1066 Battle of Hastings
1215 Magna Carta
1805 Battle of Trafalgar
1815 Waterloo
1825 First Railway, Stockton – Darlington
1851 Great Exhibition …..

Hold on just a moment … all very well these well known dates remembered from history lessons of long ago. But press the return button for a moment – what was that about the first railway? Puffing Billy and all that? Well… yes… but not quite.

Why even George Stephenson himself would argue about that one. In fact he could well have been highly annoyed. You see, he had already successfully built a railway at least three years before that date. And of which he was justifiably proud. Even internationally famous. For it was unique; the pioneer of everything that was to come. From the shuddering carriages of the Stockton – Darlington line filled with Victorian gentlemen in stove-pipe hats and ladies in crinolines to the high-speed trains and the Eurostar of today filled with passengers, businessmen carrying briefcases and shoppers having a day in town. Just try getting on to one of these with a crinoline.

And it all started here in the North-East. Here lie the last remaining relics of that pioneering endeavour that started the whole thing off – the cradle of the railway lies here in what is left of the track of the Hetton Colliery Railway; George Stephenson’s Mineral Line.

There had, of course, been early attempts. Localised ones. Lines laid down on wooden rails and horse-drawn engines. Some required traction, some winding engines, even one propelled by sails. These early mineral lines had been cumbersome. With fractures, frequent derailing, broken joints, even experiments of cast iron rails set in wood or stone. All had been only partially successful. And none of them could have undertaken a distance of eight miles over difficult terrain. Yet that is exactly how Stephenson was to prove his genius above all previous attempts to develop a horseless carriage on wheels.

It was the sinking of the colliery shafts at Hetton Lyons that offered him his chances. In 1819 two shafts were driven through the limestone by the great Nicholas Wood, manager of the enterprise that was named the Hetton Coal Company. The first seam of coal was reached in 1822 and at 109 fathoms deep the prospect looked extremely promising. Eventually 148 fathoms were reached and the success of this was to start off the sinking of pits all over the coastal area of County Durham.

Problems in bringing up rich seams of coal were successfully overcome but the Hetton Coal Company then faced a second problem – how to transport this valuable commodity to the nearest port. In this case the port was Sunderland where ships able to carry tonnes of coal could berth. However, Sunderland lay at a distance of 8 miles over very undulating and fairly wild countryside. This was to be no small scale colliery run of a few waggons from the pit-head to the nearby depot. This was a mammoth undertaking – a run of eight miles had never been heard of before over land which varied enormously from flat planes to steep hill-tops and valleys that ran down towards the sea. The highest point of the whole route was Warden Law Hill and this must be crossed; a fearsome feat of engineering.

And this is where the great Nicholas Wood brought in the other great engineer George Stephenson.

So Stephenson came here! Yes, he walked this very route himself and with his brother Robert. Probably many times over. You can imagine the younger brother perhaps with a tiny notebook, as George dictated his impressions. A survey on the spot – no plans, no drawing office, no construction models or quantity surveyors – only his instinctive genius and enough vision to foresee the possibilities and work out what difficulties would need to be overcome. He was not deterred by the enormity of the task. If anything, this was the challenge his activities had been preparing him for.

Imagine then, him speaking (his handwriting and spelling were rudimentary and he tended to have official letters at least written for him by friends) so “a level run here from Hetton, say three or four miles to Copt Hill… a difficult climb this one, pretty steep to judge by the Seven Sisters at the summit over there… then it would be hurtling down – must make allowances for braking to fit the gradient. Then comes the big problem – Warden Law. They say it’s over 600 feet; altogether too steep for locomotives to pull there… not an easy problem to deal with, a heavy pull to the summit then a rapid decline. Goes alongside the old village of Silksworth, just a slight slope that but it gets steeper as it enters the outskirts of Sunderland. Going to need a tunnel, and houses to be taken into account. Then construction at the coal drops themselves…”

For a moment it must have been touch and go. For his previous experiment at Killingworth Colliery had not been a total success, he had attempted to cover only six miles there but he had developed skills and become aware of possibilities. Could he put them into operation? Might it prove a disaster and the ruin of his reputation? Stephenson was 38 years old – middle-aged for that era – and knew that however remarkable his inventions were, they were not appreciated except in a local context. He was, perhaps, a disappointed man at a difficult crisis of life. He knew that visiting colliery officials to Killingworth would assess his capability by his work there… he was asked; would he take up position as engineer in charge of the Hetton Railway? Did he understand that he must build a track eight miles long – yes. eight miles – together with locomotives and the necessary machinery to transport coal efficiently to the waiting ships at Sunderland. And to bring the whole of the lumbering empty waggons back again – the whole difficult eight mile route but in reverse.

It was one of those times in history where the Problem of the present meets the Man of the moment. So began a revolution. The longest railway in existence – a ‘first’ in world history here at Hetton – designed specially for locomotives, indeed no less than FIVE of Stephenson’s engines were to be used, each to his own patent, and the conquest of Warden Law that gave him the inspiration to harness gravity. The success of this enterprise was to inspire Edward Pease to send off Stephenson at the construction of the Stockton – Darlington line some three years later. A line that would now carry not coal but passengers. The Hetton Mineral Line was the start of it all.

There were teething problems of course. Many, many of them. Some were administrative like leases, wayleaves and royalties to be negotiated with local landowners. They also could be obstructive. Some worried that the cows would be so terrified of horseless carriages gliding past them in the fields that they would refuse to give milk. In the event, the cows seemed to take the sight a good deal more philosophically than the landowners, continuing to munch the grass unperturbed by the machinations of mankind. Others refused to believe it could be possible. A letter found in an old house in Tunstall long ago serves to remind us of the fierce weather conditions that must have been encountered in this part of the world by Stephenson’s workers during construction and operation…

“We have had five weeks very severe weather, seven days continual snow with very strong wind which filled most of the roads full. We have nothing new in the neighbourhood with the exception of a new colliery at Hetton which crossed Warden Law, comes west of Silksworth, all with machinery with what is called in Iron Horse which goes by steam and takes 12 waggons the whole of the road, above eight miles, without horses…”

And farther afield. The fame of the Hetton line aroused astonishment even abroad. Between 1826-7 C. von Oeynhausen and H. von Dechen, two Prussian mining engineers travelled throughout England and reported to their government in Berlin the success of the Hetton. In typical German thoroughness (they had even gone to the extent of pacing out the inclines to satisfy their precise measurements) meticulous details were given. A yearly output was noted, of 120,000 chaldrons of coal produced and that the railway “is the finest in England, occasioned a special interest on account of the considerable expenditure of mechanical power”.

“This enormous output,” the engineers reported “appears still more astonishing when we take into consideration the fact that more than 5 million cwt must be brought one and two-thirds Prussian miles to facilitate this and indeed make it practicable, this great railway has been laid out.”

There was never any going back after this… George Stephenson’s career was now firmly established and not just in his native North country. His genius was recognised beyond the seas. He had successfully constructed the longest and most effective railway in the world. Here at Hetton the Railway Age began. Things would never be quite the same again.

Hundreds of spectators turned up on November 18th, 1822, to watch the first shipment of coal arrive with “5 of Mr Stephenson’s patent engines, two 60 horse power reciprocating engines and 5 self-acting incline planes all under the direction of Mr Robert Stephenson, the company’s resident engineer, simultaneously performing their various and complicated offices, exhibited a spectacle at once interesting to science and encouraging to commerce” runs a contemporary account. How many, one wonders, apart from enjoying the spectacle, had an inkling that they were present at the beginning of a stupendous change in transport history?

Fewer people, other than those actually engaged in dismantling work, were aware 137 years later when the railway closed and the line was taken up, that a unique chapter in that history had come to a close.

Railways about 1840

There is some evidence that some of the residents of East and Middle Herrington were employed by the colliery railways which ran through or near to the Herringtons from the early years of the 19th century.

The Newbottle Railway, owned by the Nesham family, was opened in the period 1812-1815 and was built to take coal from the colliery to staiths at Sunderland. This railway replaced a line to the bank of the River Wear near Penshaw and resulted in the loss of employment for the keelman. The keelmen caused a riot in Sunderland on 20 March 1815 which was quelled by the cavalry. The line ran from Newbottle through Middle Herrington, skirted around Hastings Hill and then down to the staiths at Sunderland. The railway was worked by stationary engines and horses. An experimental locomotive was tried in 1815 but the boiler exploded. The Nesham collieries and railway were sold by auction to John Lambton who later became the first Earl of Durham.

The Hetton Colliery Railway was opened in 1822 and linked the colliery (Hetton Lyons) to staiths at Sunderland. It was worked by locomotives, stationary steam engines and self-acting inclines. The line was the first complete railway engineered by George Stephenson, who engineered the Stockton to Darlington Railway in 1825.

The Lambton and Hetton Collieries Ltd had a number of steam tugs serving the ships loading the coal that was delivered by the “line”.  One of these was the Eppleton Hall, a paddle tug.  In 1969/70, an American, Scott Newhall, and a crew which included three girls, sailed the tug across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal, up the Pacific to San Francisco.  It was the second and the last paddle-propelled vessel to cross the Atlantic.  And it is still there, at Hyde Street Pier Maritime Museum.  See Scott Newhall’s book Eppleton Hall (ISBN 0-8310-7085-4).  The Eppleton Hall is reputedly the only British-built paddle tug still in existence – especially after the Reliant was broken up by the British Maritime Museum a few years ago.

Suggested points to view railway relics

Robert Stephenson, George’s younger brother, was aged 31 when selected as resident engineer to the Hetton Coal Company. As the man on the ground, supervising the installations, he took up living quarters in Hetton. Here a plaque records his residence in the house still standing.

Across the road from this were the offices for the engineering department. So Robert lived almost ‘over the shop’. Although dilapidated, they are worthy of preservation.

The LOCO shed for lighting and steaming-up locos also stands at the main Murton road. The first locos were numbers 1, 3 and 6 and were built in the shed now carrying the sign “Hall & Blenkinsop & Sons”.

The Puffing Billies encountered half a mile on, the White Gates crossing where heavy gates closed off the main road crossing and at which a guard would wave a red flag to stop the traffic until the engine had safely passed. Almost all the track lay open and unfenced.

From Hetton Colliery itself, cutting across several streets, to the iron bridge at Regent Terrace and so for ½ mile to the foot of Copt Hill. Here at gradient of 1:17 necessitated rope haulage to pull the heavy loaded wagons, so coupled into sets of 5 wagons the loaded ones were hauled by 4 Drum engine as the empty ones descended, passing each other at a loop half way up the hill.

From Copt Hill the wagons continued to be hauled along the foot of Warden Law. This hill was 760 yards to the top at a gradient of 1:19. Over the years it has been practically quarried flat and presents nothing of the wild, formidable incline that first faced the Stephensons.

A stationary engine at the summit now hauled the sets of 5 wagons to the top and they were then allowed to simply run down, with increasing speed, governed by passing the haulage rope around an engine drum with brake. The descent of full wagons pulled up the empty ones. Here in this area in 1831 Mr John Branfoot and Mr John Heweson, Methodist preachers, were fatally injured as they tried to escape the path of the hurtling wagons, forgetting the ones behind creeping up. Other fatal accidents have also occurred in the area during the history of the line.

At North Moor a train of twenty wagons were assembled to be hauled by locomotive the 3 miles to the river, passing over a tall bridge at the junction of the Silksworth – East Herrington road.

From the Silksworth area the railway ran through a cutting and at Durham Road it disappeared beneath a tunnel.

Along an embankment, behind the streets of Barnes and Millfield, over Chester Road iron bridge to Galley’s Gill, the wagons eventually reached the staithes.

From here the sunshine that had once pierced the gloom of ancient tropical forests and now fossilised into black diamonds was shipped across the seas to supply the energy needed for the industrial world.