History of The S&D Railway

The railway that got the world on track

Stone Sleepers Brusselton Incline

Where did the Stockton & Darlington railway run?

The S&DR was designed and set out as a 26-mile-long mainline running from the coal mines near Witton Park to the river Tees at Stockton, via Darlington and Yarm.  In 1825 it had two branch lines at Darlington and Yarm and within the next five years it had an additional three branch lines at Croft, Haggerleases and Middlesbrough. That first 26 miles of mainline and its branch lines soon became hundreds of thousands of miles of railway lines spreading all over the world.

50th anniversary celebrations

The 50th anniversary celebrations of the opening of the S&DR in Darlington in 1875 (Illustrated London News)

In times less enlightened and more prejudiced than these, with amazing foresight, you penetrated the necessity of unbroken communication by railways, and in 1818 predicted the extension of that system which now spreads a net-work over the civilised world, binding nations together for the interchange of mutual interests.

(Part of the address given at Edward Pease’s House in Northgate, Darlington on the 23rd October 1857 as a public thank you from the people of Darlington and the pioneers of the S&DR to Edward Pease). 


Over the following decades, as railways spread across the world, the S&DR also expanded its network of tracks across the NE of England reaching as far as Barnard Castle, Redcar, Cumbria and Weardale. It was amalgamated with the North Eastern Railway in 1863.

  “…its [the S&DR’s] completion in 1825 may be said to have given birth to all others in this world.”

(from Edward Pease’s Diary looking back to 1825, entry dated 30 March 1841)

Historic Plan of the Darlington Railway
Etherley Incline Cutting

The construction of the line was a national team effort

The malleable iron rails which made up two-thirds of the railway line came from Bedlington in Northumberland. The cast iron rails that made up one-third of the line and the iron ‘chairs’ used along the whole line and which held the rails in place came from south Wales. The 64,000 stone sleeper blocks that the rails were fixed into came from Brusselton, Etherley and Haughton Bank Quarries[i] and were used along the west end of the line as far as Darlington (young boys were paid 8d a day to drill two holes in 24 blocks suitable for fixing the ‘chairs’ into.)[ii] Oak sleeper blocks were used at the east end and they came from Portsmouth in Hampshire and brought to Stockton by ship. Most of the unskilled labour to build the line including cuttings and embankments was obtained locally through private contract, but many Tyneside keelmen were brought down to the line to work after being made redundant after the great strike of 1822. Most of the contractors, special blasters and tunnel makers were recruited by Stephenson himself from the Northumberland coalfield. [iii]


[i] Tomlinson 1875, 91

[ii] Jeans 1974, 52

[iii] Kirby 1993, 44

Why build a railway?

Coal was the lifeblood of society in the early 1800s. Coal powered factories and mills; it heated homes, schools, shops and offices and warmed the stoves that cooked the food. In addition to local demands, London had become the largest city in the world and was hungry for coal.

Coal could only be mined where it was found. It then had to be transported to where it was needed. In south west Durham that meant being loaded onto carts hauled by horses and transported along the roads. However the road network was poor and moving coal out to domestic markets was expensive. A cheaper more efficient solution was needed.

Business and colliery owners debated about the best method of transporting the coal. Many favoured a canal and others favoured a railway or tramway. While there was disagreement, there was no progress

What happened next?

Edward Pease, a retired wool merchant from Darlington and a Quaker, broke the deadlock over the longstanding debate between canal versus railway in 1818 when he invited influential business owners together to discuss the options and commissioned the Welsh engineer George Overton to provide an independent report.

Overton sided with a horse drawn railway and supplied costs. Towards the end of the year, the committee met, discussed the likely budgets and created shares in order to raise the capital to build the line. A prospectus was written by the then 19-year-old Joseph Pease (son of Edward) entitled ‘Proposals for making a public railway from the collieries near Auckland to Darlington, Yarm and Stockton, for the Supply of the South and East parts of the County of Durham and the North Riding of Yorkshire with coals, and for the general conveyance of merchandise’ and the Stockton & Darlington Railway Company was formed. Cost to build the railway were estimated at £113,600[i] which in today’s money would be over £10.5 million.[ii]

Permission to build and run a permanent railway required an Act of Parliament. The first attempts failed in large part due to the opposition of the Earl of Darlington who had no industrial interests, but plenty of land upon which he enjoyed fox hunting. At that stage, the proposed railway would cut through his land at Summerhouses and he rallied enough support for the bill to be defeated. While the railway company worked on revised plans to avoid the Earl’s Estate, the Earl attempted to bankrupt the railway company.

[i] Kirby 1993, 32 end 26

[ii] This is not an entirely accurate conversion based on inflation since 1825. There are other ways of converting modern equivalents which will produce different results.

The Earl of Darlington’s Dastardly Plan and Backhouse’s Balancing the Books

Backhouses Coach Charging Across Croft Bridge

 One of the Quaker run banks bankrolling the railway was Backhouses bank. It was based on High Row in Darlington where Barclays bank is today – Barclays having merged with Backhouses and other Quaker banks in 1896. In 1819 it was possible to take a bank note to a bank and exchange it for its equivalent value in gold.

In an attempt to derail the railway, the Earl of Darlington ordered all of his tenants in Teesdale to secretly collect Backhouses’ banknotes so that they could all be presented on one day in exchange for gold. No bank would have enough gold in their vaults to meet this demand and it would result in closure, loss of confidence and bankruptcy for the bank which was funding the railway.

In late June 1819, Jonathan Backhouse, carried out a daring rescue plan on hearing of the Earl’s intentions. He headed south in his carriage pulled by four horses and visited other Quaker banks, borrowing as much bullion as possible.  He dashed back northwards with a carriage laden with gold, travelling day and night to beat Darlington’s agent to the bank. At Croft bridge – just three miles from Darlington – one of the four wheels came crashing off his coach and it tipped forward.

With considerable urgency, he rearranged the gold so that it sat over the good rear wheels causing the broken axle to lift up off the ground.

According to the imaginative Chris Lloyd: “And so, pulling a wheelie, he dashed the remaining miles into High Row – apparently welcomed into town by cheering people.”[i] He made it to the bank only shortly before the Earl’s agent arrived to exchange the notes for gold and so the Earl’s plan was thwarted, the bank survived, and the railway stayed on track.

The story may have grown in the telling. However, it is certainly true that the Earl opposed the railway because of the damage to his fox hunting; it is true that the Quaker banks and families supported each other to get the railway on track and in the archives of Barclays Bank, the books from 1819 survive with accounts of cash being taken to London and in the list of losses, the cost of a broken wheel at £2. 3s.

[ii] Painting of Backhouses coach charging across Croft Bridge, created 60 years later by Backhouses employee and renowned Darlington artist, Samuel Tuke Richardson. The painting hung for decades in the Darlington branch and is now in Barclays’ archives (image: Barclays Group Archives).

[i] Northern Echo 28th July 2019

[ii] Description of ‘Jonathan Backhouse & Company 1774-1896 Darlington private bankers, Jonathan Backhouse & Company, Darlington, 1615 – 1916. Barclays Group Archives. GB 2044 A02’ on the Archives Hub website, [https://archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk/data/gb2044-a02], (date accessed :10/02/2021)

Revised Plans

The revised plans for the railway were submitted in February 1821 and Edward Pease had to invest a further £7,000 of his money (about £773,563.45 today) to reassure Parliament that the railway had sufficient financial backing.  The Bill was successful in 1821 and became an Act of Parliament in April but at almost the same time Edward Pease decided to make some significant changes to the proposed railway and that would require yet another Act.[i]

[i] Kirby is clear that it was Pease who decided to appoint George Stephenson to survey an alternative route suitable for using locomotives instead of horses. The committee were less keen to abandon their hard fought for scheme to have a horse drawn tramway. (Kirby 1993,39)

Who were the Quakers?

The official religion in England was the Church of England. Other people also believed in God but worshipped in breakaway groups broadly referred to as non-Conformists. Quakers, also called Friends, rejected the idea that a priest, a church or a bible was required to speak to God.

In early 19th century society if you were not a member of the official church, you were excluded from aspects of society. By the 1820s Quakers were still not permitted to attend university, hold public office where an oath must be sworn (such as being an M.P), or serve in the armed forces. Consequently, those with talent and determination were drawn to private business such as manufacturing, banking and philanthropy.

As citizens not treated as equals, Quakers were more likely to commission other Quakers for work (adverts for jobs could be headed ‘Friends Preferred’), support other Quakers in new ventures and strengthen family and business ties by marrying within the Quaker community.

Their preference for simple, plain living without ostentation was reflected in their choices of building styles on the S&DR with paired down classical styles. When weigh houses and offices were commissioned from John Carter for the company depots, the committee ordered that his proposed design ‘be divested of the ornamental part of the work’.[i]

Quakers were also known for their use of ‘thee’ as an ordinary pronoun (although this was becoming less common after the 1830s), refusal to participate in war, they wore plain dress, were generally supporters of women’s rights and opposed to slavery.

[i] Fawcett 2001, 13

George Stephenson changing footwear

Painting by Ralph Leslie Swinden dating to 1955 of Nicholas Wood and George Stephenson changing their footwear at the Bulmer Stone before a meeting with Edward Pease

George Stephenson

George Stephenson was already an engineer of some renown on Tyneside who had experimented successfully with locomotives at Killingworth Colliery. He had heard of the proposed Stockton & Darlington Railway and believed that it could be powered with steam engines instead of horses as proposed.[i] Edward Pease knew of George Stephenson and his work and was curious to see if the locomotives would be more efficient than horses. After a few meetings, including the legendary one where George Stephenson and Nicholas Wood changed their footwear outside Pease’s home at the Bulmer Stone[ii] before knocking on his door, Stephenson was appointed by the S&DR Committee to survey a revised route more suitable for locomotives.

Construction to Opening 1822-1825

While a new route was surveyed by Stephenson, construction proceeded on those parts of the trackbed that hadn’t deviated due to the use of locomotives. The official start date of construction works was 13th May 1822 and on the 23rd May the first rails were laid at St John’s Well in Stockton.

The new Act of Parliament was approved in 1823 approving the use of locomotives, but importantly also added passengers to an already long list of things which could be transported by rail.

By September 1825 works to the mainline were largely complete and so once the engines were delivered from Newcastle, the opening day could be planned.

[i] Davies, R 1925, 18

[ii] A glacial boulder which sat at the roadside opposite Pease’s House on Northgate. Find out more here: https://www.therailwaystation.shop/sdr-myth-busting-was-the-meeting-between-pease-stephenson-and-wood-in-1821-a-bare-foot-lie/

The Opening Day 27th September 1825

After many delays the S&DR Company decided to hold the official launch of the railway on the 27th September 1825.

Locomotion No.1, then called ‘Active’ was delivered on three trolleys by road from Robert Stephenson & Co in Newcastle after the 16th September. It was assembled and placed on the rails at Aycliffe Lane (now Heighington Station).

The fire to heat the boiler was lit with magnifying glasses used to create a spark. (The useful striking match was not to be invented until 1826 in Stockton).  Once the engine had a full head of steam, it was run along the railway between Aycliffe Lane and Shildon to test that it was working properly. On the evening before the official opening, the newly delivered passenger coach Experiment was hauled by Locomotion No.1 and carried the S&DR Committee to inspect the line.

There was considerable interest in the advertised opening of the line and Darlington declared the day to be a holiday. People travelled from all over the region, selecting different parts of the advertised journey to observe or for the more adventurous, arriving at Shildon early in the morning, in order to hitch a ride.[i] So many people did this without booking a place, that the first incident of extreme overcrowding on a train took place that very day.

At seven in the morning,  twelve waggons of coal were led by horses from the Phoenix Pit near Witton Park, to the foot of Etherley Ridge (where Phoenix Row is now) and then hauled just over a kilometre (1100 yards) up the North Bank by the stationary engine at the top. The waggons then descended Etherley South Bank to the road at West Auckland.

[i] Holmes 1975, 13

What is a stationary engine?

The first five miles of the S&DR at the west end were too hilly for early locomotives to travel over. So, George Stephenson used a system of placing an engine at the top of each of the two hills at Etherley and Brusselton which would pull waggons attached to ropes up the incline and lower them down the other side again. The waggons were then joined to a locomotive at Shildon to continue the next part of the journey hauled by a locomotive.

1827 lithograph showing a stylised Brusselton Incline

Across the Gaunless Bridge

From West Auckland, the train was joined by another waggon filled with sacks of flour, and then led by horses across the Stephenson designed Gaunless Bridge and the level ground to the foot of Brusselton West Bank. Here thousands of people were waiting on the slopes of the ridge to see another stationary engine at work on Brusselton ridge.

Gaunless Bridge

George Stephenson’s Gaunless Bridge in Victorian times. The ironwork forms a clever lenticular construction which, with opposing forces, creates a stable structure

Etherley Incline from the north

Etherley Incline from the north

These waggons, along with 21 others for the general public, surveyors and workmen, were coupled to Locomotion No.1 along with the first railway passenger carriage “Experiment” at Shildon, on their way to Darlington for lunch.

The driver, fireman and guardsman

The engine driver for the day was George Stephenson and his brother James (usually called Jem or Jemmy) acted as fireman. Timothy Hackworth, now appointed as the company’s first engineer and locomotive superintendent, but who had also worked on the design and construction of Locomotion No.1, acted as guardsman. Other men positioned themselves between waggons on the couplings as brakesmen. All the crew wore blue sashes on their right shoulders while other railway employees had blue ribbons in their buttonholes. On that first day, it is estimated that Locomotion No.1 left Shildon hauling between 80-90 tons.[i]

[i] Holmes 1975, 14

Stone Sleepers Brusselton Incline

Brusselton Incline stone sleeper blocks. Photo: Sebastian Francis Morgan

The Mason's Arms Shildon

The former Mason’s Arms pub in Shildon is where Locomotion No.1 set off with its long train of coal, flour and passengers. The pub was remodelled in c.1875  but some parts of the original inn remain

Convivialities at Darlington

At Darlington, six waggons of coal were detached and sent down the branch line towards North Road so that their contents could be distributed to the town’s poor. The workmen and all the waggoners (apart from a keen and competitive J. Lanchester who didn’t want to relinquish his place at the front of the train) left to take part in the ‘convivialities’ arranged for them. The engine refuelled, took on water and Mr Meynell’s brass band from Yarm embarked on two waggons behind Experiment so that the rest of the journey was accompanied by music. Soon the passengers crossed the level crossing over the Durham Road (now North Road) and passed over the S&DR’s largest structure, the Skerne Bridge, designed by Ignatius Bonomi. From here they could look down into the pasture fields, grazing cattle and the river Skerne quietly winding its way below.

Stockton & Darlington Railway Painting

The opening day as painted by John Dobbin in 1875. Dobbin attended the opening day when he was ten years old. The train is passing over the Skerne Bridge in Darlington, hauled by Locomotion No.1. The passenger coach Experiment can be seen amongst the waggons. Photo: Darlington Borough Council

Onwards to Yarm & Stockton

The route from Darlington to Stockton via Yarm was relatively level or with a slight decline and passed without any technical hitches and only one incident when a brakesman fell off a waggon which then ran over his foot. Whenever the line ran alongside a road, such as the Yarm Road, horses and carriages would attempt to race, but the locomotive hauling much more, always won the day. More waggons were detached near Yarm on the branch line. The arrival of the train at Stockton’s quayside, now with 600 passengers clinging on board, was greeted by a 21-gun salute fired from the Company’s wharf. The band led a procession into town where the railway staff dispersed to their appointed eating places.

A Banquet at Stockton

One hundred and two official guests were entertained to a banquet at Stockton’s Town Hall. Mr Meynell moved from Brass Band leader to the chair and along with the town’s mayor, led 23 toasts while carefully chosen music played. The music included ‘Weel May The Keel Row’ which celebrates the life and labours of the keelsmen of the Tyne, many of whom had moved south to work on the railway. The toasts aimed to encourage the very industries that the railway needed to serve if it was to succeed. So, the coal industry and its owners were toasted, along with the Tees Navigation Company who controlled traffic on the Tees from where the S&DR would export its coal to London. The lead trade and other mining industries were toasted too along with the farming sector and the railway company and all its staff. Embryonic railway companies were toasted and encouraged to join the railway age including the Liverpool & Manchester and the Leeds and Hull Railways. The last toast was to George Stephenson, but by this time he had left, exhausted.

Stockton Town Hall

Stockton Town Hall Photo: Brendan Boyle

That day has been celebrated every 50 years since.  2025 will be the 200th anniversary of the Stockton & Darlington Railway – the Railway that got the World on Track.