Some time in October 1821, in a field near the River Tees at Stockton, George Stephenson accosted some farm labourers.
“Come, give me a spade,” he shouted in his broad Northumbrian accent.
“Let it never be said that we haven’t made a beginning.”
With that, and without further fanfare, he turned the first sod of what was to become the world’s first passenger railway.
At the time, Stephenson was officially carrying out yet another survey of the route that would connect Stockton with Darlington and the Auckland coalfield, but with less than a dozen on-lookers he decided to dig his way into history near St John’s Well, just to the south of Stockton town centre.
He was probably watched by his 20-year-old son Robert, and his assistant John Dixon, the grandson of George, of Cockfield, who had been instrumental in the canal plan of 1767.
Stephenson presented the results of his survey to the S&DR committee on January 18, 1822, and four days later it decided to employ him full-time.
He was to be paid £660 per annum: “The said salary being understood to cover all the services and expenses of himself and assistant-surveyors”.
He was also instructed to start building the line.
However, the 1821 Act of Parliament which had granted planning permission to the railway pioneers had been based on George Overton’s survey. Stephenson’s route was materially different, but there was not time to go to Parliament and get the revised plans approved.
So Stephenson was ordered to start building Overton’s line at Stockton while the pioneers returned to Parliament for the section from Darlington to Auckland.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the S&DR was the degree to which everything was contracted out.
The committee contracted the building of the line to Stephenson. He divided the line into mile lengths and asked local labourers to tender for a contract to prepare a mile of land. The more cuttings there were to be made in a mile section, the higher the price of the contract.
On May 21, 1822, Stephenson wrote to the S&DR committee: “The dryness of the season and the strong nature of the clay in the cuttings have greatly damped the spirits of the undertakers (the navvies); in consequence of which I think it prudent to advance the price one penny per yard more than their bargains, which is still below my estimate. I hope they will now go on cheerfully.”
Most of the navvies were local, but Stephenson brought in specialist explosives men from his native Northumberland, and after the keelmen’s strike on Tyneside in 1822, the boatmen flooded south to join the digging.
A quarry at Brusselton won the contract to prepare the blocks of stone on which the rails would be laid. It was instructed to have 8,000 blocks ready by March 1, with another 8,000 every two months until 64,000 had been made. In May, a ship arrived at Stockton from Portsea, Hampshire, carrying 9,200 oak blocks. These were placed so that the rails would be 4ft 8Þin apart – and so the S&DR set the “standard gauge” for railways around the world.
This peculiar distance was a legacy of the horse-drawn carriages that the iron horse was replacing. Over the centuries, it had been discovered that the physique of horses best suited a carriage where the wheels were about 5ft apart. These wheels made grooves in mud and stone, and when railroads came to replace ordinary roads, the rails were set a similar distance apart – enabling the horses to continue pulling the same carriages on new wheelbases. Stephenson carried this practice into the new railway era.
The S&DR really was a world-leader, making the mistakes that others learned from. For example, it was a couple of years before railway engineers realised that laying a single heavy sleeper beneath both rails was better than a large block beneath one rail. A short section of the original stone blocks with rails on can be seen in Darlington’s South Park.
On May 23, 1822, the blocks near St John’s Well, in Stockton, were ready to have the first rail ceremonially laid upon them.
A half-day holiday was declared in Stockton, and “the ships in the harbour displayed all the bunting they possessed, the Town Hall was gay with flags, and from many private houses streamed well-worn banners which had done good service in commemorating in bygone years the successive victories by which the French had been driven off the ocean, and the hated Bonaparte deprived of his dreaded power”.
At 3pm, a gang of navvies pulled a carriage bearing Thomas Meynell, chairman of the S&DR, down Yarm Road to the Town Hall in the High Street. There he joined railway solicitor Leonard Raisbeck and they processed back down the High Street to Cottage Row, accompanied by the town band.
Everyone fell silent as Meynell laid the first rail. He refused to make a speech but instead a cannon roared in a neighbouring field.
“It was but a little rail, but it was a potent sceptre – the most potent sceptre by which man has ever ruled this planet,” said The Northern Echo in 1875.
Then everyone important adjourned to the Town Hall for a feast; the 300 workmen had free bread, cheese and ale at the Black Lion Inn.
For decades afterwards, a joke about the day was told to show the stupidity of Stockton folk. It was considered funnier than the Napoleonic one about the silly people of Hartlepool hanging a monkey.
Apparently, in the evening of May 23, a young boy toured the streets of Stockton selling copies of Mr Meynell’s speech for a penny each. “Hey, you young rascal, you've sold me a blank piece of paper,” shouted each purchaser after checking his souvenir of an historic day. “Aw knaw that,” replied the boy, “he m’yad n’yan!” Then he legged it.
Oh, how they laughed at the stupid Stocktonians.