Thomas Webster Rammell was born at Streete Court, Westgate on Sea, Kent in 1815; he became a Civil Engineer and emerges into history with his first patent in 1846. He was subsequently to file over twenty-eight patents in forty years. In 1849-55 he was employed as a Superintendent Inspector of the Metropolitan Board of Health, and in 1851 he was elected to the Reform Club and Fellowship of the Geological Society. He seems to have resided at the Reform Club until his marriage in 1874, and from there in 1856 he patented a method of 'Constructing Railways and Propelling Carriages Thereon' foreshadowing the preoccupation of the rest of his life.


 Propelling trains by compressed or rarefied air was not a new idea; Medhurst in 1810 had proposed small pistons sucked through tubes to carry letters, and Vallance in 1827 extended this idea to passengers. Pinkus, in 1835, adopted the alternate method of having a small traction pipe between the lines of a conventional railway, to form the Atmospheric Railway; this was improved by Clegg and Samuda in 1839 and four examples were built - the Kingsdown / Dalkey; London / Croydon; South Devon; and Paris / St. Germain. The system proved unviable due to its inflexibility, and the technical difficulties of sealing the longitudinal valve with a leather flap (it was eaten by rats!). Typical pressures were 60kN/mt.

 Rammell's first patent was merely a resurrected Samuda system, adapted for inner city use by employing an elevated continuous loop line running on each side of the street. It was published in 1857, as 'A New Plan For Street Railways'. The system had been such a conspicuous failure, however, that Rammell was forced to revert to the earlier ideas of Vallance and Medhurst.


 From 1858 to 1864 Rammell filed four patents that define the basis of his life work - the 'Pneumatic Railway'. Carriages or trucks, running on rails recessed into the floor of an internally smooth horseshoe shaped tunnel were closely shaped to the tunnel profile, the remaining space being closed with a wiping seal of bristles or rubber. A patent fan, or 'ejector', rarefied or compressed the air ahead or behind the train, thus propelling it in the desired direction; the ends of the tunnel being sealed by air tight doors which opened and closed automatically to allow the train to pass.  The advantage of this system was that leakage was avoided on two counts; the pressure used was much lower, typically 1kN/mt2 (due to the much larger area on which it acted); and as the train was the piston the continuous valve was eliminated.

 In 1859 Rammell in partnership with a well known engineer Josiah Latimer Clark, promoted the formation of The Pneumatic Despatch Company Limited, with themselves as engineers. He was to repeat this procedure of enlisting as a partner a well-established and reputable engineer on his subsequent projects.


 After preliminary trials at the Soho works of Boulton and Watt in Birmingham in 1860, and on the site of Battersea Power Station in 1861, the Pneumatic Despatch Company re-laid their Battersea cast-iron tube beneath Eversholt Street to connect the parcels depot at Euston station with the North West District Post Office. This was in 2.75 mt lengths, 840 X 760 mm in section, with a segmental top and bottom and integrally cast rails at 610 mm gauge. Experimental working (including passenger transport) commenced in January 1863, and the system was opened by the Duke of Buckingham (Chairman) in February amidst much ceremony. Thirty trains a day at seventy seconds for the 549 mt trip enabled the Post Office to suspend their surface arrangements; however the service was being provided free to induce the Post Office to partake in a much more ambitious scheme.


 In September 1863 work started on a 4.33 km line from Euston to the General Post Office in St Martins le Grand. 1130 mm gauge trucks ran in a 1245x1370 mm cast iron tunnel laid beneath Drummond Street; Tottenham Court Road; St Giles' High Street; High Holborn; Holborn Viaduct; Newgate Street and St Martins le Grand. The route avoided the Bedford Estate, as the Duke had objected to the direct route. The pumping station was provided centrally at 245 High Holborn on the site of the 'Bull and Gate'.


 About this time Rammell met his future wife Francis (Fanny) Soars, then the twenty eight year old wife of solicitor Benjamin Soars, his brother Harby's partner.

 In 1864 Rammell filed his most important patent, detailing the operating mechanisms of the Pneumatic Despatch (then in the course of construction), and more significantly the detailed construction of a larger passenger-carrying version which he was constructing as a trial line in the grounds of Crystal Palace Park at Sydenham. The directors of the Crystal Palace had donated the ground free, and work started in the spring of 1864. A brick tunnel about 3.2 mt high and wide (accounts vary) was constructed between the Sydenham Entrance and the Penge Gate. Its 550 mt. length incorporated a 160 mt. radius curve and a 1:15 gradient in order to test the system to the limit. A 6 mt. long carriage of standard gauge was supplied from Manchester, and a small railway locomotive was borrowed and propped up on blocks to provide the power for a 6.1 mt. diameter ejector. The tunnel entrance was sealed by 'lock gate' doors housed in a most impressive classical portal, weighted to swing open and closed automatically by steam cylinders between the tracks. Air was extracted from the tunnel via a 2.4 mt. 'throat' some way back from the entrance, and introduced by a 'well' just inside the portal.


 Passengers were carried for two months, thirty at a time, paying six pence for the return trip. From the upper Sydenham station the carriage would roll by gravity through the open portal doors, an engineer at the side of the entrance would operate a control to close and bolt the doors, and a valve would be opened to blow air into the tunnel between the doors and the carriage (sealed to the tunnel by bristles). The carriage glided smoothly to the bottom station, a telegraph informing the engineer at the valve when to shut off the pressure. Braked to a halt, the telegraph would be used to give the signal to start exhaustion, and the carriage would be blown by atmospheric pressure back up the tunnel. Passing the extract 'throat', it would compress the air in the remainder of the tube by its acquired momentum, pneumatically braking it, and forcing open the upper doors (by this time unbolted), just in time for it to re-emerge to be braked conventionally to a stop. The single trip took just 50 seconds, and the line became a cause celebre with the Victorian public. Rammell released a glowing press handout, generally quoted verbatim, and the Pneumatic Railway was acclaimed by almost everyone to be an immense success and harbinger of things to come. The railway appears to have been abandoned after the 1864 season, and the entrances demolished to restore the park to its pristine condition, sealing the carriage (so local folk-memory would have us believe) into the centre of the tunnel.

 Two pneumatic passenger railways were promoted in the 1864 Parliamentary Session, but were rejected, and the Pneumatic Despatch, though having completed the Holborn Station, were running into financial difficulties and the opening of the first section was continually set back. In the 1865 Session, however, Rammell was more successful with the Bill for the Waterloo and Whitehall Railway. This time he had enlisted the assistance of Sir Charles Fox, prominent civil engineer and Paxton's collaborator in the construction of the Crystal Palace. It was a magnificently ambitious undertaking, involving the second sub-aqueous tunnel in the world linking Waterloo Station with Great Scotland Yard, Whitehall; utilising a novel prefabrication system of Rammell's devising. It was all the more daring considering the reputation among engineers and capitalists of sub-aqueous tunnelling left as a legacy by the disastrous Thames Tunnel of the Brunels, finished twenty years earlier.


 At this time neither the Victoria Embankment nor Northumberland Avenue had been constructed, and Great Scotland Yard was tucked at the bottom of Northumberland House's garden, behind the wharves of the mediaeval waterfront. The railway was to commence in an iron and glass station 4.8 mt. below Great Scotland Yard, proceed in a brickwork tunnel 3.88mt in diameter (accounts vary) to the river, and then via three (or four) iron tubes forming a sub-aqueous bridge in a trench in the river bed to a brick tunnel under Jenkins and Vine Street on the south bank of the river to the pumping station and other terminal at arches 249 and 250 beneath Waterloo Station. Thanks to Rammell's glib and confident evidence in committee, the Bill passed with ease.


 The Pneumatic Despatch meanwhile being held up by the construction of the Holborn Viaduct concentrated on completing the first section of their line between Euston and Holborn, which was finally opened in November 1865; the distinguished guests availing themselves of the novel experience of lying in the trucks and being blown and sucked back and forth. Rammell's press handout ensured a gratifying coverage of the event, and optimistic prognostications. The operation was almost completely self acting, the trucks being 'buffered' to a stop by the sealed section of the tube, and operating the 'lock gate' doors by trigger mechanisms within the tube.


 Construction began on the Waterloo and Whitehall in October 1865, and Sir Charles Fox became an almost embarrassing convert to the Pneumatic Railway, depositing in November a proposal for a Mersey Railway linking Liverpool and Birkenhead on the pneumatic principle, and in December holding a meeting of distinguished interested parties to eulogise the pneumatic railway and explain his proposals. The Bill was smoothly passed, and Sir Charles and Rammell filed two more Pneumatic Railway proposals, an extension of the Waterloo and Whitehall and another Thames crossing. The Pneumatic Despatch had meanwhile run foul of the Metropolitan Board of Works and Bazalgette for disturbing the Fleet Sewer.


 By May l866 the Waterloo and Whitehall was well advanced, under the the well-known railway contractor Brassey with Samuda in Poplar constructing theprefabricated tube which was to be floated the 8 km up river and sunk into position in sections. The construction of the Victoria Embankment necessitated minor modification of the plans, as did the proposed Metropolitan and District Railway running within the Embankment.

 At this point disaster struck in the form of a country wide catastrophic economic collapse, triggered by merchant bank Overend and Gurney suspending payment, causing a public run on the banks on 'Black Friday' which broke seven permanently and five temporarily and boosted the Bank Rate to an unprecedented 10%. Many companies went down, and those that survived found raising capital impossible in the cautious aftermath. By mid 1867 the Mersey Railway proposals had collapsed, and the Waterloo and Whitehall had run out of money despite another optimistic press 'puff'. One great section of tube had been completed by Samuda and was still in his yard, the northern land works were complete, and some of the southern. Covering all eventualities the company obtained further Acts for abandonment and extension of time with further powers to raise capital. In 1868 the scheme 'which had attracted so much attention all over the world' was sadly put in abeyance.


 Holborn Viaduct commenced in 1867, and in 1869 the Pneumatic Despatch finally threaded its way through the foundations to terminate at the GPO terminus finished in 1872. By this time Rammell seems to have lost all connection with the undertaking, Latimer Clark and Robert Sabine acting as engineers. The line was finally opened in August 1872, and the potential demonstrated to the Post Office - a gross load of 1,4230 kg had a transit time over 2,818 mt of 7min 55 secs. W. H. Barlow, on behalf of the engineering community, carried out a series of supposedly carefully controlled tests to evaluate scientifically the viability of the pneumatic railway, and Sabine devised a mathematical model of the performance. Surprising results were obtained - there was practically no variation in the pressure whether there was a truck transiting or not, and a large increase in mass produced only a small decrease in speed. He estimated working expenses and maintenance at 0.75 (new) pence per 1,000 kg transported. Unfortunately neither Barlow's data nor Sabine's formula can be relied upon for accuracy.


 Despite repeated interviews with the Postmaster General the Duke of Buckingham was unable to obtain concrete assurances from the Post Office that a regular service on a commercial basis could commence, and in the absence of this the economics of keeping full steam up all the time for such experimental service as was allowed was unsupportable and the Company ceased operation in October 1874 The system that had cost close to £200,000 lay derelict and faded rapidly into oblivion.

 In the Parliamentary Session of 1872 Rammell made his last serious bid to construct a pneumatic passenger railway with the South Kensington Railway. This was to run from a station interconnecting with the Metropolitan and District at South Kensington station a distance of 866 mt to the Albert Hall, under Exhibition Road as far as an intermediate station at the lower entrance to the Royal Horticultural Society's Gardens (the Science Museum is now on the site ), and then bending left to the Hall. A brickwork tunnel 3.4 x 5.2 mt at a gradient of 1:48 accommodated a six-carriage train on a 1.22 mt gauge line, carrying 200 people at 9 mt/sec. The Bill passed, and a company was formed, but none of the £45,000 cost seems to have been subscribed.

 Rammell was removed from Fellowship of the Geological Society in 1872 for non-payment of fees, an indication of his deteriorating financial position. In 1874 Benjamin Soars died, and after the obligatory six months mourning Fanny Soars, at forty-one, married Rammell, now fifty nine. This seems a little hurried, and one wonders what had been going on in the previous thirteen years! Alas, marriage came to late for any children, and the direct Rammell line died out, loosing any personal records that might have survived.


 Whilst the Metropolitan Board of Works was apparently utilising the handy trench of the Waterloo and Whitehall railway for re-laying their sewers, Rammell presented his finalised scheme for the South Kensington Railway to the Commissioners for the 1851 Exhibition and HRH the Duke of Edinburgh. The cost was now, in 1874, estimated to be £60 000, of which none had been raised, and Rammell's only hope was to enlist financial support from the Commissioners (who owned the land and facilities at South Kensington) and the Metropolitan and District Railway Companies who served them. He had concluded an agreement with the railway companies to enable him to raise the £45,000, but unsuccessfully petitioned the Commissioners to enable him to raise the further £15,000.

 In a desperate series of ploys he first economised by £10,000, and then issued a second prospectus in 1876, reproducing an 'Influential Memorial' from all the foremost engineers of the day that he had sent to the Commissioners, petitioning that they should endeavour to 'encourage and support' the proposals as a vital experiment in the history of transport. It is an extraordinary document, signed by (amongst others) George Robert Stevenson, Gregory, Barlow, Bazalgette, Bramwell, Whitworth, Siemens, Hayward, Pole and Latimer Clark; nineteen names in all. A significant absentee is Sir Charles Fox.

 However the Commissioners were not to be moved, and neither were the investing public, and after playing his last card - selling one third of his British Patent rights in fifty £100 shares, all to no avail, the South Kensington Railway scheme lapsed. The idea was of course finally embodied in the present pedestrian subway (on the route of the South Kensington Railway), constructed by the Metropolitan and District Railway in 1884.


 Rammell was nothing if not persistent, and continued to patent modifications to the pneumatic railway, and in 1881 deposited a Bill, subsequently withdrawn, for the Mid-Metropolitan, which the Central Line copies exactly all but one station. Spring 1882 was the culmination of Rammell's failure, in February the Mid-Metropolitan Bill was withdrawn, in March the Pneumatic Despatch was compulsorily dissolved, and in May the Waterloo and Whitehall was dissolved at the request of Edward Bellamy the company secretary. After two further Patents Rammell proposed the last pneumatic railway of which I have knowledge, the 1.1 mt gauge South Kensington, Knightsbridge and Marble Arch Subways of 1866 - it failed to pass Parliament. His last patent, at the age of seventy-two, was in 1877.

 After moving to Watford to be near his only relatives, his widowed sister Elizabeth and her children, he fought his last battle with diabetes anaemia and died in December 1889. Three days later he was buried in an unmarked pauper's grave in the local cemetery. Francis Rammell passed out the rest of her days in Bournemouth, dying there, also in poverty, at the age of eighty two in 1915.


 Nothing fails like failure, and Thomas Webster Rammell and his actual and projected works had long before fallen into oblivion as though they had never been. But at the height of his success his influence had not only suffused Britain, but the world - French and Italian engineers avidly took up his ideas as an ideal solution for traversing the Alps (the Simplon Tunnel was opened only in 1896), several Channel Tunnels were proposed utilising the system, and in America Alfred Ely Beach, editor of Scientific American, built a demonstration line and a proto-commercial venture beneath Broadway. Subsequently the success of the system for small telegram tubes made the extension of the idea to passenger transport inevitable, with recurring proposals of increasing sophistication - culminating in American Paul Cooper's proposals for global straight line evacuated tunnels between our major cities, down which trains would be 'dropped', taking 42.2 minutes to reach their destination, no matter how far (or near!). Three serious modern test tracks have been built, two in America at Duke University and the University of Massachusetts, and one in 1976 at Milton Keynes sponsored by the Transport and Road Research Laboratory. Experiments are in progress at all these into the modern feasibility of Thomas Webster Rammell's ideas.


 Those ideas and works may have been forgotten, but his works were periodically to re-emerge from obscurity, only to lapse back again. In 1895 George Threlfall discovered the abandoned Pneumatic Despatch tube, located Francis Rammell and the surviving directors, and revived the company. He proposed to convert the tube to electric traction, but meeting with the same response Rammell had had from the Post Office, and the conversion turning out more expensive than estimated, the scheme was abandoned, and the tube was subsequently sold to the Post Office as a cable duct in 1921.

 When in 1898 the Baker Street and Waterloo Railway was constructed under the river at the same spot as the Waterloo and Whitehall, a large depression was encountered which caused some trouble and was ascribed by some to the removal of the piers for the sub-aqueous bridge. A further portion of the tunnel came to light in 1939, but was re-buried.

 The most spectacular re-emergence of all was on 20th December 1928, when at eight o'clock in the morning the whole of St Giles' High Street and High Holborn as far as Kingsway erupted in a gigantic linear explosion, throwing a taxi onto its side, starting numerous fires, and rupturing services in a massive 'crevasse' in the centre of the road. It transpired that a PO engineer had lit his cigarette lighter, in order to find the plug, to plug in the blower, designed to disperse any gas build up, in the Pneumatic Despatch tunnel. He paid for this elementary mistake with his life. The subsequent investigation of this unknown and dangerous tube that they owned enabled the Post Office to recover the original Battersea trucks, one and of which can now be seen in the London Museum, and one at the Bruce Castle Museum - the third one has unfortunately been lost by the Post Office.

 The question remains as to the viability of the pneumatic railway - for Thomas Webster Rammell appears to have been defeated more by bad luck than technical failure. The Pneumatic Despatch did not win the support of the Post Office, and as it could be their only customer, was doomed to failure. The Crystal Palace Railway was always intended to be a temporary demonstration, and the Waterloo and Whitehall was killed by the Overend and Gurney collapse. After that the idea became associated with failure and no others stood a chance. However, as Sabine pointed out, the pneumatic railway was essentially a rope-railway, and though elastic, the rope the was not light - in fact it weighed more than the steel cable for a passenger carrying railway, and in long tunnels 98% of the energy utilised was used to move the air rather than the train. This could hardly be hardly economical; but for short lines of small diameter for transporting goods and materials Amery Roadstone have shown in a theoretical study that the pneumatic railway is more economically attractive than any other form of transport.


It remains for us, as well as Thomas Webster Rammell's Shade (wherever it may be), to await the final verdict of the research projects in progress before we can truly say he laboured in vain.

Copyright Roger J Morgan March 1977