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The world’s first passenger trainline terrified female passengers | History | News

The centenary celebrations of the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1925 (Image: Getty)

There are many reasons to be fearful of train travel in the current age – delays, cost, the state of the toilets – but rarely do today’s passengers cite fear of their uterus exploding as a reason not to board a loco. Yet that was one of the prime concerns of female passengers who were beginning to learn about the purpose of the immense construction work being undertaken around the coal fields and countryside of Darlington and Stockton.

“Women really were worried, once they found out how fast this new invention could travel, that they could come to severe medical harm, including the danger that their uteruses could start erupting,” reveals Caroline Hardie, an archaeologist, children’s writer, podcaster and trustee of the Friends of the Stockton and Darlington Railway society.

“Not only that, but some people were concerned that the amount of iron being placed on the land would disrupt and move magnetic north!”

The legacy of the small railway line built two centuries ago is immense and, to many, a mixed blessing. Neither miserable intercity commutes nor glorious journeys on the Orient Express or the Trans-Siberian would be possible without the innovation and determination of George Stephenson and a wool merchant (and prominent Quaker) called Edward Pease.

For anyone walking around the lanes and coaching roads of the area now known as Teesside in 1824, the noise and scale of the building work taking place would have been unavoidable. Although there were already some primitive train lines in existence around the pits to transport coal, this would be the very first train line to carry both cargo and paying passengers.

Rumour and fact intermingled among the local population, with missives from the nascent train company promising scheduled daily travel on the 25 miles from the Phoenix Pit near Whitton Park to Cottage Row in Stockton at the, then quite terrifyingly fast, speed of 12 to 15 miles per hour.

“It was Edward Pease who was the main financial backer of the Stockton and Darlington Railway,” says Caroline. “He was a real risk taker. He changed his mind on the method of traction from a horse drawn system (which was the original idea for the S&DR project) to a locomotion railway. But he couldn’t have done it without George Stephenson and Timothy Hackworth.

“Stephenson was illiterate until he was 18 and was the inventor of the engine, Locomotion No.1, that ran on the first day. Hackworth was the superintendent of the railway and in charge of getting these brand new inventions running, which he often did by staying up all night, working by candlelight, to make sure they would run thefollowing morning.”

The venture cost £113,600 at the time – equivalent to around £10.5million today. For that cost, passengers had a right to expect a degree of comfort on board. Though noteveryone got to experience the benefits of the first passenger carriage, called, rather ominously, the “Experiment”, as Caroline explains to me.

“People were sitting on top of the coal wagons and clinging onto the side of the train on opening day,” she reveals. “The one carriage actually designed to carry people, rather than coal and flour, did have a roof and chairs inside it.

“There was also a long table in the middle; the idea being that businessmen – and they were all men at that time – could have meetings while they were on the move.”

The original S&DR station at Darlington North Road

The original S&DR station at Darlington North Road is now a museum (Image: Alamy)

The opening day on September 27, 1825, heralded the beginning of the end of “local time”. Prior to the railways, Bristol, for example, ran 10 minutes behind London time. As the train network expanded from its North Eastern roots over the followingdecades, the confusion this caused forpassengers led to the UK adopting one time zone for the entire country.

Newspaper stories from the time write of Stephenson himself driving the “Locomotion No.1” steam engine on the debut journey while wearing a blue sash across his right shoulder. At Darlington, two waggons of coal were delivered for free to the town’s poorest residents as an opening day gift.

The only injury occurred on the final part of the line towards Stockton when one brakeman fell off a waggon which then ran over his foot. It was estimated that by the time the train arrived in Stockton there were more than 800 passengers holding onto the sides of the waggons.

Arriving to a 21-gun salute, Stephenson and the other principal figures behind the railway’s construction went to a dinner where the Lord Mayor of Stockton led the assembled dignitaries into a staggering 23 toasts. The railway was truly born. Though disquiet about its benefits came from the highest level.

The Duke of Wellington (who became Prime Minister three years after the S&DR opened) publicly bemoaned what he called the “iron horse”, going as far to claim that science was fooling the people and that the “railway train” would come to nothing.

Yet the new invention spread fast across the country with Stephenson himself quickly moving across the Pennines to work on the new Liverpool to Manchester railway.

The Stockton and Darlington Railway ran until 1864, when it was amalgamated into the North Eastern Railway, though travellers on the present day Northern Trains service, travelling from Darlington North Roadstation to Shildon, are still passing over the exact path of that very first train track.

Three museums along the line of the original route will be open by the bicentenary of opening day in September next year, one of which, Caroline tells me, will contain a reproduction of the “Experiment” carriage.

Yet, the true soul of the world’s first railway journey can be found by alighting at Shildon station and walking along a stretch of the old line that is now a footpath.

Passing the incongruously named Cape to Cairo bar, Caroline tells me this was once a pub called the Mason’s Arms where Loco-motion was made ready to haul the train on the opening day.

Walking towards the Brusselton incline, we pass small sections of the original track, constructed without sleepers, which remain on the footpath alongside cottages built by the railway to accommodate railway workers and blacksmiths employed by the S&DR.

All is deserted and quiet now. Remains of bridges long since demolished still stand, festooned with long grass and bracken. The inclines on either side make it obvious that I’m walking on what was once a pioneer in world travel.

Yet the hiss of steam has long since given way to the ambience of a time before trains; a murmuring rustle of trees and the mating calls of magpies and sparrows.

Taking the depressingly grimy Northern Trainsservice back to Darlington Road, we stop at Heighington station.

A few yards down the track from the modern station lies a squatderelict building that gives absolutely no indication of its significance.

George Stephenson

S&DR George Stephenson engineer (Image: Getty)

Built in 1826, a year after the S&DR began, this ruin was the first station ever built specifically for passengers by a railway company. Attempts to revive it in time for next year’s bicentenary have so far come to little.

Caroline raises her eyebrows as she concludes: “So many amazing things are happening for the 200th anniversary. But I’m frustrated at what hasn’t happened yet.

“What we’ve just passed is the very first custom-built train station on the planet. And nothing has yet been done to give it the new life it deserves.”

In keeping with our traditional view of trains in this country, it seems almost apt that this milestone of the railway that got the world on track is, inevitably, facing afew delays.

More info via while Caroline’s Tales From The Rails podcast can be found on all major podcast providers

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