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Hetton Colliery Railway
Hetton Lyons, County Durham to Sunderland, UK
Hetton Colliery Railway
associated engineer
George Stephenson
date  1821 - 1822
UK era  Georgian  |  category  Railway  |  reference  NZ360471
photo  reproduced from The Engineer, 18th July 1902
The first railway to be operated without animal power, and briefly the world’s longest railway. It linked Hetton Colliery (Lyon's Colliery, Hetton Lyons Colliery) in County Durham with Sunderland, and was engineered by George Stephenson who also designed its locomotives and stationary steam engines. The line was the forerunner of the Stockton & Darlington Railway. Few traces of it survive.
In the early 19th century, Hetton was no more than a tiny village (population 212 people in the 1801 census). It is located about 3.2km south of Houghton-le-Spring in the coal mining area covering Northumberland and County Durham, near the edge of the exposed coalfield. However, the deeper coal seams in the eastern half of the Durham coalfield lay concealed beneath thick beds of Permian Magnesian limestone and geologists of the period were not convinced that coal existed there at all, or if it did that it would be of low quality and quantity.
Landowners Hon. Thomas Lyon (1741-1796) and his son John Lyon (d.1829) of Hetton Hall (NZ350475, dem. 1923) believed otherwise and had been prospecting for coal on their estate since 1772. Various attempts had identified coal, though further work was thwarted by flooding in the trial shafts.
A report dated 22nd April 1816, by mining engineers William Stobbart, Edward Steele and John Watson about the estate's potential reserves, estimated that large areas "of the Upper Main Coal and Hutton Seams will be found in perfection", producing "1,844,901 Chaldrons … of Merchantable Coal". A chaldron was a volumetric coal measure containing a payload of 2.7 tonnes at Hetton, though the measure varied from place to place.
In 1819, Hetton Coal Company was established to dig for coal, and it negotiated a mining lease with Lyon, signed on 13th May 1821. This was County Durham’s first major public company. Its 11 original partners held 24 shares of £250 each between them (£6,000 share capital). Additional funding was secured through bank loans.
The shareholders were the promoter and former bankrupt Arthur Mowbray (1755-1840) with two shares, his son-in-law Royal Navy Captain Hon. Archibald Cochrane (1783-1829) four shares, attorney Richard Scruton five shares, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Whalley Light three shares, attorney John Dunn and coal fitters William Hayton and Thomas Horn each with two shares, and Major William Erskine Cochrane, landowner William Lynn Smart, colliery viewer John Wood and brewer Robert Watson Darnell, each holding a single share.
The partners realised they would need to transport the coal — if they found any — northwards to Sunderland for onward shipment to customers. They appointed George Stephenson (1781-1848), then constructing steam locomotives and rail tracks at Killingworth Colliery in Newcastle, to design a railway for Hetton Colliery. Stephenson worked part-time on the Hetton contract, retaining his post at Killingworth. His brother Robert Stephenson (1788-1837) became resident engineer and managed the Hetton project in his stead.
Hetton Colliery Railway was the first designed to be operated without the use of animal power to pull the wagons. A combination of self-acting inclines, stationary engine-hauled inclines and locomotive working was used instead. Using inclines was more cost efficient than constructing a longer but flatter route for the line, which would have required cuttings and embankments.
The 12.6km line ran uphill from the pit head (NZ359470) to Copt Hill, climbed over Warden Law and descended past Silksworth to a coal staith (NZ391575), or wharf, on the River Wear at Bishopwearmouth, Sunderland. In total, the line ascended 170m and descended 90m.
Work on the railway commenced before any coal was won. Sinking of the first 3.65m diameter shaft — Blossom Pit — began on 6th December 1820, with a second shaft — Minor Pit — started on 23rd December. The shafts were bored through a 53m thick layer of limestone. Blossom Pit was 209m deep, with its sump 105m below sea level, and connecting drifts (cross tunnels) to Minor Pit at 82m and 97m below the surface. On 3rd September 1822, Blossom Pit reached the Main Coal Seam at a depth of 200.6m and found it to be extensive and of good quality.
Meanwhile, work was continuing on the railway, and track laying commenced in March 1821. Using the system of half-lap joints and chairs that George Stephenson and William Losh (c.1770-1861) had together patented in 1816, a single track was laid to standard gauge with passing loops. The cast iron rails were made at the Walker Ironworks in Newcastle, though a foundry was soon established at Hetton to enable replacement of the frequent breakages.
The challenge of crossing Warden Law Hill, rising to 194m above sea level, was solved by the installation of two stationary reciprocating engines of 44.7kW each to haul groups of eight wagons, one of which remained in service until 1876. The route had five self-acting inclines, where a roped system allowed the ascending empty wagons to be powered by the descending laden wagons.
Ultimately, five of Stephenson’s travelling locomotives worked the three less-steep stretches under his brother's direction, travelling at speeds of 6.4-8kph (4-5mph) on the straight and 3.2-4.8kph (2-3mph) on the curves. Four, constructed in 1820, had names — Hetton, Tallyho, Star and Dart . The fifth, completed in 1822, was unnamed.
The locomotives were of 0-4-0 configuration, generating about 9kW apiece and apparently pulling trains of up to 24 loaded wagons, weighing about 91 tonnes in total. All were equipped with the Stephenson-Losh patented 'steam springs' to improve suspension. Small cylinders, open to water from the boiler, with pistons and packing were located between the boiler and the axles to provide a cushioning effect.
On 18th November 1822, the railway opened and the colliery’s first coal was transported on a train of 17 wagons to four drops at the Sunderland staith. Coal was tipped onto the timber staith from the wagons, where it was stored in a timber building awaiting shipment, whereupon it was funnelled down a long chute into a vessel's hold.
On 6th January 1823, Minor Pit was completed at 276m deep with sound coal deposits in the Maudlin Seam at 220m, Low Main Seam at 238m and Hutton Seam at 270m below the surface.
The railway was much in demand, though concerns were raised that it was not meeting its design capacity, culminating in Robert Stephenson's dismissal in 1823. Joseph Smith replaced him as resident engineer. William Chapman (1749-1832) was appointed by the company to advise on improvements. From 1824, George Dodds was railway superintendent, recording that the locomotives cost £500 each and the stationary engines £3,000 each.
Works carried out in 1823, presumably at Chapman’s recommendation, included the installation of a third stationary engine (operational by 1826) between the two originals working the Warden Law incline, and an extra gravity incline at the staith to shorten the chute distance.
By 1825-6, the railway was also carrying coal from the collieries at Elemore (NZ356456), Eppleton (NZ364484) and North Hetton (NZ342462) via gravity incline branches connecting to the main line.
In 1827, the 'long run' — the two stretches south of Sunderland — was converted from locomotive working to haulage by three stationary engines, increasing speeds from 4.8kph (3mph) to 16kph (10mph). From about 1827, the cast iron rails were replaced with malleable wrought iron ones and the chaldron wagon design was improved. By 1829, the locomotives were travelling at 46.7kph (29mph) and Hetton had grown into a small town with a population of several thousand.
In 1836, Nicholas Wood (1795-1865), formerly head of Killingworth Colliery, replaced Mowbray as the manager and principal partner of the Hetton Coal Company. He lived at Hetton Hall. After his death in 1865, his youngest son Lindsay Wood (1834-1920, baronet from 1897) took charge.
In the 1850s, more-powerful steam engines enabled locomotive working to be reinstated on the 'long run' of the colliery railway. The complex of sidings and engineering workshops at Hetton was enlarged, and a 1.2km branch line constructed southwards to a coal depot in Easington Lane.
In 1888, the Hetton Coal Company became Hetton Coal Co. Ltd. Sometime later, two gear driven 0-4-0T locomotives with vertical boilers were constructed for the railway. By 1894, the shaft sidings were lit by electricity and the colliery employed 1,051 workers (613 of them underground), producing about 1,000 tonnes of coal a day.
In July 1902, The Engineer noted that "one of the original locomotives" was still at work "drawing the coal trucks at Hetton, being now the oldest working locomotive in the world". Thought to have been "built by [George] Stephenson in 1822", it was withdrawn from service between 1908 and 1913, to be preserved for posterity. The locomotive (as examined in 1902 and now in the National Railway Museum in York) weighs 15 tonnes, has 914mm diameter wheels, 273mm diameter cylinders with a piston stroke of 610mm, and a haulage capacity of 122 tonnes at a speed of about 16kph (10mph) on the level.
The magazine commented that "It cannot be expected that much of Stephenson's original work remains in the engine, but its general design — excepting the chimney, etc. — remains as originally erected. This is explained by the fact that at various times different parts have been renewed, the new pieces being made to correspond with the parts taken out, whilst it may be pointed out that some parts — notably, the steam dome — are actually portions of the engine as constructed in 1822".
In June 1911, Hetton Coal Co Ltd was acquired by the Lambton Collieries Company of James Joicey & Co Ltd, forming Lambton & Hetton Collieries Ltd, followed by Lambton, Hetton & Joicey Collieries Ltd in 1924. In 1947, under the nationalisation of all collieries and associated railways, the company became part of the National Coal Board.
On 11th July 1950, the Blossom and Minor pits were closed by the Board but the Hetton Colliery Railway and its River Wear staith continued to be used by the Elemore, Eppleton and Silksworth collieries. Following construction of the Hawthorn Shaft (1952-8) near Murton, coal from these collieries were transported underground to the rail line from Murton to Sunderland Docks or to Seaham Harbour on the South Hetton Railway.
In 1952, Lambton, Hetton & Joicey Collieries Ltd was officially wound up, and on 9th September 1959, Hetton Colliery Railway carried traffic for the last time. Dismantling began the next day. The pit head chimneys at Hetton Colliery were also demolished in 1959, and other buildings in the 1990s. The railway tracks were removed progressively, the last 27m was lifted at Hetton on 20th November 1960. Stretches of the trackbed survive as part of the Stephenson Trail pedestrian and cycle route, with the colliery’s spoil heaps underlying the Hetton Lyons Country Park.
Some sources claim that the locomotive at the National Railway Museum is not one of Stephenson’s but was constructed in 1851-2 at the Hetton Colliery engineering workshop, and rebuilt in 1874 and 1882. It’s also possible that it was one of a pair of replicas built at the behest of Sir Lindsay Wood, one of which was destroyed in 1858-9 in a boiler explosion. Nevertheless, it is the only known surviving locomotive from the Hetton Colliery Railway and is pictured above.
Resident engineer (1821-3): Robert Stephenson (the elder)
Resident engineer (from 1823): Joseph Smith
Research: ECPK
"The Hetton Village Atlas: A Community, its History and Landscape", Hetton Local & Natural History Society, 2014
"George Stephenson: The Remarkable Life of the Founder of the Railways" by Hunter Davies, revised edition, Sutton Publishing Limited, Stroud, 2004
"George and Robert Stephenson: The Railway Revolution" by L.T.C. Rolt, Penguin Books Ltd, London, 1984
"George Stephenson: The Engineer & His Letters" by W.O. Skeat, The Institution of Mechanical Engineers, London, 1973
"The Oldest Working Locomotive in the World", The Engineer, p.57, 18th July 1902
reference sources   BDCE1Smiles3

Hetton Colliery Railway