At work in Victorian times

Victorian times


The Grand Allies, a partnership of businessmen including John Bowes, opened a colliery at Springwell in Durham. A railway was needed to transport the coal to the River Tyne. The plan was to build inclined planes and use a combination of steam power and gravity to move the coal wagons. The railway was designed by local man George Stephenson who built the Hetton colliery railway which was completed in 1822. The railway was built between Mount Moor and Jarrow via Springwell village. The first section to open was between Springwell and Jarrow which opened on 17 January 1826, Mount Moor followed in April 1826. When the line opened it comprised four inclined planes: one steep incline from Mount Moor to Blackham's Hill, and one from Blackham's Hill to Springwell. At Blackham's Hill, the summit of both inclines, was the "hauler house", housing stationary engines to wind the ropes. A long self-acting incline ran from Springwell. Nearly 5 miles (8.0 km) of locomotive-worked line extended to Jarrow where a final incline served the coal staiths. The line was extended across the Team Valley to Kibblesworth Colliery in May 1842. The railway was completed in 1854 when a link from Marley Hill to Kibblesworth was connected enabling collieries in Dipton to be accessed. The Pontop and Jarrow company was taken over by other large coal owners and the railway was re-named the Bowes Railway, this was in honor of the Bowes-Lyon family (ancestors of the Queen mother) who were major shareholders. Despite the change of management the operation of the railway remained unchanged.


The first rope haulage systems were gravity inclines. These sections used a long rope attached to two sets of wagons at opposite ends of the incline. The rope went around a large horizontal wheel – known as the return wheel – at the top of the incline. The loaded wagons would be at the top and the empty wagons at the bottom. The loaded wagons would run downhill and they would pull the empty wagons up the hill. Speed would be controlled by a Brakeman applying a brake to the return wheel at the top of the hill. This system could not transport loaded wagons uphill as more empty wagons than full ones would be needed to balance the weight of the full ones and pull them up. In order to transport full wagons uphill a power source was required. This came in the form of the stationary engine. This was an adaptation of the engines which were used at the collieries to pump water and draw coal to the surface. A stationary engine would be built at the top or on the side of a hill, and it would wind the rope onto a drum to haul wagons up. From that point, another rope wound by an engine further up the hill could be used to move the wagons on. The return trip could be made by gravity with the rope attached to the rear of the train, the haulage engine left out of gear and a Brakeman controlling the speed of the train – not unlike a gravity incline. This required the engine’s power to be used in only one direction and was therefore very efficient. In the Durham coalfield, stationary engines were referred to as haulers.


The present hauler uses electric power (3 phase AC at 2750 volts) instead of steam. The wagons have long since changed from Chaldrons to the wooden box hopper type. In fact, some relatively modern steel wagons are also used. However, the line and its method of working would be still recognisable as similar to his original design if George Stephenson was able to view it today. During the line’s working life the method of transporting coal was said to be so efficient that the first train through in the morning, and its coal content, would be sufficient to pay the wage of every man working on the railway for that day. The Springwell site has offices, a canteen and class room facilities. It also has a joinery, engineering and fabrication workshops with refurbished and working machinery, a blacksmith's shop and two additional working forges. The site has a station platform and level crossing across the adjacent main road. Guided tours are available at no extra cost. Open days, with shunting demonstrations and minig displays, are on the first weekend of each month. There is wheelchair access to most areas.


Location : Springwell Rd., Gateshead NE9 7QJ

Transport: Newcastle Central Station (National Rail, Metro) then bus. Bus route 56 from Newcastle stops outside.

Opening Times: Tuesday to Saturday 10:00 to 16:00

Tickets: Free (Donations welcomed)

Tel: 0191 416 1847