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Durham County Record Office: the official archive service for County Durham and Darlington

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'Adventurers and Pirates' - Hetton Coal Company, 1820

An online exhibition to mark the Hetton Coal Company's pioneering advances in mining and railway technology in 1820.

Perspective view of Hetton Colliery works and railway, c.1822 (NCB 1/X 37) - © Durham County Record Office

'Hetton Colliery in the County of Durham. Perspective view of the Works of the Colliery, the Horizontal, Inclined and Self-Acting Planes with the Loco Motive and other Engines used on the Rail Way and the Staiths and Self Discharging Depot on the Banks of the River Wear near Sunderland', c.1822 [by Thomas Robson] (detail from NCB 1/X 37).


This is the story of a high risk gamble that paid off and made mining history.

Determined entrepreneurs, the genius of civil engineer George Stephenson and a brave workforce combined to find a way through waterlogged limestone to reach the coal that they hoped to find below Hetton.

Sinking of the shaft started on 19 December 1820 but it took almost two years before the main coal measures were reached 148 yards (135 metres) below ground. It was an extraordinary venture that required great skill and strong nerve on the part of the investors.

1.  Changing the world
2.  A new era in coal mining history
3.  Running the new colliery
4.  The workforce
5.  The Hetton Colliery railway


Our exhibition is based on research first carried out by local historian John Banham thirty years ago. John gave an online talk for the Record Office in November 2020 to celebrate the Hetton Coal Company's spectacular mining breakthrough 200 years ago.

All images used in the exhibition are from Durham County Record Office collections.

Hetton Colliery Railway 200

George Stephenson's Hetton Colliery Railway opened on 18 November 1822. It was the first railway in the world operated only by steam and gravity power, without horses.

The Hetton Colliery Railway 200 charity is planning various events to mark the railway bicentenary in 2022.  

For further details contact the secretary Alan Taylor Jackson.