The train now approaching is 196 years old today…

SOMETIME in the autumn of 200 years ago, George Stephenson accosted some farm labourers in a field near the River Tees at Stockton. “Come, give me a spade,” he shouted in his broad Northumbrian accent. “Let it never be said that we haven’t made a beginning.” With that, and without further fanfare, in October 1821, he turned the first sod of what was to become the world’s first modern railway.

That railway, the Stockton & Darlington Railway, opened 196 years ago today – and its bicentenary in 2025 could be a global commemoration of the railway that got the world on track. Two hundred years ago, the railway pioneers were making huge strides towards their goal of joining the south Durham coalfield with the seaport of Stockton. In Memories 521, we told how, on April 19, 1821, pit engineer Stephenson, from north of Newcastle, had arrived at the door of Edward Pease, who was leading the Darlington project, and in a celebrated meeting had convinced him that it should be steampower, and not horsepower, that should drive the line.

The meeting took place in Edward’s home in Northgate, where a kebab shop and a pizza parlour are today. Look inside the dereliction of Edward Pease’s house today Stephenson also persuaded Pease that the line should be a railway, and not a tramway or a plateway, as other surveyors were advising.

The concept was really now taking shape. That summer, events moved surprisingly fast. On May 12, the railway shareholders held their first meeting in the King’s Head Hotel.

They decided they should be chaired by Thomas Meynell, of Yarm, with Jonathan Backhouse, the Darlington banker, as their treasurer, and they selected a 14-man committee. The original seal of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, showing a horse, as drawn up in 1821 But not all of the pioneers were as advanced in their thinking as Edward, and during the summer of 1821, the committee adopted an emblem drawn by the Reverend Daniel Mitford Peacock, the rector of Great Stainton.

It shows a horse leading a train of coal trucks – a very outdated image for a steampowered railway. Mr Peacock’s logo also contained the railway’s Latin motto, “Periculum privatum: utilitas publica”, which means “private risk at public service” – this Quaker-led line was risking private shareholders’ money in the hope of building a railway that would be of public benefit. The train now approaching is 196 years old today...

Edward Pease (above) was thoroughly convinced of the potential benefit. He and his cousin Thomas Richardson, of Great Ayton, visited Stephenson’s colliery at Killingworth that summer to see his steam locomotives in operation. Afterwards, Edward wrote that he thought there would be “no difficulty of laying a railroad from London to Edinburgh on which waggons would travel and take the mail at the rate of 20 miles per hour”.

Edward had been in a coal truck as the locomotive had pulled a train weighing 50 tons at an astonishing eight miles an hour. “If the same power had been applied to speed which was applied to drag the waggons, we should have gone 50 miles an hour,” wrote Edward. “Previous to seeing this locomotive engine, I was at a loss to conceive how the engine could draw such a weight.” Edward described Stephenson as “a self-taught genius”, and the railway committee agreed to pay George Stephenson two guineas a day, plus expenses, to survey the course of their line.

The train now approaching is 196 years old today... George and Robert Stephenson Making Edward’s house in Northgate his base, Stephenson began his work on October 14, 1821.

He was assisted by his 18-year-old son, Robert, and by John Dixon (below), from the Cockfield family, who was regarded by the railway committee as a “suitable person” to show Stephenson the lie of the land. There were also two men holding levelling staves and two men carrying measuring chains. The train now approaching is 196 years old today...

The weather was so fine 200 years ago that the survey was completed ahead of schedule, by October 31, and near St John’s Well at Stockton, Stephenson, in a moment of exuberance, is said to have grabbed a shovel and turned the first sod. The train now approaching is 196 years old today... Where George Stephenson reputedly turned the first sod on the railway 200 years ago,St John’s Well, in the centre of Stockton became known as St John’s Crossing.

It came to feature a weigh-house or ticket office that still stands – above as it was in 1925 and, below, as it is today

The train now approaching is 196 years old today...

That story, like so many connected with the beginnings of the S&DR, may be apocryphal, but it shows that exactly 200 years ago, the railway that got the world on track was itself running on the right lines.