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Lawyers and locomotives both provided headaches
3:35pm Monday 16th June 2008 in Stockton & Darlington
As 1825 dawned, it looked like the Stockton and Darlington Railway was running out of steam. Problems were piling up all over the place, even as the pioneers’ first iron bridge over the River Gaunless was being washed away by winter floods.
First, there was the Stephenson conundrum. George and his son Robert were leaders in their field, but George was seriously over-stretched with railway projects elsewhere.
Robert had disappeared to the other end of the world – South America – to investigate gold and silver mines. The result was that the engines the S&DR had ordered from R Stephenson and Company in Newcastle were months behind schedule.
Second, in 1824, a rival railway entered the fray. The Tees and Weardale Railway, which later became the Clarence Railway, threatened to connect Stockton directly with the coalfields, by-passing Darlington altogether. The S&DR pioneers devoted great energies to ensuring it did not get the Parliamentary permission they had fought so hard for.
And, of course, there were perpetual money problems. The line had proved much more difficult and more expensive to construct than George Stephenson’s survey had suggested. The price of iron had soared in 1824 by 20 per cent, and the arrival of a large consignment of defective wagon wheels had not helped matters.
Legal bills were mounting. Those landowners who had tried to stop the railway by Parliamentary means in the early days now turned to the courts. Others realised that there was compensation going cheap and so slapped in vexatious claims.
The most notorious was a Mr Rowntree. Even though he was a small S&DR shareholder, he claimed that the “infernal engine” passing through his estate to the north of Yarm rendered his house – which he had just spend hundreds of pounds doing up – uninhabitable. He demanded up to £1,000 compensation; the company offered £320, rising to £360. Eventually a jury settled on £500.
Then there was an old sea captain called Blake George. He demanded a bridge be built over the railway. Three times he pressed his claim in court, and eventually he won, with costs awarded against the S&DR. It was estimated that “m’learned friends” were twice as expensive as the bridge.
In all, the S&DR spent £18,000 more than it had expected on land and compensation. Considering its initial budget was about £100,000, this was a debilitating overspend.
To cover their increasing costs, the pioneers gained a third Act of Parliament on May 17, 1824, which gave them permission to raise a further £50,000.
Still this was not enough, and on September 9, 1825, the solicitor Francis Mewburn was solemnly informed by the bankers Richardson, Overend and Company, that their clients wanted their £50,000 debts paid in full within six months.
That the clients in question were the Gurney family of Norwich must have been especially worrying for the Darlington pioneers. The Gurneys were Quakers related by marriage to the Peases. If they were threatening to pull out, the whole Quaker network of finance so diligently crafted by the Backhouse family was in danger of falling apart.
But in adversity, there was encouragement. It came from the man that the pioneers employed to be their first locomotive superintendent. That man was Timothy Hackworth.
The early railway builders are all such strong characters that history has fragmented into bitterly opposed camps, each claiming that their man was the true “father of the railways”. Hackworth, like Stephenson, Pease, William Hedley, John Blenkinsop, Richard Trevithick and numerous others, is one of those fathers.
Hackworth was born in the same Northumberland village of Wylam as George Stephenson, who was five years older. He was educated at the village school until he was 14, when he followed his father into Wylam Colliery as a blacksmith. The colliery viewer was William Hedley who, with Stephenson, was indulging in interesting experiments in locomotion.
In 1812, Hackworth built his first engine at the colliery to Hedley’s design but, extraordinarily, he was dismissed three years later for refusing to repair a locomotive on a Sunday – Hackworth was a strict Methodist.
He worked for eight years at Walbottle Colliery and was so highly thought of that he was offered the chance to explore the goldmines of South America before Robert Stephenson.
In May 1824, George suddenly realised how over-stretched he was and asked the Walbottle owners if they could lend him Hackworth to oversee the ailing works in Forth Street, Newcastle. There, Hackworth first came into contact with the S&DR, building the engines for the line.
But he was a “borrowed man”, and even though Stephenson offered him a half-share in the factory to extend his loan spell, Hackworth refused. He wanted to go into engine-building on his own.
However, when the Peases approached him directly, their offer proved too persuasive. Edward, and his son Joseph, met Hackworth at the Kings Head in Darlington on March 12 or 13. They wanted someone who could work with Stephenson and get the engines built and installed. They were also able to offer Hackworth £150 plus a rent-free house. They would even pay his heating bill.
On June 28, he moved into a house in Darlington, while the company prepared his home in New Shildon. It was to be beneath the Brusselton Incline, where locos were to stop and the cargo of coal was to be transported by stationary engine and horse. It was only the fourth house in New Shildon, but the S&DR’s works there was already employing 20 men.
Suddenly things began to brighten for the railway pioneers. In April, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway Bill failed in the Commons and so Stephenson was suddenly free to return to Forth Street.
With Hackworth urging him, he boastfully announced in July that everything was nearing completion. The pioneers pounced, and set September 27 as the official opening date to concentrate the minds of all concerned and to give their creditors some reassurance.