From the Darlington & Stockton Times of April 23, 1921

“THE Parliamentary Bill for the creation of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, the first public railway in the world, received the Royal Assent on April 19, 1821 – one hundred years ago on Tuesday,” said the D&S Times, 100 years ago this week.

“In connection therewith, it is interesting to recall the steps that led to the formation of the railway, and the vicissitudes of the scheme before Parliamentary sanction was actually acquired…”

This article may be the reason that some people theretofore find railway history a little tedious, but behind the anniversary is a great story that was this week celebrated with global guests from Sri Lanka to Nuremburg.

Because, on the evening of April 19, 1821, as railway pioneer Edward Pease waited in his house in Darlington’s Northgate for news from London that he had been granted Parliamentary permission to build a railway across the south Durham countryside, two strangers approached his front door.

They came from wildest Northumberland and had set off early that morning by horse for Newcastle. At Newcastle, they caught a stagecoach bound for Stockton "by nip" – tipping the driver rather than paying the fare. From Stockton, they walked 12 miles across farm and field, following the path that was proposed for the Stockton and Darlington Railway, until they came to Mr Pease's home on the northern edge of town.

Opposite was Bulmer's Stone – a large local landmark – upon which they rested.

Edward Peases house in the 1940s - the grand facade was added in the 1860s and retail started creeping in at the start of 20th Century

Edward Pease's house in the 1940s - the grand facade was added in the 1860s and retail started creeping in at the start of 20th Century

One version of this story says they had walked barefoot to Darlington, to save their shoe leather on the walk from Stockton, and so on the stone they put their shoes back on before going to Mr Pease's house.

Another version says that they had walked from Stockton in their shoes, which had become so muddy, they thought it best to remove them on Bulmer's Stone before knocking on Mr Pease's door.

Barefoot or not matters not: Mr Pease was not at home to cold callers. His servant allowed them a few moments to recover in the kitchen, which is now the front of the Best Kebab 1 shop, next to Cuisine Marmaris, another kebab shop, and Domino's pizza parlour.

But after a few minutes, Mr Pease relented, and came down to join them in the kitchen. He perched on the table, while the two visitors on the cream and pink bench sofa – which is now in the Head of Steam museum – explained who they were.

One was Nicholas Wood, the view (or manager) of Killingworth Colliery, and the other was George Stephenson, the colliery engineer who at that time was also designing the eight-mile private railway at Hetton (which celebrates its 200th anniversary next year).

They wished to talk about the 26-mile public "railway or tramroad" that Mr Pease was hoping to build from the south Durham coalfield to the seaport at Stockton.

And there, in the kitchen, Stephenson convinced Pease that rather than having horses pulling the coal wagons on the railway, it should be a new-fangled, moving steam engine – the word "loco-motive" had not yet entered the English language – that should provide the power. Stephenson said how he'd built an engine at Killingworth that was worth 50 horses.

Pease was probably already inclining towards a technological approach, but the rest of the investors in the project were not – and so the emblem of the railway shows a horse doing the donkey work.

Edward Peases house in Northgate, Darlington, is where the kebab shops are today although he also owned the pizza parlour

Edward Pease's house in Northgate, Darlington, is where the kebab shops are today although he also owned the pizza parlour

When the meeting terminated, Pease retired to bed and Wood and Stephenson were turfed out into the Northgate night. It was now so late that they had missed the last stagecoach home and, as no one had yet invented the railways, they were forced to walk. They managed 18 miles until Wood collapsed from exhaustion a couple of miles short of Durham, and had to be carried to a roadside inn for the night.

And so Pease, the father of the railway, had met Stephenson, the father of the locomotive.

Or so the story goes.

And it is a good story, captured by the large painting in Darlington council's collection. Much of the story has, like all good stories, been elaborated and distorted with each retelling.

It is inconceivable, for example, that Stephenson was a complete stranger when he knocked on Pease's door that evening. Mr Pease must have been at least aware of the latest transport innovations in his own district: the Hetton Colliery railway was the longest then attempted, and just days before the meeting, Stephenson had used locomotive power at Killingworth to haul 20 loaded coal wagons up a one-in-288 gradient "with an amazing degree of rapidity which beggars description".

How the D&S Times marked the 100th anniversary of the railway events of 200 years ago

How the D&S Times marked the 100th anniversary of the railway events of 200 years ago

It does seem as if Stephenson and Wood were on a charm offensive that day. They went to Stockton first to meet solicitor Leonard Raisbeck, who was supporting the Darlington project, and then came through to see Mr Pease, probably with an appointment. Perhaps the only truthful bit is that their shoes could have been a bit muddy and so rather than ruin the great Quaker mill owner's carpet, they knocked them off on the nearest obstacle – Bulmer's Stone.

But the meeting is vitally important. Pease had met Stephenson; the money had met the ingenuity, and steampower was now going to be employed along the length of the line. All the latest technologies of the day were going to be brought together on an industrial scale to create the first modern railway.

In recent weeks, Darlington council has bought Pease's house with a view to incorporating it into the 200th anniversary celebrations and using it to regenerate the North Road area.

And on Monday, the mayor of Darlington, Cllr Chris McEwan, used the anniversary to address by the most modern means of communication – Zoom – interested railway towns around the world about the forthcoming bicentenary.