200-year-old railway discovered along banks of River Tyne

Archaeologists digging on the site of the former Neptune shipyard in Walker, Newcastle have discovered a 200-year-old wooden railway

Archaeologist Richard Carlton on the wooden railway
Archaeologist Richard Carlton on the wooden railway

The discovery of a wooden railway more than 200 years old on the banks of the Tyne has been hailed as a find of international importance.

The 25-metre stretch of waggonway from the end of the 18th Century is the earliest surviving example of the standard gauge railway.

Now used for over half of the world’s railway systems, it originated in the network of waggonways which served the collieries of south east Northumberland and Tyneside.

The find has been made by archaeologists digging on the site of the former Neptune shipyard in Walker, Newcastle, which is being developed by Shepherd Offshore.

The site is also near the Swan Hunter yard and Segedunum Roman fort in Wallsend.

It was expected to reveal Roman finds but instead has uncovered a stunning early example of the railway and coal mining heritage which made the North East globally important.

The dig has been led by Richard Carlton and Alan Williams of the Newcastle-based The Archaeological Practice.

Archaeologist Richard Carlton on the wooden railway
Archaeologist Richard Carlton on the wooden railway

Richard said: “The wooden waggonway uncovered by the excavation is the direct ancestor of the modern standard gauge railway.”

Newcastle historian Les Turnbull, whose book on waggonways, entitled Railways Before George Stephenson, was published earlier this year, said: “Nothing of this nature has been found before in terms of complexity.”

He said the discovery was of greater importance than any Roman find.

“One of the gifts of the North East to world history is the development of the railways. Coal and the railways are Tyneside’s heritage and this waggonway was part of that because without the waggonways the coalfields would not have developed,” he said.

The dig has revealed features which previously had only been known from the 18th and 19th Century drawings and notebooks of engineers like John Buddle, who lived near the excavation site.

Archaeologists have revealed a “main way” heavy duty waggonway lined with double wooden rails, one laid on top of the other to prolong the life of the system.

A loop from the main line enters a dip which would once have been a pond into which the wooden wheels of the coal wagons would have been immersed to stop them from drying out and cracking.

This is what is happening with the cart in Constable’s painting The Hay Wain.

The pond loop has a stone central section between the rails which the horse drawing the waggon would have used to stay dry.

Les said: “We have drawings describing what has been found by the dig but this is the real thing.

“It is tremendous to be able to see these features rather than just looking at them in historic drawings and notebooks.

“Because the line is standard railway gauge, it is tremendously important as the earliest example in the world and this is of international significance.

“The waggonway complex is at the forefront of late 18th Century engineering.”

Alan Williams said: “It looks as if it has just been covered up and left yesterday.”

And Richard said: “ The coal industry was so vitally important for the North East and there are so few signs of it left now.”

By the late 18th Century, the Wallsend area was at the centre of the coal industry and the hub of the waggonway system.

Every day, hundreds of coal waggons ran from collieries to staithes on the River Tyne where coal was loaded on to collier brigs for transport to London and abroad.

The excavated remains were part of the Willington waggonway, which took in collieries at Willington Quay and Bigges Main on the edge of Wallsend.

In 1801 the Killingworth waggonway, for which George Stepehnson’s first locomotives were built, joined the Willington line.

George and his son Robert went on to build locomotives at their works in South Street in Newcastle to the Willington gauge, modified slightly to four feet eight and a half inches.

This became the standard width for railways throughout Britain and much of the world.


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