TODAY we get on track to celebrate the 190th anniversary of a pioneering Wearside railway line.
THE problem of transporting coal from the pits of County Durham to Sunderland’s coal staiths was one which left most leading 19th century intellectuals scratching their heads in bafflement.
Inventor and engineer George Stephenson, however, set to work on what was believed to an impossible task with great gusto – and so a pioneering railway line crossing Wearside was born.
“It was one of those times in history where the Problem of the Present meets the Man of the Moment,” said Douglas Smith, president of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.
“So began a revolution. The longest railway to date – and the first steam locomotive railway in the world. All made here in Hetton and opened in 1822. It was a fearsome feat of engineering.”
Stephenson had already made a name for himself locally as an inventive engineer, after creating a mineral line at Killingworth, when he was approached by the owners of Hetton Colliery in 1819.
The commission they offered him was daunting. Not only did he have to convert an existing wagon-way into a locomotive rail-road, but eight miles of track across uneven countryside was needed.
“George was 38 at the time, middle-aged for that era, and knew that however remarkable his inventions were, they were not appreciated except in a local context,” said Douglas.
“He was, perhaps, a disappointed man at a crisis in life. He knew he had developed his skills at Killingworth, but could he put them into operation at Hetton – or would it ruin his reputation?
“It wasn’t just a case of building a track. Locomotives and machinery needed to be invented too, all designed to smoothly transport the ‘black diamonds’ of the pits to waiting ships at Sunderland.”
Stephenson began his “impossible task” by walking the planned route with his brother, Robert. No plans, drawings or models were made, just a few notes jotted down here and there.
“He used only his instinctive genius to work out the difficulties – the level run from Hetton, the steep climb to Copt Hill, and the allowances needed for breaking to fit the gradient,” said Douglas.
“Then the major problem of Warden Law Hill, over 600ft. Too steep for locomotives to pull there, with the climb followed by a rapid decline. A tunnel was needed too, and work on the coal drops.”
Land leases and royalties had to be negotiated before work could begin, with one farmer arguing that the ‘horseless carriages’ would terrify his cows so much they would refuse to give milk.
Then came the job of negotiating the Copt Hill; where Stephenson installed a rope incline, designed to haul the wagons up the steep incline using a 60 horse-power stationary engine.
Other difficulties, such as a long stretch of flat land, were solved with the use of a drum on a Byre Engine, while a standing engine was used to carry the coal wagons to the top of Warden Law Hill.
“Indeed, no fewer than five engines were used in the construction, each to Stephenson’s own patent – and the conquest of Warden Law even gave him the inspiration to harness gravity,” said Douglas.
Hundreds of spectators gathered for the opening of Stephenson’s new line on November 18, 1822, when the first shipment of Hetton coal was transported to the colliery’s staiths in Sunderland.
A contemporary account described the occasion as “a spectacle,” which was “at once interesting to science and encouraging to commerce.”
Far fewer people – other than those engaged in dismantling the railway – were witnesses to the end of the 137-year-old line. Indeed, the Echo printed only a small caption under a photo:
“This week saw the end of the old Hetton Mineral Line, as the last of the 90ft of track was hauled up. Thousands of tons of coal had been transported along the eight miles,” it reported in 1960.
The success of the Hetton line, however, was to see Stephenson develop the Stockton-Darlington line just three years later – a line for passengers rather than coal. The railway age had been born.
“There was no going back for Stephenson after this. His reputation was firmly established – not just in his native North country, but recognised beyond the seas,” said Douglas.
“He had successfully constructed the longest, and most efficient, railway in the world. Here at Hetton the Railway Age began – and things would never be quite the same again.”
** Sunderland Antiquarian Society will have s stall at this Saturday’s Sunderland History Fair, which will be held at the Seaburn Centre from 10am until 4pm.
Sidebar: Mystery stone
A MYSTERY stone can be seen on the route of Stephenson’s old railway line – can you solve the secret it hides?
The stone, which stands close to Doxford Park, is inscribed with the words: The ghost of the ghost of coal haunts the headless ghost of a rope-hauled train.
“I am intrigued as to who put it there, and why,” said Douglas. “I would very much like to find out where it originally came from, and who decided to put those words on it.
“There were several accidents on the railway line over the years, so perhaps the inscription may refer to one of them. I just don’t know, but perhaps a reader may be able to help.”
The first documented accident happened in 1831, when Methodist preachers John Branfoot and John Heweson were killed in a coal train tragedy.
“They were fatally injured as they tried to escape the path of the hurtling wagons, forgetting that those behind were creeping up towards them,” said Douglas.
A similar accident happened to John Harland in 1847, who had been observing a threshing machine when he was hit by a coal wagon.
“With the noise of the thresher, he failed to hear the descent of the wagons at North Moor. His foot was caught and he died of lock-jaw after amputation the following day,” said Douglas.
A third tragedy took place in 1918, when 16-year-old Mark Whitely fell from the wagon on which he had been hitching a lift and died instantly.
“There must have been many more accidents, some more minor than others, which were never recorded. Perhaps the stone relates to one of these,” said Douglas.
** Do you know the secret behind the stone? Email Sarah Stoner at email@example.com