The journey begins

A brief history of how the railways began.

The Stockton and Darlington railway Dandy Cart

Although we can't be certain, we think that the Greeks and Roman's were the first to develop grooved wagonways, although whether these were deliberately cut or simply worn into the road surface is difficult to say. One thing we can be sure of is the reason for their invention. It made life much easier.

Moving heavy loads before the railway was exhausting work. Roads then were muddy, rough and poorly maintained (if at all) which meant pushing or pulling along smooth tracks was far more appealing. Especially when the tracks guided the wagons direction too.


Railways really started to catch on in European mines during the fifteenth century. Mine trucks were fitted with a hanging metal pin which slotted between two wooden planks that guided it along. We have a replica in our Great Hall.

Around 1600 in Mottingham, a railway was being built to carry coal to and from the River Trent and the City. Soon waggonways - as they came to be known - were to be found in the Severn Valley and Tyneside and from these two centres the idea spread throughout Britain and back into Europe.


Railways were still made of wood at the end of the eighteenth century, but things were changing. Demand for new tracks was growing as the owners of the canals continually requested connecting lines into the canal network. At the same time, increasing industrialisation mean that iron was becoming increasingly cheap. It wasn't long before the stronger and harder wearing cast-iron rails started to appear, enabling the railways to carry even heavier loads.


Outside the mines, horses had long been the source of propulsion. Interestingly the railway gauge today (the distance between the two rails) remains at 4ft 8 1/2 inches which was the width required to allow a horse to walk between the rails.

Horsepower was relatively expensive however, and as demand rose, they needed to travel even further. The introduction of the 'Dandy Cart' was one answer - by benefiting from both smooth rails and giving the horse a free ride downhill it could now manage 240 a week. A cart of this type from the Stockton and Darlington Railway can be seen in our great hall.

New power

Despite these developments a mechanical alternative was being sought, and fixed steam engines - like the Weatherhill and Swannington engines in the Great Hall - began pulling trains at the end of a cable. By 1804 the first track bound engines were introduced. These were largely due to the inspired work by early steam pioneers - mostly notably James Watt and Richard Trevithick. Trevithick in particular was the first British engineer to use high pressure 'strong' steam - truly making it a versatile power source.

In 1825 the first scheduled passenger service was introduced on the Stockton and Darlington Railway. Even at this time, horses were the more common motive power. Until, that is, an engineer called Stephenson had a brainwave.

Background: Class 87