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Mystery of ‘unnamed’ locomotive to go under the spotlight at Shildon

Experts in early railway history are heading to Locomotion in Shildon this month to investigate a mysterious, ‘unnamed’ engine as part of a new research project.

Thought to be the world’s first replica locomotive dating from the 1850s, the mystery engine has been referred to as The Hetton Engine or the Hetton Lyon after the colliery in County Durham where it spent its operational life.

The engine is believed to be a replica of an original 1822 George Stephenson design now lost to history and it is hoped the research will reveal further secrets about the world’s very oldest steam engines.

The project will be led by Dr Michael Bailey and Dr Peter Davidson who are recognised as world-leading specialists in the field of locomotive investigation. The team will take photographs and measurements and will systematically and carefully dismantle parts of the engine to compare materials and methods of construction with archive evidence.

Two men study a drawing

Work is set to start on Tuesday 9 April and is expected to continue over a number of three-day sessions lasting several months. The project will take place in public view at Locomotion so people can ask questions and see the investigation taking place and perhaps come up with their own thoughts about the locomotive’s history.

Dr Sarah Price, Head of Locomotion, said:

“The history of early railways is incredibly important for the history of the North East of England and in the early 19th century engineering pioneers such as George and Robert Stephenson led the way in this emerging technology that would eventually change the world.

“Despite having been in preservation since the 1920s, relatively little is known about this engine and we are really looking forward to seeing what new discoveries will be made.”    

Michael and Peter recently led a similar project in Newcastle which found Killingworth Billy to be ten years older than previously thoughtmaking it the third-oldest locomotive in the world. In the past Dr Bailey has also carried out investigations with his colleague Dr John Glithero, into other historic locomotives such as Samson, Albion, Nelson and Canadian National No. 40.

Dr Michael Bailey said:

“We plan to better understand the history of this locomotive and its components through detailed archival and archaeological research. As repairs were carried out, locomotives sometimes picked up parts from other engines and they were often heavily modified or rebuilt over the years, as technology advanced.

“We hope to provide new evidence of the progression of Stephenson’s locomotive designs and to perhaps find the missing link between famous early locomotives Killingworth Billy and Locomotion No. 1.”

Although its name is a mystery, the Hetton locomotive may be a familiar sight to people based in the North East after spending the past eight years on loan to the Living Museum of the North in Beamish.

At the end of the project, the engine will remain at Locomotion and will go on public display. The findings of the study will be sent to the National Railway Museum, before being offered to the next Early Railways Conference due to be held in 2021.

The Hetton locomotive outside Locomotion

The last project of this type involving the National Railway Museum took place 20 years ago when Dr Bailey worked on an investigation into the early history of Stephenson’s Rocket. The results were published in the book ‘The Engineering and History of Rocket’. This project is the first of its kind to take place at Locomotion in Shildon.

The locomotive was based at Hetton Colliery and hauled coal wagons there until 1912after more than 60 years of active service. The locomotive took part in the 1925 centenary procession for the Stockton & Darlington Railway as well as other exhibitions such as the George Stephenson centenary celebration held in Newcastle in 1881.

The Hetton Colliery Railway was opened in 1822 by the Hetton Coal Company in County Durham. The line was eight miles long and was the first railway to operate without animal power and the first new line to be developed by George Stephenson. It is thought there were originally five locomotives built to work at the colliery between 1820 and 1822. Hetton Colliery closed in 1950.

A private donor is providing funding for this project.

Dr Michael Bailey was the first student to obtain a DPhil from the Institute of Railway Studies in 2000, a joint project run by the National Railway Museum and the University of York.


For more information, please contact:

Simon Baylis, PR & Communications Manager
01904 686 299

Pam Porter, Duty Officer (Events)
01904 685784

About Locomotion/The National Railway Museum

  • Locomotion offers visitors the chance to see highlights of the national collection of railway vehicles in Shildon, the world’s first railway town
  • Locomotion forms part of the Science Museum Group, along with the Science Museum in London, the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester, the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford and the National Railway Museum in York
  • Locomotion is a partnership between the Science Museum Group and Durham County Council, which is a major funder of the museum
  • Admission to Locomotion and the National Railway Museum is free
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