The birth of modern-day railways in Stockton heralded an era of economic prosperity and focused the attention of the world on the town.
Nothing did more to ensure Stockton's place in the history books than George Stephenson's 'Locomotion' No 1 and the Stockton & Darlington Railway.
The early 19th century saw a massive increase in the demand for coal and it became clear that a quicker and cheaper means of transport needed to be devised. Coal poured out of Durham and, although the port of Stockton was close, road links were inadequate and the winding River Tees made the passage to the sea a difficult and costly one.
The need for the introduction of the railway in the north east was more apparent than anywhere in the country. Whilst the rest of the counties of England benefited from the introduction of canals for the transport of coal, the north east had to depend on horses and mules, with bags slung across their backs, travelling along tracks which were impassable to carts.
The idea of a railway or canal link was first mooted by Leonard Raisbeck, the Recorder of Stockton, at a dinner at Stockton Town Hall in 1810. He moved a resolution that a committee should look into ways of linking Stockton, Darlington and the collieries of west Durham. The most popular idea, a canal, was defeated in 1818, both by its estimated cost of £205,000 and the fact that the proposed route by-passed both Stockton and Darlington.
In recent years great strides have been made to celebrate and document the region's railway heritage:
The Stockton & Darlington Railway is now a major theme in the museum displays at Preston Park Museum & Grounds. Cases illustrate the railway narrative, its importance to Stockton and the impact on the wider world. These are complemented by three interactive displays including audio-visual displays and a quiz using the theme of Locomotion No. 1.
Interpretation around the Borough includes commemorative plaques on Bridge House and Yarm Town Hall, and a number of street names in the Borough have been named after significant people and events, including those related to the railway. Future interpretation work includes the planned 1825 railway themed artwork as part of the Southern Gateway junction improvements near Stockton High Street. This is where the first rail of the Stockton and Darlington Railway was laid on 13 May 1822 near St John's Crossing, on Bridge Road.
The new junction will be named St John’s Crossing and to celebrate the heritage of the site an artwork has been developed to depict the inaugural journey. The artwork has been designed by Steve Tomlinson and will be located behind Matalan/Halfords. The sculpture has planning permission and will be installed to coincide with the completion of the works in August 2013.
On the opposite side to the main installation there will be an interpretation panel, next to some smaller artwork, and this will provide historical context. This will be sited on the Bridge Road side, near to the historic Bridge House which was used in the operation of the railway.
As part of the regeneration scheme on Stockton High Street Centre it is planned to install a large scale moving-artworkinspired by the heritage of the Borough. This is still at the design stage however it is planned that at a set time each day an automated sculpture will emerge from a plinth, reaching its full size with automated movements before disappearing back into the plinth. The aim is for this daily event to become a real feature of the new High Street and talking point for both local people and visitors.
Models of three potential designs were displayed in the Rediscover Stockton Shop for a public vote and the winning design by artists Rob Higgs and Keith Newstead is of a locomotion rising up from a stone plinth base, entitled ‘The Stockton Flyer’. The artists are now developing their concept design with instructions to ensure it takes Locomotion No 1 as its inspiration rather than the Rocket or any other Stephenson design.
When not in use by the automaton the ‘empty’ plinth will be a focal point for the High Street and could act as a podium for people to speak from/perform upon and as a plinth for temporary artworks.
Longer term projects include the potential to develop a scale model of the Locomotion for the Preston Park Narrow Gauge Railway, and consideration is already being given to how the Borough will celebrate the 200 year anniversary of the Stockton to Darlington Railway in 2025.