On 27 September 1825 a small steam locomotive coupled up to a train at Shildon in County Durham. There were officially around 300 ticket holders but many more—possibly twice as much again—had jumped on board. As the train headed eastwards to the port of Stockton, huge crowds gathered to watch its progress. This was a momentous day indeed for this was the first steam-hauled passenger train on a public railway, a journey that would change the world forever.
Named Locomotion, the locomotive on that historic day had been the first to be built at the celebrated Stephenson works in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, but for its working life it was indelibly associated with Shildon—the world’s first railway town—where it will return for the first time in over 150 years as part of ambitious plans to redevelop the town’s railway museum, itself named Locomotion after the history-making locomotive.
Locomotion was not the first steam locomotive, nor did it possess innovative technology. Its significance and fame rests with its involvement on that September day in 1825. However, it also enjoyed a lengthy career on the Stockton & Darlington Railway (S&DR) where it was directly associated with Shildon for the majority of its working life. This may come as a surprise to some as the name of the railway on which the locomotive served was, of course, S&DR even though the line itself began near Shildon some distance west of both Darlington and Stockton.
Shildon played a key role in the history of the S&DR beyond that opening day, serving as the company’s locomotive headquarters for most of its existence. However, the story could have been very different. The S&DR’s commitment to steam locomotion was by no means certain with many trains in normal service being horse-drawn. Steam locomotion was at that time unreliable but all that was to change when the company’s resident engineer Timothy Hackworth developed more consistent steam locomotives at his Shildon base.
Hackworth, who remained the resident engineer of the S&DR until 1840, also established his own Soho Locomotive Works at Shildon in 1833. The Shildon Soho works earned a worldwide reputation and provided some of the earliest locomotives to operate beyond the UK including in countries such as Canada and Russia. It was also at Shildon that Hackworth pioneered new innovations in locomotive repair and manufacturing, setting a template of railway works that endures to this day.
Moreover, Shildon developed the culture, traditions and working practices of the ‘railwayman’. As LTC Rolt has written, ‘these first railwaymen, the pioneers…with no precedents whatever to guide them…had to learn by bitter trial and error how to run a railway. In a few years, when railways began to spread across the world, the men trained in the first hard school at Shildon went with them, proud masters of the mysteries of a new power.’
For these pioneers this could also be a dangerous profession. In 1828 Locomotion itself was badly damaged when its boiler exploded, killing its driver John Cree. Locomotion was rebuilt under Hackworth’s supervision at Shildon and its current appearance owes more to this Shildon rebuild than how the locomotive looked on the opening day of the S&DR.
Locomotion continued in the service of the S&DR until 1850 before a short spell as a stationary pumping engine on the West Collieries in the South Durham coalfield, but its fame saw it preserved for posterity and it now forms part of the National Collection—under the direction of the Science Museum Group—alongside such other famous locomotives as Rocket, City of Truro, Mallard and Flying Scotsman.
And what of Shildon? The town continued to overhaul and maintain all the locomotives of the S&DR until the new North Road Works at Darlington opened in January 1863. Locomotive construction ceased in Shildon in 1867 and four years later, in 1871, locomotive repair work also transferred to Darlington—by which time the S&DR itself had passed into history having been subsumed by the North Eastern Railway.
By this time the unbroken connection of Shildon as the base of the S&DR’s locomotives stretched back directly to Locomotion almost half a century before. However, that was not an end to Shildon’s railway story. The site of the locomotive works took on a new lease of life building and repairing railway wagons. So successful did these works become that it was, for a time, the world’s largest manufacturer of wagons.
In 1875 the 50th anniversary of the opening of the S&DR was celebrated with a number of events large and small. Shildon, somewhat controversially, was largely overlooked as a focus of the celebrations. As one contemporary commentator opined: “It might occur to some minds that Shildon, as being the nursery-ground of the Iron Horse should have been more honoured than by the Tea and Muffin struggle…for was it not the place,—we may say the cradle,—“that bore the fates,” not of Rome but the whole world, a proud distinction for Shildon.”
On 31 August 1975 that slight was righted when a cavalcade of locomotives departed from Shildon’s wagon works to mark the approaching 150th anniversary of the S&DR. With huge crowds and high national interest the cavalcade proved to be one of the UK’s most popular spectator events that year. As the original Locomotion was too fragile to operate, a working replica was commissioned. It was this replica that was chosen to lead the cavalcade again cementing the importance of Shildon in the story of both the S&DR and of Locomotion itself.
In 1984, less than a decade after that momentous August day, the Shildon Wagon Works closed for good thus bringing to an end over 150 years of continuous rail vehicle maintenance and construction. The opening of a new railway museum, appropriately named Locomotion, in 2004 helped give back the town’s railway identity.
The return of Locomotion to Shildon is part of an exciting redevelopment of a museum that will celebrate the history of the world’s first railway town and its role in the first steam-hauled passenger railway, a journey that began in the town almost two centuries ago when Locomotion coupled onto a train and steamed into history.