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Robert Stephenson's Speech at the 'Revealing Railways Revealed' Event at the Museum of Making

Updated: Mar 6, 2022

My father, George, was self-taught and, after trying several jobs, was asked to help maintain the pumping engines at Killingworth Mine. But, always inquisitive, dad wondered what would happen if he used steam engines to pull wagons instead of horses. He tried this and proved steam engines could haul coal wagons more efficiently than horses could, pulling eight wagons, instead of just one, and at 4 miles per hour - faster than a horse.

I watched all of this whilst I was growing up. Dad used his earnings to send me to school and university, so I could have the education that he had missed.

When I was old enough, he asked me to join him at Killingworth as an apprentice. But then, together with Edward Pease, dad formed a company in my name, “Robert Stephenson and Company” to build a railway all the way from Darlington to Stockton linking the collieries. Dad was really the brains behind the company, at least at first, but he said it should be in my name because I was educated and he was not. I started by surveying the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, but I thought what if we use a ‘travelling’ engine on wheels, like Richard Trevithick, rather than fixed engines along the line, which we did with ‘The Rocket’ at Stockton. The rest, as they say, is History....

Dad’s vision was to haul coal firstly from the mine to the ports, and later, directly into British cities.

I learnt so much from dad’s engineering skills and business acumen. But, after travelling to Canada and South America as a mining consultant, I could see that railways could change the world.

I came back to help dad as our business was growing fast. My first major commission was to build the London and Birmingham Railway, which was bigger and better than any other railway at that time.

It was at that time when, in 1835, George Carr Glynn, Chairman of the North Midland Railway asked us to build a line from Derby to Leeds.

Dad decided the basic route – he had a sixth sense as to the best route, along the valley bottoms, but it was up to me, to sort out the detail and manage the construction. We needed lots of stations to collect goods, as well as people. Whilst in Canada I had met an ambitious young architect called Francis Thompson, and I asked him to design the stations along the route. I wanted them to be simple and efficient, but also attractive, and Francis came up with designs that looked like beautiful country cottages, as if in a parkland – just right for the lovely valleys of Derbyshire.

Even I didn’t realise how successful railways were to become. But, what I don’t understand, is why, once they were doing so well, so many lines were abandoned in favour of using roads with all the wagons separated – so inefficient.

Because of this, although the line has survived, all Francis Thompson’s stations have been lost. Except that is, the one at Wingfield, which has lain empty and abandoned for half a century.

Then, this strange organisation called The Derbyshire Historic Buildings Trust came along in 2016, wanting to keep it and repair it. Unbelievable when you see the state it was in, shown in the photos on their stand!

They persuaded Amber Valley Council to help by serving a Repairs Notice upon the owner, and when he still did nothing, then served a compulsory purchase order, like my railway companies did, to acquire by statute.

I was thrilled to think that after all this time the last surviving station was to be returned to near its original state. I can’t think of an older station of similar size that remains unaltered. As the trains go so much faster today than they did in my day, I realise it cannot now be used as a station, but I am sure it will make an excellent home for a new business.

The only difficulty is, as I found when promoting my railways, raising the money to complete the job. One and three quarter million pounds in all.

This is where Historic England joined the team to fund the basic repairs with a very generous grant., and that work, I understand is well under way. Indeed, you can witness it for yourself by joining one of the well organised tours around the site.

But, the shell of the building still needs restoring internally and converting for a new use. This time the Trust has asked the National Lottery Heritage Fund, who had helped fund some of the design work, if they could help. The Trust think they can, but know they must raise a matching amount by other means.

So, now they need to raise a quarter of a million pounds to match the Funds applied for from the Lottery.

And that starts now with the launch of a ‘Friends of Wingfield Station’ scheme to encourage all of you, and so many more, to help rescue this one last station, probably the oldest surviving rural railway station in the world.

For just £1.50 per month you can become a Friend. And any Friend of the station is a friend of mine too, so please do sign up.

If you can afford more, please do. The Trust also have a major sponsorship programme so bigger donations will be recognised and displayed on site for all to see.

So come on a journey with the Trust and help save this relic of a bygone area, just like me.

If you have been, thank you for listening!


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