Wylam is a small village ten miles west of Newcastle upon Tyne, unremarked in the general scheme of things. The earliest recorded reference tells that the settlement belonged to Tynemouth Priory. It is believed that Guy de Balliol, Lord of Bywell, gave Wylam to the Priory in 1085, and the lands were held until the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. Once an industrial workplace with collieries and an ironworks, it is now a commuter village for Newcastle and Hexham.
A famous man was born in the cottage on the north bank of the Tyne. George Stephenson arrived in the world on 9th June 1781. The tiny cottage housed three other families along with the Stephensons and conditions were cramped. he is famous as the man who began the railway boom, but he was not the only rail pioneer in the area. Timothy Hackworth, also born in the village, worked with Stephenson. William Hedley, born in the nearby village of Newburn, designed the engine named Puffing Billy in 1813, two years before Stephenson produced his first locomotive Blucher.
At 17 George became the engineman at Water Row pit in Newburn. Illiterate because his parents could not pay for schooling, he paid to study reading, writing and arithmetic at night, and in 1801 became brakesman who controlled the winding gear at Black Callerton Colliery. In 1802 he married Frances Henderson and moved to Willington Quay, east of Newcastle, where they lived in one room of a cottage. He made shoes and mended clocks to supplement his income. Their son Robert was born in 1803 and in 1804 they moved to West Moor, near Killingworth where he worked at the Killingworth Pit. Life was not easy, but his life was not unusual for the time.
In 1806 Frances died of tuberculosis. George left his son with a local woman and went to work in Scotland at Montrose, but returned to West Moor after a few months when his father was blinded in a mining accident. In 1811 the pumping engine at Killingworth stopped working and George offered to get it working again. His success brought him the post of enginewright for all the colliery engines at Killingworth. He went on to become an expert in steam-driven machinery.
Work with steam engines progressed throughout the 18th century. The earliest form of railway used horses to pull carts along rails. Richard Trevithick had a working steam locomotive on rails in Wales in 1804 and it worked with mixed success. He visited Newcastle and spoke of his work to colliery owners and engineers, who began experimenting with steam locomotives. In 1825 George Stephenson built the Locomotion for the Stockton and Darlington railway company. In 1829 he built the Rocket which won the Rainhill Trials which established Stephenson and his company as the pre-eminent builder of steam locomotives in the world. His rail gauge of 4 feet 8 and a half inches is the world’s standard gauge today. His cottage at Wylam is open for inspection, and what was once the railway line runs right past what was once his front door. The romance of steam lives on!