Published at 12:43 on Sunday 5th February 2023
Tags: Sheldon, Locomotion, History, Stockton & Darlington Railway, Coal Drops, Historic England, Coaling Stage, North Eastern Railway, NER, Steam, 1930s

The still operational coal drops are pictured on 4th June 1932, with LNER J21 Class 0-6-0 No. 99, formerly a NER 'C Class' engine, while taking on coal at Shildon, now part of Locomotion. Ken Hoole Collection/Head of Steam – Darlington Railway Museum

New research by Historic England has unearthed the fascinating history and significance of a 19th-century locomotive coaling stage in Shildon, County Durham.

Shildon was a transport hub for coal mined from the Durham collieries. The S&DR built the drops to speed up the servicing times of their steam locomotives that moved the coal from Shildon to docks on the River Tees, where it was offloaded onto ships for onward transport to distant markets.

Designed by John Graham, the S&DR’s Traffic Manager, the drops consisted of three wooden hoppers each with a retractable chute, suspended above stone bays built next to a short loop of railway line known as a ‘coaling road’.

The description of the operation by Historic England will be well known to most enthusiasts and especially engine crews: "The hoppers were approached at one end via a ramp. Special coal wagons with bottom-opening doors were run up the ramp, the doors opened and the loads were discharged by gravity into the hoppers. The locomotive in need of 'top-up' would approach the drops via the coaling road and once in place the fireman would lower the chute and allow the coal to fall, again under gravity, into the tender of his waiting locomotive.

It was built by the Stockton & Darlington Railway (S&DR), the world’s first steam-hauled public railway which opened in 1825. Constructed in 1847, Historic England believes that the site, known locally as the ‘coal drops’, was the first ever attempt to mechanise, by the use of gravity, the process of re-coaling locomotives in Great Britain. Prior to that date, the process was labour-intensive and involved men shovelling tonnes of coal by hand into an engine’s tender.

They opened to traffic in early 1847 and remained in use until 1935 following a reduction in the number of coal trains operating out of Shildon. They were listed at Grade II in 1986 and then upgraded to Grade II* in 2021 in recognition of their historical significance. The new research has confirmed that significance, but also highlighted new information on the structure that is owned by Durham County Council and forms part of Locomotion in Shildon.

Historic England carried out the study of the coal drops as part of its research into the history of Shildon, which is known as the cradle of the railway. This research is part of the Stockton and Darlington Railway Heritage Action Zone, a five-year programme established to help rejuvenate and restore the 26-mile stretch of historic railway ahead of its upcoming 200th anniversary in 2025.

Marcus Jecock, lead author of the Historic England research, said: “We already knew the drops were early and therefore significant - not just to the history of the S&DR, the world’s first steam-hauled public railway, but also to the history of the railways in general. However, our new research has highlighted exactly how significant they were. Our research has clarified when the coal drops were built, who designed them and how they operated. It has also suggested they probably represent the first attempt, in Britain - and given Britain’s primacy in the development of railways, possibly the world - to mechanise the process of re-fuelling steam locomotives.”

Cllr Elizabeth Scott, Durham County Council’s Cabinet member for economy and partnerships, said: “The coal drops are an important part of our rail heritage here in County Durham and it is great that this research has been carried out that will allow us all to learn more about their fascinating history. With the New Hall development also set to open next year and the bicentenary celebrations of the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 2025, these really are exciting times for the site.”

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