The development of Britain’s railways began with the use of wagons which were pulled along wooden tracks by horses to transport iron and coal to rivers for export by ship. At the beginning of the AD 1800s, wooden tracks began to be replaced with stronger iron rails which could support the weight of machinery. Machines that used the power of steam to push, lift or pull were already being used and continued to develop. In 1803 Robert Trevithick developed the first steam locomotive to run successfully on iron rails and developments continued through the early 1800s with engineers around the country building engines. George Stephenson, an engineer at Killingworth Colliery near Newcastle, combined and improved on the best features of these engines to create a locomotive called ‘Active’. In 1822 the Hetton colliery railway opened near Durham, and was the first to be operated without animals. Worked by Stephenson’s engines, it ran on steam power alone.
The success of the Hetton railway led to Stephenson’s appointment as chief engineer of the Stockton and Darlington Railway Company, which was granted permission by act of parliament to build a twenty five mile railway connecting the collieries in West Durham with the river Tees at Stockton. The line opened on 27th September 1825, operated with the Active, renamed Locomotion No.1. The locomotive hauled not only wagons loaded with coal and flour but also a purpose-built passenger carriage. The Stockton and Darlington line was the world’s first passenger-carrying railway and Stephenson himself operated the engine on the opening day.
The early locomotives were unreliable; indeed, Locomotion No. 1’s driver was killed in 1828 when the boiler exploded. Engineers competed to improve locomotive design and as development continued, Locomotion No. 1 became obsolete. The Rocket, developed by George Stephenson’s son Robert and successfully tested in 1829, set the standard for locomotive design.
The development of railways
Innovation in locomotive design was backed by private investors interested in the development of steam-powered railways who saw that the Stockton and Darlington Railway line not only succeeded in reducing the cost of transporting coal, but also raised revenue. Tens of thousands of people used this new, public railway: for a fee, members of the public could transport goods and coaching companies paid to run horse-drawn coaches along the line. The line was extended to Middlesbrough and in 1833 the railway became completely steam-operated. Buoyed by the success of the Stockton and Darlington Railway and by the demand around Britain for improved transportation, a national network of privately owned public railways had emerged by the 1850s.
The impact of passenger railways
In the 1830s, train travel was a novelty. However, trains had more capacity and were faster than stagecoaches and rail travel also became affordable to more people, thanks to the 1844 Railway Act which required railway companies to include third class carriages and sell cheap tickets. In 1845, 2441 miles of British railway carried an estimated 30.4 million passengers. People of all classes were travelling further than they ever had before.
The arrival of the railways contributed to the growth of towns. In 1841 the Grand Junction Railway built their locomotive works and housing for the workers on a site near the line between Liverpool and Chester. As the works expanded so did this new town, Crewe, which by 1871 had a population of 40,000. The speed and affordability of the railways enabled workers to migrate to towns where work could be found. The Stephensons’ own locomotive works, where Locomotion No.1 was built, was the biggest employer on Tyneside by 1859. The railways also allowed people to commute further to their place of work and contributed to the early development of the suburbs around large cities.
Affordable railway travel made an impact on leisure as well as work. The Great Exhibition in London in 1851 attracted thousands of visitors, many of whom travelled on excursion trains, buying tickets that included return train travel and admission to the Crystal Palace. This was the idea of Thomas Cook, who, after this success, expanded his business offering a wide choice of excursions. The railways began to offer day trips and holidays too, and the popularity of these increased after the Bank Holiday Act of 1871, giving a great boost to Britain’s seaside resorts. Train travel also made possible the development of more distant away fixtures for sports teams, though it was not until the early 1900s that ticket prices came down enough to allow spectators to travel in large numbers.
Although there was great public enthusiasm for railways, they did meet opposition early on. The Duke of Wellington was concerned that “they would encourage the lower classes to move about.” He was proved correct. The contact and communication between different regions that was made possible by rail travel re-shaped British culture just as the expansion of the network transformed the landscape.
Locomotion No.1 at Head of Steam – Darlington Railway Museum
Locomotion No.1 Wikipedia article
Background information about George Stephenson and the Stockton and Darlington Railway from Beamish Museum.
A timeline of railway developments
Railways in Africa
Article about the railways in parts of West Africa under British colonial rule in the 19th century.
History of football and railways
How a steam engine works