Backford, Mollington & Lea Villages


When the Chester and Birkenhead Railway was incorporated in 1837, as part of a strategy to link Birmingham to the Mersey Docks at Birkenhead via Chester, the development of a national railway network was in its early stages. One of these early routes was to pass along the centre of the Wirral through the small agricultural Chester townships of Mollington and Lea by Backford. Analysis of census data for the area enables us to show the measurable changes the advent of the railway had on this rural backwater of Mollington, its community and its working population in a relative short period

In 1847, James Ward the Victorian philosopher and writer penned the following: “Railway communication must be acknowledged as the great fact of the age. It stands out in hard prominence from the ordinary level of the incidents and events of human progress, and marks an epoch in the history of civilisation.”

The railways were one of the principal contributors to the explosive growth of industry in Britain in the nineteenth century. After many years of debate and considerable opposition from vested interests such as the stage coach and toll road operators and the canal companies along with many landowners, in 1826 Parliament gave permission for the building of the first passenger rail line, the Manchester & Liverpool Railway. The proposed passenger line would run between Crown Street Station, Liverpool and Walter Street, Manchester but the directors were split between using locomotives and stationary engines; to resolve this issue, they decided to have a competition with a £500 prize for the winning locomotive and thus the famous Rainhill trials of October 1829 were born. Each locomotive was required to haul a load of three times its own weight at speeds of at least 10 mph and to make at least twenty runs over the trial track in order to simulate a return journey between Liverpool and Manchester. Out of ten competitors, Stephenson's “Rocket” won and less than one year later, the Liverpool & Manchester line was opened.

From that point, national railway growth took-off like the proverbial rocket. From a few tens of miles of track in 1830, the figure reached almost 1500 miles by 1840, 6600 miles by 1850 and 10,500 by 1860. The 1840s are referred to by some historians as the period of “Railway Mania”; railway shares increased in value causing further speculative investment until the “financial bubble” burst. Much money was lost but the nation gained, in a very short period of time, a vast rail infrastructure, considerably larger than in any other country. One of the the peak year for promoting investment was 1846, when 272 Acts of Parliament were passed to set up new railway companies. Not all were built immediately since even by this date, the financial problems were starting to build up

After years of argument over the most suitable route, the original parliamentary bill setting up the Chester and Birkenhead Railway received the Royal Assent on 12th July 1837. A further Act to resolve outstanding issues had its third reading on Wednesday, 4th March 1840

When the Liverpool & Manchester Railway was opened in 1830, it quickly led to the rerouting via Liverpool of much high-value freight and passenger traffic that went between Chester and Manchester. In 1836 it was stated that “the Carriers have abandoned the Carriage of goods by Land' between Chester and Manchester”.

In anticipation of the successful passing of the Chester and Birkenhead Railway Act, the construction of the railway had already started some time earlier. The Company was incorporated in 1837. It immediately placed a bill before Parliament which was initially rejected after eleven days of committee hearings but a second Bill was passed later that year. The cost of obtaining the act exceeded £10,000.

Subsequently the 15 mile line was opened to the public on 23rd September 1840, just ten years after the first public passenger railway service and at the same time as the Chester Crewe Railway. Newspaper records for 1840 show that on the 10th of September the directors of the Chester & Birkenhead Railway collected their engines and 2nd class carriages from Warrington and by way of the line from Crewe to Chester brought them to the city amid “deafening expressions of rejoicing from a large concourse of spectators” (Ref 1.)

The Chester and Birkenhead Railway was promoted as “offering a potential short route to Liverpool via the Mersey Ferries”. The first part of the route from Birkenhead to Eastham was built by Bowers Murray & Brownbill while the rest of the line was constructed by Messrs. Clements and Henry. This included the very significant engineering task of designing and building the 41 foot high Moston viaduct. Here the line needed to cross the Ellesmere Port – Chester branch of the Shropshire Union Canal as it passed through Mollington. The viaduct comprises 11 red sandstone brick arches including a centre arch of 50ft span with the others of 20ft. The original gauge was a single 4’9” and with provision to lay a second line. The second line was mostly completed by 1847. George Stevenson’s bid of £250,000 won the contract competing against John Hawkshaw who had estimated the cost at £370,000. By 1843 Stevenson’s estimate had more than doubled, vindicating Hawkshaw. The line was to cost £513,000 which equated to £34,198 per single line mile which was considered expensive in the absence of serious obstacles.

The surveyor engaged by the C&B Ry. Co. was the first of Mollington’s local residents to have a part to play in this venture. His name was John Davies (Ref.2.) a well respected land surveyor and although he came from Allington near Gresford in North Wales where his family were land agents he was a resident of ‘Mollington Village’ at the time of the 1851 census with his wife Mary and their adopted daughter Mary Anne. Exactly how long they had lived in the village before that is not known, they did not appear in the census of 1841 but the Davies family were resident in Mollington at the Willows in 1851 and at Rose Farm, in 1861. John Davies died in 1864

The rail route was to pass directly through the township of Mollington and, apparently without opposition to its construction by the local land owners. The construction did suffer considerable disruption by the temporary workforce due to friction between the English and Irish 'Navigators' (navvies) working on the project. By October 1839 over 900 men were working on the southern section of the route; the most serious of these disputes was in 1839, it lasted four days when workers at Sutton near Ellesmere Port some x miles from Mollington rioted and it needed a detachment of 200 infantry to restore order. In the mid 1840s, the Chester and Birkenhead Railway became part of the Birkenhead, Lancashire and Cheshire Junction Railway, which then merged (date) into the London and North Western Railway (LNWR). The other major operator out of Chester was the Great Western Railway (GWR) and considerable rivalry existed between these two
companies but in 1860, surprisingly these two powerful competitors agreed to jointly operate the Chester to Birkenhead line as a separate entity, the Birkenhead Railway.

The rail route was allowed to cross the Mollington Hall estate The estate was owned by John Fielden who himself was an investor in Railway schemes… "In spite of the fact that game birds would be disturbed, John Feilden appears to have been one of the railway's promoters". The construction work must have been very disruptive along the line through the Parish because, according to the ‘Plans & Sections’ (Ref.2), the line passed through 18 fields owned by John Fielden of Mollington Hall. The tenant farmers, Thomas Robinson of ‘Dunkirk Farm’, Hannah Hancock of ‘Demage Farm’ and Thomas Mason at ‘Lea Hall’. All these Mollington residents would have been significantly affected by the rail line. A cottage and garden as well as an occupation road were taken out during the construction work, this being the old ‘North Lodge and approach’ to Mollington Hall and the home of George Farrington who was re-housed elsewhere in the village.

The Lea-Mollington road was bridged, and in 1841, the Mollington station was built on the edge of the village some 3 miles from the centre of Chester. and close to the site of the North Lodge mentioned above, The Feilden Arms and Motto, , are still featured over the front door of Station House. This coat of arms illustrates the close involvement of John Fielden and may be a relic of the former north lodge The station is now a private residence.

It is thought that the first station was only a temporary structure, possibly south of the canal, because it was originally named Moston after the adjoining township. During the 1840,s the route was used for the Irish Mail in preference to a route through to Liverpool until the Chester Holyhead rail was built

The importance and effect the railway had on the local community cannot be over-emphasised both in terms of the mobility of people and goods and in employment. The impact of the arrival of newspapers on the day of publication and the use of local post offices to receive and collect mail was to change things forever With a first class fare from Chester to Mollington costing 1s-0d, second class 9d and third class 6d, rail travel was not affordable to such as agricultural workers whose average weekly wage was 9s-3½d in 1850. For the rural worker, the attractive personal opportunity which the railways offered was relatively stable employment, unaffected by weather or the seasons of the year and with good long term employment prospects.

Within one month of opening 10,000 passengers had travelled on the line. In the 1840s, passenger traffic was much more lucrative than goods as exemplified by the accounts for 1846 which show that the Chester to Birkenhead line carried more than 170,000 passengers yielding over £15,000, while goods traffic and mail produced less than £2,500. By 1885 over 20 passenger trains ran from Chester to Birkenhead each day.

Mollington station was opened in December 1840. In it’s hey day, it was a hive of activity with a stationmaster, two porters and a signalman, and there was a goods yard in which coal and animal feed were stored for onward delivery or collection.

 Local residents can still remember when coal merchants would deliver locally, picking up from the station, while farmers either collected their own food or had the milk carrying companies collect for them. Mollington Station was renowned for having the best garden on the line, and regular commuters were presented by the stationmaster with a buttonhole each morning during the summer months!

Later in 1940 a siding for 15 tank-wagons was built at Mollington to serve the nearby aviation fuel dumps. Also built at this time, at Mollington, was a “bomb proof” signal box. In 1941–1942 as many as six special ordnance trains per day were routed to Birkenhead, carrying ammunition for the North African campaigns. The trade was reversed in 1943–1944 as ammunition was imported through Bromborough and taken to Shropshire for ultimate use by the American forces.

Detailed analysis of the census data reveals how the numbers of rail employees increased over the years and fundamentally changed the employment profile of what was a rural backwater