The Stockton and Darlington Railway was opened on September 27th 1825 with the prime purpose of transporting coal from the South West Durham collieries around Shildon, West Auckland and Witton Park, to the River Tees at Stockton, for shipment to the south of England.
The Stockton & Darlington was by no means the first railway, but its opening in 1825 marked a very significant step in the development of railways by bringing together two features for the first time:
- the concept of a public railway, available to all, for transport of passengers and goods
- the use of steam locomotives
The ceremonial opening on 27 September 1825 was the first occasion on which a steam locomotive was used to haul passengers on a public railway. The locomotive concerned, Stephenson's 'Locomotion' still exists and is displayed at Head of Steam, which is situated on the original 1825 S & DR route.
The new railway soon proved to be a great success and substantially reduced the price of coal. From the early years of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, private contractors using horse-drawn coaches on S & D R lines provided passenger services. After several years the economic potential for carrying passengers was evident and the Company introduced its own steam hauled passenger services in 1833.
Although the S & DR made use of steam locomotives from its opening day, it can also be seen to represent a transitional stage of railway development in which stationary engines and horse-drawn vehicles were also utilised. Although 'Locomotion' represents a notable development of the earlier pioneering work of George Stephenson and others, it is fair to say that the subsequent work of Timothy Hackworth, the first Superintendent Engineer of the S & DR, proved the supremacy of the steam locomotive over other forms of motive power.
From these origins there developed the major railway engineering industries of both Darlington and Shildon, which were to play an important role in supplying both the home and export markets. The initial success of the S & DR encouraged the promotion of branch and connecting lines. A branch opening in 1830 was instrumental in the development of the new town of Middlesbrough, which was to become a major industrial centre. Further extension, through a separate company promoted by the S & DR, took the line to Saltburn, which another associated company developed as a holiday resort.
Westward extensions into Teesdale and Weardale facilitated both the exploitation of the area's mineral resources and the transport of agricultural produce. Other lines in the S & DR network established vital links for development of the iron and steel industry at Consett and through the Stainmore route across the Pennines, in West Cumberland. These examples give an indication of the wide-ranging economic and social benefits which resulted from development of the S & DR and associated lines; a feature which was to be repeated not only in other areas of this country, but throughout the world. Also significant is that the S & DR was successful commercially, paying dividends to its shareholders and thereby encouraging the investment that was essential for the construction of other railways.