The Rainhill Trials

The Rainhill Trials was a competition held in October 1929 between five locomotives to determine who would receive the locomotive contract for the Liverpool & Manchester Railway.

In October of 1829, on a hamlet of the turnpike road between the port city of Liverpool, and the booming textile industry of Manchester, a competition that would alter the future was held. Prior to the trials, horses were the ideal mode of transportation, however, with multiple engineers experimenting with steam power, it was believed that an alternative to horses was on the horizon. With the successful Stockton & Darlington Railway completed and operating with steam locomotives, the merchants in Liverpool and Manchester yearned for a railway to ship their goods, as the canals and road systems were often slow and overcrowded.

The Rainhill trials were held to determine who would be awarded the locomotive contract for the under construction, Liverpool and Manchester Railway. The trials took place at the flat lands of Rainhill, county Lancashire (Merseyside), as miles of flat land were available between the two bustling cities. The victor of the trials would receive the contract to build locomotives for the railway and a monetary reward of £500.

The trials at Rainhill would successfully prove to the directors of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, that locomotive traction was far superior to horses. Locomotives outperformed horses and cost less to operate overall. After the trials, the Stephensons and other prominent locomotive builders beginning to produce locomotives en mass, locomotive traction soon hit the shores of the United States, and continental European countries as well.

“That the place of tryal for the Specimen Engines on the 1st October next be the level space between the two inclined planes at Rainhill; and that the Engineer prepare a double Railway for the two miles of level, and a single line from Rainhill down the plane to the Roby Embankment.”

Rolt, L.T.C.. George and Robert Stephenson.


Stephenson’s Rocket

With the Liverpool and Manchester Railway nearly completed, much debate ensued over which form of motive power would haul the railway. Many advocated for stationary steam engines to haul the carriages with cables, however, George Stephenson vehemently advocated for locomotive traction, which he believed was far superior. The directors of the railway decided to hold a competition to determine whether the steam locomotive could prove its superiority. Thus, the trials were held in Rainhill because of its flat terrain. There were to be three judges, John Urpeth Rastrick, of Foster, Rastrick, and Company, and the curator of noteworthy locomotives such as Stourbridge Lion. Judge two was Nicholas Wood, a familiar face for Stephenson, as Wood facilitated workings at the Killingworth colliery, where Stephenson first began experimenting with steam traction. The final judge, John Kennedy from Manchester, was heavily involved in the cotton industry, and a devout advocate for the railway.

The railway’s directors established a set of rules for the trials, which the engineers must of adhered to in order to win the competition. Maximum weight of the locomotive must be no greater than six tons, and its wheels must be sprung. A cost limit was determined, as the locomotive was to cost no more than £550 to build. To win the competition, the locomotives had to meet these requirements in addition to reaching 10 mph.

Locomotives must be mounted on springs and weigh not more than six tons with water if carried on six wheels or not more than 4½ tons if carried on four wheels. They must consume their own smoke. A six-ton locomotive must show itself capable of drawing ‘day by day’ a gross load of twenty tons at ten miles an hour, a five-ton locomotive fifteen tons and so on in proportion to weight. Steam pressure was not to exceed 50lb per square inch, but the Company reserved the right to test the boiler up to 150lb hydraulic.

Rolt, L.T.C.. George and Robert Stephenson.

Hackworth’s Sans Pareil

Trials Between two Cities

The trials began on 6 October 1829, and drew 10,000 spectators, as the steam locomotive in the 19th century was similar to today’s space age, moreover, it was then state-of-the-art technology that most have never laid eyes upon. Five locomotives were entered into the trials, Stephenson’s Rocket, Hackworth’s Sans Pareil, Braithwaite’s Novelty, Brandreth’s horse powered Cycloped, and Timothy Burstall’s Perseverance. 

Clycloped was nothing more than a horse powered locomotive, where the horse powered the wheels by running on a treadmill. However, the horse fell through the wooden treadmill, and the design was disqualified. Burstall’s Perseverance encountered much ill luck during the trials, as his locomotive was damaged en route to the competition, when the wagon hauling the locomotive overturned. Burstall then spent five days repairing the locomotive, however, when he finally joined the competition, the locomotive reached only 6 mph, and the locomotive was quickly withdrawn.

Brandreth’s Cycloped

Timothy Hackworth, who was a native of Wylam, and engaged in much experimentation of steam locomotives at the Wylam colliery, including notable locomotives such as Puffing Billy and Wylam Dilly. Hackworth entered his Sans Pareil into the competition, although, the locomotive was well overweight.. However, the directors of the railway allowed him to demonstrate the locomotive’s capabilities. The locomotive performed adequately, however, a cracked cylinder retired it from the competition. Additionally, controversy ensued over the locomotive’s cylinders, as many cited foul play as the cylinder that cracked was cast by the Stephensons. Nevertheless, because of its performance, the directors of the L&MR decided to purchase the locomotive for use on the railway at the price of £350.

Sans Pareil Technical

Date Built1829
Whyte Configuration0-4-0
Driver Diameter54 in.
Weight4.32 tons

Dimensions: 7 in x 18 in

Ericsson and Braithwaite’s Novelty performed well at the trials, reaching speeds of up to 28 mph. The locomotive seemed to please the crowd, as it was a favorite to win the trials, however, the locomotive experienced an overheated boiler, which caused severe damage on the second day of the competition. The damage proved too severe to be repaired in a considerable time, thus, it was retired from the competition, much to the chagrin of the crowd of thousands. Although its time at the trials was cut short, the locomotive is known to be the first tank engine, as it carried a water tank between its wheels.

Novelty Technical

Date Built1829
Whyte Configuration0-2-2WT
Weight2.2 tons
Ericsson and Braithwaite’s Novelty

The Rocket entered by Robert Stephenson, amazed thousands when it hauled 13 tons and traveled at speeds of up to 25 mph. Additionally, the locomotive reached 29 mph when running by itself. Along with Robert, his father George and Henry Booth, the secretary for the railway, worked on Rocket. Stephenson’s locomotive was victorious, thus, Robert Stephenson & Company was awarded the locomotive contract for the line, and the monetary prize of £500. Rocket’s success can be attributed to its lightweight design, as its 0-2-2 configuration allowed for equal weight on both the drivers and the trailing bogey. The locomotive’s multi tube boiler allowed it to create sufficient steam to properly propel the locomotive without issue. The other competitors had single flue boilers, which hindered speed and efficiency. The locomotive was also the first to introduce nearly horizontal pistons, as opposed to previous vertical designs.

Stephenson’s Rocket Technical

BuilderRobert Stephenson & Co
Date Built1829
Whyte Configuration0-2-2
Driver Diameter4ft 8 1/2 in
Trailing Bogey Diameter2 ft 6 in
Axle Load2.65 tons
Weight4.3 tons
Boiler Pressure50 lbf
Cylinder Size8 in x 17 in
Max Speed30 mph
Original Rocket on display at the Science Museum, London
Hugh Llewelyn

The Stephensons produced eight locomotives for the railway, introducing slight improvements including completely horizontal pistons. Interestingly, the Rocket remained in service for only a decade, as the design was soon surpassed by the 2-2-0 Planet type locomotive, which proved superior, as several examples of the locomotive were exported. Interestingly, Sans Pareil was still in service until 1844 for the Bolton & Leigh Railway, who purchased it from the L&MR in 1831. Additionally, the locomotive worked as a stationary steam engine until the 1860s. The locomotive was then restored by industrialist John Hick, and donated to the Patent Museum (Science Museum) in London. Today, the Rocket is still owned by the Science Museum in London, and frequently travels to various exhibits throughout the country.

The importance of the Rainhill Trials cannot go unnoticed. The trials solidified the ideals of the early engineers, that steam locomotives (or traveling engines as they were oftentimes referred to) were the way of the future. The Liverpool & Manchester, being the first double tracked express railway, flourished from the success of the steam locomotive, thus, others followed suit, and horse traction was soon phased into history.


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