The Railway Raid in The Spectator 23 November 1844

A peculiar satiric 1844 Spectator article addition to my research on The ‘Battle’ of Saxby 1844 (background research here on previous post):

Some of the Midland Railway ‘Troops’ 1844 – vintage Airfix track workers

The Battle of Saxby is ‘entertainingly’ described in The Spectator in 23 November 1844  with an amused mock “war correspondent” tone that becomes almost satire.

Britain in the 1840s was in between major wars, Waterloo was now a generation ago and had yet to suffer the shame of Crimea. The tone might not have been so mocking after Crimea.

The article is computer transcribed presumably by optical reader software, so I have corrected and amended as required

The Railway Raid, The Spectator, 23 November 1844

A civil  war is raging in Leicestershire.

Hostilities are in active progress between the Earl of HARBOROUGH and the Midland Railway Company.

As we read about the valorous exploits of the champions on either side, the imagination is carried back to the times when feudal barons levied war against incorporated boroughs, and stout burgesses laid siege to the castles of feudal nobles.

Since the days of Warwick the King-maker there have been no such stirring deeds as have of late been doing in the land of foxhunting, and now merit to be recorded in prose or numerous verse. As to such warlike operations as those of the French in Algeria, or our own gallant Engineer-officers at the siege of Chatham, they are far outshone by the untaught military geniuses of the Midland Counties.

The siege of Stapleford Park was raised on Saturday last, (the Commander of the Midland Railway Company’s forces, General COPE, having proved as unlucky as his namesake of the year ’45), by the retainers of Lord HARBOROUGH, commanded by General FABLING; whose victory, notwithstanding his suspicious name, is as authentic as any recorded in the bulletins of NAPOLEON. Till the civil commotions in Guernsey leave General NAPIER at leisure to write the history of this remarkable campaign, we shall attempt a sketch of it. [Ed. see my footnote about Napier and Guernsey].

Stapleford Park is situate near the Confines of Leicestershire and Rutlandshire, between Melton Mowbray and Oakham. The Oakham Canal, or, more correctly speaking, its towing-path, passes close under the park-wall. The Midland Railway Company, proud of its joint-stock force, had sent word to Lord Harborough  that its engineers would survey his park, somewhat in the same spirit that the Percy out of Northumberland sent word to the Douglas, “That he would hunt in the mountains Of Cheviot within days three.”

And with the spirit of the old Douglas did HARBOROUGH and FABLING reply, “We will let that surveying an if we may”

‘General’ Cope was the Chief Surveyor for this project for the Midland Railway.

On Wednesday the 13th of November 1844, the Railway forces, a mustering seven strong, attempted to penetrate into the park by the Oakham Canal towing-path. The Harborough retainers, in number nine, overpowered and took them prisoners. The captives were carried to Cold Overton Hall ; but the keeper of that castle being from home, the leader who captured them said, “It would be better for all parties to separate for the night.” This was accordingly done; the Harborough troops retaining the spirit- level of the surveyor as the gauge of victory. It does not appear that the commanding officers on either side were present at this affair.

Cold Overton Hall was the seat of the Earl of of Cowley

The attack was renewed more earnestly on Thursday [the 13th of November 1844].

At the early hour of nine, the defenders of the park were observed collecting, under General FABLING, to the number of forty, in the vicinity of Saxby Bridge.

The clerk and treasurer of the Oakham Canal Company, which adheres in this war to the Harborough cause, were at their posts. This alliance, and the issue of the siege, may appear to some to corroborate the opinion so often emphatically expressed by Mr. COBDEN, that the aristocracy never triumphed over the towns but by sowing dispensions among them.

Preparations for a most determined resistance were made by the allied forces, by barricading the towing path on both sides of the bridge with ” trays.”

The assailants were soon after seen advancing in two columns, one from Melton and the other from Oakham; each conducted by its leaders in chaises and waving proudly the flag-staffs of the surveyors.

A lengthened parley ensued, in the true Homeric fashion. A demonstration was made against the barrier on the Oakham side of the bridge, but soon relinquished. Reinforcements of his Lordship’s vassals kept pouring in; and strong detachments from Oakham and Stamford were added to the assailants.

A neutral body — consisting of four or five County Police — declared, a la Randolph, “The man who strikes makes us his foe.” Hereupon each party, unwilling to draw upon it another enemy, wisely resolved to eschew striking.

The Harborough forces wedged themselves together on the Melton side, presenting a formidable living barrier.

The Engineer-officers of the other party drew up their front-rank men with their backs close to the forces of the Earl’s party, and instructed the rear-ranks and reserve to rush upon their own friends and drive them like wedges through the hostile array.

“Dire was the din of conflict “; men’s bodies were seen from the pressure to spring as high into the air over the heads of the contending parties as ever lance-heads did at a tournament. Mud bedaubed the clothes of all.

A breach was made in the line of the defenders, and the chain carried through in triumph; but immediately seized hold of, and broken. After this exploit, the defendants scampered for about a quarter of a mile down the towing-path; then halted, and formed their barrier de novo. The Railway troops did not venture to renew the assault; the defendants retired within their intrenchments, and the assailants returned to their quarters.

Friday [the 15th of November 1844] passed without any movement on the part of the besiegers. But late in the evening, news came to FABLING that an assault was to be made before daybreak next morning.

Immediately all was bustle within the intrenchments.

Every assailable point was strengthened with hurdles and waggons, and a fire-engine placed in readiness to pump upon the enemy at the place where the first attack was expected.

The uncertainty, however, of the defenders as to the point selected for the assault, weakened their arrangements: the park contains 800 acres, and the garrison was too small to man every part of the wall.

FABLING in this emergency had, like other great commanders, resource to a fable: he despatched a letter to the hostile chief, assuring him that he had in readiness “a few cannon from Lord Harborough’s yacht,” and concluding “Dear Sir, yours faithfully.” But his adversary had too much experience to be thus deceived: he knew that the cannon spoken of were only meant to throw cold water on his enterprise.

At seven o’clock a.m. on Saturday [the 16th of November 1844], Cope with 100 stout men – fresh recruits from Stamford, and the Peterborough and Midland Railways – swarmed over the park-paling on the side next Oakham; and immediately four chains were in active operation.

Captain LATHAM’S troop had been advanced, it is true, at an early hour in the direction of Oakham to reconnoitre; but he took the route by Whissendine and Langham, and thus missed the enemy, who came on by Ashwell and Teigh.

The successful assailants pushed right on in the direction of Lord HARBOROUGH’S cottage; and already the foremost chain might be descried from the Earl’s bedroom-window, when the gallant FABLING, followed by a handful of men whom he had collected, cantered up on a pony to the scene of action.

COPE, relying on his superior force, scornfully declared he had no wish to hurt FABLING, and ordered the Railway men to carry him off.

The reply deigned by that gallant leader was a command to his followers to carry off the measuring-chains. Brown, the Herculean lock-keeper of the Oakham Canal, threw himself before his chief; and every blow he dealt sent an enemy rolling heels-over-head. But the Railway party galled him sore with their spikes.

The noise of fray was heard in every village for two miles round. Lord Harborough, though enfeebled with illness, was seen to approach the scene of action, accompanied by his lady;  and the sight nerved anew the arms of his faithful troops.

Parties of the tenantry kept pouring in from Freeby and Saxby, from Wymondham, Whissendine, and Teigh.

At last, “Cope could not cope,” and the assailants evacuated the park, leaving their staves and chains, and other munitions of war, behind them.

Thus did the merry men of Leicestershire send “bootless home and weather-beaten back a host of  invaders, gathered from Stamford and from Hertfordshire, from Birmingham, and from Gracechurch Street and Churchill Street, London.

We have said that this siege reminded one of the old times when barons and burghers used to levy war against each other. The resemblance holds good to the close. It used to be customary in those days to invoke the authority of the Church to allay intestine broils; and we learn from the Times that ” warrants for the apprehension of some of the rioters have been granted by the Reverend G. E. Gillett.”

So the Railway war is in a fair train to get into the hands of the lawyers ; and in that case, both parties will learn, what all have learned who have ever been foolish enough to go to war, that the after-costs are worse than the fighting.

OCR Transcript can be seen on The Spectator archive website (URL above)  and the original page also at  Google books

Research in Terry Coleman’s excellent book The Railway Navvies

Some more character name references:

Reverend G. E. Gillett was or became Rector at Waltham, Leicestershire, England


Clement Edwin Stretton’s History of the Midland Railway is available as free E-book


The reference to Napier and Guernsey?

Taken from,_William_Francis_Patrick_(DNB00)

William Francis Patrick Napier (1785–1860), Napoleonic Officer and Military Historian

On 29 May 1841 Napier was given a special grant of 150l. per annum for his distinguished services. On 23 Nov. he was promoted major-general, and in February 1842 was appointed lieutenant-governor of Guernsey and major-general commanding the troops in Guernsey and Alderney.

He landed at Guernsey on 6 April, and threw himself into his new duties heart and soul; but he found much to discourage him. The defences were wretched, the militia wanted complete reorganisation, and the administration of justice was scandalous. In the five years of his government, despite local obstruction, he devised a scheme of defence which was generally accepted by a special committee from London of artillery and engineer officers, and was partially executed.

He reorganised and rearmed the militia. He powerfully influenced the states of the island to adopt a new constitution …
At Guernsey he devoted his spare time to writing a history of the ‘Conquest of Scinde,’ the achievement in which his brother Charles had recently been engaged. On the return of Lord Ellenborough from India he wrote, offering to publish the political part of the history first, and after some correspondence which established a lifelong friendship between him and Ellenborough, this was done.

In November 1844 the first part was published, and was read by the public with avidity; but, as with the ‘History of the Peninsular War,’ it involved Napier in endless controversy. There was this difference, however: the ‘History of the Conquest of Scinde’ was written with a purpose. It was not only the history of Sind, but the defence of a brother who had been cruelly misrepresented. The descriptions of the battles are not surpassed by any in the Peninsular war, but the calmness and impartiality of the historian are too often wanting. The publication of the second part of the ‘Conquest of Scinde’ in 1846 drew upon him further attacks, and the strength of his language in reply often exceeded conventional usage.

At the end of 1847 Napier resigned his appointment as lieutenant-governor of Guernsey. In February 1848 he was given the colonelcy of the 27th regiment of foot, and in May he was made a K.C.B. In the same year Napier wrote some ‘Notes on the State of Europe.’ Towards the end of 1848 the Liverpool Financial Reform Association published some tracts attacking the system by which the soldiers of the army were clothed through the medium of the colonels of regiments. The association sent its tracts to Napier, himself a clothing colonel, upon which he wrote a series of six vindicatory letters to the ‘Times’ newspaper, dating 29 Dec. 1848 to 1 Feb. 1849. They form Appendix VII. to Bruce’s ‘Life of General Sir William Napier.’ … (Source: Wikipedia)

I wonder if Napier’s controversial memoirs might have inspired the style of the ‘battle’ report of Saxby in The Spectator.