Yet more tales of the old S & D Railway

Yet more tales of the old S & D Railway

We continue our series of tales of the old Stockton and Darlington railway as dictated to Mr Harold Oxtoby  by George Graham, one time driver of the original Locomotion No.1.  These are George’s words…


In those days the wagons had to be oiled by the drivers and firemen.  This was done by having a tin containing oil and a brush.  The oiling had to be done while the engine and train was running and was always done at places where the line was fairly level.  The driver regulated the speed to about 2 miles per hour before getting down from the engine.  They would start to oil the train from the front but often, as a result of the wheels being newly lubricated, the speed would increase to more than 4 miles an hour before the whole  train could be oiled and the driver and firemen had to run the whole length of the train to get back to the engine.  In the case of a loaded train, they got on to the last wagon and walked over the tops of the other wagons to the engine.


Recalling an incident when he was about 7 years old George Graham noted that…

Some of the drivers were rather ‘spreeish’ characters in those days and he had his attention drawn to a public house (The Globe at New Shildon) where a lot of the drivers were on the spree and some of them actually had their watches in a frying pan on the fire.

NOTE: I can’t for the life of me come up with an explanation for this bizarre behaviour…


On Good Friday of 1861 John Dixon, the Consulting Engineer of the S & DR asked George Graham to conduct some experiments to prove the difference in friction between Chaldron Wagons compared to coal trucks on the line between Barnard Castle and Darlington where the gradient between the 9 and 14 Mile posts was about 1 in 82. George Graham described one experiment as follows…

Mr Dixon required that both the wagons and trucks be released at such an altitude as to enable them to run down the descending gradient and up the other side, at the top of which (the 8 mile post) the speed should not exceed one mile per hour.

Tests showed that the Chaldron wagons could never attain sufficient speed to do this, but always stopped before reaching the summit.  No doubt due to the extra friction of the wagons on the rails.

The coal trucks were a different proposition and, after eight separate trials, they were able to establish at what point the trucks could be allowed to run down the descent and up the ascending side to just over the summit.

At the conclusion of the experiments Graham though that by taking the trucks up to the 14 mile post and letting them descent by their own gravity that they would never get up to the speed of an express train, but in this he was greatly mistaken.

The train, with no engine attached, consisted of eight coal trucks with a guards van behind in which were twelve men.  The line on the Darlington side was made clear before starting and instructions were given to each of the five level crossings on the route not to allow anything to pass before the trucks had gone by.

I was standing at Winston Station when the train passed.  It had been recorded by one of Dixon’s assistants as travelling at a speed of 73 miles per hour as it approached the 11 mile post, where it still had two miles to go before reaching the bottom of the descent.

As it passed this point the speed got so high that it could no longer be registered.  The men in the Guards van were all afraid and not a word was uttered except for the young man who was measuring the speed who asked the foreman if he though they were in great danger.  The foreman said they were….

During the two or three minutes that the speed was at its highest the men had feared for their lives and all said they would not undertake the journey again.

The Guards van had windows at the front which were covered fully by an inch and a quarter of thick dust which had blown out of the wagons, despite it being a dry Spring day.

The place where I witnessed the train run past was on the top of an embankment near Winston Station and I had a good view of them running over the next two miles.  They went round a curve like a dash.

After arriving at the summit of a rising gradient they put on the van brake, brought the train up, and put it into a siding at Darlington.  They had applied the brake previous to this, when running at high speed, but released it again when the van became so unsteady that they were afraid it was going to topple over.

The next day I had to report the case to Mr. Dixon and he was very severe with me on the matter.


George described the difficulties of driving the early steam engines…

Most of the engines on the Stockton and Darlington line were not fitted with reversing gears and only had two eccentrics (part of the valve gear which could reverse the direction of the wheels) so it was only one man in three who could make it as a driver because the engines were so difficult to manage.  

They had no brakes on either engine or tender and the only way to stop them was the portion connected to the valves had to be taken out of gear and the driver had to work his handles in the opposite direction to that in which the engine was running, and this often on a falling gradient, which meant that the handles had to be worked four times for every revolution of the wheels.  No easy matter when running at a speed of 12 or 16 miles per hour.

I have heard it said that there was only one driver that could manage this in the dark without having a light.  His name was William Chicken and the way that he managed this was by putting his foot against the eccentric rod and thereby know how to move the handles to check the engine.

All the other drivers had to have a light at night to accomplish this.  This light, which was held by the fireman,  was created by burning a piece from a tow rope that had been worn on the inclines.  The worn tow ropes would be chopped into pieces about a yard in length and lit to act as lights, there were no lamps then.

William Chicken was a very active man and was often reported for running at too high a speed thereby causing the cast iron wheels to break. The speed was limited to 8 miles per hour on that account.

Chicken left the Company’s service about the year 1840 and I was delighted to find him driver of the express train between Glasgow and Edinburgh in the year 1845.  I had several rides with him  during the six weeks I was at Edinburgh on sick leave.

Mr. Holmes, who was the Locomotive Supt. of the North British Railway told me a short while ago that Chicken was one of the best drivers he had ever known.


We’ll have more tales of the old S & D soon….