The viaduct in Yarm is one of the great monuments to the unconquerable spirit in which railways were built during the great Victorian mania, and yet the man who designed it succumbed to the injuries he received in a railway accident just six weeks after it opened.

Thomas Grainger’s name can be seen in large letters on the plaque on the viaduct, although there is growing concern in Yarm about the condition of the plaque. A fortnight ago, the Darlington & Stockton Times carried an impassioned letter from reader Steve Crighton urging Network Rail to restore it as part of the major works that have just started.

However, a Network Rail spokesperson told Looking Back this week: “Our teams are exploring the possibility of it being restored, but its location on the structure (directly over the centre of the River Tees) makes this a complex task, and therefore we can’t commit to anything at the moment.”

The first train crossed the viaduct’s 43 massive arches on May 15, 1852, but before July was out, Mr Grainger – described unkindly at the inquest into his death as a “stout, large, flabby man” – was dead, killed at Stockton station, and the train driver deemed responsible was convicted of manslaughter.

Darlington and Stockton Times: A steam engine passing over the Yarm viaduct on a 1920s postcard

Mr Grainger was an eminent Scottish engineer, and made his name building bridges, viaducts, tunnels and stations around Edinburgh and Glasgow. In 1845, he won the contract to create the line from Leeds through Harrogate and Ripon to Thirsk, which was viewed as the rival mainline to the one George “the Railway King” Hudson was building from York to Darlington.

The Leeds Northern line included the extraordinary 2.14-mile long Bramhope Tunnel to the north of Leeds. It was the third longest railway tunnel in the country, dug out over three years by 2,300 navvies working by candlelight and earning £1.50-a-week for seven 12 hour shifts. Twenty-four of them were killed, and there is a memorial to them in Otley churchyard which is the same shape as the Gothic northern entrance to the tunnel.

Before the line reached Thirsk in 1848, Mr Grainger and his team were planning on extending it north through Northallerton and Yarm to Stockton, where it would join another line, the Clarence Railway, to take traffic through to West Hartlepool – thus making it a genuine rival to Mr Hudson’s main line.

As the D&S Times said in 1852: “The Leeds Northern’s termini are in important districts. One is the seat of extensive woollen manufacturers, the other a thriving port, five days sail nearer the Baltic than the Humber, which has hitherto been the great outlet for the productions of the West Riding.”

On this second section of line, the major obstacle that had to be conquered was the floodplain of the River Tees at Yarm.

Darlington and Stockton Times: A fabulous 1930s picture looking into Yarm

As the plaque points out, Mr Grainger was the principal engineer in designing the viaduct, which stomps through Yarm, towering above the rooftops and shaking the ground with its 43 giant footsteps as it strides across a finger-shaped peninsula of low-lying land.

The vital statistics of the viaduct are staggering. It is 2,280ft (760 yards or 690 metres) long and the two of its 43 arches which span the Tees carry the trackbed 65ft above the waterline. These two arches are made of 139,000 cubic feet of stone and their foundations, as was common for river crossings in those days, were rested on bags of wool.

The other 41 land arches contain 7.5m bricks.

The viaduct cost £44,500 – that’s £5.1m in today’s values, according to the Bank of England Inflation Calculator.

Work began in July 1847. The navvies were paid up to £1-a-day – very good money, especially compared to the tunnellers at Bramhope – some of which was in the form of vouchers to be spent in the “tammy shop” on Yarm High Street which was run by the railway company.

The rest of the wages probably went on beer, as the Yarm navvies were renowned drinkers.

Using pulleys and horsepower, they completed the viaduct in time for the opening day on May 15, 1852, when a train of 40 carriages pulled by two engines left Melmerby, near Thirsk. It crossed the 140ft long iron bridge over the Swale near Pickhill and then went over the Wiske on a three arch bridge at Newby Wiske before entering Northallerton where a “tunnel-bridge…of tedious and difficult construction” took it under Mr Hudson’s rival York, Newcastle & Berwick Railway (today’s East Coast Main Line).

“The train was profusely decorated with flags, evergreens etc, and an excellent band discoursed sweet music on the passage,” said the D&S. “Beyond Northallerton, the train was lengthened by the addition of a short train and the whole together numbered 50 carriages and three engines.”

They went through the villages of Brompton, Welbury and Picton – all of which were to get stations – before nearing the line’s major piece of infrastructure.

“The heaviest work is the Yarm viaduct, an exceedingly handsome structure,” said the D&S on opening day. “From the viaduct, the view of the town of Yarm, and of the valley up and down the River Tees, is very beautiful.”

The train arrived in Stockton at 1pm amid peeling bells and firing cannons, and after a banquet and speeches, it returned to Leeds for 7pm, with the D&S saying how well the opening had gone, “not the slightest accident having occurred during the day to mar the festive proceedings”.

That record did not last long.

Mr Grainger, whom the D&S said was “57 or 58”, was not at the festivities, but he was still in the district. Indeed, less than six weeks later, on July 21, 1852, he was travelling on the Clarence Railway from Ferryhill Station to Stockton when his passenger train hit a Leeds Northern goods train.

“Mr Grainger of Edinburgh, engineer to the Leeds Northern Company, had both his legs hurt – one broken and injured so severely that there is every probability it will have to be taken off,” said the D&S on July 24.

“The engine driver of the Leeds Northern luggage train, through whose carelessness the accident occurred, was taken into custody shortly after the occurrence.”

So the engine driver, George Welborne, was found immediately guilty.

Darlington and Stockton Times: The D&S Times' front page report of July 31, 1852, of the inquests into the two deaths which happened following the accident on July 21 in Stockton station

However, Mr Grainger, understandably, did not want to have his leg amputated and called his doctors from Scotland for a second opinion. By the time they arrived, it was too late as “mortification”, or gangrene, had set in and, given Mr Grainger’s “stout, large, flabby” state, it was thought too dangerous to attempt amputation.

He died four days after the accident, the second death as a Mrs Cunningham from Kelso had also died of her leg injuries.

Driver Welborne was immediately called to account for the crash that happened at the points where the Leeds Northern joined the Clarence Railway.

Twenty-first Century eyes might see plenty of confusion around the accident. For instance, semaphore signalling using flags at the points had been replaced days earlier by a red and white disc system, and there was some debate about how visible the discs were to drivers. Mr Welbourne’s train included five high goods vans which were known to make it difficult for drivers to see over the top to the signals.

Even more worrying, for a Clarence engine to join the Leeds Northern, it had to travel on the “wrong line”, and the accident happened immediately after the points where there two trains on the same track travelling towards each other.

Usually, the train on the “wrong line” had a man walking in front of it to warn on-coming engines, and driver Welborne had not arranged for this.

The D&S said: “The mistake Welborne made was in not keeping a proper look out.” Although he was said to be a “careful driver”, the inquest found him guilty of manslaughter and he was sentenced to “six weeks hard labour in a house of correction”.

The D&S finished its report by saying: “A considerable amount of excitement has prevailed in Stockton since the accident, and during the progress of the proceedings. The remains of Mrs Cunningham and Mr Grainger have been removed, the former, we understand to Kelso, and the latter to Edinburgh. The other persons injured are all in a favourable state for recovery.”

lGiven the height of Yarm viaduct and the amount of alcohol consumed by the labourers, given numbers of fatalities at other railway construction sites, like Bramhope tunnel, it is a surprise that there are no reports of people dying during the four years of building.

The first recorded fatality at the viaduct occurred in 1855, three years after it opened, when a night train travelling south overshot Yarm station, which was at the northern end of the viaduct. It therefore stopped on the viaduct and, in pitch blackness and pouring rain, an unfortunate passenger alighted believing he was stepping onto the platform.

Instead, he fell 74ft off the viaduct to his death.