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

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CHAPTER V. (Volume 2). Affairs, Public and Private, During the Construction of the Chester and Holyhead Railway. (Age 42-47)

SIMULTANEOUSLY with the progress of the tubular bridges on the Chester and Holyhead Line, Robert had upon his hands other important works— the Newcastle and Berwick Line, the Trent Valley Line, and many other railways; the High Level Bridge uniting the iron roads on the north and south banks of the Tyne,— and the Royal Border Bridge, spanning the Tweed, and forming a link between the railway systems of England and Scotland!

The session of 1845 saw the act passed by which the promoters of the present Newcastle and Berwick Line were empowered to carry the Great Northern Line still farther north. It is needless here to recount minutely the opposition and defeat of Brunel and Lord Howick, who (the atmospheric mania being then at its height) opposed the adoption of the locomotive system on that important route between the Tyne and the Tweed. The same session also granted permission for the construction of the High Level Bridge, a scheme which had been under discussion during the four previous years.

While the foundations of the High Level Bridge were being formed, the works on the Newcastle and Berwick and the Trent Valley Lines were pushed on vigorously. The viaduct over the Tweed was also under progress. By July 1, 1846, Robert Stephenson, aided by Mr. T. L. Gooch, had the Leeds and Bradford Line ready for public use. On June 26, 1847, the Trent Valley Railway (on which line Mr. Bidder and Mr. Thomas Longridge Gooch were co-engineers with Robert Stephenson) was opened for public traffic. In the following month the Newcastle and Berwick Line was regularly used for the conveyance of goods and passengers. There remained only to finish the great bridges over the Tyne and Tweed, and so complete an unbroken chain from the capital of Scotland to the metropolis of Great Britain. Other minor lines were also under construction at the same time.

But full as his hands were of home work, Robert Stephenson found time to superintend railway operations in foreign countries. In the summer of he joined the Committee formed for carrying out the late Prince Consort’s suggestion for a Grand Industrial Exhibition ; and he offered the Committee a loan of £1,000 for preliminary expenses. In the autumn he visited Italy. In the long vacation of the following year, severely worn by the harass of committee-room contests and continued application to the concerns of his various undertakings, he broke away from business for a trip of pleasure in Norway. Mr. Bidder was his companion ; but no sooner had the two friends become accustomed to the change of having nothing but pleasure to think about, than the Norwegian government consulted them on the policy of uniting Christiania and the Miosen Lake by a railway. So impressed was Robert Stephenson with the wisdom of the proposition, that he offered to defray half the expense of surveying the line of country. In that year, however, the scheme did not proceed beyond consultation. The affair was held over for four years, when (in 1850) Robert Stephenson, having had further negotiations with the authorities of the state, sent out English engineers who made the requisite survey, to cover the cost of which he contributed, as a loan, the sum of £800. The line at length mapped out, the works were commenced and carried on with spirit, Robert Stephenson being retained as Engineer-in-chief. The autumn of each of the years 1851, 1852, and 1854 saw Robert Stephenson in Norway superintending the operations. In 1859 he went there to receive the congratulations and thanks of the country on the completion of the enterprise, returning in his death-sickness to the coast of England. On his death, his executors made a demand for his professional services on the contractors, who forthwith paid the fee, hardly earned and justly due. On seeking reimbursement, however, from the Norwegian government, the contractors were informed that the pecuniary remuneration was not ‘ in the bond.’ Norway had already paid the engineer with the cross of St. Olaff. The grateful country also repaid the loan of £800, held for several years without interest.

Other work also came upon Robert Stephenson in 1846. Famine had raised the sufferings of the Irish poor to a point unprecedented—even in Ireland. For once the humane could calculate with certainty on benevolent cooperation from the most selfish. In every quarter the question was heard—how can our fellow-countrymen be saved from starvation ? Lord George Bentinck was earnest in urging government to subsidise Irish Railway Companies with funds, so that the crisis might be tided over by stimulating the demand for labour. Ireland, argued Lord George Bentinck, had food enough for her poor, but the poor had no money to give in exchange for it. If every man in Ireland willing and able to work could only find employment, there would be an end of the exceptional wretchedness. There were grounds for this view of the case. Irish railway projectors sent representation after representation to Lord George Bentinck, that though they had obtained their acts of parliament, and in some instances had embarked large sums on works, they found themselves suddenly brought to a stand-still by the impossibility of raising funds in the disorganised state of Irish commerce. It was even urged, that bridges and other works on the eve of completion had been stopped under circumstances that caused enormous loss to Irish speculators. Before stirring in Parliament, Lord George Bentinck consulted Mr. George Hudson, Robert Stephenson, and Mr. Laing. They were strongly in favour of subsidising the Irish Railway Companies. With conscientious anxiety to give the country nothing but sound advice, Robert Stephenson despatched Mr. Samuel Bidder to Ireland to examine the state of public works.

Mr. Samuel Bidder writes:—

Before Mr. Stephenson would give any opinion on the subject, he wished to ascertain the facts as to the amount of work said to have been already executed. Having received instructions and plans of the lines from Mr. Stephenson, I made the best of my way to the several points where it was reported that bridges had been nearly built, and cuttings half finished; but in almost every instance I found that not a brick had been laid, a sod cut, or one shilling expended, and I so reported to Mr. Stephenson. . . . . I was also requested hy Mr. Stephenson to notice, as I passed through the country, the kind of work that was being done for the employment of the poor under what was called the Government Staff. Large gangs I found employed in what I could call by no other name than the total destruction of the highways. For the purpose of easing the gradients of the hills they were removing the crust from the roads, which had taken years to consolidate; and this was carried on in such a manner as to endanger the life of every traveller. Many coaches were upset, and I don’t believe a single road was ever improved by the work. It would have been much better to have fed the people and saved the roads.

Notwithstanding the misrepresentations made to Lord George Bentinck, the great fact still remained. Famine was mowing down the destitute Irish by thousands. It was clear that the statements of Irish speculators ought not to be accepted without enquiry; but at the same time, it was evident that ‘labour’ was the grand remedy for the evil, and that while Ireland had need of railways, she had a vast army of workmen, who were either unemployed or had been set to useless or hurtful tasks.

Under these circumstances, Lord George Bentinck, on February 4, 1847, moved—‘ That leave be given to bring in a bill for the prompt and profitable employment of the people by the encouragement of railroads in Ireland.’ In his speech, introducing the motion. Lord George observes:—

How many men can you, by your scheme, find employment for? We know by experience— at least I know by information from Mr. Stephenson, the engineer of the line—that the London and Birmingham Railway employed 100 men per mile in its construction for four consecutive years. The London and Birmingham Line, however, was one far more expensive in its works than the Irish lines, of which the outside average cost is estimated at £16,000 per mile. The estimate of Mr. Stephenson is, that, taking one line with another throughout Ireland, to execute the whole of them would require the services of sixty men per mile for four consecutive years. Sixty men per mile for 1,500 miles would give constant employment for four consecutive years to 90,000 men on the earthworks and line alone; but it is estimated that the employment given to quarrymen, artificers, and others, not actually engaged upon the line of road, would occupy six men per mile for the whole number of miles under construction. This would give 9,000 men more; to which is to be added—that which experience teaches us is the fact—that when a new railway passes through a country, the new fences to be made, the fields to be squared, the new drains and water-courses to be cut, and the new roads to be constructed, also occupy at least six men per mile, which will give 9,000 men more, making altogether a total number of 108,000 men. But there are other miscellaneous employments to which the expenditure of so large a sum of money necessarily gives rise, and it is thought to be putting the number very low when we estimate the able-bodied men required to be employed at high wages, in order to accomplish 1,500 miles of railway in Ireland, at 110,000, representing with their families 550,000 persons.

But by this proposition we must expect not only to be able to give subsistence to 550,000 persons, but we seek to provide also for the comforts of these poor people in the course of their employment. We have not forgotten the interests of the labourers; following out the recommendation of the report of the Railway Labourers’ Committee, we have inserted in our bill clauses obliging the companies to see that their contractors pay the wages of the labourers once a week, and that in hard cash.

But this is not the only point in which we consider the interests of the railway labourer, and this suggestion comes from my honourable friend Mr. Stephenson. It is that the companies shall be required, on the demand of the Railway Commissioners, to construct decent and suitable dwellings for the labourers before they commence their works. Nothing can be stronger than the language used in the report which lies on the table on this point. It states truly, that it is in vain to think of improving the morals of the people except you begin by improving their social condition. In practice, however, it has been found that railway labourers have been generally crowded into dwellings and put in places not fit for pigs. Some may think this measure an interference with free trade in the construction of railways; but I understand, from all the best contractors in the kingdom, that it is cheaper to them in the end to consult the convenience and comforts of their labourers. Experience teaches that if a man is uncomfortable at home, he will go to the public-house; and that where labourers cannot be comfortably provided for, and have no opportunities for bringing their wives with them, they will get tired of their work, and desert it altogether.

This was Robert Stephenson’s scheme for Irish Relief. His care and labour, however, proved all in vain. On the third night of discussion. Lord George Bentinck’s bill was ‘ put off for six months ’ by the votes of a full House.

In the following summer Robert Stephenson himself entered the House of Commons, as member for Whitby.

Having acted as Member of the Council of the Institution of Civil Engineers from 1845 to the close of 1847, Robert Stephenson became a Vice-President of that learned Society in 1848, which office he held till the close of 1855, when he took possession of the Presidential chair for the years 1856 and 1857.

In the year 1848 he met with an accident, which may be briefly noticed. On August 20, accompanied by his friend Mr. Lee, he entered a first-class railway carriage in the Conway Station ; when, as soon as they had taken their seats, the carriage was pushed across the down line in order that it might be put in position on another pair of rails. Before the carriage was quite clear of the down line, the Chester ‘ express,’ coming up at full speed, caught its projecting angle and threw it about a yard from the rails, smashing the glass doors, wheels, and frame-work. Immediately after the concussion, Robert Stephenson was seen descending the steps. In another half minute, he was observed to fall on his back, the shock of the collision having deprived him of power to walk. Mr. Lee, who had seen the approach of the ‘ express,’ and had provided for the accident by pressing his back and feet firmly to the padded sides of the carriage, escaped unhurt. The next morning Robert Stephenson was well enough to proceed to Chester.

Just eight days before this narrow escape, death gave Robert Stephenson the severest blow he had experienced since he put his wife in her grave at Hampstead. On August 12, 1848, George Stephenson died suddenly, after a brief illness, in the sixty-seventh year of his age. His death was altogether unexpected; only seven months before, he had married a young wife, and even on the day of his death was looking forward to many years of happiness.

The closing years of George Stephenson’s life were bright with success. He had seen the locomotive brought from the rudeness and imperfection of the Killingworth Engines to an efficiency that has not yet been greatly surpassed, and he had seen his son rise to be the leader of his profession.

Robert Stephenson had always been a devoted son. In all his quarrels and contests, George Stephenson was sure of his sympathy and support. But of all the modes by which the latter endeavoured to add to his father’s happiness, the most beautiful was his habit of uniting him in the glory of his achievements. When the designs for the High Level Bridge and the Tubular Bridges were under discussion in the elder Stephenson’s presence, the son always spoke of them as ‘ our works at the Straits,’ or, ‘? our bridge over the Tyne.’ In this graceful manner did Robert repay the love of the father, who inscribed the name of ‘ his boy ’ on the first plans of the Stockton and Darlington Line. On George Stephenson’s death, the portrait of Robert, painted by Lucas, passed (in accordance with the understanding between the subscribers for it and the elder Stephenson, to whom it was presented for life) into the possession of the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society. The picture was painted in 1845.

George Stephenson left great wealth behind him, but even if Robert had loved his father much less than he did, an accession of wealth would have been no consolation to him for the bereavement. By his own exertions, he had acquired as much wealth as he desired. Without a child, unmarried, and resolved never to marry again, he had no ambition to be very rich.

A distinction highly prized by men of science was conferred on the inventor of the Tubular Bridge in 1849. He was elected a Bellow of the Royal Society, on the council of which learned society he subsequently sat.

At this period Robert Stephenson turned his attention to other fields of engineering. In 1848 he was consulted by the River Nene Improvement Committee, who were interested in the improvement of the river between Peterborough and the county boundary near Wisbeach. Prom that date up to the time of his death he maintained a professional connection with the ‘Nene Valley Drainage and Navigation Improvement Commissioners.’ **

In the following year he and Sir John Rennie were appointed Engineers-in-chief of the Norfolk Estuary Company, at which time he reported on the Norfolk Estuary Scheme, and was examined thereon by the Admiralty Commissioners and both Houses of Parliament. The matters which for years remained in protracted ‘ dispute between the Norfolk Estuary Company and the Eau Brink Commissioners, relating to the mode of executing a cut and works below Lynn, under the Norfolk Estuary Acts,’ would little interest the general reader, but they involved important interests, and for years gave the engineers concerned in them much anxiety and labour.

At the close of 1849 the Liverpool Town Council consulted Robert Stephenson as to the best means for securing an adequate supply of water to the town of Liverpool. The conclusions of the engineer on this subject may be found in a report sent in to the Water-Committee of the town council on March 28, 1850.

On Tuesday, July 30, 1850, Robert Stephenson was entertained at a grand banquet by four hundred gentlemen on the platform of the new railway station, in the Forth, at Newcastle. Three excellent cartoons (the work of Newcastle artists— Mr. John Storey, Mr. John Gibson, and Mr. R. S. Scott), representing the engineer’s grandest works — the High Level Bridge, the Menai Tubular Bridge, and the Royal Border Viaduct, ornamented the enclosed space. The chair was occupied by the Hon. H. T. Liddell, the son of George Stephenson’s first patron, Lord Ravensworth.

Proposing on this occasion the health of Mr. Thomas Harrison, Robert Stephenson said:—

No one felt more intensely than he did the value of the assistance which he had derived from those who had been associated with him for some years past. If they would read the biographies of all their old distinguished engineers, they would be struck with the excessive detail into which they had been drawn; when intelligence was not so widely diffused as at present, an engineer like Smeaton or Brindley had not only to conceive the design, but had to invent the machine and carry out every detail of the conception; but since then a change had taken place, and no change was more complete. The principal engineer now had only to say let this be done, and it was speedily accomplished, such was the immense capital, and such the ample resources of mind which were immediately brought into play. He had himself, within the last ten or twelve years, done little more than exercise a general superintendence ; and there were many other persons in that room to whom the works referred to by the chairman ought to be almost entirely attributed. He had had little or nothing to do with many of them beyond giving his name, and exercising a gentle control in some of the principal works. In that particular district, especially, he had been most fortunate in being associated with Mr. Thomas Harrison. Beyond drawing the outline, he (Mr. Stephenson) had no right to claim any credit for the works above where they now sat. Upon Mr. Harrison the whole responsibility of their execution had fallen, and he believed they had been executed without a single flaw.

The completion of Robert Stephenson’s Northumbrian works had another and still more memorable celebration.

When the Queen opened the High Level Bridge in 184:9, she was so cordially received by her Northumbrian subjects, that she readily consented to repeat her visit to Newcastle and Berwick in the following year, at the opening of the Grand Central Station at the former, and the completion of the ‘Royal Border Viaduct’ at the latter place. As soon as it was known that Her Majesty would visit Castle Howard, the Earl of Carlisle’s seat in Yorkshire, in order that she might conveniently be present at both towns during the same day, and reach Holyrood Palace before the evening, great exertions were made on the banks of the Tyne and Tweed to give her an appropriate welcome, on August 29, 1850.

In the evening of that day a dinner took place at the Assembly-rooms, the mayor occupying the chair, and Robert Stephenson sitting by his side. The engineer had just declined the honour of knighthood, which Her Majesty had expressed her readiness to confer upon him. He had reached a point of life and fame when such rank could afford him neither pleasure nor profit. If his wife had been still alive he might have decided otherwise.

The opening of the Royal Border Bridge is an important point in the life of Robert Stephenson. It was the last of the great works with which he enriched his native land—the grand conclusion of many years of tod that scarcely knew relaxation. The preceding ten years had added much to his glory, but they also had made cruel inroads upon his physical power. From 1840 to 1850, he had never known a day free from grave care. Ko sooner was one stupendous undertaking brought to a close, than others rose to take its place. For the greater portion of that time he had under his care many distinct affairs, any one of which would have overtasked the powers of a man of ordinary capacity. It had been a long fierce struggle with difficulties. The atmospheric contest, the battle of the gauges, the tubular bridges, the catastrophe at Chester, were features of the retrospect.

It was now time that he should rest in some degree from labour.

He formed a plan of withdrawing gradually from professional turmoil; and if he only in part carried out this resolution, the fact is not to be attributed to change of intention, but to the determination of others to make use of him to the last. So far, however, did he adhere to his purpose, that he never again entered upon any important undertaking at home. He was always ready to give advice to his professional brethren, and indicate the course to be adopted by projectors who sought his counsel. But he never again became personally responsible for the success of an important work in Great Britain. And if foreign powers had allowed him to follow his own inclinations, he would most probably till his dying day have remained content with the fame which he had won. But such complete freedom from responsibility was not permitted. The Norwegian government solicited him to make good his promise to give them a railway; Egypt begged him to introduce the new locomotion to the inhabitants of the desert; and from the other side of the Atlantic a petition came that he would throw a tubular bridge over the St. Lawrence.

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