In a previous article, I told you about a Victorian advertising pamphlet I found after some plaster fell from the gallery of the former Barony St John’s Church in Ardrossan.

The pamphlet was for “Dr Birley’s Invaluable Compounds of Free Phosphorus” which I explained was a precursor to Dr Pepper’s and Coca-Cola. I also told you about the amazing life of Dr Samuel Birley Rowbotham and his flat earth theory.

But I was intrigued to discover that “Dr Birley” also patented a “life-preserving cylindrical railway carriage” in 1861 and I had to investigate this further;

He wrote about his idea in The Mechanics’ Magazine dated March 29, 1861. He planned for each carriage to be contained in a large iron cylinder, 12-14 feet in diameter. The carriage would be suspended from an axle which would run the whole length of the cylinder and connect each cylinder to the locomotive.

Rowbotham’s reasoning was “This form of carriage will be best understood after considering the causes ..of numerous accidents.”

He then lists, “according to the latest returns of the Board of Trade”, the various forms of railway casualties of the day;

1. Collisions – from which 50 percent of railway accidents and nearly 80 percent of railway causalities arise.

2. Trains running through points

3. Trains running off their rails

4. Breaking of rails

5. Rails getting loose

6. Rails getting displaced

7. Objects getting on or across rails

8. Running into stations at too great a speed

9. Breaking of axles

10. Breaking of wheels

11. Breaking of springs

12. Bursting of boilers

13. Machinery of engines getting out of order

14. Upsetting of carriages

15. Banks and bridges giving way

16. Trains going on fire through excessive friction of machinery

17. Trains going on fire through red-hot sparks from the engine falling on them

Rowbotham concludes that “In every journey by rail, the risk is incurred of serious or perhaps fatal accident from 17 different causes.”

He goes on to theorise that his invention would allow the cylinders to simply roll away while the carriages remained steadily suspended inside. This meant they were “accident proof” railway carriages.

He concluded; “From a careful consideration of the various points now explained, it will be evident that nearly all of the causes which have hitherto operated so fearfully to the sacrifice of life, and which have caused so much suffering and apprehension as well as destruction of property and public confidence, would be entirely removed by the adoption of the rolling or cylinder train in place of what may be called the projectile system now in place.”

He signs off as “Parallax” the pseudonym he used when writing “Zetetic Astronomy: Earth Not A Globe”, his book about the earth being flat.

What strikes me most about this article is the huge number of railway accidents which caused loss of life, destruction of property and a lack of public confidence in trains – and yet they flourished.

Thank goodness we no longer get trains catching fire, derailing or crashing into stations at great speed.

So next time you jump on a train, think how lucky you are compared to Victorian times.

If you would like to find out more about the discoveries I have made in the former Barony St John’s church building, please check out my blog at or if you would like to know more about the Barony St John Regeneration Project, look us up on Facebook.