Inside the Collection

Locomotion No. 1, George Stephenson and the world’s first public railway

A model train engine and coal cart made from wood and metal sit on a section of track. On top of the engine is a complex series of pistons and metal rods, which are attached to the engine’s wheels. At the front of the engine is a black chimney.
Model of the steam locomotive “Locomotion No. 1”, type 0-4-0, 1½ inch scale, 7¼ inch gauge. MAAS collection B630.

The Museum has an amazing collection of models. One of my favourites is this one representing “Locomotion”, the engine used on the world’s first public railway. It opened in 1825 in the north east of England to transport coal from mines near Darlington to the coast at Stockton. The line was built by George Stephenson who also supplied its first locomotive, “Locomotion”, built at his son’s railway works, Robert Stephenson and Co., in Newcastle upon Tyne, which the Stephensons and others had established in 1823. Up until that time George Stephenson had built 14 steam locomotives which had only been used to haul coal wagons on various colliery tramways.

On the opening day of the Stockton and Darlington line “Locomotion” was preceded by several men on horses carrying flags with stirring mottos. One said in Latin: ‘Periculum privatum utilitas publica” (The private danger is the public good). Once the horsemen were out of the way Stephenson opened the throttle and pulled his train of wagons carrying about 600 passengers and 50 tons of freight at up to the hair-raising speed of 15 mph (24.1 kph). “Locomotion” pulled a train 122 metres long which comprised the tender, five coal wagons, one wagon of flour, “Experiment” (a specially-built passenger car for the railway directors which looked just like a stage coach), 6 coal wagons full of guests, 14 wagons full of workmen and 6 wagons of coal. Thousands of spectators had come from miles around to watch the spectacle of the ‘steam horse’ as it was then called, some of whom were terrified and fled when the engine’s safety valve was opened and the steam let off.

“Locomotion” was the first steam locomotive to have its wheels coupled by rods directly to the four driving wheels via overhead beams which achieved maximum adhesion. The two vertical cylinders 241 x 610 mm were inline along the centre of the single-flue boiler and each drove one of the axles through rods and crank pins on the wheels. Because these cranks were set at right angles, one end of each coupling rod had to be attached to a return crank. Weighing only 7 tons, the locomotive operated at only 50 pounds of steam pressure.

The driver climbed up onto the engine via horse-like stirrups and perched on top, on a little platform running beside the boiler. He was perilously exposed to high winds or being brushed off by obstacles. In front of the driver, as he crouched on top of the engine, was a rope attached to a brass bell to warn the public of his approach.

Once the service began in earnest, “Locomotion” was called “Locomotion No. 1”. Passengers boarded and alighted from trains at convenient points along the route like bus stops. However, passengers weren’t initially steam hauled. From 1825 until 1833 passenger trains were drawn by horses and only the freight was hauled by steam engines. After passengers began to be carried by steam then it was clear that stations were necessary.

The Stockton and Darlington line was significant because it brought steam locomotives in front of the public for the first time rather than being relegated to serving coal mines. The earliest steam locomotives were regarded with either wonderment, awe or distaste but the public eventually flocked to see them and to ride behind one if they could afford the fare.

George Stephenson went on to become the engineer of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway and with Robert built the famous steam locomotive, “Rocket”. It won 500 pounds at the Rainhill Trials, a contest to determine the best locomotive to use on the line which opened in 1830. George Stephenson did not invent the steam locomotive but “Rocket” was the first to really show its capabilities. It cemented the advantages of steam locomotion as a means of carrying passengers and freight to railway builders around the world. George Stephenson became the most famous name in the history of railways. By the time he died in 1848, the locomotive had gone from the crude, imperfect machine to the basic form of the engine we would recognise today. Over the next 100 years it would be refined and improved in terms of speed, power and economy.

Biddle, Gordon & O.S. Nock, “The Railway Heritage of Britain: 150 Years of Railway Architecture and Engineering”, Michael Joseph, London, 1983.

Bloom, Alan, “250 Years of Steam”, World’s Work Ltd, 1981.

Davies, Hunter, “George Stephenson: A Biographical Study of the Father of Railways”, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1975.

Written by Margaret Simpson, Curator, December 2014

2 responses to “Locomotion No. 1, George Stephenson and the world’s first public railway

  • Fond memories of restoring North Road Station Darlington and converting it into a Railway Museum for the Stockton to Darlington Anniversary celebrations. Also working With Ken Hoole to display exhibits that had been donated by the public.

  • Can I suggest that your translation of the Latin motto ‘Periculum privatum utilitas publica’ is more like ‘private investment, public profit, or benefit’ than ‘the private danger is the public good’? I represent No. 1 Action Group on FB and we are currently campaigning to ensure Locomotion Number One is retained in Darlington in perpetuity and not relocated to Shildon by the management of the National Railway Museum NRM. I am also the author of two books ‘No. 1’ and ‘Lewis & Number One’ on the subject, details of which can be seen on my website. Please join us.

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