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Pioneering Stockton & Darlington Railway archive shared with the public for the first time

The National Railway Museum has acquired and digitised a newly discovered archive from a largely forgotten early railway pioneer—Leonard Raisbeck. 

Raisbeck was an influential figure in the Stockton and Darlington Railway—the world's first public railway. It was his suggestion that the new venture should be a railway, a new technology at the time, rather than a canal. 

Born in Stockton-on-Tees in 1773, Leonard Raisbeck was a solicitor and an important player in planning and organising the new railway. He worked closely with chief financial backer Edward Pease and its famous engineer George Stephenson, but unlike his more well-known counterparts he has become all but lost to posterity. 

The collection of 258 documents has never been seen by the public before and following a major project, it becomes the museum's first archive to be fully digitised—giving people free access to every page (front and back), online. It is only the second large archive in the Science Museum Group to be fully digitised, along with the papers of Charles Babbage.  

The project involved museum staff and volunteers including volunteers from the Friends of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, who spent nearly 300 hours transcribing more than 50,000 words. The results will be available on the Group's Collections Online website from 14 April—the date of what would have been Raisbeck's 250th birthday. 

The archive includes letters sent from him and the railway's backers, surveys of the local coal interests in the area and printed pamphlets detailing the politics surrounding the project. It also documents a major rift with the Pease family, and he resigned from the railway in 1828, objecting to an extension of the line to Middlesborough. 

Tania Parker, Associate Archivist at the National Railway Museum, who led the project, said:

'These documents are tremendously important and give us a rare, first-hand account into the creation of the Stockton & Darlington Railway. We want people to use the archive to discover things for themselves, whether finding out about their local area or shedding new light on aspects of railway history. As the bicentenary of the railway approaches in 2025, this archive provides a fascinating snapshot into the early days of the railways and thanks to the efforts of our volunteers, we can now share these online for everyone to see.'

Deborah Thompson, a relative of Leonard Raisbeck, visited Locomotion in Shildon, which is close to the site of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, to find out more about the project. She said:

'It was such an honour and a privilege to be able to assist with this project and to read documents which were written and signed by my ancestors going back to the 1700s. I believe that to understand Leonard Raisbeck, you need to understand his position in 19th Century society, and it was wonderful to be able to help the team from the National Railway Museum with family background and information.'

The Stockton & Darlington Railway opened in 1825 to transport coal to market and was an important stepping stone in the industrial development of the North East and the development of the railways. The story of the North East's relationship to coal and its significance will feature in Locomotion's New Hall. which opens at the end of the year. 

The archive catalogue can be viewed here: https://collection.sciencemuseumgroup.org.uk/documents/aa110127047

ENDS

Notes to editors

For more information please contact Josh Chapman, Communication Officer, at 01904 929515 or joshua.chapman@railwaymuseum.org.uk.

About Locomotion

  • 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
  • The museum will host a series of exhibitions and events throughout the year, culminating in a visit from Flying Scotsman to celebrate the world-famous locomotive’s 100th birthday. The Centenary Festival will take place at Locomotion from 16 December–2 January
  • Admission to Locomotion is free – visit www.locomotion.org.uk