Most of Richard Jefferies's writing concerns the rural world of field, forest, and farm and the men and animals who work and hunt there. Books like The Amateur Poacher explain hunting and trapping within the now-vanished world of squires and their gamekeepers preserving game and those who poached it nonetheless. Other works bring us close to the lives of those who work in the fields, and the last writings of this man who died in his late thirties combine his characteristically brilliant descriptions of the natural world, mysticism, and a defiant agnoticsm toward both science and religion.
It is therefore surprising to come upon this prose-poet of the natural world conveying the experience of encountering powerful machines at the Swindon railway works. After describing in detail the manufacturing process that produces wheels for railway carriages, Jefferies next explains how the rails on which they roll are made:
Coming to this very abode of the Cyclops, the rail-mill, the first machine that appears resembles a pair of gigantic scissors, which are employed day and night in snipping off old rails and other pieces of iron into lengths suitable for the manufacture of new rails.
These scissors, or, perhaps, rather pincers, are driven by steam-power, and bite off the solid iron as if it were merely strips of ribbon. There is some danger in this process, for occasionally the metal breaks and flies, and men's hands are severely injured. At a guess, the lengths of iron for manufacture into rails may be about four feet long, and are piled up in flat pieces eight or nine inches or more in height. These pieces are carried to the furnace, heated to an intense heat, and then placed under the resistless blows of a steam-hammer, which welds them into one solid bar of iron, longer than the separate pieces were. The bar then goes back to the furnace, and again comes out white-hot. The swinging-shears seize it, and it is swung along to the rollers. These rollers are two massive cylindrical iron bars which revolve rapidly one over the other. The end of the white-hot metal is placed between these rollers, and is at once drawn out into a long strip of iron, much as a piece of dough is rolled out under the cook's rolling-pin. It is now perfectly flat, and entirely malleable. It is returned to the furnace, heated, brought back, and placed in a second pair of rollers. This second pair have projections upon them, which so impress the flat strip of iron that it is drawn out into the required shape. The rail passes twice through these rollers, once forwards, then backwards. Terrible is the heat in this fiery spot. The experienced workman who guides the long red-hot rails to the mouth of the rollers is protected with a mask, with iron-shod shoes, iron greaves on his legs, an iron apron, and, even further, with a shield of iron. The very floor beneath is formed of slabs of iron instead of slabs of stone, and the visitor very soon finds this iron floor too hot for his feet. The perfect rail, still red-hot or nearly, is run back to the circular saw, which cuts it off in regular lengths; for it is not possible to so apportion the iron in each bundle as to form absolutely identical strips. They are proportioned so as to be a little longer than required, and then sawn off to the exact length. While still hot, a workman files the sawn ends so that they may fit together closely when laid down on the sleepers. The completed rails are then stacked for removal on trucks to their destination. The rollers which turn out these rails in so regular and beautiful a manner are driven by a pair of engines of enormous power. The huge fly-wheel is twenty feet in diameter, and weighs, with its axle, thirty-five tons. [120-21]
After communicating the enormous, more-than-human scale of the machinery, he ends with that fact about the workman filing the still hot ends before once again emphasizing the sheer size of the “huge fly-wheel.” Jefferies then ends this section on the manufacturing of railway rails by returning to the human scale when he explains how ingenuity has recently made the process safer for the workman. “When these rails were first manufactured,“ he explains, because powerful rollers “were driven direct from the axle of the fly-wheel, and the rails had to be lifted right over the roller — a difficult and dangerous process — and again inserted between them on the side at which it started. Since then an improvement has been effected, by which the rails are sent backwards through the rollers . . . by reversing the motion of the rollers, which is done in an instant by means of a ‘crab.’” (121-22).
Jefferies, Richard. “The Story of Swindon.” The Hills and the Vale. Ed. Edward Thomas. London: Duckworth, 1909. 104-33. Project Gutenberg e-text.
Last modified 26 November 2010