The writer L T C Rolt tells a story about the moment when steam traction was first applied to a public railway.
George Stephenson had worked hard to persuade the directors of the Stockton & Darlington Railway to lay out most of their new line to be worked by steam locomotives, and in September 1824 had ordered two engines, No 1 Locomotion (initially named Active) and No 2 Hope, to be ready for the opening. (Another two, No 3 Black Diamond and No 4 Dilgence followed later.)
Locomotion was delivered necessarily by road, and its arrival is recorded in the memoir of one of the navvies who built the line, Robert Metcalf, written in unpunctuated broad Northumbrian.
Once the engine was set on the track, the workmen needed a light to start the fire that would generate steam and enable it to move. Candles and lanterns were sent for, but in the meantime Robert Metcalf lit up his pipe, using his pipe glass to focus the sun’s rays on the tobacco.
Contemplating a batch of oakum packing for the locomotive feed-pump, Metcalf realised he could save time by using his pipe glass to start the fire in the firebox: “it blaze away well the fire going rapidly lantern and candle was to no use so No 1 fire was put to her on line by the pour of the sun”.
Rolt comments, “There is surely some symbolic significance in this little piece of humble and quite spontaneous ritual by which the sun’s heat kindled fire in the belly of the first locomotive in the world to move on a public line of railway.”
No 1 duly hauled the first train of coal and passengers from Shildon to Stockton on September 27th 1825.
In 1828 the boiler exploded, killing the driver, at Aycliffe Lane station, after the fireman had fastened down the safety valve.
Locomotion worked on the railway until 1841, and then, after fifteen years’ use as a stationary engine, it was restored and displayed, usually at Stockton except when it was loaned out to exhibitions elsewhere.
It last steamed in 1881, and from 1892 until 1975 (except in the years of the Second World War) it was displayed with another early S&DR loco, Derwent (1845) at the main-line station at Darlington Bank Top.
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.
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.
The catalogue of British industrial model villages, constructed by employers enlightened or desperate enough to provide better-quality habitations to attract workers, usually includes, give or take one or another, such names as –
Such lists rarely include Ironville, Derbyshire, begun by the Butterley Company in 1834, largely because the historic village is no longer recognisable for what it was.
The Butterley ironworks was founded in 1790 by the engineers of the Cromford Canal, William Jessop (1745-1814) and Benjamin Outram (1764-1805), in partnership with the canal-company solicitor, Francis Beresford, and the Nottingham banker John Wright.
The enterprise was founded literally on the discovery of rich coal and ironstone deposits during the building of the Butterley canal tunnel.
The ironworks traded on demand generated by the wars with France from 1792 onwards, but produced only pig iron and cast iron. Land was purchased in 1796 at Codnor Park, a couple of miles down the canal, for a forge and rolling mill to manufacture wrought iron.
Within ten years four limekilns and a row of eleven cottages called Limekiln Row had been built at Codnor Park, soon followed by the forge and another thirteen cottages, Forge Row.
Further land on the site that was to become Ironville was used to construct two rows each of sixteen cottages, Furnace Row and Foundry Row, completed in 1813.
King William Street was laid out in 1834, with its forty-eight two-up-two-down terraced houses, alongside and similar to Furnace and Foundry Rows, and its public house, the King William IV.
In the following years, street after street appeared – Victoria Street (1837), then Albert Street, Tank Street and Meadow Street, followed by the distinctive three-storey “Big Six”, the biggest houses in Ironville.
The final development in the 1850s and 1860s was the Market Place and Queen Street, larger houses built on the cinder bank that served to fill in a former clay pit.
The new settlement offered a high standard of amenity. By the late 1840s King William Street boasted a chemist, a draper, a baker and a stationer who published the Ironville Telegraph newspaper. By 1886 there were twenty-four shops, including the sole branch of the Codnor Park & Ironville Equitable & Industrial Co-operative Society, though to be the smallest retail co-operative society in Britain.
The National School was opened in 1841 and enlarged in 1850. The Mechanics’ Institute, designed by the Derby architect Henry Isaac Stevens, opened in 1846 and was later used as the Butterley Company Colliery offices. Christ Church, also by H I Stevens, built at a cost of £6,000 and paid for by Francis Wright, was consecrated in 1851 and the vicarage, also by Stevens, dates from c1852.
The 1854 Jessop Monument commemorates William Jessop II (1784-1852), son of the canal engineer. It consists of a spacious memorial hall alongside a 70-foot-high Tuscan column with a viewing platform, reached by a spiral staircase of 150 steps. The column was severely damaged by a lightning strike in 1861, though it continued to be used despite its precarious condition for years afterwards. Both the column and the hall were restored in 2007, but are not accessible to the public.
Though Codnor Park and Ironville are geographically separated by the canal they always formed a unit, depending on the shops and social facilities around King William Street. Whit Monday fêtes at the Codnor Park Memorial Hall were the highlight of the year. Another long-standing custom, arising from an influx of Scottish ironworkers in the 1870s, was traditional Burns Night celebrations that were perpetuated into the 1960s.
Though Codnor Park Forge closed in 1965, followed by the adjacent wagon works ten years later, the Ironville community and its buildings remained largely intact until the Butterley Company was taken over by Lord Hanson’s Wiles Group in 1968. The site of Codnor Park works was cleared by 1972.
Though the derelict canal-side Butterley Company settlement at Golden Valley, a mile up the canal towards Butterley, was well restored by the Derbyshire Historic Buildings Trust in 1979-81, the streets of Ironville, which had remained largely intact, were either demolished or modernised beyond recognition, pebble-dashed and shorn of chimney stacks by Alfreton Urban District Council in 1973.
Though the resulting conversions are no doubt comfortable, they could have been comfortable and attractive if Ironville had been sympathetically restored.
Ironville was a milestone on the road to comfortable dwellings for ordinary people. Now it’s simply a housing development, incomplete, unrecognisable, its street plan defaced, its traditions disregarded.
To see the best of nineteenth-century workers’ housing, people don’t come to Ironville; they go to Cromford, New Lanark, Swindon, Saltaire, Bournville and Port Sunlight – places that were valued and cared for. Ironville isn’t on the list.
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