A forensic mechanical and archive investigation at Locomotion finally lays to rest a famous myth of the early railways
Built to an antiquated design that recalls the dawn of the steam locomotive, the Hetton Colliery Locomotive has long been touted as one of the engines built by ‘father of railways’, George Stephenson.
But now, one of the longest standing early railway myths has been busted – thanks to a seven-month investigation into the engine, based at Locomotion in County Durham, by locomotive experts Dr Michael Bailey and Peter Davidson.
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The pair have conclusively proved that the locomotive was not built by George Stephenson – as previously claimed – and therefore not one of the UK’s oldest surviving engines, said to predate famous locomotives such as Rocket (1829) and Locomotion No.1 (1825).
It was built circa 1849 and is named Lyon after John Lyon under whose land, Hetton Colliery, yielded much of its coal.
It seems the ‘mystery’ began following an early example of ‘fake news’ when exaggerated claims of the engine’s historical pedigree, issued by the colliery in 1902, led to extraordinary national interest.
News reports at the time described Lyon as the ‘world’s oldest working locomotive’, and as a result of its new-found fame, the engine was preserved after being withdrawn from service in 1912.
It even went on to lead the 1925 centenary procession for the Stockton and Darlington Railway, which was where the Robert Stephenson and Company’s Locomotion No. 1 famously became the first steam locomotive to carry passengers on a public rail line.
Lyon was one of three sister engines constructed at the colliery between 1849 and 1854, the others being named Fox and Lady Barrington, also after adjacent local landowners. The three locomotives were driven by three brothers: Jimmy, Jack and Dick Ford. Although the fate of Fox is unknown, Lady Barrington’s boiler exploded in December 1858 killing Jimmy and his son.
Research has now revealed that the engine spent its operational life of more than 60 years hauling coal wagons at the colliery in County Durham.
Despite this pedigree as a colliery workhorse, Lyon’s fabricated history lasted for many years and it is only now with more modern records and research techniques, that the myth has been conclusively laid to rest.
“I am pleased that as a result of this project we have been able to solve the Hetton mystery and confirm the locomotive’s true identify,” Dr Bailey. “Although it would have been exciting to uncover links to early Stephenson engines, the benefit to us today is that this remarkable locomotive would undoubtedly have been scrapped were it not for the tall tales surrounding it.
“The result of the Hetton myth is that we have an early and unique example of an industrial steam locomotive which tells us a great deal about the construction of early engines and components. What is most surprising is that the myth endured for so long and that the durability of the outmoded designs enabled the engine to continue operating for such a long time.”
Lyon’s unusually antiquated design for the times includes vertical cylinders, set into the boiler crown, and a vertical motion. This may have helped give the myth of the engine’s early history more plausibility as it looked similar to older, Stephenson engines. Although built in 1849, the locomotive represents the ultimate version of the Stephenson-built Killingworth locomotives.
The locomotive today is formed of parts from three main eras, with major modifications carried out in 1882, and replacement buffers fitted in the 1960s. The original wooden tender was completely replaced in 1882 and only the frame and wheels remain from this vehicle with heavy modifications carried out by LNER in 1925.
One of the key breakthroughs came when the team discovered that the technology needed to make long sheets of wrought iron plate used in Lyon’s boiler did not exist before the 1840s, ruling out an earlier construction date.
The team also found evidence of a serious accident and a major repair to the front cylinder which would have ordinarily been sufficient to see the locomotive written off. However, the extensive and uneconomic repair, suggests the ‘celebrity’ status of the engine was sufficient to save it from the scrapyard.
The findings of the pair have also confirmed that, due to its age and condition, the engine will not be able to return to steam. It will however take part in the upcoming bicentenary of the Hetton Railway in 2022.
Dr Michael Bailey and Peter Davidson plan to publish the full results of their findings, which confirm earlier doubts as to the truth of the Hetton myth, explored by Michael Rutherford in 1995 and Jim Rees in 2001, in a paper at the 7th Early Railway Conference to be held in Swansea in 2021.
At Locomotion you can see highlights of the national collection of railway vehicles in the world’s first railway town. The town of Shildon has had an exciting story to tell since the earliest days of the rail industry, making it the perfect place to explore the rich seam of local…