IN a corner of Norway lies a remarkable piece of Darlington’s railway history: a man whose headstone proclaims that he was “Norges förste Lokomotivförer”.

The black stone also notes that William Graham was “födt den 25de august 1821 i Darlingthon England”.

So it all means that William Graham was born in Darlington on August 25, 1821 and he became Norway’s first engine driver.

But how?

The success of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, which opened four years and one month after William was born, sparked a speculative frenzy of railway mania with investors believing there were great fortunes to be made from building lines. Many of those lines employed George “The Father of the Locomotive” Stephenson, or his son Robert, to engineer them.

They were not responsible for the mania. That was stoked by George “The Railway King” Hudson of York, but his collapse in the mid-1840s burst the railway bubble and the industry slid into recession.

Robert, whose engine-building factory in Newcastle had been established to build Locomotion No 1, sailed to Norway for a holiday in the autumn of 1846. He was 43, and had been working himself so ferociously that his health was suffering, so he needed a break.

But as soon as he landed, the Norwegian government pounced. It was planning its first proper railway, a 40 mile route from the steamers on Lake Mjosa into Oslo, the capital city. Robert agreed that it was viable and suddenly found himself appointed Engineer-in-Chief.

The Norwegians were so grateful to Robert that they gave him their highest honour: the Grand Cross of St Olaf of Norway.

Such was Robert’s reputation that he was also working on projects in Canada, Egpyt, Belgium and Russia, so progress in Norway was slow. However, his factory in Newcastle won the contract to build seven locos for the line.

When the first one was ready, it was shipped with its own supervisor, who was probably our man William Graham, now in his early 30s, and on the line’s opening day – September 1, 1854 – he drove the first engine, so gaining for himself the title of “Norges förste Lokomotivförer”.

His wife and eight children had moved out with him and settled in Oslo, and so he stayed. He was probably there on September 3, 1859, when Robert Stephenson arrived for his first full journey on the completed line.

Robert’s health was in terminal decline and so he’d sailed to Norway on his yacht, Titania, as an escape. Having travelled the line, he was guest of honour at a celebratory banquet in Oslo. He sat on the top table, his medal pinned to his chest, as the grateful Norwegians paid tribute to him.

As he rose to make his reply, he was overcome by a fit of nausea, which prevented him from saying more than a few words. His condition worsened overnight, so he was dashed home through a nausea-inducing storm on Titania to his home in London, where he died on October 12. He was 56.

Out in Oslo, William Graham carried on driving trains until he retired in 1890. When his wife, from the North-East, died, he remarried a Norwegian, Tonette, and had three more children.

His headstone records that he died in 1909 and at its foot it says: “Hvil I Fred” – rest in peace.

  • With thanks to Bjoern Pedersen and Neil Hiller for their help. Do you have William Graham in your family tree? We’d love to hear from you if you do.