Chapter 15

Timothy Hackworth solemnly rose to address the committee of the Stockton and Darlington Railway. "Gentlemen," he said. "If you will allow me to make you an engine in my own way I will engage that it shall answer your purpose."

Hackworth was in charge of the engines on the line and, when he spoke early in 1827, the railway was approaching something of a crisis.

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There were at least four locomotives now at work - Locomotion No 1, Hope, Black Diamond and Diligence - and there were problems with all of them. They were not particularly reliable and, especially during bad weather, they had problems hauling heavy loads.

The Northern Echo: Timothy Hackworth
Timothy Hackworth

So short of locomotive power was the line that in early 1826 it had bought an engine for £380 from a Newcastle "whitesmith and bellhanger" called Robert Smith. This engine was called "Chittapratt" by the men who tried to work it, owing to the noise it made. But it proved to be not powerful enough. It was too heavy. It may well have collided with another train in Stockton; it may even have exploded. Whatever its fate, by the end of 1826 it was laid aside as scrap, and Robert Smith was left lamenting the loss of "my unfortunate one".

Such was the lack of confidence in locos that horsepower was becoming prevalent on the line. George Stephenson - no longer flavour of the month among the railway pioneers because his engines weren't up to it and because he was more interested in new projects - even "invented" the dandy cart to make life easier for the horses. They would haul a heavy load up a rise, be unhitched and placed in a cart of their own, where they would happily ride to the bottom of the slope quietly munching on hay. Refreshed, they'd get out and pull the load up the next incline.

One of the great debates about the S&DR is whether the pioneers were reaching the end of their tether with steam. Were they in favour of ditching the new technology and reverting to horsepower? Was Hackworth the lone voice who spoke out saying it was possible for a locomotive to work better than horses? Nearly 175 years on, the debate is still very much live - although the truth is to be found somewhere in the middle ground.

After he had promised solemnly to solve all their ills, the pioneers gave Hackworth permission to go away to his workshops in Shildon and build a new engine. They even gave him the wreckage of Chittapratt to be fiddling on with.

Hackworth was already building three locos in his spare time because he thought he could do a better job than Stephenson. Now was his chance.

But even as he was tinkering, the situation on the line took a turn for the worse. On October 1, 1827, engine No 2 Hope ran away without its driver along Stockton Quayside. In the ensuing crash, the loco was "exceedingly injured and other serious damage done". Newspaper reports of the day claim "it was wantonly set off" and the S&DR offered a reward for information leading to the arrest of the vandal responsible. Five days later, Hope's fireman was quietly sacked.

Late in the year, Hackworth emerged from his Shildon workshop and put his first engine on the line. He called it Royal George and it had six wheels.

To make it more efficient, the boiler, which was lagged with mahogany, now had twice the heating surface of one of Stephenson's contraptions and its exhaust steam was returned into the chimney. This extra flow of air assisted with combustion and ensured boiler pressure was always maintained.

George Stephenson's brother, John, was so impressed with what he saw that he described the Royal George as "the finest engine in the world". And for a couple of months, Royal George began to confound the critics of steam by proving reliable.

However, in March 1828, Royal George's flue exploded and it returned to Shildon for a substantial re-build. In the workshops it joined Hope, which was still recovering from the accident on Stockton Quayside, and a new Stephenson engine called Experiment. Experiment - whose peculiarly long pistons caused it to be called "Old Elbows" by its drivers - had been found to be too heavy when it arrived from Newcastle and Hackworth had been given the job of distributing its weight over six wheels instead of four.

Also in the workshops was another unknown engine which TR Pearce in his book The Locomotives of the Stockton and Darlington Railway believes to have been another new one from Stephenson. This exploded within days of its arrival on March 19, 1828, at Stockton due to the negligence of its driver, James Stephenson (another of George's brothers), who'd left the safety valve fastened down.

Edward Corner, a fireman on his last trip, was blown 16 yards through the air and broke his thigh; John Gillespy, the new fireman on his first trip, was blown 24 yards and badly scalded. He died a couple of days later.

The workshops at Shildon became fuller still on July 1 when Locomotion No 1 exploded at Aycliffe, killing its driver John Cree. It too needed a substantial rebuild.

This was the real crisis. The dandy carts were now plying their trade almost unhindered up and down the line.

But as Hackworth put all the pieces of the engines back together, slowly 1828 turned into 1829 and steampower became supreme, with Royal George leading the way.

And the committee of the S&DR was so pleased with the way Royal George was working that it awarded Hackworth a handsome reward of £20