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Life of Robert Stephenson by William Pole: Chapter X

From Graces Guide

Note: This is a sub-section of Life of Robert Stephenson by William Pole

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CHAPTER X. Construction of the London and Birmingham Railway (age 29-34)

THE labours of three surveys having been accomplished, the inordinate demands of landholders of every rank and condition having been satisfied, and a defeat as iniquitous on the part of the conquerors as any to be found in the chronicles of parliamentary warfare having been sustained, the London and Birmingham Railway Company had at length obtained their Bill. They had gained their point on a new trial: but when Parliament reverses the unjust decision of a preceding session, the injured party has still to pay the costs of previous injustice. The sum of £72,869 recorded in the Company’s books as paid for obtaining their Act of Incorporation is an eloquent memorial of a conflict that stirred Westminster thirty years since.

The Bill however was won, the Royal assent being granted on May 6, 1833. Mr. Isaac Solly, the first chairman, was succeeded in 1834 by Mr. George Carr Glyn, M.P., under whose able direction the line was completed, and was brought to its present high state of prosperity. The appointment of an engineer was the next affair for consideration. Three years’ indefatigable attention to the interests of the Company gave Robert Stephenson a claim upon their gratitude. His display of capacity during successive examinations before parliamentary committees had raised him high in the esteem of his profession and the public. A strong party, composed principally of his father’s Liverpool antagonists, spared no pains, however, to snatch from him the appointment of engineer-in-chief. ‘ He is a promising young man, but still he is only a young man,’ these gentlemen repeated in every quarter, forgetting that public railways were young things, and that the men best qualified to construct the new roads were all young men— the pupils of George Stephenson, who was himself still in the middle period of life.

Fortunately Robert Stephenson’s enemies were borne down by more prudent and more honest directors; and on September 7, 1833, the board resolved — ‘ That Mr. Robert Stephenson be appointed engineer-in-chief for the whole line at a salary of £1,500 per annum, and an addition of £200 per annum to cover all contingent expenses, subject to the rules and regulations for the engineers’ department, as approved by the respective committees.’ On Mr. Brunel’s appointment as engineer to lay down the Great Western Railway, with an annual stipend of £2,000, Robert Stephenson’s smaller salary was increased to the same amount, the directors of the London and Birmingham line rightly thinking that their character was concerned in treating their engineer not less liberally than Brunel was treated by a similar association.

In their next published report, dated September 19, 1833, the directors thus speak of their engineer’s appointment —‘ The directors, considering it indispensable that, in the execution of the works, one engineer should have entire direction, and that his time and services should be exclusively devoted to the Company, have under these conditions appointed Mr. Robert Stephenson engineer-in-chief for the whole line ; and they are persuaded that to no one could this charge be more safely or more properly confided. He has received instructions to stake out the line without delay, and the directors have reasons to expect that the railway will be completed in about four years from the commencement of the work.’

Having at length secured the post, Robert Stephenson quitted Newcastle and came to the scene of his next five years’ labour. For a short time he resided in a furnished cottage in St. John’s Wood; but as soon as it was fitted up and ready for his reception, he moved into the house on Haverstock Hill, which continued to be his home as long as his wife lived.

He had undertaken a stupendous task. Up to that time no railway of similar magnitude had been attempted. The line from Liverpool to Manchester was by comparison a trifling work. Its length was little more than a quarter of the length of the new road, and its most important works, including the Sankey viaduct (with nine arches each of fifty feet span thrown over the Sankey valley, and running seventy feet above the Sankey canal), its principal tunnel, 2,250 yards long, and its firm highway over the bogs of Parr Moss and Chat Moss, are in respect of magnitude not to be compared with the Kilsby Tunnel, the Blisworth Cutting, and the Wolverton embankment and viaduct.

A man of iron nerve would have experienced some uneasiness at the commencement of such an undertaking. But Robert Stephenson, unlike his father, had throughout life to contend with a distrust of himself, which was partly due to innate modesty of disposition, and partly attributable to a delicate nervous organisation. Though the climate of South America had saved him from pulmonary consumption, he had by no means acquired the soundness of constitution which young men ordinarily enjoy. He was never a really strong man; and the exertions of the four preceding years brought him to London in 1833 in a very unsatisfactory condition of health.

Had circumstances left him free to follow his own inclinations, Robert Stephenson, instead of taking a conspicuous position in London society, would have passed his whole life at Newcastle in comparative retirement. Naturally no man was more averse to the turmoil of public life ; no man more prized the tranquillity of home. He had also become intensely fond of the mechanical part of his profession. His labours in the Newcastle factory had been attended with so much genuine pleasure, that he did not without reluctance give them up for a more ambitious career ; and in his later years he repeatedly declared to his intimate companions the regret he felt at not having remained at Newcastle as a builder of locomotives, though he had risen to be the most successful civil engineer of his time.

The engineer wished to ascertain with accuracy the amount of the work before him. To effect this, before cutting a turf, he went over every inch of ground, and endeavoured to calculate the exact cost of every operation necessary for the accomplishment of his task. Hitherto, in laying down railways, engineers had been accustomed to do their work piecemeal, making a commencement, working up to difficulties, and then seeing how those difficulties should be overcome. In laying down the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, George Stephenson had at the outset of the undertaking only a general notion of the labour before him. The details were not considered till their consideration could no longer be deferred. Robert Stephenson saw that this plan of leaving each day to take care of its own evils was little calculated for so vast an undertaking as the London and Birmingham line. If the 112 miles of the proposed railway between Camden Town and Birmingham were to be completed within four or five years, the works must be advanced at various points simultaneously, and the engineer-in-chief must, at their commencement, have an accurate knowledge of their minutest details.

Robert Stephenson also resolved on making plans of every part of the entire hue, with unprecedented minuteness and completeness of detail. He not only had a full survey made, showing every natural feature of the route, but prepared complete drawings for every work that was to be executed, in all its details, accompanied with full descriptions and specifications and accurate calculations of all the labour and material it would require. As each portion of the line was thus mapped out it was let to a contractor, who engaged to complete the work for a certain sum, and at the same time specified the exact sum charged for each portion of the contract. In those days there were no gigantic contractors, a contract for ^100,000 being regarded as very large. Men who in he course of a few years made enormous fortunes were then modest speculators, and had not sufficient funds in hand to keep a regiment of ‘ navvies ’ at work for more than a month. The first contractors on the London and Birmingham fine were paid monthly, and in facilitating these monthly payments the accuracy of the contract plans was of the greatest service. As the end of each month came round, the assistant-engineer appointed over each division of the fine marked out the exact quantity of work each contractor had accomplished, and for that quantity payment was made.

It is difficult to give the reader any adequate idea of the labour expended on these plans; for they had not only to be made with the greatest attention to accuracy, every separate calculation relating to them being three or four times verified, but when they were made they had to be multiplied. The original contract drawings, signed by the engineer-in-chief and the contractor, were preserved as documents of legal testimony; and of each of them three copies were made — one for the use of the committee, one for the engineer-in-chief, and one for the assistant-engineer superintending the district in which the work was situated. The entire line, as far as contracts were concerned, was divided into thirty separate divisions, each requiring distinct drawings, estimates, and specifications. All these works, with two or three unimportant exceptions, were let to various contractors between May 1834 and October 1835. From these data it may be seen that the demands on Robert Stephenson’s drawing establishment were very heavy. It was calculated that, for eighteen months, as many ‘ as thirty drawings per week, each requiring two days’ work from one pair of hands, were turned out from the engineer-in-chief’s office.’

Robert Stephenson was fortunate in having good subordinates. Reserving a district, extending nine miles from Maiden Lane, Camden Town, for his own especial supervision, he divided the remaining 103 miles into four districts, each district having an assistant-engineer to superintend it, and each assistant-engineer being supported by a staff of three sub-assistants. For purposes of construction the fine was thus apportioned—

District No. I.

This district, reserved for the engineer-in-chief’s especial personal supervision, extended from Camden Town for about nine miles, and on its completion comprised the Camden Town station, the Primrose Hill tunnel, the tunnel under Kensal Green, and the bridge over the River Brent. The principal engineer of this district, under Mr. Stephenson, was John Birkinshaw, who was assisted by Mortimer Young, whose place was subsequently filled by Timothy Jenkins.

District No. II.

Assistant-engineer G. W. Buck; sub-assistant engineers, Mr., now Sir J. Charles Fox, F. Young, and Capt. Cleather, E.S.C. This district, extending from Harrow to Tring (23 miles) concluded with the Watford tunnel.

District No. III.

Assistant-engineer, John Crossley; sub-assistant engineers, S. S. Bennett, E. Jackson, J. Gandell, and M. Farrell. This district, extending from Tring to Wolverton (22 miles), included the Tring cutting and the Wolverton viaduct.

District No. IV.

Assistant-engineer, Frank Forster, who (on his succeeding to the post of assistant-engineer of District No. V.) was succeeded by G. H. Phipps; sub-assistant engineers, H. Lee, E. Dixon, C. Lean, and J. Brunton. This district, reaching over Wolverton and Kilsby (24 miles), included the Kilsby tunnel.

District No. V.

Assistant-engineer, Thomas Longridge Gooch, who (on his appointment to be the chief-engineer of the Manchester and Leeds Railway) was succeeded by Frank Forster; sub-assistant engineers, John Reid, B. L. Dickenson, M. Monteleagre, R. B. Dockray, and Lieut. P. Lecount, R.N. Extending from Kilsby to Birmingham; this district had for its principal works the Avon and Lawley Street viaducts.

The foregoing table assigns more than three sub-assistant engineers to the three last districts. There were, however, only three sub-assistants acting on any one district at the same time.

Robert Stephenson’s first drawing office, whilst he was preparing the contract plans, was a small cottage standing on land which the Company purchased, near the point where the railroad passes under the Edgeware Road. This modest tenement was soon found to be too small for the engineer’s purpose. Luckily the Eyre Anns Hotel, St. John’s Wood, was just then vacant. The Company hired it for their engineer’s use, and ‘ the great room,’ familiar to many of the London public as a place of assemblage for lectures, soirees, and political business, was speedily furnished with drawing-tables and peopled with between twenty and thirty draughtsmen. Amongst the gentlemen employed at the Eyre Arms was Mr. G. P. Bidder, who recently filled the office of President of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

Eventually the line was let out in the manner indicated by the following table: —

(See PDF version for table information which list names of contractors by section)

In this table may be seen the fortune attending the engagements of several contractors. The chief contracts - those, namely, for the tunnel at Primrose Hill, the Kilsby tunnel, and the Blisworth cutting - returned to the hands of the Company unfinished, and were perfected by the Company without the intervention of contractors ; and in addition to these larger works, numerous smaller operations were beyond the powers of the commercial agents. It is not difficult to account for this collapse of contractors. Railway enterprise was still only in its infancy, and, though allowance had been made in estimates and contractors’ agreements for a large rise in the price of labour, iron, and other materials, that allowance fell far short of the enormous and rapid advances made in the value of those commodities. Again, railway work was new, and the engineers were scarcely more prepared than the contractors for some of the difficulties with which they had to contend.

The Primrose Hill tunnel was one case of unexpected difficulty. The tunnel, passing under the high ridge between Hampstead and Primrose Hill, near Chalk Farm, is driven through a formation of blue clay, the extreme mobility of which, on exposure to moisture, offers peculiar difficulties to engineers. Years before the construction of the London and Birmingham line an attempt to drive a tunnel through this formation had terminated in failure, in consequence of the clay bearing down the brickwork. Warned by this case, Robert Stephenson proceeded at Primrose Hill with the greatest caution. As soon as a length of about nine feet of the excavation was finished, that portion of the tunnel was supported with strong timbers, and carefully lined with brickwork in mortar before any more earth was removed. Even this care, however, was insufficient. The pressure of the clay first forced out the mortar from the joints, and then crushed the bricks of the arch. To meet this difficulty, Robert Stephenson used only the hardest possible bricks, and laid them with Roman cement instead of mortar. This cement dries and becomes hard much sooner than mortar. The consequence of this change of material was the construction of a firm and durable lining of brickwork before the weight of the clay above was able to break in the walls of the passage. The experiment having proved successful, Robert Stephenson made himself doubly secure by making the brickwork much thicker than the estimates proposed it should be. In some portions of the Primrose Hill tunnel the thickness of the brickwork is only eighteen inches, but the larger portion is laid with a thickness of twenty-seven inches. And throughout the work costly Roman cement is used. No reader of these particulars will be surprised to learn that the difference between the estimated and the eventual cost of the tunnel was £160,000. Primrose Hill contract was let for £120,000 ; it not accomplished without an outlay of £280,000. wonder, therefore, that the Company had to take back the work from the contractors unfinished.

Again, the operations of the Blisworth cutting exceeded the Emits of the estimates so far that there was no prospect of their completion until the Company parted with their contractor. This excavation, which according to the estimate was to have contained 800,000 cubic yards, was not finished till nearly 1,000,000 cubic yards of earth and rock had been removed. At this point of line 700 or 800 men, under the immediate command of the assistant-engineer, Mr. Phipps, were for many months continually employed. Por blasting the limestone, there was for some time a weekly consumption of 2,500 lbs. of gunpowder.

The Wolverton embankment, another of the contracts which came back to the Company for completion, gave the engineer much anxiety. In an embankment a mile and a half long, exclusive of the Wolverton viaduct, some difficulty was anticipated; but human foresight could not have provided for all the disasters attending its construction. The embankment on the north side of the viaduct gave comparatively little trouble. Composed of blue clay, has, limestone, gravel, and sand, it stood well, except at one place where it slipped, not from its own weakness, but because the ground gave way beneath its enormous weight. On the south side of the viaduct, however, a grievous mishap occurred, in the form of ‘ a slip,’ that was not overcome for months. No sooner was the way seen how to fill up the slip, than Robert Stephenson was informed that the troublesome embankment had caught fire. In its composition was a portion of alum shale, containing sulphuret of iron. This material decomposing afforded a striking instance of spontaneous combustion. Great was the consternation of the peasants at beholding a railway on fire. Roguery was, they were convinced, at the bottom of the catastrophe.

This same embankment was also the cause of difficulty and litigation, which must be detailed at some length.

It would be a mistake to suppose that, with the passing of their Act, there was an end of vexatious opposition to the London and Birmingham Railway Company. Beaten in Parliament, in a great measure through their bribery being exceeded by the bribery of their opponents, the persons interested in the Grand Junction Canal would not consent to relinquish the fight without another struggle.

The 85th, 86th, and 87th sections of the Act had reference to the rights and privileges of the Grand Junction Canal, over which the London and Birmingham Company proposed to carry their railroad in the parish of Wolverton. The 85th section provided that—

Nothing in the Act contained should diminish, alter, prejudice, affect, or take away any of the rights, privileges, powers, or authorities, vested in the Company of proprietors of the Grand Junction Canal, or authorise or empower the plaintiffs to alter the line or level of the canal or towing-path thereto, or any part thereof, or to obstruct the navigation of the canal or towing path thereto, or any part thereof, or to obstruct the navigation of the canal, or any part thereof, or to divert the waters therein, or which supply the canal, or to injure any of the works thereof, and that it should not be lawful for the plaintiffs to make any deviation from the course or direction of the railway, as delineated in the maps or plans.

With regard to the bridges which the Railway Company was empowered to make over the canal, the 86 th section enacted that they should be -

Good and substantial bridges over the canal and the towing path thereto, with proper approaches to each such bridge, and the soffit of each such bridge should be at least ten feet above the top-water level of the canal at the centre of the water-way, and no part of the arch over the towing-path should be less than eight feet above the top-water level of the canal, and each such bridge should be of such width and curve as should leave a clear, uniform, and uninterrupted opening of not less than twenty-two feet for the water-way, and eight feet for the towing- path under each bridge.

The Railway Company was also

Required during the progress of constructing each such bridge over the canal, and of the necessary repairs or removal thereof, from time to time, and at all times, to leave an open and uninterrupted navigable water-way in the canal of not less than sixteen feet in width, during the time of constructing and putting in the foundation walls of the abutment of each of the bridges, and of the new towing-path along the same, up to one foot above the top-water level of the canal, and which time should not exceed fifteen days; nor should less than twenty-two feet for the water-way, and eight feet for the towing-path, be left during the remainder of the period of constructing or repairing or removing each such bridge, and that the then present towing-path should remain undisturbed until the new towing-path wall should be erected, and the grounds made good and properly gravelled and open for the free passage of horses under each bridge.

The 87th section fixed certain penalties to be paid by the Railway Company, and specified the manner in which the Canal Company might recover such penalties, in case any of the provisions of sections 85 and 86 should be neglected. Such were the precautions taken by the Act to preserve uninjured the property of the Canal Company.

The country at Wolverton, through which the London and Birmingham fine now runs, lies high upon the south bank. Southward of the canal the railway passes through extensive cuttings until it arrives within 150 yards of the water. At that point it enters upon an embankment which leads to the viaduct over the canal, and extends 2,450 yards beyond it upon the northern side. The entire embankment, comprising the small distance on the south side and the large extent on the north, contains 927,000 cubic yards of earth. In order to construct the 2,450 yards of the northward embankment, Robert Stephenson decided to convey 600,000 cubic yards of earth across the canal from the many deep cuttings in the southward country. To convey this enormous quantity of earth across the water, it was necessary to make a temporary passage of communication, the construction of which involved the necessity of sinking piles into the bed of the canal. In the December of 1834 the embankment on the south bank had been carried within twenty yards of the water, and it was time to commence the embankment on the opposite side, Robert, therefore, took his preliminary steps for constructing the temporary bridge. At this juncture the Canal Company intimated that the Act did not empower the railway engineer to interfere with the water way. Thinking the best way to avoid a dispute was by prompt action, to change the discussion on what he might do into a discussion on what he had done, Robert Stephenson concentrated a strong body of engineers and navvies at Wolverton, and without advertising his proceedings in the papers or sending a notice of them to the office of the Canal Company, proceeded to drive piles on the night of December 23. Relays of men carried on the work without intermission by day-light and torch-light. The piles were driven into the bed of the river ; other piles or supports were driven into the land on the north side, for the purpose of sustaining the bridge; beams were laid from the piles in the water to those on the north shore; and by noon on December 25 (the toil having been carried on through Christmas Eve into Christmas Day) the temporary bridge was completed. The indignation of the Canal Company at such a desecration of Christmas Day may be imagined. Forthwith the directors of the powerful interest held counsel, and the result of their deliberations was that on December 30 Mr. Lake, their engineer, and a strong party of workmen, proceeded to the bridge (which had been carried over the canal in little more than a day and a half) and removed the piles which supported it.

The next step was a petition on the part of the Railway Company to the Court of Chancery to restrain the Canal Company from interfering with the operations of the said Railway Company, and particularly from ‘ putting down, taking up, or destroying all or any or either of the works to be made by the plaintiffs, their servants or workmen, for the purpose of making, constructing, or otherwise hindering or preventing or delaying the plaintiffs in making and constructing a passage of communication over and across the canal at Wolverton aforesaid, in order to construct and complete the beforementioned embankment, and for transporting, by means of such communication, the earth and materials whereof the same embankment is to consist, over and across the canal,’ the plaintiffs of course undertaking to observe all the stipulations, conditions, and provisions, of the 85th and 86th sections of their Act, so as not to injure the property of the Canal Company.

The case was argued, January 19, 1835, before the Master of the Rolls, Sir C. C. Pepys, Mr. Pemberton and Mr. Bacon being in support of the motion, and Sir C. Wethereh and Mr. Turner appearing on the other side.

For the Canal Company it was not contended that the piles and works of the temporary passage injured in any way the bed of the canal, obstructed navigation, or impeded the tow-paths. The defendants only maintained that the Act gave the Railway Company no right to make such bridge, and therefore they would not let the foundations of such temporary bridge be put in the bed of their water-passage. It was true the Sth section of the Act authorised the Railway Company to ‘ make or construct, upon, across, under, or over the railway or other works, or any lands, streets, hills, valleys, roads, railroads, or tram-roads, rivers, canals, brooks, streams, or other waters, such inclined planes, tunnels, embankments, aqueducts, bridges, roads, ways, passages, conduits, drains, piers, arches, cuttings, and fences,’ as they should think proper for the purpose of carrying out their undertaking. But it was maintained that the 85th and 86th sections restricted the privileges granted by the 8th clause.

Of course the counsel in support of the prayer contended that, whereas the 8th clause authorised the plaintiffs to construct any temporary bridge necessary for making their line, the 85th and 86th clauses referred only to permanent and not temporary bridges, and therefore could in no way be construed as qualifying the prior permission. Much to the delight of Robert Stephenson, who sate in court throughout the hearing of the cause, the Master of the Rolls in a lucid and admirable judgement granted the injunction.

But the most obstinate and costly of all the contests involved in carrying out the works came off at the Kilsby Tunnel, about six miles from the Rugby station. Robert Stephenson’s original plan was to lead his road from Birmingham to London by way of Northampton, but the inhabitants of Northampton raised so effectual an opposition to the scheme, that the engineer was necessitated to choose a route along which adverse influence was less powerful.

The consequence of the opposition was hurtful alike to the town and the Company. The inhabitants of the town, after repenting their folly, had to petition humbly for a branch line, and the Company were driven to bore a way for their rails through the Kdsby ridge at the stupendous outlay of more than £320,000. The length of this costly passage, situated about sis miles on the London side of the Rugby station, is just 2,400 yards. A few facts, briefly stated, will enable the reader to form some conception of the labour expended upon it. Thirty-six millions of bricks were used in its construction. The two shafts by which it is ventilated and supplied with light are sixty feet in diameter, and the deeper of them contains above a million of bricks. These two enormous shafts the walls of which are perpendicular, were built from the top downwards, small portions of the wall (from six to twelve feet long and ten feet deep) being excavated at a time, and then bricked up with three feet depth of bricks, laid with Roman cement. At one time 1,250 labourers were employed in building the tunnel. To lodge and cater for this army of navvies, a town of petty dealers soon sprung up; sheds of rude and unstable construction rose on the hill above the tunnel, and in them a navvy could obtain at a high rent the sixteenth part of a bed-room. Frequently one room containing four beds was occupied by eight day and eight night workmen, who slept two in a bed, and shifted their tenancies like the heroes of a well-known farce.

The disasters of the Kilsby excavation were dimly foreseen and predicted by Dr. Arnold. On his first visit to Bugby after the Bill for the London and Birmingham Railway had received the Royal assent, Robert Stephenson called on the great schoolmaster to offer him his respects. The young man brought no letter of introduction, and either was, or imagined himself to be, received with coldness and hauteur. Dr. Arnold was certainly polite, but perhaps formal, his manners being of a school with which, at that period of his life, Robert Stephenson was not familiar. Anyhow the interview left on the mind of the engineer an unpleasant impression, which was doubtless in some part due to Arnold’s last words : ‘ Well, sir,’ he said, pointing in the direction of the Kilsby ridge, ‘ I understand you carry your fine through those hills. I confess I shall be much surprised if they do not give you some trouble.’

In due course the trouble came. Trial shafts sunk at various points ascertained that the line of the proposed tunnel ran for the most part through lias, shale, and beds of rock with sand. They proved also that in places there would be a considerable quantity of water. The difficulties apprehended were not trivial; but Messrs. J. Nowell and Sons felt that they could cope with them at an outlay short of £99,000, and for that sum they undertook the work. It was not long before they had reason to repent the bargain. To afford exit for the soil removed, Robert Stephenson ordered the sinking of eighteen working shafts. The second of these shafts came upon a bed of gravel and sand, containing a great deal of water, overlaid by forty feet of clay. Repeated borings discovered this quicksand to be a basin, lying along one side of the hill, and extending 400 yards over the line of the tunnel. As the evil fortune of Messrs. Nowell and Sons and their employers would have it, this treacherous basin had been missed by the trial shafts only by a few feet. Ruin stared the contractors in the face, and Mr. Nowell, whose health had for some time been declining, died shortly after the discovery of the quicksand, his death being doubtless accelerated by the fulfillment of Dr. Arnold’s prediction.

The calamity which had prostrated, if not killed, their principal contractor was not without its influence on the directors. Amongst them were those who seized it as an occasion for insinuating that their ‘ young engineer ’ was at fault, and that, had he had more experience, the trial shafts would have discovered the dangerous spot. The consternation of both committees (the London committee and that which sate at Birmingham) was at its height when Captain Moorsom, in his official capacity of secretary and business adviser, was deputed to visit Kilsby, hold an interview with Robert Stephenson, and urge upon him the propriety of calling in further engineering advice. Without delay Captain Moorsom acted upon his instructions, and arriving at Kilsby, hastened to the office, where he found Robert Stephenson holding a consultation with his assistant and sub-assistant engineers.

When Captain Moorsom made his presence known, and stated with delicacy the anxiety of the directors, and the satisfaction they would feel in calling in other engineering advice, Robert Stephenson answered cordially and without irritation, ‘ No; the time has not come for that yet. I have decided what to do. I mean to pump the water all out, and then drive the tunnel under the dry sand. Tell the directors not to be frightened, and say that all I ask is time and fair play. If I can’t get rid of the water, I ’ll then think about going to other engineers for help.’

Captain Moorsom then knew but little of Robert Stephenson. He had seen him occasionally in parliamentary committee-rooms, and had heard him spoken of by friends as a young man fortunate in the possession of extraordinary intellects — spoken of by enemies as a young man fortunate in the possession of an extraordinary father. From that time, however. Captain Moorsom became Robert Stephenson’s enthusiastic supporter; and, returning to the directors, he told them to rest assured that their engineer deserved their entire confidence.

With the aid of 13 steam-engines, 200 horses, and 1,250 ‘navvies,’ the engineer again set to work. A short distance from the fine of the tunnel, shafts, cased with wooden tubbing, were forced through the sand, and from them headings were driven into the sand, through which the water flowed freely to the pumps. For nine months was the pumping continued, and for the principal part of that time each minute saw 1,800 gallons of water sucked from the basin. At length the difficulty was overcome. The tunnel was then shot under the sand, and the gentlemen who had anticipated the failure of their ‘young engineer,’ and who during the protracted trial had never ceased to worry him with impertinent criticisms, received a welcome and salutary lesson.

In November 1836, another trouble occurred in the irruption of an enormous body of water into a part of the tunnel where there were no pumps. The water rose rapidly, and (to save a portion of the tunnel) it was necessary forthwith to complete the lining of brickwork.

To effect this workmen were floated up the tunnel on a large raft; and, as fast as hands could move trowels and adjust bricks, the task was accomplished. Before it was completed, however, the water rose so high and with such increased rapidity, that the men on the raft were in danger of being jammed up against the roof of the tunnel. To save the party, Mr. Charles Lean, sub-assistant engineer, jumped into the water, and, swimming with a tow-line between his teeth, tugged his men to the foot of the nearest working shaft, through which they were drawn from their perilous position ‘ to bank.’

When the reader bears in mind that the last few pages relate only to three or four out of thirty or forty contracts, and also remembers that great exertions were made to carry out all the contracts simultaneously, he will not be surprised at learning that ‘the navvies’ in Robert Stephenson’s army were numbered by thousands.

The original Act for the London and Birmingham Railway empowered the Company to make a line ‘commencing on the west side of the high road leading from London to Hampstead, at or near to the first bridge westward of the lock on the Regent’s Canal at Camden Town, in the parish of St. Pancras, in the county of Middlesex, and terminating at or near to certain gardens, called Nova Scotia Gardens, in the parish of Aston juxta Birmingham and Saint Martin Birmingham, in the county of Warwick.’ At the time of the parliamentary contests the projectors thought it would be more prudent not to alarm the public mind with a proposal to carry then- road nearer London. As it was, the timid were predicting all sorts of evil consequences from an iron-way, by which all the evil-doers of London could in a moment fly beyond the police. A consideration, however, that had yet more weight with the Company was Lord Southampton’s opposition to their undertaking.

When their petition was rejected by the peers, Lord Southampton had been a principal cause of their defeat. His lordship owned much of the land between Camden Town and the streets of the capital, and it was under a strong conviction that his property would be prejudiced by the railway that he opposed the project. To conciliate this powerful enemy, the projectors determined to interfere as little as possible with his estate. Scarcely, however, had the line been begun, when Lord Southampton began to entertain different views with regard to railways. The success of George Stephenson’s hues, the Stockton and Darlington and the Liverpool and Manchester, was admitted to be beyond a doubt. The value of land adjacent to them had everywhere increased, in some places had increased enormously. London residents began to see that it would be to their interest to get the London and Birmingham terminus as near them as possible; and Lord Southampton perceived that the extension of the line through his estate would greatly increase its value.

Robert Stephenson was the first to detect the change in public feeling, and to suggest to the directors the advisability of getting another Act of Parliament, empowering them to carry their fine to Lancaster Place, Strand, abutting on the Thames. Nervous and retiring, he could not get up courage to proffer this advice until he had talked the matter over many times with Mr. Charles Parker, the solicitor of the Company, and his own intimate and valued friend. Mr. Parker rallied him for being ‘ afraid of the board,’ and urged that it was his duty to tell the Company what he honestly believed would promote their interests. In consequence of Mr. Parker’s repeated exhortations Robert Stephenson laid his views before the directory, and for so doing was rewarded with an emphatic and almost unanimous snubbing by the gentlemen assembled, who feared to take so bold a step. He was told that he was an engineer; and it would be more becoming in him, as an engineer, to confine his attention to the matters of his profession, and not to

Indignant, and for the moment humiliated, Robert Stephenson hastened to Mr. Parker, and communicated the result of his Quixotic attempt to benefit the Company. Again his friend rallied him, and, laughing at his mortification, told him that before the next meeting of the committee his suggestions would have favour with those same directors who had displayed such want of courtesy. The solicitor was no bad judge of the question and the men. Before many weeks had passed Robert Stephenson’s scheme was supported both by the London and the Birmingham committee, and more especially urged forward by Mr. Wilson, the agent for Lord Southampton. In due course a new Act empowered the Company to extend their line, ‘commencing in a field on the west side of the high-road leading from London to Hampstead, being the site of the depot or station intended to be made for the use of the said railway, in the parish of St. Pancras, in the county of Middlesex, and thence passing across the Regent’s Canal, between the first and second bridge westward of the lock at Camden Town, into and through the said parish of St. Pancras, and terminating in a vacant piece of ground in a place called Euston Square, on the north side of Drummond Street, near Euston Square, in the same parish.’ Thus part of the engineer’s scheme was adopted. If the whole design had been approved, Robert Stephenson would have had the further credit of originating the system which has extended the lines across and through the metropolis.

Euston Square lies much lower than Camden Town; and the portion of the railway that lies between those points was worked for some years by ropes and stationary engines, on account of the steepness of the incline, and for no other reason. The trains from Euston Square were drawn up the incline at the rate of twenty miles an hour by an apparatus consisting of 10,000 feet of rope (six inches in circumference) and two stationary engines. These engines and their ropes cost £25,000. The up-trains were disjoined from the locomotives at Camden Town, and were carried down the inclination by gravity alone into the Euston station, and were prevented from attaining too great speed by the use of powerful brakes. The hne between Euston Square and Camden Town was thus worked till the July of 1844, in which month locomotives were employed to draw the laden carriages up the incline. It may interest some readers to know that the stationary engines, discarded from Camden Town, are at the present time doing duty in a silver mine in Russia.

Thus Robert Stephenson and the army under his command began and completed in less than four years and three months the first metropolitan railway that was worked by locomotives. The first sod was cut at Chalk Farm on June 1,1834, and the line was opened on September 15, 1838. On an average 12,000 men were throughout that space of time employed upon the works, i.e. rather more than 107 men to each mile. Estimating the labour expended upon the vast operations of these 12,000 men, Lieut. Lecount, R.N., one of the assistant engineers of the line, says —-

The great Pyramid of Egypt, that stupendous monument which seems likely to exist to the end of all time, will afford a comparison. After making the necessary allowances for the foundations, galleries, &c., and reducing the whole to one uniform denomination, it will be found that the labour expended on the great pyramid was equivalent to lifting fifteen thousand seven hundred and sixty-three million cubic feet of stone one foot high. This labour was performed, according to Diodorus Siculus, by three hundred thousand, and according to Herodotus, by one hundred thousand, men, and it required for its execution twenty years. If we reduce in the same manner the labour expended in constructing the London and Birmingham Railway to one common denomination, the result is twenty-five thousand million cubic feet of material (reduced to the same weight as that used in constructing the pyramid) lifted one foot high, or nine thousand two hundred and sixty-seven million cubic feet more than were lifted one foot high in the construction of the pyramid. Yet this immense undertaking has been performed by about twenty thousand men in less than five years.

The reader will observe that Lieut. Lecount in making his calculation takes, not the average number of workmen employed on the line, but the highest number acting together at a time of special exertion.

It should be borne in mind that throughout this period, although the majority of the Directors did him full justice for integrity and talent, yet Robert Stephenson was harassed with the vexatious opposition of a section of those directors whom he was so zealously serving. It would do no good at this date to rake up the animosities of a generation fast disappearing from the world ; but it is right, for the consolation and encouragement of honest men suffering under similar persecution, to publish the fact that, in addition to the anxiety and toil imposed upon him by his responsible position, he had to endure ungenerous treatment from his employers.

At length, after innumerable delays and an enormous excess of expenditure beyond the estimates, the line was opened with suitable, but modest, ceremony. The Committee of London Directors, accompanied by the principal officers of the line and a few friends, made a trip in one train to Birmingham and dined with the Birmingham committee at Dee’s Royal Hotel, Robert Stephenson taking charge of the engine during the excursion.

To him the day was far from being a day of pleasure. In bidding adieu to a work magnificently completed, which had taken up several of the best years of his fife, he felt that sadness which Gibbon experienced whilst penning the last lines of his history. To this depression was added the irritation of an insult offered to his father by one of his own principal enemies. That very morning, before mounting the engine to drive to Birmingham, Robert Stephenson had read in a newspaper an article full of base insinuations against, and reflections upon, his father.

In the evening a party of about one hundred people assembled at Dee’s Royal Hotel. The banquet passed off heavily, and on the following morning Robert Stephenson met, after breakfast, the person who was supposed to be the author of the article which had caused him so much pain, and immediately asked him whether he had written it. The charge was admitted; and Robert Stephenson, having expressed in the strongest terms his opinion on the subject, left the room. The writer of the article, who was also a director of the Company, appealed for protection to Mr. Glynn, the chairman, who was not present at the scene. The latter replied briefly that if directors chose to attack the engineer of the Company or his father in the public journals, they must do so in their private capacity and at their own risk. Some years afterwards the director met Robert Stephenson on the station platform at Rugby, and, expressing his regret for the old quarrel, extended his hand to the engineer, who instantly accepted it, and the feud was forgotten.

A more agreeable celebration of the successful conclusion of the London and Birmingham line was a dinner given to Robert Stephenson towards the close of the previous year (December 23, 1837), at Dunchurch in Warwickshire, when the acting and assistant engineers presented the engineer-in-chief with a silver soup-tureen and stand, worth 130 guineas, as an expression of their affectionate admiration. Mr. Drank Forster was in the chair, and Lieut. Lecount, R.N., the historian of ‘ the works,’ in the vice-chair. George Stephenson was present as a guest. The host of the ‘Dun Cow,’ Dunchurch, had never before entertained so distinguished a party.

An anecdote connected with the ‘ Dun Cow ’ dinner must not be omitted. The subscription for the soup-tureen and stand was confined to the engineering officers of the Company — a restriction which excluded several persons who were anxious to subscribe. Mr. Charles Capper, who, having merely supplied a quantity of machinery to the line, could only be regarded as a subcontractor, in vain endeavoured to force his contribution on the committee, who declined to accept it because, if they set aside ‘ the line ’ agreed upon, they should not know where to draw another. At the dinner, however, the enthusiastic sub-contractor was present in all his glory and admiration for Robert Stephenson. ‘Anyhow,’ he exclaimed to some of the committee, as he entered the room, ‘ you will allow me to dine with Mr. Stephenson.’ As the dinner was public, there was of course no opposition. In the dining-room the testimonial was placed on a buffet for inspection; and as the guests assembled, they surrounded the soup-tureen and criticised it. At length the sub-contractor, with a glow of triumph in his face, exclaimed, ‘It is a handsome tureen, but it wants a ladle.’ And as the critic spoke, he supplied the deficiency by taking from his pocket a large and very handsome ladle, and putting it into the silver vessel.**** The ladle formed part of the testimonial, and Robert Stephenson in after life was very proud to tell his friends how he became possessed of his large soup-ladle.

Thus was completed the construction of the London and Birmingham Railway, with which line Robert Stephenson maintained his connection up to the time of his death, acting as its consulting engineer with a salary of £100 per annum, and his expenses when called to attend on the line. It was the first of our great metropolitan railroads, and its works are memorable examples of engineering capacity. They became a guide to succeeding engineers ; as also did the plans and drawings with which the details of the undertaking were ‘ plotted ’ in the Eyre Arms Hotel. When Brunel entered upon the construction of the Great Western line he borrowed Robert Stephenson’s plans, and used them as the best possible system of draughting. From that time they became recognised models for railway practice. To have originated such plans and forms, thereby settling an important division of engineering literature, would have made a position for an ordinary man. In the list of Robert Stephenson’s achievements such a service appears so insignificant as scarcely to be worthy of note.

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