The King is dead! Long live the King! The Railway Bill is dead! Will the railway ever come to life?
George III died on January 29, 1820, and with him died the Parliament. It must have sounded like a death-knell to the pioneers of the Stockton and Darlington Railway.
They had come so far, overcome so much opposition and just as Parliamentary permission for their project was within their grasp, the old king popped his clogs.
A fortnight after the king’s death, the pioneers met at the George and Dragon public house, in Yarm, and resolved to start again. They re-employed George Overton to make an umpteenth survey of the district, and repeated their lobbying.
“Every member of Parliament that could be influenced, directly or indirectly, was pressed into the service of the promoters,” says JS Jeans in his 1875 history of the line. “Every peer that was known to have any doubt or hesitation was seized upon and interviewed until he became a convert, while those who looked upon the measure were confirmed in the faith.”
They even went so far as to try to get their own MPs returned to the House in the 1820 General Election.
In a letter, Overton notes how a Durham MP had been rewarded for his support: “I presume Mr Lambton has discovered what he’s done for the Darlington tramroad has been in much degree repaid by the exertion of the advocates of that measure at his re-election.”
Just after the election, the Durham Chronicle newspaper – the pre-eminent Liberal newspaper in the district – came out in favour of the line.
“As lead, wood, and every other article of commerce would be transmitted at the same cheap rate, is not this an advantage to the speculative, industrious miner, and merchant, worth their purchase and is not such a project as this worthy of their support?” said its comment. Its proprietor was Mr Lambton MP.
Overton finished his survey on September 1 – the line was by now 37 miles long, including five branches – and the legal notices were issued once more.
In February 1821, the Bill began its passage through Parliament. First Reading (February 20) – no problem. Second Reading (February 28) – no problem. On to the Committee Stage.
But then the railway solicitor, Francis Mewburn, read the Parliamentary small print. Before a Bill could be considered in committee, 80 per cent of the money supporting it had to be raised. In his hotel room in London, Mewburn did his mathematics and discovered that the pioneers were £7,000 short.
Desperately, he trawled the capital’s finance houses; banker Jonathan Backhouse trawled the wealthy Quaker network.
But the money was not to be found. Mewburn wrote to Edward Pease back home in Northgate, Darlington, that if the £7,000 was not forthcoming within three days, he would return North and all would be lost.
Pease saved the day. He threw in the £7,000 (worth today about £225,000) from his personal savings.
This was a decisive moment in the history of the S&DR. With a single stroke of his pen on the chequebook, Pease took control of the project, which was now nicknamed “The Quaker Line”.
“It was almost Edward Pease’s line,” said The Northern Echo’s 1875 history of the line.
“He was supreme; what he could not do by influence he effected by sheer weight of votes; and hence for many a long year he was regarded as the King of the Railway, whose sovereignty extended over every department. From choosing an engineer to buying a hundredweight of nails – everything was carried to him for decision.”
The Bill passed the Committee Stage “in high style”. It whipped through its Third Reading in the Commons on April 12, stormed through the House of Lords on April 17, and on April 19 it received its Royal Assent from George IV.
The Act of Parliament was 67 pages of dense type long, nearly all of it written by Mewburn. It provided for the construction of “a railway or tramroad from the River Tees at Stockton to Witton Park Colliery with several branches therefrom, all in the County of Durham”.
In minute detail, it laid down how the line would be used. Anyone could run a wagon on it providing they paid the going rate, used safe equipment between the hours of 7am and 6pm in winter and 5am and 10pm in summer – and they shut the gates behind them.
Despite all this minutiae, it is what is missing that most interests historians.
There is no mention of coal exporting – yet within decades, the port of Middlesbrough would be founded as the export trade blossomed.
There is no mention of steam engines, just that the wagons would be hauled by “men or horses or otherwise” – yet within years Locomotion No 1 had proved the durability of the new-fangled technology.
And there is no mention of ‘passengers’ – yet the S&DR’s greatest claim to fame is that it was the world’s first passenger railway.