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Rocket to be displayed at National Railway Museum as part of Brass, Steel and Fire exhibition


Legendary steam locomotive Rocket, designed by George and Robert Stephenson and built in 1829 for the Rainhill Trials, will be on display at the National Railway Museum, York, for at least ten years from 26 September 2019.

Rocket will join the collection’s other legends of the steam age, including Mallard and Flying Scotsman, as the historic locomotive travels to York for the first time in 20 years, so completing the final leg of a national tour of UK museums organised by the Science Museum Group.   

Rainhill Trials

The Rainhill Trials were run in October 1829 to test George Stephenson’s argument that locomotives, rather than stationary engines, would provide the best motive power for the new Liverpool and Manchester Railway (L&MR) that was nearing completion at the time.

Ten locomotives were entered for the competition, which was to run along a one-mile length of level track at Rainhill, Lancashire, on the L&MR. As part of the regulations, the test required each ‘Engine’ to make 10 trips along the 3.5-mile course, totalling 35 miles, of which 30 miles were to be covered at full speed with an average of not less than 10mph. This was at the time when the other operating railway, the Stockton and Darlington, was averaging 8mph.

Impression of the Rainhill Trials. Rocket is in the foreground. Waiting in the background are Sans Pareil and the smaller and lighter Novelty.

On the day of the competition, only five locomotives were present.  One, Cycloped, powered by a horse walking along a conveyor belt, was an early casualty as the floor broke under the horse.

Perseverance was damaged on the way to the trials and, although repaired on site, couldn’t reach the required speed.

Sans Pareil, entered by Timothy Hackworth, locomotive superintendent of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, nearly didn’t compete as it was 140kg overweight.  However, it was allowed to take part but then failed after eight runs with a cracked cylinder.

from The Mechanics Magazine of 1929.

Marvel of the early runs was Novelty, entered by John Ericsson and John Braithwaite. Without a tender – it was probably the world’s first ‘tank’ engine – it was lighter and faster than the other entrants, reaching an impressive 28mph on the first day of the trials. A damaged pipe restricted its speed to ‘only’ 15mph on the second day, after which the pipe failed completely and the locomotive was withdrawn.

Which left Rocket as the only loco to complete the trial successfully, averaging 12mph over the 10 runs with a recorded top speed of 30mph. The Stephensons duly received the contract to provide locomotives for the L&MR, although the company also purchased Sans Pareil.

Rocket itself ran on the L&MR until 1834 when it was withdrawn to undergo modification to test a new design of rotary steam engine, one which proved unsuccessful. The locomotive then went to a mineral railway in Cumbria, from whence it was donated to the Patent Office Museum, now the Science Museum, in 1862.

Brass, Steel and Fire

Brass, Steel and Fire opens at the
National Railway Museum, York,
on 26 September 2019.

From September 2019, Rocket will form part of a new exhibition, ‘Brass, Steel and Fire’, at the National Railway Museum in York, which is a member of the Science Museum Group.

To reach York from the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester, which is actually based on the site of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway and was the last stop on Rocket’s museum tour, the famous locomotive will travel by road in a special protective crate with its chimney removed – it will have to be reattached before the exhibition opens to the public.

Transporting Rocket just 70 miles from Manchester to York, and the subsequent installation, will take four days and will be overseen by a team of conservators.

Once at York, Rocket will be displayed in a purpose-built room in Station Hall, alongside the museum’s collection of royal carriages and part of the new Brass, Steel and Fire exhibition that will tell the story of the first 100 years of railway models.

Anthony Coulls,
National Railway Museum.

The National Railway Museum’s senior curator Anthony Coulls said: “Rocket was not the first steam engine, but it is certainly one of the most significant and it combined all the technological innovations available at the time to create one engine that was faster and more reliable than anything seen before.

“The technology pioneered by Rocket led to the rapid expansion of the railways, which brought widespread social and economic changes that shaped modern Britain as we know it.

“I am very excited at the prospect of displaying Stephenson’s original Rocket at the National Railway Museum alongside the models of Brass, Steel and Fire, which will bring the story of the railways and engineering alive for our visitors.”

Rocket at the Science and Industry Museum, Manchester.

Alongside Rocket, highlights of the Brass, Steel and Fire exhibition will include the world’s oldest working model steam engine, made in 1836 by Thomas Greener at the age of just 16 years. Thomas became an engineer after working as an apprentice at Shildon Works under Timothy Hackworth. The model is based on a full-size stationary winding engine that would have been used on the Stockton and Darlington Railway to haul coal wagons up steep hills.

The exhibition will also feature a very early example of a working toy engine named Pilot. These engines were nicknamed ‘dribblers’ because they often left a trail of hot water or flammable spirits in their wake.

Other models include ‘Topsy’, on loan from the Ffestiniog Railway in Wales and which played an important role in the development and adoption of narrow-gauge railways around the world, and a  model of a Stirling Single that was made by Henry Wood, the father of Sir Henry Wood, who is now famous for having founded the Promenade Concerts, or Proms.

The exhibition also includes the model ‘Invicta’, a near contemporary of Rocket, that was made in the Stephenson works by Edward Fletcher, who later rose to become chief mechanical engineer of the North Eastern Railway.

Brass, Steel and Fire, which is supported by Hornbeam Park Developments and players of the People’s Postcode Lottery, will open at the National Railway Museum on 26 September and will be free to enter. After leaving York, the exhibition will travel to the Science Museum in London, although Rocket will remain at the National Railway Museum.



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