The dawn of Tuesday, September 27, 1825, found thousands of people heading on foot, horseback and by carriage to see the entrance of a new era of transport: the railway.
West Auckland and Shildon, the nearest settlements to the start of the procession, were full from 5.30am. Donkeys, mules, broadsheetmen selling halfpenny ballads and pickpockets flocked to witness the scene. Some came enthusiastic for success; others desperate for failure; many would be frightened by what they saw.
All Darlington was on the move, crowding up to the railway line where coal wagons had been fitted with seats so horses could pull observers to see the iron horse’s debut.
Apart from two old ladies, so legend has it, who felt so underwhelmed by the tide of progress they stayed at home.
Legend is not quite correct. On that very morning 22-year-old Isaac Pease died in his father’s house on Northgate, Darlington. His father, Edward, was the man who had had the vision – and the money – for the Stockton and Darlington Railway. But he was denied his moment of glory by the death of his favourite child.
“Isaac had always been a delicate boy, and the fond heart of the old man had gone out towards the weakly member of his numerous household,” reported The Northern Echo in 1875.
“Edward Pease had always said that none of his children were so gifted as Isaac.”
Some sources say none of the Peases were there on that day; other sources say that until his dying day Joseph Pease, Isaac’s elder brother, told a tale about a funny old farmer coming up to him as he stood on Locomotion No 1 on the opening day and asking if he pulled the handles that made the engine move.
At 8am, at the foot of Brusselton Bank, midway between West Auckland and Shildon the opening procession began. Thirteen wagons – 12 of coal, one of flour – were attached by a 1Ú 2 mile rope to the stationary engines at the bank top. With hundreds of people clinging to the sides of the wagons, the engines pulled the train 1,960 yards to the top of the bank, then lowered it 880 yards down the other side.
There, steaming in readiness, was Locomotion No 1. “The locomotive, or steam horse as it was more generally termed, gave ‘note of preparation’ by some heavy respirations which seemed to excite astonishment and alarm among the Johnny Raws…and when a portion of steam was let off, they fled in affright, accompanied by women and young children under the idea that some horrible explosion was about to take place,” reported the Durham County Advertiser.
The paper, still part of The Northern Echo’s stable, is the oldest in Durham, having been founded in 1815.
Its report of the proceedings was lengthy, but the Newcastle Courant only carried 136 words on the day.
The Courant’s proprietor, Edward Walker, gave a lift to its reporter, Joseph Armstrong (who later became mayor of Newcastle), but Walker preferred to go to Croft and “deemed it prudent to give the ceremony a wide berth lest the iron horse should do him some mischief.”
Three hundred people had told the pioneers that they did want tickets for the inaugural journey, but at least 600 people charged at the trucks determined to hitch a ride. The pioneers, members of the Stockton and Darlington Railway committee, took their places in The Experiment – the world’s first passenger railway coach, which seated 18 people across an aisle.
There were about 38 carriages in that first train. Locomotion and its tender were followed by five wagons full of coal and passengers, one wagon of flour and passengers, one wagon of surveyors and engineers, The Experiment, six wagons of seated people, 14 wagons of standing workmen and six wagons of coal and passengers.
The railway workmen wore blue buttonholes; the railwaymen on duty wore blue sashes. These men stood on the couplings between wagons ready to apply the brakes.
Timothy Hackworth was guard, George Stephenson and his brothers James and Ralph were in charge of the engine. At 10am, Hackworth gave the signal, and the Stephensons moved off.
“The welkin rang with loud huzzas, while the happy faces of some, the vacant stares of others, and the alarm depicted on the countenances of not a few, gave variety to the picture,” recalled a witness.
Soon, Locomotion was pulling its 80 ton train and its 553 passengers at a speed of eight miles an hour. Dozens of horsedrawn coaches in its wake struggled to keep up.
But not all was going steamingly. The surveyors were becoming concerned about the severe jolting in their wagon and passed word up the train for Locomotion to halt. On inspection, it was discovered that their wagon had come off the rails. It was hauled back on again, Locomotion started moving again, the surveyors started complaining again, the engine came to a halt again. The wagon was again off the rails, and now it was decided that it had a faulty wheel. It was de-coupled and shunted into a siding where it struck a bystander, John Davison of Aycliffe. He was badly shaken, but not badly injured.
Locomotion got under way again, but it had progressed no further than Simpasture, to the north of what is now Newton Aycliffe, when it lost power and ground to a halt. “Just oakum in the feed pipe,” shouted George Stephenson cheerily, and worked for 35 minutes to clear the bit of old rope from the pipe.
“Every man to take his own convoy!” shouted Hackworth when the job was done, and the travellers climbed back on to the wagons. Locomotion was off, and this time there was no stopping it. As it passed Aycliffe Level (now Heighington Station), James Stephenson opened it up to full steam and soon the train was charging along at 15mph.
“They (the passengers) could scarcely have believed it had not the testimony of the engineer confirmed by their own senses, for never before had they seen the trees, fences and hedges glide away so rapidly, or did their ribbons and handkerchiefs ever clicker in such a wind as they did that day,” said The Northern Echo in 1875.
The train arrived in north Darlington at midday. It had taken two hours to cover nine miles, with three stoppages totalling 55 minutes, and so its average speed was 8mph. One wagon had been abandoned, one man badly bruised. Yet the opening morning was judged a resounding success.
A hair-raising runaway drama
There were a couple of 60 horsepower engines at the top of Brusselton Bank winching the first wagons up on the S&DR’s opening day.
But neither they, nor the 80hp engines that replaced them in 1832, were really strong enough to haul eight wagons up at a time. There were also insurmountable difficulties with the wire-rope, which regularly stretched and often snapped.
In the early years, whenever the stationary engines were in operation, young boys were employed to wait near the top of the bank for the wire to break. They then had to jump aboard the wagons and apply the brakes.
If the boys failed, as the wagons neared the bottom of the bank, men would throw huge chunks of wood across the rails to stop them.
In 1832, Joseph Pease was visiting St Helen’s Colliery with Henry Pease, William Kitching and Timothy Hackworth. They cadged a lift up Brusselton Bank in a wagon and the rope snapped. All of the guests managed to leap out of the wagon – with the exception of William Kitching, a blacksmith from Tubwell Row, who moved his shop to Hopetown to be nearer the railway and founded Whessoe.
Kitching, weighing 19 stones, used his bulk against the brake which slowed the wagon enough to allow the boys to leap aboard. With them all pulling on the brake, the wagon slowed so that there was only a minor crash when it reached the bottom.
All got out safely – though Kitching was very red in the face – and Joseph Pease gave the boys half-a-shilling each for their endeavours.