THOMAS HACKWORTH is barely even a footnote in railway history.

There’s not even a photograph that can definitely said to be of him. He is overshadowed by the reputation of his elder brother, Timothy, the renowned engineer who effectively founded Shildon and whose engineering works crucially proved in the early 1830s that new-fangled steampower was better than old-fashioned horsepower.

In fact, Thomas was not just overshadowed; he is overwhelmed. Poor Tom.

The Northern Echo: FAMOUS: Timothy Hackworth
FAMOUS: Timothy Hackworth

But, argues a new book which is to be launched at the railway museum in Shildon next month, he deserves better because he was with his brother every step of the way in those pioneering railway days, and when the time came for him to branch out on his own, he founded a company which built locomotives for the Victorians and still provides employment in the 20th Century.

The two Hackworth boys – 11 years between them – were at Wylam Colliery, near the Tyne, between 1813 and 1815, when two early locos were built: Puffing Billy and Wylam Dilly. These locos proved the basis on which George Stephenson, who lived a couple of miles down the road, built Locomotion No 1 ten years later.

We will probably never know who was the mastermind behind Billy and Dilly, but the Wylam blacksmith – Timothy – and the lead apprentice – Thomas – would have played significant roles.

In fact, Thomas’ role must have grown because in 1815, Timothy was forced to leave Wylam when he refused to work on Sundays. This was a brave stance as it put his career on hold, but it left Thomas effectively in charge of the operation of the two locos.

Timothy got his career back on track in 1825 when he was appointed the Railway Superintendent of the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1825. He set up the Soho Works on a boggy piece of land at New Shildon in which to repair Stephenson’s faltering early engines.

Who could he turn to for help? His brother Tom had all the right attributes, and he installed him as works manager, allowing him to live beside him in those cottages which form the original part of the Locomotion museum.

Because Timothy was involved in so many projects, the author of the new book, George Turner Smith, argues that Tom’s role must have been extremely significant in those extremely significant times: the advancements at Soho in the early 1830s enabled steampower to become so reliable that it trumped horsepower. History gives Timothy the credit for this but, argues the author, Tom was at the very least there in the background.

Until, that is, something went wrong.

In 1837, Shildon built a loco called Arrow to pull the S&DR’s passenger trains. But it wasn’t up to the job, and after giving the Hackworths several months to rectify the problems, the railway committee expressed their “great dissatisfaction” and refused to pay, dragging the Soho Works to the brink of bankruptcy.

Tom carried the can. He may have been culpable; he may have been the sacrificial lamb, but he left Shildon while his brother stayed. Relations between the brothers became strained, although they never broke down completely and Timothy, perhaps harbouring guilt, subsequently referred to his brother as “poor Tom”.

Tom, though, established a new foundry at Norton with partner George Fossick, which for several decades successfully built locos that operated on railways around the world. He began its diversification into marine engines and after his retirement in the 1860s, it took on the name Blair and Co and prospered until 1933.

Tom died in 1877 and is forgotten – unlike the illustrious Timothy.

However, tucked away in one of the Hackworths’ old workshops at Shildon is the wreck of an engine known as Braddyll. It has a hazy history, and the accepted wisdom is that it is the remains of something Timothy built for South Hetton Colliery in about 1840.

The Northern Echo: MYSTERY LOCO: The remains of Braddyll in the Locomotion museum at Shildon, here in 2008
MYSTERY LOCO: The remains of Braddyll in the Locomotion museum at Shildon, here in 2008

However, the author puts forward a case that it may be the only surviving example of an engine built by the other Hackworth in Norton, and so is unique. But because of its unprepossessing appearance, visitors to Locomotion do not give it a second glance.

“From a personal perspective,” says George Turner Smith, “I would like to see Braddyll restored to its former glory since there is nothing like it anywhere else in the world.”

It would make a great ending to a fascinating story.

Thomas Hackworth – Locomotive Engineer by George Turner Smith (Fonthill Media, £16.99). The book is being launched at Locomotion in Shildon on Saturday, September 19, from 10.30am to 4pm, when the author will be on hand to sign copies and to tell more about the Hackworth that history has overlooked.