On the 27th September 1825, something remarkable happened right here in New Shildon, something of an experiment which when it became successful here was quite literally rolled out to the rest of the world. Just down the road at the Mason's Arms Crossing a steam locomotive named Locomotion No.1 set began its maiden journey to the coast taking with it wagons laden with coal, and for the first time in history, passengers. After that day, New Shildon exploded into being as the world's first railway town, making locomotives and wagons for the world.
When Timothy Hackworth, the first superintendent of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, chose Shildon to be the base for his works, there were no skilled railway engineers to employ. Most of the local workforce could barely read or write. In part to answer this need he founded a Mechanics' Institute in 1833, initially little more than a shelf of books in a room this took a journey around his works, then to a purpose-built Institute building on Station Street which was replaced in 1911 by this fabulous Railway Institute on Redworth Road
New Shildon, where the Railway Institute now stands was once a town in its own right, and whilst it's true to say that it exploded into existence to support the rail industry, the true underlying reason for its birth was 'coal'. It was at the western edge of a relatively flat stretch of land between the south of the Durham Coalfield and the North East coast. The challenge that engineers that built the railway were trying to overcome was how to quickly get the coal from coalfield to that coast. The tried and trusted option of a canal was considered, but as is now well documented it was the steam-powered locomotive that was selected.
Before the railway, there was little here in terms of habitation. John Dixon, an assistant to George Stephenson, recalled:
"I have known Shildon for fifty years when there was not a house of any sort at New Shildon, much less a Mechanics Institute. When I surveyed the lines of the projected railway in 1821, the site of this New Shildon Works was a wet, swampy field – a likely place to find a snipe, or a flock of peewits. Dan Adamson’s was the nearest house. A part of Old Shildon existed, but ‘Chapel Row’, a row of miner’s houses, was unbuilt or unthought of."
The 27th of September 1825 was the pivotal date, though a track had been laid in the prior period commencing 18 May 1822 which led to the navigable waters on the banks of the River Tees at Stockton. This was not the first steam locomotive railway in the world. Stephenson had done this before at Hetton Colliery. It was, however, the first to carry passengers.
In October of 1825 a directive was issued by the Stockton and Darlington railway to build four cottages for the first enginemen and carpenters and blacksmiths, The works grew slowly around this, with much of the early work being contracted elsewhere, but by 1833 the Soho Works at New Shildon had become something more like a self-contained engineering facility. That facility required men that had intelligence, and a certain amount of engineering education.
Education for adults came to New Shildon well before the same happening for children. On noticing that most of his workers could neither read nor write, Timothy Hackworth, the first Superintendent of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, set about establishing a railwayman's Institution. he held a meeting in 1833 in the cellar of the Globe Inn on Chapel Street with others that included John Glass, John Graham, Thomas McNay, John Pickering and J Stabler, which resulted in him establishing his Mechanics Institute, with Hackworth as the first president. As the Mason's Arms had already been taken over by the railway company as a railway station and booking office, Hackworth initially placed the Institute, at first little more than a shelf of books, within the Wesleyan Schoolroom which we believe to be one of the only two remaining buildings which now still stands on Chapel Street in New Shildon (the other being The Locomotive public house. We don't believe it was the Wesleyan Chapel buildings on Soho Street as they weren't built until 1865. The Institute aimed to provide facilities "for the promotion of useful knowledge" and also sought to provide amenities to the public such as gardens and allotments.
An article in the Durham Chronicle in January 1847 tells of the annual soiree that year.
"The Shildon brass band was present and played popular pieces at intervals...it appears that the institution is in a flourishing state. The Shildon Works have presented the whole of the Library of Entertaining Knowledge, forty volumes in all, The members have joined the Yorkshire Union, kept up their classes and support an excellent newsroom."
Also in 1847, the Institute committee sought to build baths and wash-houses at the edge of the village (supply of water directly to homes for drinking and bathing did not arrive in Shildon until the 1860s). There was a strong desire among the members to have a purpose-built Institute building. In June 1855 the then secretary of the Institute, George Graham, put in his report book:
"The Institution is in a flourishing condition. The number of members amounts to 160, an increase of 12. We think it would be well if the subject of an enlarged reading room and library were again brought before you, as both the numbers of members and also the increased number of books require a room or rooms more adapted to the purpose than the present one."
In December of that same year George Graham wrote:
"The subject of enlarging the present reading room has had serious attention, but report no progress has been made. We earnestly impress the necessity of increased accommodation more especially as the members are still on the increase."
In June of 1856, Mr J Longstaff wrote:
"With respect to a new reading room we have come to the conclusion that the cheapest and best way to remedy the evil, will be to raise the present structure one storey and thus procure one large room in every way suitable for a reading room, lecture room etc., but the members will be aware that the state of our finances prevent us engaging in it at present. During the last half year a sub-committee was formed for the purpose of waiting upon the Railway Company respecting this proposed alteration or rather addition. Their report has not yet been received, but they expect to be able to do so in the course of two or three weeks."
In December that same year he wrote:
"We regret to state that no steps have been taken towards attaining that most desirable object, a new reading room. Some suggestions were made on enlarging or heightening the present building but we have hopes that before long a new and more commodious structure may be built."
In June of 1857 Mr J C Oliver wrote:
"We have consulted the directors of the Stockton & Darlington Railway Company, and the matter is under their serious consideration."
That December he added:
"We have succeeded in obtaining the consent of the Stockton and Darlington Directors to a new building."
In December 1858 the report book for the Institute gave an update on progress, or rather the lack of it:
"The Stockton and Darlington Railway have not yet consented to build, but there is every reason to believe that it will be begun as soon as circumstances admit, and your committee will not cease to urge its erection as early as possible. In the meantime, we have got the old one repapered and painted and made somewhat comfortable."
An extract from the Darlington & Stockton times of January 2nd 1858 gives an impression of the organising skill and camaraderie of the Institute at that time:
"The members of the new Shildon Mechanics Institute held a grand soiree in a most capacious and newly erected workshop adjoining the Soho Engine Works at that place. It certainly was a 'grand' soiree, the managing men seemingly having brought to bear with remarkable success their united inventive powers, ingenuity and skill. Trains ran, we believe, from every station on the Stockton and Darlington Railway, and although the numbers when starting from the several stations might be considered very small, yet on culminating to one point a most formidable array was presented - consisting for the most part of artisans and their wives, as well as some cases where the artisans had advanced in years, their sons and daughters with perhaps a companion. The room was excellently fitted up with gas, and most gorgeously decked with holly and evergreen and artificial flowers, and banners, flags etc. Such a display of artistic skill in weaving wreaths and festoons and devices from earth's wintry coat of green, and in the delicate manufacture of artificial flowers, we have rarely beheld, neither have we very often been so highly delighted with the surpassing beauty which it naturally produced. No pains, in fact, seemed to have been spared in the decorations. Neither were any pains spared by the ladies who presided at the numberless trays and ministered to the wants of their respective guests. Their provision was as wholesome and good as could be desired, and notwithstanding the continual drain for upwards of two hours by parties successively pouring in, their stores were not exhausted. Mr Taylor, who afterwards addressed the meeting roughly estimated the number present at 600; very roughly indeed we should imagine, for 800 tickets had been sold sometime before the tea was finished. We dare say that when the meeting was formed and all had taken their seats not less than 1,000 were in the room. The temperance band belonging to the place played several enlivening tunes during the time the tea was being despatched, and also during the after-proceedings in the interval between each speaker."
In 1860 the Institute moved to the new purpose-built Institute building on Station Street. The Institute report book said:
"We thank the Stockton and Darlington Railway Company in erecting such a noble building as the one we now occupy and which is let to us at a merely nominal rent of £1 per annum. We also thank the Shildon Works Company for their liberality in presenting fittings and furniture for the new hall, classrooms and library."
Books were added to the reading room continuously. The Institute also arranged excursions by train for the members, to far-flung locations such as Redcar out on the coast as well as hosting lectures on topics tantalising to Victorian society such as phrenology, astrology. geography and geology, the "human frame" and the "chemistry of bread". Prior to the purpose-built building opening in 1860, the Institute lectures were held in the British School which had also been built by Hackworth on Station street. That school building, once the easternmost building in New Shildon, still stands today as a dance school.
Membership of the Institute swelled and included many eminent Shildonians, not all of whom were in the employ of the railway company. Two of the eminent Shildon based medics from the Victorian era, Doctors Fielden and Smeddle, attended as did the 'godfather' of brass music in New Shildon, Francis Dinsdale, his grandson and pupil Thomas Bulch and the other noted brass composer George Allan. Daniel Adamson was a member, and years after his departure from Shildon he returned from Disdbury, Manchester, Institute's to give a speech. He had been invited to do so at the Stockton & Darlington Railway's fiftieth-anniversary celebrations but had been unable to do so, so instead made his appearance in April 1876. The Northern Echo of 21st April 1876 reported the introduction by the Institute's chairman Mr John Glass.:
"Mr Adamson began his mechanical career at Shildon Works, which have been termed "The Nursery of the Locomotive" under the management of the late Timothy Hackworth. (Applause.) As regards the New Shildon Mechanics Institution, of which Mr Adamson was for many years an active member, he did not know what benefit Mr Adamson had derived from the institution, but they were a powerful engine for the diffusion of knowledge, and for the young invaluable. (Hear hear.)"
In 1885 the Institute on Station Street was closed to be refurbished and expanded. By then under the ownership of the North Eastern Railway, it was re-opened by Sir Joseph Pearse MP. The reading room was enlarged and a billiard room added. The money to do this was provided by the North Eastern Railway, and the labour was provided in the main by the members. Pearse claimed that the place minded him of earnest students the like of Timothy Hackworth and William Bouch.
"He wanted to encourage them to go on with that institution. It had already done splendid work. It had turned out its Daniel Adamson and others who had received their education there. There was no reason from the character of the population, from the nature of their employment, why that institution, resuscitated as it had been, should not be well filled with earnest students intelligent enough to use its benefits."
Above: The site of the former Institute building on Station Street which became a cinema
The Institute was also, during the Victorian era, the hub of many of sporting and games clubs in the town ranging from football teams to draughts clubs. It was used as a centre for political speechmaking, and in conjunction with the various classes offered there from the sciences to the arts, was a venue for the various prize giving and distribution of certificates.
In February of 1911, it was clear that the Institute building on Station Street was worn and tired and past its best. At a prizegiving speech on Weds 8th Feb, Alderman J W Pearse was goaded by an attendee, Mr J D Rider over promises of a "beautiful Mechanics Institute" that had been long promised. It would be two more years before the company fully delivered on this promise. Though the stone above the entrance states 1911, it was on Saturday the 8th of February 1913, eighty years after the founding of the Institute, that the new building on Redworth Road was formally opened by Arthur Francis Pease, a director of the North Eastern Railway Company. The new building, which still stands today, had been erected entirely at the company's expense.
The Northern Echo of the 10th February 1913 reported upon the opening of the new building and narrates that after the doors had formally been opened the concert hall was immediately crowded with railway officials and members of various NER Institutes as well as the public. It is not reported whether local music composer and wagon worker George Allan was present but as a long-time member, it’s highly likely that he was. We do know from the report, though, that Dr Samuel Fielden and his wife Jane were among those present.
Vincent Raven opened the proceedings inside the new building by explaining that for some years the wagon works at Shildon had been growing, and consequently the town too. Due to that, and the condition of the old institute building from the 1860s, the NER directors had been approached with regard to a new Institute, which had led to the present gathering.
The silver-gilt key to the building was then presented as a memento to Arthur Pease by Mr R W Wordsell, manager of the works. Pease then gave a speech noting that he was no stranger to Shildon and that there were five generations of his family present in the room, partly on account of prior generations being represented by portraits. He mentioned that if his father, grandfather and great-grandfather had not been in some way connected with Shildon their pictures would not have been hanging on the walls. He noted that though he was a director of the North Eastern Railway, there were a number of shareholders equivalent to two-thirds of the company’s workforce, and a balance had to be maintained between the interest of both groups. He noted also that he believed this institute was the oldest on the former Stockton and Darlington Railway route and hoped the building would be a very great blessing to the town, and there would be many pleasant social gatherings in it for many years to come.
In his speech, Vincent Raven highlighted that though he was more connected to the institutes in York, Gateshead and Darlington some of which were larger, but none better arranged or more comfortable than the new Shildon Railway Institute.
The old building was converted to become a cinema under the name The Essoldo, though in time it became unviable in that format and it became derelict before its eventual demolition. Today nothing stands in that small square plot other than shrubs and benches.
During the Great War of 1914-1918, New Shildon, like many towns across the nation, saw its young men volunteer to protect their country. Many of these were railway workers, though many more stayed to contribute to the war effort through their work at the wagon works which was in part given over to military engineering. A significant number of the young men who volunteered did not return, and a memorial plaque was installed in the stairwell of the Railway Institute to honour the sons that had given the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
After the 1st of January 1923, and as a consequence of the Railways Act of 1921, the North Eastern Railway and the Shildon Railway Institute, came into the ownership of the London and North Eastern Railway. In 1933, to celebrate its centenary, the Railway Institute held an exhibition of rolling stock at the wagon railway works yard, which was opened by the chairman of the board of directors of the London and North Eastern Railway, Mr William Whitelaw.
In 1965, the LNER was one of the big four nationalised rail companies that became part of a larger British Rail. This was in the era after the Beeching reports of the 1950s that advocated the closure of many of Britain's branch lines as part of a nationwide rail restructure. Were it not for the presence of the railway wagon works at Shildon, with its need to feed rolling stock on to the nation' main rail arteries and the conveyance of cement from Weardale the line connecting Shildon to the main route from North to South might well have disappeared.
Despite the continued engineering success of the British Rail works at Shildon however, that company and the British Government of the day saw little future in the manufacture and repair of rolling stock at Shildon and ion the 23rd April 1982 plans to close the works were revealed.
To dispose of the asset, and in a gesture of seeming goodwill, British Rail sold the Railway Institute building on Redworth road to the then committee on behalf of the community of Shildon for the sum of £1. Whilst it was thus preserved for ongoing availability to the community, this transfer also meant that the responsibility for its upkeep was also handed on to the community. When the building was first acquired by the committee, members immediately set to work to carry out a number of essential repairs, providing the labour on a volunteer basis.
On the 30th June 1984, British Rail's wagon works at Shildon formally closed. Shildon was no longer an employer of railway engineers. The local economy of the town was hit badly and a steady process of economic decline began. Railway tracks connecting the works to the Bishop Auckland branch line were lifted and removed. Buildings associated with the works demolished or converted to become part of an industrial estate. Shops, pubs and New Shildon Workingmen's Club, over time became unviable and closed to stand empty or be demolished.
In 2013 the Railway Institute Building on Redworth Road celebrated its own centenary with, among other things, an exhibition of photographs of events there in days gone by.
Shildon retains shadows of its past as a railway town, thanks in part to the preservation of parts of Hackworth's home and original works, the existence of a handful of buildings that escaped demolition and the coal drops. It also still has a working railway station, and in later years in an exciting development has become a secondary site for the National Railway Museum, now amalgamated with the National Science Museum which hosts part of the national rail collection. Nonetheless, there are feelings that too much of the town's significant contribution to the world's rail story has still already been lost. It would be tragic to lose any more of it. What's more, with the bicentenary of the 27th Sept 1825 bearing down upon us, it should be imperative to ensure that what remains is preserved for the future.