Colliery Railways: Hetton Colliery Railway

Hetton Colliery Railway 1822-1959

Including a chapter on the Hetton Colliery Railway in an article about the railways and communities of Easington District might seem a little strange – after all the HCR began in Hetton and ended in Sunderland and at no point does it even touch Easington district. However the railway was constructed in the early 1820s when Hetton was indeed part of the then Easington District, which was much larger than now. The HCR ran from Hetton to Sunderland by crossing over Warden Law Hill, one of the highest points for miles around, and thus it could be seen from various high points (e.g. Mount Pleasant and Kinley Hill) in and around Seaham and elsewhere and for a brief while (from 1896 to about 1920) it may have been connected to Seaham Harbour via the old Rainton and Seaham line. More importantly the HCR (about which there is little published material) deserves a place in this book because of its unique place in railway history and for its role in opening up the coalmines of Easington District. The HCR was fed by Hetton Lyons, Eppleton and Elemore pits. These were the first deep mines in the county of Durham and were the inspiration for all of the other deep collieries which came later in Easington District, including the three Seaham pits.

The Past

The Durham coalfield is divided into two distinct parts – the exposed and the concealed. In the western, exposed, half fuel at or near the surface must have been collected from earliest times. There are places today in west Durham where people can literally dig up coal from their back gardens and there are still several open-cast sites which are likely to be around for decades to come. The first clearly documented evidence of coalmining in the exposed coalfield is in the Boldon Book of 1183, a register of the Bishop of Durham’s personal lands and the dues paid by his tenants. Small mines, probably simple bell-pits, were worked during the mediaeval period in the Tyne and Wear valleys. Limited in quantity and of indifferent quality, these coals were sent by sea to London and the Low Countries. The Industrial Revolution encouraged a dramatic increase in production from the 16th. century onwards. Because of their nearness to the sea Durham and Northumberland became the most important coal-producing and exporting counties in the period 1550-1700. Early wagonways and then the railways proper enabled coal and coke to be moved to the ports on the rivers and coast, where they were loaded on to large ships for export. A coal exchange was established at Billingsgate in London in 1769 and coal cartels began to operate in the Durham coalfield in the 18th. and early 19th. centuries. Before the advent of steam coal mines had to be drained by primitive water-wheels and this placed a physical limit on the depth of the mines and the amount of water that could be removed.

Wagonways may have been used at small mines in the Midlands in the 16th. century. The earliest wagonway in the northeast was near Blyth, probably opened in 1609 to carry coal from pits near Bedlington to the river Blyth. In about 1630 Sir Thomas Liddell, of Ravensworth Castle, is said to have laid the first wagonway to the Tyne from the Teams Colliery near to Derwenthaugh. The first wagonway on the Wear was laid by Thomas Allan in 1693. By 1793 on a stretch of the river near Fatfield there were ten coal staiths connected by rail to some thirty pits. The rails of all these early lines were made of wood and the wagons were horse-drawn. By the middle of the 18th. century rails were made of cast-iron. By 1820 cheaper wrought-iron was increasingly in use. Wherever a large weight of goods had to be transported regularly between two fixed points railways showed themselves to be very practicable. At first hills set a limit to their use but inclined planes soon circumvented this problem. Complete canal boats were let down and drawn up on slopes between different canals. Similar inclined planes were placed to connect nearly level railways, and so the possibility of overcoming every difficulty of the ground was offered by them. Empty wagons were drawn up the line by the weight of the full ones in descent, a system apparently perfected by a Mr. Barnes of Benwell Colliery.

The eastern half of the Durham coalfield is concealed by several hundreds of feet of Permian magnesian limestone. The powerful steam engines required to dig and drain deep mines did not exist until the start of the 1820s. The first exploitation of the concealed coalfield using the new technology took place at the tiny village of Hetton where sinking commenced on December 19 1820. Deep mining was an expensive business, far beyond the financial means of most coalowners, and necessitated the creation of a large company for the purpose. Hetton was at the edge of the exposed coalfield. A few hundred yards to the east were old shallow pits at Rainton which sent their coal on horse-drawn wagons up a wagonway to Penshaw where it was loaded on to small vessels, taken down the river Wear, and re-transferred to larger boats for export to London and abroad. The new Hetton Colliery Company decided to dispense with all of these middlemen and have its own direct wagonway connection to its own staiths near the mouth of the river, eight miles to the northeast, for direct loading on to ocean-going vessels.

Whilst the exploratory digging proceeded at Hetton, George Stephenson, the famous engineer and pioneer of steam engines, oversaw the construction of the railway from the pithead to Sunderland from March 1821. He was allowed by his usual employers, the ‘Grand Allies’, to undertake this extra work, his first completely new railway, without any diminution of his salary as resident engineer at Killingworth Colliery in Northumberland. His brother Robert (after whom George’s equally famous son Robert was named) was the resident engineer for this, the remarkable Hetton Colliery Railway. The new line was the first railway in the world to be designed to use locomotives. Stephenson sold 5 of his own locos to the Hetton Company, but they were not terribly successful and were replaced by others in the 1830s.

The HCR ran uphill from Hetton to the Copt Hill, climbed over the top of Warden Law Hill, and descended past Silksworth on its way to the river at Sunderland. The railway was far from straight for it needed to make skilful use of the terrain. The first four stages totalled a climb of 317 feet 9 inches in about 2.8 miles. From the top of Warden Law Hill to the staiths above the river was seven more stages away, very nearly 5 miles, and a collective drop of 522 feet. Wagons, eight at a time and holding over two and a half tons each, were transported from Hetton to the Wear in about two hours – using fixed steam engines for the steepest gradients, self-acting inclined planes for the less steep, and very early locomotives and fixed engines for the few level stretches. Over the 8 miles there were two locomotives, six stationary engines, and 5 brake arrangements on as many inclined planes. At the time of its opening, November 18, 1822, the Hetton Colliery Railway was regarded as one of the engineering wonders of the world and it attracted visitors from as far afield as America and Prussia. The North-East was at the forefront of technology, the Silicon Valley of its day. The excellent publicity received launched the Stephenson clan on to even greater things – the Stockton & Darlington Railway (opened in 1825), the Manchester and Liverpool (opened in 1831) and the Birmingham & London. These pioneering achievements have earned George Stephenson a place on the back of every modern £5 note.

Coal was found at the Hetton Lyons Blossom Pit sinking, at 650 and 900 feet, in seams six and a half feet thick. By 1826 Hetton Colliery and its sister mines at Elemore and Eppleton were producing 318,000 tons of coal worth £174,000 and had become the largest mining combine in England. Hetton Colliery and its railway proved that 900 feet of limestone and quicksand and a 300 foot hill were not insurmountable obstacles to exploitation of the rich reserves of coal and that lesson did not go unnoticed. Before long others, including the 3rd. Marquess of Londonderry and Colonel Thomas Braddyll of Haswell, would enter the field and the tapping of the concealed Durham coalfield began in earnest.

Between 1828 and 1831 Lord Londonderry constructed a wagonway from his Rainton pits to his new harbour at Seaham. This, the Rainton and Seaham railway, passed under the HCR at a point opposite to the public house at the Copt Hill. No junction was effected between the two at this point in time but there may be have been one later. Rainton Colliery closed in 1896 and the Rainton and Seaham line became redundant. The sections west of the Copt Hill were dismantled. The section from the Copt Hill to Seaham Colliery and Seaham Harbour was transferred from Londonderry Collieries to the Hetton Colliery Company and a junction may have been created which enabled the HCC to ship its coal from either Sunderland or Seaham Harbour. The new connection to Seaham Harbour was used only lightly and was abandoned at some point before 1920. The original Hetton Colliery Company was gobbled up by the Lambtons, Earls of Durham, late in the nineteenth century. At the very end of the century the Lambtons in turn sold out all their mining interests to Sir James Joicey. In 1920 the 7th. Marquess of Londonderry sold Silksworth Colliery to Joicey. This pit had been connected to the Londonderry Seaham and Sunderland Railway but was now linked instead to the Hetton Colliery Railway. Thus in its time the HCR served Hetton Lyons, Elemore, Eppleton and Silksworth collieries.

When Hetton Lyons Colliery closed in 1950 Elemore, Eppleton and Silksworth collieries carried on using the ancient HCR and the old staiths on the Wear. The end for railway and staiths came with the construction of the new Hawthorn Shaft near Murton from 1952-58 to which the coals from Eppleton, Elemore and Murton were sent underground for onward shipment down the old branch line from Murton to Sunderland Docks via Seaton and Ryhope or to Seaham Harbour via the South Hetton line. After a working life of 137 years the Hetton Colliery Railway carried traffic for the last time on Wednesday, September 9 1959, and dismantling began the next day. The last 90 feet of track was lifted at Hetton on November 20 1960.

The Present

Today, in fragments, there is still much to see of Stephenson’s masterpiece. The three best viewing spots are:

1) At the Copt Hill public house on the Houghton and Seaham road you are at the top of the inclined plane from Hetton Colliery and can see down into the valley where the pit was located.

2) At the summit of Warden Law Hill, above the old quarry. From here, on a clear day, there is a spectacular view in every direction and the sheer scale of the railway can be appreciated. Truly a wonder of its time.

3) From the eastern perimeter of Farringdon estate the course of the railway can be followed, in isolated segments, past Plains Farm and on into the centre of Sunderland, running gently downhill all the way. All traces of it vanish as it crosses the Chester Road. The staiths are long since demolished.

The Future

The Hetton Colliery Railway preceded the Stockton and Darlington Railway by three years. It was the first railway in the world to be designed to use locomotives. It marked a crucial stage in the career of George Stephenson. These three facts alone give the HCR a unique place in the history of transport. And yet today over the fragmented remains you will find no information boards, no sign-posts, nothing to indicate its importance. No attempt seems to have been made to keep the trackbed of the Hetton Colliery Railway intact. A golden opportunity was missed to preserve Stephenson’s masterpiece, a direct link back to the Industrial Revolution which so altered this county and especially Easington District. A continuous walkway/cycleway/bridleway/ tourist attraction could have been created – linking the heart of Sunderland to the serene countryside at Hetton and then on to Durham City via the old Durham and Sunderland branch of the N.E.R. Instead in the 35 years since its closure the course of the Hetton Colliery Railway has been bisected by the quarry at Warden Law (itself now disused), the new A19 Sunderland bypass, and the expanding estates of Moorside and Farringdon. Some sections have been taken back by adjacent farmers.

— by Tony Whitehead