All Things Local February 2017 : Dirty Old Town

Walk along the Ripley Greenway, even on a winter’s day, and there is a sense of peace. The deep cutting as it skirts the town centre limits the traffic noise, and the path is a green corridor with vegetation on either side.

And yet, this old railway line reminds us of Ripley’s industrial past, when life was very different. It was one of many lines, both passenger and pit, that virtually surrounded the town. You couldn’t really move out of Ripley without crossing a railway line of some sort : the line to Ripley pit crossed the iron bridge on Nottingham Road, both the Midland Railway and pit lines crossed Derby Road at Marehay, whilst the Butterley works railway actually went under the road at Butterley corner. Even going West to the hills you were accompanied by the Ambergate- Ironville line.

Ripley round about 1880 showing the network of railway lines

Steam engines, especially pulling heavy trucks laden with coal, are noisy and dirty things. On the Butterley Company’s 20 miles of track, they ran trains from 5am to 10pm, sometimes through the night. In the works itself, the incline from the furnace yard to the Top Plain was so steep that it took two or even three engines to pull a bridge section up. Add to this the smoke and noise of the blast furnaces, kept alight 24 hours a day for years, steam engines  at work pumping air to provide the blast and  the constant ring of hammered iron, and you have a town where peace and quiet would be a rare and precious thing.

For Edie Barnes Wallis, the mother of the famous aircraft designer, who lived for a time on Butterley Hill, the works even lit up the night. She said :” All night long the sky pulsated with the glow of the fires, on a cloudy night much more than on a clear, up and down, up and down, across the window blind.” She was interested in the works , and passed on the interest to her sons : “Not far from us was an engine house with an endless rope, for drawing trucks of coal up the steep hill from the canal and a pit nearby.  My children always called this engine house ‘the pit that sighs” because when the bell rang for the laden trucks to come up, the engines started with a kind of sob, and for 15 minutes or so it went ‘Ah-ha, ah-ha, ah-ha’, as you do when you sigh profoundly.  I heard it sighing every day as I fed my fowls in my garden.  The children loved to go and watch the trucks slowly stealing up the gangway.”

Filling a blast furnace at Butterley from “The Penny Magazine” of 1844

Added to the sounds and smoke of the works and the railways, everyone had coal fires for heating and cooking. Imagine what all this grime and soot would do to the washing on the line, let alone the air quality.

It seems ironic, then, that the line which was once part of all this noise and dirt, can now be described as a “green lung” for the town.