The restored mezzanine floor
Stephenson Trust Photo
There are few places in Britain that can rival Newcastle’s upon Tyne’s claim to have been involved in the birth of the steam age. It was in the city that George Stephenson, his son Robert, Edward Pease, Thomas Richardson and Michael Longridge formed Robert Stephenson & Company and, in 1823, opened the world’s first steam locomotive factory.
In 1825, the factory built Locomotion for the Stockton and Darlington Railway. Four year’s later, they built Rocket, Stephenson’s prize winning entry in the Rainhill Trials.
Locomotives built at the works were exported to railways all over the world. Stationary engines for collieries, marine engines, bridges and a steam driven chain ferry were built here. At Robert’s death in 1859, the firm was the largest employer on Tyneside. By the early 1890s, the works had expanded to occupy all available land and it became necessary to seek a fresh site. Suitable land for a new and enlarged works was found in Darlington. The old works at South Street on Forth banks, Newcastle upon Tyne finally closed in 1904.
When Robert Stephenson & Co moved out the works were taken over by other users. Aeroplanes were built there during WW I and motor cars during the inter-war period. When British industrial manufacturing collapsed in the 1960s, the whole area became run down and disused. Had it not been for the efforts of The Robert Stephenson Trust, the buildings would undoubtedly have been demolished like so much of Newcastle’s industrial heritage.
The Trust succeeded in obtaining a lease on the former works office buildings and the boiler shop. The buildings were painstakingly restored and Robert Stephenson’s office was recreated as it would have looked at in the mid 1800s. A library was set up where researchers could access a wide variety of books, photographs and drawings for reference purposes. To safeguard their future, the Trust obtained Grade 2* listed status for the buildings.
The restored office
Robert Stephenson Trust Photo
The undoubted star exhibit was an original grasshopper-type beam stationary steam engine, made to drive the machinery in the works. Less spectacular, but no less valuable were the Trust’s document collection. The best way to display industrial artefacts are within their original context. Renamed ‘Stephenson’s Works’ by the Trust, the buildings became an important educational resource not only for students in Newcastle, but for researchers from all over the world.
Now, in spite of everything that it has achieved, the Trust is being forced to vacate the buildings that it saved and restored. A property developer called Silverlink has taken over the freehold, and much of the surrounding area, and has raised the Trust’s rent from £5,400 to £140,000 per annum. (The Trust’s annual income is around £12,000.) For 18 months the Trust has struggled to negotiate a compromise agreement, but to no avail. Sadly Newcastle Council, which is anxious to be seen as a patron of the arts, does not seem to value the City’s industrial heritage.
It would be a tragedy if the Trust’s living museum is turned into yet another office or souvenir shop. We are advised by the Trust that their negotiations with Silverlink have broken down and that they are busy packing their property. The only thing that could save them now would be an 11th hour decision by the Council to impose a development consent on Silverlink that would ensure the Trust’s continued occupation of the works.
What you can do to help?
- Write letters and articles to railway magazines and railway forums alerting readers to what is happening to the Stephenson Works.
- Write to the leader of the Council explaining the the unique heritage value of the Stephenson’s Works. Tell him that maintaining the Stephenson artefacts in the setting were they were built and used is the best way of displaying them. You could also point out that the City’s industrial heritage could be a very powerful tourist attraction. In short point out that marketing-wise the city is about to shoot itself in the foot!
- Ask your friends and colleagues to join our campaign.
- Mr John Shipley, OBE
Leader Newcastle City Council
Newcastle City Council
Newcastle Upon Tyne
- BBC – Historic railway factory to close
- Newcastle Journal – Threat hangs over Stephensons Works
- The Robert Stephenson Trust – Homepage
- Newcastle City Council – John Shipley, OBE
‘Grasshopper’ beam engine, used in the works
Stephenson Trust Photo