When, in the 17th Century, a Frenchman called Solomon de Caux predicted that one day everything would move by steam power, he was locked up in a Paris asylum.
Yet in County Durham, early in the second decade of the 19th Century, there were hundreds of labourers digging a railway line that would bring steam power to the world.
Contracts with the emerging Stockton and Darlington Railway were sought after. The Quakers paid fair rates and they paid on time.
Young boys received 8d a day for drilling two holes in 24 stone blocks which would become sleepers – the holes were for nails which tied the rail on top of the stone to wood beneath it.
Navvies were paid up to three shillings a day, which was quite handsome for the time. Their board and lodging was only nine shillings a week – and that included one shirt washed – so many were able to send money back to their families in Teesdale (a lot of lead miners had been attracted to the district to do the digging).
But George Stephenson worked them hard. He ordered that they left their lodgings in Darlington in the dark so that they could be ready on the ground to begin their work the second the day’s first rays of sunshine illuminated the gloom.
A couple of labourers paid with their lives. On August 6, 1823, Messrs Briggs and Alderson were crushed to death when a cutting collapsed on them.
This, however, was one of few blackspots as the railway charged forward. By summer 1823, 22 of the 26 miles of rail had been laid, and Stephenson dashed around the district in his top boots and breeches supervising the work. During the day, he dined in farmhouses close to the line; in the evening he retired to Edward Pease’s home in Northgate, Darlington, where he was teaching Edward’s daughters embroidery.
The biggest problem Stephenson faced in 1823 was at Myers Flat, a marshy patch of land between Heighington and Darlington. However many tons of soil he had poured into the bog, when he returned next morning the rails and the fences had moved as the soil sunk.
Locals believed that fairies like Will o’Wisp and Jenny o’t’Lantern were responsible for the strange shiftings, but Stephenson persevered and eventually Myers Flat was conquered.
Progress on the line was also being made in London. Stephenson had begun refining the route of the line in 1822. It was supposed to go via School Aycliffe, Middridge Grange, and Eldon to West Auckland, but he changed it to go between Aycliffe and Heighington to Simpasture, on through Shildon and over Brusselton and Etherley hills to Witton Colliery.
The S&DR committee returned to Parliament to get its permission for the route changes. Only the dreaded Earl of Darlington opposed the amendment because it took the line closer to his precious fox coverts (in the month after the railway opened in September 1825, Darlington’s foxhounds met at both Witton and Brusselton).
This time around, the Duke was a busted flush and on May 23, 1823, the Amending Act was passed. It is an important document in the history of the S&DR because we can see how ideas were crystallising in the minds of the railway pioneers.
One section of the Act gives them permission to charge a maximum toll of 6d a mile to anyone who ran a “coach, chariot, chaise, car, gig, landau, waggon, cart or other carriage conveying passengers”. This suggests that they were thinking about carrying passengers – the claim to fame that would eventually make the line’s name worldwide – although they were not sure how they would do it.
Perhaps more important is this paragraph, once you unwrap the Georgian legalese: “And it be further Enacted, That it shall and may be lawful to and for the said Company of Proprietors or any Person or Persons authorised or permitted by them, from and after the passing of this Act, to make and erect such and so many locomotive or Moveable Engines, as the said Company of Proprietors shall from time to time think proper and expedient, and to use and employ the same in or upon the said Railways or Tramroads or any of them, by the said recited Act and this Act, directed or authorised to be made, for the purpose of facilitating the transport conveyance and carriage of Goods, Merchandise and other articles and things upon and along the same Roads, and for the conveyance of Passengers upon and along the same Roads.”
Unwrapped, it means for the first time, the Stockton and Darlington Railway was to use locomotives to carry passengers. History was in the making.
Yet it was not as simple as the legalese makes out. All wagonways up until this point in history had run on cast iron rails. Indeed, Stephenson himself joined with William Losh of Newcastle in 1816 to get a patent on the design of cast iron rails.
But cast iron rails were very heavy and very brittle. They were also very difficult to join – an important point for the S&DR pioneers, because their prime business was to be coal transportation and they did not want to jilt their precious cargo out of the wagons every time they went over a join.
Stephenson told the committee: “The cast iron rails will not stand the weight. There is no wear in them, and you will be at no end of expense in repairs and re-lays.”
The alternative to cast iron was malleable iron, which was lighter and stronger. Malleable iron rails could be welded together on site to make the joins smoother.
So the S&DR committee gave a £14,000 contract to the Bedlington Iron Works, near Morpeth, to produce malleable rails for the line. In convincing the committee Stephenson, as cast iron patent holder, had done himself out of £500.
Worse, he also lost himself a friend and associate. William Losh, his co-patent holder, regarded his behaviour as an expensive betrayal. Their relationship ended.
But it was Losh, at yards in Newcastle and Wallsend, who had made steam engines to Stephenson’s instructions for Killingworth Colliery.
Now, in late 1823, Stephenson had a grand line under construction which would prove his vision of the value of steam power – but because of his fall-out with Losh, there was no one to build the locomotives he planned to run on it.