Chapter 19

THE world's first passenger coach, the Experiment, had been a shed fixed to wheels, so it is little surprise that the early stations on the world's first passenger railway were also wooden constructions in which nowadays we would keep spades and other gardening paraphernalia.

Several of them littered the line in the early years of the Stockton and Darlington Railway (S&DR), and in them passengers took shelter while waiting for a train. Other passengers hung around in pubs, while some congregated at level crossings, waiting to hitch a ride.

In 1833, all the private contractors running horse-drawn services were kicked off the line by the S&DR company, and it took over the responsibility for running passenger services. It obviously needed somewhere better-equipped for its passengers to wait.

The Northern Echo: First station: An 1833 sketch of the first North Road Station from the north, with the Stockton and Darlington Railway running in front of it. It was converted from a warehouse in 1833.
First station: An 1833 sketch of the first North Road Station from the north, with the Stockton and Darlington Railway running in front of it. It was converted from a warehouse in 1833

In Stockton, it set aside a wooden coach shed near the Bridge Road booking office, although it did not provide platforms until 1836. In Middlesbrough, another coach shed was pressed into passenger duty. From 1834 it stood near Packet Wharf, at Port Darlington, although in 1837 the entire shed was moved to the newly-built Commercial Street.

In Darlington, from 1827, a shed had stood where North Road crossed the S&DR. In 1833, the S&DR went a stage further and allowed passengers to use a recently-built warehouse which stood to the east of North Road. Because the track ran high on an embankment, this building was three storeys high. It was demolished in 1864, but those with keen eyes can still make out its foundations near the Skerne Bridge - although it is on privately-owned and badly-overgrown property.

This first North Road station was only used by passengers for five years, because in 1839, the S&DR built them another shed, on the west of the Great North Road. It was on top of this shed that the second North Road station, now the Railway Centre, was built in 1842.

The second station was on the summit of a grassy bank and faced on to North Road, which back then had a more westerly course than today.

In 1856, North Road was straightened to follow its present line, and the grassy bank was cut into to allow the road to pass beneath the rails.

Sadly for the station, it found itself a couple of hundred yards from the main road. Its life in a backwater was beginning.

The focus of railway activity was beginning to tilt away from the Stockton and Darlington to the Great North of England.

In 1841, the GNER had connected York with Newcastle via a stop at Darlington's Bank Top, where passengers waited in another hastily-erected shed.

In 1883, it was decided to build a proper station at Bank Top - initially to be called Jubilee and then Central Station. When it was completed, in 1887, it was called Bank Top and it took much trade away from North Road.

In 1883, North Road had seen 184,727 passengers pass through its doors. It had handled 58,850 parcels and had 88 employees. By 1888, with Bank Top fully operational, North Road handled only 78,231 passengers and 16,221 parcels. It employed 47 people.

North Road Station had had its road taken away from it, and most of its passengers disappeared as well. Around the same time, the people of Darlington took away its name as well, referring to it as Hopetown Station.

But not quite all was lost. Under the headline "Not Done Yet", the Darlington and Stockton Times of April 12, 1890, published the following paragraph (complete with a historical exaggeration): "North Road Station - the old station at the north end of town - has not been entirely given up by the North Eastern Railway Company.

It has recently undergone a thorough renovation and now presents a clean appearance. The refreshment rooms have also been reopened for the convenience of the travelling public. It would seem that the old station - the first passenger station in the world - is not done yet."

Its obituary has been written prematurely on several further occasions. Rumours of its inevitable demise were very strong during 1930, but it remained. The Beeching Axe of 1963 condemned it to the chop, but it remained. However, its three lines were now down to one, and its trains only tootled up to Bishop Auckland and back.

Its mineral traffic dried up and its staff were withdrawn as it became an unmanned halt. The vandals took over, smashing its windows and trying to burn it down.

But in 1973, a collection of concerned local people joined forces with the council, the museums service and the tourist board, to restore and revive the old station as a museum.

The Duke of Edinburgh, reopened it in 1975 and it was able to play its part in Rail 150 - the 150th anniversary of the Stockton and Darlington Railway.

At the end of this month, the railway celebrates its 175th anniversary and North Road station - so long the overlooked piece of railwayania - will be at the centre of the three-day festivities planned for September 29 to October 1.

The full story of North Road's rebirth as a museum visited by 20,000 people a year is told in a new pamphlet by John Dean, a freelance journalist who used to work for The Northern Echo.

John's booklet is called A Place in History: Darlington Railway Centre and Museum, 1975-2000, and it is available from the museum's shop for £1. Telephone (01325) 460532).

The story of Timothy Hackworth is the subject of a similar-sized booklet that is now for sale at the Timothy Hackworth Victorian and Railway Museum, in Shildon.

It has been written by Geoffrey Milburn and first appeared in a 1975 bulletin of the Wesley Historical Society to celebrate Rail 150.

For those who do not fancy wading through Robert Young's in-depth history of Hackworth - a history that was first published in 1923, but has now been republished for the 175th anniversary - this is an excellent bite-sized version of the life and times of the father of the locomotive