The Dawn of the Railways and the Role of the Stephensons

The Early Railways

Railways have had a huge impact on our lives. Over the last two hundred years they have brought about significant technological, industrial and social changes that have affected us all. North Tyneside has a very special place in the story of railways. Here, George and Robert Stephenson, pioneering figures in the history of railways, spent nearly twenty years developing their skills and inventions that helped transform the world.

Wooden waggonways, built to move coal from mines to collier ships, were also important in the development of railways as we know them today. A section of the Willington Waggonway that ran through North Tyneside, rediscovered in 2013, was the most complete and best-preserved stretch of early wooden railway to have been found anywhere in the world. It revealed unique evidence of the busy regional network of wooden rail lines. It also provided the earliest known example of what became the international ‘standard’ track gauge, championed by George Stephenson.

The museum gallery displays the earliest surviving Stephenson locomotive, Killingworth Billy, dating to 1816, and a section of the Willington Waggonway from around 1785. Together they provide an incredible insight into the dawn of the railways.

"The locomotive engine of Mr. Stephenson is superior beyond all comparison to all the other engines I have ever seen."  William James (early railway surveyor and engineer)

The Willington Waggonway


For three centuries, from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I to the end of the reign of Queen Victoria, the Great Northern Coalfield was the most important and largest producing coalfield in the world. The task of transporting coal from mines initially fell to horses, pulling loaded wagons along uneven roads to be loaded on boats and ships. This took a great amount of time. New, faster means of transport were needed to meet the growing national demand for fuel. The introduction of wooden waggonways to the North East in the 17th century, revolutionised transport. The smooth wooden tracks enabled horses to pull heavier loads at quicker speeds from the colliery pits to staithes on the River Tyne. The waggonways were so extensively constructed across the region, they became known as ‘Newcastle Roads’. They were admired by visitors from across Britain and abroad, and they even attracted the attention of industrial spies, keen to learn the secrets of their construction.


The Willington Waggonway was uncovered in 2013 during excavations of the Neptune Shipyard on the River Tyne on the Walker / Wallsend border. It is the most complete and best-preserved section of early wooden railway to have been found anywhere in the world. It has been dated to 1785. It is also the earliest railway to have been discovered that operated using the international standard gauge of 4’ 81/2” (1435mm). This is the measurement of the distance  between the inside edges of the rails. George Stephenson later used this same measurement when developing his tracks, creating the blueprint for the modern railway lines we know today. This section of the Willington Waggonway was also found to include a ‘wash pond.’ This discovery provided the first opportunity for this feature to be professionally excavated and better understood. Although historians knew of the existence of wash ponds on the waggonways, none had been discovered prior to this excavation. Wash ponds were developed to help prevent waggon wheels from cracking or catching fire as a result of friction created between them and the wooden rails. Empty waggons returning to collieries would be taken through them to wash and soak their wheels. Inside the wash pond, a well-made stone trackway, held in place by another narrower set of ‘check rails’, allowed horses to gain a stronger foothold as they pulled the waggons through the water.

Horse-drawn waggon on waggonway


The North East coast was a hazardous place for ships during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Vessels were often stranded or wrecked in storms or heavy seas. The materials they were made from were extremely valuable, and where possible they were salvaged and recycled for new uses. Advertisements from the Newcastle Courant at the time of the construction of the Willington Waggonway show that salvaged timbers were offered for sale at auction, particularly for re-use in the construction of waggonways. Of the 335 timbers of the Willington Waggonway recorded, 62 were identified as possibly being from ships. Their curved, tapering shape and evidence of specialised fastenings and joinery hint at this previous life. The strongest evidence to show this comes from the presence of cylindrical oak pins, called treenails, which were driven through the planed timbers of a ship to connect them together.

The Travelling Engines

Whilst working at Killingworth, George would have learned of the development of the first travelling engines in his home village of Wylam. Puffing Billy was built by William Hedley, Jonathan Forster and Timothy Hackworth in 1813-14. Although pioneering, there were many issues with the design of the engine. Puffing Billy’s eight-ton weight frequently broke the castiron waggonway rails it ran on and had to be carried on eight wheels in an attempt to spread its weight. Nevertheless, the development of locomotives at Wylam greatly inspired George, leading him to the creation of his first locomotive, Blucher, at Killingworth in 1814.

Blucher’s design was greatly influenced by George’s observations of the work of other engineers. George’s extensive practical knowledge enabled him to rectify many of the issues that such engineers were facing with their designs. With Blucher George created the first successful, fit for purpose locomotive. It could pull 30 tonnes up a slight gradient at 4mph – a huge technological feat at this time.

The First Locomotive Factory

George continued to adapt and refine his locomotive designs, creating sixteen more engines at West Moor Colliery. The earliest known surviving engine from this time is Killingworth Billy, built in 1816 under George’s direct supervision, and now on display in this museum.

In recognising the equal importance of developing both the locomotive engines and tracks, George was able to triumph over his rivals. By 1820, following the introduction of his engines, Killingworth Colliery was able to remove all horses from the haulage process.

George’s successes gained him national attention. Many people travelled to Killingworth to see his famous engines. One of the most important visits came from Edward Pease. Pease was an influential Quaker banker and wool merchant from Darlington who wanted to connect the town to the Auckland coalfields. His championing of the Stephensons led to their role in creating the world’s first public railway line between Stockton & Darlington.

Pease also provided financial backing to help the Stephensons establish their own locomotive factory. In 1823, Robert Stephenson & Company was founded at Forth Street Works, Newcastle, creating the world’s first locomotive factory. For the rest of the 1820s, the company became the main provider of locomotives nationally. Robert was able to grow the family business whilst George worked on projects around the country.

The Stockton & Darlington Railway

Edward Pease was a great supporter of the possibility of a railway being constructed in South-West Durham. Pease envisioned a public railway connecting the region’s collieries and the port in Stockton, as plans for the construction of a canal had previously fallen through. Following a meeting in 1821 between Pease, George Stephenson and Nicholas Wood, the Viewer at Killingworth Colliery, George was appointed as principle surveyor and engineer for the project. Although many people objected due to George’s limited education, Pease was won over by Stephenson’s enthusiasm and determination to pioneer using locomotives on the line.

Opening on 27 September 1825, news of the Stockton & Darlington Railway spread around the world. In addition to being responsible for the building of the line, six of George and Robert’s engines also worked on their route. The Stephensons were quickly emerging as leaders in this new field of engineering.

Stockton & Darlington began as a single line with four passing loops in-built every mile to allow for traffic to pass each other. Although passenger coaches had right of way, there were often arguments between drivers as to who should proceed first. Despite some difficulties, the railway was a great success and business in the local area boomed. Due to the location of the railway workshops, the line also led to the formation of the first railway town, Shildon.

The success of the Stockton and Darlington line showed a demand for passenger services on the railways. Between 1825 and 1827 more than 30,000 passengers travelled between the two towns. The success of the line also highlighted that George’s vision of a connected network of railway routes across the country could become a reality. The first period of ‘railway mania’ began.

The Liverpool & Manchester Railway

Manchester was the centre of the cotton trade and Liverpool was a major port in the transatlantic slave trade. The companies controlling waterways between the cities were charging  increasingly high tolls and the condition of roads was worsening, creating large transportation issues. Henry Booth, a businessman with a great interest in railways, established the Liverpool and Manchester Railway Committee to address the problem. Booth asked George Stephenson to produce a new survey of the line to be submitted for Parliamentary approval. George’s survey received great opposition. Some errors in his work and his lack of theoretical education were criticised and his strong Northumbrian accent was mocked. George was temporarily replaced, although he later regained control of the project and was responsible for the construction of the line, including all bridges, tunnels and stations on the route. In May 1826, the Bill for the construction of the Liverpool and Manchester line finally passed through Parliament and work began.

By 1829, there was still uncertainty over which type of engine would run on the line. A contest to find the best performing engine was proposed and the Rainhill Trials were scheduled for October. The competing engines had to complete ten return trips of the 1.5 mile track to simulate the 30 miles the engine would need to travel along the line. With a £500 prize, the Rainhill Trials attracted many entries, as well as a crowd of over 10,000 people and global interest and newspaper reports.

As George had been primarily working on the construction of the railway line, the design of the Stephensons’ entry, Rocket, had largely fallen to Robert. For Rocket, Robert innovatively combined a blast-pipe exhaust with his newly designed multi-tube boiler, which greatly reduced the chances of the engine running out of steam.

During the trials Rocket had an average speed of 14mph, though it was able to reach almost 30mph in its final run. The Stephensons won the prize alongside a commission for another four engines of the same design.

The Liverpool and Manchester Railway opened to great fanfare in 1830. The line shows the Stephensons’ domination of the early railway world, their command of steam engine design and Robert’s clear continuation of his father’s pioneering work.