STEPHENSON'S ROCKET - Autograph letter signed by John Dixon, George Stephenson's Resident Engineer on the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, to his brother, devoted to description of the Rainhill Trials, 1829
Lot 144
Sold for £ 8,125 (US$ 10,795) inc. premium

Lot Details
Autograph letter signed by John Dixon, George Stephenson's Resident Engineer on the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, to his brother, devoted to description of the Rainhill Trials, then still ongoing, 3 pages, address on verso ("James Dixon/ Railway Office/ Darlington"), postmark and seal, seal-tear (with slight losses), some dust-staining and creasing, a few fox-marks, small split at folds, but overall in good, sound condition, 4to, Patricroft, 16 October 1829


  • 'THE ROCKET IS BY FAR THE BEST ENGINE I HAVE EVER SEEN FOR BLOOD AND BONE UNITED': THE CELEBRATED LETTER BY THE STEPHENSONS' ENGINEER, JOHN DIXON, DESCRIBING THE TRIUMPH OF THE ROCKET AT THE RAINHILL TRIALS OF 1829. The Rainhill Trials have been described as the most remarkable event of the industrial revolution, and could be said to have initiated the age of the railways and of mass travel (with the incalculable effects this was to have on the population of the world at large); in Robert Stephenson's droll summation, 'the trials at Rainhill seem to have sent people railway mad'. They were designed to choose the method of transport to be employed on what was to be the world's first passenger railway, the Liverpool & Manchester line, where the author of our letter was Resident Engineer. They took place during the first few weeks of October 1829, with the judges awarding the prize to Stephenson on Tuesday, 20 October.

    John Dixon (1796-1865) had originally been employed as a clerk on the Stockton & Darlington Railway but on the arrival of Gorge Stephenson was appointed Resident Engineer, and surveyed the new line of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, upon which locomotive engines were to run. (In this capacity he was to work with George on probably the most famous feat of the railway age, the crossing of Chat Moss). At the time he wrote this letter, he was working on the LMR line at Patricroft, where a station was to be opened on 15 September 1830. The report of the Rainhill judges themselves was not printed and has not survived. Our letter, although of course far from being objective, has a claim to be the most important, or at least most immediate and emotive, account of this great event that has come down to us. It was written four days before the prize was finally awarded to Stephenson: "We have finished the grand experiments on the Engines and G S. or R S. has come off triumphant and of course will take hold of the £500, so liberally offered by the Company; none of the others being able to come near them. The Rocket is by far the best Engine I have ever seen for Blood and Bone united.... Timothy [Hackworth] has been very sadly out of temper ever since he came for he has been grobbing on Day & night and nothing our men did for him was right, We could not please him with the Tender nor any thing: he openly accused all G S's people of conspiring 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. She burns nearly double the quantity of coke that the Rocket does and rumbles & Roars and rolls about like an Empty Beer Butt on a rough Pavement and moreover Weighs above 4½ Tons consequently should have had Six wheels and as for being on Springs I must confess I cannot find them out either going or standing neither can I perceive any effect they have. She is very ugly and the Boiler runs out very much, he had to feed her with more Meal and Malt Sprouts than would fatten a Pig. He must return to his punching and own that he has been taught a lesson in humility. The London Engine of Braithwaite & Erickson called The 'Novelty' was a light one, no Chimney upright, but a Boiler thus [thumb-nail sketch] blown by a Blast at it by Bellows and pipes carried like a Still Worm along the Tube BC to the discharge point of Chimney E. She only weighed 3.7.3 and did not stand 10 ft high... a Water tank under the Carriage close to the Ground and Boiler Bellows Thus &c were all covered with Copper like a new Tea Urn which tended to give her a very Parlour like appearance and when she started she seemed to Dart away like a Greyhound for a bit but every trial he had some mishap, first an explosion of inflammable Gas which Burst his Bellows then his feed pipe blew up and finally some internal joint of this hidden flue... so that it was no go. Benstall from Edinbro, upset his in bringing from Pool to Rainhill and spent a week in pretending to remedy the injuries whereas he altered and amended some part every Day till he was last all to start & a sorrowful start it was; full 6 Miles an hour cranking away like an Old Wickerwork pair of Panniers on a Cantering Cuddy Ass. Vox Populi was in favour of London from appearances but we shewed them the way to do it, for Mess Rastrig & Walker in their report as to Fixed & Perm.t Engines stated that the whole power of the Loco Engines would be absorbed in taking their own bodies up Rainhill Incline 1 in 96 consequently they could take no load, now the first thing Old George did was to bring a Coach with about 20 People up at a Gallop & every day since has run up & down to let them see what they could do up such an ascent, & has taken 40 folks up at 20 miles an hour. He is now going on with an extension of the Way to Derbyshire & I am to begin on Monday to Survey &c from Manchester to meet the others. Robert is about a new Line in Leicestershire".

    A photograph of the letter is held by the National Railway Museum (object number 1923-557). Included in the lot is an autograph letter by J.G.H. Warren to Waynman Dixon dated 26 May 1922, Waynman Dixon, then owner of the letter, being the engineer largely responsible for transporting Cleopatra's Needle to Britain; J.G.H. Warren being author of A century of locomotive building by Robert Stephenson and Co (1923) and other works on railway history. Warren explains that he has flattened the letter for purposes of photography and better preservation, adding: "This letter is of very great historic interest – it is the only one of its kind that I know – and it deserves to be preserved at the Science Museum South Kensington where are what remains of the competing engines/ The 'Rocket'/ The 'Sans Pareil'/ & The 'Novelty'/ If exhibited with these relics this letter would have a unique & most remarkable interest, one might say for the whole world, and I hope you will excuse the liberty I take in making a suggestion that the letter may eventually find a home in the National Collection".
Auction information

This auction is now finished. If you are interested in consigning in future auctions, please contact the specialist department. If you have queries about lots purchased in this auction, please contact customer services.

Buyers' Obligations


If you have any complaints or questions about the Conditions of Sale, please contact your nearest customer services team.

Buyers' Premium and Charges

For all Sales categories excluding Wine, Coins & Medals and Motor Cars and Motorcycles:

Buyer's Premium Rates
25% on the first £175,000 of the Hammer Price
20% from £175,001 to £3,000,000 the Hammer Price
12.5% from £3,000,001 of the Hammer Price

VAT at the current rate of 20% will be added to the Buyer's Premium and charges excluding Artists Resale Right.

Payment Notices

For payment information please refer to the sale catalogue.

Shipping Notices

For information and estimates on domestic and international shipping as well as export licences please contact Bonhams Shipping Department.

  1. Simon Roberts
    Specialist - Books, Maps, Manuscripts and Historical Photographs
    Montpelier Street
    London, United Kingdom SW7 1HH
    Work +44 20 7393 3828
    FaxFax: +44 20 7393 3879
Similar Items