On 15th September 1830, actress Fanny Kemble was one of a group of lucky VIPs gathered in Liverpool to be part of a very spectacular event: the world’s first inter- city train journey.
The train – Rocket – set off from Liverpool on its historic journey to Manchester. Rocket’s coal-hungry furnace fired its powerful pistons, driving the steam engine to a mind-blowing top speed of 35 miles an hour; no great feat to the 21st century passenger, but Fanny Kemble and all those on board would surely have been awe-struck.
Fanny is reported to have said of the experience, “ I closed my eyes and this sensation of flying was quite delightful, and strange beyond description.”
In 1830 the Industrial Revolution was in full swing and Britain was renowned as the workshop of the world. A railway linking the port of Liverpool to the coal and textile centres of Manchester and the rest of Lancashire would make for speedy transportation of goods and raw materials and would offer fast passenger transport to those who could afford it.
There had been other steam locomotives before, but Rocket was the first of its type, invented and built by father and son George and Robert Stephenson at their works in Newcastle-upon-Tyne for the Rainhill Trials in 1829. The Trials had been set up to choose the best locomotive for the new Liverpool and Manchester Railway which would open the following year. Despite a tragic accident where Rocket struck and killed the MP for Liverpool, William Huskisson, near to what is now Newton-le-Willows station, Rocket won the contest and became the design template for almost all steam locomotives that would follow.
Rocket continued to run on the Liverpool to Manchester line into the 1840s before becoming obsolete when better engines were developed. After 150 years at the London Science Museum and a short stint in Newcastle in early 2018, Rocket returned last September to the site of her maiden run at Manchester Museum of Science & Industry.
A few weeks ago I travelled, by train, to nearby Manchester to see the world’s first inter-city loco, which will stay in Manchester until April before moving to the National Railway Museum in York.
I had been expecting Rocket to be bigger, but that apart I was fascinated and quite moved to be up close to this historical ‘game-changer’.
It was easy to imagine how those first passengers, having only been used to travelling by horse and carriage or possibly on a canal barge, must have felt as they moved at a fantastical speed.
Rocket arrived triumphant at Liverpool Road Station, which was built for the occasion in 1830 and is the oldest railway station in the world which is still in existence. It is within the Museum of S&I where it has been lovingly restored.
Inside the station, visitors can enjoy some of the original fixtures and fittings.
The spacious exhibition area provides a sense of the proportions, comfort and overall impressiveness of the station in its glory days. Anybody who was lucky enough to travel by train must have felt quite important.
The exhibition is interesting and tells the story of train travel from that first journey to the present day.
Within the Museum’s large engineering exhibition hall I found another of Stephenson’s locomotives, Planet, whose improved design later rendered Rocket obsolete.
My journey home on another Northern line was somewhat faster once the train eventually arrived, 40 minutes late and with two of its four carriages out of action. My carriage seemed considerably more congested than those depicted in the 1830s sketches looked to be, but at least I wasn’t open to the elements. Things have come a long way since Fanny Kemble’s delightful sensation of flying……… possibly 😉.