A PLAQUE first revealed by royalty but which was feared lost to metal thieves was yesterday unveiled back on its historic railway building.

The brass plaque was initially unveiled on July 2, 1925, by the Duke and Duchess of York to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, the world’s first modern railway.

But several years ago, it was ripped down by thieves whose plans to sell it for scrap were thwarted, so they smashed it up and tossed it into a beck. It was dredged out and ended in the yard of William Lane Foundry in Middlesbrough, which is the last brass foundry in the area, and the Friends of the Stockton & Darlington Railway began crowdfunding to restore it.

“It took five minutes to take off the wall and five years to put back together,” said Stuart Duffy, of the foundry. “It had been knocked off the wall with a sledgehammer and then heated and folded in two to hide the writing on it when they took it to the scrapmerchants.”

It was so badly damaged that only the outer frame could be salvaged, although a cast was able to be taken from the fragments of the centre so that it looks like the original.

“It was difficult because if you look at it, the frame is slightly out of kilter, and so we had to make the new inner bit to match the old frame,” said Mr Duffy.

The plaque grandly proclaims that the building marks “an epoch in the history of mankind”.

When it was first unveiled, the building was regarded as the world’s first railway ticket booking office, but now historians believe it to have been a weigh-house. In 1825, trains ran past its windows carrying coal from south Durham down to the boats on Stockton quayside.

The windows appear to be deliberately angled so that those inside can make a note of every movement up and down the tracks.

“The plaque is really a celebration of 100 years of railways, because every anniversary of the S&DR is an anniversary of the creation of the world’s railways,” said Barry Thompson, who led the Friends’ fundraising. They were assisted by one large anonymous donation, and a grant from the Railway Heritage Trust, plus help from Stockton council.

“The plaque is hugely significant for Stockton as it marks the day royalty came to the town and thousands of people came to watch.”

On that day in 1925, the Duke and Duchess of York – who would become King George VI and the Queen Mother – joined 250,000 people watching a cavalcade of steam from Stockton to Darlington, before dining at the Borough Hall in Stockton.

They were then driven to perform the unveiling, which was watched by the town’s MP, Harold Macmillan, who would become Prime Minister.

Although the building is now surrounded by 15 lanes of motor vehicles, it is a hugely historic railway spot. It was here, at St John’s Well, that the first rail for the line was laid in 1821, and beside it in 1826 was built one of the world’s first railway pubs – the other two are in Northgate, Darlington, and Aycliffe Lane.

The building, though, was only saved from dereliction in the early 1990s by local surveyor John Wilson, who raised enough money to restore it.

He is now chairman of the Stockton Churches Mission to the Single Homeless, which occupies the building.

Mr Wilson assisted Stockton mayor, Cllr Eileen Johnson, in unveiling the restored plaque yesterday – on the 193rd anniversary of the railway opening in 1825.

“That everything started here in Stockton is amazing and I am very proud it is part of my heritage,” said the mayor. “It shows the ingenuity of the people and the faith of those who agreed to back their mad scheme – and they made history.”