Oct 082014


On this date in 1829 Rocket, a steam locomotive designed and built by George Stephenson and his son Robert, won the Rainhill Trials, a major competition in the early days of steam locomotive railways, run to determine which engine would be used on the nearly completed Liverpool and Manchester Railway (designed by George Stephenson).  Five engines competed, running back and forth along a mile length of level track at Rainhill, in Lancashire (now Merseyside). The Stephensons’ Rocket was the only locomotive to complete the trials, and was declared the winner. The Stephensons were accordingly given the contract to produce locomotives for the railway.


When the Liverpool and Manchester Railway was approaching completion, the directors of the railway ran a competition to decide whether stationary steam engines or locomotives would be used to pull the trains. The Rainhill Trials were arranged as an open contest that would let them see all the locomotive candidates in action, with the choice to follow. Regardless of whether or not locomotives were settled upon, a prize of £500 was offered to the winner of the trials. Three notable figures from the early days of engineering were selected as judges: John Urpeth Rastrick, a locomotive engineer of Stourbridge, Nicholas Wood, a mining engineer from Killingworth with considerable locomotive design experience, and John Kennedy, a Manchester cotton spinner and a major proponent of the railway.

Locomotives that were entered were to be subjected to a variety of tests and conditions. These were amended at various points, but were eventually nailed down to:

The weight of the Locomotive Engine, with its full complement of water in the boiler, shall be ascertained at the Weighing Machine, by eight o’clock in the morning, and the load assigned to it shall be three times the weight thereof. The water in the boiler shall be cold, and there shall be no fuel in the fireplace. As much fuel shall be weighed, and as much water shall be measured and delivered into the Tender Carriage, as the owner of the Engine may consider sufficient for the supply of the Engine for a journey of thirty-five miles. The fire in the boiler shall then be lighted, and the quantity of fuel consumed for getting up the steam shall be determined, and the time noted.

 The Tender Carriage, with the fuel and water, shall be considered to be, and taken as a part of the load assigned to the Engine.

Those engines which carry their own fuel and water, shall be allowed a proportionate deduction from their load, according to the weight of the Engine.

The Engine, with the carriages attached to it, shall be run by hand up to the Starting Post, and as soon as the steam is got up to fifty pounds per square inch (3.4 bar), the engine shall set out upon its journey.

The distance the Engine shall perform each trip shall be one mile and three quarters (2.8 km) each way, including one-eighth of a mile (200 m) at each end for getting up the speed and for stopping the train; by this means the Engine, with its load, will travel one and a-half mile (2.4 km) each way at full speed.

The Engines shall make ten trips, which will be equal to a journey of 35 miles (56 km); thirty miles whereof shall be performed at full speed, and the average rate of travelling shall not be less than ten miles per hour (16 km/h). (Note: The only other passenger railway in the world at that time, the Stockton and Darlington Railway, had an average speed of only about 8 miles per hour (13 km/h).)

As soon as the Engine has performed this task, (which will be equal to the travelling from Liverpool to Manchester,) there shall be a fresh supply of fuel and water delivered to her; and, as soon as she can be got ready to set out again, she shall go up to the Starting Post, and make ten trips more, which will be equal to the journey from Manchester back again to Liverpool.

The time of performing every trip shall be accurately noted, as well as the time occupied in getting ready to set out on the second journey.

Ten locomotives were entered, but on the day the competition began — 6 October 1829 — only five locomotives actually began the tests:


Cycloped, built by Thomas Shaw Brandreth.


Novelty, built by John Ericsson and John Braithwaite.


Perseverance, built by Timothy Burstall.


Rocket, designed by George and Robert Stephenson; built by Robert Stephenson and Company.


Sans Pareil, built by Timothy Hackworth.

Locomotives were run two or three per day, and several tests for each locomotive were performed over the course of several days. The Rainhill stretch of the railway was very level for a mile or so making it a perfect site for the trials.

Cycloped was the first to drop out of the competition. Built with “legacy technology”, it used a horse walking on a drive belt for power, and was withdrawn after an accident caused the horse to burst through the floor of the engine.

Next to retire was Perseverance. Damaged en route to the competition, Burstall spent five days repairing it. When it failed to reach the required 10 miles per hour (16 km/h) on its first tests the next day, it was withdrawn from the trial. It was granted a £26 consolation prize.

Sans Pareil nearly completed the trials, though at first there was some doubt as to whether it would be allowed to compete as it was 300 lbs overweight. However, it did eventually complete eight trips before cracking a cylinder. Despite the failure it was purchased by the Liverpool & Manchester, where it served for two years before being leased to the Bolton and Leigh Railway.

The last drop-out was Novelty. In complete contrast to Cycloped it was cutting-edge for 1829, lighter and considerably faster than the other locomotives in the competition. It was accordingly the crowd favorite. Reaching a then-astonishing 28 mph (45 km/h) on the first day of competition, it later suffered some damage to a boiler pipe which could not be fixed properly on site in the time allotted. Nevertheless it continued its run on the next day, but upon reaching 15 mph the pipe gave way again and damaged the engine severely enough that it had to drop out.

So, the Rocket was the only locomotive to complete the trials. It averaged 12 miles per hour (19 km/h) (achieving a top speed of 30 miles per hour (48 km/h)) hauling 13 tons, and was declared the winner of the £500 prize. The Stephensons were accordingly given the contract to produce locomotives for the Liverpool & Manchester Railway.)


The Liverpool and Manchester Railway (L&MR) was the world’s first twin-track inter-urban passenger railway in which all the trains were timetabled and ticketed. Trains were hauled by company steam locomotives between the two towns, though private wagons and carriages were allowed. The line opened on 15 September 1830.

The line opened on 15 September 1830 with termini at Manchester, Liverpool Road (now part of the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester) and Liverpool Crown Street. The festivities of the opening day were marred when William Huskisson, the popular Member of Parliament for Liverpool, was killed.

L.T.C. Rolt, in his biography of the Stephensons, describes the event in some detail. The southern line was reserved for the special opening train, drawn by the locomotive Northumbrian and conveying the Duke of Wellington, then Prime Minister, in an ornamental carriage, together with distinguished guests in other carriages (including Huskisson). When the train stopped for water at Parkside, near Newton-le-Willows, it was intended that the other trains should pass in review on the northern line.

As the surface was covered with earth and cinders to rail level, it was easy for passengers to get down and stretch their legs, particularly as there was an interval between the delayed passing trains. Huskisson seized the opportunity to alight and stroll alongside the train. He then caught Wellington’s eye through the Duke’s carriage window. As the two were politically estranged, it was a golden opportunity to commence a reconciliation. The Duke inclined his head, someone opened the carriage door, and the two swapped pleasantries.

Then, people noticed Rocket approaching on the Northern line and shouted a warning. The Austrian ambassador was bodily pulled into the carriage, but Huskisson panicked. He tried to climb into the carriage, but he gripped the open door, which swung back, causing him to lose his grip. He fell between the two tracks, but the ‘Rocket ran over his leg which was fouling the rail, shattering it. He is said to have uttered the tragic words “I have met my death — God forgive me!”

The Northumbrian was detached from the Duke’s train and rushed him to Eccles, where he died in the vicarage. Thus he became the world’s first widely reported railway passenger fatality. The somewhat subdued party proceeded to Manchester, where, the Duke being deeply unpopular with the weavers and mill workers, they were given a lively reception (bricks thrown, etc.), and returned to Liverpool without alighting (a grand reception and banquet had been prepared for their arrival).

Notwithstanding the unfortunate start to its career, the L&MR was very successful. Within a few weeks of opening it ran its first excursion trains, carried the first railway mails in the world, and was conveying road-rail containers for Pickfords; by the summer of 1831 it was carrying tens of thousands by special trains to Newton Races.

My immediate thought for a recipe when I chose this anniversary was Lancashire Hotpot. Lancashire hotpot is a dish made traditionally from lamb or mutton and onion, topped with sliced potatoes, left to bake in the oven all day in a heavy pot and on very low heat. It originated in the days of the heavy industrialization of Lancashire in such cities as Liverpool and Manchester. It requires a minimum of effort to prepare and cooked while both husband and wife were away at work in factories. Nowadays it can be cooked much faster, but there is still nothing to beat the slow cooking of the old days – slowly breaking down the meat and making a rich gravy.

There are many regional variations. It is frequently found listed amongst the usual pub grub dishes in around Britain. The basic recipe consists of a mix of lamb and vegetables (carrot, turnip, potatoes, onions or leeks) covered with sliced potato. Sometimes lamb kidneys are included.

The traditional recipe once included oysters, which were a cheap filler, but increasing cost eliminated them from common usage. Pickled red cabbage or beetroot are often served as an accompaniment. In some areas Lancashire cheese is also served with the dish.

Flavor can be enhanced with seasoning; salt and pepper would be the most traditional, and any other ingredients available in the kitchen. Some stock is usually added to cover the contents while it cooks, though some recipes rely on a well-sealed pot on a low heat to retain enough moisture within the meat, onion and potato.

Here is a modern recipe which I have modified slightly to conform better with traditional methods. Modern recipes call for browning the meat and frying the onions briefly before adding them to the casserole. I strongly suspect this was not done with traditional cooking, so I have omitted this step. Do as you wish in this regard. You can also experiment with long slow cooking if you like. The best way would be to cook it in a crock pot.


Lancashire Hotpot


8 meaty neck lamb chops, on the bone
225g / ½ lb onions, peeled and thinly sliced
55g /2 oz butter, melted
900g /2 lb/potatoes, peeled and thickly sliced
4 lambs’ kidneys, cored and sliced (optional)
1 carrot, peeled and thickly sliced
salt and pepper
1 liter /3 cups of beef or chicken stock
1 tbsp Worcestershire Sauce


Pre-heat the oven to 350°F/180°C

In a large oven-proof, casserole pour half the butter into the bottom then cover with a layer of sliced potato, cover with half the onions, season with salt and pepper. If using, lay the sliced kidneys over the chops, add the carrot, cover with the remaining onions, season.

Pour in enough stock to come two thirds way up the casserole dish and add the Worcestershire sauce.

Cover with a layer of overlapping potatoes, ensuring the surface is completely covered. Brush the potato with the remaining melted butter, sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Cover the pot with a tightly fitting lid and cook in the oven for at least 2 ½ hours Check from time to time to make sure the casserole isn’t drying out, top up with stock or water as necessary.

Remove the lid from the casserole and set under the broiler until the potatoes on the surface are browned. Remove from the oven and leave to rest about 10 minutes.

Serve on hot plates with poached beetroot or red cabbage.

Serves 4

Lancashire apple pie (a recipe for another day) and Lancashire cheese eaten together make a traditional dessert.

  2 Responses to “Rainhill Trials”

  1. How were the rails held down on the ground ?

    • I’d have to check with my engineer/historian friends to be absolutely sure, but I think the system still in use of wooden cross ties on a gravel bed on which to lay the rails was the norm from the start. There were many issues that were under debate, such as whether the rails or the wheels on the locomotive should be flanged to keep it on the track, what width the rail gauge should be, etc. But I don’t believe there was much debate about how to secure the rails.

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