As the summer of 1818 turned, the towns of the Tees valley were engaged in a race into the future. Stockton was ahead. On July 31, its mayor called a public meeting which agreed to ask Parliament for the necessary powers to build a canal that linked the River Gaunless at Evenwood with the River Tees at Stockton.
The meeting formed a company, The Company of Proprietors of the Stockton and Auckland Canal, and set about raising £206,000.
Darlington was in danger of missing the boat. Stockton’s canal did not come anywhere near it. The town’s entrepreneurs were worried it would be turned into an industrial backwater: Stockton would soak up all the investment available in London, so denying Darlington the chance to build its own project and the town would be left relying on horse carriers while the people of Stockton grew rich.
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Darlington’s Edward Pease, Jonathan Backhouse and Francis Mewburn attended the July 31 meeting. But when the respected Stockton solicitor Leonard Raisbeck received a noisy, hostile reception as he spoke against the canal, the Darlington contingent decided in the interests of personal safety to remain silent. The meeting might have been open, but only men of Stockton were allowed to second a resolution or vote. Raisbeck’s was the only dissenting voice.
Almost immediately the Stockton meeting was over, the Darlington contingent set about organising themselves. They found the merchants of Yarm were also worried that the Stockton canal would by-pass their town. Raisbeck defected from Stockton and in August the Darlington camp asked surveyor John Rennie to have another look at the district.
He reported back in favour of a railway that ran from the collieries around Bishop Auckland to Darlington, and a canal that ran from Darlington to Stockton. Backhouse was in favour of this combination of modes of transport; Pease believed in a railway all the way. Consequently another surveyor, George Overton, was called in from Wales and within 17 days he had done his measuring and concluded that a railway was indeed the best possible way.
Time was of the essence. The Stockton contingent was already in London, lobbying MPs and seeking cash. As September drew on, Raisbeck and Mewburn, both solicitors, gave Parliamentary notice that they, too, would be applying for permission to build some sort of canal-cum-railway.
By November, their views had crystallised. At a meeting on Friday the 13th in the town hall, they decided to build “a rail or tramway throughout the entire line presented between the collieries and Stockton”.
It would be 35 miles long, terminating at Etherley Colliery. There would be a further 16 miles of branch lines to Yarm, Croft and Piercebridge. It would even have a name: the Stockton and Darlington Railway.
At the Town Hall meeting, Backhouse outlined how the Darlington scheme had a much sounder commercial basis than the Stockton canal project. Stockton, he said, relied solely on exporting 100,000 tons of Durham coal a year; the Darlington railway relied on selling 20,000 tons at Piercebridge, Darlington, Croft and Yarm. A further 10,000 tons would be sold at Stockton and another 10,000 tons could be exported.
Edward Pease “a man of weight, of prudence, of keen commercial instincts, had the duty of proving that the novel method of transit was a thoroughly save investment”. His son, 19-year-old Joseph (whose statue stands in High Row, Darlington) was given the task of drawing up the prospectus for the new company.
After the meeting, Backhouse had to raise the £125,000 cost of the line. He put in £20,000; the Peases put in £6,200. William Chaytor of Croft (who was elected chairman of the railway committee and who owned Witton Colliery, which would be connected by the railway) put in £5,000. The Yarm contingent put in £8,000 and Raisbeck put in £1,000 – the only sizeable contributor from Stockton. Backhouse collected the remaining £80,000 from Quaker bankers across the country.
But Stockton was still ahead. It had enlisted the support of the local landowner Lord Stewart (later Lord Londonderry), and Lord Castlereagh was also on board.
Stockton did not have the Backhouse connections, though, and was stumped for cash. By Christmas 1818, it had raised only £57,000, which was £160,000 short. On Christmas Eve, the Stockton committee announced a humiliating climbdown. Its letter said that having “carefully weighed all the information the members possess and availing themselves, as far as they can, of the calculations of the Darlington committee, they have no hesitation in deciding that the interests of the town of Stockton, and of the whole county adjacent to the Northern Line, demand that a railroad should be constructed to enter the coalfield on the nearest possible point”.
There must have been great jubilation in Darlington. The canal, first planned in 1767, was sunk. The railway had won.
Yet Darlington’s joy was soon tempered. It had been hoped that Stockton would climb aboard the Darlington project. Instead, Stockton went its separate way again, pursuing the Tees and Weardale Railway (which became the Clarence Railway running from Billingham into the coalfield and opened in 1833).
Far worse, and far more damaging, was the dawning realisation that struck Darlington that December: the biggest landowners of the district had taken against them.
Lord Eldon, the famous port-drinker whom Echo Memories met in the Eden Arms at Rushyford last year, was Lord Chancellor in Lord Liverpool’s Government. He was a diehard Conservative who opposed the railway which would run over his land.
Lord Darlington, a member of the Vane family who lived in Raby Castle, lived purely for his fox-hunting. He was obsessed by it. Yet the planned railway ran over his land. In fact, in their haste to get their plan before Parliament ahead of Stockton, the Darlington contingent had driven the railway through Lord Darlington’s fox coverts – specially planted thickets where foxes lived until his lordship and his dogs rooted them out.
With Lord Darlington implacably opposed to the railway, the Darlington plan began 1819 staring defeat in the face.
• Railway pioneers : Edward Pease, Jonathan Backhouse and Francis Mewburn. These three men were present at the meeting in Stockton on July 31, 1818, which decided to ask for Parliamentary permission to build a canal that came nowhere near Darlington. They immediately resolved to start a rival scheme to bring a railway through Darlington, and were the prime movers in bringing that scheme to fruition.
• The seal of the Stockton and Darlington Railway Company. The company was named in late 1818, when it adopted its motto Periculum privatum utilitas publica - At private risk for public service. The drawing shows a horse-powered railway - the idea of steam locomotion did not come until much later. There is a little factory on the hill behind the horse. Depicted on the hill behind the horse on the share certificate below, which was issued later, is an industrial town.