George and Robert Stephenson’s world famous steam locomotive, “Rocket”, has returned to Tyneside for the first time in 156 years. It shouldn’t leave.
Through the determination and grit of its workers and the ingenuity and talent of its engineers and inventors, the North-East of England played an enormous role in Britain’s Industrial Revolution. The list of things invented in the region is long and varied. Where would we be without the light-bulb, hydro-electricity, the hydraulic crane, the steam turbine, the light-switch, the safety match, windscreen wipers and for the gluttons among us, the Greggs sausage roll?
Rivalling these illustrious inventions are the first commercial locomotives, built by local lads George Stephenson and his son Robert between 1814 and 1830. George Stephenson not only won the race to create the first commercial locomotive, but he also oversaw the creation of the world’s first public railway, the Stockton and Darlington Railway (opened in 1825), and subsequently found himself in charge of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (opened in 1830) where “Rocket” first found fame.
His rise to the top was, however, not straightforward and without rivalry. Our obsession with Great Men of History narratives underplays the role of those who laid the groundwork for subsequent success through experimentation and research. While the Stephensons were unquestionably standing on the shoulders of giants, their “trial and error” approach, determination to succeed and merging of a range of innovations, did, however, result in the development of the fastest and most efficient locomotive of the period. Out of the five locomotives chosen to race at the 1829 Rainhill Trials, “Rocket” was the only one which could cross the finish line and complete the competition. They were accordingly given the contract to build locomotives for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway and George has since entered history as the “Father of the Railways”.
“Rocket” was originally built in Newcastle at the Forth Street Works, the site of which is today behind the Central Station, by Robert Stephenson and Company. Since 1862, when it was donated to the Patent Office Museum in London – the forerunner of today’s Science Museum – “Rocket” has been on show in the South, hundreds of miles from where it was originally developed and designed. On June 13th, as part of the Great Exhibition of the North, the locomotive was returned to the North East to a new temporary home at Newcastle’s Discovery Museum where it will be displayed until September 9th. For 80 days, Geordies will be invited to see the locomotive, before it is taken to Manchester and then returned to London.
Although the Great Exhibition of the North, which officially began yesterday and seeks to provide Tyneside with 80 days of “amazing exhibits, live performances, displays of innovation, new artworks and unforgettable experiences”, has noble intentions and is casting a much-needed spotlight on the North East (albeit just NewcastleGateshead), it is a shame that the festival is not inaugurating the permanent display of the train where it was originally built but a temporary exhibition.
Like the Lindisfarne Gospels which are on permanent display in the British Library, “Rocket” forms a crucial part of our heritage, symbolising the cultural and engineering achievements of some of our most influential residents. The decentralising decision to relocate the locomotive would work to shift attention away from the overindulged capital and recognise the place of Newcastle in the country’s history. But like the failed campaign to return the Gospels to the North-East permanently, the fight to restore “Rocket” to Newcastle will most probably fall on deaf ears.
In that campaign, the Lord Bishop of Durham and Lord Murton of Lindisfarne were told that it was in the “public interest” to keep the Gospels in the British Library alongside all the other treasures bought, stolen or moved to London. Few scholars or tourists would wish to make the trip up to the far North to see the Gospels in their original context, that would of course be asking too much. Indeed, there was even the worry that if the Gospels were returned to the North-East this would result in a slippery slope where the British Library and Museum had to repatriate all their riches. Better keep everything of value in London then, it is in the public interest!
UPDATE 24/7/18: Culture secretary Jeremy Wright announced on Monday 23rd June that “Rocket” will be moving to the National Railway Museum in York long-term. During Theresa May’s away day in Gateshead, Wright said, “It is right that our great art and culture reaches all parts of the country. This bold move by the Science Museum group will ensure more people can see this national treasure and is an inspiring example of what can be done to make culture available to the widest possible audience.” Stephenson’s “Rocket” may be leaving Newcastle come September but its move to York is a compromise worth some celebration.
Photo credit: Statue of George Stephenson at Chesterfield Railway Station by Phil McIver. Licensed under Creative Commons.