The Tees Valley has an extraordinary transport history that influenced not only Britain but the wider world. It’s the home of the world’s first steam-hauled passenger railway, was a centre for shipbuilding, boasted one of the busiest ports in Britain and constructed iconic bridges from the Newport Bridge which links Middlesbrough with Stockton-on Tees, to the world-famous Sydney Harbour Bridge. Like other regions across Britain, it saw transformation through the 20th century, from horse-drawn transport to motorised cars, public transport and emergency vehicles, as well as localised services like the Hartlepool ferry.
Today we take it for granted that we can board a train and travel anywhere in the country, but in the early 1800s, inland transport was limited to horse drawn carriages and canal boats. Rail travel as we know it today began in Darlington in 1825, where Edward Pease founded the now famous Stockton & Darlington Railway. Crowds of 40,000 people turned out to witness its opening. George Stephenson, who built the Railway’s steam powered engine Locomotion 1, drove the train himself. It hauled wagons of coal and flour and a special carriage for passengers called Experiment. The train is thought to have reached speeds of 15 mph.
The Tees Valley was among the most productive shipbuilding regions in the United Kingdom for over two centuries. There had been a shipbuilding industry in Stockton since the 15th century and in the late 17th and 18th centuries the industry prospered. But it was the expansion of the rail network and the discovery of a rich seam of ironstone in the mid-1800s, coupled with its close-proximity to the River Tees that led to the area’s great shipbuilding success. Among those who flourished were Ralph Ward Jackson and Robert Ropner. Ward Jackson is known as the founder of West Hartlepool, transforming the area into a thriving town and one of the busiest ports in Britain. Ropner developed one of the most successful shipbuilding companies in the country, transporting coal, iron and steel – and people – along the Tees, around the country and the wider world.