THE year 2025 is pencilled in everyone’s diaries as the 200th anniversary of the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway – the first railway to open the world’s eyes to the immense possibilities of this new, revolutionary form of transport.

But 200 years ago this week, great drama was unfolding as the railway pioneers grappled with their plans, and Stockton was at loggerheads with Darlington and Yarm.

The vague idea of connecting the south Durham coalfield with the seaport of Stockton had been rumbling round ever since a canal had been dreamed up in 1767, starting out west at Winston and Staindrop.

But it became serious in 1810, when the Mandale Cut was opened. The 220-yard cutting lopped off a two-and-a-quarter mile loop in the River Tees, making Stockton closer to the sea and increasing the depth of water at its quayside so it could now handle larger boats.

At the opening dinner, on September 18 at the Town Hall, the Recorder of Yarm, Leonard Raisbeck, made a speech in which he became the first to suggest that a coal-carrying railway should be built to the coalfields.

Various ideas were put forward and debates were held about whether water or rail would be the best mode until the summer of 1818 when Christopher Tennant, of Stockton, splashed out £5,000 of his own money on hiring Leeds civil engineer George Leather to make a survey of the district.

Tennant, 38, came from a prosperous family – £5,000 in 1818 is worth £410,000 in 2018, according to the Bank of England’s Inflation Calculator – which had a sailcloth and rope manufacturing business in Stockton and a lime kiln at East Thickley, near Shildon.

Mr Leather came up with a plan for a 30-mile canal, with 50 locks, to run from Portrack through Bradbury and Rushyford to the edge of the coalfield at Windlestone, which was put to the people of Stockton at a public meeting in the Town Hall on July 31.

The meeting was chaired by John Bowes, the Earl of Strathmore who lived at Streatlam Castle, and it was very excitable. When Mr Raisbeck suggested that 50 locks meant the coal would travel so slowly, no one would use the canal and a railway would be better, he was greeted with “stormy and disrespectful cries”.

So stormy were the cries that Darlington banker, Jonathan Backhouse, and mill owner, Edward Pease, felt that they wouldn’t speak for their own safety. They were sympathetic towards the railway idea but were principally concerned that the canal would bypass their hometown and leave it a backwater.

The Stocktonians enthusiastically voted for Mr Tennant to begin raising the estimated £205,283 cost of the canal (a staggering £17m today), and that he should rush to Parliament to get its backing for the scheme.

The Darlingtonians left the meeting dismayed, but quickly created a committee to draw up an alternative scheme.

That committee included Mr Pease and Mr Backhouse from Darlington, plus builder Robert Botcherby who lived in the grand Woodlands mansion which is now the home of St Teresa’s Hospice.

It also included from Yarm Mr Raisbeck, Quakers Benjamin Flounders and Richard Miles, plus landowner and squire Thomas Meynell, of The Friarage.

Yarm has a fractious historical relationship with Stockton – it was the thriving seaport on the Tees in the 17th Century until it was overtaken by Stockton – and these Yarm men were very keen on the railway idea. In a letter on August 15, 1818, Mr Meynell dismissed Stockton’s canal idea as “a wild scheme” and said: “I am most decidedly favourable of the proposal of a railroad.”

Even more important, Mr Meynell’s land steward, Jeremiah Cairns, had a sister who was married to George Overton, an engineer from south Wales, who had experience in laying horsedrawn colliery railways and tramlines down there.

On September 4, 1818 – exactly 200 years ago on Tuesday – the committee met in Darlington Town Hall “to consider the propriety of opening up a line of communication from Stockton to the collieries”. It was chaired by a Darlington doctor, John Ralph Fenwick, and Mr Raisbeck proposed that the committee should instruct Mr Overton to survey the district to see whether this line of communication should be half canal/half railway, as preferred by Mr Backhouse, or a complete railway.

The committee agreed, and the course of history was set on track.

But it was a stitch up – the men of Yarm had arranged for Mr Overton, and his assistant, to arrive the previous day so he could get cracking.

He sprang into action – and came up with a recommendation on September 20, but we’ll wait until its 200th anniversary in a couple of weeks’ time to see what it was…