Rainhill Trials (1829)

The Rainhill Trials was an important competition run in October 1829, to test George Stephenson’s argument that locomotives would provide the best motive power for the then nearly-completed Liverpool and Manchester Railway (L&MR). Five locomotives were entered, running along a 1 mile (1.6 km) length of level track at Rainhill, in Lancashire.


The directors of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway had originally intended to use stationary steam engines to haul trains along the railway using cables. They had appointed George Stephenson as their engineer of the line in 1826, and he strongly advocated for the use of steam locomotives instead.

As the railway was approaching completion, the directors decided to hold a competition to decide whether locomotives could be used to pull the trains; these became the Rainhill Trials. A prize of £500 (equal to £44,324 today) was offered to the winner of the trials. Three notable engineers were selected as judges: John Urpeth Rastrick, a locomotive engineer of Stourbridge, Nicholas Wood, a mining engineer from Killingworth with considerable locomotive design experience, and John Kennedy, a Manchester cotton spinner and a major proponent of the railway.

Rainhill Trials from the Illustrated London News. In the foreground is Rocket and in the background are Sans Pareil (right) and Novelty. Used under the Creative Commons CC0 License.

The Rules

The L&MR company set the rules for the trials. The rules went through several revisions; the final set, under which the competition was held, was:

“The weight of the Locomotive Engine, with its full complement of water in the boiler, shall be ascertained at the Weighing Machine, by eight o’clock in the morning, and the load assigned to it shall be three times the weight thereof. The water in the boiler shall be cold, and there shall be no fuel in the fireplace. As much fuel shall be weighed, and as much water shall be measured and delivered into the Tender Carriage, as the owner of the Engine may consider sufficient for the supply of the Engine for a journey of thirty-five miles. The fire in the boiler shall then be lighted, and the quantity of fuel consumed for getting up the steam shall be determined, and the time noted.”

“The Tender Carriage, with the fuel and water, shall be considered to be, and taken as a part of the load assigned to the Engine.”

“Those engines which carry their own fuel and water, shall be allowed a proportionate deduction from their load, according to the weight of the Engine.”

“The Engine, with the carriages attached to it, shall be run by hand up to the Starting Post, and as soon as the steam is got up to fifty pounds per square inch (3.4 bar), the engine shall set out upon its journey.”

“The distance the Engine shall perform each trip shall be one mile and three quarters (2.8 km) each way, including one-eighth of a mile (200 m) at each end for getting up the speed and for stopping the train; by this means the Engine, with its load, will travel one and a-half mile (2.4 km) each way at full speed.”

“The Engines shall make ten trips, which will be equal to a journey of 35 miles (56 km); thirty miles whereof shall be performed at full speed, and the average rate of travelling shall not be less than ten miles per hour (16 km/h).” (Note: The only other passenger railway in the world at that time, the Stockton and Darlington Railway, had an average speed of only about 8 miles per hour (13 km/h).)

“As soon as the Engine has performed this task, (which will be equal to the travelling from Liverpool to Manchester,) there shall be a fresh supply of fuel and water delivered to her; and, as soon as she can be got ready to set out again, she shall go up to the Starting Post, and make ten trips more, which will be equal to the journey from Manchester back again to Liverpool.”

“The time of performing every trip shall be accurately noted, as well as the time occupied in getting ready to set out on the second journey.”

“The gauge of the railway to be 4 ft 8+12 in (1,435 mm).”

Ten locomotives were officially entered for the trials, but on the day the competition began — 6 October 1829 — only five locomotives were available to run:

  • Cycloped, a horse-powered locomotive built by Thomas Shaw Brandreth.
  • Novelty, the world’s first tank locomotive, built by John Ericsson and John Braithwaite.
  • Perseverance, a locomotive with a vertical-boiler, built by Timothy Burstall.
  • Rocket, designed by George and Robert Stephenson; built by Robert Stephenson and Company.
  • Sans Pareil, built by Timothy Hackworth.

The Competition

The length of the L&MR that ran past Rainhill village was straight and level for over 1 mile (1.6 km) and was chosen as the site for the Trials. The locomotives were to run at Kenrick’s Cross, on the mile east from the Manchester side of Rainhill Bridge.

Two or three locomotives ran each day, and several tests for each locomotive were performed over the course of six days. Between 10,000 and 15,000 people turned up to watch the trials and bands provided musical entertainment on both days.

Cycloped was the first to drop out of the competition. It used a horse walking on a drive belt for power and was withdrawn after an accident caused the horse to burst through the floor of the engine.

The horse-powered locomotive “Cycloped”, built by Thomas Shaw Brandreth in 1829 and entered in the Rainhill Trials.

Image used under Creative Commons licence.

The next locomotive to retire was Perseverance, which was damaged in transit to the competition. Burstall spent the first five days of the trails repairing his locomotive, and though it ran on the sixth day, it failed to reach the required 10 miles per hour (16 km/h) speed and was withdrawn from the trial. It was granted a £25 consolation prize (equal to £2216 today).


Image used under Creative Commons licence.

Sans Pareil nearly completed the trials, though at first there was some doubt as to whether it would be allowed to compete as it was 300 pounds (140 kg) overweight. However, it did eventually complete eight trips before cracking a cylinder. Despite the failure it was purchased by the L&MR, where it ran for two years before being leased to the Bolton and Leigh Railway.

Sans Pareil

Image used under Creative Commons licence.

The last locomotive to drop out was Novelty. In contrast to Cycloped, it used advanced technology for 1829 and was lighter and considerably faster than the other locomotives in the competition. It was the crowd favourite and reached a then-astonishing 28 miles per hour (45 km/h) on the first day of competition. It later suffered damage to a boiler pipe which could not be fixed properly on site. Nevertheless, it ran the next day and reached 15 miles

per hour (24 km/h) before the repaired pipe failed and damaged the engine severely enough that it had to be withdrawn.


Image used under Creative Commons licence.

The Rocket was the only locomotive that completed the trials. It averaged 12 miles per hour (19 km/h) and achieved a top speed of 30 miles per hour (48 km/h)) hauling 13 tons. It was declared the winner of the £500 prize (equal to £44324 today) and The Stephensons were given the contract to produce locomotives for the L&MR.

The Rocket drawing. Image used under Creative Commons licence

A model of the Rocket on Rainhill Station

A detailed description of each locomotive is featured in the Famous Locomotives section later.

Location of the Rainhill Trials as seen from Rainhill Station on 2 March 2013

The Times carried a full report of the trials on 12 October 1829 from which the following extract are taken:

THURSDAY – THIRD DAY: Mr. Stephenson’s engine, “The Rocket,” weighing 4 tons 3 cwt., performed, to-day, the work required by the original conditions. The following is a correct account of the performance: The engine, with its complement of water, weighed 4 tons 5 cwt., and the load attached to it was 12 tons 15 cwt., and, with a few persons who rode, made it about 13 tons. The Journey was 121 mile each way, with an additional length of 220 yards at each end to stop the engine in, making in one Journey 3[?] miles. The first experiment was of 35 miles, which is exactly ten journeys, and, including all the stoppages at the ends, was performed in 3 hours and 10 minutes, being upwards of 11 miles an hour. After this a fresh supply of water was taken in, which occupied 16

minutes, when the engine again started, and ran 35 miles in 2 hours and 52 minutes, which is upwards of 12 miles an hour, including all stoppages. The speed of the engine, with its load when in full motion, was from 14 to 17 miles an hour; and had the whole distance been in one continuing direction, there is no doubt but the result would have been 16 miles an hour. The consumption of coke was very moderate, not exceeding half a ton in the whole 70 miles. At several parts of the journey the engine moved at 18 miles an hour. SATURDAY – FIFTH DAY: In the expectation of witnessing the Novelty perform its appointed task, the attendance of company on the ground was more numerous today than it had been on several of the

preceding days. Three times its own weight having been attached to the engine, the machine commenced its task, and performed it at the rate of 16 miles in the hour. Mr. Stephenson’s engine, the Rocket, also exhibited today. Its tender was completely detached from it, and the engine alone shot along the road at the almost incredible rate of 32 miles in the hour. So astonishing was the celerity with which the engine, without its apparatus, darted past the spectators, that it could be compared to nothing hut the rapidity with which the swallow darts through the air. Their astonishment was complete, everyone exclaiming involuntarily, “The power of steam”.

Rainhill Station

Rainhill station was opened in 1830 as part of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, and is one of the oldest passenger railway stations in the world. These early intermediate stations were often little more than halts, usually positioned where the railway was crossed by a road or turnpike. This probably accounts for variations in the names of these stopping places, The station was originally called Kendrick’s Cross or Kendrick’s Cross Gate but this name did not last long, according to Butt (1995) it was changed to Rainhill in 1831 and according to Holt (1965) it was known as Rainhill by 1838 but not formally changed to Rainhill until 1844.

Image, right: Rainhill Station on 2 March 2013, looking towards the location of the Rainhill Trials.

Stephenson’s Skew Arch Bridge

1830 also saw the grand opening of the skew bridge in Rainhill over the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. The bridge was the first to cross any railway at an angle. It required the structure to be constructed as two flat planes (overlapping in this case by 6 ft (1.8 m)) between which the stonework forms a parallelogram shape when viewed from above.

It has the effect of flattening the arch and the solution is to lay the bricks forming the arch at an angle to the abutments (the piers on which the arches rest). The technique, which results in a spiral effect in the arch masonry, provides extra strength in the arch to compensate for the angled abutments.

The bridge is still in use at Rainhill station, and carries traffic on the A57 (Warrington Road). The bridge is a listed structure.

Read more about the Rainhill Trials in Wikipedia.

See also:

Heritage UK

National Railway Museum

The American Society of Mechanical Engineers

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