Shildon 'coal drops' were a world first, research claims

Research about Shildon's coal drops has been carried out by Historic England. Credit: Locomotion/Jason Hynes

A now defunct structure in County Durham was the world's first attempt to mechanise the refuelling of locomotives, new research has claimed.

The "coal drops" in Shildon were used to re-supply early steam locomotives with the coal they needed to operate.

Historic England has carried out research to find out more about the history and significance of the 19th century drops, which were built by the Stockton & Darlington Railway (S&DR) - the world’s first steam-hauled public railway.

Marcus Jecock, lead author of the research, said: “We already knew the drops were early and therefore significant - not just to the history of the S&DR, the world’s first steam-hauled public railway, but also to the history of the railways in general. However, our new research has highlighted exactly how significant they were.

“Our research has clarified when the coal drops were built, who designed them and how they operated. It has also suggested they probably represent the first attempt, in Britain  - and given Britain’s primacy in the development of railways, possibly the world - to mechanise the process of re-fuelling steam locomotives.”

The drops were constructed in 1847 and are believed to be the first ever attempt to mechanise (by the use of gravity) the process of refuelling steam locomotives in the UK.

Prior to that date, refuelling was a labour-intensive process, which involved men shovelling coal by hand into an engine’s tender - the wagon immediately behind the locomotive that contains its fuel.

LNER 'J21 Class' locomotive (ex-NER 'C Class') no. 99 refuelling at the drops, photographed 4 June 1932. Credit: Ken Hoole Collection/Head of Steam – Darlington Railway

The S&DR built the drops to speed up the re-fuelling times of their steam locomotives that hauled coal trains from Shildon to docks on the River Tees, where it was offloaded onto ships for onward transport to distant markets.  

Designed by John Graham, the S&DR’s traffic manager, the drops consisted of three wooden hoppers each with a retractable chute, suspended above stone bays built next to a short loop of railway line known as a ‘coaling road’.

The hoppers were approached at one end via a ramp. Special coal wagons with bottom-opening doors were run up the ramp, the doors opened and the loads were discharged by gravity in to the hoppers. The locomotive in need for refuelling would approach the drops via the coaling road; once in place the fireman would lower the chute and allow the coal to fall – again under gravity - in to the tender of his waiting locomotive.

The coal drops remained in use until 1935, when there was a reduction in the number of coal trains operating out of Shildon, and gained Grade II listed status in 1986. That was upgraded to Grade II* in 2021 in recognition of their historical significance.

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