Friends of Puffing Billy

Recognising the historical significance of the 200th anniversary of the development of steam locomotives used to haul coal from Wylam Colliery to Lemington Staiths, interested parties from Wylam, Heddon, Newburn and Lemington began meeting in early 2012.

The Friends of Puffing Billy Group was developed by residents and parish councils, Newcastle City Council and community group representatives from Wylam, Heddon, Newburn and Lemington, with support and advice from Community Action Northumberland. We realised the huge value of having Beamish Museum as a partner to the development of any celebrations and a community meeting was called in January 2013 to begin to discuss events that could be included in The Puffing Billy Festival.

We recognised that community engagement was vital and representatives made contact with local schools and groups within their area while Beamish Museum undertook engagement work with 10 local schools and 19 community groups.

Importance of Puffing Billy

Puffing Billy was the first practical steam locomotive which was designed to operate on the smooth rail and wheel adhesion principle.

The principle of smooth rail and wheel adhesion was proven scientifically and documented by the Wylam Colliery engineers.

It established a number of features which became important in later locomotive designs.

It influenced the thinking of George Stephenson, Hawthorn and other subsequent railway engineers.

The practicality of Puffing Billy was such that it operated for some 50 years along the historical Wylam Waggonway.

It was the success of this locomotive which launched the Railway Revolution which was to spread world wide.

The increased use of steam locomotives created the Locomotive engineers and Locomotive drivers, many of whom came from the North East and many of whom found similar positions in the early European railways.

Puffing Billy Trail

Sadly, present day Lemington has no obvious indications of Puffing Billy and its tracks, save for a few artefacts on derelict land which a thorough search throws up!

We did discover the remains of the Waggonway, and the huge amount of work required to clear the route even for walking, including many tons of brambles and at least one factory! The Waggonway remains lead to an embankment, now overgrown with trees, which leads to the site of the staiths, of which what appear to be a few remains can be seen. Just to the east of this point, again on derelict land, is another circular embankment which ends parrallel to the site of these staiths. This also appears to be railway related, and may date from slightly later. On the ground there are yet more brambles, as well as the remains of one of the staiths and the stone quays where the boats moored to be loaded where the river was in those days; it is now a couple of hundred yards at least further to the South following the diversion made in Victorian times.

The rich history of glass making and iron smelting in our area is highlighted, along with the need to investigate further. The Glassworks Cone is an iconic monument and there are quite substantial remains of the blast furnaces that were smelting away using the coal transported along the Waggonway in 1813. The possibility of excavating, investigating and displaying these remains are obvious and could lead to a futeure exhibit.

Even South West Denton close by the Vallum in the very north of the ward, is ancient with its history as a pack horse route for lead from Alston to Seaton Burn. It's very likely a lot older than that, and is known to be marked on maps dating back many centuries.

The links that have been established between Lemington, Newburn, Heddon and Wylam are also important, and it will be vital to build on these in the future. The line of the Waggonway today (or more correctly the line of the later Newcastle to Carlisle Railway) is designated as Hadrian's Way but has little or nothing to do with Hadrian in this sector. The idea of designating the section between Lemington and Wylam as "The Puffing Billy Trail" (which is largely what it is!) should provide opportunity for interpretation display boards and publicity for the whole area. Into Newburn and beyond to the west, the trail does indeed follow the line of the Waggonway. Perhaps we could think of taking these ideas forward with the glass and iron making aspects of our past?

Contact Friends of Puffing Billy

Email Bob Speight - robert.speight@talktalk.net