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The world’s first steam locomotive public railway was The Stockton and Darlington Railway (S&DR), first opened on 27 September 1825. The North-East was a coal-mining area and from the early 1600s wagonways, made from wood and powered by horse-power, were used to convey coal along the Tyne. In the early 1820s steam power began to be utilised for transportation between inland collieries and the ports. The use of locomotives for the S&DR railway was first proposed in 1821 to connect the mines in Darlington and Stockton, but there were numerous objections due to concerns about noise and smoke. However, George Stephenson, known to history as the ‘Father of the Railways’, persuaded the shareholders to order a steam-powered locomotive, and the imaginatively named Locomotion No.1 became the first engine built for the line. On the railway’s opening day the engine was driven by Stephenson himself, carrying coal and 450 passengers from Darlington to Stockton, getting up to 15 miles per hour in front of great crowds.

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Crowds watching the train cross Skerne Bridge in Darlington at the opening of the S&DR, watercolour by John Dobbin (1880s). Source: Tomlinson, The North Eastern Railway, p. 112.

Expansion and success 

Public demand for the service ensured the viability of the railway; just under eighteen months after its opening there were seven coaches running between Stockton and Darlington. Horse-drawn coaches were still used on the route until the 1850s as early locomotives were slow and unreliable, but as steam technology developed horse-power was gradually replaced. The line soon expanded, reaching Middlesbrough and Redcar in 1846. The S&DR was eventually bought up by the North Eastern Railway in 1863 but a large part of the line is still in operation today. 

The Museum

Head of Steam, formerly the Darlington Railway Centre and Museum, is located on the route of the early Stockton and Darlington Railway. It is based in the North Road railway station and features a mixture of permanent exhibitions and interactives, telling the story of the Birthplace of the Railways. A platform, complete with waiting room, toilets, kiosk stand, and footbridge has been restored, evoking Victorian Darlington for the visitor. Four locomotives are on display, including Stephenson’s Locomotion No.1, the first engine used on the railway. 

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Locomotion No.1 in the Darlington Head of Steam Museum. Source: Wikipedia, photo by Chris55 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17436807

Visitor Information:

Museum Opening times: Summer (1 April to 30 September) Tuesday to Sunday 10am-4pm; Winter (1 October to 31 March) Wednesday to Sunday 11am-3.30pm. Open on Bank Holiday Mondays, except the Christmas period.

Prices: Adult, £4.95; Concessions, £3.75; 6-16 years, £3; 5 and under, free.

Find out more:

M.W. Kirby, The Origins of Railway Enterprise: The Stockton and Darlington Railway 1821–1863 (Cambridge, 2002).

W.W. Tomlinson, The North Eastern Railway: Its rise and development (Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, 1915). Available online for free on Archive.org.

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