Iron Duke and salute at Didcot by Frank Dumbleton

Railway operations 200 years ago at the Battle of Waterloo

Published: 18th June 2015

Didcot Railway centre remembers The Iron Duke

Two hundred years ago the battle after which Britain’s busiest railway station is named, Waterloo, was raging between the armies of Duke of Wellington and Napoleon Bonaparte. Historians will tell you that this battle on June 18, 1815 marked the end to the European wars that had taken place for 25 years.

The end of war hastened the advance of steam technology and widened its use in so far as starting the railway era. The railways were in their infancy while Waterloo raged but the possibilities and opportunities that a steam powered ‘wheel on rail’ had already been recognised by a few visionaries.

Waggons, horses and the start of steam

‘Waggons’ as they were described, had long been used being pushed by men in ruts on dirt tracks and in turn started using horses and wooden rails. Newcomen built a stationary steam engine to pump water from a mine in 1711, widely acknowledged to be the first ‘modern’ steam engine. He was assisted by Thomas Savery who had patented his steam engine design a decade earlier and the two men teamed up and made significant improvements to steam technology and efficiency.

Steam powered gun

Their work did not bring a steam engine that could move wheels but Frenchman Nicolas Cugnot did just this in 1769 designing and building a steam powered car in Paris. He based the design on a self-propelled steam powered gun carriage was not a success because there was little accurate steering.

A decade later, James Watt further developed a rotary steam engine which used just 30% of the coal Newcomen‘s engines required. Boulton & Watt Ltd was established as a result in 1784 when Watt and Matthew Boulton joined forces.

They invented a double acting motion which meant for the first time, a steam engine could be linked to cranks creating what we know now as connecting rods. Steam could now power machinery and using a winding drum, used to drag wagons up steep mining inclines using ropes. The London & Birmingham Railway used this method of getting trains from Euston to Camden in 1837 as the gradient was too steep for the locomotives of the day.

Boulton & Watt took on William Murdock who built a working model of the first road steam carriage bringing his employers’ a lot of work and profits.

A few years before Waterloo, the industrial northeast provided three outstanding locomotive engineers, William Hedley, Timothy Hackworth and William Chapman who was granted Patent No. 3632 in 1812 - the first locomotive design.

In Cornwall and Wales, after building steam road carriages in the late 1790s, Richard Trevithick designed and built the first railway steam locomotive in 1804 and named it ‘Penydarran’. The engine worked but was too heavy for the brittle cast iron track which fractured under the weight.

He built a few more locomotives but without financial success. But, he gave Londoners a taste of the future at Euston 1808 when he built a circular railway offering public rides. The train travelled at 8mph and tickets cost a shilling (5p) creating the first fare-paying steam railway and the ride was advertised as the ‘Catch Me Who Can’. A replica of this had been built at The Severn Valley railway.

Rack and cog rails

Trevithick invented a rack and cog rail steam locomotive system at The Middleton Railway which opened in 1755. In 1812 this new system underwent a successful test run when the engine pulled eight three-ton coal wagons carrying 50 passengers for 23 minutes travelling one and a half miles. Following this test, three more engines were built for the line.

The rack and cog system was developed because Trevithick did not think a metal wheel on a metal rail could offer enough adhesion given the weight of the train. His system worked until rolled iron rails became available changing the adhesive properties which enabled just a few driving (powered) wheels to be used for adhesion and propulsion.

Another rack and cog locomotive was built in 1812 by Blenkinsop costing £400 and featured a steam silencer contained above the boiler in a wooden box!

The northeast Wylam Colliery required a steam locomotive operate their five mile railway from between the Mine and Lemington on the River Tyne. William Hedley was the Wylam Mine engineer and Timothy Hackworth the Wylam Mine foreman blacksmith and between them, they constructed their first engine in 1813.

Puffing Billy

This was not a success but in 1814 they built the successful ‘Puffing Billy’ and ‘Wylam Dilly’ in 1815, the same year as the battle of Waterloo. Competition was local in the shape of George Stephenson who designed and built his first locomotive ‘My Lord’ in 1814 after working on engines at Killingworth Colliery near Newcastle.

He built a second locomotive and named it ‘Blucher,’ local slang for a heavy unwieldy instrument. The engine worked and after making improvements with Killingworth Mine Engineer, Ralph Dodds the engine and track combine to work well. Stephenson went on to build railways across the World with his son.

Iron Duke 200 years on

The Great Western Society based at the Didcot Railway Centre have a replica of the Great Western Railway’s Broad Gauge ‘Iron Duke’ locomotive. This was named after Wellington and to mark the 200th anniversary, has been receiving attention by volunteers at Didcot to look its best for the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June.

The original 'Iron Duke' (the Duke of Wellington’s nickname) was built in 1847 at Swindon Works and had 8ft diameter driving wheels, far larger than other locomotives of the time. The replica 'Iron Duke' was built 30 years ago for the National Railway Museum to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Great Western Railway and is now on loan to Didcot Railway Centre.

Who are the soldiers?

After the polishing up, 'Iron Duke' received an honour guard of soldiers from the 2nd (Queen's Royal) Regiment of Foot (1809) on 13 June. Colin Porter (in the uniform of an Ensign, carrying the Colours), Hugh McCurry (Corporal) and Rod Sharp (Private). They are some of more than 5,000 re-enactors who are re-creating the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium.

The 2nd (Queen's Royal) Regiment of Foot (1809) was formed in 1993 by a group of enthusiastic and experienced Napoleonic re-enactors who aim to portray this heroic regiment as they would have been during the Peninsular Wars of 1809-12 - see their website

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