Where Machines Became Music
An Essay by Luke Turner
For two centuries, The Robert Stephenson & Co.Locomotive Works has vibrated with the power of sound. During decades of innovation and construction at the forefront of rail, nautical, motor and aviation technology, this accidental music was a by-product of the work that once went on here. Now, as the Grade II* Listed building enters its third century in its new incarnation as the Boiler Shop venue, these echoes are picked up by artists, musicians, bingo callers and the voices of the Newcastle community.
The Works were opened in the Forth Banks area of Newcastle Upon Tyne in 1823 by father and son engineering team George and Robert Stephenson. Robert was just 20 when he became the managing partner of the new works and where, over the next two years, he and his father developed and built Locomotion No.1, the first steam locomotive to haul a passenger train. As its wheels turned for the first time on the rails of the Stockton and Darlington Railway on 27th June 1825, Locomotion’s funnel glowed red hot and a newspaper reported excitedly that “Such was its velocity that at places the speed frequently reached 12 miles per hour!”. Robert would go on to oversee the building of the iconic Rocket locomotive at the Stephenson Works, winner of the 1829 Rainhill Trials, and a year later made another profound evolutionary leap in rail technology with the design of Planet.
The descendants of these engines - 3000 of which were built on the Stephenson Works during the nineteenth century - would revolutionise transport, shrinking the world, even disrupting our perception of time itself. Stationary engines, used to power collieries, ships, moving bridges and a chain ferry were all built here alongside the growing family of railway locomotives. From this collection of buildings, these machines were shipped out to China, the USA, Argentina, Japan, Turkey, Australia, Egypt, Sudan, India – hi-tech exports that brought modernity to the farthest flung reaches of the planet.
The detailed 1896 Ordnance Survey map of the area cradled between Newcastle Central Station and the steep banks of the Tyne is marked as 'Locomotive and Engineering Works', railway tracks passing out of the buildings and warehouses to connect with the national rail network. This was the end of the heyday for Stephenson’s locomotive construction in the City before the company moved its main works to Darlington in 1901, but the site's adaptability meant that work barely paused.
Motor engineers George & Jobling took over some of the Stephenson Works, developing their business from carriage building to producing Ford’s Model T car, both in passenger and racing variants. In 1911, a Ford Model T Racer called the Golden Ford, thanks to its gleaming polished brass body, drove out of the George & Jobling workshops and went on to win competitions across the UK, running at an average 56 ¾ mph to win Brooklands in 1912! Speed was of the essence, and not just on four wheels. Alongside the automotive work, A.E. George was a pioneer of aviation and built aircraft where once lumbering steam engines took shape. His innovations include the invention of the joystick, still used to control aircraft today.
As Britain’s manufacturing industry went into decline during the late twentieth century, many of the Stephenson’s buildings were lost, the Boiler Shop enduring, but for years used as a car park. What survives - thanks to the Clouston’s restoration and a new lease of life as a music venue - is the old Boiler Shop, along with the original Stephenson’s company offices on South Street. There, a huge iron lintel catches the eye, once the beam from just the sort of steam engine that was built here and shipped out around the world. Whenever I’ve been at Boiler Shop gigs, having my soul massaged by vibrating air molecules, I imagine that beam quietly shaking with the sound of music just as it once did machinery, almost as if the metal were alive, a strange and powerful sonic history continuing.
Links to Resources:
Science & Industry Museum
National Railway Museum
Stephenson’s Rocket, Rainhill and the Rise of the Locomotive
Melvyn Bragg’s The Matter of the North
Melvyn’s Bragg’s In Our Time
George and Robert Stephenson
Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History
Robert Stephenson & Co.
Stephenson Steam Railway
Pioneers from the Dawn of the Railways
X-1911 Golden Ford
Salvage Squad with Claire Barratt and Suggs