In 1931 an illustration of a locomotive that was found at a school near Beamish. It was initially thought to depict an engine built by George Stephenson. Research then undertaken by Beamish Museum in connection with the construction of a replica based on contemporaneous paintings (one being the earliest known oil of a steam locomotive, by an unknown artist) and other material from the Museum archives.
The outcome of this research was that the locomotive pictured was what is known as the Steam Elephant and worked on the Wallsend Waggonway. It is believed to have been designed by John Buddle and William Chapman for the Wallsend Waggonway and colliery at Wallsend on the north bank of the River Tyne in 1815 using metal components supplied by Hawks of Gateshead.
It appears originally not to have been very successful at Wallsend, probably due to lack of adhesion on the wooden rails there, nor on trial at Washington. Following the introduction of iron rails at Wallsend, it had a working life there longer than many contemporaneous locomotives, until at least the mid-1820s.
A replica Steam Elephant was commissioned by Beamish Museum to work with passengers on its standard gauge Pockerley Waggonway. The design work started at Beamish based on one painting. The work was subsequently taken on by Alan Keef Ltd when Beamish ran into problems and needed someone with the knowledge and in-house skills to complete the work. Alan Keef Ltd are based in Herefordshire and are Light Railway Engineers and narrow gauge locomotive builders.
Largely for financial reasons the locomotive was built piecemeal with almost each part ordered and paid for separately. This also applied to the procurement of forging, casting and so on so that Alan Keef Ltd had to take parts when supplied, machine as necessary, assemble and ultimately make the whole thing work. The building work thus lasted for a year or two.
The locomotive gained the name steam elephant because of the extremely long tapering chimney.
The replica first ran at Beamish in 2002.