Stanley Town Council, working in conjunction with the Tanfield Railway and Midland Railway Society recently unveiled a heritage plaque in celebration of local man, the son of a pitman from Clough Dene who went on to become a pioneer in the development of the Victorian railway, the first Locomotive Superintendent of the Midland Railway, founder of the massive Derby works and designer of steam locomotives some of which survived in service for 80 years, through both world wars to the end of steam.
Matthew Kirtley was born in February 1813 in Clough Dene, Tanfield. It is perhaps no coincidence given that Tanfield was a pioneering place in the development of the railway that Kirtley joined the Stockton & Darlington Railway as an apprentice aged 13 in 1826 and would have worked under either the Stephensons or Timothy Hackworth. In any case, it is likely he was present as a 16 year old at the now legendary Rainhill trials, won by Stephenson’s Rocket (but at which Hackworth also sold his locomotive, Sans Pareil). Indeed he was soon on the Liverpool & Manchester Railway working as a fireman. Kirtley’s career was closely linked to the Stephensons and it was under their patronage that he rose through the ranks.
Kirtley’s career progressed – he became an engine driver and by 1836 he was employed by the London & Birmingham railway looking after locomotives and static engines at Camden shed. An urban myth has persisted for many years that it was he who drove the first train into the new terminus of the railway, Euston station – he may well have driven works trains into Euston before it was opened but it is highly unlikely he would have taken the controls of the first public train into the station.
By 1842 Kirtley had risen to the position of Locomotive Superintendent at the Birmingham & Derby Junction Railway. Two years later, when the Midland Counties, North Midland and Birmingham & Derby Junction merged to form the Midland, Kirtley only 33 years of age and the Superintendent of the smallest of the three companies was appointed Locomotive and Carriage Superintendent for the new railway.
Kirtley had to oversee the standardisation of a vehicle fleet which contained a myriad of different locomotive designs from different makers. This trend continued as the Midland expanded rapidly, absorbing company after company. Kirtley needed to consolidate the repair maintenance and manufacturing capability of the railway. By 1851 Derby could build its own locomotives.
Matthew Kirtley died on May 24th 1873 at his home in Derby aged 60. His funeral was attended by all the management and foremen of the company and some 800 workers, such was his popularity after 30 years with the company.
The plaque was unveiled by Town Mayor Cllr Carole Hampson in a ceremony attended by Don Asher of the Midland Railway Society, representatives of the Tanfield Railway, local residents and Town Councillors for the Tanfield ward who put the request for recognition of Mr Kirtley forward.
A more detailed biography of Matthew Kirtley by Don Asher of the Midland Railway Society can be found HERE