Rainhill Trials

The directors of the Liverpool & Manchester company were unsure whether to use locomotives or stationary engines on their line. To help them reach a decision, it was decided to hold a competition where the winning locomotive would be awarded £500. The idea being that if the locomotive was good enough, it would be the one used on the new railway. The three judges of the competition were John Rastrick, Nicholas Wood and John Kennedy.

Eight conditions were laid down for the locomotives that entered the competition. This included the rule that the maximum weight was to be six tons. All wheels had to be sprung and the cost of the locomotive had to be less than £550. The gross weight of the train was stated to be not less than three times the engine's weight. To qualify for the first prize the locomotive had to reach speeds of 10 mph (16 kpm).

The competition began at Rainhill on 6th October, 1829. On the first day over 10,000 people turned up to watch the competitors. The locomotives had to run twenty times up and down the track at Rainhill which made the distance roughly equivalent to a return trip between Liverpool and Manchester. Ten locomotives were originally entered for the competition but only five turned up: the Rocket, Sans Pareil, Novelty, Cycloped and Perseverance.

Cycloped was owned by Thomas Brandreth, was powered by a horse walking on a drive belt. It reached speeds of 5 mph but after the horse fell through the floor of the Cycloped it was withdrawn.

Perseverance, owned by Timothy Burstall of Leith, was damaged on the way to the Rainhill Trials when the wagon that was carrying it overturned. Burstall spent the first five days of the trials trying to repair his locomotive. On the sixth day Perseverance joined the competition but after only reaching 6 mph, Burstall withdrew his locomotive. The judges decided that he should receive a consolation prize of £25.

Perseverance, The Mechanics Magazine (1829)
Perseverance, The Mechanics Magazine (1829)

At first there were doubts whether Sans Pareil would compete as the judges claimed that it was overweight. However, it was eventually agreed to let its inventor, Timothy Hackworth, show what his new locomotive could do. The Sans Pareil carried out eight trips and reached a top speed of just over 16 mph. After a promising start the locomotive suffered a cracked cylinder. Ironically, the cylinder had been cast by the company owned by his rival, Robert Stephenson. Despite its failure to win the competition, the owners of the Liverpool & Manchester railway decided to purchase Sans Pareil to use on their line.

Weighing only 2 tons 3 cwt, the Novelty was much smaller than the other entries. It was also the quickest and reached speeds of 28 mph during the trials that took place on the first day. It was a extremely popular with the large crowd that attended the trials was a hot favourite to win the competition. However, on the second day the boiler pipe became overheated and was damaged. To reach it for repairs, John Braithwaite and John Ericsson had to partially dismantle the boiler. The steam-tight joints had to be made with a cement which normally took a week to harden. Braithwaite and Ericsson had to go out the next day and when the Novelty reached 15 mph the joints started to blow. The damage was considerable and the Novelty was forced to retire from the competition.

The final entry was the Rocket that had been entered by Robert Stephenson. Two men who worked for the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, Henry Booth, the Secretary and George Stephenson, the chief engineer, were also involved in developing the Rocket. It was Booth who suggested using a multi-tubular boiler to produce the necessary steam to drive the locomotive.

On the third day the Rocket covered 35 miles in 3 hours 12 minutes. Hauling 13 tons of loaded wagons, the Rocket averaged over 12 mph. On one trip it reached 25 mph and on a locomotive-only run, 29 mph. After studying all the evidence, the three judges, John Rastrick, Nicholas Wood and John Kennedy, awarded the £500 first prize to the owners of the Rocket. The contract to produce locomotives for the Liverpool & Manchester Railway went to the Robert Stephenson Company at Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Rules of the Rainhill Competition

1st: That each engine entered for the competition should weigh not more than six tons, and be capable of drawing after it, day by day, on a level plain, a train of carriages of a gross weight, equal to three times the weight of the engine itself, at a rate of not less than ten miles per hour, with a pressure of steam in the boiler not exceeding 50lb. on the square inch.

2nd: That the engine and boiler should he supported on springs, and rest on six wheels, and the height from the ground to the top of the chimney should not exceed 15 feet.

3rd: That the engine should "effectually consume its own smoke;"

4th That there should he two safety-valves, one of which should be completely out of the reach of the engine-man's interference.

The gentlemen appointed by the directors to act as judges on the J. U. Rastrick, Esq., of Stourbridge, civil engineer, Nicholas Wood, Esq., of Killingworth, civil engineer, and John Kennedy, Esq., of Manchester.

The portion of the railway chosen for the "running ground" was on the Manchester side of Rainhill Bridge, (about nine miles from Liverpool) where the railway runs for two or three miles on a dead level.

(2) The Mechanics Magazine (17th October, 1829)

The prize is not expected to be positively awarded for some little time yet to come. It appears that the gentlemen who were appointed to act as judges, have had only the name and not the usual powers of judges conferred upon them. All that they have been required and permitted to do is to make an exact report to the Directors of the performances of the competing engines; the Directors reserving to themselves the power of deciding which is best entitled to the premium.

What all the tests were by which the comparative merits of the competing engines were to be tried, it would be hard to say neither the original "Conditions and Stipulations," nor the " Ordeal," which was subsequently substituted in their place, being separately considered, sufficiently full and explicit on the subject; but this much is certain, that the performance of seventy miles, for a continuance, was one criterion of excellence to which all the competitors expressed a willing submission. "The Rocket" started on this understanding; and performed the distance at a rate of speed, which, for a continuance, stands as yet unrivalled in the annals of railway-racing. "The Sans Pareil" next made the attempt; but in consequence of part of its machinery giving way, only performed about half the distance. "The Novelty" followed; but had scarcely started, when it was brought by a similar accident to a dead stand.

Now, though we are of opinion that "The Novelty" is the sort of engine that will be found best adapted to the purposes of the railway; and are inclined to think that "The Sans Pareil" is at least as good an engine as "The Rocket;" yet as neither the one nor the other has equalled "The Rocket" in a performance, which had the winning of the prize of £500 expressly for its object, we do not see how the Directors can in justice do otherwise than award that prize to Mr. Stephenson. Besides, whatever may be the merits of "The Rocket," as contrasted with either of its rivals, it is so much superior to all the old locomotive engines in use, as to entitle Mr. Stephenson to the most marked and liberal consideration, for the skill and ingenuity displayed in its construction.

(3) The Liverpool Mercury (October, 1829)

We may consider the trial of the Locomotive Engines as now virtually at an end. It is much to be regretted, that "The Novelty" was not built in time to have the same opportunity of exercising that Mr. Stephenson's engine had, or that there is not in London, or its vicinity, any railway where experiments with it could have been tried. It will evidently require several weeks to perfect the working of the machine and the proper fitting of the joints, and under this impression, Messrs. Braithwaite and Ericsson have acted wisely in withdrawing, us they have done, from the contest.

The course is thus left clear for Mr Stephenson; and we congratulate him, with much sincerity, on the probability of his being about to receive the reward of £500. This is due to him for the perfection to which he has brought the old-fashioned locomotive engine, but the grand prize of public opinion is the one which has been gained by Messrs. Braithwaite and Ericsson, for their decided improvement in the arrangement, the safety, simplicity, and the smoothness and steadiness of a locomotive engine; and however imperfect the present works of the machine may be it is beyond a doubt - and we believe we speak the opinion of nine-tenths of the engineers and scientific men now in Liverpool — that it is the principle and arrangement of this London engine which will be followed in the construction of all future locomotives.

(4) The Scotsman on the Rainhill Trials (October, 1829)

The experiments at Liverpool have established principles which will give a greater impulse to civilization than it has ever received from any single cause since the press first opened the gates of knowledge to the human species at large.

(5) John Dixon, letter to his brother James Dixon (16th October, 1829)

Timothy Hackworth has been sadly out of temper. He openly accused all George Stephenson's people of considering to hinder him of which I do believe them innocent, however, he got many trials but never got half of his 70 miles done without stopping. He burns nearly double the quantity of coke that the Rocket does and mumbles and roars and rolls about like a Empty Beer Butt on a rough pavement.