Stockton and Darlington Railway Opens

England’s Stockton and Darlington Railway was the first public railroad in the Western world to carry both passengers and freight behind steam locomotives. The British railroad system grew rapidly and eventually replaced horse-drawn carts and canals as primary transportation methods for coal, iron ore, and other commodities.

Summary of Event

Stockton and Darlington are two small communities in the county of Durham, in northern England, in the valley of the Tees River. The river flows into the North Sea North Sea a short distance to the east of Stockton. Small port facilities existed at Stockton, and Darlington was a commercial center for the growing trade in coal. Coal had been used since Elizabethan days for heating buildings, especially in London. The north of England contained many coal Coal mining;in England[England] deposits, and by the nineteenth century they were being steadily exploited, especially in areas near water transport: The Tees River was ideal for coal transport. Stockton and Darlington Railway
Stephenson, Robert
Stephenson, George
[kw]Stockton and Darlington Railway Opens (September 27, 1825)
[kw]Darlington Railway Opens, Stockton and (September 27, 1825)
[kw]Railway Opens, Stockton and Darlington (September 27, 1825)
[kw]Opens, Stockton and Darlington Railway (September 27, 1825)
Stockton and Darlington Railway
Stephenson, Robert
Stephenson, George
[g]Great Britain;September 27, 1825: Stockton and Darlington Railway Opens[1330]
[c]Transportation;September 27, 1825: Stockton and Darlington Railway Opens[1330]
[c]Trade and commerce;September 27, 1825: Stockton and Darlington Railway Opens[1330]
[c]Engineering;September 27, 1825: Stockton and Darlington Railway Opens[1330]
Hackworth, Timothy
Pease, Edward

As early as the eighteenth century surface coal deposits had already been mined in the area, and coal mining Mining;in England[England]
Mining;coal became increasingly an underground operation. This posed a great technical problem: The mines tended to fill with water. Engineers and others, throughout the eighteenth century, tried to find a solution to the problem. One solution was the steam engine Steam engines;and mines[Mines]
Mining;and steam engines[Steam engines] , which came to be used primarily to pump water out of mines, and their use spread widely. These engines were being steadily improved, and it was not long before they were used to mine coal.

The first solution to the problem of transporting coal to consumers was to expand the reach of navigable water by building canals. Irregular countryside, though, including many hills and valleys, was a burden to functioning canals. Locks were extremely expensive and slow to move traffic, and many engineers opted instead to go overland around these obstacles to reach the canals. Soon, a number of tracks were built between mines and canals Canals;English or rivers to accommodate rail carts, which could move heavy products such as coal comparatively easily when pulled by horses. Because the countryside around Stockton and Darlington was full of hills and valleys, it would be too expensive to build and maintain canals in the area. This combination of geography and prohibitive cost led to the development of the Stockton and Darlington Railway.

British Railway Network Around 1840

The area around Stockton and Darlington was the home ground of one of the pioneers in the use of steam engines, George Stephenson, so when the owners of local coal mines wanted better, more cost-efficient transport for their coal, they turned to Stephenson. The leading transportation proponent was one of the many leading Quaker businessmen in Darlington, Edward Pease. Pease Pease, Edward had visited a mine where Stephenson was using a steam engine to remove coal, and he was enormously impressed. He persuaded his fellow Quaker businessmen to authorize the development of a railroad to pick up the Tees Valley coal and transport it to Stockton, where it could be loaded onto vessels and carried to London.

The contemporary model for the railroad was the canal, and canals required legislative authorization. Proponents were required to have assembled 80 percent of the financing before asking Parliament for authorization. Pease and his numerous relatives and friends in the Quaker community were prepared to put up the money, after a survey had been done suggesting a railroad could be built for less than £100,000, half the amount a canal would have cost. Pease Pease, Edward persuaded Stephenson to lay out the line, and on the basis of his route, legislation was passed in the spring of 1821. Minor changes were made in subsequent laws, but the biggest change, the third modification, specifically authorized the use of steam locomotives.

In its final version, the line was to extend twenty-five miles, and the railroad in steeper terrain was to run along small branches of lines navigated by horse-drawn cars or along inclined planes, where the coal cars would be moved by stationary steam engines. Although passenger transport was authorized, it was clear that the major business envisaged by the promoters of the Stockton and Darlington was the movement of coal.

Opening day for the new venture was scheduled for July 29, 1825. Anticipation led to large crowds. A new steam locomotive named Locomotion, which was designed by George Stephenson and his son Robert, was hoisted onto the tracks and hitched to one passenger car and twenty-one new coal cars. The locomotive successfully pulled the train to Stockton, with pauses along the way, at an average rate of four miles per hour (as skeptics noted, no better than the rate of horses). Within a few years, however, comparative cost figures had been compiled and it was found that locomotives were significantly cheaper than horses.

The Stockton and Darlington was, in a very real sense, an experiment, and as such it encountered difficulties in its first years. The engines—the company soon possessed four of them—proved to have insufficient power, forcing pauses in the runs. The company hired a local engineer, Timothy Hackworth, Hackworth, Timothy to superintend operations; he proved to be an important contributor, devising some of the technical improvements—such as increased steam pressure, improved wheels, and direct linkage of the steam power to the wheels—which eventually led to engines of his own design that had the necessary pulling power.

There also were initial problems with the tracks. George Stephenson was a strong advocate of wrought iron Iron;and railroads[Railroads] rails, and the first years of the Stockton and Darlington proved he was right. The portion of the early track that was not wrought iron had to be replaced. Furthermore, because the line was a single track, with just a few sidings, train scheduling proved very difficult, especially as independent operators of horse-drawn passenger cars also used the lines. This soon led to centralized operations for both passenger and freight trains and to the use of locomotives only. The problem of a single line was soon solved, as a second line was constructed during the early 1830’s.

The success of the Stockton and Darlington inspired many imitators. To preserve its monopoly, the line built extensions, the most important of which was the line to Middlesbrough, a new city, on the coast where the Tees River entered the North Sea North Sea , created by the railroad company. The company built new port facilities at Middlesbrough that could handle far more coal traffic than the older quays at Stockton. Lines also were extended to the west to Yorkshire. Eventually, the Stockton and Darlington came to be the dominant line in the county of Durham.

Despite its difficulties, the Stockton and Darlington was a financial success from the beginning. Its freight revenues rose from £14,455 in 1826-1827 to £57,819 in 1832-1833. By 1842-1843, its gross revenues were just under £100,000. By the late 1830’s, the company had been paying an annual dividend to the original investors (the shares were increased from 675 to 1,000 in 1827) of around 15 percent. However, the company was in the habit of financing extensions of the line with borrowed money, leading the company to difficult times in the 1850’s. These troubles required new legislation that authorized recapitalization.

The character of the company’s business changed, too. It was overwhelmingly a coal line during the 1830’s and 1840’s, but the 1850’s and 1860’s saw the line carry increasing quantities of iron Iron;in England[England] ore because of growing demand for iron products. New sources of iron ore were discovered in and around Durham at that time, so the Stockton and Darlington was able to ride this new business successfully.

What had been a large enterprise with a monopoly in its own backyard in the 1830’s gradually became a niche railroad as the entire country was covered by railroads. The Stockton and Darlington management recognized this, and during the late 1850’s the company began negotiations with the North Eastern Railway, which absorbed the Stockton and Darlington in 1863. Stockton and Darlington management was highly regarded, so the railroad continued operating as a semi-independent division of the North Eastern Railway for a number of years.


The successful operation of the Stockton and Darlington Railway marked the beginning of the railroad age in the Western world. The lines freed up commercial development, which had been constrained by the difficulties of land transport, especially of large, bulky commodities. The canal system functioned as a short-term solution, but railroads proved their endurance.

Further Reading

  • Clapham, J. H. An Economic History of Modern Britain: The Early Railway Age. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1939. A still-useful classic on the impact of the railroad on the economy of Great Britain.
  • Hoole, K. A Regional History of the Railways of Great Britain. Dawlish, England: David & Charles, 1965. A multivolume work. Vol. 4 examines the railroads of northeastern England.
  • Kirby, Maurice W. The Origins of Railway Enterprise: The Stockton and Darlington Railway, 1821-1863. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. A first-rate work on the history of the Stockton and Darlington Railway.
  • Raistrick, Arthur. Quakers in Science and Industry. New York: Augustus Kelley, 1968. Makes clear the pivotal role played by the Quaker community in developing the railroad in England.
  • Rolt, L. T. C. George and Robert Stephenson: The Railway Revolution. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977. Reveals how important George Stephenson was in the initial phases of the railroad.

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