Free learning resources from arts, cultural and heritage organisations.


A Quick History

At the beginning of the 19th Century the steam locomotive appeared. It was initially used as a quick and cheap way to move coal and iron around the country. In 1826 the Manchester and Liverpool Railway opened as the first passenger railway.

Repton Schools class locomotive 30926 in full steam ready to set off
Repton Schools Class Locomotive 30926

Steam locomotives pulled long trains of carriages across the rails, and soon the rail network would spread across the whole country. As well as people, this new form of transport carried everything from coal to cows, eggs and bananas, even circus elephants!

The development of the railways meant that lots of people could now afford to travel. For the first time in history working class people could pack their bags and enjoy holidays away from the towns where they lived and worked. The day trip to the seaside had been invented!


Dark blue and black locomotive with 'Sir Nigel Grelsey' plate on the side.  Steam is coming out of the funnel
Sir Nigel Gresley Locomotive in Steam

What Were Locomotives Made From?

Steel and iron made up the engine parts. In huge factories called foundries, metal would first have been heated to high temperatures until it turned to liquid. The molten metal could then be poured in to moulds to shape the engine parts.


Steam locomotive crossing a river pulling carriages
Steam Locomotive Crossing a River

How Were They Powered?

The fire in the engine needed to be regularly fed with coal in order to heat up the water in the boiler, turning it to steam


Steam train fireman feeding the fire with a shovelfull of coal
Steam Train Fireman Feeding the Fire with Coal

Did You Know?

  • By heating 1 glass of water, enough steam is made to fill 1,600 glasses! This is what makes steam so powerful. Imagine all that steam trying to escape! The steam builds up so much pressure that it can easily move heavy engine parts.
  • Steam powered trains could reach extremely high speeds. In 1938 the famous Mallard locomotive set the steam speed record of 126 mph! The Sir Nigel Gresley locomotive (pictured) is from the same class as the Mallard.