Arrive into Rainhill by train and you won’t be able to miss the glaring homages to the village’s locomotive heritage, and for good reason. The Rainhill Trials, which saw the launch and testing of Stephenson’s Rocket, was the thing to really put the village on the map.
2019 marks the 190th anniversary of the Rainhill Trials, which took place in October 1829.
The Rainhill Trials had one goal – to find the most-improved engine capable of hauling trains between Liverpool and Manchester travelling at least 10 miles per hour while pulling a 20-tonne train. Engines had to ‘consume their own smoke’ and limit steam pressure in the boiler to ensure they could effectively go the distance. The engines would have to make the 70 mile journey between the two cities along the only partially completed Liverpool and Manchester railway – at Rainhill, a small hamlet on the Turnpike Road.
In fact, the decision to use Rainhill as the location for the Trials was largely coincidental. The Liverpool & Manchester Railway began construction in 1826, and was originally going to travel through St. Helens and across estates belonging to the Earls of Derby and Sefton, but objections were raised to these plans and the railway was instead built through Rainhill. The original station was at Kendrick’s Cross, east of the present building, and the line’s diagonal placement necessitated the construction of the oddly-proportioned Skew Bridge which still stands today.
Designed by Robert Stephenson in Newcastle upon Tyne, the Rocket was one of five locomotives to compete in the Trials, along with Brandreth’s Cycloped, Ericsson & Braithwaite’s Novelty, Bustall’s Perseverance and Hackworth’s Sans Pareil (Unmatched). Not all of the locomotives in the Trials were steam powered. Cycloped was actually horse-drawn, a concept which fell flat when one of the horses collapsed through the wooden boards beneath it and had to be withdrawn from the race. Regardless, the horse had no way of keeping up with the steam engines, and was outdone by the other competitors.
Rocket’s name derives from a weapon used by the British military in the 1800s, not the spacefaring rocket of nineteenth century science-fiction as you might expect. Congreve artillery rockets were British in design, capable of travelling over 2,700 metres at great speeds, and were used during the Napoleonic Wars.
Still, the Rocket was certainly boundary defying, reaching a metaphorical stratosphere if not a literal one. True to its namesake, Rocket steamed away with a £500 win at the Rainhill Trials, reaching a top speed of 30 miles per hour and averaging 12 mph as it traversed the railway. The line itself eventually opened in September 1830 – the first full-scale inner-city railway to be exclusively powered by locomotives and offer both freight and passenger services.
Like many engineering feats of the era, Rocket’s success didn’t come without tragedy. When the railway officially opened, the locomotive was travelling to the since demolished Parkside Station near Newton-le-Willows to pick up the gathered dignitaries who were attending the opening. As William Huskisson MP descended from his own train carriage and crossed the tracks, he was unable to reach the platform before Rocket collided with his leg – an injury which proved fatal.
Despite the accident, Rocket’s success was undeniable, Rainhill has always accepted and indeed embraced these inextricable links to the railway. Rocket features on village signposts leading into Rainhill; the 150 Trials Celebration Committee came together in 1977, going on to launch the Railway and Heritage Society out of the library; and the Model Railway Club continues to host regular exhibitions of their own miniature trains. Rainhill’s passion for locomotion is obvious – and this year will bring that passion to the forefront once again.
Rainhill is gearing up for the latest weekend-long celebration of the Trials. From Saturday, May 25 until Monday, May 27, you can enjoy a packed calendar of events celebrating the village’s industrial roots.
Parish Council Clerk Gillian Pinder already feels keen that the events celebrate Rainhill’s industrial heritage, bringing local schools and organisations together to commemorate the 190th anniversary.
‘The project will bring back to life the excitement and anticipation of the previously untested and revolutionary engineering ideas,’ Gillian tells me.
Preparations for Rocket’s anniversary celebrations are well underway – including the return of a replica Rocket to the area for the weekend. While the real engine is on display at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester until September, a to-scale replica on loan from the National Railway Museum in York will bring Stephenson’s engineering back to life in the village. The colourful Rocket will head a costumed parade through Rainhill from 1pm-2pm on the Sunday, complete with a marching band, floats and other vintage locomotives. A new heritage plaque is also set to be unveiled at Rainhill Station.
For more information and a full events calendar, visit www.rocket190-org-uk.stackstaging.com