Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

Registered UK Charity (No. 115342)

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 163,367 pages of information and 245,906 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Life of Robert Stephenson by William Pole: Chapter XI

From Graces Guide

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

Note: For all the detailed footnotes in this article download the comprehensive PDF version

CHAPTER XI. Affairs, Public and Private, during the construction of the London and Birmingham Railway. (age 29-35.)

ALTHOUGH the terms of Robert Stephenson’s agreement with the directors of the London and Birmingham Railway Company precluded him from undertaking the personal superintendence of any other engineering work during the construction of that line, he was at liberty to act as a consulting engineer in the civil department of his profession, to advise on questions of parliamentary tactics, to appear as a professional witness before committees, and to visit any part of the kingdom or continent, for brief periods — either to superintend the interests of his private undertakings, or inspect the scene of new public works. Haverstock Hill was his home ; and the course of the London and Birmingham line was the route on some part of which he might, on five days out of six, have been seen getting over rough ground on horseback—or walking from point to point, at such a pace that his companions, puffing at his heels, were frequently compelled to cry out for breathing time. But by careful distribution of his time he made leisure for many matters distinct from the first Metropolitan Railway.

His connection with the Stanhope and Tyne Railway had already become to him a source of serious uneasiness. As it for years caused him grave anxiety, and at one time threatened to plunge him in pecuniary embarrassment, it is fit here to speak at some length of that signal instance of rash speculation and grave mismanagement of amateur directors.

As early as 1831, a scheme was concocted by certain speculators to work some me-quarries near the town of Stanhope, in the county of Durham, and certain portions of the extensive coal field at Medomsley, in the same county, and to connect the two works by a railway. The chance that such a line would answer was very slight; for the fifteen miles of rugged country through which it ran by a succession of unusually steep inclines was sparsely populated, and (for Durham) poor in minerals. A company was nevertheless formed, and the iron road was laid down. A few months’ trial was sufficient to prove what ought to have been foreseen, that such a line could never pay. Two of the original projectors slipped out of the affair on profitable terms, leaving their companions to adopt a bold, and by no means unwise, suggestion, for making good their loss. The fine from Stanhope to Medomsley was a failure for obvious reasons; but it was argued that if the way were carried on twenty-four miles further, to South Shields at the mouth of the Tyne, it would pass through the heart of an extensive and productive coal field, and find abundance of business. This second scheme was just as sound as the original undertaking was bad; and had it only been carried out with prudence, it would have been eminently successful.

The new scheme immediately took, and the shares were subscribed for by people of credit, and in some cases of wealth, for the most part residing in London. The capital of the new Company was stated to be £150,000, consisting of 1,500 shares of £100 each. Of these shares, however, only 1,000 were ever paid upon, the remaining 500 being gratuitously allotted to the two projectors of the undertaking, who, in addition to this remuneration for their services, secured for themselves one half the profits of the line, after the proprietors had received 5 per cent, on their shares. Power was given to the directors to raise £50,000 more capital by the creation of new shares, and £150,000 on loan.

In the North of England it has been an ancient custom for speculators to lay down colliery tramways, without going through the tedious and costly process of parliamentary incorporation. Punning from coal fields to neighbouring ports, these lines are never very long. As a general rule they run through the lands of but few owners, the value of whose property they enhance. It is therefore usual for projectors of such tramways to make their own agreements with landowners, paying a certain annual rent for right of way, or way-leave as it is called, and taking such way-leave for ninety-nine years, with a reserved power to abandon on giving twelve months’ notice. The Stanhope and Tyne hne was made on this plan; but so badly were the negotiations with landowners managed, that when the hne (in all thirty-five miles long) was completed it was burdened with a way-leave rental of more than £300 per mhe. This was bad. But a far worse consequence of the arrangement was one inseparable from the system above described. Having no act of incorporation, an ordinary way-leave railway is a simple partnership affair, in which every shareholder is a partner. And that meant, in times prior to the Limited Liability Act, that every shareholder in an ordinary wayleave tram company was personally responsible for all the liabilities of the company.

From first to last, method and business exactness were neglected in the affairs of the Stanhope and Tyne line. The new Company’s deed of settlement was not executed till February 1834, but the first way-leave agreements were entered into with landowners in April 1832 ; and as far as confused accounts can be trusted, it would appear that nearly the whole of the capital was paid up and expended, and heavy debts were incurred before the execution of the deed. One of the first acts of the Company was to draw a bill of exchange ; and when the proprietors at length decided to dissolve the association, the bills in circulation for which the Company were responsible amounted to £176,000.

In an evil hour for Robert Stephenson the directors of the Stanhope and Tyne line agreed to consult him as an engineer. At first he was well pleased with the summons. The remuneration for the services required of him was to be £1,000 ; but he was persuaded to accept in payment of that sum ten shares in the Company’s stock. At first, Robert Stephenson liked his £1,000 all the better for being in that form, since his own judgement, as well as the observations of bystanders, assured him that the new railway must eventually answer. He did not calculate with a foreknowledge that the undertaking would be mismanaged. And he was at the time ignorant of the difference between the legal positions of a shareholder in an incorporated railway, and of a shareholder in a line without an act of incorporation.

The ultimate fate of this ill-starred Company will not at present be set forth. It is, however, best to notice, at this point, the course of its affairs during the construction of the London and Birmingham Railway. At great outlay the directors built staiths, and purchased freehold and leasehold houses, buildings, wharves, and quays at South Shields ; and in the March of 1835, on the projection of the Durham Junction Railway, in which the proprietors of the Stanhope and Tyne deemed themselves deeply interested, the directors of the latter Company subscribed £40,000 out of £80,000 to be raised for the new fine. For the most part these purchases and new engagements were based on good considerations, and were such, that if the pecuniary obligations consequent upon them had been originally made on a proper scale, and had then been met in a proper way, no objection could have been preferred against them. But not content with buying at exorbitant prices, the new Company started with the ruinous system of borrowing on bills, instead of raising from amongst themselves, or by the creation of new shares, the sums necessary for liquidating debts. The fact was, the directory lay in the hands of persons whose circumstances precluded any other system of raising money. From first to last an important department of the business of the directors was to raise money on accommodation bills on terms averaging 11 per cent, per annum. In June 1834, following the February in which their deed of settlement was executed, the directors obtained on mortgage £60,000 from the Alliance Assurance Company. The railway and collieries commenced working in September 1834, and by the end of the year the entire expenditure of the Company amounted to £226,485 17s. 0d.; of which amount £100,000 had been received from payments on the 1,000 paid-up shares, £60,000 had come from the Alliance Assurance mortgage, and the remaining £66,485 17s. 0d. had been raised on bills. Twenty-four thousand pounds were soon afterwards raised by debentures. Thus affairs began, and thus they went on. Loan was raised on loan, bill accepted after bill. Every month affairs looked worse ; so that in 1838, when the London and Birmingham fine was opened, instead of finding himself the owner of £1,000 in a railway the shares of which were at a premium, Robert Stephenson found himself with ten shares in an affair that was throughout the money-market a byword for failure— shares which he would gladly have been able to throw into the sea, since they rendered him personally liable for an enormous sum of money. Thus was Robert Stephenson paid for engineering services. He had done good work, and as a reward for the service he found insolvency staring him in the face. It was a salutary lesson to him. Ever afterwards he resolutely refused to take the shares of any company in payment for work done. He took, indeed, thirty shares in the London and Birmingham previous to the Act being obtained; when the directors, finding great difficulty in getting the proportion of subscriptions required by standing orders, called on all their principal officers to put down their names for shares. But that was a different affair ; and moreover, he had not then the experience of the four succeeding years to guide him. To speculation of aU sorts he had a dislike amounting to repugnance. His investments gave modest dividends, but they were safe. He believed in the maxim that a high rate of interest is only another name for bad security. This distaste for pecuniary risk was seen in little things as well as great — in his amusements as well as his commercial arrangements. He hked horse-races, and during the last years of his life always endeavoured to be at Epsom and at Ascot, but his most intimate friends never knew him to bet a shilling on any horse. In the same way, he enjoyed a rubber, but he never played for high stakes.

In the May of 1835, Robert Stephenson accompanied his father to Brussels; the elder and the younger engineer having been summoned by King Leopold to advise as to the construction of a complete system of railways for his kingdom. On that occasion, when the father obtained the decoration of the Order of Leopold, the son was also admitted to familiar intercourse with the King. Two years afterwards, on the public opening of the railway between Brussels and Ghent, when George Stephenson was received by the Belgians with an enthusiasm of admiration, Robert Stephenson renewed his acquaintance with a country which enjoys distinction amongst continental nations for an early and cordial adoption of railroad locomotion, and was again hospitably entertained by the sovereign, who in 1841 conferred on him, as he had six years before conferred on George Stephenson, the decoration of the Order of Leopold.

On his return from Belgium, Robert Stephenson found himself overwhelmed with work. The scant leisure left him by the London and Birmingham line was more than fully occupied with examining projects for new lines which sprung up in every direction, and concerning which his advice was sought alike by engineers and by the public. For two years he managed to attend to this extra-official business at his office at Camden Town, on the London and Birmingham works. In 1836, however, finding he could no longer, either with comfort to himself or with the approval of the Company, receive his daily levy of projectors and engineers at Camden Town, he took an office in Duke Street, Westminster. In the following year this office was relinquished for one in Great George Street, Westminster, with which street the Stephensons and their profession are intimately associated in the public mind. In that street Robert Stephenson, with the principal members of his staff, had offices up to the time of his death. On the doors of 24 Great George Street country sight-seers still read the name of the great constructor of railways and builder of bridges; and in the adjoining mansion is established the Institution of Civil Engineers.

The years 1836 and 1837 were remarkable for railway enterprise. In the thick of the parliamentary fight Robert Stephenson appeared as professional witness, and more especially as the projector and engineer of a line between London and Brighton, which unfortunately miscarried, but was not shelved until it had engrossed a large amount of attention and discussion. As early as 1833, and indeed before that year, his attention was called to the subject of railway communication between the metropolis and the most fashionable watering-place of the country. In 1834 and in 1835, he was again consulted as to the lines projected between those points, and finding none of the proposed routes such as he could in all respects recommend he sketched out a line of his own. The consequence was that the session of 1836 saw four distinct applications to Parliament for different lines between London and the Sussex cliffs. The rival projects were Sir John Rennie’s, or the direct fine; Mr. Robert Stephenson’s line; Mr. Joseph Gibbs’s line; and Mr. Cundy’s fine. Here was a noble fight for Westminster, spoil for lawyers, agents, surveyors, and witnesses. Each of these proposed lines availed itself of a terminus already constructed, Stephenson’s fine taking the terminus of the London and Southampton Railway at Nine Elms, a little above Vauxhall, with a depot on the banks of the Thames, and branching from the fine at Wimbledon Common, five miles and a half from the terminus ; and the direct fine and Gibbs’s both adopting the Greenwich Railway Terminus at London Bridge, and availing themselves of the railway, already sanctioned and under course of construction, as far as Croydon.

Mr. Cundy’s projected fine was a freak of daring such as can only be found in times of unusual excitement. In these comparatively sober days it can scarcely be believed that just five and twenty years ago a company should have contemplated the construction of an important line of railway, and, with full attention to all the costly forms of law, have applied to parliament for leave to construct their fine, without having made any survey (in the engineering sense of the word) of the country through which the line was to pass, — having in fact trusted to the Ordnance map for knowledge of the natural features and levels of the ground. Mr. Walker, in his report on the project, drily remarked, ‘The line of country, with the levels, Mr. Cundy shows would be very desirable and easy, if they could be found; but I have not succeeded in doing so, my levels being considerably different from Mr. Cundy’s.’ To well-informed engineers the bare mention of ‘ Cundy’s line ’ was a signal for hearty laughter. As soon as Robert Stephenson put forth his plan, Cundy fired up with virtuous indignation, and was shocked at the immorality of the engineer of the London and Birmingham Railway, who had pirated* his plans. No better illustration of the comic side of railway gambling a quarter of a century since could be made than a drama reproducing aU the circumstances connected with ‘ Cundy’s fine.’ House of Commons.

The contest, however, between Stephenson’s line and Rennie’s and Gibbs’s lines was honest, and involved many delicate points of consideration. It was, however, proved by the personal examination of the Committee, that the alleged survey for the latter of these lines was not much less incorrect than that of Cundy’s hne. Unable to superintend the details of the survey himself, Robert Stephenson committed them to the care of Mr. Bidder, who, not without an appearance of justice, was regarded by the public as being really and truly the engineer of the hne. As its name implies, the chief object of Sir John Rennie’s direct hne was the shortest possible passage between the two termini, the natural obstacles of the country being boldly met, instead of being adroitly avoided. Robert Stephenson and Mr. Bidder, on the contrary, aimed at a hne which, without being widely circuitous, should at the expense of a few miles’ extra distance save the necessity of the cuttings and tunnels which a route through the chalk ridges, known as the North and South Downs, would involve. The most prominent point of distinction between Sir John Rennie’s and Robert Stephenson’s plans may be seen in the one fact, that while the earthwork of the latter, estimated on slopes averaging at one and a half to one, was 6,000,000 cubic yards, the earthwork of the former, estimated on slopes of less than one to one, was 8,000,000 cubic yards. Thus, calculated with Robert Stephenson’s slopes, of one and a half to one, Sir John Rennie’s earthwork would at the least have amounted to ten million cubic yards, or four millions of cubic yards more than Robert Stephenson’s.

In the following session of 1837, in accordance with a resolution of the House of Commons requesting the Crown ‘ to refer to some military engineer the statements of engineering particulars furnished by several engineers in support of the several lines of Brighton Railway now under the consideration of the House,’ Captain Alderson, R.E., reported on the merits of the various proposed routes. In his report, dated June 27, 1837, the referee said —

I have the honour to state, that I have carefully read the evidence given before the committee, as well as their report, and attentively compared the several plans and sections committed to me; that I have also taken a general survey of the sites of the different lines, examining more attentively those portions where important works are proposed, and have no hesitation in stating that the line proposed by Mr. Stephenson, considered in an engineering point of view, is preferable to either of the otJters. Availing himself of the valleys of the Rivers Mole and Adur, he avoids the heavy cuttings necessarily consequent on forcing a passage through the chalk ridges known as the North and South Downs; and, with the exception of two short tunnels, one at Epsom and the other at Dorking, arrives at Brighton, via Shoreham, having only such ordinary difficulties to contend against as are necessarily consequent on undertakings of a similar nature and extent.

Having borne this emphatic testimony to the engineering excellences of Robert Stephenson’s line, Captain Alderson entered on the examination of Gibbs’s and Sir John Rennie’s proposals, giving the latter the palm over both its rivals; its superiority to Robert Stephenson’s line being discerned in the greater advantages which, the Captain judged, it offered to the sea-ports on the South Coast. ‘I therefore,’ concludes Captain Alderson’s report, ‘ adhere to the opinion already given in favour of the Direct Line.’ Robert Stephenson was greatly chagrined at this decision. As the line between Brighton and London was one to which the attention of London residents was especially directed, his defeat had all the additional mortification which a crowd of spectators imparts to the overthrow of a combatant. Moreover, he sincerely felt that the conclusion was not only erroneous, but that it was arrived at by a one-sided consideration of the very points which ought to have led to a judgement in his favour. As he had done years before in the case of Messrs. Walker’s and Rastrick’s reports against the locomotive, Robert Stephenson again defended himself with his pen, and in a short pamphlet - which is a model of criticism, in temper, conciseness, completeness and perspicuity - gave a clinching response to the fallacies of Captain Alderson’s report.

Amongst the parliamentary contests of this period, in which a conspicuous part was assigned to Robert Stephenson, that of the London and Blackwall line, in 1836, deserves notice, as the proceedings before committees sitting upon that line exhibit both the elder and younger Stephenson as opponents of the locomotive system. Amongst the many railway projects of 1825, one much favoured by Sir Edward Banks and other capitalists was a proposal for an iron flange railway (similar to those tramways which a citizen of the United States recently placed in some of our wider thoroughfares) which should be laid down upon the Commercial Road for the acceleration of traffic to the West India Docks. As the rails were to be laid upon the public road, the employment of locomotives was of course no part of the project. The trustees of the Commercial Road liked the scheme, and with their approval a Bill for the construction of the tram was brought into Parliament in the session of 1827-28, but after two readings it miscarried through want of support. The defeat, however, did not deter the trustees of the road from doing something for public convenience. At their command Mr. James Walker in 1828 began to lay down the stone tramway from Severn’s sugar warehouse, 200 or 300 yards below Whitechapel Church, to the gate of the West India Docks, the granite blocks of which tram remain to this day. The road was completed in 1829, and was in its day deemed a great success, although the rapid improvements made in the next few years in the construction of iron roads and steam carriages soon rendered it of comparatively small importance.

In 1835, the Company whose Bill had been thrown out in 1827-28 renewed their exertions, and, having grown bolder by experience, resolved on applying to Parliament for leave to make a new road, to be worked by steam power. The proposal was no longer for an iron-tramway on the Commercial Road. George Stephenson was the engineer of this Company (the London and Blackwall), and at the outset advised a route along the south of the Commercial Road. Subsequently taking a different view, he induced the Company to adopt a line on the north of that thoroughfare; upon which a new Company, styling itself the ‘ Commercial Road Railway Company,’ with Sir John Rennie for engineer, started up, and, adopting the relinquished southern route, entered into competition with the original projectors. The Commercial Road Railway would have started from Glass-House Yard, on the east of the Minories, and have passed on a viaduct supported by arches to its terminus near the Brunswick Wharf at Blackwall. This line Sir John Rennie proposed to work with locomotives. On the other hand, George Stephenson maintained that no line passing through such dense and valuable property as that which lay on the banks of the river between London and Blackwall ought to use steam carriages, on account of the danger from sparks, which he apprehended might cause serious losses by fire. Robert Stephenson* fully concurred with his father, and gave emphatic testimony as to the hazard of setting fire to towns by driving steam carriages through them.

Thus far had the position of the locomotive changed in public estimation. The Stephensons who, ten years before, led the scanty band of its supporters, could now venture to state boldly what they regarded as its serious disadvantages, and could find courage to check the anxiety of speculators to use it under all circumstances. Doubtless there was real danger of fire from passing locomotives. A recent cause, by which a railway company was compelled to pay heavy damages for certain agricultural property ignited by sparks thrown from a steam-carriage, attests that the Stephensons had foundations for their fears. Not less certain is it that their fears were excessive. At the present date, when the ropes and stationary engines with which the Blackwall line was long worked have been for years discontinued, and when locomotives are shooting to and fro through every quarter of London at every variety of distance above the level of the streets, and passing through every description of property, a person of the humblest intelligence would smile at an assurance that London ran any risk of being destroyed by sparks thrown out from the chimneys of locomotives. That the Stephensons so miscalculated on a point relating to the locomotive, is a matter worthy of reflection; that their error was on the side of caution, is a fact that illustrates one of their principal characteristics, and points to the cause of a large part of their success.

Notwithstanding the steady increase in the number of subjects demanding his attention, Robert Stephenson resolutely adhered to a rule which he had laid down on first settling at Haverstock Hill, — a determination to read something every day. He was an early riser, And always managed to get two hours of study before breakfast. The time was short, but he used it to such good purpose that, with the aid of scientific periodicals, he was always well up in the recent discoveries of science. Mathematics, chemistry, geology, and physiology, were his favourite departments of study. For fight literature, his active fife left him scarcely any leisure; but few weeks passed over in which he did not find an hour to devote to an English poet. • For the political articles of newspapers he cared little; so that, notwithstanding his strong political convictions, there were few men worse informed than he usually was on the contentions and party warfare of the Houses.

In his domestic life Robert Stephenson was, with the exception of one circumstance, a happy man. He had not misjudged the character of the lady whom he married and took to his home in Newcastle, at a time when he had no prospect of speedy advancement to eminence and wealth. The young wife, who ‘ ruled her husband without ever seeming to rule him,’ was much liked by all Robert Stephenson’s friends, and contributed in no slight measure to secure his position amongst his professional brethren by the amiability and tact with which she presided over a household where men of incongruous dispositions and rival interests frequently met. The cloud over the domestic life of Mrs. Stephenson and her husband was their want of children. Robert Stephenson greatly desired to become a father, but his wish was not to be gratified. The part assigned to him was to conceal his disappointment from his wife, and to find cheerful companions for her in that home which was never to be musical with the prattle of babes. To achieve this latter purpose he encouraged her to surround herself with the members of her own family. One of her relations became the commercial manager of the Newcastle factory and Robert Stephenson’s confidential agent in all his North Country affairs. Another, a young lady, was an almost constant visitor at Haverstock Hill.

A week seldom passed in which Robert Stephenson neglected to write to Newcastle; and in his letters despatched to ‘ the works,’ occasional glimpses are caught of his private habits and amusements. Relating for the most part to orders for new engines, the solvency of commercial houses, and other ordinary topics of business interest, they occasionally contain scraps of information relative to Mrs. Stephenson’s doings and wishes, all such passages being pervaded by a spirit of simple manly love, and standing out all the fresher and brighter for the prosaic communications in which they are bedded. In one letter Robert Stephenson enquires anxiously about a ‘Smuggler’ to be sent him from Newcastle, the said Smuggler being a painting which he wished to add to his collection of art treasures, already growing numerous. In another letter he is earnest about the qualities of a new horse. In those days he thought £60 a rather high price for a horse. A third long letter (dated Feb. 27, 1837) concerning boilers and prices, Robert Stephenson finished off with an additional word about the ‘ Smuggler,’ and one curt line on his domestic affairs : ‘We are all tolerably well at Hampstead;’ when the pen was snatched from his hand by the young lady before mentioned, and a postscript added—

MY DEAR UNCLE,— Cousin Fanny would have filled up this part, but she is in bed with a sick headache. Tell Mr. Hardcastle Mr. Gr. Stephenson’s brother Robert is dead, the new groom has been thrown from his horse, and both horse and man are at present perfectly useless. This is what Mr. Stephenson calls being tolerably well at Hampstead.

About two months later another of those prettily ornamented business letters to ‘Uncle Edward’ contained a sketch and three or four hues from Mrs. Stephenson’s pencil. A few days before, Mrs. Stephenson had met with an unusual accident. She was driving from a friend’s door, where she had been making a call, when she stood up in her phaeton, and, looking backwards, waved and nodded another ‘good-bye’ to some acquaintances at the drawing-room window. Scarcely had she done this when she fell back on the seat of her carriage, frightened and faint, and saying she had broken her knee. On examination it was found that the hgament uniting her right knee-cap to the muscles of the thigh had given way. During her tedious cure Mrs. Stephenson had to lie night and day on a double-inchne bed, and in the rather awkward posture which that couch compels, she drew a humorous picture of herself.

The men with whom Robert Stephenson was most familiar at this period were his firm friends throughout life. Amongst them were Mr. Bidder, Mr. Thomas Longridge Gooch, Mr. Budden (who acted as his secretary), Mr. John Joseph Bramah, Mr. Frank Forster, Mr. Birkinshaw, and Mr. Charles Parker. Robert Stephenson was a man of few pleasures. Music he cultivated to a certain point to please his wife; but at this period he rarely touched his flute. His profession was to him both business and pleasure. On Sundays, however, he relaxed. In the morning he usually went to church. In the afternoon he wrote letters and took a walk, and finished up the day with receiving a few professional friends at dinner, immediately after which the cigar-box made its appearance.

Amongst Robert Stephenson’s more distinguished associates at this period was Professor Wheatstone, the joint inventor with Mr. William Cooke of the electric telegraph. Their memorable invention was patented in June 1837, and before the autumn of that year was at an end, the correspondence necessary for business purposes between the Euston Square and Camden Town stations was carried on by electricity. ‘ Robert Stephenson’s London and Birmingham fine ’ has the honour of being the scene of the first successful working of electric telegraphy.

In Dr. Andrew’ Wynter’s ‘ Curiosities of Civihsation,’ the following interesting passage occurs in the article on the ‘ Electric Telegraph ’

Following up his experiment, Professor Wheatstone worked out the arrangements of his telegraph, and having associated himself in 1837 with Mr. Cooke, who had previously devoted much time to the same subject, a patent was taken out in the June of that year in their joint names. Their telegraph had five wires and five needles; the latter being worked on the face of a lozengeshaped dial, inscribed with the letters of the alphabet, any one of which could be indicated by the convergence of the needles. This very ingenious instrument could be manipulated by any person who knew how to read, and did not labour under the disadvantage of working by a code which required time to be understood. Immediately upon the taking out of the patent, the directors of the North Western Railway sanctioned the laying down of the wires between the Euston Square and Camden Town stations, and towards the end of July the telegraph was ready to work.

Late in the evening of the 25th of that month, in a dingy little room near the booking-office at Euston Square, by the light of a flaring dip-candle, which only illuminated the surrounding darkness, sat the inventor, with a beating pulse, and a heart full of hope. In an equally small room at the Camden Town station, where the wires terminated, sat Mr. Cooke, his co-patentee, and, amongst others, two witnesses well known to fame— Mr. Charles Fox and Mr. Stephenson.....Mr. Cooke in his turn touched the keys and returned the answer. ‘ Never did I feel such a tumultuous sensation before,’ said the Professor, ‘ as when all alone in the still room I heard the needles click; and as I spelled the words, I felt all the magnitude of the invention, now proved to be practical beyond cavil or dispute.’ The telegraph thenceforward, as far as its mechanism was concerned, went on without a check, and the modifications of the instrument, which is still in use, have been made for the purpose of rendering it more economical in its construction and working, two wires at present being employed, and in some cases only one.

Professor Wheatstone, whilst making valuable communications for the purposes of this work, bore emphatic testimony to the zeal displayed by Robert Stephenson from first to last—from 1837 up to the time of his death ?—to advance the science and protect the interests of telegraphy.

Since he fixed himself in town Robert Stephenson had enjoyed a fine and rapidly increasing professional income - an income to be measured by thousands. He had, therefore, begun to five with the luxury and some of the ostentation, usual with persons of wealth. In compliance with Mrs. Stephenson’s wishes, but not without reluctance, he visited the Heralds’ College, and informing the heralds that, according to a family tradition, he was descended from ‘ the Stephensons of Mount Grenan in Scotland,’ asked permission to use the arms of that house. In what estimation the officers of the college held ‘ the tradition ’ it is needless to enquire. On the whole, they acted with discretion. Taking a middle course between their own interests and the rights of the Mount Grenan Stephensons, they took some of the fleur-de-lis and mullets from the shield of the Mount Grenan family, and, having dished them up with a crest and other garnishings, granted them as an heraldic bearing to Robert Stephenson and his father and their descendants. These arms Robert Stephenson took (November 21,1838), and without haggling paid the sum at which they were priced. Honestly bought, they were perhaps obtained not less honourably than many ancient devices tricked in the College archives. But Robert Stephenson, truthful, honest, and simple, with a repugnance to flattery and a detestation of shams, never liked them.

Not long before his death, his eye chancing to fall on an object ornamented with his arms, he blushed slightly, and said to an old friend by his side — ‘ Ah, I wish I had n’t adopted that foolish coat of arms! Considering what a little matter it is, you could scarcely believe how often I have been annoyed by “ that silly picture”'

See Also


Sources of Information