Plans are afoot (atrain?) to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the railway that got the world on track. Starting with the opening of the mainline and the two branches at Yarm and Darlington, the Stockton & Darlington Railway established a pattern of celebration that would be repeated again and again as they extended the line to Croft, Haggerleases, Middlesbrough and even the opening of the Shildon Tunnel. These went on to inform the nature of the anniversary celebrations every 50 years.

The celebrations had several purposes. Of course, it was quite simply a celebration of achievement and a reward for the workers who made it happen, but it was also publicity designed to drum up support and business. Acknowledging the benefits of such events, the older Quakers, and in particular Edward Pease’s generation, did not really approve of them. He shunned outward displays of celebration:

‘….the drinking of healths and toasts which is followed often by unmeaning speeches and those maddening huzzas which better become the Lunatick than the man of sober sense, …’ was his response.[i]

It is often suggested that he didn’t attend the opening day celebrations of the S&DR because of the death of his son Isaac, but it is unlikely that he would have attended anyway.[ii]

The opening day on the S&DR tin of travel sweets first produced in 1925 for the 100th anniversary and available again at the railway station shop.

The opening day of the mainline had a vital purpose. It had to show to the world that the railway worked and to shareholders that it was a good investment. This was never going to be so important again because once that had been established, the opening ceremonies could be shorter and involve more pomp and procession and less hard graft.

So let’s look at what the celebrations consisted of on the opening day on the 27th September 1825…..

The itinerary for the day was organised at relatively short notice. It was advertised in the local press on the 14th September and again, slightly altered, on the 19th and by distributing handbills. As a result people of all classes came from throughout the north east of England. ‘Gentlemen’ were asked to register their intent if attending the event; but many more chose to attend without any such notification.

The navvies and enginemen, miners, brakesmen and engineers had precious little sleep the night before. Indeed, they would not get the chance to let their hair down until later in the day. Up at the crack of sparrow (sunrise was 6am that day) they had to make sure the boilers in both engine houses at Etherley and Brusselton were fully fired. Twelve waggons were probably filled with coal the day before and were sitting on the sidings north of the New Inn ready to be hauled to the incline and over the Etherley ridge. The transportation of coal on the opening day was vital because in terms of the business plan, the major users of the railway would be colliery owners from south west Durham hoping to reach a wider market in Darlington, Yarm and Stockton but also, via ship, to the largest coal consuming city in the world – London. When the Middlesbrough branch was opened in 1830, a large chunk of top quality coal from the Black Boy branch was transported to the riverside staithes on the train with a similar message and just a few months earlier the Haggerleases branch was opened with waggons laden with coal forming a procession.

At the foot of Etherley Incline on the level land of the Gaunless the waggons were unhitched from the rope and hitched back up again to horses. A waggon was added to the train filled with sacks of flour. This was an important symbol aimed at the farming community including the five or six water powered mills along the Gaunless river – that the railway could also help export agricultural produce to a wider market.

Newspaper reporters travelled to different parts of the route and reports appeared in the press locally, nationally and internationally. Writing of the Gaunless area:

‘…a sense of gaiety and bustle was witnessed, surpassing, perhaps, any thing that ever occurred in that place before. Gentlemen’s carriages, post-chaises, gigs, jaunting cars, waggons, and carts, filled with company, were seen entering the village from all directions, while equestrians, mounted on spirited steeds, and others on broken-down hacks and stupid donkeys, added to the general effect, which was still further increased by a vast concourse of pedestrians, who pressed forward, eager to behold a sight altogether new in that part of the country.’

Once the waggons were hauled up the Brusselton Incline by the steam powered stationary engine, observed by members of the S&DR Committee and engineers, they reached the level ground at New Shildon. These waggons, along with 21 other especially adapted ones brought from Darlington for the general public, surveyors and workmen, were coupled to Locomotion No.1 along with the first purpose-built railway passenger carriage ‘Experiment’. The passenger coach was important because the railway was also authorised to carry passengers and this market also had to be publicised and nurtured. The more adventurous arrived at Shildon early in the morning in order to hitch a ride without having registered first.[iii] So many people did this, that the first incident of extreme overcrowding on a train took place that very day!

The engine driver for the day was George Stephenson while his brothers James (usually called Jem or Jemmy) and Ralph acted as firemen. Timothy Hackworth the company’s engineer and locomotive superintendent acted as guardsman. All the crew, including brakesmen who were positioned between coupling on the waggons, wore blue sashes on their right shoulders while other railway employees had blue ribbons in their buttonholes.

This use of blue ribbons (called ribands at the time) or favours was repeated at the opening of the Haggerleases branch line in 1830. Blue ribbons at that time were symbols of speed and success. At the opening of the Middlesbrough branch line in December 1830, the ‘blue ribands’ were used to hang large medals around participants necks; the medal depicting the suspension bridge on one side and a view of the staithes on the other (Durham Chronicle January 1st 1831). In addition, people attending the event associated with collieries, wore hats with printed ribbons with the name of the colliery printed on it (ibid) When the 50th anniversary celebrations took place in 1875, new blue ribbons were made featuring Locomotion No.1 on one side and George Stephenson on the other. They were made more fashionable to Victorian tastes with the addition of gold fringing.

On that first day, it is estimated that Locomotion No.1 left Shildon hauling 80-90 tons.[iv] The next destination was Darlington for lunch. The train set off with the loud hooting and hissing of an iron horse that set real horses scattering and people squealing. Many people joined on their own horses or in horse and carts and jostled for position at the front. Heralds on horseback holding flags were positioned in front of the train partly to create a sense of arrival, but also to warn people that the train was coming. Soon they wisely moved out of the way as the engine picked up speed. Fields and bridges were lined with people who came to watch and to cheer, although some were disappointed that the engine did not actually look like a horse.

An important part of this procession was the waving of banners and flags with proclamations including the railway company’s motto. Large white flags were displayed on four of the waggons. The first was inscribed ‘Stockton and Darlington Railway opened for public use 27th September 1825. Periculum privatum utilitas publica’ (Latin for ‘at private risk for public good’) and a drawing of a landscape, locomotive engine and waggons. The second flag just had the company motto. A third flag was inscribed ‘Prosperity to the Stockton and Darlington Railway’ and a fourth, presumably very large flag declared ‘May the Stockton and Darlington Railway give public satisfaction, and reward its liberal promoters’.[v] This use of flags and banners would be repeated at subsequent opening ceremonies on the branch lines and added a processional quality to the event while also making a public declaration of intent – this was a privately funded enterprise for YOUR benefit. The Durham Chronicle reported on the opening of the Middlesbrough branch in 1830 – ‘Flags of every size and description, from the Union-jack of England downward, floated on the breeze from the roofs of the respective buildings, and the day being uncommonly fine, the appearance of the whole was highly picturesque and beautiful.’

Once in Darlington six of the waggons of coal were sent down the branch line towards North Road to be given to the town’s poor. Again, the symbolism of reducing the price of coal by providing a cheaper and more efficient means of extracting it from the south west of Durham was an important part of the day and also complemented the Quaker belief that investment in business should be to the benefit of society as a whole (as their motto said).

The workmen and all the waggoners (but not the independent rider J. Lanchester who didn’t want to relinquish his place at the front of the train) left to take part in the ‘convivialities’ arranged for them.[vi] Tickets had earlier been issued to the workmen specifying which of the ‘Houses of Entertainment’ they should go to in Darlington, while some were dropped off at the Yarm branch for refreshments there. [vii]

The engine refuelled and watered and Mr Meynell’s band from Yarm embarked on two waggons behind ‘Experiment’ so that the rest of the journey was accompanied by music. Especially adapted waggons hosting local bands became a feature of most opening events. Indeed, one wonders if the phrase ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ didn’t start with such opening ceremonies? Mr Meynell’s band were probably relieved not to have to travel on a ‘bandwaggon’ again when the Yarm branch opened on the 17 October 1825 – on this occasion the band joined ’60 respectable tradesmen’ at Mr Meynell’s New Inn (now the Cleveland Bay) and the band performed ‘appropriate airs…some gentlemen also favouring the company with a variety of songs, and were joined in the choruses by the members of the band’ (Durham County Advertiser October 22nd 1825).

The Haggerleases branch benefited from two opening ceremonies in 1830, the first with a musical accompaniment by the West Auckland amateur band and the second by the Staindrop amateur band, bot in adapted waggons.[viii]  At the opening of the Middlesbrough branch, ‘bands of music were also in attendance’ (Durham Chronicle January 1st 1831). The band which accompanied the opening of the Shildon Tunnel in 1842 is un-named but it went into the tunnel along with the flag waving procession.

From here the railway had a gentle decline all the way to Stockton and observers on horseback galloped alongside the train, some hoping and failing to prove that the horse was faster. More coal was off-loaded at the Yarm branch.

The train arrived at Stockton’s quayside, now with 600 passengers clinging on board, and was greeted by a 21-gun salute and the band struck up God Save the King’ followed by three deafening cheers. Guns firing also formed part of the opening of the Middlesbrough branch where there were free rides, refreshments, the firing of guns, and ‘great demonstrations of joy’ in 1830 and in 1842 at the Shildon Tunnel‘…cannon were fired in the open air, and the band struck up the favourite tune, Merrily Danced the Quaker’s Wife’, (wrote the NER Magazine of 1913). This was a foot tapping, racy little number suitable for dancing to and probably not to the liking of Edward Pease or other Quakers of his generation. It was a curious homage to the Quaker origins of the railway.

The music played at S&DR celebrations was usually the sort you could march to but it also had other significances. ‘Weel May the Keel Row’ another quick marching tune, harked back to the keelsmen who brought the coal from the mines in Northumberland, down the Tyne to the coast. Many of those keelsmen went on strike in 1822 and lost their jobs, just at the time the S&DR and George Stephenson were recruiting workers to build the railway. If you want to know what it sounded like you can hear a quick blast here. (Sorry if you get an advert, you can skip it after a few seconds.)

‘Hail, Star of Brunswick’ was played by the band at the subsequent banquet as was ‘the Railway’. While the latter connection is obvious I haven’t been able to source the former. Other music played at the opening day banquet included:

  • Duke of York’s March
  • Rule Britannia
  • Here’s a Health
  • Old Towler
  • Scots Wha Hae
  • Should Auld Acquaintance

The band led a procession into town where the railway staff dispersed to their appointed eating places to celebrate. For the workers this was to the various hostelries in town such as Martha Howson’s Black Lion Inn where they were treated to bread, cheese and ale.

A bill from the Black Lion from another time. It was actually made out to Edward Pease and was for punch.

However one hundred and two (or 99 according the bill) official guests (shareholders and officers) were entertained to a banquet at Stockton’s Town Hall. Other guests included representatives of other embryonic railway companies yet to start construction, such as the chairman of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway Company newly formed and the Liverpool & Birmingham line. They needed to be encouraged to join the railway revolution.

Stockton Town Hall. The banquet was held upstairs. Photo by Brendan Boyle

Mr Meynell, a shareholder and the Chair of the S&DR, moved from Brass Band leader to the Chair of the banquet and along with the town’s mayor, led 23 toasts. Edward Pease would have hated it!

The evening started with a toast to the King and the singing of the national anthem accompanied by the band in the adjacent room. The next toast was to the ‘royal family’ and then a series of toasts followed to the Stockton & Darlington Railway and many more toasts to the armed services, the Ladies, the county and to the Plough, the Loom and the Bull and ‘may the railway contribute towards their prosperity’. The latter toast reinforced the message that the railway was also there for the farming community. Toasts were also made to the coal trade, the Tees Navigation Company, and other mining interests and coal owners – all essential partners/users if the railway was to succeed. Other embryonic railways were encouraged with further toasts ‘Success to the Projected Manchester & Liverpool Railway’ was one cry (yes it was that way round). An exhausted George Stephenson left before they got around to his toast. If you’d like to read the long list of toasts, an account of the speeches and the music played, the report from the Durham County Advertiser published a few days later can be read here.

No record survives of what the menu was on the opening day, we only know that the dinner and wine were excellent and dessert consisted of many fruits in season’. Boyle[ix] has explored what sort of food might have been eaten based on the fashions of the time and the need to promote local produce from the area served by the new railway. The S&D’s dinner bill for 1825, which survives at the National Archives, provides no clues to the components of that meal but it does tell us that ‘dinner for 99’ cost 12/- (12 shillings) each.16 At three or four times the price of a normal inn dinner for a gentleman that suggests it was indeed, as the Company’s own report described, sumptuous.  Unfortunately, the bill to Mr Foxton at the Town Hall was never paid.

Banquets featured at other opening ceremonies, but the cold collation was also a popular choice – essentially a cold buffet and this featured at the opening of the Croft branch in 1829 and the second opening at the Haggerleases branch, hosted by the Rev. Prattman an S&DR shareholder and colliery owner. Perhaps the coldest of all banquets was at the opening of the Middlesbrough branch. Here 600 guests were entertained at dinner in the specially decorated gallery of the newly built staithes – this was in December 1830 on the river front! And when the Shildon Tunnel opened in 1842 the procession gathered inside the tunnel “The darkness was relieved by innumerable candles, and a platform had been erected at which a ceremony took place”, said the North Eastern Railway (NER) Magazine, in 1913. Mr Dennies ceremonially presented the last brick. Mr Booth ceremonially sprinkled it with wine. Mr Wandless ceremonially cemented it into place with a suitably inscribed silver trowel – that very same trowel is now on display in the nearby Locomotion museum.

It had been a long day but the consensus was, it had been a successful one. This was all too evident in the increased value of shares by the end of the day. The S&DR still had some way to go and would continue to experiment in the real world of railway travel while others watched and learned. That day has been celebrated regularly since in 1875, 1925 and 1975. In future blogs we will look at what happened at those celebratory events and importantly what we hope to do in 2025 – the 200th anniversary of the railway that got the world on track. If we want to take a leaf out of the book of the S&DR’s approach to celebrating, the essential components are:

  • Processions with flags flying and banners waving
  • Blue sashes and button hole ribbons
  • Brass band music
  • Cold collations, convivialities and banquets
  • Toasts – lots of them!
  • A 21-gun salute
  • And thousands of people.

Unlike many of the other events, women will be welcomed at every aspect of the celebrations. Often excluded from the banquets (in 1875) or shunted into a waggon of their own (at Haggerleases 1830), it would appear that these events were organised by men and for men, but they couldn’t keep the ladies away. Nobody is keeping me from the banquets or cold collations in 2025 – see you there. #steamingaheadto2025

[i] Orde 2000, 93

[ii] Boyle 2018, 13

[iii] Holmes 1975, 13

[iv] Holmes 1975, 14

[v] Jeans 1974, 69

[vi] Ibid

[vii] On the company’s handbill of 19 September 1825

[viii] Durham Chronicle on the 8th May 1830 and 9th October 1830

[ix] Boyle 2017, 13 (The Globe)