Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

The Rainhill Trials by Anthony Dawson

Unravelling the myths

Rocket, Sans Pareil and Novelty as depicted (to the same scale) by the Mechanics' Magazine in October 1829. (The Rainhill Trials, Amberley Publishing)

As Anthony Coulls has written in the foreword, the story of the Rainhill Trials is rather like the story of Genesis in the Bible. A familiar tale, one that has often been told, but perhaps never as well understood as it should be. So why write a book on Rainhill if the story is so well known? The impetus to write about Rainhill was several fold: the building in 2010 of a more faithful replica of Robert Stephenson’s and Henry Booth’s Rocket (the 1979 replica had many features which were not present on the original locomotive of 1829) and the lessons learned from that; the results of a full-scale re-enactment of the Ranihill Trials in 2002; a gathering of all three replica locomotives at SIM, Manchester in 2005; and continued frustration with the many myths which had accrued around Rainhill. That George Stephenson had built Rocket (and that it was the first railway locomotive) and had conducted industrial sabotage against his former colleague Timothy Hackworth. Walking past the 1928 replica of Novelty (which incorporates the original wheels, parts of the valve gear and one cylinder) on a daily basis aroused interest in Braithwaithe and Ericsson. The return of Rocket to the Newcastle for the first time since the 1850s and Manchester since 1836 gave further incentive to start researching and writing.

The original Sans Pareil as preserved at Locomotion, the NRM out-station at Shildon, a stone's throw from where she was built in 1829. (c. Lauren Jaye Gradwell, The Rainhill Trials, Amberley Publishing)

Unravelling many of the myths surrounding Rainhill was akin to jumping down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland, not knowing where it would take me. The first port of call were the notebooks of two of the Judges, John Urpeth Rastrick and Nicholas Wood, as well as the minutes of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway which organised the Rainhill Trials. Analysis of the notebooks provided similar times for each of the runs by Rocket, Novelty and Sans Pareil as well as showing that Rocket – despite the later claim of Nicholas Wood – didn’t achieve a speed of 29mph. Wood simply got his maths wrong. Whilst it is well-known that both Sans Pareil and Novelty suffered from technical problems, the actual details of these failures was both sketchy and contradictory. Contemporary press reportage, especially by the likes of the oft-quoted Mechanics’ Magazine, was biased against the Stephensons, and a vocal champion of the ‘London Engine’ of Braithwaite and Ericsson.  The Stephensons (père et fil) and Hackworth were simply ‘not the right sort of people’ for the editor, and readers, of the London-based Mechanics’ Magazine. They were the same London experts who derided George Stephensons safety lamp and that he would never cross Chat Moss. Thus, reports from pro- and anti-Stephenson sources were needed to create a balanced picture; so too accounts of Rainhill from France and the USA.  In presenting each locomotive, I endeavoured to remain as neutral as possible, and let the data speak for itself.

Neither Sans Pareil or Novelty has had much in the way of a detailed study, usually being dismissed as ‘also rans’, with the victory of Rocket being a foregone conclusion. In fact, I could have written this book twice over with the amount of data, and human interest, the research gathered about each of the engines and their builders. Analysis by two of the leading experts on early railway locomotives, Peter Davidson and Dr. John Glithero, showed that of the three contenders Novelty was theoretically brilliant, but hamstrung through never having had running-in trials, hence several mechanical problems only being discovered at Rainhill. Furthermore, the bellows needed to provide the draught for the fire used more energy than the cylinders could deliver!

The replica certainly confirms John Dixon's observation that Novelty had a 'parlour-like appearance', all polished copper and bress like a new tea-kettle. (c. David Boydell, The Rainhill Trials, Amberley Publishing)

Sans Pareil was even more controversial: since the 1850s, largely thanks to the bitter writing of Timothy Hackworth’s son, John Wesley Hackworth, who claimed that the Stephensons had deliberately sabotaged his father’s entry. Going through Timothy’s letters at the National Railway Museum showed that Timothy and George were on good terms (far from the bitter enemies the myth would have us believe), but also confirmed the observation that Sans Pareil had a cracked cylinder. Experience from casting cylinders for the replicas of Rocket and Sans Pareil 1979-1980 showed that the cylinder design was poor, using ‘floating cores’ which could shift during casting, leading to a flaw which could not be detected. Sans Pareil’s boiler also leaked, again something traditionally blamed on the Stephensons and their Ally, Michael Longridge, who made it. Discussing the matter with an experienced boilersmith suggests that the boiler was damaged either on the road or more likely during its testing to three times it working pressure (Rocket’s boiler underwent the same test and also showed signs of leaking, requiring the addition of stays).  Furthermore, Timothy Hackworth’s frantic efforts to seal up leaky joints in the boiler probably made matters worse. Local pride in Darlington and Shildon would suggest that ‘Hackworth was robbed’ of victory at Rainhill, and that Sans Pareil was as good as Rocket. Once again, analysis by Davidson and Glithero show that Sans Pareil was really the last-gasp of old technology and of the three contenders it was only Rocket – thanks to her revolutionary multi-tubular boiler designed by Henry Booth – that not only stayed the course but was the only locomotive which would have been able to work a regular, time-tabled passenger service between Liverpool and Manchester.

The 2010 replica of Rocket standing at the historic Liverpool Road Station during her visit to mark the 180th anniversary of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway. (c. Matthew Jackson, The Rainhill Trials, Amberley Publishing)

Such was the rate of technological development (like phones and other personal devices), Rocket was obsolete within six months; first by further Rocket-type locomotives which sported several improvements from the Rainhill design, but culminating in the delivery of Planet in October 1830: the first mainline express passenger locomotive.

Rocket only had a brief working life of about two years before being laid up; she was used as the test-bed of a rotary steam engine invented by Lord Dundonald in 1833, and then stored until being sold in 1836 to work on a colliery railway. Out of service again by 1840, Rocket was thankfully preserved, and although missing many of her non-ferrous fittings, was eventually presented to what is now the Science Museum in 1862.

Sans Pareil, after a far longer working life on the Bolton & Leigh Railway ended her days as a stationary engine in a colliery before she too was given to what is now the Science Museum. You can see her, and the 1979 replica, on display at Locomotion, Shildon. Novelty languished unused until 1833 when she was rebuilt with a multi-tubular boiler and set to work on the St Helens & Runcorn Gap Railway; her original wheels and cylinders passed to John Melling, the Liverpool & Manchester Railway Locomotive Superintendent. Four wheels and a cylinder were incorporated in a static replica now on display at SIM, Manchester, and the second cylinder is on display at Rainhill library. With the 190th Anniversary of Rainhill coming next year, it would be fantastic to see all three original contestants reunited.

Anthony Dawson's new book The Rainhill Trials is available for purchase now.