Controversial Stephenson Letter Donated To National Railway Museum

By Graham Spicer | 02 August 2005
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Shows a photo of Jane Hackworth-Young, great great granddaughter of Timothy Hackworth in front of a replica of George Stephenson's Rocket, holding a 19th century letter.

Jane Hackworth-Young, great great granddaughter of railway pioneer Timothy Hackworth, presented the National Railway Museum with her ancestor's archive. Photo: Kate Mallender. © National Railway Museum.

A 19th century letter from pioneering railway engineer George Stephenson, part of a new donation to York’s National Railway Museum (NRM), has rekindled a long-running debate about the early days of the locomotive.

The controversial letter, from Stephenson to fellow railway engineer Timothy Hackworth, has been donated to the NRM by Hackworth’s great great grandchildren. Dated July 25 1828, it confirms that Stephenson was still using inefficient bellows to help power his engines more than six months after Hackworth introduced the ‘blast pipe’ technology that paved the way for reliable steam trains.

Hackworth’s locomotive The Royal George was built in 1827 and featured the blast pipe. However, Stephenson took credit for the design after his Rocket won the Rainhill Trials in 1829 and hauled the first inter-city train from Liverpool to Manchester the following year.

Shows a photo of the Rocket, an old steam locomotive which is black and yellow with a tall funnel, in a large hanger-like building

Stephenson's Rocket is known the world over, but was its success really down to George? © National Railway Museum.

Colin Divall, Professor of Railway Studies at the University of York, said: “Fans of Stephenson have always argued that the replacement of the bellows with the blast pipe, which was a distinguishing feature of Rocket, was George’s idea, but this letter seems to cast some doubt on that.”

The blast pipe created a partial vacuum in the smokebox just below the chimney of a locomotive, which drew fumes and hot gases through the boiler. This made the fire hotter and created more steam, thereby increasing the engine’s power.

Jane Hackworth-Young, great great granddaughter of Timothy Hawkworth, said: “We believe people simply assumed at the time that Stephenson had invented the blast pipe. That assumption continued through the years, and George Stephenson was happy to take the credit.

“Gradually though…both historians and the general public are beginning to recognise my great great grandfather’s contribution to railway history.”

Shows a photo of Jane Hackworth-Young, great great granddaughter of Timothy Hackworth in front of a replica of George Stephenson's Rocket, holding a document.

Jane Hackworth-Young hopes her great great grandfather will finally get the credit she feels he deserves. Photo: Kate Mallender. © National Railway Museum.

Prof Divall explained: “The blast pipe is almost certainly an instance of the same device being invented by two people at more or less the same time.”

Timothy Hackworth was born in 1786 and took a large part in the creation of the railway engines Puffing Billy, Locomotion, The Royal George and Sans Pareil. He died in 1850, leaving a collection of hundreds of letters and items of railway memorabilia.

“We’re delighted that the National Railway Museum will at last receive this important historical collection,” added Jane.

If its Heritage Lottery Fund bid is successful, the NRM is hoping to include the collection in Search Engine, a proposed £3 million plus project to make the entire museum archives fully accessible to the public.

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