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Hetton colliery railway

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Hetton colliery railway, 1826
Hetton colliery railway, 1826

The Hetton colliery railway was an 8-mile (13 km) long private railway opened in 1822 by the Hetton Coal Company at Hetton Lyons, County Durham, England. It was the first railway to operate without animal power, and the first entirely new line to be developed by George Stephenson.

The railway ran between Hetton Colliery about two miles (3.2 km) south of Houghton-le-Spring, and a staithe on the River Wear where the coal was loaded into boats. When it closed in 1959, it was the oldest mineral railway in Great Britain.[1]



At the beginning of the 19th century, Hetton was a small village about 2 miles (3.2 km) south of Houghton-le-Spring on the edge of an area of exposed coalfield that ran through Northumberland and County Durham. Landowner, Thomas Lyon and his son John found deeper seams of coal on their estate, but flooring and other difficulties complicated efforts to extract it. Geologists were sceptical that meaningful amounts of coal existed, or speculated that they would be of such low quality and quantity they would not be worth the effort of mining.

In April 1816 the Lyons received a favourable survey of the coal deposits on their estate, and within three years had established the Hetton Coal Company, County Durham’s first major public company. On 13 May 1821, the company signed a mining lease with the Lyons. The company’s management, which consisted largely of colliers and local investors, recognised that they needed a way to transport coal to their customers in Sunderland. They decided to build a railway between the colliery and the River Wear.


Fishbelly rail with half-lap joint, patented by Stephenson 1816
Fishbelly rail with half-lap joint, patented by Stephenson 1816

George Stephenson was recruited to design the railway and his son Robert was the resident engineer. The line was the first to operate without animal power. It used self-acting inclines, stationary engine-hauled inclines and locomotive working. A longer but flatter route was rejected in favour of the steeper, more direct one, to save money constructing cuttings and embankments.

Work started in 1819,[2] before the first shafts were sunk in December 1820. In March 1821, enough of the trackbed had been built and track-laying began. Cast iron rails were laid with half-lap joints and chairs, to a patent held by Stephenson and William Losh. The rails were produced at Losh, Wilson and Bell's ironworks. The railway was built to a gauge of 4 ft 8 in (1,422 mm), which was used for the Killingworth wagonway, with which Stephenson had been involved,[3] and the Wallsend Waggonway.

Warden Law Hill required a pair of 60 horsepower (45 kW) stationary reciprocating engines to haul runs of eight wagons. The line had five self-acting inclines, where ropes hauled empty wagons up by the weight of the descending loaded wagons. The line also had a tunnel, 1,533 yards (1,402 m) long.



An original etching of Hetton Colliery showing an early locomotive, circa 1820
An original etching of Hetton Colliery showing an early locomotive, circa 1820

On 18 November 1822, Hetton Colliery Railway was opened. The first coals were taken by a train of 17 wagons to four drops at the Sunderland staithes. where coal was tipped into a timber building for storage. When a boat arrived, coal was gravity-loaded into the hold via a lengthy chute.

The company was not completely satisfied with the railway’s early operations as it was not achieving its design capacity. Robert Stephenson was dismissed in 1823 and replaced by Joseph Smith. William Chapman was appointed to advise on improvements and George Dodds was appointed railway superintendent in 1824.

In 1823 improvements were carried out. A third stationary engine installed on the Waden Hill incline was operational by 1826. Another gravity incline was built at the staithes to shorten the chute distance. Demand continued to grow and by 1826 it was carrying coal from collieries at Elemore, Eppleton and North Hetton, which were serviced by gravity inclines to the main line.

By the 1850s, more powerful steam locomotives replaced incline working, the sidings and engineering workshops at Hetton were enlarged and a 0.75 miles (1.21 km) long branch line was built south to a coal depot at Easington Lane.


In 1888, the Hetton Coal Company became Hetton Coal Co. Ltd. By 1894, electric lighting had been installed around the shaft sidings, while the colliery, which by then employed 1,051 workers, was producing roughly 1,000 tonnes of coal per day. The Marquis of Londonderry had built the nearby Rainton and Seaham Railway, a similar rope-worked incline railway from West Rainton to the docks at Seaham, opened in 1831. After it closed in 1896, the Hetton Railway bought the section from Moorsley Pit to the top of the Copt Hill engine and integrated it into its network.[4]

In 1902, one of the Stephenson locomotives was still in use at the colliery: “now the oldest working locomotive in the world".[2] In 1911, Hetton Coal Co. merged with the Lambton Collieries and their railway systems were joined with a connection from the Lambton staithes to the Hetton staithes at the Port of Sunderland.[5]

In 1947, control of the line passed to the National Coal Board. Coal mining was concentrated at the Hawthorn Combined Mine, adjacent to the former Durham and Sunderland Railway. The Hetton system was closed on 12 September 1959.[1] The Lambton Staithes closed in January 1967, and the line to Pallion was closed in August.[5]

After closure

Since closure, several stretches of the trackbed have been converted to form the Stephenson Trail, pedestrian and cycle route.


Lyons in 1901
Lyons in 1901

The first five locomotives built for the line were constructed by Stephenson between 1820 and 1822. They were a development of the Killingworth locomotives, possessing a 0-4-0 wheel configuration with chain-coupled wheels. Four were named, Hetton, Dart, Tallyho and Star.

The locomotives had steam springs, co-patented by Stephenson and Losh, which attempted to compensate for the reaction to the vertical cylinders which had caused locomotives to rock excessively but were not successful. The inclined plane[1] was operated by a number of stationary engines. The 1822 engine continued in service until 1912, having been rebuilt in 1857 and 1882; it is preserved in the Shildon Locomotion Museum.[6] The preserved locomotive may not be the genuine article as it is possibly an 1850s-era replica which had been produced at the behest of Sir Lindsay Wood.[citation needed]

In 1884, the company acquired limited liability. Soon after it built two locomotives, named Lyons and Eppleton. They incorporated several improvements as a gear-driven 0-4-0T wheel configuration and vertically-mounted boilers. The original batch continued to be used for many decades; at least one was still in active service at the beginning of the 20th century.

See also

  • Lyon, the surviving 1852 locomotive


  1. ^ a b c Allen, G. Freeman (December 1959). "Talking of trains: First mineral railway closed". Trains Illustrated. Hampton Court: Ian Allan.
  2. ^ a b "An 80-year Old Locomotive Still at work". The Railway Magazine. May 1902.
  3. ^ Robin Jones. The Rocket Men. Mortons Media Group. p. 33.
  4. ^ "Rainton and Seaham Railway". Archived from the original on 13 April 2013. Retrieved 18 March 2013.
  5. ^ a b "Brief History of the Lambton Railway". Retrieved 17 March 2013.
  6. ^ Industrial Locomotives: including preserved and minor railway locomotives. 15EL. Melton Mowbray: Industrial Railway Society. 2009. ISBN 978-1-901556-53-7.

Further reading

  • Lowe, J.W. (1989). British Steam Locomotive Builders. Guild Publishing.

This page was last edited on 22 March 2021, at 13:47
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