New research by Historic England has unearthed the fascinating history and significance of a 19th-century locomotive refuelling stage in Shildon, County Durham, used to re-supply early steam locomotives with the coal they needed to operate. It was built 175 years ago by the Stockton & Darlington Railway (S&DR), the world’s first steam-hauled public railway which opened in 1825.
Constructed in 1847, Historic England believes that the site, known locally as the ‘coal drops’, was the first ever attempt to mechanise (by the use of gravity) the process of refuelling steam locomotives in the UK. Prior to that date, refuelling was a labour-intensive process, which involved men shovelling coal by hand into an engine’s tender – the wagon immediately behind the locomotive that contains its fuel.
Shildon was a transport hub for coal mined from the Durham collieries. The S&DR built the drops to speed up the re-fuelling times of their steam locomotives that hauled coal trains from Shildon to docks on the River Tees where it was offloaded onto ships for onward transport to distant markets.
Designed by John Graham, the S&DR’s Traffic Manager, the drops consisted of three wooden hoppers each with a retractable chute, suspended above stone bays built next to a short loop of railway line known as a ‘coaling road’.
The hoppers were approached at one end via a ramp. Special coal wagons with bottom-opening doors were run up the ramp, the doors opened and the loads were discharged by gravity in to the hoppers. The locomotive in need for refuelling would approach the drops via the coaling road; once in place the fireman would lower the chute and allow the coal to fall – again under gravity – in to the tender of his waiting locomotive.
The coal drops opened in early 1847 and remained in use until 1935 following a reduction in the number of coal trains operating out of Shildon. They were listed at Grade II in 1986 and then upgraded to Grade II* in 2021 in recognition of their historical significance. The new research has confirmed that significance but also highlighted new information.
Historic England carried out the study of the coal drops as part of its research into the history of Shildon, which is known as the cradle of the railway. This research is part of the Stockton and Darlington Railway Heritage Action Zone (HAZ), a five-year programme established to help rejuvenate and restore the 26-mile stretch of historic railway ahead of its upcoming 200th anniversary in 2025.
Marcus Jecock, lead author of the Historic England research, said: “We already knew the drops were early and therefore significant – not just to the history of the S&DR, the world’s first steam-hauled public railway, but also to the history of the railways in general. However, our new research has highlighted exactly how significant they were.
“Our research has clarified when the coal drops were built, who designed them and how they operated. It has also suggested they probably represent the first attempt, in Britain – and given Britain’s primacy in the development of railways, possibly the world – to mechanise the process of re-fuelling steam locomotives.”
The coal drops are owned by Durham County Council and form part of Locomotion in Shildon.
Sarah Price, Head of Locomotion said: “The coal drops are an important part of Locomotion’s collection of historically significant railway buildings and structures. This research will increase public interest at a time of significant investment at Locomotion that will see improvements to the condition of the coal drops as well as the creation of a new collection building, ‘New Hall’, in November 2023.”
Cllr Elizabeth Scott, Durham County Council’s Cabinet member for economy and partnerships, said: “The coal drops are an important part of our rail heritage here in County Durham and it is great that this research has been carried out that will allow us all to learn more about their fascinating history.
“In recognition of their significance, we are pleased to be working with partners to support a restoration scheme for the structure using the Levelling Up funding we secured to help build on Shildon’s status as the world’s first railway town, with the engineering pedigree that gave birth to the world’s first passenger railway.
“With the New Hall development also set to open next year and the bicentenary celebrations of the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 2025, these really are exciting times for the site.”
Lead photo credit: Coal Drops, Shildon ©Locomotion/Jason Hynes