Britain’s first railway networks caused huge social upheaval that's hard to imagine in our ultra-connected world—and nowhere more so than in Shildon, the original railway town.
The opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway in 1825 was a pivotal moment in Britain's industrial revolution.
But once the railway was open for business, how did the town of Shildon—the 'cradle of the railways'—change and develop? What was life like for the workers who toiled in the first railway town? And can we still see traces of the railway age at Shildon today?
Shildon: The world's first railway town
Before the arrival of the railways in Shildon, very few people lived there at all—it's hard to overstate the impact the burgeoning new industry had on the settlement.
A thriving new railway town needed offices, engineering works and other supporting infrastructure—but the growth in population and prosperity (at least for those running the railway) provided new business opportunities across the board.
Daniel Adamson's coach house—unassuming today—was built in 1831 for the Surtees Railway, which passed nearby. It's probably the oldest surviving railway coach house in the world.
Across the road is Adamson's public house, The Grey Horse, from which he ran a horse-drawn passenger coach service on the S&DR.
The booming settlement also needed grocers, furniture retailers, hardware shops and more, attracting a plethora of trades beyond the railway industry itself.
The building of a goods shed, still standing today, attests to the town's increasing need for food and other merchandise as the population grew.
[It is] a small, but likely to be a large and prosperous place; for large works and Engine Sheds are connected with the place…
Margaret Anna Young, describing Shildon in a letter (2 July 1858)
Migration to the railway town
Clearly a small, sleepy settlement like Shildon couldn't provide the amount of labour—nor the specific skills—required to run the new railways, and so the population boom over the following decades was in large part due to migration to the town by those in search of work.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Shildon was home to a population of just over 100, but by the 1890s, with the railways well established, this had grown to a community of around 8,000. At its height, there were 2,900 people employed in the railway works.
The dominance of the coal industry in the North East meant a ready supply of the labour needed in railway towns, and there was overlap and movement between the two trades.
So we know that people were drawn to Shildon by the promise of work offered by the new railway—but what kind of occupations did they have when they got there?
Work on the railway
Locomotives of course needed drivers and firemen, but there were also signalmen, stationmasters and other workers keeping the railway running smoothly.
The S&DR's Shildon works and Hackworth's Soho works were major employers in the town, requiring labour to build a variety of industrial engines, including railway locomotives to run on the new line.
There was also the Soho (or Kilburn) shed—now the oldest surviving industrial building in Shildon—which was built in 1826 as an iron merchants' warehouse by Messrs Kilburn of Bishop Auckland.
Blacksmiths, foundry workers and other skilled workers would have been in demand in the new railway town, which constantly needed metal working, machinery operating and parts producing and repairing.
In Shildon at this time you could expect to encounter patternmakers, forgemasters, joiners, machinists, coachpainters, signwriters, tinsmiths and whitesmiths.
Away from the works floor you'd also find clerical workers, draughtsmen, foremen and managers taking care of the administration and finance, and making sure things ran smoothly.
What you probably wouldn’t see was many women at work—although the Industrial Revolution saw increasing numbers of women taking up work in factories, the workforce of the railway town remained largely male until much later, when the First World War took men away from their jobs.
Conditions for early railway workers
In the early days of the railways, there was very little in the way of safety regulations, and conditions for most workers certainly wouldn't be considered safe today.
This meant a lot of accidents, often causing injury and even death. For example, George and Robert Stephenson's famous Locomotion No. 1 exploded at nearby Heighington in 1828, killing its driver John Cree.
There was little or no support for those disabled in the course of their work, nor compensation for the families of fatally injured workers, a situation that didn't dramatically improve until well into the 20th century.
It wasn't only the machinery that could cause hazards for railway workers.
It's hard to imagine today, but the S&DR also allowed horse-hauled passenger trains run by contractors to use the same line as the steam locomotives.
This was a common practice on many early railways, when locomotives were still unreliable, but one that increased the risk of accident.
Even more surprisingly, when the S&DR men and the passenger contractors met, there was often a fight—a problem compounded by the fact that drivers were often drunk. This was thanks to the proximity of railways to pubs, such as at Sim Pasture, just east of Shildon, where accidents were common.
So was it worth the risks? And could workers do anything to change their situation?
The first railway unions
As we've seen, railway work was dangerous, and the interests of the company didn't always align with those of its workers. Strikes—often violent—were common during this period and not tolerated by railway companies. The very early drunkenness of many railway workers probably also speaks volumes about their relationship with their work.
However, workers did organise to improve their working conditions, with varying success.
The first railway unions were formed around 1870, allowing workers to agitate more effectively. Strikes were generally resolved after mediation.
In 1911, the Knox's Strike led to soldiers arriving in Shildon in to stop the violence that was being caused around the town's railway infrastructure—the station, bridges, works and so on.
During this strike the station master, Mr Churchman, was chased by some engine drivers after he waved his fist at them. They apparently smelled of ale and threw stones at him and his house. The signalman and other passing trains were also targets for thrown stones during the violence.
Railway companies' influence on the town
As the railways developed, there were improvements. Companies came to fill a (typically Victorian) paternalistic role in the new towns, exerting a relatively strong control over their employees' lives—this meant workers' housing, education and pastoral care.
Most early railway workers could not read or write and had very little engineering experience.
Timothy Hackworth wanted to open a railwayman's institute and made a Wesleyan schoolroom available so that workers could learn to read and write. The railwaymen wanted a larger building, and in 1860 the New Shildon Mechanics' Institute opened.
Both the Sunday School, built in 1888 and now part of Locomotion, and the Mechanics Institute are reminders of the close-knit social and spiritual life of the new industrial community created by the arrival of the S&DR.
But this influence also created the expectation that workers would comport themselves according the railway companies' expectations.
This is a set of rules and regulations for employees at Hackworth's works in the late 1830s, listing various fines, forfeitures of wages and rules—as you can see, it is harsh by today's standards.
As the industry expanded and Shildon's reputation grew, however, locals and employees certainly developed a strong sense of pride in the town's railway works—and their final closure in the 1980s was a devastating blow for the community, which has yet to fully recover.
Despite this, the town remains historically important to the story of the railways in Britain and the world, and the S&DR in particular. It was, after all, the original railway town.
Surviving buildings from Shildon's heyday
Given the international importance of Shildon to the burgeoning Victorian railway industry, it's perhaps surprising that relatively little infrastructure survives from the town's heyday—the Mechanics' Institute shown above being one of a few notable exceptions.
Why are so few of these buildings still standing?
In short, it's because once they were no longer needed, they were demolished or converted.
It wasn't until much later—into the 1960s—that thought was given to preserving industrial history for the future, and so many spaces and buildings were simply appropriated and reused over the years according to changing needs and priorities.
For example, Locomotion is on the site of the original S&DR sidings, and there is now an industrial park where Shildon Works once stood.
The lack of physical heritage is also partly a result of the sheer speed at which early railways developed. For example, early stone sleepers—originally used so that horses could walk along the tracks—soon became useless when trains became heavier and horses were retired from the railways.
These stones were then reused (like a more modern Hadrian's Wall) as building material, and if you keep your eyes peeled, some can be spotted around the site at Locomotion.
Shildon after the Stockton & Darlington Railway
In 1855, the S&DR bought Soho Works (after Hackworth's death in 1850) and ran both works under one company. In 1863, the S&DR was subsumed into the newly established North Eastern Railway and the town continued to grow.
From 1863, locomotive building and maintenance was transferred to Darlington, and as a result Shildon Works moved into the construction and repair of wagons. Soho Works was closed down in 1883, but the wagon works thrived, developing and expanding due to the popularity of the railways.
By the 1970s, Shildon Works was the biggest wagon works in the world, producing thousands of rail vehicles every year.
It wasn't really until the closure of the works in the 1980s that the town underwent another major change, this time a devastating one that continued to affect the local community for years to come. After all, what is a railway town without the railway industry?
So, although it's not a famous metropolis like Liverpool or Manchester today, Shildon has been important to the history of the railways from the very beginning.
As the home of Timothy Hackworth, but also the thousands of workers who kept the S&DR and other railways running, Shildon was the original railway town—the home and workplace of pioneering engineers and magnificent machines that were foundational to modern life as we know it.
Today, Shildon and the surrounding area is looking to the future, just as it was two centuries ago.
While Locomotion continues telling the story of the birth of the railways for new generations, just up the road in Newton Aycliffe is the Hitachi works, where innovative engineers are making future railways a reality.
Find out more
- Ken Beetham and Robert Corkin. Shildon: Cradle of the Railways, 1977
- G E Milburn, Timothy Hackworth (1786–1850), 2000
- Robert Young, Timothy Hackworth and the Locomotive, 1923
- National Railway Museum, Caution! Railway safety since 1913
- National Railway Museum blog, More about railway history
- Open University, The impact of the railways on Victorian townscapes
- History Extra, 8 ways rail travel changed everything for Britain