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Rainhill Trials, site of
Rainhill, Merseyside, UK
associated engineer
Robert Stephenson
George Stephenson
Timothy Hackworth
John Braithwaite
John Ericsson
Timothy Burstall
Thomas Shaw Brandreth
date  6th to 14th October 1829
era  Georgian  |  category  Railway  |  reference  SJ495915
ICE reference number  HEW 944
The level summit at Rainhill in Merseyside is the site of the famous competition known as the Rainhill Trials. It was run by the Liverpool & Manchester Railway Company to determine whether steam locomotion could be used to power the company’s new line, and was the first public appearance of Stephenson's Rocket. George Stephenson was a strong advocate of steam locomotives while others favoured stationary engines and horse-powered winch systems.
The Liverpool & Manchester Railway (L&MR) is hailed as the world’s first inter-city railway. While it was under construction, directed by its engineer George Stephenson (1781-1848), the railway company’s board commissioned investigations into the various methods available for powering the line’s rolling stock. Though horse haulage was soon discounted, opinions differed over the relative merits of stationary and moving engines. At the time fixed engines were more expensive but dependable. Locomotives offered flexibility if their reliability could be improved.
In January 1829, James Walker (1781-1862) and Foster, Rastrick & Company’s chief engineer John Urpeth Rastrick (1780-1856) inspected progress on the L&MR and visited various railways that were already running — Hetton Colliery, Stockton & Darlington, Bolton & Leigh and Brunton & Shields. They reported individually, both favouring stationary engines.
In March 1829, Joseph Locke (1805-60) and George's son Robert Stephenson (1803-59) made a comparative study of locomotives and stationary engines. Their report recommended locomotives — not an unexpected conclusion, but supported by cogent reasoning nonetheless.
The L&MR company resolved to follow a suggestion in Walker’s report that to encourage innovation in locomotive construction, "a premium, or an assurance of preference, might be held out to the person whose Engine was, upon experience found to answer the best". A prize of £500 was settled upon.
On 25th April 1829, a committee of the company’s directors — James Cropper (1773-1841), Joseph Sandars (1774-1857), John Moss (1782-1858), Robert Benson and William Rotherham — published the rules of the competition ...
I. The said engine must effectually consume its own smoke, according to the provisions of the Railway Act, 7th Geo IV.
II. The engine, if it weighs six tons, must be capable of drawing after it, day by day, on a well-constructed railway, on a level plane, a train of carriages of the gross weight of twenty tons, including the tender and water tank, at the rate of ten miles per hour, with a pressure of steam in the boiler not exceeding 50lb on the square inch.
III. There must be two safety valves, one of which must be completely out of the reach or control of the Engine-man, and neither of which must be fastened down while the engine is working.
IV. The engine and boiler must be supported on springs and rest on six wheels; and the height, from the ground to the top of the chimney, must not exceed fifteen feet.
V. The weight of the machine, with its complement of water in the boiler, must, at most, not exceed six tons; and a machine of less weight will be preferred if it draw after it a proportionate weight; and if the weight of the engine, &c. do not exceed five tons, then the gross weight to be drawn need not exceed fifteen tons, and in that proportion for machines of still smaller weight, provided that the Engine, &c. shall still be on six wheels unless the weight (as above) be reduced to four tons and a half, or under, in which case the boiler, &c. may be placed on four wheels. And the Company shall be at liberty to put the boiler, fire tube, cylinders, &c. to the test of a pressure of water not exceeding 150lb per square inch, without being answerable for any damage the machine may receive in consequence.
VI. There must be a mercurial gauge affixed to the machine, with index rod, showing the steam pressure above 45 pounds per square inch, and constructed to blow out at a pressure of 60 pounds per inch.
VII. The engine to be delivered complete for trial, at the Liverpool end of the railway, not later than the 1st of October next.
VIII. The price of the engine, which may be accepted, not to exceed £550, delivered on the railway; and any engine not approved to be taken back by the owner.
N.B. The Railway Company will provide the engine tender with a supply of water and fuel for the experiment. The distance within the rails is four feet eight inches and a half.
On 4th May, the directors added that "what was required was an improved moving power". In other words, the engines need not be steam locomotives.
As reported at the time by Mechanics Magazine, the original number of engines competing was to have been 10. Only five arrived at Rainhill for the contest — Cycloped, Novelty, Perseverance, Rocket and Sans Pareil. The trio of judges comprised Manchester textile manufacturer John Kennedy (1769-1855), Rastrick and Killingworth Colliery’s chief engineer Nicholas Wood (1795-1865), a keen railway advocate and author of A Practical Treatise on Rail-Roads.
First on the scene, on 18th September 1829 after a six-day journey, was Rocket, manufactured at the Robert Stephenson & Co works in Newcastle, and tested on the Killingworth Colliery Railway. She was designed by Robert Stephenson with input from his father and from L&MR company treasurer Henry Booth (1788-1869). Her multi-tube boiler was 1.83m long and 1.02m in diameter. Gettng a locomotive to Rainhill wasn't easy — there were no rail links or motorways. Rocket was dismantled, taken to Carlisle by road, on to Bowness by barge, then by steamship to Liverpool and finally by road to the railway's Millfield Yard, where she was re-assembled.
Next to arrive was Perseverance, designed by Timothy Burstall (1776-1860). This engine had a vertical boiler resembling a large iron wine bottle, and was fitted with a feedwater heater. She survived a sea voyage but was damaged in an accident on the road from Liverpool to the site. The subsequent lengthy repairs limited her ability to compete.
By early October, the other three had arrived. Sans Pareil, designed by Timothy Hackworth (1786-1850), was based on his six-wheeled locomotive Royal George built for the Stockton & Darlington in 1827. Sans Pareil's wrought iron plated boiler, 1.83m long and 1.27m in diameter, was manufactured at Bedlington Ironworks, and the cylinders, 178mm diameter by 457mm, were supplied by Robert Stephenson & Co.
Living up to her name, Novelty looked more like a giant copper tea urn on a trolley than a locomotive. Her boiler was only 330mm in diameter. Designed by engineer John Braithwaite (1797-1870) and Swedish inventor and mechanical engineer John Ericsson (1803-89), she was constructed in London by Ericsson in seven weeks or less. However, she had had no track testing as there were no rail lines in London at the time.
Possibly the least credible entry was Cycloped (or Cyclopede), submitted by inventor Thomas Shaw Brandreth (1788-1873), a supporter of stationary engines. His machine was powered by a pair of tethered horses walking or galloping on a horizontal treadmill, which turned the wheels.
Though not an official competitor, another implausible machine was exhibited at Rainhill. Manumotive, designed by a Mr Winan [ possibly American inventor and railroad engineer Ross Winans (1796-1877 ]. She was operated by two men working a windlass, and carried six passengers.
On Monday 5th October 1829, the directors decreed that the engines were to be ready by 10am the following morning. The trial runs would take place on the 2.82km Rainhill Level, with timing over the central 2.41km section, allowing for stopping and starting. According to Jeaffreson, the next day an enthusiastic crowd of "10,000 to 15,000 people … assembled to witness the novel contest".
The running order was set as Novelty, Sans Pareil, Rocket and then Cycloped. Perseverance was still undergoing remedial work and did not take part. However, meticulous preparation by the Stephensons meant that Rocket was ready first and was called to the start. As McGowan reports, "earlier that morning she had conveyed the directors to the grounds, and was still in steam". To comply with the rule that engines had to 'consume their own smoke', all the locomotives were fuelled with coke rather than coal.
Rocket weighed 4.32 tonnes (4 tons 5 cwt), including the water in her boiler, and was painted yellow and black with a white chimney. Her front driving wheels were 1.435m in diameter — equal to the distance between the rails (standard gauge) — with smaller trailing wheels of 762mm diameter. The boiler contained 25 copper tubes, each 76mm in diameter, providing a much larger heating area than other boilers of the time. Her cylinders of 432mm stroke and 203mm diameter inclined at an angle of 35 degrees, and drove onto the leading axle.
Rocket was coupled to a tender of 3.25 tonnes (3 tons 4 cwt) plus a number of wagons loaded with stones, making a total of 17.3 tonnes. She covered 19.3km (12 miles) in 71 minutes including stoppages, with a running time of 53 minutes and 20 seconds, making an average speed of 21.7kph (13.5mph). Without the loaded wagons, she reached a speed of 39.4kph (24.5mph), rolling a little from side to side with each stroke of the pistons.
Impressive as this was, Rocket was not the fastest that day. That accolade was won by the crowd’s favourite, Novelty. Painted dark blue with copper fittings, she weighed 3.1 tonnes (3 tons 1 cwt) and required no separate tender. Her four equal wheels of 1.27m diameter were initially chain coupled, though almost immediately uncoupled. Vertical cylinders of 152mm bore actuated the rear wheels via bell cranks. Without load, she flew smoothly past the onlookers at 45.1kph (28mph), and was reported to complete "one mile in the incredibly short space of one minute and 53 seconds", or 51.3kph (31.9mph).
Sans Pareil was allowed to compete despite weighing 4.85 tonnes (4 tons 15.5 cwt), or 280kg over the limit. She had 1.37m diameter coupled wheels with vertical cylinders driving the rear pair. She was the only entry to use a steam blast pipe. Her boiler contained a single return flue, which meant the firebox was at the chimney end of the locomotive, so the tender rode in front of the engine to enable stoking of the boiler. She made one return run but it was not timed.
The 3.05 tonne horse-powered Cycloped managed to haul a train carrying 50 people at a speed of 8kph (5mph). However, she failed to satisfy the competition rules — she was not an engine so had no pressure gauge, she was unsprung, and she moved at half the desired speed — and was not involved in further time trials. The Manumotive was also eliminated. She "moved with no great velocity" and was involved in a minor crash with one of the other entries.
During the the day, the judges refined the competition’s rules. They announced a number of detailed conditions, described as "the ordeal we have decided each Locomotive Engine shall undergo" ...
The weight of the locomotive engine, with its full complement of water in the boiler, shall be ascertained at the weighing machine, by eight o'clock in the morning, and the load assigned to it shall be three times the weight thereof. The water in the boiler shall be cold, and there shall be no fuel in the fire-place. As much fuel shall be weighed, and as much water shall be measured and delivered into the tender carriage, as the owner of the engine may consider sufficient for the supply of the engine for a journey of thirty-five miles. The fire in the boiler shall then be lighted, and the quantity of fuel consumed for getting up the steam shall be determined, and the time noted.
The tender carriage, with the fuel and water, shall be considered to be and taken as a part of the load assigned to the engine.
Those engines which carry their own fuel and water, shall be allowed a proportionate deduction for their load, according to the weight of the engine.
The engine, with the carriages attached to it, shall be run by hand up to the starting post, and as soon as the steam is got up to fifty pounds per square inch, the engine shall set out upon its journey.
The distance the engine shall perform each trip shall be one mile and three quarters each way, including one-eighth of a mile at each end for getting up the speed and for stopping the train; by this means the engine, with its load, will travel one and a-half mile each way at full speed.
The engines shall make ten trips, which will be equal to a journey of 35 miles, thirty miles whereof shall be performed at full speed, and the average rate of travelling shall not be less than ten miles per hour.
As soon as the engine has performed this task (which will be equal to the travelling from Liverpool to Manchester,) there shall be a fresh supply of water and fuel delivered to her; and, as soon as she can be got ready to set out again, she shall go up to the starting post, and make ten trips more, which will be equal to the journey from Manchester back again to Liverpool.
The time of performing every trip shall be accurately noted, as well as the time occupied in getting ready to set out on the second journey.
Should the engine not be enabled to take along with it sufficient fuel and water for the journey of ten trips, the time occupied in taking in a fresh supply of fuel and water shall be considered, and taken as part of the time in performing the journey.
On the second day, 7th October, Novelty completed one run at up to 40.2kph (25mph) with the requisite weight attached, and then retired for repairs when her ash pan, pressurised by bellows, burst. Rocket took to the track, pulling a coach of 30 passengers at up to 48.3kph (30mph). Sans Pareil's leaking boiler prevented her from running and Perseverance was still being rebuilt. Cycloped tried, though the demonstration ended when one of the horses fell through the floor of the apparatus (happily, "extricated without much injury"). Proceedings were abandoned owing to rain and mud.
Rocket was the only locomotive in action the following day, as the other three were still being repaired. She took 57 minutes for her boiler to reach the specified 344.7kN per square metre (50psi) above atmospheric pressure. Hauling her tender and two fully laden wagons, totalling over 18 tonnes, she covered 56.3km (35 miles) in 3 hours 12 mins, refuelled, and completed another 56.3km in 2 hours 57 mins, averaging 18.3kph (11.4mph). Running without a train she achieved 46.7kph (29mph).
All activity was suspended on Friday 9th October for the ongoing repairs. On Saturday, Novelty was hitched to a load of 6.96 tonnes (6 tons 17 cwt). With fuel and water, the total weight was 10.88 tonnes. She raised steam in 54 minutes 40 seconds, which was a little faster than Rocket, but Novelty used less than half of the quantity of coke to do so. Her speed was promising but she burst a steam pipe on the second trip. She later managed 48.3kph (30mph) pulling a carriage of 45 passengers.
Rocket's consistent performance continued and several runs were made, including one at the inconceivable speed of 51.5kph (32mph) unloaded — her fastest trip. As an excited reporter for The Times newspaper noted, "the engine alone shot along the road at the incredible rate of 32 miles to the hour [51.5kph]. So astonishing was the celerity with which the engine, without its apparatus, darted past the spectators, that it could be compared to nothing but the rapidity with which the swallow darts through the air. Their astonishment was complete, every one exclaiming involuntarily, ‘The power of steam is unlimited!'".
No runs were made on 11th and 12th October. However, on Tuesday 13th October, Sans Pareil had her first official time trial. Including locomotive, tender and wagons she hauled a load of 19.41 tonnes over 40km (25 miles) at an average speed of 22.5kph (14mph), reaching a maximum of 28.2kph (17.5mph). When she had completed 50km (31 miles) of the initial 56.3km (35 miles), a pump supplying water from the tender to the engine burst and she drifted to a halt. Despite an ungainly rolling motion caused by the vertical cylinders, she had shown consistency, but at the expense of fuel economy.
Sans Pareil consumed about three times as much coke and 20% more water than Rocket. However, it was evident that both locomotives moved forward some 4.8kph (3mph) faster than they could reverse, probably as a result of their valve arrangements.
On Wednesday, Novelty was readied again after a morning of boiler repairs. To the delight of the crowd, she achieved a top speed of 38.6kph (24mph) with the required load. Unfortunately, near the end of the second round trip, a joint blew out on a pipe from the furnace to the boiler. Ericsson withdrew her.
The judges declined Hackworth’s request for another trial for Sans Pareil, even though he explained that his engine was designed for long continuous journeys rather than and the comparatively short runs of the trials.
Perseverance, weighing 2.9 tonnes (2 tons 17 cwt), made her debut after modifications by Burstall, who had been amassing information on the construction methods used by the others. She managed a few runs at 9.7kph (6mph), well short of the required 16.1kph (10mph). Nevertheless, the judges awarded Burstall a £25 consolation prize towards his expenses.
Rocket further emphasised her power and reliability by pulling a carriage of 25 people up a 1 in 96 gradient at 19.3kph (12mph), demonstrating that stationary haulage engines were not required on the L&MR’s Sutton and Whiston Inclines. Not surprisingly, she was awarded the £500 premium. However, complaints of bias in favour of the Stephensons were levelled by the press for some months.
Rocket apparently crowned her win with a triumphant demonstration. Stephenson and Locke's 1830 report states that after she had "fulfilled every stipulated condition" at the trials and pronounced the winner, she ran again. As they note, "to show that it [Rocket] had been working quite within its powers, Mr. Stephenson ordered it to be brought on the ground and detached from all incumbrance, and in making two trips it moved at the astonishing rate of 35 miles an hour".
The Rainhill Trials proved the practicability of using steam locomotives on railways — and the rest is history, as they say. So, what happened to the engines that competed?
Once Novelty had been repaired she was tried again at Rainhill but continued to break down. Under the influence of Cropper, who disliked the Stephensons, the L&MR directors ordered two larger locomotives, William IV and Queen Adelaide, of similar design from Braithwaite and Ericsson. All three appear to have been tried on the L&MR line but struggled to keep running. Ericsson noted in later years, "They proved utter failures for want of steam ...". They are thought to have been in service on the St Helens & Runcorn Gap Railway (opened 1833), under its engineer Charles Blacker Vignoles (1793-1875). A replica of Novelty was constructed for the L&MR's 150th anniversary in 1980.
The L&MR bought Sans Pareil for £550, after a cracked cylinder discovered after the trials had been replaced. Until 1832, she was hired out to the Bolton & Leigh Railway (opened 1828) at £15 per month, after which she was purchased for £110. She worked the Bolton & Leigh up to 1844, and was then used as a stationary pumping and winding engine at Coppull Colliery, Lancashire, until 1863. She is now in the Science Museum, London. A reproduction was also constructed for the L&MR anniversary.
The success of Rocket guaranteed further orders for Robert Stephenson & Co. On 26th October 1829, having already purchased Rocket, the L&MR’s directors ordered for four similar locomotives —Meteor, Comet, Dart and Arrow. On 25th March 1830, Robert Stephenson reported six Rocket-type engines were complete, with a further two under construction.
Planet, incorporating several improvements, was ready in October 1830. By April 1831, a further 15 locomotives had been delivered. In the meantime, Rocket had undergone modifications before the railway’s opening in 1830, including lowering the cylinders to an angle of 8 degrees, and fitting a smokebox and shorter chimney. She worked the L&MR until 1836, then was sold for £300 to the Brampton Railway where she worked until 1844. In 1862, she was donated to the Patent’s Office Museum, the forerunner of London's Science Museum, where she can be seen today.
In 1881, a timber facsimile of Rocket was built for George Stephenson’s centenary celebrations. In 1979, its surviving metal parts were salvaged and used in the construction of a replica to mark L&MR anniversary. The replica’s chimney is 610mm shorter than the original to allow it to pass under the skew arch bridge at Rainhill, because the rail level is now higher than it was in 1830.
In May 1980, a re-enactment of the Rainhill Trials was staged as part of the L&MR’s 150th anniversary. It featured the replicas of Novelty, Rocket and Sans Pareil, as well as the original L&MR’s 1838 locomotive Lion.
Research: ECPK
"The Rainhill Trials" by Christopher McGowan, Little, Brown, London, 2004
"Rocket 150, 150th Anniversary of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway 1830-1980, Official Handbook", British Rail, London, 1980
"The Rainhill Locomotive Trials of 1829" by C.F. Dendy Marshall, Transactions of the Newcomen Society, 9:1, 78-93, read at Caxton Hall, Westminster, 24th April 1929
"The Liverpool and Manchester Railway" by C.F. Dendy Marshall, Transactions of the Newcomen Society, 2:1, 12-44, read at Caxton Hall, Westminster, 16th November 1921
"The Life of Robert Stephenson, F.R.S., Volumes I & II" by John Cordy Jeaffreson and William Pole, Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer, London, 1866
"A Practical Treatise on Rail-Roads, and Interior Communication in General. Containing numerous experiments on the powers of the improved locomotive engines: and tables of the comparative cost of conveyance on canals, railways, and turnpike roads" by Nicholas Wood, 3rd edn, Longman, Orme, Brown, Green, & Longmans, London, 1838
"Report to the Directors of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, on the Comparative Merits of Locomotive and Fixed Engines, as a Moving Power" by James Walker (March 1829), "Observations on the Comparative Merits of Locomotive and Fixed Engines, as Applied to Railways" by Robert Stephenson and Joseph Locke (February 1830), and "An Account of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway" by Henry Booth (December 1830), bound together in an American edition, Carey & Lea, Philadelphia, 1831
reference sources   CEH NorthSmiles3

Rainhill Trials, site of