Tree Nails on the Railway – Gargrave

The letter heading above shows the railway bridge on Marton road and the tree nail works at New Brighton.The New Brighton cottages on the left which are still there today. The tree nail works are shown extending as far as Marton road but it may just be artistic license as it probably never extended quite that far. In small words just below the sketch it says “The largest treenail manufacturer in the kingdom“.

Tree Nails

by D.French.

On the 29/30 May, 1919, much of the Eshton Hall Estate, for years the seat of the Wilson family, was sold by auction in the town hall, Skipton. Looking through the brochure for the “Sale of Gargrave” as the locals called it, part of the opening statement reads as follows…..

The Airebank Mills are surrounded by the estate and the New Brighton Treenail Works is a short distance away.

The Treenail works, operating as New Brighton Sawmills, was on the site now occupied by the New Brighton caravan site.

Light railways sprang up in the latter part of the 19th century, very few made a profit, and their very existence relied on the elimination of all non-essential expenditure, especially on the permanent way.

Instead of the chairs which hold the rails being held down by four metal bolts to the sleepers, treenails were substituted for two of the four bolts and simply driven through the chair into the sleeper.

My father worked at the mill in those days and described the method of manufacture….

“Trees of all shapes and sizes were shipped in by rail and brought to

a tree nail as used on light railways

New Brighton by wood wagons drawn by two strong horses. Once unloaded they went through a series of saw benches ending up as pieces six inches long by two inches square.They were turned in a lathe to the profile as shown in the photograph.

After drying out they were put in a tank full of “black lead”, sealed by a lid, and left to soak for some time. (Well known local man, Robert Nuttall, once had this job.)

Soaking in black lead was followed by a visit to the drying shed, and finally, having been given a coating of oil, the treenails were put in a press to give them their final shape. As they were ejected from the press, two men would count them into bags of two hundred and fifty for final dispatch. Any spare wood was heated in kilns to form charcoal and also bagged for dispatch.”

Short and sweet, I only wish now, with hindsight, that I had asked more questions.

So far only we have found only one mention of Treenails and that is extracted from “The Basingstoke and Alton Light Railway” which gives details of the preparation required to stage a rail crash for the silent film “The Wrecker” in which a train hits a traction engine on a level crossing and comes off the track.

“All fastenings on one side of the track were faked, the treenails were shortened so as not to engage the sleepers.”

With nothing to restrain it the train left the track in spectacular fashion.

The Wrecker 1928

by D.French.

Our article on the use of TREENAILS  (above) in the railway industry has aroused a certain amount of interest locally.

A recent enquiry to the National Railway Museum in York for any information on treenails was disappointing in that despite the evidence we gave they were adamant that treenails were never used on the railways, only in shipbuilding.

In fact the treenail illustrated in the previous article was found in the old goods yard at Gargrave station.

Apart from possessing a 9.5mm film of the 1928 film, “The Wrecker” our main interest in the film lies in the detailed preparation of the famous crash on a level crossing and the mention of TREENAILS.

This was a Gainsborough Film, produced by Michael Balcon and directed by G.M. Bolvary, starring Carlyle Blackwell, Benita Hume and Pauline Johnson.

Its theme was the rivalry between a bus company and the railway, in which the former did its best to wreck several trains.

The highlight of the film was a spectacular crash staged at Salter’s Ash crossing, Hill Farm, Lasham on Sunday August 18th, 1828, for which a complete train consisting of a Stirling 4-4-0 locomotive No A148 and six bogie coaches was bought from the Southern Railway.

This crashed into a Foden steam lorry left broadside o the crossing by one of the villains, the wreckage being set on fire for further scenes. The locomotive was painted grey and the tender lettered “United Coast Lines”. The lorry was supplied by Wrights Contractors of Alton, and driven on to the crossing by Mr Fred Turner, who was seen in the film making a dash for it.

In order to make the crash as spectacular as possible, five tons of ballast, with a charge of dynamite, was placed in the lorry, and the track immediately after the crossing undermined in order to make sure of derailment.

Mr Percy Goddard, one of the railway gangers on duty that day, recalls in detail the procedure.

“We undermined the track on the lower side to a depth of two feet, each sleeper being kept to a true level with a wooden support. All fastenings on every chair that side were faked, the TREENAILS were shortened so as not to engage the sleepers, spikes were cut off to match and dropped in the holes. The fishplates at either end of the thirty-foot length of track were in the normal position but held in place with very fine wire. The original bolts were cut in half, put in their proper positions and fixed with tar. Fine wire mesh netting was spread over the cavity to support a thin layer of ballast.”

After rehearsing for several hours up and down the track with the train and across the level crossing with the steam Foden wagon, everything was ready for the final masterpiece.

The Foden wagon was placed on the track. The engine of the doomed train was in charge of driver J.Brown and fireman Goodwright, both of Guildford.

At about 1p.m., the director gave the signal – “let her come”. The regulator was opened up with full steam ahead. The driver shouted to his fireman to jump, and then he himself left the footplate. In sixty-five seconds it was all over. Rushing down the incline on a gradient of 1 in 50 the train reached the point of impact at 45 mph. There was a terrible explosion which could be heard a mile away. Smoke and sparks shot fifteen feet into the air. After ploughing up the track for 120 yards the engine fell on its side – a perfect wreck, the whole train had left the track except for the last pair of wheels.

The above account of the crash was extracted from the booklet “The Basingstoke and Alton Light Railway” written by Edward Griffiths in 1982.

“The Wrecker”, an Anglo- German production, has been found and restored. A sound track was added in 2009 and the film is now available on DVD. Here is silent a copy of the film I discovered on

Don Slaven August 2017

If anyone has any information on the use of TREENAILS in the railway industry please get in touch with us .

via Tree Nails on the Railway – Gargrave.


In the dim and distant past Tree Nails were frequently used in ship building to fasted timbers. The Biblical Ark was supposedly held together with these multi-sided or round pieces of wood.  They varied in length and thickness, as do modern wooden dowels used in furniture manufacture. The favoured wood was from the Locust tree as it was hard and not prone to rotting in the sea water. The tendency for the tree nails, also known as trenails, to swell up when submerged in water helped in making a tight and waterproof joint. To help with the tightening, sometimes a wedge was driven into the end of the trenail. Long after the introduction of metal fastenings, trenails were favoured in wooden ship building because they were not subject to corrosion. I  had the opportunity to see these ancient fastenings being fitted to boats during my time in Southern Yemen in the late 1960’s where they were still used in the construction of dhows. These traditional vessels still can be seen in the coastal waters of the Red Sea, the Arabian Gulf and the Indian Ocean.

Similar wooden trenail fastenings were used as alternatives to metal spikes to secure rail-support “chairs” to wooden sleepers in early Victorian  times especially in North American rail-roads.

Screw dowels, also called trenails are described in the 1904 Proceedings of the American Railway Engineering & Maintenance-of-Way Association:

“Attention has been called to a method developed abroad, whereby the wear under the rail or at the spike in a soft wood tie can be materially decreased.  This consists of the insertion of a hardwood trenail, so-called, being a wood screw of two or three inches diameter, having a spike hole bored in the center.  This trenail is screwed into a hole tapped in the tie, and a spike driven or screwed into it.  This method has been followed for the past six years in France, with very satisfactory results, the trenails being applied either to new ties or to old ones which had begun to make trouble through failure to hold the spike.  It is understood that several of the railroads in the United States have agreed to test these trenails, and it is hoped some valuable results may be derived therefrom.”  (page 76)

An illustration of screw dowels for both cut and screw spikes, from p. 52 of The Elements of Railroad Engineering by William G. Raymond (1917).

Here is another quote from the same volume:

“The upper part of the dowel is somewhat larger than the body.  A hole somewhat less than the diameter of the screw or spike is bored through the center of the dowel.  The dowel is heavily creosoted.  The dowel is put into the tie in the following manner:  A hole is bored somewhat less than the diameter of the dowel, and by means of a threading device a thread is cut in this hole.  The dowel is then screwed in either by hand, when there are a few ties to be provided with dowels, or by machinery, when a large number are to be provided.  In France and Germany the dowelling process is usually carried out in connection with the treating plants.  The dowel makes a perfect fit with the tie…Should any of the wood around the spike wear out, the dowel is removed and another is screwed in its place.  The body of the tie is thereby saved from destruction.  The tops of the dowels at the same time act as tie-plates, preventing the wearing out of the wood of the tie, and in many cases have rendered the use of expensive steel plates almost unnecessary.  A further advantage of the dowel consists in the very much increased holding power which the dowel gives to the spike or screw, principally in the matter of resisting the lateral pressure.” (pages 96-97)


Trenails can also be seen in hand built furniture of today, antique furniture and ancient timber frame buildings.

The tree nails produced in Gargrave were probably a modification of the traditional nail and designed specifically for the light railway industries.

Donavon Slaven 


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