Stockton and Darlington Railway (1825)

The Stockton and Darlington Railway (S&DR) was a railway company that operated in north-east England from 1825 to 1863. It was the first public railway to use steam locomotives, connecting collieries near Sheldon with Darlington and Stockton-on-Tees in County Durham, and was officially opened on 27 September 1825.

The movement of coal to ships rapidly became a lucrative business, and the line was soon extended to a new port at Middlesbrough. While coal wagons were hauled by steam locomotives from the start, passengers were carried in coaches drawn by horses until carriages hauled by steam locomotives were introduced in 1833.

In the Opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, a watercolour painted in the 1880s by John Dobbin, crowds are watching the inaugural train cross the Skerne Bridge in Darlington. Image used under Creative Commons licence.

Coal from the inland mines in southern County Durham used to be taken away on packhorses, and then horse and carts as the roads were improved. A canal was proposed by George Dixon in 1767 and again by John Rennie in 1815, but both schemes failed. Meanwhile, the port of Stockton-on-Tees, from which the Durham coal was transported onwards by sea, had invested considerably during the early 19th century in straightening the Tees in order to improve navigation on the river downstream of the town and was subsequently looking for ways to increase trade to recoup those costs.

A few years later a canal was proposed on a route that bypassed Darlington and Yarm, and a meeting was held in Yarm to oppose the route. The Welsh engineer George Overton was consulted, and he advised building a tramroad. Overton carried out a survey and planned a route from the Etherley and Witton Collieries to Shildon, and then passing to the north of Darlington to reach Stockton. The Scottish engineer Robert Stevenson, a designer and builder of lighthouses, was said to favour the railway, but this was defeated in Parliament.

A later bill was passed in April 1821 and, soon after, George Stephenson was appointed to make a fresh survey and, assisted by his son Robert (the designer of the Rocket steam engine) recommended using malleable iron rails.

Map by unsigned cartographer within 1821 Stockton and Darlington Railway report. A short pamphlet plus fold-out maps. The original from which this has been scanned is in the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers. It is referenced Tracts vol 57 p252. The scan and the upload to Wiki Commons have been made with the permission and direction of their librarian Jennifer Kelly.

A new bill was presented, requesting Stephenson’s deviations from the original route and the use of “loco-motives or moveable engines”, and this received assent on 23 May 1823.

In 1823 Stephenson and Edward Pease opened Robert Stephenson and Company, a locomotive works at Forth Street, Newcastle, from which the following year the S&DR ordered two steam locomotives and two stationary engines. On 16 September 1825, with the stationary engines in place, the first locomotive, Locomotion No. 1, left the works, and the following day it was advertised that the railway would open on 27 September 1825.

The Stockton and Darlington Railway in black, with today’s railways in red. [This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.]


The cost of building the railway had greatly exceeded the estimates. By September 1825 the company had borrowed £60,000 in short-term loans and needed to start earning an income to ward off its creditors. A railway coach, named Experiment, arrived on the evening of 26 September 1825 and was attached to Locomotion No. 1, which had been placed on the rails for the first time at Aycliffe Lane station following the completion of its journey by road from Newcastle earlier that same day.

Pease, Stephenson and other members of the committee then made an experimental journey to Darlington before taking the locomotive and coach to Shildon in preparation for the opening day, with James Stephenson, George’s elder brother, at the controls.

Locomotion No. 1. Photo © P. Spilsbury. A detailed description of the locomotive is featured in the Famous Locomotives section later.

On 27 September, between 7 am and 8 am, 12 wagons of coal were drawn up Etherley North Bank by a rope attached to the stationary engine at the top, and then let down the South Bank to St Helen Auckland.

A wagon of flour bags was attached and horses hauled the train across the Gaunless Bridge to the bottom of Brusselton West Bank, where thousands watched the second stationary engine draw the train up the incline. The train was let down the East Bank to Mason’s Arms Crossing at Shildon Lane End, where Locomotion No. 1Experiment and 21 new coal wagons fitted with seats were waiting.

The directors had allowed room for 300 passengers, but the train left carrying between 450 and 600 people, most travelling in empty wagons but some on top of wagons full of coal. Brakesmen were placed between the wagons, and the train set off, led by a man on horseback with a flag. It picked up speed on the gentle downward slope and reached 10 to 12 miles per hour (16 to 19 km/h), leaving behind men on field hunters (horses) who had tried to keep up with the procession.

The train stopped when the wagon carrying the company surveyors and engineers lost a wheel; the wagon was left behind and the train continued. The train stopped again, this time for 35 minutes to repair the locomotive and the train set off again, reaching 15 mph (24 km/h) before it was welcomed by an estimated 10,000 people as it came to a stop at the Darlington branch junction.

Eight and a half miles (14 km) had been covered in two hours, and subtracting the 55 minutes accounted by the two stops, it had travelled at an average speed of 8 mph (13 km/h). Six wagons of coal were distributed to the poor, workers stopped for refreshments and many of the passengers from Brusselton alighted at Darlington, to be replaced by others.

Two wagons for the Yarm Band were attached, and at 12:30 pm the locomotive started for Stockton, now hauling 31 vehicles with 550 passengers. On the 5 miles (8 km) of nearly level track east of Darlington the train struggled to reach more than 4 mph (6.4 km/h).

At Eaglescliffe near Yarm crowds waited for the train to cross the Stockton to Yarm turnpike. Approaching Stockton, running alongside the turnpike as it skirted the western edge of Preston Park, it gained speed and reached 15 mph (24 km/h) again, before a man clinging to the outside of a wagon fell off and his foot was crushed by the following vehicle.

As work on the final section of track to Stockton’s quayside was still ongoing, the train halted at the temporary passenger terminus at St John’s Well 3 hours, 7 minutes after leaving Darlington. The opening ceremony was considered a success and that evening 102 people sat down to a celebratory dinner at the Town Hall.

The current Tees Valley Line uses most of the former Stockton & Darlington Railway between Bishop Auckland and Saltburn. From Bishop Auckland the non-electrified line is single track to Shildon, double track to Heighington, and single track to the junction with the East Coast Main Line north of Darlington.

For more information on the later years, refer to the Wikipedia file.

There is a great photo of the opening in

See also Friends of the Stockton & Darlington Railway.

mywarrington is not responsible for external websites.