George Stephenson’s plans for the ‘world’s first railway’ uncovered

Rare notebook containing George Stephenson’s 1822 plans for the ‘world’s first railway’ is uncovered among 20,000 documents in National Rail’s archive

  • ‘Thrilling’ discovery is made by Network Rail while searching for documents 
  • Stephenson had penned details about the Stockton and Darlington Railway
  • The book hadn’t been seen since the 1950s and was found in 20,000 documents

A rare notebook detailing plans for the world’s first ever railway has been described as a ‘thrilling’ discovery.

The leather-bound 12 inch by 12 inch notebook was discovered by historians in Network Rail’s national archive.

Penned by ‘Father of the Railways’ George Stephenson, the book was written in in 1822 and includes costings and remarks about a survey into the proposed Stockton and Darlington Railway, which was built three years later.

Signature pages from George Stephenson’s notebook. The notebook included detailed designs by the ‘Father of the Railways’

The line operated from 1825 to 1863 to connect collieries and to quicken the delivery of coal for shipping.

John Page, Network Rail’s records assistant stumbled across the notebook when searching for documents in April this year and said it had been a ‘thrilling’ discovery.

The book had not been seen since the 1950s but was uncovered among 20,000 documents on the shelves.

Stephenson (left) was born in 1781 in Northumbria and was considered by the Victorians a great example of diligent application and a man with a thirst for improvement. The notebook (right) is still bound in its original form and is written in with ink

John, from York, said: ‘Because it is a historical document it would never have been loaned out or requested as it didn’t impact the running of the railway so since the 1950s, it has sat on a shelf unnoticed amongst hundreds of other packets.

‘I was looking for a deed for one of our internal colleagues and purely out of curiosity decided to look through the packets, and there it was, and what a thrill it was to find.’

The notes have now gone on show at the National Railway Museum in York and were unveiled on September 27 – the 193rd anniversary of the opening of the Stockton and Darlington line.

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The notebook also includes Stephenson’s survey of engineer George Overton’s original 1821 line and amendments he recommended.

The notebook is bound in its original form and is written in ink with pencil annotations.

Stephenson’s son, Robert, designed the Rocket, which is currently on display in Manchester and due to find its permanent home at the National Railway Museum.  

The Rocket was designed and built by Stephenson with the help of Robert, and Henry Booth, for the 1829 Rainhill Trials.

These pages of the book detail a variety of expenses. Many who worked with Stephenson felt some of his decisions were too costly

The Trials were held by the Liverpool and Manchester Railway Company, in order to find the best locomotive engine for a railway line that was being built to serve the two English cities. 15,000 people came along to see the race of the locomotives.

The Rocket was the first locomotive to have a multi-tube boiler – with 25 copper tubes rather than a single flue or twin flue.

Sir Peter Hendy CBE, chair of Network Rail, said: ‘George Stephenson’s original survey of the Stockton and Darlington Railway ushered in the railway age, not only in Britain, but around the world.

The book had not been seen since the 1950s but was uncovered among 20,000 documents on the shelves

‘Network Rail is delighted and proud to have found this astonishing artefact, and very pleased to have it displayed by our friends at the National Railway Museum.

‘Then, as now, railways were essential to creating economic growth, jobs and housing.’

Catherine Robins, interpretation developer at the National Railway Museum said: ‘This is a rare and historic document which includes many new and interesting details which help bring the story of the railway’s early years to life.’

The father of the railways: How George Stephenson and his son helped shape train travel across the world

George Stevenson was an English civil and mechanical engineer who was renowned as the ‘Father of the Railways’. He was born in 1781 in Northumbria and was considered by the Victorians a great example of diligent application and a man with a thirst for improvement.

The infamous ‘Stephenson gauge’ is now the standard gauge of 4ft 8in and is the main convention for most of the world’s railways.

The development of rail transport is still considered to be one of the most important technological inventions of the 19th century and this was something that both Stephenson and his son Robert played a big role in.

An artists impression of the Rocket built by Robert Stephenson

The Locomotion Number 1 was built by George and his son Robert’s company Robert Stephenson and Company, and was the first steam locomotive to carry passengers on a public rail line, that being the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1825.

Living up to his name of the ‘Father of the Railways’, George also built the first public inter-city railway line in the world to use locomotives, which was the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, which originally opened in 1830.

After his initial success Stephenson was then bombarded with requests from railway promoters and many of them came to Newcastle to learn from Stephenson.

An illustration of George Stephenson’s steam engine the Rocket in 1829

However, after a while his conservative views on the capabilities of locomotives meant he favoured circuitous routes which were more costly than some felt necessary.

He was soon snowed under and was being offered more work than he could cope with. He became a reassuring name rather than a cutting edge technical adviser.

George’s son Robert, continued in his father’s footsteps and built on the achievements of his father, Robert has been heralded by many as the greatest engineer of the 19th century.

His company surveyed the route for the London & Birmingham railway, and it was in 1830 that he joined the Institution of Civil Engineers as a member.

The Rocket won the race at the competition in Rainhill Bridge in Manchester 

In his later life he also took on bridge building and in 1846 he became the chief engineer and designed an iron bridge to cross the River Dee, just outside Chester. The bridge was completed in September 1846, it was inspected by the Board of Trade Inspectors, Major-General Paisley, on 20 October.

On 24 May 1847 the bridge gave way under a passenger train; the locomotive and driver made it across, but the tender and carriages fell into the river. Five people died.

Robert died in 1859 and his funeral cortege was given permission by the Queen to pass through Hyde Park, an honour previously reserved for royalty.

The locomotive had also been displayed at the Deutsches Museum in Munich


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