Kitchen table talks that changed railway history

The Northern Echo: A fanciful drawing of George Stephenson and Nicholas Wood arriving at Bulmer's Stone in Northgate, Darlington on April 19, 1821. Buy this photo » A fanciful drawing of George Stephenson and Nicholas Wood arriving at Bulmer's Stone in Northgate, Darlington on April 19, 1821.

Chapter 5

On the evening of April 19, 1821, two strangers approached the front door of Edward Pease's home in Northgate, Darlington.

They came from wildest Northumberland and had set off early that morning by horse for Newcastle. At Newcastle, they caught a stagecoach bound for Stockton “by nip” – tipping the driver rather than paying the fare. From Stockton, they walked 12 miles across farm and field, following the path that was proposed for the Stockton and Darlington Railway.

One version of this story says they had “walked barefoot to Darlington, shoeing themselves near the Bulmer Stone” before crossing the road to Mr Pease's home.

Barefoot would have saved their shoeleather, although another version of the story has them stopping at the stone to take their shoes off in deference to the great Quaker entrepreneur they were approaching.

In stockings or shoes it matters not: Edward decided he was not at home to cold callers and told his servant to send them away. Edward was probably still anxiously awaiting news from London where King George IV had that day given his Royal Assent to the Stockton and Darlington Railway Bill, which gave Parliamentary permission to build “a railway or tramroad”.

After a few minutes, Pease seems to have had a change of heart. He inquired of his servant if the men were still there. Fortunately, the servant had taken pity on the Northumbrians and offered them some refreshment in the kitchen after their long journey.

Another version of the tale tells that it was the servant who initially tried to turn the two men away when they knocked on the door. Edward, ears a-flapping upstairs, came rushing down to sort out the commotion and ushered them into the kitchen.

Anyway, however they gained entrance, it was in the kitchen in Northgate that Edward Pease, perched on the kitchen table, was introduced to Nicholas Wood, the viewer (manager) of Killingworth Colliery, and George Stephenson, the colliery engineer.

And it was here that Stephenson agreed with Pease that the project should be a “railway” – ie: protruding rails laid on sleepers which wagon wheels wrapped around – rather than a “tramroad” – a groove in the ground into which carriage wheels slotted. Pease at that time was probably in a minority among the railway pioneers in arguing for a railway.

And it was here, too, that Stephenson convinced Pease of the benefits of steam locomotive power. Pease might well have been teetering on the brink of accepting this technological approach, but the rest of the pioneers certainly lagged behind him.

As the meeting in the kitchen drew to a close, Stephenson, a rather broad and unsophisticated Northumbrian, turned to the fashionable art of phrenology – reading the shape of a person's skull to determine what abilities they have.

He said: “I think sir, I have some knowledge of craniology and from what I see of your head, I feel sure that if you will buckle to this railway, you are the man to carry it through.”

Pease, who certainly did not believe in such fancies, replied in his Quakerish way: “I think so too. I may observe to thee that if thou succeed in making a good railway, thou may consider thy fortune as good as made.”

And with that, the meeting terminated. Pease retired to bed and Wood and Stephenson were turfed out on to Northgate. It was now so late that they had missed the last stagecoach home and they were forced to take Shank's pony. They walked 18 miles to Durham, Wood, collapsing from exhaustion a couple of miles short of the City, before they could find an inn with a room.

Or so the story goes. And it is a good story, but how much of it has been elaborated and distorted by history is difficult to say – Francis Mewburn, the otherwise reliable first Railway Solicitor, embroidered the barefoot bit and Wood himself added his own collapse.

It is inconceivable that Stephenson was a complete stranger when he knocked on Pease's door that evening. There is a line in a letter written by pioneer William Chaytor, of Croft, as far back as February 1819 that talks of a “Mr Stephenson of Sunderland” either volunteering an opinion on the venture or bidding for the haulage contract on the line at 1Þd per mile.

In 1819, Stephenson had been working at Hetton Colliery, designing the then longest railway which his son, Robert, completed in November 1822. In April 1821, when Stephenson came calling in Northgate, he was engineer at Killingworth, where he had just used locomotive power to haul 20 loaded coal wagons up a one-in-288 gradient “with an amazing degree of rapidity which beggars description”.

Pease must surely have known the breakthroughs occuring in his own district. However, it does seem as if Stephenson came to Northgate under his own steam, as it were, without an invitation.

This meeting is, though, vitally important. As The Northern Echo put it in its 1875 history of the S&DR: “The Railway Projector and the Railway Engineer had met, with results the bruit of which the world, with its thousands of snorting locomotives, is ringing to this day.”

The meeting crystallised in Pease's mind what needed to be achieved.

A month later, on May 12, at the King's Head Hotel, in Darlington, the shareholders of the S&DR met for their first meeting having received the Royal Assent. They formed themselves into a committee of 14 and a sub-committee of seven – Edward and his son, Joseph, were on both (Joseph even told the meeting that he had just hired two rooms in the Market Place for £5 a year to act as the company's offices).

How far the rest of the 14 were behind Edward is shown by the official seal of the S&DR which was adopted on May 25. Designed by committee member the Reverend DM Peacock, it shows a horse pulling the coal – not an engine.

On July 23, the committee formally decided that it was to be a railway, not a tramroad. At this meeting, Pease reported on his visit to Killingworth where he had been so impressed by what he saw that he envisaged a steam-powered railway connecting London with Edinburgh and the Royal Mail travelling along it at 20mph (still no vision of passengers, notice).

Pease proposed that Stephenson be asked to make a new survey of the land between Stockton and the coalfield. This seems to have been something of a surprise to the other committee members. Chairman Thomas Meynell protested quite vigorously, saying the £140 was a waste of money. He was expecting George Overton, to whom he was connected by marriage and who had conducted numerous S&DR surveys in the past, to be re-appointed.

But Pease carried the day, and wrote personally to Stephenson offering a surveyor's contract and telling him that the railway's “construction must be solid and have as little machinery introduced as possible”.

He sent the letter by horseman from Northgate, addressing it to “George Stephenson, Engineer, Killingworth Colliery”. The horseman was about to turn home in frustration having been unable to find anyone who answered to that name as pronounced by a Darlington dialect. It was only when a miner said he was really after the enginewright called “Geordie Stivvison” that the letter was placed in the right hands.

So George Stephenson came to be formally employed by the S&DR due to an evening meeting in Northgate. That meeting unquestionably changed the shape of the future. And, as Pease so presciently said during it, it made Stephenson's fortune: when he died 27 years later, he left £140,000.

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