THE 190th anniversary of an anonymous railway hero saving scores of lives by averting an accident is being commemorated today by an exhibition in Howden-le-Wear.

On May 15, 1834, the opening of the western section of the Stanhope & Tyne Railway was marred when a man and a nine-year-old boy were killed by a runaway train, and another unfortunate fellow was found among the injured to be “varra hungry”.


Today’s exhibition, of memorabilia, photographs, models and toys, commemorates forgotten stories from the dawn of the railways, as it is also the 180th anniversary of the opening of Howden-le-Wear’s own station which was approached by a “giant centipede”.

The Stanhope & Tyne Railway came first, and was designed by the North East’s greatest engineers, Robert Stephenson and Thomas Elliot Harrison.

It was ridiculously ambitious. It started at Stanhope’s quarries at 796ft above sea level. Waggons were hauled by a stationary engine half-a-mile up a steep bank, through Hog Head Tunnel, to Crawley, 1,233ft above sea level.

The Northern Echo: Hog Hill Tunnel, 120 yards long, out of which there would have been no escape had the runaway train plunged through itHog Hill Tunnel

At Crawley, another stationary engine took over, and hauled the waggons up a steep mile to Weatherill, where the Parkhead summit was 1,474ft above sea level – the highest railway in the country going across some of the most inhospitable of exposed terrain in the world.

The railway proceeded over Waskerley, negotiated Nanny Mayor’s Bank before an extraordinary cradle system ferried the waggons sideways down the 160ft deep Hownes Gill before lifting them back up the other side so that horses could pull them towards the Annfield Plane. There another stationary engine took them over Pontop Ridge, before the gradient eased around Chester-le-Street and steam engines completed the journey into South Shields.

It was the section between Stanhope and Annfield that was opened 190 years ago on Wednesday.

The Northern Echo: The Weatherill Incline today, down which a runaway train dashed at the opening of the Stanhope & Tyne Railway 190 years ago on WednesdayThe Weatherill Incline today, down which a runaway train dashed at the opening of the Stanhope & Tyne Railway 190 years ago on Wednesday

Hundreds of spectators cheered as the first four waggons full of Stanhope limestone were hauled up Crawley bank, through the tunnel. Those who couldn’t cling to the sides of the waggons followed on foot, knowing that the railway proprietors were arranging a feast for 400 at the top.

After the festivities, everyone – in high spirits – began the journey back down. Most were on foot, but 40 or 50 lucky ones climbed into four waggons at Weatherill and the stationary engine began to lower them down.

Then a rope snapped, and the waggons began an uncontrolled downward plummet.

In fear, several people jumped out, breaking bones as they landed – but at least alive.


An unnamed pointsman at Crawley enginehouse, who could see the runaway train dashing down towards him, now faced a terrible choice: he could let it continue its crazy course down the second incline on which he knew there were scores, perhaps hundreds, of people walking with many of them in the 120-yard long Hog Hill Tunnel from which they would have no escape, or he could turn it into a siding where there was already a train standing knowing inevitably there would be a collision.

In a split second, he chose the latter course.

He changed the points and the waggons tore into the siding and smashed into the stationary train. One man was killed immediately; a young lad died later of his injuries.

As the managing director of the railway, William Harrison, inspected the injured, he spotted what appeared to be a lifeless body lying beside the dead man. He went over and touched the male body, whereupon its eyes opened.

He asked the man how he was, and he replied: “Not so bad, but varra hungry!”

Someone quickly found him a sandwich.

The Northern Echo: David Kidd's working model of an engine called Thomas Newcomen, which was the first to be used on the Stanhope & Tyne RailwayDavid Kidd's working model of an engine called Thomas Newcomen, which was the first to be used on the Stanhope & Tyne Railway in 1834 - it worked the eastern section towards South Shields. The model is on display at today's exhibition

“But if the pointsman at Crawley engine had let the runaway train go down to Hog Hill Tunnel, the death toll would have been much greater,” says David Kidd, who is organising today’s exhibition. “He was hailed as a hero at the time, but his name was never recorded.”

The Northern Echo: A painting by Doris Phelan from an Edwardian postcard showing Howden-le-Wear station from the footbridgeA painting by Doris Phelan from an Edwardian postcard showing Howden-le-Wear station from the footbridge

David’s exhibition also marks the opening of Howden-le-Wear’s own station, which brought the village into existence.

“The Bishop Auckland to Crook line was only short, but it involved massive engineering works – it took more than six years to build seven miles of track,” says David. “It was completed in 1843, inspected for safety on January 1, 1844, and the station opened here some time in 1844 – by the end of the year, they were advertising services stopping once a week, which doesn’t sound very much, but when the station opened there was no village here.”

To reach Howden, the railway built an immense 2,300ft long timber viaduct across the Wear near Witton Park.

“Because of all the other embankments on the line, they had no earth left to make another one at Witton so they built a wooden trestle viaduct called ‘the giant centipede’ because it had 132 pairs of legs,” says Dave. “It was probably the longest railway bridge in Britain.”

As soon as the railway rattled over the 132 legs into the district, collieries and cokeworks started springing up, particularly in a valley called Beechburn. With the station being next to Howden Farm, they initially called it “Howden”, but there were other Howdens on Tyneside and Humberside so it became “Howden-le-Wear”. As most users, though, were looking for the collieries in the tree-lined valley, it became known as “Beechburn for Howden-le-Wear”, one of the longest names on the network.

The Northern Echo: Shunting near Howden-le-Wear station in the 1950sShunting near Howden-le-Wear in the 1950s

All this mining activity meant that when the line was upgraded so it could be extended up Weardale, there was plenty of spoil for the railway-builders.

They built a conventional brick viaduct over the Wear, and heaped up the spoil over the giant centipede.

“It is a forgotten engineering wonder as it was buried to create the embankment,” says David. “It would have rotted away in there now, but I’m sure archaeologists would be able to still see something of the giant centipede.”

David’s exhibition in Howden-le-Wear village hall runs from 10am to 2pm today. Admission is free, and light refreshments will be available. It features items from his extensive collection.

“I’ve even got a 1927 spirit-filled locomotive with no controls,” he says. “It is an incendiary device which you set off and it runs for 40 minutes without stopping. On one charge of fuel, it does one-and-a-quarter miles, and at a show in Earls Court, it ran continuously for 183 miles – it was the great toy of its day.”

The Northern Echo: A train approaches Howden-le-Wear in the 1950sA train approaches Howden-le-Wear in the 1950s


The Northern Echo: David Kidd's model of a 1927 Pacific locomotive which will feature in today's exhibitionDavid Kidd's model of a 1927 Pacific locomotive which will feature in today's exhibition