Chapter 11

And lo, the locomotive arrived, and the people were sore afraid...

On September 16, 1825, the first locomotive completed by Robert Stephenson and Company, in Forth Street, Newcastle, was loaded in pieces on to three low wagons. Horses, provided by a carrier called Pickersgill, dragged it down the Great North Road to Aycliffe Village.

“The advent of the new machine was looked for with the keenest curiosity by the natives of Aycliffe,” said The Northern Echo in 1875.

“They had been told that an iron horse was coming, and they surrendered themselves to the wildest speculations as to the shape of the promised equine monster. Throughout South Durham, the newcomer was spoken of as “t’iron hoss” and it was not, perhaps, to be wondered at that a great number of country folk were firmly convinced that the newcomer was in shape and outward semblance a veritable horse, with head, mane, tail and legs complete, differing solely from the ordinary farmer’s horse in being constructed of iron, and digesting coals instead of oats.

“Such a monster had indeed been constructed 12 years before in Derbyshire, but as it blew up and killed several bystanders before it got fairly into motion, such iron steeds were not again foaled in the workshop of the engineer.”

T’iron hoss was a dead loss to the natives.

“This iron hoss: why it is no more than but a steam engine set on wheels,” said some in dismay. Others pessimistically predicted it would still produce enough noise and dirt to stop cows milking in all the fields in all the district.

The wagons carrying t’iron hoss turned right off the Great North Road and headed west along Aycliffe Lane, the road that leads from Aycliffe Village to Heighington. Where the lane crosses the railway, the wagons stopped and the five ton contraption was unloaded by eager small boys and strong men, with George Stephenson looking on.
Piecing together exactly what happened next and when it happened is very difficult. Suffice to say that the engine was pieced together and put on the rails. Later, Heighington station was built on the level crossing and today the aptly-named pub, Locomotion No 1, is there.

But the engine that was unloaded on September 16, 1825, was not then known as Locomotion No 1. The No 1 refers to its order number in Robert Stephenson and Company’s books but, beyond that, it did not really have a name. George Stephenson initially referred to it fondly as “active”, but it was not until other engines started arriving that names were needed to distinguish them.

Hope (November 1825), Black Diamond (April 1826) and Diligence (May 1826) were the names given to engines Nos 2-4, and by 1833, No 1 was widely known as Locomotion.

The railway workers, though, had their own name for it: John Cree’s engine. Cree was the unfortunate driver that No 1 killed when it exploded at Aycliffe Lane level crossing on July 1, 1828. Water pumper Edward Turnbull was maimed in the incident, and No 1’s bits had to be collected from fields and reassembled by Timothy Hackworth.

Whatever they called their engine, on September 16 the railway pioneers were confident enough to begin issuing notices proclaiming the formal opening of the railway would take place on September 27.

It seems as if No 1 was ready to be put into steam within a couple of days of its arrival at Aycliffe Level. Its boiler was filled with water. Wood and coals were ready for ignition, but no one had a light for it. It was not until April 1827 that Stockton’s John Walker announced to the world that he had invented the friction match, and so George Stephenson despatched a messenger to Aycliffe to collect a lighted lantern.

As the messenger left, navvy Robert Metcalf, of Church Street, Darlington, stepped forward. He always carried a “burning glass” – a piece of glass like a magnifier –through which he focused the sun’s rays so he could light his pipe. He offered the glass to Stephenson and by the time the messenger returned with the lantern, No 1’s boiler was bubbling.

Then she began her first trial journey. James Robinson, a workman on the railway, later wrote: “The No 1 engine was a runaway horse. She ran over hedge and ditch many a time. When she made her trial trip, there were waggons put to her for fear she could not be stopped again on a level flat.”

Alterations were made so that No 1 stayed on the tracks, rather than running away, and it was pressed into service carrying building materials up and down the line.

On September 26 – the eve of the opening – No 1 was running smoothly enough to be entrusted with hauling the Peases and the Stephensons in the world’s first passenger coach, called the Experiment.

The Experiment had also been made at Robert Stephenson’s works, in Newcastle, but was little more than a stagecoach attached to a railway wheelbase. Into the Experiment, on September 26, stepped Edward Pease and his sons Edward, Joseph and Henry. Thomas Richardson, Pease’s Quaker cousin who had been with him the day he had first seen a Stephenson loco in operation and had become convinced of the future, was also aboard, as was William Kitching.

Kitching had a foundry in Tubwell Row, but was soon to move to Hopetown and set up a railway engineering company that would become Whessoe.

Naturally, George Stephenson was also a passenger while his brother, James, drove No 1.

As No 1 successfully travelled up to Shildon and back from Aycliffe Level, it became the first locomotive in the world to draw a carriage specifically constructed for passengers.

This was the world’s first passenger train. The world’s first passenger railway was due to open officially the following day.