Rocket Men: The Rainhill Trials of 1829

In 1821 there were some 200 miles of railway lines in Britain, but only a handful of steam locomotives. Whilst they had been around for more than 15 years, locomotives were still relatively uncommon. In 1825, the Stockton and Darlington became the world’s first public railway to use steam locomotives. Nevertheless, most railways continued to use either horses or stationary engines to haul wagons with cables and winches. Even in the late 1820s, the triumph of the steam locomotive was far from inevitable.

World’s First Intercity Railway

In 1829, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway was nearing completion. Born out of a burgeoning international market for manufactured products, this was the world’s first intercity railway. Its chief objective was to provide a fast connection between the port of Liverpool and the Cottonopolis of Manchester. 

The Directors of the railway had their reservations about the use of steam locomotives. Though their chief engineer, George Stephenson, was a keen advocate of the locomotive, he met opposition from several board members. In particular, they doubted the efficiency and reliability of the locomotives. Indeed, some of the locomotives on the Stockton and Darlington Railway proved unreliable and costly to maintain. Recognising Stephenson’s vested interests in the new technology, the Directors sought an independent opinion. 

An engraving of George Stephenson, based on a portrait by John Lucas

Father of the Railways

Illiterate at 17, a master of steam power in his 30s, and virtually a household name in his 40s, George Stephenson was a son of the northeastern coal fields. Born to a mining family in Wylam, a small village some ten miles inland from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Stephenson received little formal education until early adulthood. As a young man, he used his modest wages, as a colliery engineman, to finance night classes in basic principles of reading, writing, and arithmetic. At the age of 30, he became enginewright at Killingworth, with responsibility for the maintenance of all engines at the collieries. 

Three years later, in 1814, Stephenson invented his first steam locomotive for the Killingworth railway, Blücher. Following a contract to build an eight mile colliery railway at Hetton, George and son Robert commenced work on the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1821. This 25 mile line set a new standard for railway building. Wrought iron rails set apart by 4 foot 8.5 inches became the standard gauge, adopted by nearly every other railway company in Britain (with one notable exception!)

George Stephenson perceived trains and railways as parts of a single machine. Their success depended on the compatibility of all constituent parts. Rather than compartmentalising the engineering conundrum into boundaries of mechanical and civic, Stephenson championed a holistic approach to their design and construction. This so-called ‘Father of the Railways’ was also father to another precocious engineer, Robert Stephenson. Indeed, Robert’s prodigious talents later eclipsed those of his father, and best known for his locomotive of 1829, Rocket.

A replica of Sans Pareil at Rocket150, October 1979

Calling All ‘Engineers and Iron Founders’

On the recommendation of consultant engineers, Walker and Rastrick, the Directors of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway launched a competition to design a locomotive. The first notice for the contest appeared in the Liverpool Mercury on 1 May 1829, addressed to ‘engineers and iron founders’. The small advert appealed for ‘a locomotive engine, which shall be a decided improvement on any hitherto constructed, subject to certain stipulations and conditions’. 

A total of six locomotives entered the competition. The engines arrived by sea into Liverpool, and transported to Rainhill on horse-drawn wagons. Situated some ten miles east of Liverpool, Rainhill was a small village on the turnpike road to Warrington. The company chose this location for its particularly flat and straight section of railway line. One may assume its proximity to Liverpool was another advantage. 

Runners and Riders

Officially termed ‘Ordeals’, the locomotive trials commenced on 6 October 1829, and continued for a total of eight days. Of the six entrants, only three actually reached the starting line:

  • Novelty: designed and built by Braithwaite and Erricson of London
  • Sans Pareil: designed and built by Timothy Hawkworth, Engine Superintendent of the Stockton and Darlington Railway (its French name means ‘without equal’)
  • Rocket: designed and built by Robert Stephenson, with some assistance from Henry Booth
An artist’s impression of the Trials, from the Illustrated London News. L-R: Novelty, Sans Pareil, Rocket.

Thousands of spectators flocked to the small village to witness the spectacle. The event had something of a racecourse atmosphere, with grandstands erected alongside the line, and a band in attendance. A report published in The Times stated, ‘Never, perhaps, on any previous occasion, were so many scientific gentlemen and practical engineers collected together at one spot as there were on the rail-road yesterday’. 

The crowds were excitable and sometimes rowdy. Some two hundred employees of the railway company lined the 1.75 mile section, to keep spectators from spilling onto the track. Other contemporary reports also suggest that nearby public houses did a roaring trade! One establishment even renamed itself ‘The Rail Road Tavern’.

The Competition

The trials tested each locomotive’s capacity to haul a train three times their own weight over 35 miles, equivalent to the distance between Liverpool and Manchester. Each engine made a series of runs over the 1.75mile stretch at Rainhill. All entrants were expected to achieve an average running speed of 10mph. After refuelling, the engines repeated this process, representing the return trip from Manchester to Liverpool.

Three of Britain’s most eminent engineers comprised the judging panel:

  • Nicholas Wood, Chief Engineer of the Kinningworth Colliery, 
  • John Urpeth Rastrick, partner in Foster, Rastrick & Co., who had an engine building works at Stourbridge,
  • John Kennedy, involved in the improvement of fine spinning technologies.

In addition to proving their speed and stamina, each locomotive also had to comply with a number of stipulations:

  • Consumption of its own smoke. The locomotives used coke rather than coal, which minimised but did not entirely eliminate smoke. 
  • Boiler pressure limited to 50lb/in, relatively low for railway locomotives of this time.
  • Provision of two safety valves and a pressure gauge.
  • Spring-borne and carried on six wheels, weighing no greater than a total of 6 tons. If the total weight was less than 4.5 tons, only four wheels sufficed.
George Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’ on display at the National Railway Museum, York. (October 2019)

Rocket Man Robert

As the only locomotive to complete the trial and meet with all conditions, Stephenson’s Rocket was the clear winner. This was not without some controversy, as a report in The Times recorded that the ‘grand prize of public opinion’ actually went to Novelty. Furthermore, Rocket produced more smoke than desired. This may have been the consequence of coal accidentally being mixed with coke. Nevertheless, Robert Stephenson’s locomotive was crowned victor.

The formal opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway took place on 15 September 1830. Among the many distinguished guests in attendance was one William Husskisson, Member of Parliament for Liverpool. During a break in the journey, Husskisson decided to disembark from his carriage to speak with the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington. During this exchange, Rocket approached on the opposite line. Unable to move away in time, Husskisson was fatally injured by the locomotive. The press reports which followed this tragic incident must have reinforced the beliefs of those who feared these new machines, but ultimately did little to halt the rise of the railways in Britain.

The Rainhill Trials not only tested locomotives as a concept, proving them superior to other forms of motive power, but also showed that the Stephensons’ were the best. Standards set at this competition guided the railway boom of the mid-nineteenth century, and the principles set out by George Stephenson continue to this day.


These two websites proved particularly helpful as sources of information on the history of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway and the Rainhill Trials:

Rainhill Railway and Heritage Society –

Rainhill Civic Society –