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Life of Robert Stephenson by William Pole: Chapter VI (Volume 2)

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CHAPTER VI. (Volume 2). Robert Stephenson as Politian and Member of the House of Commons (Age 44-55.)

IN his biography of George Stephenson, Mr. Smiles has rightly observed that the political opinions of the elder Stephenson ‘ were at best of a very undefined sort.’ To think closely and logically on matters unconnected with his mechanical enterprises was not his habit. Like most men of imperfect education, he was guided by emotion, rather than reason, in the consideration of subjects that lay apart from his daily avocations. But his sympathies were strongly conservative. To those who conceive of the ambitious workman, fighting a long fight against adverse circumstances, as a person necessarily smarting under a sense of social injustice, it may be matter of surprise that the pre-eminently successful workman of Great Britain, at a time when the operative classes were very generally at variance with the classes above them, was throughout his career well disposed towards existing institutions. The lessons of life had taught him to look to the aristocracy with loyal attachment. His first friends in the Newcastle neighbourhood, who had taken him by the hand, were amongst the leading persons of Northumbria. Lord Ravensworth had been his patron. Mr. Brandling had distinguished him with a support widely different from the countenance ordinarily bestowed by a wealthy and well- descended proprietor on an ingenious mechanic. His early patron Mr. Losh, also, was placed high above the common rank of manufacturers by culture, attainments, and public services. From such men the workman had received encouragement, when encouragement was most needed; and in after-fife he was warmly attached to those superior classes from which his earliest friends came.

Robert Stephenson heartily concurred with his father’s political sympathies; but he was a politician in whom intellectual conviction went hand in hand with sentiment. He prided himself on being ‘ a Tory,’ the term conservative being by no means strong enough to express his abhorrence of innovation. It would only raise a smile to enumerate the articles of his political creed, which resembled that of Colonel Sibthorp more closely than that of Lord Derby. Give the government of the country for a month into the hands of Cobden, Bright, and Roebuck, and (he maintained) the national pre-eminence of Great Britain would be lost for ever. The bare mention of Earl Russell’s name invariably ruffled his temper. Some of his views were the prejudices of a previous generation. He even maintained that the superficial culture obtained by workmen at reading-clubs and lecture-rooms injured them as artisans. A really good mechanic ought to be bent on achieving manual perfection, throwing all his strength of body and soul into the special task assigned him; and such earnestness in comparatively uninteresting labour the captain of workmen deemed incompatible with general mental culture. At a dinner of the Royal Society’s Club, he made a party of 'savans' open their eyes with astonishment by exclaiming, ‘It is all nonsense Lord John preaching and preaching education to the working classes. What the artisan wants is special education for his own particular specialty. And the more he leaves everything else alone the better.’ This speech was made in the last year of his life (February 21, 1859), at a time when he had displayed rare munificence in the cause of popular education, and when he was meditating still greater contributions to the same cause. So strangely does an earnest and amiable man’s practice differ sometimes from his theory!

In the summer of 1847, at the same crisis when his father declined to stand as a candidate for the representation of South Shields, Robert Stephenson was invited by the electors of Whitby, in Yorkshire, to become their member of parliament. The invitation was unanimous. All shades of political opinion were merged in a common desire to pay a well-merited compliment to the man who had been tested by years of arduous service. At any time this expression of confidence would have been agreeable to him; but coming to him when his reputation was under the cloud temporarily cast over it by the failure of the Dee Bridge, it made a deep and permanent impression on his heart.

On Tuesday, July 27,1847, Robert went to Whitby, and was received at the railway station by his committee and principal supporters. On the following Friday, his election to the seat took place without opposition.

For Whitby Robert Stephenson continued to sit in parliament till his death. In 1852 he was opposed by the Hon. Edmund Phipps, when a majority in his favour of about two to one warned politicians not to renew the attempt. Unquestionably his Tory supporters had no reason to regret placing confidence in him. The atmosphere of the House strengthened rather than weakened his political convictions. Protectionist to the marrow, he disdained to relinquish his belief in Protective principles, even though persistence in them brought him in direct collision with experience. To his dying day he argued warmly in favour of the great commercial fallacy, but it was remarked by his most intimate friends that it was the one solitary subject about which in his last years he would in discussion lose his temper ; and that exceptional irritabihty appeared to them a sign that his confidence in arguments rejected by the rest of the world had been gradually unpaired. But beyond irritability he made no sign of penitence, and as far as avowal went, he was in 1859 as much an ‘impenetrable’ as he was in 1852, when he voted in the memorable minority of 53 against the equally memorable majority of 468.

As a member of parliament Robert Stephenson voted steadily with his party, but he abstained from taking part in the debates, unless the Commons stood in need of his professional information or judgment.

On July 4, 1850, when Colonel Sibthorp made his speech and motion against the proposal for the Great Exhibition of 1851, Robert Stephenson, who, as an uncompromising Tory, was not without points of sympathy with the Colonel, spoke out boldly against the motion of the member for Lincoln. The question was altogether distinct from party politics, and the engineer who was himself a stanch promoter of the enterprise and a member of the Building Committee, pleaded the cause of the Exhibition with good effect, in a speech which, as a maiden speech from a member of high celebrity, made a most favourable impression on the House.

The next occasion of his addressing the House was on March 25, 1852, when he spoke briefly but emphatically in favour of the London (Watford) Spring Water Company Bill. On the 17th of the following June, he again spoke a few words. In the debate on the second reading of the Metropolitan Burials Bill, Lord Ebrington drew attention to the defective drainage of the metropolis, and more especially to difficulties encountered by the contractors for the Victoria Sewer. When his lordship resumed his seat, Robert Stephenson rose and said :—

The whole of the evils complained of in the construction and increased expense of the Victoria Sewer was in consequence of the course pursued by the Woods and Forests. He went to the Chief Commissioner, and endeavoured to induce him to permit the sewer to be discharged into the Thames within the limits of the Crown property; but that request was peremptorily refused. He saw no reason why Crown property should be exempted, or, at least, why it should stand in the way of the best system of drainage for the metropolis. But he received a peremptory command that the sewer should not be discharged within the limits of the Crown property. This refusal made a large difference in the expenditure, and, worse than that, the foundations having been bad in the new line, a great portion of the sewer was now in a very dangerous state. Whether the responsibility of this rested on the late Chief Commissioner (Lord Seymour) or not, he would not undertake to say.

For the next three sessions Robert Stephenson was content to be a silent member of the House. On June 19, 1856, he took part in the discussion on the Army Estimates, making a few practical remarks on the subject of Ordnance Maps.

He must (he said) admit that each scale had its peculiar advantages, yet at the same time he must contend that for practical references the one-inch map was the best of all. The habit which unfortunately prevailed in this country of continually changing the scale occasioned a profitless expenditure of public money and endless confusion. The great desideratum was a map of Great Britain on a uniform scale. In Ireland the scale had been altered once or twice, and the result was most deplorable. He had frequently consulted the six-inch maps in that country, but invariably found them worse than useless for engineering purposes. It gave him nearly as much trouble to gather information from them as to realise it on the ground. What the engineers employed in various parts of the United Kingdom had for years been endeavouring to obtain from Parliament was an assurance that the one-inch map would be completed before any other piece of surveying was taken in hand. If it were to be continually interrupted, as it had heretofore been, fifty or sixty years would elapse before it was perfected. At present there was no uniform map of England on which engineers could depend. In France and other countries through which he had travelled on professional business, he had never found any difficulty in procuring lucid and accurate maps; but such could not be said for England, though the English had probably spent on their surveys ten times as much as any other people in Europe. Over and over again the engineers of Great Britain bad given the government to understand that maps to the six, the twelve, or the twenty-five-inch scale were alike useless to them, but the Ordnance turned a deaf ear to all their protestations, and went on constructing maps which the engineers did not want, and would not consult.

The next parliamentary speech made by Robert Stephenson was his most important address to the Commons. It was important both to the public at large and to himself, because it confirmed the general dislike to the proposal for a Suez Canal, and it pledged his professional judgment to the unsoundness of the scheme.

On July 17, 1857, Mr. Griffiths asked the House ‘ Whether in their deliberate opinion it be conducive to the honour or the interests of this country that we should manifest and avow the existence of a jealous hostility on our part to the project of a ship canal through the Isthmus of Suez ? ’ In reply, after recapitulating the political objections to the proposed canal, and upon them condemning the scheme as ‘ one which no Englishman with his eyes open would think it desirable to encourage,’ Lord Palmerston observed: —

As regards the engineering difficulties, I am aware there is nothing which money and skill cannot overcome, except to stop the tides of the ocean, and to make rivers run up to their sources. But I take leave to affirm, upon pretty good authority, that this plan cannot be accomplished, except at an expense which would preclude its being a remunerative undertaking; and I therefore think I am not much out of the way in stating this to be one of the bubble schemes which are often set on foot to induce English capitalists to embark their money upon enterprises which, in the end, will only leave them poorer, whomever else they may make richer.

Robert Stephenson then rose, and said: —

He would not venture to enter on the political bearings of the subject with respect to the other powers of Europe, but would confine himself merely to the engineering capabilities of the scheme. He had travelled, partly on foot, over the country to which the project applied, and had watched with great interest the progress that had been made by various parties in examining the question. He had first investigated the subject in 1847 in conjunction with M. Paulin Talabot, a French engineer, and M. de Negrelli, an Austrian engineer. At the suggestion of Linant Bey, a French engineer, who had been upwards of twenty years resident in Egypt, and feeling how important was the establishment, if possible, of a communication between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, he had qualified himself to form an opinion on the subject. It had been received on the authority of an investigation of the levels taken by the French engineers during the invasion of Egypt about 1800, that, as stated by the ancient writers, there was a difference between the levels of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea of something like thirty-two feet. It was suggested at that time that the old canal might be opened out again, and that a current might be established between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea of from two to three miles an hour, which velocity of water would not impede the communication between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, as steam tugs might be employed, and the canal might at the same time be kept perfectly open, as the scouring power would be adequate to maintain a clear channel. He went into this scheme under the belief that that difference in the level did actually exist. The examination was made by himself and the gentlemen with whom he was associated in 1847. They had not any idea, at that time, that if there was no difference of level it would be practicable for a canal to be made in the first instance, or that it could be maintained afterwards. After investigation, however, it was found that, instead of a difference of thirty-two feet there was no difference of level whatever, at the period of low water, although for a period of fifty years the world had been under the impression, from the published statements and levellings of M. Lepere, that a difference of thirty-two feet existed; and whilst it was supposed to exist, it was believed by professional men that a canal might be maintained, or that, as it was called, a new Bosphorus might be formed between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. But when the difference of level was found to be nil, the engineers with whom he was associated abandoned the project altogether, and he believed justly; and one of them (M. P. Talabot) made an adverse report, which was published in the ‘Revue des deux Mondes’ of May 1855. Since then he had travelled over the Isthmus to Suez, and over other parts of the Desert, and had investigated the feasibility of making a free communication between the two seas, on the supposition that they were upon the same level—as, for instance, from the Nile. He might, however, say, without entering into professional detail, that he had arrived at the conclusion that it was—he would not say absurd, because engineers whose opinions he respected had been to the spot since, and had declared the thing to be possible—at all events, if feasible (as the First Lord of the Treasury had said, money would overcome every difficulty) yet, commercially speaking, he frankly declared it to be an impracticable scheme. What its political import might be he could not say, but as an engineer he would pronounce it to be an undesirable scheme, in a commercial point of view, and that the railway (now nearly completed) would, as far as concerned India and postal arrangements, be more expeditious, more certain, and more economical than even if there were this new Bosphorus between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.

In the following year (June 1, 1858), Mr. Roebuck made and Mr. Milner Gibson seconded a motion to the effect that, ‘ in the opinion of the House, the influence of this country ought not to be used in order to induce the Sultan to withhold his assent to the project of making a canal across the Isthmus of Suez.’ The question having been thus again raised in the legislative assembly, Robert Stephenson in the course of the debate said:—

As the member for Sheffield (Mr. Roebuck) had made special reference to himself in the course of his observations, he begged to occupy the attention of the House for a few minutes. The learned member had told them that it was very desirable to facilitate the intercourse between one portion of the globe and another. No one doubted that, but the speech had not satisfied them that this canal would accomplish that object. It assumed that it would, but he (Mr. Stephenson) believed that it would not do so. On the contrary, even supposing its construction to be physically possible, which he, for one, denied, he was prepared to show that the engineering difficulties would render the scheme impossible. In attempting to prove the feasibility of the project the member for Sheffield had quoted many authorities, but he had omitted to refer to the opinions of the three gentlemen, one from Austria, another from Paris, and himself of England, who first investigated the subject in 1847. They examined the physical features of the country, and deliberated over the matter in the most cautious manner, basing their observations upon the erroneous supposition that it would be possible to establish an artificial Bosphorus between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, such as existed naturally between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. They proceeded upon the assumption that the French levels were accurate, which showed a difference of thirty feet between the one sea and the other, by means of which a constant current would be maintained through the channel, supposing it to be made sufficient to keep the harbour of Pelusium free from the mud which was deposited from the Nile. Instead of there being a difference of thirty feet in the height, however, it turned out that the two seas were on a dead level, and that no current whatever could be established. The member for Sheffield therefore was almost guilty of a misapplication of terms when he spoke of a ‘ canal,’ because if this channel were cut, and the water let into it, it would not be a canal, but a ditch. The speaker had quoted the late Mr. Rendel as a supporter of the scheme which was now advocated; but he (Mr. Stephenson) could say positively that Mr. Rendel did not support the scheme as now proposed, and he might mention as a proof of this that he did not sign the report. Mr. Rendel must have been known to every honourable gentleman in that House, and his authority on such matters was very great. Mr. McClean, another high authority in matters of this description, also denied the feasibility of the project. As far as the English engineers were concerned, he believed they all agreed with him to a man. With respect to the difficulties in the way of carrying out the scheme, he would only point to the difficulty of cutting a canal through a desert, with no fruits, no fresh water to be found within that space. He had travelled on foot the whole distance, at least over all the dry land, and consequently felt justified in what he stated. He did not desire to enter upon the political part of the question, but he could assert that as far as the transit of passengers and mails was concerned, the proposed scheme would be productive of no saving of time in our intercourse with the East; for, while they could be conveyed from Alexandria to Suez by railway in eight hours, it would require, even if the most perfect canal possible were constructed, at least double that time for vessels going to India to pass through it, for vessels must coal either at Alexandria or Suez. It was said that they had nothing to do with the physical difficulties of the scheme, but he thought the House had something to do with them, or at least he had. If he had sat silent it would be said he had acquiesced in the motion, and had tacitly admitted that the Suez Canal was a feasible project, whereas his opinion was that if it were attempted at all—which he hoped it would not be, or, at least, he trusted it would not be with English money—it would prove an abortive scheme, ruinous to its constructors.

In the July of the following session Robert Stephenson spoke several times on the Metropolis Local Management Act Amendment Bill. The last time that he appears to have addressed the House was on August 11, 1859, when he made a speech of considerable length in the debate on the State of the Serpentine.

It is therefore seen that Robert Stephenson was by no means the silent member that he has been represented. On committees and at divisions he was always at his post when wanted; and he spoke, not eloquently, but fearlessly, impartially, and with authority, whenever he felt he could impart valuable information to the Souse. When he wished to address his constituents, he went to Whitby for the purpose; and on such occasions he met with a cordial reception, even from political opponents. His speeches in the House on the Suez Canal gained for him much ill-feehng. He was accused by many of being prejudiced against a grand project; a few even went so far as to insinuate that his opposition sprung from interested motives. The great body of his fellow-countrymen, however, felt grateful to him for braving anger and detraction, in order that he might save the public from what he deemed an unsound speculation.

In the House of Commons Robert Stephenson was extremely popular. Men of all parties were glad to hold friendly intercourse with him; and he thoroughly enjoyed their generous recognition of his claims as an eminently successful man of action. In the smoking-room, representatives of all shades of political opinion clustered round him for chat, for notwithstanding his extreme Tory principles, he numbered amongst his personal friends the most important of his political antagonists. How little Robert Stephenson permitted politics to influence him in affairs of private friendship is well illustrated by the following hearty letter to his old friend Admiral Moorsom, in which he playfully speaks of himself as ‘a good old Tory.’

34 Gloucester Square, Hyde Park: Peb. 1, 1855.

DEAR ADMIRAL MOORSOM,—Your letter arrived at my office a week after I had left for a short tour in France. Otherwise I should have been very glad to have had a quiet discussion with you on the subject of the attack on Sebastopol. Although it is a subject on which I could not have brought much knowledge to bear, yet with your assistance I think we might have got up a very good pro and eon. I should like a good old Tory (without reference to conscience) have supported all that has been done, and you, I take it for granted, would have propounded something new. To be serious for a moment, I am quite incapable of giving an opinion upon the mode of attack, but on the management of the commissariat it is impossible to form but one opinion. It is distressing, execrable, and contemptible. There is not one redeeming feature in the whole thing. I have been in France for the last month, and everywhere quiet Frenchmen stand aghast at our management. They say little, because they have become half Englishmen for the time, and deplore the sad casualties as much as we do ourselves. But still their countenances indicate a great deal more than their tongues are willing to give utterance to.

The government has been turned out. I don’t blame them half so much as I do the heads in command. They are the true delinquents, or rather the true incapables. The truth is, we have lost the art of war amongst the officers. The men have proved themselves equal to everything within the reach of human beings, but the officers are utterly devoid of science. There has not been, as far as I can judge, a single indication of a mental effort. Inkerman is creditable in point of science to the Russians, discreditable to our chiefs in command, although glorious to our regimental performances.

How true what one of the French generals said, ‘ The charge was magnificent, but it was not war.’ A compliment was never before draped in so much satire. As an Englishman I sincerely wish he had never said it, because it is so just, so laconic, that it will live through all time to our disgrace. If I had been in stronger health I think I should have been off in the Titania, and I am not sure that I shall hesitate much longer. I long to be at Balaklava to get the stores away to the camp. I believe I could be useful there as long as I felt myself beyond the range of the artillery. When nigh them I am persuaded I should run away and disgrace my country. Yours faithfully, ROBERT STEPHENSON.

It should be borne in mind that, Tory as he was, Robert Stephenson supported the Earl of Aberdeen’s Government and voted against his party in the division on Mr. Roebuck’s motion in January 1855.

Never did political ardour manifest itself with greater gentleness in any man than it did in Robert Stephenson. Sincere as he was fervent, he had a lively sense of the respect due to honest opinions. In 1852, there was a movement in Newcastle to elect him for that important constituency, but he declined the proffered services of the Tyneside Conservatives, on grounds which parliamentary candidates are wont to esteem too lightly. ‘ I should,’ observed Robert Stephenson, writing to his old friend Mr. Michael Longridge (June 3, 1852), ‘have to ask many of my friends to vote for me at the expense of their political convictions, which I could not stoop to do.’

For party strife he had a strong dislike. In 1848, he did his utmost (short of sacrifice of principle) to avoid wounding for a second time the feelings of M. de Lesseps and his partizans, but when he found himself compelled either to repeat his condemnation of that which he deemed an unwise project, or to countenance it by silence, he did not hesitate to take the manly course. ‘ You see,’ he wrote to Mr. Thomas Longridge Gooch, ‘ I have been pitching into my dear friend Lesseps again about the Suez Canal. I believe they feel that the thing is squashed for awhile. Roebuck was determined to bring the matter again before the House. ... I tried to get him to withdraw the motion, as I knew any fresh discussion upon it could only engender bad feeling on the part of the French. He was perfectly resolute, and would not listen to any course but the one he had proposed for himself. I had therefore no alternative but to repeat what I had formerly said, and to stop, as far as I could, the English people from spending the money on an abortive scheme.’

One of Robert Stephenson’s last acts deserves to be recorded in a chapter that surveys his career in the House of Commons. When Sir William Hayter resigned the office of ‘whip,’ the duties of which he had discharged for many years with great efficiency, and with good results to the liberal party, his political friends presented him with a testimonial. Hearing of the subscription for the testimonial, Robert Stephenson went to the committee and asked leave to be a subscriber. In reply to the request, it was represented to him that as the testimonial was to be presented in recognition of services to the liberal party, the committee could not accept of a contribution from a Conservative. The decision of the committee was unquestionably prudent, and in accordance with good taste; but it was far from satisfying Robert Stephenson, who represented in forcible terms that he wished to subscribe, not as a political personage, but as one of Sir William’s oldest and warmest private friends. So urgent was he in the matter, that Lord Mulgrave brought the question again before the committee, when Robert Stephenson was permitted to pay Sir William Hayter as flattering a compliment as friend can pay to friend.

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