William Hedley




“Had William Hedley’s engineering skill and carefully-made experiments not been available at Wylam, George Stephenson would have remained an ordinary engine tenter, and the introduction of railways would have been long delayed." - MINING JOURNAI.


UNDER the headings of “Blenkinsop" and Hackworth," much has appeared in this series or biographies respecting the adaptation of steam to haulage. Something has been said, too, about the part which William Hedley, of Wylam, played in the evolution of railway locomotion - a part so distinct and important that if all that is claimed for him be well-founded, he was the man who  “gave the locomotive its life and power~ and made the work of other men possible." It now remains to describe the man himself, and to amplify the story of his achievements.


William Hedley was born at Newburn, on the 13th of July, 1779, and educated in the adjoining village of Wylam by one of those accomplished teachers of mathematics for which, at that date, and for long after, the county of Northumberland was famed. Soon after he arrived at manhood, Mr. Christopher Blackett, the owner of Wylam Colliery, noting his abilities, selected him to fill the responsible office of viewer of that important undertaking. At the time of his appointment, rapid development in the coal trade, and the increased cost of horses and provender occasioned by wars on the Continent. were turning men's minds to the subject of mechanical haulage. Wylam coals were drawn from the colliery to Lernington a distance of five miles, in one-horse waggons upon a wooden waggonway, and the question awaiting solution was how to dispense with horse traction, and find an economical, and at the same time effectual, substitute.


The first improvement in the direction of economy at Wylarn was the use of cast-iron plate rails in lieu of wood - a change which enabled one horse to draw two waggons. By the time that this improvement was completed, great things were reported about travelling engines which Trevethick was making in South Wales. Mr. Blackett ordered one. It was put together at Whinfield's foundry, Gateshead, and there it remained. For when it was completed Mr. Blackett saw that it could not be successfully employed upon his waggonway, and he left it alone. Then came Blenkinsop to the North with his iron horse, and that did not promise much better a Its. And so, although everybody who studied the subject knew that horse traction was doomed, and felt certain that steam was to become the motive power of the future, no one had hit upon the method of making steam commercially available as a substitute for horse-flesh.


William Hedley


William Hedley, acquainted with all that was being done, joined the ever-increasing band of experimenters who were trying to solve the problem. He had convinced himself that smooth wheels could be made to run upon smooth rails without the intervention of chains, cog-wheels, or rack work, the weight of the engine alone giving sufficient adhesion, and with the aid of Timothy Hackworth, foreman of the colliery smiths, he proceeded to put his ideas to a practical test. How he made the discovery, tried it, and prove its accuracy may be told in his own words: - "In October, 1812, 1 had the direction of Wylam Colliery; at that period I was requested by the proprietor to undertake the construction of a locomotive engine. Amongst the many obstacles to locomotion at that period was the idea entertained by practical men and acted upon - viz, that an engine would only draw after it on a level road, a weight equal to its own. To obviate this, Trevethick and Vivian proposed to make the wheels rough and uneven, etc. Mr. Blenkinsop, in1811, effected the locomotion by a toothed or rack rail; in December, 1812, W & E Chapman, by means of a chain; and in May, 1813, Mr. Brunton, of Bunton, by movable legs. I was, however, forcibly impressed with the idea, which was strengthened by some small preliminary experiments, that the weight of an engine was sufficient for the purpose of enabling it to draw a train of loaded wagons. To determine this important point, I had a carriage constructed; this carriage was placed upon the railroad, and loaded with different parcels of iron, the weight of which had previously been ascertained; two, four, six, etc., loaded coal waggons were attached to it, the carriage itself was moved by the application of men at the four handles; and in order that the men might not touch the ground, a stage was suspended from the carriage at each handle for them to stand upon. I ascertained the proportion between the weight of the experimental carriage and the coal waggons at that point when the wheels of the carriage would surge or turn round without advancing it. The weight of the carriage, and the number of waggons also, were repeatedly varied, but with the same relative result. This experiment, which was on a large scale, was decisive of the fact that the friction of the wheels of an engine carriage upon the rails was sufficient to enable it to draw a train of loaded coal waggons. [Details of the engine follow.] The engine was placed upon four wheels, and went well; a short time after it commenced it regularly drew eight loaded coal waggons after it, at the rate of from four to five miles per hour on Wylam railroad, which was in a very bad state. . . . I do not wish to detract one iota from the celebrity to which Mr. Stephenson is entitled; he has done much for the locomotive engine; but by referring to Mr. (Nicholas] Wood’s book on railroads, which, as respects Mr. Stephenson's exertions, may be considered good authority. it appears that a locomotive engine was not constructed by Mr. S, before 25th July, 1814. Long before this period the use of horses on the Wylam railroad was superseded by the locomotive engines, and a large annual sum in the course of being saved to the colliery from the reduced charge in conveying the coals. My patent bears date 13th March, 1813."


The original engine, or rather the first successful engine - for the original was only an experiment which Mr. Hedley constructed to Mr. Blacketes order, ran upon the Wylam waggonway from 1813 down to the year 1862. It was known far and wide as "Puffing Billy," and for a long time was one of the lions of the district.


Dr. Smiles, in the "Life of Stephenson," tells a story of a stranger, who, proceeding one dark evening along the High Street Road, near Wylam, saw "Billy" puffing and snorting its painful and laborious way up from Newburn. He had never heard of the new engine, and was almost frightened out of his senses at its approach. An uncouth monster it must have looked, coming flaming on in the dark, working its piston up and down like a huge arm, snorting out blasts of steam from either nostril, and throwing out fire and smoke as it panted along. No wonder that he rushed terrified through the hedge, fled across the fields, and called out to the first person he met that he had just encountered "a terrible devil on the High Street Road."


Visitors to South Kensington Museum may see a battered. rusty, and somewhat angular piece of mechanism standing in one of the Machinery Courts, and learn from the catalogue that that is the identical locomotive that frightened the strange - the “Puffing Billy” of Wylam, with which Mr. Hedley successfully demonstrated the important fact that the adhesion of smooth wheels upon smooth rails was sufficient to produce progressive motion.


While he resided in the neighbourhood of Newcastle Mr. Hedley was a member of the Literary and Philosophical Society, and contributed to the interesting discussions on scientific and mechanical matters which, at that time, were a leading feature in the society's meetings. "At these meetings every scientific discovery of importance was brought forward; at them the battle of the lamps was fiercely fought, and the famous ‘Geordy' was first exhibited; Thomas Bewick illustrated some of the papers read; William Hedley discoursed upon railways when their modern meaning was a unknown." In 1822 he performed a signal service to the export coal trade of the Tyne. There was a great strike of keelmen upon the river, involving widespread dislocation of local industry, for the sailors joined the strikers, and practically stopped the trade. It is upon record that Mr. Hedley, taking one of his Wylam locomotives off its wheels, placing it on board a keel, with temporary paddles attached, and, using the combination as a steam-tug to take coal-laden craft down to the ships, dispensed with the services of keelmen altogether.


Before the strike occurred he had acquired a considerable interest in shipping, and a few months after it was ended, in the year 1824, he took Crow Treees Colliery, near Durham, and became a coal- owner. Two years later he leased Callerton Colliery, and, ceasing his connection With Mr. Blackett, went to Callerton to reside. At that place he brought into operation a scheme for utilising both ends of the colliery pumping beam, and had the satisfaction of seeing his plan generally adopted.


About this time Mr. Hadley interested himself in the construction of a railway to connect the South Durham coal-field with the river Tees, commencing at Sim Pasture, on the Stockton and Darlington line, and terminating at Haverton Hill, near Port Clarence. The expectations that had been formed of the utility of the Clarence line in developing the coal trade of the district were not realized. For three years the only traffic on the line came from Mr. Hedley’s collieries, and eventually it was absorbed into the Stockton and Darlington system.


Embarking still further in coal-mining speculations, Mr. Hadley in 1828 leased the royalty of South Moor, near Lanchester, and, in 1832, that of Coxhoe or West Hatton. This latter, with Crow Trees, he sold, a few years afterwards, and, for the rest of his life devoted himself to the development of South Moor, with the adjoining collieries of Holmside and Craghead. He resided at Burnhopside Hall, near his pits, and there, on the 9th of January, 1843, in the sixty-third year of his age, he died. Shortly before his death he purchased the estate of Newton, near Stocksfield


Mr. Hadley was the father of three or four notable sons. Oswald Dodd Hadley, the eldest, wrote a spirited book maintaining his father's claims to recognition as a railway pioneer, entitled " Who Invented the Locomotive Engine?"; Tomas Hadley, the second son, founded the Bishopric of Newcastle; George Hadley, the third son, an active justice of the Peace for the county of Durham and the borough of Newcastle; and William Hadley, the fourth son, also a magistrate for the county of Durham, erected the handsome church which adorns his native village of Wylam. The eldest son, 0. D. Hadley, left issue; the other three died at a great age unmarried.