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Shildon: The Cradle of the Railways

Shildon’s long association with railways began in the 1820s, when the new Stockton & Darlington Railway chose the town for its engineering headquarters, and on 27 September 1825, George Stephenson’s ‘Locomotion’ set off from outside the Mason’s Arms public house hauling the first train from Stockton and imprinting the location in railway history.

In 1827, an engineer named Timothy Hackworth was appointed to look after the company’s locomotives and made his home in the town. As time progressed, he established his own locomotive works as well as the Stockton & Darlington one, and after his death in 1851, Shildon began to carve a niche as the major wagon works for the S&DR, which later became the North Eastern Railway, London & North Eastern Railway and finally British Railways.

With industrial growth and prosperity from local coal mines contributing to the town, a network of railway lines criss-crossed the settlement, but it was those links with earlier times that remained in the local psyche and what the town became best known for.

1975: marking Shildon as A town of heritage

In 1975, Shildon’s played host to a celebration of 150 years of the Stockton & Darlington Railway in recognition of its railway heritage. An exhibition of rolling stock and a cavalcade of locomotives passed along the line to Heighington to mark the occasion.

A small museum was also set up and opened by the Queen Mother, and there matters rested until 1983 when the wagon works was threatened with closure. The whole raison d’etre for the town was under threat, but a combination of political pressure and lack of orders resulted in its eventual closure after a long fight in 1984 with the loss of some 2,900 jobs. An amount of re-investment saw some new opportunities created, but for nearly 20 years, Shildon became somewhere that very few people had heard of and even fewer visited.

Forging links with the National Railway Museum

In the late 1990s, the National Railway Museum decided to get to grips with its vast collection and make it more accessible if at all possible. At the main museum site in York, the small objects were placed in open store in what is known as The Warehouse. Museum managers sought to do the same with the rolling stock, some 70 items of which were in inadequate store either at York or elsewhere across the country.

The then-head of National Railway Museum went out to the public and private sectors looking for partnerships to develop what was initially conceived as a major storage facility for the rolling stock collection, with occasional public access days. Many locations were examined, but at Shildon in County Durham, Sedgefield Borough Council offered a brownfield site with a long railway history and a connection to the national rail network in a partnership that offered the most potential for both parties.

completing the Collection Building

During the spring of 2004, track began to be laid and in June 2004 the first locomotives arrived on the museum site—a humble class 03 diesel shunter and an LNER Q7 goods engine. A gathering of sponsors, partners and local dignitaries watched the latter being installed into the new Collection Building and then the hard work began. With the new museum due to open on 25 September (as close to the Stockton & Darlington anniversary as possible), nearly 70 locomotives, carriages and wagons needed to be installed, as well as museum displays to fit out and offices, a shop and café to equip—the race against time was on.

Suffice it to say, the deadline was met, and on the first open weekend, thousands came to see what it was all about, far exceeding the numbers expected. This was merely a soft opening however, and the official opening happened a month later on 22 October, when a special train worked up from York hauled by streamlined steam locomotive “Duchess of Hamilton”. In front of VIPs, local dignitaries, funders, staff and volunteers and in the company of National Railway Museum flagships ‘Flying Scotsman’ and ‘City of Truro’, the then Prime Minister and MP for Sedgefield Tony Blair declared the museum open before taking part in a tour of the new museum and placing it firmly on the map.

Exceeding expectations

In the first 12 months of operation, 210,000 visitors took advantage of the chance to visit—considerably more than the 60,000 anticipated. From an early date, the museum established a programme of innovative and exciting events, tying in the unique heritage of the region with the appeal of the North East’s first National Museum.

Since 2006 trainees and volunteers have worked under a manager in the Conservation Workshop to repair and restore historic railway vehicles. The first restoration project was a small locomotive called Woolmer, which arrived in pieces, and after careful reassembly and repair is now on display at the Milestones Museum in Basingstoke, Hampshire. Skills have been passed on from fabrication, turning, welding and riveting to coachpainting and signwriting.

Since it opened, Locomotion has established itself as one of the biggest tourist attractions in the North East and the most visited museum in County Durham. It has re-established Shildon as a venue to be visited and plays a key part in the local economy with its vibrant place in the rail industry and rail heritage assured.