The Willington Waggonway Research Programme

You may remember the remains of a section of a wooden waggonway were discovered underneath the former Neptune Shipyard not far from Segedunum Roman Fort in the summer of 2013. Before being redeveloped, the site was investigated by archaeologists due to its close proximity to Segedunum and therefore the potential for Roman remains in the area. The unexpected discovery of the rare and substantial remains of an early railway instead was a very welcome surprise. Constructed in 1785, the section of waggonway was identified as part of the route of the Willington Waggonway by local historian and author Les Turnbull. The Willington Waggonway was the collective name for a series of waggonways which were used by horse-drawn waggons to transport coal from collieries at Willington Quay and Bigges Main on the edge of Wallsend to the Tyne for shipment.


The excavated remains of the Willington Waggonway. Photograph © The Archaeological Practice Ltd.


During the 18th century, the North East emerged as the centre of mining technology and earned a place on the world stage because of the skills of its engineers and miners. The site is considered to be internationally significant for the archaeological record in terms of the development of railway technology. Only one other wooden waggonway has previously been professionally excavated and recorded in Tyne and Wear, that at Fencehouses on Wearside in 1995. However, no recovery of the remains were carried out and the extent of their survival is unknown. The discovery of a section of the Willington Waggonway presents a rare opportunity to study the substantial and well-preserved remains of one of Tyneside’s wooden waggonways.


Excavation Plan. Image © The Archaeological Practice Ltd.

The significance

The excavation at the Neptune shipyard unearthed the most complete and best-preserved section of early wooden railway to have been found anywhere in the world. It also included the only ‘wash hole’ for cleaning and wetting waggon wheels to have ever been professionally excavated and recorded. We knew that wash holes existed through documentary sources, but none had been discovered previously. This gives us an amazing opportunity to learn about their construction and how they were used by the large volume of traffic on the waggonway.


Excavated Wash Hole. Photograph © The Archaeological Practice Ltd.

Re-used ships’ timbers also appear to have been used in the construction or the maintenance of the waggonway. If these timbers originate from types of vessels which no longer survive then there is also the potential to learn about their construction.

Re-used ship timber. Photograph © The Archaeological Practice Ltd.

Peg in piece of re-used ship timber. Photograph © The Archaeological Practice Ltd.

Perhaps most significantly, the excavated remains of the Willington Waggonway is the earliest railway that has been discovered which was built to what became the international ‘standard’ gauge, defined as 4’ 8 1/2” or 1435mm. The later Killingworth Waggonway, which was used by George Stephenson during his development of the steam locomotive, used part of the Willington Waggonway to reach the river Tyne. The gauge of the Willington Waggonway (based on the earlier Benton Way) therefore set the gauge for the Killingworth Waggonway and ultimately the rest of the world. Today approximately 55% of railways in the world are standard gauge.

Studying and analysing such a significant and well preserved early railway will allow us to contribute new information to the archaeological record as well as increase our understanding of the technology and innovations of the time.

What’s happened in the last 3 years?

Thanks to the Arts Council England PRISM (The Preservation of Industrial and Scientific Material) fund, TWAM was able to rescue wooden and stone components within a zone 6 metres in length across the width of the waggonway. Representative and significant components were also collected from other locations on the site.

Timbers in storage prior to conservation. Photograph © The Archaeological Practice Ltd.

Samples of the timbers were analysed at the conservation laboratories of the York Archaeological Trust, providing a baseline assessment of the condition of the timbers in general and of their treatment needs. Based on the results, the timbers required consolidation with Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) wax followed by freeze-drying, a process which can take between 24 and 36 months.

What’s next?

Last summer, TWAM secured funding from the Arts Council England Designation Development Fund which will allow us to research, carry out scientific analysis and explore how the waggonway may be displayed in the future. We also intend to create a scale model, develop a publication as well as run both family friendly and specialist events. The project is now underway and will conclude at the end of March 2018.

The timbers will return to the North East in February 2017 to their new home in the Regional Museum Store at Beamish where the stone components are currently stored. Our hope is that this project will be a step towards full scale reconstruction and public display in the future.

Keep an eye out for regular blog posts on the progress of the project as we uncover the secrets of the Willington Waggonway!

Drawing of washpool in use

Reconstruction drawing of the excavated section of waggonway in use. Image © The Archaeological Practice Ltd.

The Willington Waggonway Research Programme is funded by the Designation Development Fund, Arts Council England.


10 Responses to The Willington Waggonway Research Programme

  1. David Rivers says:

    Glad to hear if there is a visitable site. I represent a U3A Interest group, Richmond. North. Yorks.

    • admin says:

      Unfortunately it was not possible to preserve the waggonway in situ as the site was due for redevelopment and also due to the conditions of the site which caused the waggonway to begin to deteriorate once it was exposed to the elements. We were able to rescue and conserve a significant portion of the waggonway and very much hope that one day it will be on public display at one of our museums. Please do keep an eye on the blog for upcoming events including talks by professional archaeologists and historians which your U3A group may be interested in. Thanks, Dominique.

  2. Great news. Really interested to keep in touch with your research – the Victoria Tunnel here in Ouseburn is an underground waggonway built in 1842. What amazing technology and design went into the transport of coal!

    • admin says:

      Amazing technology indeed! The Victoria Tunnel also has a very interesting history and is fab to visit. Please keep an eye on the blog for updates about our research and any discoveries. Thanks, Dominique.

  3. Tom Cockeram says:

    Great stuff. Can you let me know of any further developments and/or publications.

  4. Graham Collett says:

    Very interested to follow this. Please keep me in touch.

    I understand that a display may be mounted at the Discovery Museum as part of the Great Exhibition of the North starting June 22nd. Can you confirm please?

    Many thanks.

    Best wishes.


    • Dominique Bell says:

      Hi Graham,

      Sorry for the delay in responding. The main line section of the waggonway is currently on display in the It’s Rocket Science exhibition at Discovery Museum as part of the Great Exhibition of the North until 9th September.

      Many thanks,


  5. are you saying that £5,000 is the amount left needed to raise to preserve the remaining track? And if that amount is raised the remains will be on display at the Stevenson museum? I know some of the track was taken to York, so how much of a length will be displayed in Newcastle?

  6. Dominique Bell says:

    Hi Andrew,
    £5000 is the target for our public appeal. Other sources of funding have been explored as preservation of the remaining track would cost a significant amount. It is our intention to display the preserved waggonway at Stephenson Railway Museum in the future. I can’t say currently how much of the length would be on display as this would depend on what space was available. The aim would be to have the whole preserved section on display but due to space constraints this is not currently possible. Until 9th September the main line of the waggonway is on display at Discovery Museum as part of the It’s Rocket Science exhibition. I hope you will be able to see it there.

    Best wishes,

  7. Dear Dominique, thanks for your reply. I hadn’t realised it was in the Discovery Museum currently, and although it is a long away for me I agree it would be good to see. I guess my concern is that if the public reach the £5000 target this is only a ‘scratch on the surface’ to a much bigger need/requirement, and either (a) the £5000 raised isn’t enough to make a meaningful difference (b) the rest of the track is lost. I appreciate the space constraint problem at the Stevenson Museum, but how much length is expected to be shown? i.e. if the £5000 is raised does it make the balance from other donors you mention easier to raise? Or does another appeal start? (c) I cannot find but does the Waggonway have a Charity using its EIN, or other specific Charity Identification number. Or is it the Museum? I will need to have that for properly targeted employer matched giving purposes

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