Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Historian Rob Langham provides a brief history of the Stanhope & Tyne Railway, which he has written about in detail in his new book on the subject. The new book can be found here.
There are not many companies that went bankrupt in 1841 yet have remained well known for many years after their demise, but the Stanhope & Tyne Railroad has lived on through its route being taken over by other railway companies and is still far from forgotten today with a great deal of its length being part of the c2c coast to coast cyclepath which runs from Sunderland to Whitehaven.
Opened in 1834 and built under the watchful eye of two of the North East’s best engineers, Robert Stephenson as consulting engineer and Thomas Elliot Harrison as resident engineer, the Stanhope & Tyne Railroad traversed some of the most inhospitable terrain that the North East has to offer, using a bewildering variety of methods to move wagons of lime, limestone and coal along it. When complete, the original line was 37 ¾ miles long including three branches, the main route of the line being thirty-three miles, seven furlongs and one chain long. Although its original incarnation was short lived following a spectacular financial downfall, the potential profitability of the line was proven by subsequent companies who took over the line. They also modified the line so that by the time the line closed there were numerous deviations from the original route. Parts of the original route can still be seen – turned into cycle routes or footpaths, bridges that have long ceased to cross or carry an active railway providing interesting relics dotted along the route, or in some cases taking the form of subtle embankments and cuttings barely visible to the eye but clear on aerial maps. Other parts of the line have been completely obliterated under roads or housing. Small sections are still in use – the Metro at South Shields and part of the branch to Tyne Dock used by freight trains both run over a route that opened 176 years ago, indeed the new training centre at South Shields is on the location of the wagon repair shops of the original company.
The reason for this incredible railway was the same driver for most railways in North East England, the movement of minerals to market. A partnership of three gentlemen who between them had the rights to quarry limestone at Crawleyside, on the steep ground to the north of Stanhope and the rights to mine coal in the area around Consett (then known as Conside, and a very small settlement – the iron works was some years away yet) needed a way to move their bulky wares to market. After getting the wagons across the moors above Stanhope, the easiest route which was first considered would be to continue north from Consett towards the Tyne. The problem with doing this lay in the onward transportation to London, the rest of Britain or mainland Europe by sea. As ships could not get upriver the minerals would have to be loaded on Keels, a barge-type vessel that held around twenty tons, and then transhipped onto a collier around the mouth of the Tyne, increasing costs. The decision was instead taken to continue the railway from the Consett area across to South Shields, which would also access the growing pits around North West Durham and the ability to sell lime, limestone and coal along the length of the line. Unusually the line was not built with an Act of Parliament as predecessors such as the Stockton & Darlington Railway and Liverpool & Manchester Railway had been, which would mean the compulsory sale of land for the railway which would then be owned by the company, but was instead built on the wayleave system. The wayleave system had been used for many years in the area for the waggonways which criss-crossed the north east landscape to move coal in horse-drawn wagons to the nearest shipping place on the river or coast (the Tanfield being a major surviving example), with the railway renting land from the owner for the right to run a railway across it. At the western end of the line the wayleave rents was fair, but as the extent of the line was realised and construction headed closer to South Shields, the rents demanded from landowners grew higher and higher which would not only increase the cost of building the line, but continue to financially hamper the company. There was clearly a desire to get the railway open as soon as possible and so the shareholders could get a return on their investment, with work starting in July 1832 at the Stanhope end of the line and ready two years later.
The opening of the western half of the line from the limekilns at Lanehead quarry, Stanhope to Annfield (later known as Annfield Plane owing to the incline, and by the end of the 19th Century reached its present form of Annfield Plain) on 15 May 1834 had dark forebodings for the fortunes of the company. Four wagons at the head of Weatherhill incline, right at the top of Crawleyside bank, became loose from the rope which attached to the winding engine and the wagons hurtled down the steep gradient, loaded with passengers, mainly workmen who had built the line. At the foot of the Weatherhill incline, which was immediately followed by the head of the next incline at Crawley, a man positioned at the points had a terrible choice – either let them continue down the Crawley incline or divert it into a siding already occupied by loaded wagons. He chose the latter, and the inevitable outcome resulted in two dead and others wounded. Amongst the grim scene, there was one piece of dark humour. As the managing director, William Harrison, and William Teasdale (a young man who had worked for contractors who built part of the line) were going around the wounded, they found next to one dead body a man who also appeared to be dead. As he was lifted, the man opened his eyes, and after being asked how he was, responded ‘Not so bad, but varra hungry’! According to Teasdale this was quickly remedied.1 Perhaps owing to the dangerous working conditions of the time it is easy to consider all bosses of the era as Dickensian monsters with callous regard for their workers, however amongst the many flags flown a few months later at the opening of the eastern half of the line from Annfield to South Shields one flag bore the words ‘Harrison and Company, and Humanity’. This flag was paid for by the workpeople of the line who wished to show their gratitude to the owners of the railroad ‘for their very liberal conduct during the progress of the work’. The newspaper report which remarked on them continued to explain how:
‘In all cases where medical aid was required, it had been promptly provided at the expence of the company; and in those very few instances where accidents have occurred, the wife and family of the sufferer, (if he had any) have been supported.’
The opening of this half of the line, fortunately, was marred with no greater setback than rain which failed to ‘damp the ardour of the people’.2
As was common with railways and other transport and industry of the era, there were accidents aplenty on the Stanhope & Tyne. On a dark Friday evening in November 1834, someone altered the points on the line near Brockley Whins causing the tender of a locomotive, and the wagons it was pulling, to be thrown off the line ‘and much damaged’ but fortunately no injuries were reported.3 Accidents on the line tended to mainly affect those working on it, but not solely - a South Shields surgeon, Henry Bowlby, was ‘alighting from a steam carriage’ in 1835 (presumably the passenger service) and, by a cause not stated, severely fractured one of his arms ‘and was otherwise much bruised’.4
Deaths were macabrely recorded in local newspapers such as in September 1836 when Joseph Sopwith was withdrawing a bolt from a wagon near to the inclined plane stationary engine at Flats Lane and was ‘caught by the chain’. This suggests that he took the bolt out which was attached to the chain and rope for the inclined plane while it was still at tension from the winding engine. The effect of the chain catching him was that ‘his body was nearly cut in two’. Joseph Rowe, while stepping onto wagons near Stanhope in July 1838, ‘missed his hold and was thrown under the wheels’. The wheels nearly severed his leg and he died. In similar circumstances in April 1840 a young fireman attempted to climb onto a locomotive while it was in motion but fell. The entire train behind the locomotive of thirty loaded wagons ran over him severely crushing one leg and the thigh of the other leg. He died later that day.
Despite the grim accounts of deaths and injuries which pockmark the history of the company, the actual business of moving minerals started off with signs of success. In July 1835 it was reported how the Stanhope & Tyne ‘are now shipping at their staiths more Coals than are actually sent from the River Tees’ – where the Stockton & Darlington Railway were shipping their coals from – and that once the accommodation for shipping was completed much more coal trade was expected. On one Saturday alone 1,653 tons of coal were shipped from the three drops in use at the time, which equates to just over six hundred fully loaded chaldron wagons.5 The sight of the handsome, powerful locomotives used by the Stanhope & Tyne with their flared top chimneys hauling a long train of loaded wagons must have been incredible. A prospectus for the Brandling Railway mentioned that the Stanhope & Tyne, in 1837, shipped 400,000 tons of coal but of the five drops then in use ‘all were inadequate to the demand’.6 It was said that the Stanhope & Tyne ‘for almost half a mile was blackened with waggons ready to be shipped’.7 Although the number of drops increased to eight, it still proved insufficient and it wasn’t until the opening of Tyne Dock in the 1850’s that there were suitable facilities for shipping the vast amounts of coal from North West Durham on the Tyne. Although it could take a while to ship the colossal amounts of coal that came towards them, the drops could still do impressive feats. Theoretically each drop could empty one chaldron of coal into a ship every minute, but the coal could not be trimmed in the ships holds fast enough, so the usual rate was twenty-five to thirty-five chaldrons an hour. An example of the work done was the loading of the ‘Nautilus’ of Newcastle in September 1837, loaded with six hundred and thirty-six tons of coals from the Tanfield Moor colliery. It was believed that this was an unprecedented quantity of coal shipped by any of the facilities on the River Tyne.8
Although the movement of minerals was by far the biggest traffic on the line, after requests from the local population a passenger service was started. It did not run the whole length of the line, just from South Shields to the Durham Turnpike road at Birtley where the line ran across the road (later replaced by a bridge) where passengers could change – and perhaps use the Wheatsheaf Inn which still stands – for a stagecoach to Newcastle, Durham or further afield. It would be interesting to know whether travel by sea from South Shields or nearby, perhaps by one of the paddle steamers which were growing in popularity at the time, was a better option for longer distance travel such as to London or Scotland than by road in the 1830’s. The service was ran by a one-man passenger department who acted as station master, booking clerk and guard – and any other role as required – issuing tin checks for travel in the small open carriage with low sides and a door on each side. There was no station as such on the line, and the carriage was pulled by the smallest locomotive in the fleet, ‘Thomas Newcomen’ which was a ‘Planet’ type locomotive built by Robert Stephenson & Co who had built the original ‘Planet’ for the Liverpool & Manchester Railway in 1830 as a successor to the famous ‘Rocket’. At Fatfield, the extent of locomotive working, the passengers had to change to a similar but smaller carriage which was taken up the east side of the Vigo inclined plane by the stationary engine if there were wagons to go with it, or if not was pulled up by horse, and was lowered down the other side of the incline to the turnpike road. The lack of a passenger service further up the line did not deter those wishing to avail themselves of the railway. William Teasdale, who continued to work on the line after it was completed, described how it was ‘no uncommon thing to see even women riding on the coal trucks up and down the inclines on the part of the line over which there was no passenger service’.9
It is not surprising the passenger service only went as far as the nearest main road as other than South Shields the line did not pass particularly close to any notable towns. This also put the railway at a disadvantage when it came to what was termed ‘landsale’ of coal and lime along the length of the line at various depots set up for this purpose. Although coal – unsurprisingly - found a huge market elsewhere after being shipped from South Shields, there was not the demand for lime in anywhere near the quantities hoped for. Limestone was growing in importance as a flux in ironmaking and after burning in limekilns was used in agriculture and building work, but in the 1830’s there was not a large market for it in the area. In 1839 the production of lime, and the western part of the line in its entirety from the quarry and limekilns at Crawleyside to Carr House (between Consett and Leadgate) was closed to save money. Despite the coal trade proving more than worthwhile, with the Stanhope & Tyne buying new locomotives at various intervals and even building at least one locomotive at its South Shields workshops to move the coal trains, it was not enough to pay the large debts incurred in the building of the line and for the high wayleaves paid to run the line over private property.
The failure of a banking firm in London in late 1840 was the catalyst for the ultimate downfall of the Stanhope & Tyne Railroad Company. It had lent money to the company, and one of the bank’s partners was a director of the Stanhope & Tyne. Once news got out of the bank’s failure and its link to the Stanhope & Tyne, creditors demanded their money from the Stanhope & Tyne and banks in Newcastle refused to continue to endorse the unpaid bills of the company. A meeting was held in early 1841 for the concerned shareholders - in this era, a shareholder in a company was as much liable for a company’s debts as well as its success and one of the major and best known shareholders was Robert Stephenson who had taken shares in lieu of payment for his work as consulting engineer. Facing bankruptcy, he sold half of his share in his works, Robert Stephenson & Company, to his father George and with twenty-four other original shareholders of the Stanhope & Tyne set up a new company to continue to operate the eastern half of the line following the dissolution of the Stanhope & Tyne Railroad Company in February 1841.
Although the focus of this article – and my book on the subject – is the original Stanhope & Tyne Railroad Company, it is worth briefly mentioning the later history of the line. By a quirk of fate, one year after the western half of the line closed, the Derwent Iron Company opened an iron works at Consett which required vast amounts of limestone as a flux in the ironmaking process. They initially took over the line from Stanhope to Carr House and operated it themselves from 1842, then from 1845 it was run by the Stockton & Darlington Railway who had extended into north west Durham after reaching Bishop Auckland via a tunnel underneath Shildon, reaching the Stanhope & Tyne’s route at Waskerley (which became a railway village with engine sheds and wagon workshops) via Crook and Tow Law. Together with moving limestone to the iron works, the Stockton & Darlington Railway also busied itself with transporting finished goods from the ironworks to the south, and bringing in iron ore from the Cleveland ironstone field from the 1850’s. The line was modified to remove the inclines (aside from the two at Crawley and Weatherhill) to allow locomotive working which included the construction of the grand viaduct at Hownes Gill which opened in 1858. This replaced the awkward arrangement of two inclined planes, one either side of the gill, worked by a stationary engine at the bottom. The eastern half was taken over straight away by the new undertaking, the Pontop & South Shields Railway, which received an Act of Parliament in 1842. This continued the profitable business of moving coal, and like the western half was improved by it and succeeding companies to remove or avoid inclined planes. That said, such was the high traffic of coal, the deviation line via Beamish which was opened in 1893 did not see the closure of the original route using inclined planes which ran parallel, the original inclines staying in use for many more years to serve the pits nearby. The two halves of the line came under the ownership of one company again when the North Eastern Railway, which the eastern half of the line came straight under at its formation in 1854, took over the Stockton & Darlington Railway in 1863.
After many years of usefulness, like other railways in the north east the decline of coal mining and heavy industry in the area affected the Stanhope & Tyne route also. The western half from Stanhope to Consett was the first to go, and since the closure of the limestone quarries at Crawleyside and the very limited use of the limekilns, the two inclines at Crawley and Weatherhill closed in 1951, the line remaining open for limited traffic from the quarries and goods at Waskerley and Rowley until the 1960’s when the line back to Consett was closed. The eastern half stayed open for longer and became strongly associated with the heavy trains of iron ore for Consett which required the most powerful steam locomotives available assisted by another banking at the rear. The impressive workings of the locomotives saw the line become the focus of many enthusiasts, continuing when diesels took over from steam. The closure of Consett steelworks saw the requirement for the line disappear. Despite some attempts to open it again to passenger use, it came to nothing and a final railtour headed up the steep gradients to Consett in March 1984, the track being removed soon after.
Whilst the remaining sections of the Stanhope & Tyne still with rails on them is miniscule compared to what once was, the railway has left a strong legacy on the communities the line ran among, with railway enthusiasts, and the north east as a whole. As well as the written and visual record of the lines history, there is so much of its fabric in the form of bridges, trackbed and other railway relics that the Stanhope & Tyne Railroad Company and its successors have a tangible history which is enjoyed by many.
For more information about the Stanhope & Tyne Railroad, it can be purchased direct from the Publisher, Amberley Publishing https://www.amberley-books.com/the-stanhope-tyne-railroad-company.html
Rob Langham has been passionate about history since childhood, later turning it into his vocation. Working in museums, he has completed an MA in Britain in the First World War and spends his spare time researching a diverse range of topics such as the early railways of North East England and the First World War battlefields of Gallipoli.
1 The Shields Daily Gazette and Shipping Telegraph July 25 1899
2 Newcastle Journal Saturday 13 September 1834
3 Durham Chronicle 21 November 1834
4 Newcastle Journal 25 July 1835
5 Newcastle Journal 18 July 1835
6 Newcastle Courant 19 January 1838
7 Newcastle Journal 20 January 1838
8 Newcastle Journal 16 September 1837
9 The Shields Daily Gazette and Shipping Telegraph July 25 1899