Schoolchildren laughed and smiled yesterday as they came face to face with their village’s most famous former resident.
Two hundred years ago Puffing Billy led the way in locomotive design – steaming away at Wylam Colliery in Northumberland.
And though the original is in the Science Museum in London, children are this week being given the chance to get hands-on with history in the form of Beamish museum’s replica.
The model steam locomotive is visiting schools as part of the Puffing Billy Festival – starting with the village synonymous with its name.
Pupils from Wylam First School, St George’s RC Primary in Lemington, Newcastle, and St Andrew’s Heddon on the Wall First School took part in “a carousel of activities” to mark the occasion, while villagers held their own community celebration, complete with fancy dress, choir singing and a “coal and spoon” race.
Wylam First School headteacher Lynn Johnston said the day had been fantastic. “It helps make history real for the children,” said Lynn, whose Year Three and Four pupils have been taking part in a term-long project around the iconic engine.
“The primary curriculum encourages children to get involved in local history, as it is something they can relate to.
“But having Beamish nearby has been fantastic.
“They have been looking through records to help the children learn about what life was like 200 years ago and even tracing some families, so the children can see what their ancestors did in the village.
“It’s been a real bonus for the school and it’s really helped the children engage.”
The original Puffing Billy engine – the oldest surviving steam locomotive in the world – was built in 1813 by engineer William Hedley, enginewright Jonathan Forster and blacksmith Timothy Hackworth for Christopher Blackett, the owner of Wylam Colliery.
The engine was an important influence on George Stephenson and its success was a key factor in promoting the use of steam locomotives at collieries in the North East.
And it is thought the slang for an energetic traveller and phrases like “running like Billy-o” derive from the locomotive’s name.
“To actually see the replica of Puffing Billy, I think the adults were just as excited as the children, if not more so, as it really brought it home,” added Lynn.
“I know it’s a replica, but it’s nearly as good as the real thing.
“I think it was a memorable moment in my life. I felt quite choked up just thinking about it.
“It was amazing.”
Today and tomorrow Beamish will be taking Puffing Billy to Walbottle Campus, in Newcastle, where invited local schools will get to see the engine and find out more about its history.