While both railways and steam-powered railway engines existed long before the opening of the Stockton to Darlington Railway, it is true to say that when George Stephenson's 'Locomotion No. 1' set off on its inaugural journey from Shildon to Stockton on 27th September 1825 it was the first steam train ever to run on a public railway.
The Act of Parliament required to authorise the construction of the Stockton and Darlington Railway received its Royal Assent in 1821 and was the twenty first Railway Bill to be passed since the beginning of the 19th century. It was, however, by far the most ambitious of anything that had gone before with the main line planned to cover more than 26 miles from the collieries around Witton Park, through Darlington to the port of Stockton and the river Tees.
Ten days before the opening, 'Locomotion No.1' itself had been transported from Stephenson's workshops in Newcastle by rail, on carriages hauled by horses, to Aycliffe Lane (Heighington) where it was taken for trials. After only two days of trials the Stockton and Darlington Railway proudly announced that the official opening of the line would take place on 27 September.
It was a momentous occasion with people travelling for many miles in all kinds of carriages and conveyances, as well as on horse back and on foot, to witness the event. The more eminent of the dignitaries were seated in the one passenger carriage of the train, other invited guests, along with those passengers who had tickets, had to make do with goods wagons.
Those without tickets simply attached themselves to the train as bets they could. It was estimated that as many as 600 people were aboard the 36 wagons carrying a mix of coal and flour as well as the guests (invited and otherwise) and workmen. The average speed of the journey was just over 4 miles per hour.
Fittingly, the driver on this first journey was the engineer who had designed both the railway and the engine, George Stephenson. His firemen on that day were his brothers James and Ralph. Timothy Hackworth, who went on to become a great railway engineer in his own right, supervised the passengers. Preceded by a man on horseback carrying warning flags, the engine hauled a load of some 90 tons.
When the train reached Darlington, some of the coal wagons were detached and the coal given out to the poor. The train then proceeded on to Yarm where two further wagons were added. These extra wagons contained not coal but Mr Meynell’s brass band. The arrival at Stockton was marked with a 21 gun salute. The band got down from the train and led a procession to the Town Hall where the masses went off to the various pubs and eating houses and the 102 official guests to a grand banquet in the Town Hall where no fewer than 23 toasts were drank.
While the concept of carrying passengers in coaches hauled by steam engines was now established, it was not until 1833 that the S&D took over the operation of running steam hauled passenger trains on its lines. In the years following the opening, passengers on this line were carried by private contractors in coaches pulled by horses. While there are those that would argue that the Liverpool and Manchester railway, which opened in 1830, was the first line to use locomotives to carry passengers and goods from the outset, it is undeniable that what happened in Stockton on 27 September 1825 was a massive leap forward in the development of the Railway Age.