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History - Part I : “Then”

Our history lesson starts by looking at the beginning of the railways west of Darlington. Inevitably this is really the story of the origin the Stockton & Darlington Railway.

But if you find all this history stuff a little long winded for casual browsing then, by all means have a quick look and enjoy the pictures, but then just go straight on to Part II.

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Originally, mining along the valley and on the Fell was by means of drifts and shallow shafts. Coal was extracted within a radial distance from each shaft of approximately 100 yards; an extension of the 'bell pit' system.

Our story owes its origins to the coal which has been worked on Cockfield Fell since medieval times; the first record of a named colliery was that of Vavasours Colliery, before 1375. Where coal measures outcrop on the fell there are dozens of “bell-pits” and the area is honeycombed with collapsed workings. But the region doesn't have a navigable waterway, and consequently the coal supplies for the Darlington area had to be carried by pack-horse, more than trebling the price at Darlington compared with the price at the pit-head.

Robert Whitworth had proposed digging a canal as early as 1768, though nothing came of his ideas.

Whitworth's proposed canal.

Many years later, the first mention of a railway was a suggestion made by Leonard Raisbeck at a dinner party held in Stockton in 1810. But the famous engineer Rennie, who made a survey in 1813, still said that a canal would be better.

Nothing happened until May 1818 when another survey by another surveyor (George Leather) again went for a canal - but one that bypassed Darlington completely. For the residents of Darlington, this would not do! Some local notables, including Richard Miles and Jonathan Backhouse, were spurred to action and called in the Welsh engineer George Overton.

He finally came up with a workable plan for a railway costing £124,000; one which went through Darlington (as well as Yarm where his relatives, the Cairns family, lived!). As a possible alternative, he also proposed a canal scheme which followed much the same route. Of course, the people of Stockton preferred George Leather's scheme which would leave Darlington out in the cold. A fight was in the offing!

Jonathan Backhouse

But the Darlington Committee worked fast. Overton presented his reports on 29 September 1818, and to enable the scheme to be considered at the next session of Parliament, the plans were hurriedly prepared and deposited by the end of the month. The Committee finally decided for the railway scheme on 13 November 1818 and within a week £25,000 had been subscribed.

The Stockton Committee then changed its tune and proposed a railway instead of a canal, though it still bypassed Darlington. But it was fighting a losing battle. The Darlington bill took some while to get through parliament, first being rejected then being withdrawn on the death of George III. But the Act finally received its Royal Assent on 19 April 1821.

Edward Pease (1767-1858)

Edward Pease, the son of a wool merchant, was born in Darlington on 31 May 1767 and worked in the family business until retiring from it at the age of fifty when he started to concentrate on his idea of starting a public railway.

In 1818 he first projected the Stockton & Darlington Railway and the first rail was laid in 1823; the railway opened in 1825.

In 1821 he became acquainted with George Stephenson whom he appointed engineer to the S&DR. In 1823, with George Stephenson and Thomas Richardson, he established the firm of Robert Stephenson & Co at Newcastle upon Tyne, with Robert Stephenson as manager, to build locomotives for the S&DR (including Locomotion, the railway's first locomotive) and other railways.

Pease, a member of the Society of Friends, supported the anti-slavery movement. He also supported Elizabeth Fry and her prison reform campaign. He became Britain's first Quaker MP when he was elected to represent South Durham. He died on 31 July 1858.

But even before the bill had passed the parliamentary hurdle, Edward Pease, of the famous Darlington Quaker family, had decided that he didn't like Overton's survey and persuaded the Committee to call in George Stephenson - and before the end of 1820 Stephenson had submitted a modified route.

But some sections of his route were outside the ‘limits of deviation’ imposed by the original Act, and so a further application to Parliament was necessary, Royal Assent being given on 23 May 1823. As we shall see shortly, and most importantly for this little history lesson, this Act included powers for the ‘Haggerleases’ branch, at the western end of the system.)

After many trials and tribulations the line was opened throughout on 27 September 1825. On the opening day the first wagons were transported over the Etherley and Brusselton inclines by means of winding engines attached to Locomotion at Masons' Arms level crossing in Shildon. A plaque commemorating the occasion was attached nearby.

'Locomotion' was brought from Newcastle by road and placed on the rails at Heighington (Formerly, Aycliffe Lane), a short distance from Shildon. She was then taken back to Shildon and attached to the train, after the trucks were lowered down the Brusselton South Incline.

This is the Masons Arms Level Crossing, the famous site where 'Locomotion' was attached to the train. The original hostelry was used as the railway booking office in the 1830's.

Preceded by a man on horseback carrying a red flag, the first train on the first public steam-worked railway set off amid cheers for Stockton, which was reached in mid-afternoon. Then followed what was to become a familiar pattern at the opening of new lines, namely a banquet with numerous toasts, held in this case at the Town Hall in Stockton.

The scene on that opening day was captured in Dobbin's famous painting, with the inaugural train hauled by Locomotion No.1 crossing the bridge over the River Skerne at Darlington.

The main concern of the new ‘Stockton & Darlington Railway’ (S&DR) was the carriage of coal, and at that time it was never considered that passengers would be of any importance. They were carried in horse-drawn vehicles provided by contractors, but the railway company itself did not bother with them until October 1833.

The part of the S&DR, around the Bishop Auckland area, which concerns this little tale is shown in the map alongside (click on it for a larger version). As you'll see, the railway grew rapidly and the Haggerleases branch was started almost immediately.



This isn't really the place to write the complete history of the S&DR; we should really be concentrating on ‘our’ railway. So, after a small diversion to see Dobbin's interpretation of the Grand Opening, we'll press on to look at the history of the Haggerleases branch.

But just before we do - I should mention one very important person in all of this; Timothy Hackworth. Apart from the fact that he is the history of Shildon (where all this started - see Introduction and Planning) and the HLR's first locomotive was named after him (see the Loco roster), he was pivotal in the success of the S&DR. So there's a separate page all about Timothy Hackworth, if you're interested.

This is the famous painting by John Dobbin of Locomotion No.1 pulling some thirty-eight chauldrons and the passenger coach, Experiment, over the Skerne Bridge at Darlington during the opening of the S&DR. Although Dobbin was present at the opening he was just ten years old and the painting was done years later (for the 50th anniversary celebrations) from contemporary drawings and impressions. It was also altered slightly to depict the second Experiment, not the first one, but the spirit of the event is retained, even if somewhat romanticised.

With similar ‘artistic license’, Dobbin depicts the bridge over the River Skerne as quite an imposing piece of architecture. In reality, it was not perhaps quite as impressive as all that, as a contemorary sketch made by the Reverend John Skinner a month before the railway's opening might indicate.

Nevertheless, despite considerable neglect, the bridge still stands - at least looking slightly more impressive than the Rev. Skinner had suggested.


The Haggerleases Branch

And so, as a result of the 1823 Act, the Haggerleases branch was inaugurated. Powers for the branch were obtained by the Act of 17th May 1824, replacing those granted in the original Act of 1821 for a different line (starting near Norlees House in West Auckland and terminating at Evenwood Lane).

You can follow the route on this 1859 map of the Gaunless valley which shows the route of the railway highlighted yellow. Place names mentioned in the text are highlighted red. The map shows the railway at about the time when it must have been reaching its peak. As we'll see, in 1859 steam locomotives had just been introduced and a passenger service (albeit short lived) was running.

You can open the map in a new browser window.

Image produced from the service.
With permission of Landmark Information Group Ltd. and Ordnance Survey
Copyright © and/or Database Right Landmark Information Group and
Ordnance Survey Crown Copyright and/or Database Right 2002. All rights reserved.

Moston Colliery.

A coal screen in the Gaunless valley.

The yard at Butterknowle.

The new line was to commence at the northwest end of St. Helens Auckland (renamed in 1878 to West Auckland) at the foot of the south side of the Etherley incline, from where the branch line started up the Gaunless valley. Work commenced on the branch line shortly after the Bill passed through Parliament in 1824, although it was not until 1 October 1830 that the line was opened throughout from St Helen Auckland to its terminus at Hagger Leases Lane, near Butterknowle - about five miles away to the west.

The skew bridge

Most bridges are constructed at right-angles to the obstruction which they cross, this being the easiest mode of building. The skew bridge - or Swin Bridge as local dialect has it - crosses the Gaunless at an angle of 27°, and every stone used in the construction of the 19 foot arch was cut to that angle. The entire bridge is made of stone, and was built in 1830 to the design of Thomas Storey. A moulded panel on the north side of the bridge bears the inscription:


The contract for the difficult job of building the bridge was originally let to Thomas Worth and John Batie, the agreed price being £327, but after 3½ months, having laid the foundations and a few courses of masonry, they gave it up. James Wilson was employed next, and his payment was to be £420. It was widely predicted by engineers and laymen that such a structure would collapse when the wooden building-supports were withdrawn, but on their removal the bridge settled less than half an inch, and has outlived the railway, being even now in excellent condition.

Only one skew-arch had been used on a railway before: the Rainhill Skew Bridge on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, which was designed by George Stephenson. It is, perhaps, worth mentioning that the parapet walls of this single-track bridge are finished with the scroll effect so highly favoured by the Stockton and Darlington Railway.

The line's primary purpose was to serve the pits at the head of the Gaunless Valley (these, owned by the Rev. Luke Prattman, employed 700 men and boys by 1894) and in this way the collieries at Butterknowle, Cockfield, Copley Bent, and Norwood were able to gain access to the S&DR network.

The railway followed the course of the River Gaunless and some 400 yards short of the terminus the line crossed the river on a stone bridge built on the skew. This aroused a great deal of interest when it was built: it was predicted that it would not stand long enough to carry traffic. (It did in fact remain in use until 30 September 1963, when the section west of Evenwood Colliery was closed. It still stands, though looking rather sorry for itself! - see pictures in Part II.)

Trains were worked by horses until 1856, although in 1848 the engineer was asked to report on the cost of putting a small locomotive to work. His report stated that this would be too expensive, and the idea was shelved, to be successfully resurrected in 1856, by which time the Haggerleases branch was the last part of the S&DR to be still using horse power.

A passenger service commenced running as far as Lands (just to the east of Cockfield Fell) in 1858 and for a short period in 1859 was extended to Haggerleases. On the opening of the adjacent line to Barnard Castle and beyond, the inhabitants of the valley were served by the new stations at Evenwood and Cockfield (to the west of the Fell) on this new line, and the service on the Haggerleases branch was reduced to market trains on Thursdays and Saturdays until it was withdrawn in 1872. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Note the cartographers’ error, mistaking the
local dialect ‘swin’ for the word ‘swing’!


Advent of the South Durham & Lancashire Union Railway

Barnard Castle.

Bishop Auckland.

Beyond Barnard Castle the inhospitable moors and mountains of the Pennines made a bleak outlook for a railway into Westmorland. But the promise of ore traffic from the Ulverston area of Lancashire to the blast furnaces of Middlesbrough, and of coal and coke in the opposite direction, provided a spur. Indeed, in the early references to the line, the amount of mineral traffic likely to be carried was the sole topic; its passenger potentialities were not mentioned, no doubt because of the sparsely populated area through which the line passed.

The line was built by a subsidiary company of the S&DR, the South Durham & Lancashire Union Railway (SD&LU). The engineer appointed to supervise the construction, and to design the numerous viaducts, was Thomas Bouch, whose brother, William, was locomotive superintendent of the S&DR. Thomas was later the designer of the ill-fated Tay Bridge, for which he received a knighthood on 27 June 1879 - six months and a day before the bridge collapsed.

The SD&LU Act was passed on 17 July 1857 after encountering very little Parliamentary opposition. It authorized a line between the S&DR at Spring Gardens Junction (on the Haggerleases branch near St Helens) and the Lancaster & Carlisle Railway at Tebay (with a connection at Barnard Castle to the Darlington & Barnard Castle Railway). The SD&LU line was worked from the outset by the S&DR, which in fact took over the SD&LU entirely on 30 June 1862, only to be swallowed itself by the NER on 13 July 1863.

Initially only the Barnard Castle to Tebay section was built and all traffic to Bishop Auckland had to be worked round via Shildon.

The Gaunless viaduct

To carry the Bishop Auckland and Barnard Castle Line over both the Haggerleases Branch and the River Gaunless, a viaduct was constructed and opened in 1863. The designer of the bridge was Thomas Bouch from Edinburgh.

1. This photo of the viaduct was taken in about 1870, some seven years after its opening.

2. In 1899. (possibly 1903], the bridge had all the steel structure replaced and double track laid.

3. After more than one hundred years - the viaduct just before demolition in the 1960s.

The final link was the opening of the South Durham & Lancashire Union Railway for passenger traffic on 1 August 1863 between Spring Gardens Junction on the Haggerleases branch, 1½ mile west of St Helens station, and Barnard Castle. Engineering works on the SD&LU were heavy and included a large viaduct across the River Gaunless near Lands: this also crossed the Haggerleases branch which hereabouts ran along the river bank - whereas the SD&LU climbed to cross Cockfield Fell. At the same time, an S&DR link was constructed between Bishop Auckland and Fylands Bridge Junction (later Fieldon Bridge Junction) where the Tunnel branch was joined and thus a through route was completed from Bishop Auckland to Barnard Castle made up of five lines opened at dates between 1825 and 1863:

Bishop Auckland - Fylands Bridge S&DR1 Feb 18631 Aug 1863
Fylands Bridge - St Helens (part of Tunnel branch) S&DR13 Sept 185613 Oct 1858
St Helens station S&DR27 Sept 18251 Dec 1833
St Helens - Spring Gardens Junction S&DR1 May 183013 Oct 1858
Spring Gardens Junction - Barnard Castle SD&LU1 Aug 18631 Aug 1863

Cockfield station, 1890

Evenwood station

From 1 August 1863, therefore, the passenger service from Bishop Auckland to Lands via Shildon was replaced by the direct Bishop Auckland - Barnard Castle service.

The stations on the line now served the area previously covered by the Haggerleases branch and the NER provided seven trains each weekday; a feature of the line was the summer Saturday service from Newcastle to Blackpool. Trains called at West Auckland (the station was an oddity as the two platform faces both faced the same way with a wooden footbridge connecting the two), Evenwood and Cockfield (renamed Cockfield Fell on 1 July 1923 by the LNER so as to differentiate between this and the Suffolk station of the same name); the triangular station at Bishop Auckland was constructed in 1864. However, a Saturdays only market train continued between Bishop Auckland and Lands on the Haggerleases branch until 1872.



And so the railways hereabouts continued for almost a century. Eventually though, along with any number of other small country stations, Evenwood was closed on 14 October 1957 and Cockfield Fell followed on 15 September 1958. Through passenger services between Bishop Auckland and Barnard Castle were withdrawn by BR from 12 June 1962 and goods, six days later. West Auckland station has now been erased but Evenwood station remains as a private house. Cockfield Fell is still complete although empty and in a bad state of repair. The closure of the Darlington - Barnard Castle - Middleton in Teesdale line to passengers on 30 Novemberr 1964 and to goods from 5 April 1965, destroyed the last remnants of a once busy network west of Darlington.

In time, the coal on Cockfield Fell, the original purpose of the Haggerleases branch became exhausted. Low Butterknowle pit closed in 1956, Gordon House Colliery closed in 1961 and Cockfield Drift closed in 1962. With no more passengers and the coal worked out, the remains of the Haggerleases branch (although, from 1899, it had been known as the Butterknowle branch) was closed by BR on 30th September 1963.

So, just as the presence of coal brought the railway into the Gaunless valley in 1830, it was the eventual demise of mining in the early 1960s that led to its departure.

And that might have been the end of this story. But there again...

A section of the S&DR opened in 1825 and closed c. 1860 with the chimney of the winding engine at the summit of the Etherley inclines. Note the stone sleeper blocks.

Go on to Part II.