Lighting Locomotion

Reproduction ‘Locomotion no 1: Grand Steam Cavalcade, August 31st 1975, Shildon Co Durham

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.

For the 150th Anniversary celebrations of the Stockton & Darlington Railway in 1975 a working reproduction was constructed, which has recently been the subject of a “tug of love”: Darlington to have replica Locomotion No 1 on display | The Northern Echo.

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