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Leonard Raisbeck: Pioneer of the Stockton & Darlington Railway

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The Stockton & Darlington Railway (S&DR) opened on 27 September 1825, ushering in the modern railway age. The story of the company, its railway's conception and the early years are documented in detail in the National Railway Museum's Leonard Raisbeck Archive (RAIS).

The archive was created by a Stockton-based solicitor, Leonard Raisbeck. He was a key promoter of the S&DR and played a critical role in setting up the railway from its tentative beginnings in 1810, serving as the company's joint solicitors and joint secretaries during the early years of its operation.  

Lithograph of the opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, 1825, from Adamson's sketches of our Information about Railroads, 1826.
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Lithograph of the opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, 1825, from Adamson's sketches of our Information about Railroads, 1826.

Key facts

  • Leonard Raisbeck was the first person to suggest that a proposed transport link between the County Durham coalfields and Stockton and Darlington should take the form of a railway. 
  • Alongside Francis Mewburn, Raisbeck was appointed joint solicitor and secretary to the Stockton & Darlington Railway Committee. 
  • Raisbeck contributed to the early development of the line and remained on the Committee after the railway opened in 1825, eventually resigning in 1828.

Who was Leonard Raisbeck?

Leonard Raisbeck's family made their fortune in the early 18th century in the Norwegian timber trade. Over the course of the 18th century the family acquired land near Stockton that served as their power base on which to build their social standing.

William Raisbeck (Leonard's great-grandfather), like his immediate male descendants, was a member of the Newcastle Merchant Adventurers guild and travelled widely as a merchant to conduct his business. Thomas Raisbeck (Leonard's grandfather) and John Staplyton Raisbeck (Leonard's father) had less roaming—if no less distinguished—careers. Thomas founded a solicitors firm in Stockton that John and later John's son, Leonard, would work at. It was in his capacity as a legal professional that Leonard would build his role as the first promoter of the Stockton & Darlington Railway and serve the S&DR as its joint solicitor.  

Raisbeck's father and grandfather had both been mayors of Stockton. He followed them into a civic position and helped dispense justice at a local level as Recorder of Stockton. He also served as Colonel of the Stockton Loyal Volunteers, a military unit raised to counter the threat of invasion during the early 19th century. Raisbeck's social prominence gave him the platform he needed to champion the cause of a railway.

Scan of an early 19th century manuscript RAIS/3/2/1 Science Museum Group Collection Image source for Scan of an early 19th century manuscript
Manuscript copy of resolution, 18 September 1810.

Why is Leonard Raisbeck important?

Raisbeck was the first person to raise the suggestion of constructing a railway between the County Durham coalfields and Stockton and Darlington at a meeting held on 18 September 1810 to celebrate the Tees Navigation Company’s Mandale cut of the River Tees. A committee was formed and the notable civil engineer, John Rennie, was engaged to undertake a survey for a canal or railway.  

Raisbeck maintained his stance that the link should be a railway in the face of opposition. As a prominent inhabitant of Stockton, he strongly advocated for his town’s cause, making sure that the town was connected to the railway, and that Stockton’s docks were used to take coal carried by the railway to further-flung markets by sea. 

Raisbeck arranged an early survey of the prospective route, but, once this was concluded in the early 1810s there is a conspicuous gap in the archive suggesting that Raisbeck did not contribute to the work that that went into getting the legislation through Parliament to authorise the construction of the railway after 1828. The reasons for this are not clear but it may be that Francis Mewburn, the S&DR’s other solicitor based in Darlington, may have seen this as an opportunity to make his mark and tried to keep Raisbeck as the junior partner in their relationship.  

Pamphlet entitled ‘The Report of Mess. Brindley and Whitworth, engineers, concerning the practicability and expence [sic] of making a navigable canal, from Stockton by Darlington to Winston…', 1770.

Why was a railway chosen over a canal?

The founding of the S&DR was not the first time a link had been proposed between Stockton, Darlington and the Durham coalfields. There had been an earlier attempt in the 1760s to construct a canal. The route was surveyed and some of the subscribers to the 1760s canal scheme bore family names such as Pease and Backhouse, whose families in future generations would come to be key players in the S&DR. Several reports regarding the early canal scheme can be found in the archive, which suggests that the 18th century canal scheme fed into the development of the S&DR.  

A revived canal scheme also served as the starting point for the project that would come to be the S&DR. The initial brief for a survey was meant to address this question, but due to a misunderstanding Rennie only surveyed the terrain for a canal. Raisbeck alerted Rennie to this oversight, but Rennie's calculations for the likely cost and prospects for a railway were conjecture. Despite the railway being cheaper, the Committee decided in their 1812 report that a canal was the way forward. However, the expense of any scheme proved to be unfeasible in a challenging economic environment.

We cannot have a canal! and without great exertions what are we to content ourselves with? Why a Railroad – the produce of jealousy and opposition…

Notice entitled ‘Canal and Rail-Road. To the inhabitants of Stockton and Cleveland', RAIS/3/9/6 (5 January 1818)

The 1812 scheme did not happen, but the seed of the idea lived on and the later 1810s saw a public debate over the canal/railway issue. One flyer, penned by ‘A Stockton Tradesman,’ exclaimed that ‘We cannot have a Canal!’ and went on to outline the advantages of a railway over a canal principally focusing on the flexibility that a railway would offer. The stances taken on the canal/railway issue were linked to geopolitics, as different towns in County Durham jostled to have a share of the coal trade by virtue of being connected to the River Tees, the North Sea and beyond.  

Whilst the choice of a railway over a canal for the link between the coalfields and markets in County Durham and beyond can be seen as an inflection point in what was considered the most practical form of inland transport, railways and canals continued to have an intertwined history over the next century-and-a-half. The railway companies went on to own and operate canal companies, and both forms of transport went on to be managed together by the British Transport Commission until their eventual separation in 1963.

Pamphlet entitled ‘A Further Report on the Intended Rail or Tram Road, from Stockton, by Darlington, to the collieries, with a branch to Yarum [sic].’

How did geography, patronage networks and public opinion affect the development of the S&DR?

As the purpose of the proposed canal or railway was to connect the River Tees with the collieries, the route of any link was fought over by the worthiest of the towns as they all sought to profit from the trade that would flow along the railway or canal.

Support for a particular form of transport was often split by geography. The schemes had support from prominent citizens in different towns. The S&DR is often associated with the Religious Society of Friends (commonly known as Quakers) who counted the S&DR dynasties of the Pease and Backhouse families among their adherents. Raisbeck himself attended the Church of England, and when the committee descended into acrimony in 1828 there were claims that the committee was split on religious sectarian lines.  

The Pease family had a father-and-son team of Edward and Joseph on the S&DR committee and championed the cause of the Middlesbrough extension, which was the cause of the controversy. From correspondence, Raisbeck and the Peases appear to have a cordial relationship both in personal and business terms. One of the letters from Edward Pease to Raisbeck was sent from the Sugar House, which was formerly the site of a Raisbeck family sugar mill business. 

The archive also contains a number of pamphlets and notices that were used to generate interest and support for the scheme across County Durham. Citizens were invited to meetings, induced to contribute to subscriptions to fund the surveys, and some people became shareholders once the railway scheme started.

The canal and railway debate clearly took place at least partly in the public sphere. The S&DR's motto was Periculum privatum utilitas publica (translated as 'At private risk for public service'), and while there was a limited number of people who could afford to contribute the capital needed to construct the railway, their efforts funded on private wealth were figured to have a benevolent public outcome for a wider number of inhabitants in the towns the railway connected.

Printed extract from the Durham County Advertiser giving notice of ‘a canal, or rail or tram road’ from ‘Stockton, and proceeding by Darlington to the collieries. Showing Mr Raisbeck of Stockton and Mr Mewburn of Darlington … appointed joint solicitors of the undertaking, and secretaries to the committee,’ 12 September 1818.

What was the role of Raisbeck in the S&DR?

Raisbeck served alongside Francis Mewburn as the S&DR's solicitor. As Raisbeck had been the first champion of the railway, he seems to have been most active in the very earliest stages of the railway's development, and Mewburn seems to have taken over the major responsibilities of the legal work during the late 1810s and early 1820s.

The solicitors were responsible for the drafting legislation that would authorise the construction of the railway, and had to publicise the various procedures that the legislation had to pass through to be approved. Later documents show Raisbeck being asked to prepare the company's accounts once the railway started its operations. The archive also contains the annual reports of the Clarence Railways, which emerged as a rival line to the S&DR, suggestive of some industrial espionage falling within the remit of S&DR's solicitors.  

The different members of the S&DR committee had close relationships, but their social and professional lives were closely intertwined. This factor shaped the S&DR and led to acrimony and disagreements when people's competing interests could not be reconciled. Edward Pease and Raisbeck had a cordial and close relationship. However, the pair had a painful rupture over the extension of the S&DR to Middlesbrough. Raisbeck and others opposed the extension as it would undermine the economic benefits gained by the town of Stockton.

Breaking up old friendships gives me pain…
 

Letter from Edward Pease, Darlington to Leonard Raisbeck, Stockton-upon-Tees, RAIS/4/1/6 (29 February 1828)

Indeed, the archive is full of geopolitics and fractious relationships. Raisbeck and his fellow solicitor Mewburn did not get on. Mewburn wrote in his posthumously published diary: 'Mr Raisbeck, of Stockton, was united with me, but I did all the work and he took half of my bills which I rendered to the Company'.

Raisbeck seems to have been a man who knew his own mind and was willing to continue with his chosen stance even when it was unwise. He eventually resigned due to a disagreement between the Tees Navigation and the Middlesbrough extension issue.

Printed notice entitled ‘In Parliament. Stockton, & Darlington Railway,’ September 1828.

Why was the Middlesbrough extension controversial?

The reason that the S&DR was created, and its most important traffic, was coal, which was transported from the collieries to the wharves in Stockton then taken by ship to cities and towns outside of County Durham. It became apparent after the railway was open for a few years that the wharves at Stockton were inadequate to transfer the volume of coal that the railway carried. The suggested remedy to this was to extend the line to Middlesbrough which was closer to the mouth of the River Tees.

...Each side is so confident there is nothing but victory expected by both sides…

Letter from Edward Pease, Darlington to Leonard Raisbeck, Stockton-upon-Tees, RAIS/4/1/15 (11 November 1829)

A proud Stockton man, Raisbeck was in immediate opposition to the scheme, which would mean that Stockton would be bypassed and undermine the trade carried by the Tees Navigation Company, for which Raisbeck also worked as a solicitor. The plan was also opposed by other members of the S&DR's committee whose interests would have been damaged by the proposals.

Coloured engraving, by W. Miller after J. Dixon of the Stockton and Darlington Railway Suspension Bridge over the River Tees, near Stockton, with diagrams.
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Coloured engraving, by W. Miller after J. Dixon of the Stockton and Darlington Railway Suspension Bridge over the River Tees, near Stockton, with diagrams.

Frantic and sometimes emotional debate occurred between the different factions. The tenor of the debate can be judged from the fact that there was disagreement over factors such as the height of a bridge or what type of bridge should be used—which seem innocent enough—but whether shipping could pass under the bridge was a critical if the Tees Navigation Company and merchants could salvage trade.

Draft resignation letter, 14 March 1828.

Despite the efforts of Edward and Joseph Pease, the heated deliberations led to Raisbeck's resignation from the Committee. However, his involvement with the railway's development didn't end there. As the extension required approval from parliament, Raisbeck was summoned to appear before a parliamentary committee to present his case against the extension after his resignation.

Efforts to stop the proposed extension were ultimately fruitless—it was approved by the House of Lords despite facing significant opposition.

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