AN EMOTIONAL tug-of-war over the world’s first passenger steam engine began last night as the National Railway Museum announced that it would take Locomotion No 1 away from Darlington and make it the centre piece of its £4.5m revamped museum in Shildon.

Darlington, which has displayed the iconic engine for more than 160 years, reacted with fury, accusing the National Railway Museum (NRM) of “cultural vandalism” and inflicting a “cruel blow” which “rips the heart out of the town’s railway heritage”.

But the NRM, which owns the engine, wants to double the size of its Locomotion museum at Shildon to tell the story of the early railways ahead of the bicentenary of the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway – the world’s first modern railway – in 2025.

As Locomotion No 1 started its inaugural journey a few hundred yards from the site of the Shildon museum, NRM believes Shildon, the world’s first railway town, is best placed to display the engine.

The Northern Echo:

Youngsters clamber over Locomotion No 1 in January 1933 at Bank Top station where it was displayed for more than 70 years

Yet in Darlington, there are fears that the loss of the iconic engine would undermine the town’s Head of Steam museum and the £20m regeneration scheme known as the Rail Heritage Quarter while the Tees Valley mayor said it was a “kick in the teeth” for his authorities’ attempts to make 2025 a global celebration.

Peter Gibson, Darlington’s new Conservative MP, said: “I am outraged at the prospect of our most treasured and most important artefact being removed from Darlington, its physical, spiritual and cultural home. I am sure that the entire population of Darlington will be outraged and will back the campaign for Locomotion No 1 to stay in the town.”

The Northern Echo:

Darlington MP Peter Gibson with Locomotion No 1, which he wants to ensure stays in the town

The campaign is launched today.

Locomotion No 1 pulled the first train on the Stockton & Darlington Railway (S&DR) on September 27, 1825. It has been owned by the Science Museums Group (SMG) – of which the NRM is a part – since 1968 and is on loan to Darlington’s Head of Steam Museum until March 2021.

Dr Sarah Price, head of the Shildon museum, said: “We want it to be the first vehicle visitors see when they come in and we will use it to launch the railway story, which started off and which changed the world."

However, Darlington – whose Quaker entrepreneurs funded the construction of the railway and locomotive – also has plans to revamp its museum to tell the S&DR story in time for the bi-centenary and to use it to regenerate a run down area called the Rail Heritage Quarter.

Darlington council leader, Heather Scott, said: “Locomotion No 1 is the jewel in our railway heritage crown. It was built with Darlington money as the world’s first passenger engine in 1825, and it has been cared for by Darlington since 1856.

“For 163 years, Darlington has treasured Locomotion No 1 as a vital link to our railway pioneers. It quite literally put the engine on a plinth, at Bank Top station, and in 1867, it made it the centrepiece of its coat of arms – it is one of the great icons of the town, so for it to be taken away from us just as the 2025 bicentenary is on the horizon is very cruel.

“In fact, we have spent the last two years drawing up £20m plans with the combined authority to use an imaginative revamp of our museum, with Locomotion No 1 again centre stage, to create a new, vibrant and hopefully prosperous Railway Heritage Quarter in North Road, and the loss of Locomotion No 1 would severely undermine those plans.

“Locomotion No 1 is ours, it belongs to Darlington, and I am determined that it should stay in Darlington.”

The Northern Echo:

Joseph Pease, whose statue stands on High Row, paid £50 to restore the engine when it reached the end of its working life and on May 20, 1857, it was mounted on a plinth outside North Road station – it could claim to be the world’s first preserved heritage railway engine.

“It is an accident of history that, following the amalgamation of the S&DR with the North Eastern Railway in 1863, No 1 was inherited by the LNER, British Rail, and ultimately by the NRM,” said Matthew Pease, Joseph’s great-great-great-grandson. “For the last 163 years each of these organisations has respected Joseph Pease's intention that it should be on display in Darlington.

“The news that his wish is now to be set aside is a great sadness for his descendants and, I am certain, for the town, whose unique Head of Steam museum will inevitably be significantly diminished as a result.

“I would ask those making the decision to reconsider the historic implications of such a change, to honour the clear wishes of the man who first donated it, and to allow No 1 to remain within the town to which it is inextricably linked.”

Mr Gibson said he was hoping to meet culture minister Nicky Morgan in the near future to press Darlington’s case.

The Northern Echo: Nicky Morgan,

Nicky Morgan

“People will not be able to believe that such cultural vandalism is being visited on Darlington’s railway heritage, especially when the local authority, the combined authority and myself are pressing for further plans for the 2025 celebrations,” he said.

The Echo understands from other sources that the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is even being briefed.

The Northern Echo:

Head of Steam, Darlington

The mayor of the Tees Valley, Ben Houchen, whose authority has been leading the way on planning for 2025, said: “Locomotion No 1 is absolutely crucial to Darlington’s bi-centenary celebrations. It makes absolutely no sense to remove one of the biggest attractions, which has been a feature of the town for more than 150 years, just a few years before the big occasion.

“In 2025, the eyes of the world will be on Darlington and we will have the opportunity to showcase the very best of the town and the wider Tees Valley. To take the Locomotion away from the Tees Valley would be a massive kick in the teeth for everyone who is planning to come and visit in 2025 and to those who are working hard to make the celebrations really special.

“I absolutely support Heather and Peter in their campaign to stop this from happening and I strongly urge the NRM to rethink this proposal, which sends out completely the wrong message ahead of an occasion where we should be celebrating our railway heritage.”

The Locomotion museum opened in Shildon in 2004 as a warehouse to store items in the NRM’s collection, but it has proved popular, attracting 200,000 visitors a year, and the new masterplan, including a second building, will house 40 more vehicles taking the total to 100.

“We have exciting and ambitious plans for the museum in Shildon,” said Dr Andrew McLean, the NRM’s head curator. “The museum is called Locomotion for a reason – on that momentous day in 1825, Locomotion No 1 starts in Shildon and starts the global story of the railways. There is a compelling historical argument that the home of Locomotion No 1 is Shildon.”

But the campaign to keep the engine in Darlington, which was the driving force behind the S&DR, immediately gained cross-party support. Labour leader Cllr Stephen Harker, pictured below, said: “The engine needs to be seen in the context of its hometown – without that, it losses its significance, and you lose the understanding of what a huge impact it had on our town and our industries.

The Northern Echo: CONTENDER: Stephen Harker

“Then we must consider the wider repercussions – our ability to have a museum would be undermined.

“This is trampling all over and trashing our heritage. It belongs here because it was born of Darlington.”

Deputy Labour leader Cllr Chris McEwan said: “If it is taken away, it will rip the heart out of our museum and our celebrations. We must do all we can to stop this outrageous proposal.”

The Friends groups of people interested in the history of the line urged conciliation.

“I would like the NRM to acknowledge that Darlington has provided a safe, dry and secure home free of charge for Locomotion, and the other loaned vehicles, for many years during which the NRM didn’t have suitable public display space for them,” said Richard Taylor, chairman of the Friends of Darlington’s museum.

“It is thus particularly ungenerous now for the NRM to simply terminate the loans rather than to approach the issue in a spirit of ‘things have changed – how can we now work together?’.”

He proposes Locomotion spending much of its time in Darlington, but then going on tour, including Shildon, with new engines coming in to the Head of Steam, allowing it to refresh its offer.

The Northern Echo:

Locomotion No 1 leads the 100th anniversary cavalcade in 1925 – it said to be the last time it moved under its own steam, but really it was driven by a petrol engine with an oily rag stuffed in its chimney to make smoke

The Friends of the S&DR said: “Locomotion No 1 is one of the most recognisable and historically important early steam locomotives in the world and as such deserves a suitably appropriate and inspiring home to present it to the public.

“Our key objective is the conservation of the structures, archives and artefacts of the line and Locomotion No 1 is one of the most important of these. We trust that any decision on a site for the engine will be made in consultation with all the partners along the 26 miles of the 1825 line so that we can make the bicentenary in 2025 a memorable event and create a lasting legacy.”

The NRM said it would like to work with Darlington to ensure the Head of Steam could tell the local railway story with items, including the Derwent engine, from its collection.

Dr Price said: “2025 gives us the opportunity to shine a very bright light on the whole 26 miles. We need to make sure there’s a positive outcome for everyone.

“It’s family. Families can fall out but still remain families, and we are the railway family.”