George Overton
born  1774, Glamorgan, Wales, UK
baptised  January 1775, Parish of Burrington, North Herefordshire, UK
died  1827, Llanddetty, near Talybont-on-Usk, Powys, Wales, UK
buried  7th February, Llanddetty church, near Talybont-on-Usk, Powys, Wales, UK
era  Georgian
A biographical summary
Welshman George Overton was a leading builder of iron tramroads, designed principally for horse-drawn wagons. However, he is stongly connected to the early days of steam as he engineered the Merthyr Tramroad, which steam pioneer Richard Trevithick (1771-1833) used to test his Penydarren steam locomotive, and did survey work for what became the Stockton & Darlington Railway — the first permanent public steam railway in the world. Despite this, Overton firmly rebuffed the idea of a national steam rail network, believing horse power to be superior.
We know that he was born in 1774 and that his parents were in North Herefordshire at the time of his baptism but the first two decades of his life are a mystery. Much later, in his 1825 publication, A Description of the Faults or Dykes of the Mineral Basin of South Wales, he would describe himself as a practical man who had made and used tramroads "... during the greater part of the last thirty years ... having surveyed and constructed roads of some hundred miles' extent in different parts of the kingdom ..."
To begin with, Overton was working in the Merthyr Tydfil area, where five major ironworks were established between 1759 and 1784. His earliest reported tramroads (1791-3) connected one of these, Dowlais Ironworks, with its limestone quarries and the newly-built Glamorganshire Canal. Horse-drawn wagons moved coal and iron, and his scheme enabled each horse to pull 9-10 tonnes going downhill.
By 1799 Overton was working on the Merthyr Tramroad in the same area, commissioned by the owners of three of the foundries to counter the control the owner of Cyfarthfa Ironworks held over use of the canal. The tramroad was nearly 16km long and ran between Merthyr Tydfil and Abercynon. Trevithick's steam test took place here in 1804, two years after Overton completed his supervision.
From 1803, Overton had an interest in Hirwaun Ironworks in the Cynon Valley, as a partner in Bowzer, Overton & Oliver. He constructed a tramroad from Hirwaun to Abernant (1806-8), followed by work on the Llwydcoed Tramroad for the Aberdare Canal Company, and Brinore Tramroad.
In 1818 he was consulted by mine owners in County Durham, beginning his involvement in the development of what became the Stockton & Darlington Railway. Two canal schemes had failed to materialise and Overton recommended a horse-drawn tramway. His survey detailed an 82km route that he costed at £124,000, and was the first ever survey for a railway. After difficulties with landowners and re-surveys in 1819 and 1820 to shorten the route, his work was taken forward to Parliament but on the passing of the Bill, steam railway pioneer George Stephenson (1781-1848) took over. Stephenson's team undertook a new survey and the rest, as they say, is history.
Overton had very definite ideas about tramroads and railways and how to construct them. His design for wooden trams (wagons) was adopted across most of South Wales. His expertise in this field seems to have prevented him from fully appreciating the advantages of steam locomotion "... except in particular instances, and in peculiar situations." His last project was Rumney Railway, a plateway from Rhymney Ironworks to the Monmouthshire Canal Tramroad near Newport. It opened a year after the Stockton & Darlington Railway.
1774 Born in Glamorgan, possibly in Merthyr Tydfil, but parents living at Bringewood Forge in the Parish of Burrington, North Herefordshire, at his baptism in January 1775
1791-93 Working on the 15km metal-edged Dowlais Ironworks' tramroad to the Glamorganshire Canal, cost £3,000, 1.27m (4ft 2in) gauge
1792-93 Working on the 4.8km Dowlais Ironworks' tramroad to the foundry's limestone quarry, gauge 810mm (2ft 8in, the Dowlais standard) later changed to 1.27m (4ft 2in)
1800-02 Working on the 15.7km Merthyr Tramroad, 1.27m (4ft 2in) gauge
1803 Becomes a proprietor of Hirwaun Ironworks, with Francis William Bowzer, Simon Oliver and Lionel Oliver (partnership bankrupted 1814)
1805 Marries Mary Francis (1784-1851) in Merthyr Tydfil, six children: Elizabeth Winifred (b.1807), Mary Louisa (b.1810), George (bapt.1813), Margaret Teresa (bapt.1815 d.1861), Anne (bapt.1820) and Edward Francis (b.1822)
1806-08 Engineering the Hirwaun Ironworks Tramroad (Hirwaun to Abernant)
1811 Appointed resident engineer for the under-construction Abedare Canal for whom he builds the Llwydcoed Tramroad
1814-15 Working on the 13km Brinore Tramroad for the Brecknock & Abergavenny Canal, 1.02m (3ft 4in) gauge
1815-23 Overton is joint lessee of the Brinore Tramroad
1818-21 Undertakes several preliminary surveys in County Durham for what will become the Stockton & Darlington Railway
1821 Recommends improvements to the Glamorganshire Canal
1823 Surveys an (unbuilt) 24km extension to Merthyr Tramroad, route later used by the Taff Vale Railway
1825-26 Engineering the 35km Rumney Railway, estimate £47,850, 1.27m (4ft 2in) gauge, later converted to standard gauge
1827 Dies, probably at his home Llanthetty Hall, Llanddetty near Talybont-on-Usk, Powys, and buried (7th February) at Llanddetty church, survived by his wife and six children aged 4-24 years, no male grandson to carry on the name
Selected works
Dowlais Ironworks' tramroads, Merthyr Tydfil, Glamorgan, Wales, UK .... 1791-93
Merthyr Tramroad, Merthyr Tydfil to Abercynon, Rhondda Cynon Taff, Wales, UK .... 1800-02
Hirwaun Ironworks Tramroad, Rhondda Cynon Taf, Wales, UK .... 1806-08
High level causeway and Afon Cynon bridge, Hirwaun Ironworks Tramroad .... 1806-08
Llwydcoed Tramroad, Aberdare, Rhondda Cynon Taf, Wales, UK .... 1811
Robertstown Tramway Bridge (probably the work of Overton), Llwydcoed Tramroad .... 1811
Brinore tramroad (Bryn Oer Tramroad), Trefil to Talybont-on-Usk, Wales, UK .... 1814-15
Surveys for Stockton & Darlington Railway, County Durham, UK .... 1818-21
Rumney Railway, Rhymney to Newport, Wales, UK .... 1825-26
Bassaleg Viaduct, Rumney Railway .... 1826
All items by George Overton
Everything built ... 1774 - 1827
Alec Skempton ed., Overton, George (fl.1795-d.1827), A Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers in Great Britain and Ireland, Volume 1: 1500-1830, Thomas Telford Publishing Limited, Institution of Civil Engineers, London, pp.496-497
Thomas Meynell and George Overton, A Report relative to the opening a communication by a canal or a rail or tram way, from Stockton, by Darlington, to the collieries, T. Eeles, 1818
George Overton, A Description of the Faults or Dykes of the Mineral Basin of South Wales, Knight and Lacey, London, 1825
Email correspondance with Maureen Bysouth, descendent of George Overton,
18th and 19th June, 2015
Further reading
Hunter Davies, George Stephenson: The Remarkable Life of the Founder of the Railway, The History Press, March 2013
Stephen Hughes, The Archaeology of an Early Railway System: The Brecon Forest Tramroads, Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments in Wales, 1990
Stephen K Jones, Brunel in South Wales, Volume 1: In Trevithick's Tracks, Tempus, Gloucestershire, 2005
John van Laun and Michael Blackmore, Walks and Rides Along the Brinore Tramroad, Brinore Tramroad, Conservation Forum, 2003
Joseph Priestley, Historical Account of the Navigable Rivers, Canals, and Railways, of Great Britain, Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown & Green, London, 1831
portrait  detail of the flyleaf: A description of the faults or dykes of the mineral basin of South Wales, Part I by George Overton, Knight and Lacey, London, 1825

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George Overton
This biography was funded by
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Fact file : Tramroads
in the UK
In the 18th century, tramroads were an integral part of the country's transport network, often constructed by canal companies or industrial concerns to link with canal schemes. At first, they featured timber rails, and carried raw materials, finished goods and people in horse-drawn wagons. The first iron rails were cast at Coalbrookdale in Shropshire in 1767 and used locally. Early metal tramways (plateways) used flat metal plates or L-sections on timber or stone sleepers.
in South Wales
A network of canals and tramroads was used in South Wales to transport coal, supplying the many ironworks and distributing the products they made — as well as serving other industries. The first metal-edged tramroads (1791-3) served the Dowlais Ironworks near Merthyr Tydfil, and many more were built in the following decades. Gauges varied widely. The Merthyr Tramroad (1802) used L-section rails on stones. The first run of Trevithick's steam locomotive took place on 21 February that year, followed by at least one more trip before the engine was put into stationary service at the Penydarren works. Merthyr Tramroad continued to use horse power, sometimes in conjunction with steam, up until 1830.
Llandetty Hall
Llanthetty Hall (now Llanddetty Hall Farm) in the Brecon Beacons National Park, Powys, where engineer George Overton and his family lived from about 1815 onwards. It was built in the 17th century and is Grade II listed.
Detail of Overton\'s will
Detail of Overton's will. He died in 1827.
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Merthyr Tramroad and two wagons
Photo of a demonstration installation of a section of Merthyr Tramroad (1802) with two wagons. The tramroad ran from Merthyr Tydfil to Abercynon and was engineered by Overton for the use of horse-drawn wagons. The photo show the section loaned to the World's Columbian Exhibition at Chicago in 1893 for a display on the development of the steam engine.
Photo: courtesy Institution of Civil Engineers
Rail from Penydarren Tramroad
A section of L-shaped iron rail from the Merthyr Tramroad on display at Cyfarthfa Castle. The plateway (railway) was made up of short sections spanning stone blocks. Merthyr Tramroad was almost 16km long.
Photo reproduced by permission: Cyfarthfa Castle Museum & Art Gallery, Merthyr Tydfil
Merthyr Tramroad
In this detail of an 1862 photograph of the widening of Brunel's Quakers Yard Viaduct (Goitre Coed), the Merthyr Tramroad can be seen in operation. It's the earliest known photograph of it working, and shows a south-bound horse-drawn wagon group having just given way to a northbound train.
Photo: Joseph Collins photograph / John Minnis collection
Robertstown Tramroad Bridge
Overton constructed the Llwydcoed Tramroad for the Aberdare canal Company while he was their resident engineer. he probably also designed the cast iron Robertstown Tramroad Bridge (1811) shown above. It carried the plateway over the River Cynon at Aberdare and is one of the oldest surviving such bridges in the world.
Photo: courtesy PHEW, ICE
Brinore Tramroad
These days, many of the former tramways in Wales are used as footpaths, and Overton's Brinore Tramroad (completed 1815) is no exception. The remains of stone footings for the iron plate rails are clearly visible on this stretch by Talybont Reservoir.
Photo: © Jeremy Bolwell and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Bassaleg Viaduct
The Bassaleg Viaduct (1826) is probably the only surviving engineering work of the Overton-engineered Rumney Railway (plateway). It's also thought to be the world's oldest railway bridge still carrying full loads. Of its four masonry arches, two span the River Ebbw in Newport.
Photo: © Jaggery and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence