Early Railways


Newcastle-upon-Tyne, north east England

16th - 19th June 2016

'The Coal Waggon' © and by courtesy of Northumberland Archives, ZMD 78/14

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The 6th International Early Railways Conference will be held in the City of Newcastle. ’Early railways’ relates to forms of the pre-main line railway, often described as waggonways, plateways, tramroads or industrial railways. The topics covered will be wide-ranging: from national and regional studies to those of individual lines; the analysis of archaeological investigations; far- reaching themes of finance, administration, usage, technology and engineering; and with dates from the medieval period to the later nineteenth century. The papers will present new and previously unpublished research and the timetable will allow generous time for questions and discussion.

Tyne BridgesThe Conference will begin with a reception and a public lecture on the Thursday evening in the splendour of the lecture theatre of the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers, when Richard Carlton will present the remarkable and unexpected discoveries of the Neptune Yard excavation at Wallsend. The main Conference venue will be the Live Theatre, built within a historic warehouse near the Quayside, and fitted with raked seating and modern facilities.

In addition to the main conference proceedings, evening excursions have been arranged on Friday and Saturday: to the Tanfield Railway, with a private train, a viewing of the famous Arch and dinner in a local hotel; and a cruise along the River Tyne on a reserved boat, with bar and a hog-roast dinner and a commentary about the location of former coal staithes. The Conference finishes at noon on Sunday.

The Conference hotel is the 4* Vermont, high on the banks of the Tyne, a short walk from the Live Theatre (with a lift to the Quayside) and convenient for the Station and city centre.



Newcastle was at the heart of the Great Northern Coalfield which, by 1800, had over 500 miles of waggonway moving a million tons of coal a year. It was also the nursery of the steam locomotive, developed by local figures such as Hedley and Hackworth, Buddle and Chapman, Nicholas Wood, John Blenkinsop and, most famously, George and Robert Stephenson. Today, it is a vibrant city which retains its distinct regional character. Its riverscape is among the most dramatic in Britain, the town centre a remarkable early 19th century planned development in ‘Tyneside Classical’.

Nearby Beamish Museum houses working replicas of Locomotion, Steam Elephant and Puffing Billy on its ‘1825’ waggonway. Other well-known early railway landmarks at Wylam, Hetton, Killingworth, the Bowes Railway and many other well-known early railway features are within easy reach, together with the World Heritage sites of Durham and Hadrian’s Wall. The Metro Centre, the largest shopping and leisure site in Europe, is less than 10 minutes away by train from Newcastle Station.

Newcastle’s transport links are excellent. The city lies directly on the motorway system, and is less than three hours from London Kings Cross on the East Coast main line. Newcastle International Airport has a direct rail link to the city centre, and the Metro system gives easy access to Sunderland, Gateshead and the coast.

For research, the holdings at the Durham, Northumberland and Tyne & Wear county archives are on hand, together with the very important collection held by the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers. It is strongly recommended that visits are made by appointment: www.durhamrecordoffice.org.uk http://www.experiencewoodhorn.com/collections/ https://twarchives.org.uk/ https://www.mininginstitute.org.uk


The new international conference series on EARLY MAIN-LINE RAILWAYS will alternate with the existing Early Railways Conference on a 2-year cycle.

The first main-line conference was held in Caernarfon in 2014, and the Conference volume is now ready for publication by subscription. THE FINAL DATE FOR ORDERS is 1st. February 2016. Further information can be found here.

The ‘early railway’ is defined as railways which were pre-main line in concept if not necessarily in date. The ‘main line’ model is considered to be that established with the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway in England in 1830, on the understanding that other dates are relevant in other countries.

tipping truckThe two conferences are differentiated by this definition of ’main line’ and ’pre-main line in date or style’, although there will inevitably be occasional elements of crossover. Their common purpose is to shed new light on aspects of railway history which are relatively little studied or published.

Even amongst those interested in railway and transport history, there is commonly a lack of knowledge of the railway before the main line era. There are very few books on the subject in print, in contrast to the thousands available on main line railways. The period covered by the Early Railway conferences reaches back over 2500 years to the first known railway, the remarkable Diolkos of Ancient Greece, carrying goods and even boats across the Isthmus of Corinth. Railways were used in the medieval metal mines of central Europe, and known in England from Tudor times. By 1800 there were many hundreds of miles of lines in Britain, with the early railway regarded as a key element of the Industrial Revolution.

mine sceneThe technology and invention of the period before the main line was wide-ranging. Railways encompassed channels cut in stone to wooden waggonways to the development of iron and plate rails, haulage by man and beast to balance and powered inclines, and onwards to the invention of the steam locomotive and the long battle to establish its practicality. The great majority of early railways were private lines used to transport industrial materials, but both public railways and passenger railways pre-date the era of the main line. As the only series dedicated to the subject of the early railway, the conferences showcases a broad range of international studies and the 6th Conference will include papers on Trinidad, Egypt and Sierra Leone.

The conferences cover such topics as organisation and finance, the transfer of technology, and the results of archaeological excavations, with fresh researches presented, discussed and peer- reviewed for publication. The early railway remains a field of considerable discovery and reassessment: the conferences have consistently challenged established views on technology, innovation and practice.


The First conference was held at Durham University in September 1998 and proved highly successful. The Second took place at Manchester’s Museum of Science & Industry in 2001. The Third was held at York’s National Railway Museum in 2004, the Fourth at University College London in 2008, a date which coincided with the 200th anniversary of Trevithick’s London locomotive trials.

Click here for a review of the Fourth Conference.

The Fifth Conference was held at Caernarfon, in June 2012. This represented a long-awaited opportunity to host the conference in Wales, where so many important early railways were constructed and where the first demonstration of the steam locomotive took place. Over 100 delegates attended a highly stimulating and comfortable conference. The evening trip, a gravity-waggon run and a private train on the Ffestiniog Railway on one of the stormiest nights for several years, proved especially memorable.


ERC proceedingsPapers from all five previous conferences have been published in a series of attractive and authoritative volumes that have already become collectors’ items.

Click here for a list of contents of the Early Railways volumes.

For an independent summary and reviews of the first five conferences and their proceedings: http://www.steamindex.com/library/earlyrly.htm

The only volume still available is Early Railways 2, which can be ordered through the Newcomen Society by contacting its Executive Secretary at: office@newcomen.com

The Conference Committee is aware how difficult it is to find copies of the volumes and is examining possible solutions.


At the Fourth Conference some time was devoted to a discussion of the aspects of early British railway history that required further documentary and archaeological research and analysis. Click here to download a copy of the resulting Research Agenda.


Enquiries about the Early Railways conferences and publications by e-mail to:


The Early Railway Conference is jointly sponsored by