Biography of George Stephenson

George Stephenson, Engine-Man

Any time about the year 1786, a stranger in the streets of the grimy colliery village of Wylam, near Newcastle, might have passed by without notice a ragged, barefooted, chubby child of five years old, Geordie Stephenson by name, playing merrily in the gutter and looking to the outward eye in no way different from any of the other colliers’ children who loitered about him. Nevertheless, that ragged boy was yet destined in after-life to alter the whole face of England and the world by those wonderful railways, which he more than any other man was instrumental in first constructing; and the story of his life may rank perhaps as one of the most marvellous in the whole marvellous history of able and successful British working men.

George Stephenson was born in June, 1781, the son of a fireman who tended the pumping engine of the neighbouring colliery, and one of a penniless family of six children. So poor was his father, indeed, that the whole household lived in a single room, with bare floor and mud wall; and little Geordie grew up in his own unkempt fashion without any schooling whatever, not even knowing A from B when he was a big lad of seventeen. At an age when he ought to have been learning his letters, he was bird’s-nesting in the fields or running errands to the Wylam shops; and as soon as he was old enough to earn a few pence by light work, he was set to tend cows at the magnificent wages of twopence a day, in the village of Dewley Burn, close by, to which his father had then removed. It might have seemed at first as though the future railway engineer was going to settle down quietly to the useful but uneventful life of an agricultural labourer; for from tending cows he proceeded in due time (with a splendid advance of twopence) to leading the horses at the plough, spudding thistles, and hoeing turnips on his employer’s farm. But the native bent of a powerful mind usually shows itself very early; and even during the days when Geordie was still stumbling across the freshly ploughed clods or driving the cows to pasture with a bunch of hazel twigs, his taste for mechanics already made itself felt in a very marked and practical fashion. During all his leisure time, the future engineer and his chum Bill Thirlwall occupied themselves with making clay models of engines, and fitting up a winding machine with corks and twine like those which lifted the colliery baskets. Though Geordie Stephenson didn’t go to school at the village teacher’s, he was teaching himself in his own way by close observation and keen comprehension of all the machines and engines he could come across.

Naturally, to such a boy, the great ambition of his life was to be released from the hoeing and spudding, and set to work at his father’s colliery. Great was Geordie’s joy, therefore, when at last he was taken on there in the capacity of a coal-picker, to clear the loads from stones and rubbish. It wasn’t a very dignified position, to be sure, but it was the first step that led the way to the construction of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Geordie was now fairly free from the uncongenial drudgery of farm life, and able to follow his own inclinations in the direction of mechanical labour. Besides, was he not earning the grand sum of sixpence a day as picker, increased to eightpence a little later on, when he rose to the more responsible and serious work of driving the gin-horse? A proud day indeed it was for him when, at fourteen, he was finally permitted to aid his father in firing the colliery engine; though he was still such a very small boy that he used to run away and hide when the owner went his rounds of inspection, for fear he should be thought too little to earn his untold wealth of a shilling a day in such a grown-up occupation. Humbler beginnings were never any man’s who lived to become the honoured guest, not of kings and princes only, but of the truly greatest and noblest in the land.

A coal-miner’s life is often a very shifting one; for the coal in particular collieries gets worked out from time to time; and he has to remove, accordingly, to fresh quarters, wherever employment happens to be found. This was very much the case with George Stephenson and his family; all of them being obliged to remove several times over during his childish days in search of new openings. Shortly after Geordie had attained to the responsible position of assistant fireman, his father was compelled, by the closing of Dewley Burn mine, to get a fresh situation hard by at Newburn. George accompanied him, and found employment as full fireman at a small working, whose little engine he undertook to manage in partnership with a mate, each of them tending the fire night and day by twelve-hour shifts. Two years later, his wages were raised to twelve shillings a week, a sure mark of his diligent and honest work; so that George was not far wrong in remarking to a fellow-workman at the time that he now considered himself a made man for life.

During all this time, George Stephenson never for a moment ceased to study and endeavour to understand the working of every part in the engine that he tended. He was not satisfied, as too many workmen are, with merely learning the routine work of his own trade; with merely knowing that he must turn such and such a tap or valve in order to produce such and such a desired result: he wanted to see for himself how and why the engine did this or that, what was the use and object of piston and cylinder and crank and joint and condenser–in short, fully to understand the underlying principle of its construction. He took it to pieces for cleaning whenever it was needful; he made working models of it after his old childish pattern; he even ventured to tinker it up when out of order on his own responsibility. Thus he learnt at last something of the theory of the steam-engine, and learnt also by the way a great deal about the general principles of mechanical science. Still, even now, incredible as it seems, the future father of railways couldn’t yet read; and he found this terrible drawback told fatally against his further progress. Whenever he wanted to learn something that he didn’t quite understand, he was always referred for information to a Book. Oh, those books; those mysterious, unattainable, incomprehensible books; how they must have bothered and worried poor intelligent and aspiring but still painfully ignorant young George Stephenson! Though he was already trying singularly valuable experiments in his own way, he hadn’t yet even begun to learn his letters.

Under these circumstances, George Stephenson, eager and anxious for further knowledge, took a really heroic resolution. He wasn’t ashamed to go to school. Though now a full workman on his own account, about eighteen years old, he began to attend the night school at the neighbouring village of Walbottle, where he took lessons in reading three evenings every week. It is a great thing when a man is not ashamed to learn. Many men are; they consider themselves so immensely wise that they look upon it as an impertinence in anybody to try to tell them anything they don’t know already. Truly wise or truly great men–men with the capability in them for doing anything worthy in their generation–never feel this false and foolish shame. They know that most other people know some things in some directions which they do not, and they are glad to be instructed in them whenever opportunity offers. This wisdom George Stephenson possessed in sufficient degree to make him feel more ashamed of his ignorance than of the steps necessary in order to conquer it. Being a diligent and willing scholar, he soon learnt to read, and by the time he was nineteen he had learnt how to write also. At arithmetic, a science closely allied to his native mechanical bent, he was particularly apt, and beat all the other scholars at the village night school. This resolute effort at education was the real turning-point in George Stephenson’s remarkable career, the first step on the ladder whose topmost rung led him so high that he himself must almost have felt giddy at the unwonted elevation.

Shortly after, young Stephenson gained yet another promotion in being raised to the rank of brakesman, whose duty it was to slacken the engine when the full baskets of coal reached the top of the shaft. This was a more serious and responsible post than any he had yet filled, and one for which only the best and steadiest workmen were ever selected. His wages now amounted to a pound a week, a very large sum in those days for a skilled working-man.

Meanwhile, George, like most other young men, had fallen in love. His sweetheart, Fanny Henderson, was servant at the small farmhouse where he had taken lodgings since leaving his father’s home; and though but little is known about her (for she unhappily died before George had begun to rise to fame and fortune), what little we do know seems to show that she was in every respect a fitting wife for the active young brakesman, and a fitting mother for his equally celebrated son, Robert Stephenson. Fired by the honourable desire to marry Fanny, with a proper regard for prudence, George set himself to work to learn cobbling in his spare moments; and so successfully did he cobble the worn shoes of his fellow-colliers after working hours, that before long he contrived to save a whole guinea out of his humble earnings. That guinea was the first step towards an enormous fortune; a fortune, too, all accumulated by steady toil and constant useful labour for the ultimate benefit of his fellow-men. To make a fortune is the smallest and least noble of all possible personal ambitions; but to save the first guinea which leads us on at last to independence and modest comfort is indeed an important turning-point in every prudent man’s career. Geordie Stephenson was so justly proud of his achievement in this respect that he told a friend in confidence he might now consider himself a rich man.

By the time George was twenty-one, he had saved up enough by constant care to feel that he might safely embark on the sea of housekeeping. He was able to take a small cottage lodging for himself and Fanny, at Willington Quay, near his work at the moment, and to furnish it with the simple comfort which was all that their existing needs demanded. He married Fanny on the 28th of November, 1802; and the young couple proceeded at once to their new home. Here George laboured harder than ever, as became the head of a family. He was no more ashamed of odd jobs than he had been of learning the alphabet. He worked overtime at emptying ballast from ships; he continued to cobble, to cut lasts, and even to try his hand at regular shoemaking; furthermore, he actually acquired the art of mending clocks, a matter which lay strictly in his own line, and he thus earned a tidy penny at odd hours by doctoring all the rusty or wheezy old timepieces of all his neighbours. Nor did he neglect his mechanical education meanwhile; for he was always at work upon various devices for inventing a perpetual motion machine. Now perpetual motion is the most foolish will-o’-the-wisp that ever engaged a sane man’s attention: the thing has been proved to be impossible from every conceivable point of view, and the attempt to achieve it, if pursued to the last point, can only end in disappointment if not in ruin. Still, for all that, the work George Stephenson spent upon this unpractical object did really help to give him an insight into mechanical science which proved very useful to him at a later date. He didn’t discover perpetual motion, but he did invent at last the real means for making the locomotive engine a practical power in the matter of travelling.

A year later, George’s only son Robert was born; and from that moment the history of those two able and useful lives is almost inseparable. During the whole of George Stephenson’s long upward struggle, and during the hard battle he had afterwards to fight on behalf of his grand design of railways, he met with truer sympathy, appreciation, and comfort from his brave and gifted son than from any other person whatsoever. Unhappily, his pleasure and delight in the up-bringing of his boy was soon to be clouded for a while by the one great bereavement of an otherwise singularly placid and happy existence. Some two years after her marriage, Fanny Stephenson died, as yet a mere girl, leaving her lonely husband to take care of their baby boy alone and unaided. Grief for this irretrievable loss drove the young widower away for a while from his accustomed field of work among the Tyneside coal-pits; he accepted an invitation to go to Montrose in Scotland, to overlook the working of a large engine in some important spinning-works. He remained in this situation for one year only; but during that time he managed to give clear evidence of his native mechanical insight by curing a defect in the pumps which supplied water to his engine, and which had hitherto defied the best endeavours of the local engineers. The young father was not unmindful, either, of his duty to his boy, whom he had left behind with his grandfather on Tyneside; for he saved so large a sum as L28 during his engagement, which he carried back with him in his pocket on his return to England.

A sad disappointment awaited him when at last he arrived at home. Old Robert Stephenson, the father, had met with an accident during George’s absence which made him quite blind, and incapacitated him for further work. Helpless and poor, he had no resource to save him from the workhouse except George; but George acted towards him exactly as all men who have in them a possibility of any good thing always do act under similar circumstances. He spent L15 of his hard-earned savings to pay the debts the poor blind old engine-man had necessarily contracted during his absence, and he took a comfortable cottage for his father and mother at Killingworth, where he had worked before his removal to Scotland, and where he now once more obtained employment, still as a brakesman. In that cottage this good and brave son supported his aged parents till their death, in all the simple luxury that his small means would then permit him.

That, however, was not the end of George’s misfortunes. Shortly after, he was drawn by lot as a militiaman; and according to the law of that time (for this was in 1807, during the very height of the wars against Napoleon) he must either serve in person or else pay heavily to secure a substitute. George chose regretfully the latter course–the only one open to him if he wished still to support his parents and his infant son. But in order to do so, he had to pay away the whole remainder of his carefully hoarded savings, and even to borrow L6 to make up the payment for the substitute. It must have seemed very hard to him to do this, and many men would have sunk under the blow, become hopeless, or taken to careless rowdy drinking habits. George Stephenson felt it bitterly, and gave way for a while to a natural despondency; he would hardly have been human if he had not; but still, he lived over it, and in the end worked on again with fuller resolution and vigour than ever.

For several years Geordie, as his fellow-colliers affectionately called him, continued to live on at one or other of the Killingworth collieries. In a short time, he entered into a small contract with his employers for “brakeing” the engines; and in the course of this contract, he invented certain improvements in the matter of saving wear and tear of ropes, which were both profitable to himself and also in some small degree pointed the way toward his future plans for the construction of railways. It is true, the two subjects have not, apparently, much in common; but they are connected in this way, that both proceed upon the principle of reducing the friction to the smallest possible quantity. It was this principle that Stephenson was gradually learning to appreciate more and more at its proper value; and it was this which finally led him to the very summit of a great and pre-eminently useful profession. The great advantage, indeed, of a level railway over an up-and-down ordinary road is simply that in the railway the resistance and friction are almost entirely got rid of.

It was in 1810, when Stephenson was twenty-nine, that his first experiment in serious engineering was made. A coal-pit had been sunk at Killingworth, and a rude steam-engine of that time had been set to pump the water out of its shaft; but, somehow, the engine made no headway against the rising springs at the bottom of the mine. For nearly a year the engine worked away in vain, till at last, one Saturday afternoon, Geordie Stephenson went over to examine her. “Well, George,” said a pitman, standing by, “what do you think of her?” “Man,” said George, boldly, “I could alter her and make her draw. In a week I could let you all go the bottom.” The pitman reported this confident speech of the young brakesman to the manager; and the manager, at his wits’ end for a remedy, determined to let this fellow Stephenson try his hand at her. After all, if he did no good, he would be much like all the others; and anyhow he seemed to have confidence in himself, which, if well grounded, is always a good thing.

George’s confidence was well grounded. It was not the confidence of ignorance, but that of knowledge. He understood the engine now, and he saw at once the root of the evil. He picked the engine to pieces, altered it to suit the requirements of the case, and set it to work to pump without delay. Sure enough, he kept his word; and within the week, the mine was dry, and the men were sent to the bottom. This was a grand job for George’s future. The manager, a Mr. Dodds, not only gave him ten pounds at once as a present, in acknowledgment of his practical skill, but also appointed him engine-man of the new pit, another rise in the social scale as well as in the matter of wages. Dodds kept him in mind for the future, too; and a couple of years later, on a vacancy occurring, he promoted the promising hand to be engine-wright of all the collieries under his management, at a salary of L100 a year. When a man’s income comes to be reckoned by the year, rather than by the week or month, it is a sign that he is growing into a person of importance. George had now a horse to ride upon, on his visits of inspection to the various engines; and his work was rather one of mechanical engineering than of mere ordinary labouring handicraft.

The next few years of George Stephenson’s life were mainly taken up in providing for the education of his boy Robert. He had been a good son, and he was now a good father. Feeling acutely how much he himself had suffered, and how many years he had been put back, by his own want of a good sound rudimentary education, he determined that Robert should not suffer from a similar cause. Indeed, George Stephenson’s splendid abilities were kept in the background far too long, owing to his early want of regular instruction. So the good father worked hard to send his boy to school; not to the village teacher’s only, but to a school for gentlemen’s sons at Newcastle. By mending clocks and watches in spare moments, and by rigid economy in all unnecessary expenses (especially beer), Stephenson had again gathered together a little hoard, which mounted up this time to a hundred guineas. A hundred guineas is a fortune and a capital to a working man. He was therefore rich enough, not only to send little Robert to school, but even to buy him a donkey, on which the boy made the journey every day from Killingworth to Newcastle. This was in 1815, when George was thirty-four, and Robert twelve. Perhaps no man who ever climbed so high as George Stephenson, had ever reached so little of the way at so comparatively late an age. For in spite of his undoubted success, viewed from the point of view of his origin and early prospects, he was as yet after all nothing more than the common engine-wright of the Killingworth collieries–a long way off as yet from the distinguished father of the railway system.

George Stephenson’s connection with the locomotive, however, was even now beginning. Already, in 1816, he and his boy had tried a somewhat higher flight of mechanical and scientific skill than usual, in the construction of a sun-dial, which involves a considerable amount of careful mathematical work; and now George found that the subject of locomotive engines was being forced by circumstances upon his attention. From the moment he was appointed engine-wright of the Killingworth collieries, he began to think about all possible means of hauling coal at cheaper rates from the pit’s mouth to the shipping place on the river. For that humble object alone–an object that lay wholly within the line of his own special business–did the great railway projector set out upon his investigations into the possibilities of the locomotive. Indeed, in its earliest origin, the locomotive was almost entirely connected with coals and mining; its application to passenger traffic on the large scale was quite a later and secondary consideration. It was only by accident, so to speak, that the true capabilities of railways were finally discovered in the actual course of their practical employment. George Stephenson was not the first person to construct either a locomotive or a tramway. Both were already in use, in more or less rude forms, at several collieries. But he was the first person to bring the two to such a pitch of perfection, that what had been at first a mere clumsy mining contrivance, became developed into a smooth and easy iron highway for the rapid and convenient conveyance of goods and passengers over immense distances. Of course, this great invention, like all other great inventions, was not the work of one day or one man. Many previous heads had helped to prepare the way for George Stephenson; and George Stephenson himself had been working at the subject for many years before he even reached the first stage of realized endeavour. As early as 1814 he constructed his first locomotive at Killingworth colliery; it was not until 1822 that he laid the first rail of his first large line, the Stockton and Darlington Railway.

Stephenson’s earliest important improvement in the locomotive consisted in his invention of what is called the steam-blast, by which the steam is made to increase the draught of the fire, and so largely add to the effectiveness of the engine. It was this invention that enabled him at last to make the railway into the great carrier of the world, and to begin the greatest social and commercial upheaval that has ever occurred in the whole history of the human race.

Meanwhile, however, George was not entirely occupied with the consideration of his growing engine. He had the clocks and watches to mend; he had Robert’s schooling to look after; and he had another practical matter even nearer home than the locomotive on which to exercise his inventive genius. One day, in 1814, the main gallery of the colliery caught fire. Stephenson at once descended into the burning pit, with a chosen band of volunteers, who displayed the usual heroic courage of colliers in going to the rescue of their comrades; and, at the risk of their lives, these brave men bricked up the burning portion, and so, by excluding the air, put out the dangerous fire. Still, even so, several of the workmen had been suffocated, and one of the pitmen asked Geordie in dismay whether nothing could be done to prevent such terrible disasters in future. “The price of coal-mining now,” he said, “is pitmen’s lives.” Stephenson promised to think the matter over; and he did think it over with good effect. The result of his thought was the apparatus still affectionately known to the pitmen as “the Geordie lamp.” It is a lamp so constructed that the flame cannot pass out into the air outside, and so cause explosions in the dangerous fire-damp which is always liable to occur abundantly in the galleries of coal mines. By this invention alone George Stephenson’s name and memory might have been kept green for ever; for his lamp has been the means of saving thousands of lives from a sudden, a terrible, and a pitiful death. Most accidents that now occur in mines are due to the neglect of ordinary precautions, and to the perverse habit of carrying a naked lighted candle in the hand (contrary to regulations) instead of a carefully guarded safety lamp. Yet so culpably reckless of their own and other men’s lives are a large number of people everywhere, that in spite of the most stringent and salutary rules, explosions from this cause (and, therefore, easily avoidable) take place constantly to the present day, though far less frequently than before the invention of the Geordie lamp.

Curiously enough, at the very time when George Stephenson was busy inventing his lamp at Killingworth, Sir Humphrey Davy was working at just the same matter in London; and the two lamps, though a little different in minor points of construction, are practically the same in general principle. Now, Sir Humphrey was then the great fashionable natural philosopher of the day, the favourite of London society, and the popular lecturer of the Royal Institution. His friends thought it a monstrous idea that his splendid life-saving apparatus should have been independently devised by “an engine-wright of Killingworth of the name of Stephenson–a person not even possessing a knowledge of the elements of chemistry.” This sounds very odd reading at the present day, when the engine-wright of the name of Stephenson has altered the whole face of the world, while Davy is chiefly remembered as a meritorious and able chemist; but at the time, Stephenson’s claim to the invention met with little courtesy from the great public of London, where a meeting was held on purpose to denounce his right to the credit of the invention. What the coal-owners and colliers of the North Country thought about the matter was sufficiently shown by their subscription of L1000, as a Stephenson testimonial fund. With part of the money, a silver tankard was presented to the deserving engine-wright, while the remainder of the sum was handed over to him in ready cash. A very acceptable present it was, and one which George Stephenson remembered with pride down to his dying day. The Geordie lamp continues in use to the present moment in the Tyneside collieries with excellent effect.

For some years more, Mr. Stephenson (he is now fairly entitled to that respectable prefix) went on still further experimenting on the question of locomotives and railways. He was now beginning to learn that much unnecessary wear and tear arose on the short lines of rail down from the pit’s mouths to the loading-places on the river by the inequalities and roughnesses of the joints; and he invented a method of overlapping the rails which quite got over this source of loss–loss of speed, loss of power, and loss of material at once. It was in 1819 that he laid down his first considerable piece of road, the Hetton railway. The owners of a colliery at the village of Hetton, in Durham, determined to replace their waggon road by a locomotive line; and they invited the now locally famous Killingworth engine-wright to act as their engineer. Stephenson gladly undertook the post; and he laid down a railway of eight miles in length, on the larger part of which the trucks were to be drawn by “the iron horse,” as people now began to style the altered and improved locomotive. The Hetton railway was opened in 1822, and the assembled crowd were delighted at beholding a single engine draw seventeen loaded trucks after it, at the extraordinary rate of four miles an hour–nearly as fast as a man could walk. Whence it may be gathered that Stephenson’s ideas upon the question of speed were still on a very humble scale indeed.

Before the Hetton railway was opened, however, George Stephenson had shown one more proof of his excellence as a father by sending his boy Robert, now nineteen, to Edinburgh University. It was a serious expense for a man who was even now, after all, hardly more than a working man of the superior grade; but George Stephenson was well repaid for the sacrifice he thus made on behalf of his only son. He lived to see him the greatest practical engineer of his own time, and to feel that his success was in large measure due to the wider and more accurate scientific training the lad had received from his Edinburgh teachers.

In 1819 George married again, his second wife being the daughter of a farmer at Black Callerton.

The work which finally secured the position of George Stephenson and of his dearly loved locomotive was the Stockton and Darlington railway. Like all the other early railways, it was originally projected simply as a mineral line. Darlington lies in the centre of a rich inland mining district; but the impossibility of getting the coal carried to the sea by cart or donkey long prevented the opening up of its immense natural wealth. At last, as early as 1817, Edward Pease and a few other enterprising Darlington Quakers determined to build a line of railway from the mining region to Stockton, on the river Tees, where the coal could be loaded into sea-going ships. It was a very long line, compared to any railway that had yet been constructed; but it was still only to be worked by horse-power–to be, in fact, what we now call a tramway, rather than a railway in the modern sense. However, while the plan was still undecided, George Stephenson, who had heard about the proposed scheme, went over to Darlington one day, and boldly asked to see Mr. Pease. The good Quaker received him kindly, and listened to his arguments in favour of the locomotive. “Come over to Killingworth some day and see my engine at work,” said Stephenson, confidently; “and if you do you will never think of horses again.” Mr. Pease, with Quaker caution, came and looked. George put the engine through its paces, and showed off its marvellous capabilities to such good effect that Edward Pease was immediately converted. Henceforth, he became a decided advocate of locomotives, and greatly aided by his wealth and influence in securing their final triumph.

Not only that, but Mr. Pease also aided Stephenson in carrying out a design which George had long had upon his mind–the establishment of a regular locomotive factory, where the work of engine-making for this particular purpose might be carried on with all the necessary finish and accuracy. George himself put into the concern his precious L1000, not one penny of which he had yet touched; while Pease and a friend advanced as much between them. A factory was forthwith started at Newcastle on a small scale, and the hardworking engine-wright found himself now fully advanced to the commercial dignity of Stephenson and Co. With the gradual growth of railways, that humble Newcastle factory grew gradually into one of the largest and wealthiest manufacturing establishments in all England.

Meanwhile, Stephenson was eagerly pushing on the survey of the Stockton and Darlington railway, all the more gladly now that he knew it was to be worked by means of his own adopted child, the beloved locomotive. He worked at his line early and late; he took the sights with the spirit-level with his own eye; he was determined to make it a model railway. It was a long and heavy work, for railway surveying was then a new art, and the appliances were all fresh and experimental; but in the end, Stephenson brought it to a happy conclusion, and struck at once the death-blow of the old road-travelling system. The line was opened successfully in 1825, and the engine started off on the inaugural ceremony with a magnificent train of thirty-eight vehicles. “Such was its velocity,” says a newspaper of the day, “that in some parts the speed was frequently twelve miles an hour.”

The success of the Stockton and Darlington railway was so immense and unexpected, the number of passengers who went by it was so great, and the quantity of coal carried for shipment so far beyond anything the projectors themselves could have anticipated, that a desire soon began to be felt for similar works in other places. There are no two towns in England which absolutely need a railway communication from one to the other so much as Liverpool and Manchester. The first is the great port of entry for cotton, the
second is the great centre of its manufacture. The Bridgewater canal had helped for a time to make up for the want of water communication between those two closely connected towns; but as trade developed, the canal became too small for the demands upon it, and the need for an additional means of intercourse was deeply felt. A committee was formed to build a railway in this busy district, and after a short time George Stephenson was engaged to superintend its construction.

A long and severe fight was fought over the Liverpool and Manchester railway, and it was at first doubtful whether the scheme would ever be carried out. Many great landowners were strongly opposed to it, and tried their best to keep the bill for authorizing it from passing through Parliament. Stephenson himself was compelled to appear in London as a witness before a parliamentary committee, and was closely cross-examined as to the possibilities of his plan. In those days, even after the success of the Stockton and Darlington line, his views about the future of railways were still regarded by most sober persons as ridiculously wild and enthusiastic; while the notion that trains might be made to travel twice as fast as stage-coaches, was scouted as the most palpable and ridiculous delusion. One of the members of the committee pressed Stephenson very hard with questions. “Suppose,” he said, “a cow were to get upon the line, and the engine were to come into collision with it; wouldn’t that be very awkward, now?” George looked up at him with a merry twinkle of the eye, and answered in his broad North Country dialect, “Oo, ay, very awkward for the coo.”

In spite of all Stephenson’s earnestness and mother wit, however, Parliament refused to pass the bill (in 1825), and for the moment the engineer’s vexation was bitter to behold. He and his friends plucked up heart, however; they were fighting the winning battle against prejudice and obstruction, and they were sure to conquer in the long run. The line was resurveyed by other engineers; the lands of the hostile owners were avoided; the causes of offence were dexterously smoothed down; and after another hard fight, in 1826, the bill authorizing the construction of the Liverpool and Manchester railway was finally passed. The board at once appointed Stephenson engineer for constructing the line, at a salary of L1000 a year. George might now fairly consider himself entitled to the honours of an Esquire.

The line was a difficult one to construct; but George Stephenson set about it with the skill and knowledge acquired during many years of slow experience; and he performed it with distinguished success. He was now forty-four; and he had had more to do with the laying down of rails than any other man then living. The great difficulty of the Liverpool and Manchester line lay in the fact that it had to traverse a vast shaking bog or morass, Chat Moss, which the best engineers had emphatically declared it would be impossible to cross. George Stephenson, however, had a plan for making the impossible possible. He simply floated his line on a broad bottom, like a ship, on the top of the quaking quagmire; and proceeded to lay down his rails on this seemingly fragile support without further scruple. It answered admirably, and still answers to the present day. The other works on the railway, especially the cuttings, were such as might well have appalled the boldest heart in those experimental ages of railway enterprise. It is easy enough for us now to undertake tunnelling great hills or filling up wide valleys with long ranges of viaduct, because the thing has been done so often, and the prospect of earning a fair return on the money sunk can be calculated with so high a degree of reasonable probability. But it required no little faith for George Stephenson and his backers to drive a level road, for the first time, through solid rocks and over trembling morasses, the whole way from Liverpool to Manchester. He persevered, however, and in 1830, after four years’ toilsome and ceaseless labour, during which he had worked far-harder than the sturdiest navvy on the line, his railway was finally opened for regular traffic.

Before the completion of the railway, George Stephenson had taken part in a great contest for the best locomotive at Liverpool, a prize of L500 having been offered by the company to the successful competitor. Stephenson sent in his improved model, the Rocket, constructed after plans of his own and his son Robert’s, and it gained the prize against all its rivals, travelling at what was then considered the incredible rate of 35 miles an hour. It was thus satisfactorily settled that the locomotive was the best power for drawing carriages on railways, and George Stephenson’s long battle was thus at last practically won. The opening of the Liverpool and Manchester railway was an era in the history of the world. From the moment that great undertaking was complete, there could no longer be any doubt about the utility and desirability of railways, and all opposition died away almost at once. New lines began immediately to be laid out, and in an incredibly short time the face of England was scarred by the main trunks in that network of iron roads with which its whole surface is now so closely covered. The enormous development of the railway system benefited the Stephenson family in more than one way. Robert Stephenson became the engineer of the vast series of lines now known as the London and North Western; and the increased demand for locomotives caused George Stephenson’s small factory at Newcastle to blossom out suddenly into an immense and flourishing manufacturing concern.

The rest of George Stephenson’s life is one long story of unbroken success. In 1831, the year after the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester line, George, being now fifty, began to think of settling down in a more permanent home. His son Robert, who was surveying the Leicester and Swannington railway, observed on an estate called Snibston, near Ashby-de-la-Zouch, what to his experienced geological eye looked like the probable indications of coal beneath the surface. He wrote to his father about it, and as the estate was at the time for sale, George, now a comparatively wealthy man, bought it up on his son’s recommendation. He also pitched his home close by at Alton Grange, and began to sink shafts in search of coal. He found it in due time; and thus, in addition to his Newcastle works he became a flourishing colliery proprietor. It is pleasing to note that Stephenson, unlike too many other self-made men, always treated his workmen with the greatest kindness and consideration, erecting admirable cottages for their accommodation, and providing them with church, chapel, and schools for their religious and social education.

While living at Alton Grange, Stephenson was engaged in laying out several new lines in the middle and north of England, especially the Grand Junction and the Midland, both of which he constructed with great boldness and practical skill. As he grew older and more famous, he began to mix in the truly best society of England; his acquaintance being sought by all the most eminent men in literature, science, and political life. Though but an uneducated working man by origin, George Stephenson had so improved his mind by constant thought and expansive self-education, that he was able to meet these able and distinguished friends of his later days on terms of perfect intellectual and social equality. To the last, however, he never forgot his older and poorer friends, nor was he ever ashamed of their acquaintance. A pleasant trait is narrated by his genial biographer, Dr. Smiles, who notices that on one occasion he stopped to speak to one of his wealthy acquaintances in a fine carriage, and then turned to shake hands with the coachman on the box, whom he had known and respected in his earlier days. He enjoyed, too, the rare pleasure of feeling his greatness recognized in his own time: and once, when he went over to Brussels on a visit to the king of the Belgians, he was pleased and surprised, as the royal party entered the ball-room at the Town Hall, to hear a general murmur among the guests of “Which is Stephenson?”

George Stephenson continued to live for sixteen years, first at Alton Grange, and afterwards at Tapton House, near Chesterfield, in comfort and opulence; growing big pines and melons, keeping birds and dogs, and indulging himself towards the end in the well-earned repose to which his useful and laborious life fully entitled him. At last, on the 12th of August, 1848, he died suddenly of intermittent fever, in his sixty-seventh year, and was peacefully buried in Chesterfield church. Probably no one man who ever lived did so much to change and renovate the whole aspect of human life as George Stephenson; and, unlike many other authors of great revolutions, he lived long enough to see the full result of his splendid labours in the girdling of England by his iron roads. A grand and simple man, he worked honestly and steadfastly throughout his days, and he found his reward in the unprecedented benefits which his locomotive was even then conferring upon his fellow-men. It is indeed wonderful to think how very different is the England in which we live to-day, from that in which we might possibly have been living were it not for the barefooted little collier boy who made clay models of engines at Wylam, and who grew at last into the great and famous engineer of the marvellous Liverpool and Manchester railway. The main characteristic of George Stephenson was perseverance; and it was that perseverance that enabled him at last to carry out his magnificent schemes in the face of so much bitter and violent opposition.




MLA Source Citation:

AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 24 April 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/genealogy/biography-of-george-stephenson.htm - Last updated on Oct 4th, 2012


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