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Shildon—Cradle of the railways

Published: 12 October 2018

Shildon is a small town in County Durham in the North East of England, vitally important to the story of Britain's railways.

This is the place where the world's first steam-powered public railway sprang to life.

So what was it that made this place so important, and why was the railway built along this route? Who was behind it, and what did people at the time make of the radical new technology changing the face of their landscape?

Why did the railways come to Shildon?

Detail of a plate from Agricola's De Re Metallica, showing a 16th century mine wagonway Science Museum Group Collection
Detail of a plate from Georg Agricola's De Re Metallica, showing a 16th-century mine wagonway

Shildon's location was strategically significant, sitting on the eastern edge of the south-west Durham coalfield.

This proximity made it ideal for connecting nearby collieries with Darlington and Stockton-on-Tees, speeding up the process of transporting coal locally as well as freighting it to the coast for onward transport. 

Being in the thick of the coal industry also meant Shildon was close to a wealth of engineering knowledge and innovation. 

The mining industry had been an important site of development in rail technology for several centuries, and so it made sense that early railway locomotives were developed in and around the industrious coalfields of the North of England. 

Other types of transport

Canals had been proposed as early as the 1760s by engineers such as James Brindley as a solution to the problem of transporting coal from the inland coalfields to the coast. This idea was favoured by many in Stockton, but others thought canals would be too expensive.

Tramroads were another option, suggested by the Welsh engineer George Overton.

But George Stephenson, passionate advocate of the steam locomotive, opposed both in favour of railways.

So, there were many competing interests and opinions on the best way forward for industrial—and eventually passenger—transport. 

Whose idea was the Stockton & Darlington Railway?

Darlington businessmen wanted a railway as opposed to the canals favoured by those in Stockton. The proposed canal route would bypass Darlington and Yarm, leading them to suffer financially by missing out on trade opportunities. 

Darlington banker Jonathan Backhouse and mill owner Edward Pease created a committee in opposition to the expensive proposed canal works. Also on the committee were builder Robert Botcherby from Darlington, the Recorder of Yarm Leonard Raisbeck, Quakers Benjamin Flounders and Richard Miles, and landowner and squire Thomas Meynell, all from Yarm.

It was George Stephenson, though, who convinced Pease that a railway—and not a tramway—should be built, claiming that steam engines could haul 50 times the load horses could manage.

Printed plan of the proposed railway or tramroad from 1822.
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Printed plan of the proposed railway or tramroad from 1822.

How was the railway funded?

The Stockton and Darlington Railway (S&DR) had shareholders, but the Pease family were also very influential in funding it. Joseph, Edward’s son, rented the offices in Darlington for the railway before their first meeting. 

Edward Pease also subscribed £7,000 to the railway himself, to enable the act proposing the railway to reach royal assent (since a significant amount of shares had not yet been sold). Having such a large stake in the S&DR gave Pease significant influence. 

In 1821 Parliament agreed and George IV gave his assent, allowing the work to begin.

Who was Timothy Hackworth?

One very important figure in the story of the railway hasn't made an appearance yet.

Born in Wylam in 1786, Timothy Hackworth was apprenticed at Wylam colliery, where he worked with William Hedley on Puffing Billy and later Wylam Dilly.

He also worked briefly for Robert Stephenson & Co., before becoming superintendent of the S&DR in 1825.

Timothy Hackworth's business card, illustrated with a steam locomotive Science Museum Group Collection
Timothy Hackworth's business card, advertising his works at New Shildon.

He was an important figure in Shildon from this point, managing the line and the engineering works. He worked with the Stephensons on Locomotion No. 1, the engine which ran on the S&DR's opening day, and in 1827 built Royal George. 

This locomotive had a lot of innovations, such as the steam blast pipe, and was said to be one of the first locomotives to be more efficient than horses.

Others weren’t so keen on Royal George as it was still slow—but this was perfectly acceptable for the coal-hauling railway it was built for.  

Drawing of Hackworth's Royal George locomotive, 1827

Hackworth also had international aspirations, building the first steam locomotive to run in Russia, which he exported in 1836. He also built locomotives for Canada, such as Samson, which is on display at Nova Scotia Museum of Industry.

Why is Hackworth not as well-known as George Stephenson?

Oil painting of Timothy Hackworth, c.1840
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Oil painting of Timothy Hackworth, c.1840

The two men did have similarities—they were both born in Wylam, both held jobs at the colliery, both invented significant safety devices (Stephenson's safety lamp and Hackworth's spring-loaded safety valves). 

Their differences were obvious though.

Hackworth was interested in steam machinery and worked on locomotives, while Stephenson was surveying and building railways such as the S&DR and the Liverpool & Manchester Railway. 

Stephenson grew up poor and illiterate, eventually learning to read, write and carry out work with steam machinery in the colliery.

Hackworth was taught at an early age and carried out an apprenticeship, eventually taking over his father’s high-ranking role of Foreman of the Smiths at the colliery. 

Perhaps it’s Stephenson’s rags-to-riches story that has captured people's imaginations over Hackworth's more conventional path. Rocket's win at the Rainhill Trials also cemented the Stephenson name in the public mind—even if everyone forgets which Stephenson built the locomotive!

Regardless, Hackworth was an important force in the nascent railway industry in County Durham. 

What was the opening of the railway like?

So the railway was a new and somewhat controversial innovation—when it finally arrived, how did the town react?

Locomotion No. 1 departed for Stockton from outside the Mason's Arms public house on Tuesday 27 September 1825.

The overriding theme in contemporary accounts is that of wonder and amazement. Shildon was the very first place in the world to witness a steam locomotive hauling a train of passengers on a public railway—a true spectacle.

To the locomotive engine 60 waggons were attached, containing one thousand persons, who were highly delighted, as were the thousands of spectators.

Cambridge Chronicle and Journal (7 October 1825 )

There were people lining most of the lanes and fields that the railway passed by, but Shildon itself was where the most enthusiastic climbed aboard. 

About 300 tickets were distributed, and around 600 people clambered aboard—the 1,000 reported by the Cambridge Chronicle is certainly an exaggeration, but by all accounts there were many more passengers than tickets.

Print of a Watercolour by John Dobbin showing crowds gathered at the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, 1825 Science Museum Group Collection
‘Opening of the First Public Railway—the Stockton and Darlington’, 1825, colour print after the original sketch by John Dobbin

How did people feel about the new railway?

When Locomotion arrived in Stockton, it was met by a seven-gun salute and a band striking up God Save the King. A celebratory dinner for the engineers and local dignitaries was held to mark the momentous occasion. 

There was even fear of an accident occurring due to the number of people gathered to see the train arrive:

It was found to be quite impossible to restrain the enthusiasm of the multitude.

Durham County Advertiser (6 October 1825)

There was also scepticism and even fear, however, and some spectators were terrified of Locomotion and the hissing noises it made. 

But there was clearly an outpouring of curiosity and the gathered crowds were excited to see the new technology.

What happened once the railway was open for business?

The arrival of the railway catalysed significant changes for Shildon as a town and the local area as well as national industry.

Coal prices fell, and the increased demand was initially more than the railway could manage.

Passenger services started running in October 1825, run by private contractors using horse-drawn coaches such as the Union. Locomotives gradually replaced horses on the railway line, and from 1833 a steam-hauled passenger service was in operation.

Notice advertising the Union railway coach, 1826 Science Museum Group Collection
Passenger notice advertising the Union railway coach, 1826

The new industry led to a population boom in Shildon (from just 115 in 1821 to over 2,600 by 1841) as more and more people moved to the town for work. 

Old and New Shildon in 1857

The settlement expanded rapidly into New Shildon and the town became home to railway works, a Mechanics' Institute and other businesses and organisations associated with the railways. 

Shildon would not be the same again.

Why was the Stockton & Darlington Railway significant?

The S&DR was the prototype modern railway, with a passenger service as well as freight transport. Previously, canals had dominated this market. Other railways were small and focused on a single or few collieries, and many were exclusively horse-powered too.

The railway owned the track and allowed contractors to use it for a fee. This meant that passengers paid a different company to travel, while the S&DR was responsible for upkeep and maintenance of the line itself—a situation that will be familiar to anyone who travels on Britain's railways today.

The passenger transport and coal industries that the railway allowed to flourish certainly impacted positively on the future of the railways. 

Their growth proved that steam locomotives were the future and encouraged adoption of the technology, drastically shrinking the world for most people and improving material conditions. Fresh produce, opportunities for work and up-to-date information all became vastly more accessible with the rise of the railways.

Was the achievement celebrated later?

There is a long history of commemoration in the railway industry, and an achievement as notable as the opening of the first steam-hauled passenger railway was marked and remembered numerous times over the years.

North Eastern Railway, 1875

This celebration included the unveiling of a statue to Joseph Pease in Darlington (which is still standing today). There was also a display of early locomotives, including Locomotion, at North Road Engine Works. 


Ticket belonging to Harrison Hayter Esq for the NER's banquet celebrating the 50th anniversary of the opening of the S&DR, 27 September 1875.
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Ticket belonging to Harrison Hayter Esq for the NER's banquet celebrating the 50th anniversary of the opening of the S&DR, 27 September 1875.

London & North Eastern Railway, 1925

Marking the centenary of the S&DR's opening, this event included a procession of locomotives from the S&DR, NER, GWR, LNWR, LMS, SR, and even the Hetton Colliery locomotive (previously thought to have been built in 1822, this was actually a replica from 1851).

Locomotion No. 1 hauled a train of chaldron wagons to replicate the opening day ceremony. It was powered by a petrol motor, with burning rags in the chimney to give the appearance of being in steam. Afterwards it was displayed in Darlington, where people allegedly took chips off the chimney as souvenirs. 

LNER centenary poster by Fred Taylor, 1925.
Science Museum Group Collection More information about LNER centenary poster by Fred Taylor, 1925.

British Rail, 1975

Festivities surrounding the 150th anniversary commemoration included a procession of historic locomotives at Shildon.

A locomotive in steam at British Rail's celebration of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, 1975 Science Museum Group Collection
Taking to the rails as part of the cavalcade at the 1975 anniversary celebrations.

So why isn't Shildon a famous metropolis?

Considering the tiny population at the start of the 19th century, Shildon did grow enormously as a result of the railways.

In many ways it was left behind by the closure of the wagon works in 1984, and the general move away from railways to road and air travel harmed the growth of the town in the 20th century.

This was exacerbated by the fact that Shildon didn't have a second coming as a popular tourist destination, unlike many older towns with visible medieval heritage and despite its more recent historic importance.

But as we've seen, Shildon does have a fascinating and vital story to tell as the cradle of the railways.

Commemorative stone at the Mason's Arms, Shildon Science Museum Group Collection
Commemorative stone near the site of the Mason's Arms level crossing on the original course of the S&DR.