HomeHeritageNewcastle exhibition marks bicentenary of Robert Stephenson's company

Newcastle exhibition marks bicentenary of Robert Stephenson’s company

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23 June sees the bicentenary of the founding of the world’s first locomotive works – Robert Stephenson & Co, in Newcastle. To mark this, an exhibition is being held in the Map Room, Neville Hall, Newcastle which is close to the station. This is open up to 25 March and has been organised by the Robert Stephenson Trust.

Robert Stephenson was born in 1803 and, at the age of 16, became an apprentice mining engineer at Killingworth Colliery. In 1822 he spent six months at Edinburgh University to study the properties of gases with the aim of improving the design of steam locomotives. He then had to help his father George with the construction of the Stockton and Darlington Railway (S&DR) for which, having surveyed the route, he was the designated engineer.

At this time, George Stephenson suggested the formation of a company to build locomotives for which he felt there would be considerable demand. The S&DR directors were impressed with young Robert’s abilities and so the 19-year-old Robert became the company’s managing partner when it was founded in 1823.

Its first locomotive, Locomotion, was built for the S&DR’s opening in 1825. This was assembled on the track bed by the future site of the Hitachi plant at Newton Aycliffe. Six tons of the various bits that made up the locomotive were delivered there from the Newcastle workshops on horse-drawn wagons.

In 1829, the company built an experimental locomotive, Rocket, for the Rainhill trails on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. This had several innovations including a multi-tube boiler, fire drawn by a blast-pipe exhaust, and cylinders directly driving the wheels, and became the template for almost all future steam locomotives. Rocket won the Rainhill trials at the then unprecedented speed of 30mph.

The company’s workshops were established at Forth Street in Newcastle and continued to lead the development of steam locomotives. A particularly important innovation was the Stephenson link valve gear which can vary steam cut off into the cylinder, enabling a small amount of steam to be used expansively and so significantly improving efficiency.

By 1899, the company had supplied around 3,000 locomotives. To expand its operations, it opened an additional works in Darlington in 1902. By this time most UK railway companies built their own locomotives so most of the company’s output was for export.

In the 20th century there were various mergers and, with the decline of the British locomotive industry, locomotive building at the company’s Newcastle works ceased in 1961 and at Darlington in 1964.

The remarkable achievements of Robert Stephenson and his company make this bicentenary exhibition well worth a visit.

David Shirres BSc CEng MIMechE DEM
David Shirres BSc CEng MIMechE DEMhttp://therailengineer.com

Rolling stock, depots, Scottish and Russian railways

David Shirres joined British Rail in 1968 as a scholarship student and graduated in Mechanical Engineering from Sussex University. He has also been awarded a Diploma in Engineering Management by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

His roles in British Rail included Maintenance Assistant at Slade Green, Depot Engineer at Haymarket, Scottish DM&EE Training Engineer and ScotRail Safety Systems Manager.

In 1975, he took a three-year break as a volunteer to manage an irrigation project in Bangladesh.

He retired from Network Rail in 2009 after a 37-year railway career. At that time, he was working on the Airdrie to Bathgate project in a role that included the management of utilities and consents. Prior to that, his roles in the privatised railway included various quality, safety and environmental management posts.

David was appointed Editor of Rail Engineer in January 2017 and, since 2010, has written many articles for the magazine on a wide variety of topics including events in Scotland, rail innovation and Russian Railways. In 2013, the latter gave him an award for being its international journalist of the year.

He is also an active member of the IMechE’s Railway Division, having been Chair and Secretary of its Scottish Centre.


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