Railway history has been rewritten after the discovery that George Stephenson’s Killingworth ‘Billy’ – previously believed to have been built after Locomotion No. 1 – is the third-oldest surviving steam locomotive in the world.
A recent archaeological survey conducted on the Stephenson Railway Museum-based locomotive by renowned historians, Dr Michael Bailey and Peter Davidson, has concluded that it was built in 1816, and not 1826 as previously thought.
The revelation makes ‘Billy’ the world’s third-oldest surviving steam locomotive – after William Hedley and Timothy Hackworth’s Puffing Billy and Wylam Dilly – as well as the oldest surviving standard gauge steam locomotive.
In a statement, the SRM said: “Although none of ‘Billy’s’ surviving components can be traced back to 1816, it has features that, despite being later replacements, provide a clear footprint of the original; primarily it retains the same standard track gauge set by George Stephenson at that time (4ft 8½in), and also the distance between the two cylinders and the axles presents a unique identifier.”
Geoff Woodward, Museum Manager North & South Tyneside, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, said: “This latest research is great news, not only for North Tyneside and the region, but also for its significance world-wide. It is always very exciting to actually come face to face with an early locomotive, especially one of the pioneering locomotives we all know from illustrations in history books.
“As a locomotive, Billy’s value in historical terms has been increased, not just because it’s the world’s third-oldest, but because it feels like we have George Stephenson’s signature on it. Everyone has heard of Rocket – now everyone is going to hear about ‘Billy’ too.”
The news comes after Robert Stephenson’s original 1829-built Rocket left its long-time home of the Science Museum in Kensington for display in the Discovery Museum in Newcastle for the Great Exhibition of the North, which opens on June 22.