THIS weekend was to be one giant, 48-hour celebration of the 195th anniversary of the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway. From Stockton to Shildon, there were great events planned, with Tornado steaming through the middle of it, carrying railway luminaries into Darlington in a bid to persuade them to keep the iconic engine, Locomotion No 1, in the town’s museum.

The weekend was to be part of the build-up to the 200th anniversary in 2025, but the coronavirus has curtailed much of the activity.

In a way, it is appropriate, because 200 years ago in 1820, the railway pioneers were themselves becalmed.

In 1819, their bid to get Parliamentary permission to build their railway to connect the south Durham coalfields with a port at Stockton had been defeated by the local landowners, the Earl of Darlington in Raby Castle and the Earl of Eldon, who didn’t want anything running across their countryside.

But the pioneers had regrouped. They had bought Eldon off with the promise of compensation and they had redrawn their route so that it avoided Lord Darlington’s fox covers (he was mad keen on fox-hunting and didn’t want the noisy steam engines to scare the foxes away so he had nothing to chase).

Having done all this, they were confident of success as they re-presented their plans to Parliament only for George III to die on January 29, 1820. Parliament was dissolved and all unpassed Bills died with the king.

As Memories 459 told, on February 12, 1820, the pioneers met in the George & Dragon in Yarm. This was Yarm’s big moment in railway history, and the 200th anniversary of the meeting was commemorated with a re-enactment just before lockdown bit.

The meeting was attended by Thomas Meynell, Benjamin Flounders and Richard Miles, who were all Yarm men, plus Leonard Raisbeck from Stockton and Edward Pease and Francis Mewburn from Darlington. In effect, they decided to do nothing – a big nothing.

They could have given up in dismay or they could have rushed ahead and put pushed forward their old plans once again. Instead, they decided to bide their time and refine their plans.

So over the summer of 1820, they persuaded their reluctant surveyor, George Overton, to do more work on the line. By bypassing Lord Darlington’s land, Overton had taken the route over Lord Barrington’s land. Barrington was the rector of Sedgefield and a nephew of the Bishop of Durham, and needed to be placated.

As did the Misses Hale, who owned collieries at Coxhoe and Quarrington. They complained that as the railway was not going near their pits, they would lose out.

The pioneers responded by giving the Hales and Lord Barrington compensation – Barrington was so happy with the settlement that he later became an investor in the railway.

At last, with everybody on board, on September 30, 1820, the pioneers deposited their plans for a third time for a £92,000, 26 mile mainline, with 11 miles of branchlines, with the Clerk of the Peace in Durham. This meant that, with George IV on the throne, the next session of Parliament could take another look at the project.

It was these plans which were eventually passed, so although the events of September 30, 1820 – exactly 200 years ago on Wednesday – were very procedural, they played a part in our railway which changed the world.