A RELATIVE of Prime Minister Boris Johnson appears to have taken the original nameplates from Locomotion No 1 to America.

This surreal twist may begin to explain how Dr Jessie B Johnson came to donate the nameplates to the Baltimore & Ohio Railway in 1940.

The Northern Echo:

Last week, Memories told how renowned early railways expert Dr Michael Bailey (above) had started an in-depth examination of Locomotion No 1 in the museum in Shildon. One of the mysteries he is hoping to bottom out concerns the nameplates that are now in the museum dedicated to America’s first railway, the Baltimore & Ohio (B&OR).


After the article, great genealogical work by David Lewis has revealed that Dr Jessie B Johnson was born in 1880 in Illinois and lived in Youngstown, Ohio, until her death in 1944. She never married, and so, without children of her own, it appears she handed over the nameplates to the B&OR as she neared the end of her life.

David’s research shows that her mother, Catherine Hannah Johnson, had been in the US since 1848 but had been born on September 19, 1836, at Thorne House in Darlington and was baptised in St Cuthbert’s Church. So could it have been Catherine who took the nameplates – if they are genuine – to America?

Catherine’s father was William Johnson (born 1804 in Darlington), and her grandparents were Hannah (nee Groves) and Walter Johnson (1775-1855), so between them, there were definitely Johnsons in Darlington in the early years of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, which opened in 1825.

Now comes the surreal twist, because in 2019, research by the then vicar of St Cuthbert’s Church, the Reverend Matthew Firth, showed that Hannah and Walter were the great-great-great-great-grandparents of Boris Johnson.

The Northern Echo:

Boris Johnson and the Rev Matthew Firth of St Cuthbert's Church, Darlington

Walter was a farmer and a baker, which enabled Memories to tell Mr Johnson that although he wasn’t born in Darlington, he was certainly bread there.

Hannah and Walter appear to have had many children in the 20 years after their marriage in 1798, including William in 1804, from whom Dr Johnson was descended, and Thomas in 1813, from whom Prime Minister Johnson is descended.

The Northern Echo: Hummersknott Allotments and Hill Close House, Darlington,

St Cuthbert’s baptism records show that at the end of the 1810s, Hannah and Walter were living at Hill Close House (above), Darlington’s oldest secular property, which dates back to Tudor times – the allotments at Hummersknott are in its walled garden. The 1841 census found them farming at Gingerfield, near Richmond, but on the 1851 census, Walter was described as a “retired farmer” and they were living in Union Street, Darlington (behind Boots the chemist).

Both Hannah and Walter died in 1855 and their headstone can still be seen in Holy Trinity churchyard (below).

The Northern Echo: The headstone of Boris Johnson's great-great-great-great-grandparents, Walter and Hannah Johnson, in Holy Trinity churchyard, Darlington

“How Jessie came to have the Locomotion nameplates is still a mystery to me,” says David Lewis, “but perhaps someone else can add to the details.”

There are lots of mysteries in this story: where was Thorne House in Darlington, can anyone tell us anymore about the Johnsons who migrated to America, and why, if you were carrying all your worldly possessions across the Atlantic to start a new life, would you take some heavy bits of metal off an old locomotive with you?

The Northern Echo: Derek Ward found this postcard of Locomotion No 1 on its plinth outside North Road station in an antique shop for just £1 - a bargain!

Derek Ward found this postcard of Locomotion No 1 on its plinth outside North Road station in an antique shop for just £1 - a bargain!