The world’s first signal box

 the ingenuity of Robert Skeldan,

and the railway emigrants to New Zealand


Was Portobello the home of the world’s first railway signal box?

East of the station, the North British Railway’s new trunk lines to Berwick and to Hawick diverged.

Many will remember the busy box beside the Hope Lane footbridge, where Kings Cross and St Pancras expresses, and fish trains from the Moray Firth, whistled beneath in clouds of steam.


According to C.R. Hamilton Ellis’s history of the North British Railway, it was around here in 1847 that a youth named Robert Skeldan was serving as pointsman at the new junction, with two fixed signals to look after under the old time-interval system.  He found that by fixing up some cable with a counterweight made from a broken rail-chair he could work both signals without leaving the shelter of his hut.  He was reported for reprimand, but the railway directors thought it a good idea, and the Royal Scottish Society of Arts awarded him a silver medal for his ingenuity.

The origins and eventual fate of Robert Skeldan have not since been identified. He may have been a member of a family of that name from Innerwick, further down the NBR line to Berwick. Many of the early railway staff locally had been in the service of Edinburgh & Dalkeith Railway which passed through Portobello on its way to Leith and which the NBR had just swallowed up as a starting point for its new trunk routes.  A horse-drawn line, the Edinburgh & Dalkeith was known as the Innocent Railway from its quiet and and unobtrusive operations, the only steam it used was a stationary engine to pull trains up through the tunnel to St Leonards at the Edinburgh end.  Duddingston Park’s Planny (plantation) marks the embankment which carried the E&D down to Leith before the North British created a replacement line in 1847 for steam trains between Portobello Station and Niddry.

John Law, formerly of the Edinburgh & Dalkeith Company’s St Leonard’s depot and responsible for supervising the company’s complicated crossing at Musselburgh (Fisherrow), is known to have emigrated to Otago, New Zealand in 1848, unhappy at the NBR’s policy to start Sunday working. Law’s testimonial claimed he’d had charge of a level crossing of the most dangerous kind for several years without a single accident of an injurious nature. His wife Agnes –a member of Edgehead’s Somerville family- looked after the passengers’ waiting room at Musselburgh. Her sister’s husband Adam Begg was in charge of Dalkeith station.



click image to view NLS site for map of Fisherrow, Musselburgh in 1853 (sheet 7)



The Somerville family of Edgehead was closely involved with Edinburgh’s railway development.

John Somerville had worked on the formation of the Edinburgh and Dalkeith, authorised by Parliament in 1826. From its depot at St Leonards under Salisbury Craigs it reached out to the south and east of the city. Built to the old “scotch gauge” of 4ft 6 inches, the railway’s operations were superintended by David Rankine, a military engineer who later was to work for the Caledonian Railway.  John Somerville joined the company’s employment, taking his family to Edinburgh in the 1830s where they were educated at Dr Bell’s school in Niddry Street.  John first took charge of the Edinburgh and Dalkeith’s station in Leith and was later promoted to managing the Edinburgh station at St Leonards, while his brothers-in-law Begg and Law had charge of Dalkeith and Musselburgh.  John’s eldest son Robert joined the Caledonian as an accountant and two younger brothers joined their father and uncles in the North British.

The 1840s was a decade of unprecedented social change. Many in the Church of Scotland followed Thomas Chalmers and others in the great Disruption which formed the new Free Church of Scotland in 1843.  And two important denominations which had left the Church of Scotland much earlier, amalgamated themselves into the United Presbyterian Church in 1847. Many hard working families of weavers, fishermen and railway workers were longstanding members of UP congregations. Others were drawn to the energetic Free Church, for which Hugh Miller was a persuasive advocate.


In 1847 the public began to advocate the running of Sunday trains.  The North British railway company –subscribed largely by English capital- prepared its staff to meet these demands.  At the NBR’s allied company, the Edinburgh & Glasgow, pressure for Sunday working resulted in the departure of the chairman, John Leadbetter.  Because the Somervilles, Laws and Beggs were all opposed to Sunday work they decided to leave the railway service and emigrate en masse.  At that time the new Dunedin settlement was being promoted as a joint operation by the Free Church of Scotland and the New Zealand Company.  Education and religious services were to be provided by the Free Church. The settlement was to be headed by Captain William Cargill, a disciple of Thomas Chalmers, and the Reverend Thomas Burns, nephew of the poet.  Burns was the Free Church minister in Portobello, and Cargill's family also had connections with the town.

Rev Thomas Burns


The emigrant railway families sailed out from Gravesend to Port Chalmers in the Blundell (573tons) in 1848, following Cargill’s group in the John Wickliffe and Burns’s in the Philip Laing.   The railway emigrants took up farming, textiles and printing (Coulls-Somerville-Wilkie) in the new Dunedin settlement. It was to be another fifteen years before the first railway opened in New Zealand further north, in Canterbury province, and the first Port Chalmers line was another ten years after that.  One descendant of the railway emigrants is Greg Somerville the All Black, another became Moderator of the Church in New Zealand.



Trains from Portobello – the Waverley Route

Trains from Portobello – the East Coast Route

Hugh Miller


John Leadbetter of the Edinburgh & Glasgow Railway

Thomas Bouch railway engineer

LIVES & fragments




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