Saturday, 7 February 2009


Robert Stephenson

The news in the blog A bear of little brain (see linked blogs list right) that the Stephenson Trust has been all but ejected from its premises in Newcastle is a blow to all those with an interest in rail history, and is a rotten way to treat a group of people who worked with no other aim than to honour the memory of one of the greatest engineers the world has known, and ensure that the site of his historic works was preserved and opened to the public. I do know some in the North Eastern Railway Association who consider Brunel to be overrated as an engineer and it does strike me he gets so much glory and the Stephensons get a little lost. Indeed, the Great Western Railway opened with Stephenson broad gauge locomotives; you can't have one without the other.

Here's a timeline of his life:

and a little more background:

Note his association with Newcastle's 'Lit and Phil'.

Strictly speaking the developer of the land, Silverlink, has not ejected the Trust, it has been far more subtle than that. It has upped the rental to astronomical amounts, which naturally is not remotely affordable. Like all such ventures, it was funded mainly by supporters and volunteers. There was of course a get-out clause, that they could develop the buildings into a major visitor centre to bring in huge income (and presumably even more vastly inflated rental along with it). That too wasn't really very realistic, such a venture takes time and funding and the Trust presumably had neither. What it had achieved, however, was not something to be lightly thrown away. It took on dereliction and made the wider public aware of the significance of the site. It raised funds and repaired the building, and collected and had on loan sufficient artifacts to enable it to open its doors for enthusiasts to enjoy.

Alas, no longer - I gather all is packed and the future of the Stephenson Works uncertain. It is a Grade II listed building, listed in 2005 (and without the Trust would that have happened?). Whether or not the building will now attract a commercial venture keen to pay such a rent, or if it will join the several historic buildings around the wider Quayside area lost to mystery fires remains to be seen.

Although there have been numerous alterations to the fabric of the building over time, the listing is quite clear about the historic significance of what remains, and the site in general. Indeed, another adjacent site is also now listed, that of the Hawthorne Works. Make no mistake, in terms of world history this is a very important site indeed, although in far from salubrious surroundings tucked behind the magnificence of Newcastle Central Station.

Naturally this is part of a 'regeneration project' , too many of which seem to be centred mostly on fat developer profits in my experience. In fact this is to be The Stephenson Quarter (a meaningless term, 'quarter', used by any and every local authority devoid of imagination), although whether much Stephenson will remain in future has to be open to doubt.

So important and interesting was this site deemed that Prof Gavin Stamp, in his TV series based on Pevsner, for the Newcastle episode visited the works, and here's a clip thanks to the magic of YouTube:

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I do hope that the Trust website can remain online, and even be further developed, as a valuable resource and a reminder of what has been lost:

Listings: (note the cast iron lintel is in fact a beam from a beam engine - waste not want not).

There is more information and a historic photograph of the works here:

The age of steam has been in the news in other ways recently, with the unveiling of Tornado, a steam locomotive newly recreated. I have to say I am not totally convinced about this: while of course a magnificent engineering achievement and a display of skills thankfully not lost, I do wonder why, I prefer to be steam hauled by a locomotive with some real history, and here is one of the most famous in action, as indeed it still, thankfully, is:

Steam excursions 2009:

Today I missed this, bet it was an exciting run from Hellifield to Carlisle, over Ribblehead Viaduct:

Fab picture here:


PS see also:

Also see comments, to which this refers:



Conservation Officer said...

Tornado ; I take your point entirely, though it'll have a history of its own some day. And being brand new, it can get up to speeds on the mainline that are impossible for the antique kettles:
I'm more concerned about so-called preserved railways cannibalising historic locos (even though there may be plenty of examples of the class available) to cash in on the otherwise laudable Thomas (himself a worthy object, and one of which no originals survive):

Nemesis said...

note that some are now asking for a reconstruction of 'Mallard' in order to try to take the record! Hardly fair. Mallard, of course. still exists, still steams.

But these are arguments which aren't new in the historic motor vehicle world, and total reps really are Not The Thing Dahling.

I think Tornado might suit those with not much idea but a desire to have a nice day out. I have no doubt it will be rapid and reliable and make a lot of cash.

Conservation Officer said...

"Mallard" still, officially, holds the record, so there shouldn't be any need to muck about with rebuilding.
Though here's 60532 "Blue Peter" unintentionally breaking the record at Durham in 1994 - if you accept that the driving wheels turning at 140mph, while the locomotive is stationary, counts:
Followed by another two years being mended. Probably best risk breaking a replica than an antique.

Nemesis said...

Indeed it does - 1938, so this year is the 70th anniversary of that run.

I've posted a Youtube about the A4 series above.

Conservation Officer said...

I never thought you were so far behind the times, Nem - 1938 - 2009 does not a 70th anniversary make...

Nemesis said...

Oops - brain fade. Or faded brain. And I do recall last year posting stuff in Another Place about it all and how the A4's had a get together.

I must take more water with it!