On the 27th September we will be celebrating the 198th anniversary of the Opening of the S&DR while looking forward to the 200th in 2025.
Two hundred years ago, as plans took shape for the Stockton & Darlington Railway, Georgian Britain was a place of innovation in a rapidly changing world. America had won its independence within living memory and war with France had only ended in 1815 with the defeat of Napoleon. While the slave trade in the British Empire was made illegal in 1807, the practice of owning slaves on plantations in the Caribbean and southern United States was to continue for many more years. Much of the sugar and cotton from these plantations made their way to British factories.
Britain was the world’s leading commercial nation based on an expanding trading empire of colonies around the world and an industrial revolution at home. Steam engines had been successfully applied to industrial use by James Watt and Mathew Boulton in 1775, and soon many factories and mines were using large, stationary steam engines to power machinery and pumps. This resulted in rural cottage industries such as textile production, being moved to large more efficient mills and factories in growing industrial towns. Workers moved from the land to work in industry and the gap between rich and poor was becoming increasingly clear. Wages and livelihoods were often an issue; in 1822 the keelmen who carried coal downriver to Newcastle upon Tyne went on strike and many would lose their jobs. Elsewhere the lack of votes and parliamentary representation for the working classes living in new industrial towns, resulted in campaigning and unrest leading, most famously to, the Peterloo Massacre of 1819.
The cultural enlightenment of the 18th century continued, with the wealth generated by trade (including slaves) and industry allowing the rich to build grand country houses in the neo-Classical and Gothick styles surrounded by fashionable landscaped parkland. Art and poetry celebrated the landscapes of wild nature such as the Lake District or the Highlands of Scotland seen in the work of J. M. W. Turner and Sir Walter Scott. In the year that the Stockton & Darlington Railway Company was formed (1818), Jane Austen died leaving her last two novels Northanger Abbey and Persuasion to be published posthumously and a 20-year-old Mary Shelley published Frankenstein. In March 1825 Beethoven premiered his 9th symphony in London.
While an extensive canal network in some parts of the country provided an efficient if slow bulk transport network for raw materials and goods for the new factories and industrial towns, road transport consisted of the age-old methods of foot, horseback, and horse drawn vehicles. Stagecoaches ran a scheduled service between different towns stopping at coaching inns, but it could take five days to get to London from Darlington.
It was into these times that a group of business owners and bankers from Darlington, Stockton and Yarm met to discuss a long-standing problem of how to move coal cheaply and efficiently from inland collieries to the urban centres and also to the coast for export to London and elsewhere. Their answer to this problem was going to create the model for the modern railway and inspire the railway revolution which would change the face of the world.
“…its [the S&DR’s] completion in 1825 may be said to have given birth to all others in this world.’ (from Edward Pease’s Diary looking back to 1825, entry dated 30 March 1841)
At seven in the morning, on the 27th September 1825, 12 waggons of coal were led from the Phoenix Pit at Witton Park in County Durham, to the foot of Etherley Ridge and then hauled up 1100 yards up the North Bank by the stationary engine at the top. Then the waggons descended Etherley South Bank to the road to West Auckland and St Helen’s Auckland.
From West Auckland, the train was joined by another waggon filled with sacks of flour, and then led by horses across the level to the foot of Brusselton West Bank. Here thousands of people were waiting on the slopes of the ridge to see the 60 horse power stationary engine at work on Brusselton ridge. These waggons, along with 21 others, were coupled to Locomotion No.1 along with the first railway carriage “Experiment” at New Shildon, on their way to Darlington and then to Stockton – a total journey of nearly 26 miles. The DArlington branch line opened the same day and the Yarm branch shortly after. Within five years the track had extended to over fifty miles.
This was the start of the modern railway network as we know it. Engineers would travel from across the world to Darlington and Shildon and learn how to run a railway. They took the lessons learned home and soon iron tracks and locomotives would spread across the surface of the planet. And so at 7 am on the 27th September 1825, the face of the world would start to change.