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Life of Robert Stephenson by William Pole: Chapter VII

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CHAPTER VII. From South America to Newcastle (age 23-24)

ROBERT STEPHENSON was aware that his prolonged sojourn in America was highly prejudicial to his interests. Mr. Longridge, who during his absence had undertaken the active management of the affairs of 'Robert Stephenson and Co. of Newcastle,’ wrote urgent entreaties for his return home. His heart told him how much his father needed him. He knew, too, that all his most influential friends - Mr. Richardson, Mr. Pease, and other capitalists to whom he looked for countenance - were of opinion that he might with propriety consult his own advantage, in deciding whether he should quit, or keep at his post. His word, however, was given; and he kept it.

At length the time came when he could honourably start homewards : and as he looked back on the previous three years he was not altogether dissatisfied with their results. From December 30, 1824, to December 31, 1827, the entire expenditure of the Colombian Mining Association had been little short of £200,000. A large portion of this sum had been wasted by maladministration in London, but the great operations carried on with the remainder had been directed by him — a mere boy between twenty-one and twenty-four years of age. And in everything for which he individually could be held accountable the expedition had been successful. Had he worked the mines, as the Spaniards worked them, with the cheap labour of slaves, they would have yielded him as much profit as preceding engineers had extracted from them. As it was, on bidding official farewell to the directors, he was in a position to tell them that their property, under economical management and with the agency of proper machinery, could be made to pay them a handsome, though not an enormous, dividend.

In the July of 1827, Robert Stephenson wrote his last South American letter to Mr, Longridge.

July 16, 1827.

MY DEAR SIR, — The period of my departure from this place has at last really and truly arrived, though not longer than a month or two ago I was despairing of being able to get away without incurring the displeasure of the Board of Directors, as they wrote to the principal agent at Bogota, expressing an earnest wish that I would remain in St. Ana, notwithstanding my agreement having terminated, until the arrival of a new superintendent, whom they say they found great difficulty in procuring. Just about the same time I received a letter from Mr. Richardson, in which he states that the factory was far from being in a good condition, and that unless I returned promptly to England it would not improbably be abandoned. He further stated that the Board had not met with a person to succeed me; but notwithstanding this, he supposed I would leave at the expiration of my agreement. This induced me immediately to advise the agents in Bogota of my intention to leave with all convenient despatch, and of my hope that they would make such arrangements as might seem most expedient to them, respecting the filling up my situation. In answer to my letter, they determined upon coming down from Bogota to St. Ana, and attending the establishment themselves up to the arrival of another person from England. In pursuance of this resolution, Mr. Illingworth is now in this place, and it is my intention to leave on the 24th or 25th of the present month. By the 30th I shall have procured a boat at Honda for my passage to the coast. At present it is my intention to proceed direct to Carthagena, and I still have an itching to visit the Isthmus of Panama, so that I may know something about the possibility, or impossibility of forming a communication between the two seas; though the very short time that I can stay there will evidently prevent me getting more than a very general idea of such a scheme. From the information I have gathered from one or two gentlemen who have visited that coast, it would appear most judicious to proceed from Carthagena to Chagresby sea, and from the latter place to pass by the main road to Panama, on the Pacific—these being the situations between which a communication is most likely to be effected. It is extraordinary that the recent proposals which were made by British capitalists for undertaking this scheme to the Colombian Government did not excite more interest. When they were brought before Congress, they scarcely elicited a consideration; at least nothing was said, or done which the importance of the subject demanded. Some individuals of power connected with the Government were weak enough to imagine that a free communication between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans would be productive of serious inconvenience to Colombia. Upon what grounds such an opinion was founded I am not well informed ; but there can be no doubt but that interested views of this kind will in time fall to the ground, especially when civilisation has made more advances, and a more intimate intercourse between the inhabitants of the east and west parts of this continent shall be rendered almost, if not absolutely, necessary. From what I have seen of this republic, I feel thoroughly convinced that inland communication will ever remain imperfect - nay, probably little better than it now is. Produce in the interior cannot possibly be conveyed to the coast, and thence exported to foreign markets, with profitable results; cultivation will consequently always be confined to the provinces bordered by the sea; I mean, of course, for such articles as are to be exported. Whatever is yielded by the interior will be consumed at home.

If, therefore, a connection between the east and west populations of this continent is cut off by the natural difficulties presented by the surface, it seems reasonable to conclude that an opening by the isthmus to admit of conveyance by water will become indispensable. This is only contemplating the advantage which such an undertaking would be to Colombia and the other South American powers. But how the magnificence of such a work augments in our ideas when we consider the advantages which would arise from it — how it would influence commerce in every quarter of the earth! The grounds of the proposal made by a number of the most respectable merchants’ houses in London, for undertaking the examination and execution of a road, or canal across the isthmus, were objected to, principally from the way in which the capital was to be raised and the parties guaranteed against loss. The cash was to be raised by a joint stock company, which was to be repaid to the parties by the Colombian Government, in bonds bearing a specific interest from the completion of the work. This was, in fact, inviting the Government to make another loan for this specific purpose, and, in short, increasing their national debt without appropriate revenues to meet its demands. One would have thought with a young country that this proposal would have met with immediate sanction; but on the contrary, the Government, seeing the low state of their finances, and the great difficulties they would have in getting the revenue of the republic to cover the expenditure, trembled at the idea of augmenting their inconveniences, which they even at that time knew must sooner or later plunge the whole country into its present difficulties. I cannot well explain the unsettled state of the whole of this country, and the fluctuations of opinion which daily take place among the people. One day we hear of nothing but civil war, another brings forward some displeasing decree from Bolivar, whose character as a disinterested man has lost ground very much amongst his own people. The laws in many parts are held in contempt, and a disposition for changing the present constitution is pretty general throughout every department. A division of the republic into states appears inevitable, but the precise basis upon which such a change is to be accomplished is yet undetermined, and probably will remain so for a twelvemonth. If the country had not already suffered severely from internal war, or if the effects were not so fresh in the memory of the present generation, I should say that contention in the shape of war would again break out; but the apathetic disposition of the people, together with the worn-out resources of the nation, will, I think, effectually counteract any such movement.

I was much pleased to learn from your letter of half-a-dozen dates, the arrangements you had made respecting your little daughter, and I hope she enjoys good health, with the whole of your family. I shall be most happy to relate some travellers’ stories to her when I return, but I must be careful in my selection, as, if all were told, it might give her ideas a turn too much towards romance.

In the close of your last letter, dated Feb. 2, 1827, you mention that the calisthenic exercises have just come into fashion. This puzzled me not a little. I could not find for the life of me any signification for the new-coined word, and therefore I am as ignorant of the kind of exercise which has become fashionable amongst the ladies as I was before I left England, and I suppose I must remain so until I return.

I was delighted to hear you were studying Spanish, but I am afraid (on my part only) our conversation in that beautiful language must be very limited — ‘pero quando nos vemos lo probaremos.’ Robert Stephenson

Michael Longridge, Esq. Bedlington Iron Works, Morpeth, Northumberland.

The Association having notified to him the appointment of his successor, Robert Stephenson, after being entertained at a public dinner, by his coadjutors of all ranks, quitted Santa Ana, and with his friend Charles Empson, who had been his constant associate in his American labours, proceeded to Carthagena to take ship. He had much wished to visit the isthmus before his return to England, but the delay which such a trip would occasion caused him to dismiss all thought of making it. At Carthagena he was joined by Mr. Gerard, an employe of the Association, who was bound for Scotland, having under his charge two little boys, named Monteleagre. Another addition was made to the party in the person of Trevithick, whom Robert Stephenson accidentally met in an hotel. Without funds and without credit, Trevithick, after undergoing indescribable hardships in exploring the isthmus, had made his way foot-sore and almost starved to Carthagena. A strange reverse had come over his fortunes since the time when the Peruvians received him with the honours of a conqueror, and, in anticipation of the fabulous wealth which it was expected would flow to them from his genius, had shod his horses’ hoofs with silver. An instructive study was that rude, gaunt, half-starved ‘ Cornish giant ’— eager for fresh knowledge, liberal, daring, self-reliant, and original in all questions pertaining to his own profession, but on all other subjects untaught and unobservant. There is no doubt that the original and daring views of Trevithick with respect to the capabilities of the locomotive made a deep impression on Robert Stephenson.

As there was no suitable vessel about to start without delay from Carthagena for a British port, Robert Stephenson decided to take passage on a ship bound for New York, and thence to proceed to London, or Liverpool. The entire party, including Trevithick, quitted the unwho1esome little town of Carthagena, where yellow fever was raging, and set out for New York. The voyage was eventful. At first the weather was serene, and for several days the ship was becalmed amongst the islands. From the stillness of the atmosphere the sailors predicted that on clearing off from there they would learn that a fearful storm had raged in the open ocean. A few degrees farther north, they came upon the survivors of a wreck, who had been for days drifting about in a dismantled hull, without provisions and almost without hope. Two more days’ sailing brought them in with a second dismantled hull full of miserable creatures, the relics of another wreck, whom hunger had reduced to cannibalism.

The voyage was almost at an end, and they had made land, when about midnight the vessel struck and instantly began to fill. The wind blew a hurricane, and the deck was crowded with desperate people, to whom death within gunshot of land appeared more dreadful than perishing in the open sea. The masts and rigging were cut away, but no good was gained by the measure. Surrounded by broken water, the vessel began to break up, whilst the sea ran so high that it was impossible to put off the boats. By morning, however, the storm lulled, and with dawn the passengers were got ashore.

Robert Stephenson and his companions naturally pushed forward in the scramble to get places in the boat which was the first to leave the sinking ship ; and they had succeeded in pushing their way to the ladder, when the mate of the vessel threw them back, and singled out for the vacant places a knot of humble passengers who stood just behind them. The chief of the party was a petty trader of Carthagena. He was, moreover, a second-class passenger, well known to be without those gifts of fortune which might have made it worth a mate’s while to render him especial service.

On the return of the boat, Robert Stephenson had better luck, and by 8 o’clock A.M. he was landed, safe and sound, on the wished-for shore. Not a life was lost of either passengers or crew: but when Stephenson and his companions found themselves in New York, they had lost all their luggage, and almost all their money. A collection of mineral specimens, on which he had spent much time and labour, was luckily preserved: but he lost a complete cabinet of the entomological curiosities of Colombia, and the box containing his money, on which his fellow-travellers were dependent.

Fortunately, he found no difficulty in obtaining money in New York. He was therefore in a position to proceed homewards without delay ; but as he was in America he determined to see a little of the country, and to pay a visit to Canada before crossing the Atlantic for Great Britain. At New York Trevithick bade him farewell; but Mr, Gerard, the two Monteleagres, and Mr. Empson, agreed to accompany him on a pedestrian excursion from New York over the border to Montreal.

This arrangement made, Robert Stephenson said farewell to the captain in whose ship he had made the unfortunate passage from Carthagena,and on parting with him asked if he could account for the mate’s conduct when the passengers were leaving the vessel. ‘ I am the more at a loss to find the reason for his treatment of me,’ he observed, ‘ because on the voyage we were very good friends.’ ‘ Well, sir,’ answered the captain, ‘ I can let you into the secret. My mate had no special liking for Mr.- , indeed, I happen to know he disliked him as strongly as you and the rest of the passengers disliked him. But Mr. - is a freemason, and so is my mate, and freemasons are bound by their oath to help their brethren in moments of peril, or of distress, before they assist persons not of their fraternity.’ The explanation made so impressed Robert Stephenson that he forthwith became a mason, — the master, wardens, and members of the St. Andrew’s Lodge No. 7, constituted under the auspices of the Grand Lodge of the State of New York, presenting him (September 21, 1827) with a document under their seal, in which he is styled ‘a master-mason of good report, beloved and esteemed among us.’

The master-mason then started for his Northern excursion. A conservative from his cradle, Robert Stephenson, during his residence in Colombia, had seen the worst side of republican institutions. The corruption of the Colombian Government was excessive. From high to low, the bribe and the dagger were regarded as necessary elements of political existence. Of course the venality of the governing classes and the servility of the mob were produced by the system that preceded the revolution, quite as much as by the revolution itself. But however they may be accounted for, young Stephenson, naturally averse to liberalism in politics, saw the worst vices of corrupt despotism openly defended and practised by the champions of popular opinions. It was natural that he should leave South America with yet stronger opinions in favour of vigorous monarchical government. What he saw in North America did not tend to modify his views.

On entering New York (he wrote to Mr, Illingworth) we felt ourselves quite at home. All outward appearances of things and persons were indicative of English manners and customs; hut on closer investigation we soon discovered the characteristic impudence of the people. In many cases it was nothing short of disgusting. We stayed but a short time in the city, and pushed into the interior for about 500 miles, and were much delighted with the face of the country, which in every direction is populated to a great extent, and affords to an attentive observer a wonderful example of human industry; and it is gratifying to a liberal-minded Englishman to observe how far the sons of his own country have outstripped the other European powers which have transatlantic possessions.

We visited the Falls of Niagara, which did not surprise me so much as the Tequindama. Their magnitude is certainly prodigious ; but there is not so much minute beauty about them as the Salta.

After seeing all that our time would permit in the States we passed over into Canada, which is far behind the States in everything. The people want industry and enterprise. Every Englishman, however partial he may be, is obliged to confess the disadvantageous contrast. Whether the cause exists in the people or the system of government I cannot say - perhaps it rests with both.

The expedition was made on foot, Robert Stephenson and his companions having with them no apparel save what they wore and one change of linen. A picture, painted in 1828, represents the young man as he appeared en route from New York to Montreal, habited in the variegated poncho which he ordinarily wore in Colombia, and holding in his hand a straw paramatta hat with an enormous brim.

One feature of the rural population of the State of New York greatly delighted him. Their hospitality was only bounded by their means. Unknown, and apparently poor, wherever the pedestrians halted they were welcomed to bed and board, and could only rarely induce their entertainers, who usually were little farmers, or storekeepers, to accept payment for their services. Often after receiving them for the night, a farmer brought out his light wagon, and drove them ten or fifteen miles on their way, and then said good-bye to them, declining remuneration for his entertainment, his time, and the wear of his hickory springs.

At Montreal he threw aside his Colombian dress, and, equipping himself in the ordinary costume of an English gentleman, went into the best society of the city. After attending a succession of balls and routs given by the colonial dignitaries, he returned to New York, and with his four companions and a servant took his passage to Liverpool in a first-class packet - ‘the Pacific.’

At Liverpool he found his father settled in a comfortable house, and superintending the construction of the railway then in progress between that place and Manchester, The years of Robert Stephenson’s absence had been years of stern trial to George Stephenson, turning his hair prematurely white, and biting deep fines in his countenance. On September 27, 1825, more than twelve months after Robert’s departure for America, the Stockton and Darlington Railway was opened with proper ceremony. The fine had been worked with satisfactory results, but still the employment of locomotives on its rails was regarded as little more than an interesting experiment. It was not till the Liverpool and Manchester fine was near completion that the real struggle for the use of the locomotive commenced. In the meantime George Stephenson had hard work to maintain his position in the engineering world. The defeat of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway Bill in the June of 1825—a defeat due in a great degree to serious mistakes made by the engineer’s assistants in taking the levels for the proposed fine — had for a time a most injurious effect on his prospects. Writing to Robert, November 1, 1825, Mr. Longridge observed -

Railways still continue the fashion, though I am sorry to add that your father has not that share of employment which his talents merit. It is expected the Liverpool and Manchester Bill will pass this session; perhaps an Amended Act will after wards be procured. The Newcastle and Carlisle Railway Bill will not be brought into parliament until another year. Your father has been employed by the party who oppose this railway, and in examining the line has found greater errors in the levels than were committed by his assistants in the Liverpool Road. Robert! my faith in engineers is wonderfully shaken. I hope when you return to us your accuracy will redeem their character. I feel anxious for your return, and I think that you will find both your father and your friend considerably older than when you left us.

Of the letters which Robert Stephenson received from England whilst he was in Colombia, the majority contained words that caused him lively uneasiness for his father, who was struggling hard to recover ground which had been lost chiefly through the blunders of his subordinates. In 1826 permission was obtained to lay down the Liverpool and Manchester line, and George Stephenson was appointed engineer-in-chief to the undertaking, with a salary of £1,000 a year. It was said by his enemies, and was also thought by some of his friends, that his success in getting the post was only the forerunner of his ruin. Whilst the result of the attempt to make the line across Chat-Moss was a matter of doubt, George Stephenson was generally regarded as being on his trial; and he well knew that in accordance with the success or failure of that attempt, he would be proclaimed a man of stupendous genius, or an ignorant and impudent quack.

With his own profession George Stephenson set himself right sooner than with the public at large. On February 28,1827, Locke, writing to Robert Stephenson, said -

Since I last wrote you, many circumstances, at that time highly improbable, have occurred; and that shade which was unfortunately cast on the fame of your father has disappeared, and the place which he must often have reflected on with pain is now such a scene of operations as sheds lustre on his character, and will no doubt immortalise his name. AU our Directors are unanimous in placing the utmost confidence in him, which is certainly the best proof of their good opinion.

Before Robert’s arrival in Liverpool at the end of November in the same year, the shade had indeed passed from George Stephenson’s fame, and the father and son were able to exchange words of triumphant congratulation as well as of affection.

It was a happy meeting. If the events of the preceding three years had whitened George Stephenson’s locks, and given him at forty-six years of age the aspect of advanced life, his head and heart were still, young. On the other hand, his son had changed from a raw Northumbrian lad into a polished gentleman, having, at an age when many young men of the upper ranks of English life are still shirking college lectures and lounging about clubs and theatres, reaped the advantages of extended travel, continued mental exertion, and intercourse with men widely differing in rank, nationality, and experience.

The friend who had shared the perils and trials of Robert’s American life became a guest in George Stephenson’s house at Liverpool. When the young men awoke on the morning after their arrival they found on their dressing-tables two handsome watches, which had been placed there whilst they were asleep. In this manner George Stephenson made good a part of the losses they had sustained through the shipwreck.

Robert Stephenson had too much business on his hands to think of making a long stay at Liverpool. With all speed he went up to London, and had an interview with the Directors of the Colombian Mining Association, who received him with gratifying expressions of respect. Though he had ceased to preside over their interests in South America, they pressed him to continue to give them counsel as to their future operations. In London he was quickly immersed in business, inspecting machinery, and entering into contracts for the house of ‘Robert Stephenson and Co.’ In connection with a contract and negotiations entered into with a foreign house he found it necessary to visit Brussels in December 1827. The journey was purely one of business; an excursion to Waterloo being almost the only diversion he permitted himself during the trip. Christmas Day he spent in London; but with the new year he was in Newcastle, which for the next five years was his head-quarters, superintending the factory, and originating, or developing, those improvements in the structure of the locomotive which raised it to its present efficiency from the unsatisfactory position it held at the opening of the Stockton and Darlington fine.

The following letter, written to Mr. Longridge from Liverpool on New Year’s Day 1828, will show how occupied the writer’s mind was with the possibility of improving the locomotive.

(missing text)

miles, in which distance I have not been a little surprised to find excavations of such magnitude. Since I came down from London, I have been talking a great deal to my father about endeavouring to reduce the size and ugliness of our travelling engines, by applying the engine either on the side of the boiler or beneath it entirely, somewhat similarly to Gurney’s steam-coach. He has agreed to an alteration which I think will considerably reduce the quantity of machinery as well as the liability to mismanagement. Mr. Jos. Pease writes my father that in their present complicated state they cannot be managed by ‘fools,’ therefore they must undergo some alteration or amendment. It is very true that the locomotive engine, or any other kind of engine, may be shaken to pieces; but such accidents are in a great measure under the control of enginemen, which are, by the by, not the most manageable class of beings. They perhaps want improvement as much as the engines.

There was nothing new when I left London, except a talk that the Thames Tunnel was about to be abandoned for want of funds, which the subscribers had declined advancing, from the apparent improbability of the future revenue ever being adequate to paying a moderate interest. There are three new steam-coaches going on with, all much on the same principle as Gurney’s.

Very shortly after my arrival at Newcastle I shall have to set off to Alston Moor to engage some miners, both for the Colombian and the Anglo-Mexican Association.

The New Year therefore opened with an abundance of business for the young engineer.

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