a series of tough, capable engines, Bury’s Clarence Foundry failed, apparently because the Russian Government defaulted on a large bill.  BC&K designed and produced most of the ironwork for a swing bridge over the Neva in St. Petersburg.  It was opened by the Tsar in November 1850, but by that time the Clarence Foundry has closed.

So far from being ‘endowed richly with the commercial instinct’ as E.L. Ahrons put it, it seems that the money-making instinct was the very thing Bury lacked.  His first concern was always in running railways efficiently; if he placed orders with his own firm it was because he could rely on his own products.  Kennedy was later to complain that if he had only had a good commercial man as partner he would have carried on with the Clarence Foundry.

Bury retired to Windermere, but did not enjoy a long retirement.  He died on 25th November 1858 aged 64 and was buried at Scarborough.

Of the 400-plus locomotives built by Bury, Curtis & Kennedy, only two survive, Furness Railway No. 3 ‘Old Coppernob’ in the Railway Museum at York – an 0-4-0 of 1846 – and the Great Southern & Western Railway No. 36, an express engine with 6' diameter single driving wheels, now in the entrance hall of Cork Station.  No. 36 was built in December 1847 and is a 5' 3” gauge version of a class built for the London & Birmingham in the previous year.  The first thing that strikes the onlooker is how big this engine is, although basically it is simply a Bury 2-2-0 of his original design, enlarged and with a trailing axle.  ‘Coppernob’ too, is quite a big engine for 1846.  Both had long and busy lives and both are in practically original condition: they were built to last.

 Bury’s legacy – from the railway workshops at Wolverton and Doncaster down to such details as the net parcel-rack and the varnished-teak livery for carriages – undoubtedly includes many improvements in locomotive design which have been credited to others.  A rather reserved, cultured and speculative product of the eighteenth century, he was unlike the generation of locomotive superintendents which succeeded him: his was no ‘rags-to-riches’ story.  The new man at Wolverton was anxious to make his mark, denigrating his predecessor in the process.  Bury’s achievements were swept under the carpet by the new brooms on the L&NWR.  His story was of no interest to Samuel (‘Self-help’) Smiles: it was left to his widow to put out a short memoir.  This was ignored.

 Now, two hundred years after his birth and with the availability of railway archives unknown to earlier writers, Edward Bury can be recognised as a great railway organiser and one of the greatest locomotive pioneers.


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