Part of an online exhibition to mark the Hetton Coal Company’s pioneering advances in mining and railway technology in 1820.
A ground-breaking new route
Having established Hetton Colliery, a route was required to take coal to the River Wear where it could be loaded onto London-bound colliers. Rivalry between the Hetton Coal Company and the Londonderry Collieries meant that a lowland route for a waggonway to staithes on the River Wear was blocked. Arthur Mowbray therefore turned to George Stephenson to produce a plan and a ground-breaking idea for a new railway using both fixed haulage engines and steam locomotives was born.
Detail of coal staithes from Thomas Robson’s Perspective view (NCB 1/X 37).
The route of the railway: detail from ‘Hetton Colliery in the County of Durham. Perspective view of the Works of the Colliery, the Horizontal, Inclined and Self-Acting Planes with the Loco Motive and other Engines used on the Rail Way and the Staiths and Self Discharging Depot on the Banks of the River Wear near Sunderland’, by [Thomas Robson], c.1822 (NCB 1/X 37).
This was an internationally important development in the early history of railways. George Stephenson’s Hetton Colliery Railway, opened on 18 November 1822, was the first railway in the world to be built on a green-field route and to use only steam and gravity power, with no horses.
An early Hetton Colliery locomotive (D/X 1695/2/7).
The line never carried passengers; that step was taken by the Stockton & Darlington Railway in 1825, designed similarly by George Stephenson for rope haulage and locomotives (though using horses for the passenger carriages), and very much longer than the Hetton line.
The Hetton line closed on 3rd September 1959, still largely unchanged after 127 years. Most of the route can still be seen and is accessible.