The little-known birthplace of modern travel in North East England

Chris Moss
·8-min read
path in hills surrounded by purple gorse at sunset - VisitBritain//Thomas Heaton
path in hills surrounded by purple gorse at sunset - VisitBritain//Thomas Heaton

It’s a big-budget movie waiting to happen. Virile working men with gritty personalities are pitched against landed aristocrats resistant to change. An epoch-making vision of the future of the world is hatched in a windswept corner of northern England. Blood, sweat and blueprints. A huffing, puffing machine made with man’s bare hands is born. “The Invention of Railways” – starring British A-listers and a legion of extras from Co Durham. The Stockton and Darlington Railway (S&DR) was granted Royal Assent 200 years ago on April 19. The line would open four years later; no doubt, come 2025 and a pandemic-free planet, there will be celebrations galore. But the build-up to the Assent and the document itself – a manifesto for a brave new world – are worthy of more attention than they might get in the midst of the eked-out easing of lockdown.

But then this world-altering feat of engineering never got the attention it deserved. While the Rainhill trials and Stephenson’s Rocket remain familiar to schoolchildren in a world of cyber-networks and e-cars, scant attention has been given to the promotion of the North East’s unlisted world heritage marvel. “Perhaps it gets overlooked because the railway at Rainhill was more the finished article,” says Niall Hammond, chair of the Friends of the S&DR. “By contrast, the S&DR was where George Stephenson learnt his craft and where all the ideas about railways came together for the first time. It was the crucible in which the modern railway was forged. “The builders of the Liverpool to Manchester Railway came to visit the S&DR to see how it was done, as did railway engineers from France, Prussia and the USA. The first stations, the first coach for passengers, the first commuters, the first complaints about overcrowding – all these happened on the S&DR.”

Oil painting of steam train - SSPL via Getty Images 
Oil painting of steam train - SSPL via Getty Images

The line ran for 26 miles, between Stockton-on-Tees and the collieries at Shildon, 11 miles north of Darlington. Transporting coal to ships had traditionally been carried out by packhorses and, later, horses and carts. National coal output grew tenfold, from three million to 30 million tons per annum, between 1700 and 1830. Canal schemes hatched in 1767 and 1815 never came to fruition, and it was Welsh engineer George Overton who first proposed a tramroad. The idea was taken up by a group of Quaker businessmen, led by wool manufacturer Edward Pease.

The day the Act was passed was also the date when Pease met engine-wright Stephenson. It’s not as famous an encounter as the meeting of, say, Rolls and Royce, but it was hugely significant. The story, as told by Pease’s great-grandson, is that Stephenson showed up unannounced with a letter of recommendation from his boss at Killingworth Colliery. He told Pease he had been operating experimental steam locomotives since 1814, and argued that they provided the power of fifty horses and were more economical.

The Flying Scotsman on Skerne Bridge - Peter Giroux/Friends of the S&DR
The Flying Scotsman on Skerne Bridge - Peter Giroux/Friends of the S&DR

“There was such an honest, sensible look about George Stephenson,” Pease recorded in his diary. “He seemed so modest and unpretending, and he spoke in the strong Northumberland dialect.” Pease visited the mine and had a ride in the locomotive. The Act, which allowed for wagons to be moved “with men and horses or otherwise”, was amended to include use of a steam-powered locomotive.

Of the many extraordinary things about the S&DR, what is most impressive is that all the constituent parts were conceived ex nihilo. There was no template or established blueprint for stations, sidings, cuttings or embankments. Stationary engines were constructed to haul wagons up two steep inclines. Railway bridges, accommodation bridges (which allow a farmer to cross a line to access his fields) and a rudimentary signalling system were needed. Stephenson and his son, Robert, established a manufacturing firm to build Locomotion No 1 (originally named Active), which became the first locomotive in the world to operate on a public railway.

The bicentennial of the Royal Assent will be somewhat muted, partly because of coronavirus restrictions, but on April 19 Cllr Chris McEwan, the Mayor of Darlington, will host a virtual conference that will hook up the town with 200 cities around the world that claim rail firsts, including Baltimore and Nuremberg. He’s expected to announce plans to restore Pease’s home in Northgate – currently graced by a pizza outlet and kebab shop. The Friends of the S&DR are hoping landscaping will take place at St Johns Well in Stockton. It’s where the line’s first rails were laid in 1822, but is dominated by a gash of urban highway. Stockton plans to open a £37 million urban park in 2025, effectively replacing half of the high street with greenery.

For visitors, the most interesting project is a path for walkers and cyclists, passing through rural and post-industrial areas. Nineteen of the original 26 miles are working railway lines, so the path would run parallel to this and link up with stretches of open land and public byway. Four pubs along the old line – including the Cleveland Bay at Yarm, the oldest railway pub in the world – are in need of funding post-Covid if they are to be preserved.

steam trains outside modern museum building
steam trains outside modern museum building

Local museums are firing up in preparation for 2025. Head of Steam at Darlington, which stands on the site of the old North Road station, will be fully revamped, while Locomotion, the National Railway Museum at Shildon, is getting a new hall to tell the story of the early railways. A bone of contention is that the Head of Steam might lose ownership of Locomotion No 1 after having it for 160 years. Shildon says it is committed to finding “ways to work together, including the possibility of Locomotion No 1 returning to Darlington on short-term loan in the future”.

The ultimate experience – for rail fans and all who are children at heart – is to ride along the line. A journey on the Northern Sprinters that ply the route today (direct services on Sundays only) is hardly romantic. But there’s a scheme to extend the Weardale Railway, brought out of administration by a charity last year, down to Shildon and Darlington on the original trackbed of the S&DR. The new owners, the Auckland Project, envisage a proper service that “could lead the way in demonstrating that the ‘Beeching Cut’ in the UK railway service could soon be reversed and potentially be the first of many such enterprises up and down the country”.

Taken together, the developments should significantly raise the profile of the S&DR. Almost as soon as it was born, it was overshadowed by other events and places. Stockton-on-Tees turned out not to be ideal as a port, because of its tidal river and limitations for large vessels. In 1829, work began on Middlesbrough – the world’s first purpose-built railway town – which became the regional freight and railway hub.

Reflection Of Buildings In water - Getty Images/EyeEm 
Reflection Of Buildings In water - Getty Images/EyeEm

But the S&DR changed the world. Though its original purpose was to shift coal, passengers used the line from the start (their carriages were pulled by horses until 1833). Within a year of opening, some 30,000 people used the line annually. But what the Royal Assent initiated was no less than the era of modern travel. Horses were slow and expensive. The railways were fast, safe, communal and affordable. Ordinary people could explore the wider world.

No blockbuster film has been commissioned, to my knowledge. The Friends aren’t applying for a Unesco rosette. But local and national politicians will be expected to give 1821 to 1825 a Victorian-style fanfare for these bicentennial years. When Michael Portillo sauntered through in 2011 on his never-ending TV rail jolly, locals were outraged that he didn’t even make a stop in Stockton (he made up for this in 2017). Online forums fizz with frustration at the lack of visible signs of Co Durham’s railway heritage; the tourist board’s homepage features castles and churches, but no miners’ helmets.

But the railways built Britain and Britain was, for a century, the world leader in their design and execution. As Anthony Coulls, senior curator of Rail Transport & Technology at the National Railway Museum, says: “The S&DR could be said in many ways to be better than first. There are so many elements of the modern railway, from finance and management to operation and engineering, that were combined for the first time in the S&DR, that it paved the way for the rapid growth of the railway in the 19th century. A communication revolution akin to the internet began in Co Durham on April 19 1821.”