The Stockton & Darlington Railway, famous across the world as the first public railway to use steam locomotives, extended beyond Stockton and Darlington, so people who don’t know the area need to look at a map to understand its full significance.
Authorised by an Act of Parliament in 1821 and opened on September 27th 1825, the original line ran from Witton Park Colliery, inland near Bishop Auckland, to the company’s headquarters and works at Shildon, then to Darlington and onwards to a quay on the River Tees at Stockton: [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stockton_and_Darlington_Railway#/media/File:Stockton_&_Darlington_Railway_with_today’s_lines.svg].
The objective was to enable South Durham coal-owners to compete more effectively with their Tyneside rivals’ superior access to the sea.
Its initial construction was a partnership between Durham entrepreneurs, particularly the Quaker Pease family led by Edward Pease (1767-1858), and the practical engineer George Stephenson (1781-1848).
The features that gave the S&DR worldwide significance were not apparent in the 1821 Act.
When Stephenson took over as surveyor he modified his predecessor’s route, reducing it from twenty-eight to twenty-seven miles and eliminating an expensive tunnel, while ensuring that the entire route east of Shildon was suitable for locomotives. He advocated the use of malleable as well as cast iron rails. He designed an iron-truss bridge over the River Gaunless, now on display at the National Railway Museum in York. He and his partners at Robert Stephenson & Co manufactured four locomotives and two stationary engines to power trains alongside horse traction.
Oddly, the track gauge of the S&DR was originally 4 feet 8 inches, not the later standard gauge of 4ft 8½in.
Shildon was the westernmost limit of locomotive working and so was the obvious location for the company’s works. The first superintendent, Timothy Hackworth (1786-1850), had gained mechanical experience working with his father John at the Wylam colliery where locomotives were in use from 1812, and the new railway works quickly attracted a population to what became New Shildon. In later years, locomotive production was transferred to Darlington and Shildon became the largest wagon building and repair works in the world until it closed in 1984.
Beyond Shildon the original S&DR line was operated by horses and stationary steam engines. Two inclines, Etherley and Brusselton, conveyed wagons over the ridges that separated Witton Park and other collieries from the valley of the Tees.
The two inclines were replaced in 1842 by a diversionary route through Shildon Tunnel, yet their archaeology is still apparent, and this well-produced video explains how they worked: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ht-t-J2qUQ0.
The site of the wagon works is now a splendid modern transport museum, Locomotion [https://www.locomotion.org.uk], which houses exhibits from the National Railway Museum collection and links significant surviving buildings, including Hackworth’s Cottage, the coal drops, the goods shed and the Soho workshop.
It makes a resonant contrast with the Head of Steam museum [https://www.head-of-steam.co.uk], housed in the historic, rail-accessible Darlington North Road railway station.