A recent archaeological survey carried out on Stephenson Railway Museum’s star exhibit, Billy, reveals that the locomotive is even older than previously thought. In March 2018, railway experts Michael Bailey and Peter Davidson wrote a very interesting report. It concludes that Billy was built in 1816, not 1826 as previously thought. This establishes the locomotive as the third oldest surviving locomotive in the world.
History of steam locomotive Billy
Billy was initially fabricated and assembled at Killingworth Colliery’s West Moor workshops under the supervision of George Stephenson. The engine was used to haul wagons of coal from Killingworth Colliery to the River Tyne. Although none of Billy’s surviving components can be traced back to 1816, it has features that, despite being later replacements, provide a clear footprint of the original. It retains the same standard track gauge set by George Stephenson at that time (4ft 8½in). The distance between the two cylinders and the axles presents a unique identifier. Billy is now determined to be the world’s oldest surviving standard gauge steam locomotive.
Connection to George Stephenson
Billy has always been regarded as a treasure. Of the three oldest steam locomotives, Billy is the only one on display in the North East. All three locos were built in the North East and this is where Billy worked for 63 years. The locomotive dates back to the very early pioneering days of steam locomotives. It has the hand of George Stephenson himself, giving a direct connection to the ‘Father of the Railways’.
North Tyneside has always had a strong link with the Stephensons. The family spent nearly 20 years in the borough. They developed skills and inventions that had a huge impact on the world. The North-East can now show its association with standard gauge motive power from Billy right through to the new trains now being made at Hitachi’s Newton Aycliffe factory.
Discovery has world-wide significance
Geoff Woodward, Museum Manager North & South Tyneside, TWAM, said:
“The findings of this latest research is great news not only for North Tyneside and the region, but also for its significance world-wide. It is always very exciting to actually come face to face with an early train, especially one of the pioneering locomotives we all know from illustrations in history books. As a locomotive, Billy’s value in historical terms has been increased, not just because it’s the world’s third oldest, but because it feels like we have George Stephenson’s signature on it. Everyone has heard of Rocket – now everyone is going to hear about Billy too.”
Where to see steam locomotive, Billy
You can see Billy at Stephenson Railway Museum. Two Great Exhibition of the North programmes also celebrate the locomotive: the Inspired By programme which celebrates great art, culture, design and innovation; and A History of the North in 100 Objects, an online project showcasing the pioneering spirit and impact of the North.
A brief history of Billy:
1816 Built West Moor, worked at Killingworth Colliery
1883 Shipped to Chicago for exhibition
1884 – 1896 Exhibited on High Level Bridge, Newcastle upon Tyne
1896 – 1945 Exhibited on Central Station platform
1945 – 1982 Exhibition Park: Science & Industry Collection, then moved to former Metro Test Centre (what became SRM)
1988 Moved to former Metro Test Centre, now Stephenson Railway Museum