North East historian reveals rail journey to remember

A local historian has researched the first passenger rail journey from Newcastle to Carlisle and published the findings in a new booklet

Artists John Wilson Carmichael's study of the opening of the Newcastle-Carlisle railway
Artists John Wilson Carmichael's study of the opening of the Newcastle-Carlisle railway

Trundling along for hours at 20mph, in the dark, in the rain, behind a spark-spitting locomotive.

That was the experience of the first passengers courageous or curious enough to take part in the inaugural journey on the Newcastle-Carlisle railway line.

Their experience sounds like the original rail trip from hell.

But in the pioneering and intoxicating days of early rail travel in the region, perhaps they regarded their part in transport history in an entirely different light.

Previously, we have seen how people flocked to try out the Newcastle-North Shields route, which was launched 175 years ago.

But exactly a year earlier, it was the Newcastle-Carlisle line opening which was on everybody’s lips.

That was a journey which those who took part would never, ever forget.

Pat Newman is secretary of the Warwick Bridge and District Local History Group, near Carlisle.

Living in the Station House at Head’s Nook, just yards from the rail line, she was perfectly placed to research the details of that first passenger run.

Pat carried out much of her work on newspapers of the time, including The Journal, in Newcastle City Library.

The result is the history group’s booklet A Grand Event: The Opening of the Newcastle and Carlisle Railway. One of the aims of the day was to demonstrate the power of the new technology.

“The arrangements were that people from Carlisle should go to Newcastle for breakfast and return with the people of Newcastle to Carlisle for dinner, and the Newcastle people to return home that evening – thus putting in the power of any man to travel a distance of 180 miles in one day,” ran a report of the time.

Pat says: “Before the railway it took almost a day to travel by stagecoach to Newcastle, a day to conduct business, and a day to travel back – three days out of a working week.”

The line engineer was John Blackmore, who with some directors had travelled the route already to check that all was well.

“But on the day of The Grand Event, things did not go smoothly,” says Pat.

As it happens, an image of John Blackmore was captured in an 1830s sketchbook which belonged to a Newcastle carriage-making family and which was discovered recently by Anthony Smithson, who runs the Keel Row bookshop in North Shields.

That day in June, 1838, started exceedingly early for those at the Carlisle end of the line.

From 4am members of the trade guilds gathered with their flags and banner, while spectators hired rooms in houses lining the route of the band-led procession, which began at 5.30am to the railway station.

Six locomotives, “sending forth volumes of smoke as tokens of their impatience to be at work”, pulled five trains, each carrying 200 passengers.

Mr Blackmore was aboard the “pilot” locomotive.

Spectators lined the route, and Greenhead in Northumberland greeted the cavalcade by firing small cannons.

At Whitchester, passengers had their first experience of travelling through a tunnel in darkness.

At Haydon Bridge, Allendale Band and Mr Beaumont’s band joined the train “adding greatly to the gaiety of the scene”.

At Hexham, there was the firing of guns and the ringing of bells.

The first train reached the Redheugh stop in Gateshead at 9.30am, having covered the 60 miles in three and a half hours, to be greeted by more gun firing from Newcastle Castle Keep.

The Mayor of Newcastle sent his ceremonial barge with its 12 rowers to pick up the Mayor of Carlisle, Peter Dixon.

Boats carried the passengers across the river to Newcastle, where bands led the procession up Grey Street to the Assembly Rooms for “an ample and splendid breakfast”.

But at the time fixed for the return journey – 11am – only those from the first two trains had made an appearance.

The rest had been delayed by the collapse of a gangway taking passengers on to boats, which pitched people into the river.

“Many missed their breakfasts and travelled 120 miles without food. It got worse,” says Pat.

For the return trip, 14 locomotives left Tyneside an hour late, with 4,000 passengers. Most were in open carriage, and it began to rain.

Rapide was the pilot engine, followed by Meteor carrying the Mayor of Newcastle and the Allendale Band.

Then came the locomotives Victoria; Wellington; Nelson; Lightning, with the Carlisle Band; Tyne, with a steam organ; Carlisle; Eden; Goliath, Atlas, with the Newcastle Volunteer Band, and Samson.

A crowd of between 30,000 and 40,000 watched.

It was 5pm before the first three engines reached Carlisle – the time originally set for the start of the return journey to Newcastle.

A meal had been provided for 1,000 by the railway directors at the Coffee House and the Bush Inn.

With the new departure time fixed for 7pm, about 3,000 people made for the station and took their seats.

At 9pm it started to rain again, heavily. The journey did not begin until 10pm.

It was between 2am and 3am that the first rain arrived back on Tyneside, and 6am when the last arrived.

“Most people were in open carriages, in the dark. For relatives waiting on Tyneside for the arrival of the trains, it must have been even worse,” says Pat.

The railway age had begun.

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