Travel North - 65: "Little Said, Nothing Done", at the Very First Stockton & Darlington Meeting
The Where, the When...
The What: Two hundred years ago, in mid-February, 1820 a group of men sat around a table...
This was in the Commercial Room of the George & Dragon Hotel - as it was then - on Yarm High Street, not far from the small Town Hall. They did nothing, said little, although their achievement would signal the beginning of a railway mania around Britain, a railway era that would see commercial narrow boats on canals as well as horses and carts relegated as the Industrial Revolution swept Britain into the modern age. The Transport Revolution was about to start.
The importance of this achievement in not actually doing anything can not be underestimated. The meeting is marked by a plaque on the outside wall - with its railway mementos proudly displayed within - that tells us:
"In the commercial room of this hotel on the 12th February, 1820 was held the promoters' meeting of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, the first public railway in the world. Thomas Meynell Esq. of Yarm presided"
This 'nothing' was crucial enough for it to be ere-enacted on the 100th anniversary, and would be repeated on the 200th. Oddly enough, because nothing was decided at this meeting the S&DR was assured its future. The folk of Yarm were far-sighted in their participation in the establishment and upkeep of their inheritance.
Yarm's elders were originally involved in 1810, in a project to join South durham's coalffield west of Shildon with a shipping port. Due to Yarm's less than cordial relationship with downriver neighbours Stockton-on-Tees - having once been a merchant port, Yarm was 'upstaged' by Stockton when ship sizes increased and Yarm's fortunes passed to downriver Stockton - Yarm would ally itself with Darlington in its pursuit of a linking railway, as opposed to Stockton's plans for a canal.
Yarm's dignitaries and prime movers of the railway
One of Yarm's dignitaries, the Quaker Benjamin Flounders was a railway backer. His family owned linen mills at nearby Crathorne.
They had been involved in this business for two generations. Flounders was acqainted with the Quaker mill owner Edward Pease of Darlington. Another, Thomas Meynell* was Lord of the Manor of Yarm, his home now the 'core' of Yarm School. He dismissed Stockton's canal scheme as 'wild', saying,
"I am most decidedly favourable of the proposal of a railroad".
Meynell's key contribution to the scheme was in employing Jeremiah Cairns as his land steward in Yarm. Cairn's sister was wife to an engineer from South Wales, George Overton, experienced in laying tracks for horse-drawn rail and trramways there. In 1818 Yarm's dignitaries urged Overton to conduct.a survey for the railway route from west of Shildon to Stockton Wharf.
Overton's plan was backed by another Yarm entrepreneur Richard Miles, who with his brother Thomas was a partner in Flounder's timber enterprise. Edward Pease later praised Miles as being "first in the kingdom" to see the benefits of public railways.
So these Yarm men were the driving force of the pioneering S&DR committee. In 1819 they sought Parliamentary approval for the project.
The earl of Darlington, of Raby Castle, inflicted their first defeat, resulting in 160 men of the Yarm area signing a petition to support the railway promoters. After the defeat the committee modified their plans and presented them again at Westminster, sure the Bill would be passed. However, on January 29th the ailing George III died aged 81. All incomplete legislation went with him.
Two weeks later, on February 14th the railway planners held their meeting at the George & Dragon Hotel. The original tables and chairs were still there for the 100th anniversary re-enactment. In 1926 they were sold locally - chaired by Thomas Meynell, with Flounders and Miles in attendance. Leonard Raisbeck of Stockton also attended, with Edward Pease and Francis Mewburn of Darlington. They agreed not to rush their Bill before Parliament but to wait, to strengthen their case and have Overton perfect his survey. That done, they left for home.
*The Meynell family were originally deMesnil, who came with Duke William in 1066 and also held land in the area near Kildale where a castle had been built. The castle ruins are now hidden from the road on what looks a thickly wooded hillside.
In the afterrmath of another setback the cause was not abandoned as we well know...
By doing nothing at this stage they bought time, so that by the end of 1820 they were able to present a sound Bill to Parliament. The Bill became law on April 19th, 1821. Building the railway could now begin.
Thomas Meynell became the company's first Chairman in 1821, laying the first ceremonial rail at St John's Crossing in Stockton. Not being a demonstrative sort of gentleman, Meynell made no speech. However, an enterprising young lad toured the 'watrering holes' (pubs) of Stockton selling souvenir copies of his 'speech' for a penny a sheet. When purchasers saw their sheets were blank he was gone. It was nevertheless an accurate representation.
When the raílway opened on September 27th, 1825 the Yarm contingent was well represented. The Yarm Band - in a coal wagon - played as the train reached Stockton's terminus. The notes of "God Save the King" (George IV) would have been barely audible over the crowd's cheers as 'Locomotion No. 1 arrivwed at the Quayside.
A short branch off the S&DR led to the north bank of the Tees opposite Yarm at an area known as 'The Hole of Paradise' that overlooks the old stone Yarm (road) Bridge. Once the rail-borne horse-drawn carriage arrived at Yarm Station all occupants descended on the 'New Inn', later 'The Railway Inn', now 'The Cleveland Bay' (a breed of chestnut riding and carriage horse), the first railway pub in the world. Therein leading Yarm townsfolk welcomed the railway's arrival.
The Durham Chronicle recorded the , the toast made to
"the gentlemen of Yarm", with whom the idea of this great undertaking originated, and to whose peerseverance in the early stages of the the public are so much indebted for its completion".
From October 16th the horse-drawn 'Experiment' called at Yarm on its way from Darlington to Stockton, making Yarm one of the best-connected of the world's towns.
Yarm's love affair with the railway hit the buffers in 1828...
The Darlington contingent saw Stockton as being at the wrong location on the Tees for coal shipments.
They wanted a deep sea port and proposed the railway's extension, bypassing Stockton to an area of salt plain where Port Darlington was to be located. Yarm felt the economic benefit of the railway would be taken from the Teesside communities as they were then, to establish a new rival. In the event Stockton's dignitaries objected to the name and Port Darlington was renamed Newport, later to become the new boom town on Middlesbrough.
In 1857 'Locomotion No. 1' was displayed at North Road station, the S&DR's Darlington station, in a ceremony. The locomotive would later be set on a plinth inside the new 1877 Bsnk Top Station designed for the North Eastern Railway (NER) by their architect Thomas Prosser. The S&DR had by this time been absorbed at favourable terms to its shareholders by the NER in 1863. The locomotive would be trransferred yet agaiin, this time together with sister locomotive 'Derwent' back to North Road station.
More recently she was transferred to the National Railway Museum's offshoot site,. 'Locomotion' at Shildon, sparking an argument with Darlington's council. It seems controversy never strays far from Darlington.
North Road Station Darlington is used by service trains to Bishop Auckland and Shildon on the up platform side, the rest of the site including the grand looking station building is the 'Head of Steam' exhibition.
See also: Travel North - 16: Railway Rambles; Travel North - 46: Battle of the Railways
© 2020 Alan R Lancaster