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 XII

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 XII. From the Completion of the London to Birmingham Railway to the opening of the Newcastle and Darlington Line. (age 35-41)

THE railway system was fixed. To disturb that system attempts were made by men of intellect and high character ; but those attempts were futile. The principal rules laid down by the Stephensons between 1820 and 1838 are the rules of railway engineering at the present day. The example set by the great leaders was followed successfully in all directions. The younger Brunel, a man dear to all lovers of genius, was at work on the Great Western, Mr. Francis Giles was laying down the line between London and Southampton ; Mr. John Braithwaite undertook the London and Colchester, bringing life and increased trade to the eastern counties. In the north, George Stephenson had under his supervision the Manchester and Leeds, the North Midland from Derby to Leeds, the York and North Midland from Normanton to York; the Grand Junction Railway projected by the father (but executed by Joseph Locke) having already united his magnificent Liverpool and Manchester fine with his son’s road terminating in Euston Square. It would be beside the purpose of this work to enter into the details of each of these works, and of the other lines that followed them in quick succession—details for the most part closely resembling each other. It will be sufficient to select for description those roads alone on which Robert Stephenson’s distinctive powers found most emphatic expression.

The engineer-in-chief’s labour on the London and Birmingham Railway was by no means at an end when the line was opened. Works on it still remained to be completed, and improvements had to be made at various points before ‘the chief’ (as up to the day of his death Robert Stephenson’s staff were wont to call him) could dismiss the line from his thoughts. As soon as he was able to give his attention to the matter, the North Midland line from Derby to Leeds was on his hands. He was also needed on the continent. The grand cross fines from Ostend to Liege and from Antwerp to Mons were under construction and requiring his superintendence. Invitations also reached him to visit France, Switzerland, and Italy, to advise on fines contemplated in those countries. Entrusting the superintendence of his home fines to his father and the execution of them to his subordinates, and quitting Westminster when the business of the committee-rooms was daily becoming heavier, he left England for three months to answer in person these calls from foreign countries. At this period he became intimately acquainted with Mons. Paulin Talabot, a civil engineer who for many years has held a leading position amongst the civil engineers and capitalists of the continent. At a subsequent period Robert Stephenson, Signor Negretti, and M. Talabot surveyed the Isthmus of Suez, and ascertained that the levels of the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea were identical.

On his return he was soon busy again with the affairs of English railways. On July 1 he attended the meeting of the Council of the Railway Society. The next day saw him giving evidence before the Select Committee of Railways. On the 16 th of the same month he was at Derby about the railway station of that town ; the next day at Clay Cross to look over his father’s coal mines ; the next day at Sheffield and over the Sheffield and Rotherham Works ; the next day at Tap ton to negotiate the purchase of land for a railway station; the next day at Birmingham to meet the Committee of the London and Birmingham line; the next day in town for examination before parliamentary committees.

In the autumn of this year, Robert Stephenson received an expression of the high esteem in which he was held by an influential division of the business men engaged in the construction of the railways of the country. As the reader is by this time well aware, a large number of the contracts on the London and Birmingham line came back to the Company uncompleted. Of course the contractors did not get quit of their engagements without much delicate and painful negotiation with the directors. In other cases where the contracts were fulfilled, the course of their performance was marked by misunderstandings and disputes between the Company and the master-employers. To arbitrate in such disputes, and to adjudicate in such difficulties, Robert Stephenson was by temper, information, and reputation, peculiarly fitted; and it adds not a little to his fame that in nearly all the disagreements between directors and contractors he was appointed sole umpire.

The course thus commenced on the London and Birmingham line was continued on the North Midland, the Derby Junction Railway, and the York and North Midland. Whenever a contractor on one of his lines was contending with directors about the terms of an agreement, it was left with Robert Stephenson to arrange the difference.

Such services merited signal reward; and in 1839 a movement was set on foot to make an appropriate acknowledgement of them. A party of gentlemen, who were assembled (April 2, 1839) in Birmingham on a different business, suggested the propriety of presenting the popular engineer with a testimonial. The proposition was so well received, that before the meeting separated the affair had been well started. A committee, with Mr. J. D. Barry, of Manchester, for honorary secretary, had been appointed, with powers to ask for subscriptions —- it being arranged that no contribution should exceed £5 and that no one should subscribe but ‘gentlemen who had been engaged as contractors for the construction of railways or for the supply of permanent materials. A sum of £200 was subscribed in the room, and by the following November the committee held more than £1,250 for the accomplishment of their object.

In the previous July a committee of taste had been appointed to decide on the form of the testimonial. In this committee Sir John Guest, M.P., and Mr. Crawshay represented the iron trade, Mr. Bramah and Mr. Maudslay the engine manufacturers, Mr. Freeman and Mr. Bazley White the stone and cement trades, Mr. Dowson and Mr. Holland the timber trade, Mr. David M‘Intosh and Mr. Thomas Jackson the operative railway contractors. They selected a service of plate, of which the principal ornament was a candelabrum.

This service was presented to Robert Stephenson on Saturday, November 16, 1839, when he was entertained at a grand dinner in the Albion Hotel, Aldersgate Street. The banquet was attended by more than two hundred gentlemen, several of whom came from Lancashire. In the absence of Mr. Crawshay, who was to have taken the chair, Mr. William Routh (Mr. Crawshay’s partner) presided, the vice-presidents being Messrs. Joseph Dowson, John Joseph Bramah, Thomas Grissell, and Thomas Jackson. On the chairman’s right sate Robert Stephenson, the hero of the evening. On the left of the chairman was George Stephenson. At present, the father had received no similar acknowledgement of his services, as ‘ the Author of the Railway System.’ Indeed, his achievements had for the moment been eclipsed by those of his son. The fine old man, whose kindest teacher had been adversity, was even yet not duly appreciated in the metropolis. His manners were rugged and far from prepossessing, and his personal connections were for the most part in his own ‘ old country.’ For one inhabitant of London who visited the Liverpool and Manchester line, ninety and nine were familiar with the works on the London and Birmingham Railway. Moreover, the father, with the appearance and reputation of having seen more years than he actually numbered, was in the decline of life, whilst the power and fortunes of the son were in the ascendant. It is therefore easy to account for the fact, that ‘ the Father of the Railway System ’ saw his son thus publicly honoured, whilst he himself had been comparatively unnoticed.

George Stephenson had still to wait for his ‘ railway testimonial; ’ but not the less was he delighted with his son’s triumph. Indeed, why should he grudge ‘ the lad ’ the world’s homage ? To make him ‘ a great man ’ had been his aim from the time when he wrote down the boy’s name as ‘ engineer ’ on the plans of the Stockton and Darlington line.

In his life of turmoil and many cares Robert Stephenson had few opportunities for domestic repose. Whenever he could manage to do so, he spent Sunday at Haverstock Hill, often posting for hours in order that he might have a quiet day with Mrs. Stephenson. From 1838 to 1811 the urgent calls upon his time in different parts of the country made his presence in his own house almost a surprise to its inmates ; but whenever he was there the home was the merrier. Amongst the thousands of letters perused for this memoir, the following was found tied up with epistles relating to improvements in the locomotive and the execution of orders at the Newcastle factory.

Feb. 1840.

DEAR EDWARD, — I bought when last in Newcastle two plaids, which have been intensely admired, and this compels me to venture on troubling you to purchase two more of the same pattern. The ladies have determined upon sporting plaids of this character in the precincts of the metropolis, and in a season or two they expect to be designated Scotch lassies. The above sketch is made with the view of guiding yon in selecting the same pattern, by which you will perceive that the ground is green with stripes of red and what I call black, but what I call the black stripes seems to partake of the qualities of the chameleon, for Fanny declares it to be lavender. Now I am obliged to confess total ignorance of this peculiar colour lavender; suffice it to say I still consider it to ordinary eyes black. I would therefore advise you, if you meet with a colour between black and lavender, to consider that you have hit the mark. I purchased these said admired plaids at Robson and Henderson’s, and they may perhaps recollect a strange outlandish-looking gent purchasing two plaids, and requesting them to be forwarded to the Queen’s Head. I mention this as a sort of collateral aid to you in your commission, which I fear you will consider a difficult one. The sketch shows the exact distances and the relative widths of the stripes, for it is made by laying the plaid upon the sheet of paper.

Should you succeed, you will be good enough to send them by coach. I paid one sovereign each for mine, and they are of fine quality. This is essential, as they are infinitely warmer than coarse ones.

Fanny, I think, is going on well, although she is still grazing on macaroni, and occasionally a little marine flesh, vulgarly called fish. She desires to be kindly remembered to all, and requests me to say all the are well. Yours sincerely, ROB. STEPHENSON.

By this time the incumbrances of the Stanhope and Tyne Railway had grown with fearful rapidity. In 1839 the portion of line between Stanhope and Medomsley was declared to be so ruinous, that the directors determined no longer to work it. The railway being thus disused, the lime quarries held on lease at a rent of £2,000 per annum could no longer be worked with even a semblance of profit, and were consequently permitted to lie idle. Thus nearly the whole of the original scheme was deserted as bad, when its desertion entailed on the speculation an annual payment of rent amounting to £2,300. By the end of the following year (1840) the debts of the Company were so great that creditors began to clamour. Bills for which the Company was responsible were floating about in ah. directions, and the holders refused to renew them.

Until the close of 1840, Robert Stephenson was in ignorance of the exact nature of his position. He knew that, as payment for professional services, he held shares in a line that had turned out badly; and somewhat vaguely he had for two years feared that the consequence of his holding £1,000 of stock would be that he would have to pay up some hundreds more to make an arrangement with the creditors of the association. In 1840, however, he learnt to his horror that, as a shareholder, he was personally responsible for the entire debts of the undertaking. It was also frankly intimated to him that, unless certain bills were met on their falling due, the holders would come upon him for the money. He could scarcely credit the announcement. Without his knowledge insolvency had long been staring him in the face.

Of all the shareholders, he was perhaps the one from whom the creditors of the Company were most secure of payment. It was known that he had for years been earning a magnificent income, not one half of which he had expended on his pleasures or his establishment. It was known also that he disliked speculation, and invariably put his savings into investments that were secure, and could be easily realised. His professional position and public reputation also would spur him to a prompt liquidation of legal claims on his purse. To him, therefore, was brought the first bill which the directors could not meet. To Robert Stephenson, who throughout life was strangely ignorant of the simplest rules of law, the application at first seemed little more than an awkward joke. He soon regarded the affair in a different fight; and coming in great agitation to his friend and solicitor Mr. Parker, asked what ought to be done. Writing to Mr. Cook at Newcastle on December 2, 1840, when the blow was still new, Robert Stephenson said—

I hope you will be able to make a dividend soon: I wish this for two reasons — firstly, because I want money, and secondly because I don’t like your bankers. If they are not speculating beyond what is prudent I am deceived. And in that opinion I am borne out by several circumstances which have lately been brought before me in a way likely to affect myself very seriously. That prince of rogues has, I am sorry to say, involved all parties connected with the Stanhope and Tyne and almost all the banks of Newcastle and Sunderland. When I first became acquainted with the awful responsibilities which the Stanhope and Tyne had incurred, and the utter inability of the concern to meet them, I was perfectly stunned, and your bank has lent them on bills £51,000, which are at this moment floating. Some become due next Saturday, on which day, I have no doubt, the Stanhope and Tyne Company must stop payment. This is exactly what I am most anxious to do, for to allow ——? and to proceed further would be madness. I have got parties in London to write down to the bankers not to accept or renew any more bills. ? left town last night for the purpose of getting them to do so, but I expect I am in time to stop his reckless career.

At Mr. Parker’s advice, an extraordinary general meeting of the proprietors was summoned for December 29, 1840, which was adjourned to January 2 next following. At this adjourned meeting it was decided to dissolve the Company, and to form a new Company with a capital of £400,000, such new concern taking, at the same time, the property and the debts of the bankrupt association and applying to Parliament for incorporation. This bold plan offered the shareholders the only chance of extrication from their embarrassments. The intention of the new projectors was to apply their subscribed capital to the immediate liquidation of their debts, and by stringent economy to endeavour to carry on the concern without loss. If they should succeed, all would be well. But even if failure should be the fate of the new Company, acting under parliamentary sanction, individual shareholders would be defended from ruin.

There was no room for loss of time. It was necessary that the capital of the new association should be subscribed and paid up without delay, for creditors were importunate. On February 5 another meeting of shareholders was held, when the resolutions of January 2 were confirmed and the old Company was dissolved. At the time of the dissolution, there were forty-nine interests in the proprietary of the Stanhope and Tyne Company. Of these thirty-six absolutely consented to the dissolution; of five other interests, where the original holders were dead, four executors gave in their consent, the fifth executor being abroad and not opposing. Four other shareholders were bankrupt.

Of course all the shareholders were invited and urgently pressed to subscribe to the new speculation. Equally a matter of course was it, that the smaller shareholders were disinclined to embark their hundreds on another venture between Stanhope and Tyne. They were only too glad to put their liabalities on shoulders stronger than their own. It remained for the greater men with greater interests at stake to advance their thousands on the effort of retrieval. The assets of the dissolved Company, at a liberal computation, did not exceed £307,383, whilst the liabilities of the affair were £440,852. To deal with this accumulation of debt, the monied men made great efforts to contribute effectually to the capital of the new undertaking.

On the committee of the new Company Robert Stephenson’s name was placed, and, regarding the venture as the only possible means of escaping from his perilous position, he threw himself heartily into its interests. The hne of action once decided on, his mind became easier ; and with the soothing assurance that the best measures had been adopted, he resolved to persevere in them and await their result with calmness. On the evening of the 29th he wrote to Newcastle.

35b Great George Street, Westminster: Dec. 29, 1840.

DEAR EDWARD,— We have this day had a meeting of the Stanhope and Tyne Railway, and I hope its result portends good, but it is still somewhat uncertain. The Company’s affairs are awfully deranged, and the precise consequences no one can venture to predict. We may possibly struggle through, but this hope may prove fallacious. .... I dare say I shall very shortly be at Newcastle, when I can explain more at length all the outs and ins in this affair, which are too painful and too lengthy for an epistle of an ordinary character. ^Tien I was last at your canny town I intended to have gone into the matter with my friend Stanton, †† but, as you saw, I was too much occupied and too anxious to sit down to talk over matters involving such consequences. The history of the Stanhope and Tyne is most instructive, and one miss of this kind ought to be, as it shall be, a lesson deeply stamped. If the matter get through, I promise you I shall never be similarly placed again. Ordinary rascality bears no relation to that which has been brought into play in this affair. I conclude from what has transpired that all the —?— will shortly be in the Gazette, and how many they may drag after them into the same position it is impossible to predict.

On January 12, just ten days after the adjourned general meeting, £250,000 of the proposed capital of £400,000 were subscribed for the new association, the rest of the required sum being in due course found. Robert Stephenson put his name down for £20,000 and, like his fellow-subscribers, promptly paid the amount of his subscription as the instalments agreed upon became due. To fulfill this engagement he had to raise money by all the means in his power, and to transfer one half of his share in the Newcastle factory to his father.

Hampstead: Jan. 4, 1841,

DEAR EDWARD,— Your view as to my wishes respecting one half of my interest in the factory is exactly what I wish. The transaction is not intended to be otherwise than bond fide between my father and myself. The fact is, I owe him nearly £4,000, and I have not now the means of paying him as I expected I should have a month or two ago. All my available means must now be applied to the Stanhope and Tyne. On the 15th of this month I have ^5,000 to pay into their coffers. The swamping of all my labours for years past does not now press heavily on my mind. It did so for a few days, but I feel now master of myself; and though I may become poor in purse, I shall still have a treasure of satisfaction amongst friends who have been friends in my prosperity. The worst feature in the case is the all-absorbing character of my attention to the rectification of its embarrassments, which if produced by legitimate misfortune would have been tolerable, but when produced by ... . men who are indebted to me, they become doubly afflicting. I am not without hopes that before the 15th of this month we shall have succeeded in bringing the affairs into a tangible state, and about that date I hope to be in Newcastle. Yours sincerely, Rob. STEPHENSON.

Anxious to get rid of a bad name as well as bad fortune, the new association petitioned Parliament for incorporation under the title of ‘The Pontop and South Shields Railway Company.’ Their prayer was successful, but they did not gain the Royal assent without a struggle. The same evil influence which had brought the affairs of the Stanhope and Tyne into so disastrous a condition, opposed to the utmost the Pontop and South Shields line. Through that influence, a petition was concocted; imploring Parliament that the Act desired by the new Company should not become law. Readers unacquainted with the daring of reckless and embarrassed speculators, and ignorant of the ease with which such persons can work on the passions of the ill-informed, will scarcely believe that a most vigorous opposition was maintained against so honest and necessary a project. The opponents of course represented that the ‘Pontop and South Shields’ scheme was simply a conspiracy on the part of the rich to oust the poor shareholders from an undertaking' just as it was about to become profitable. Absurd as such a charge was, it gained so much credit that on the second reading before ‘ the Lords,’ Lord Canterbury denounced the Bill as ‘a measure of spoliation.’

Amongst other plans for effecting their objects, the directors of the ‘ Pontop and South Shields ’ line entered into a compact with the projectors of the Newcastle and Darlington Railway, which line had for some time been sketched out by those who were bent on uniting the Tyne and the Thames by an iron road. The chief points of the contract can be stated in a few words. Five miles of the Stanhope and Tyne line formed a connecting link between the Durham Junction Railway and the Brandling Junction Railway, and were used for conveying passengers between the towns of Newcastle, Gateshead, South Shields, Sunderland, and other important places. It was proposed to make these five miles of railway a part of the Great North of England Railway, which was to unite Newcastle with London and the southern and western parts of the country. Of course such a proposal took from Robert Stephenson and his brother directors a heavy weight of anxiety, opening up to them, as it did, a profitable market for a portion of their encumbered property, and ensuring them powerful cooperation in their approaching parliamentary battle. The two Companies agreed to assist each other.

This arrangement is worthy of notice; for George Hudson was appointed chairman of the Newcastle and Darlington Junction fine, and to watch the Bill through Parliament in the session 1841—42 he quitted York and came up to London, where he speedily became powerful in the railway world. One of the consequences of the arrangement between the two Companies was that Robert Stephenson became the engineer of the line in which the Railway King was interested.

It was an anxious session for Robert Stephenson, and he had reason to dread the advent of George Hudson upon the scene. Fortunately, however, the chairman of next (if not equal) to one’s own pleasure in one’s own success is that of knowing our friends participate in it.’

Before the Stanhope and Tyne affair is dismissed from consideration, it may be well to state that the Pontop and South Shields line turned out a great success, and was, in the course of a few years, sold on good terms to the Newcastle and Darlington Junction Railway Company.

The anxious and trying year of 1841 was marked to Robert Stephenson by one pleasing event. In the August of that year the King of the Belgians created him a Knight of the Order of Leopold, the honour being conferred as ‘a testimony of his Majesty’s satisfaction with improvements made in locomotive engines, which improvements have turned to the advantage of Belgian iron roads.’

The cloud of the Stanhope and Tyne trouble had, however, scarcely been dispelled, when a far darker cloud took its place, and Robert Stephenson was called upon to endure the great sorrow of his life. Mrs. Stephenson had for two years suffered from malignant cancer, when she expired, without experiencing the weary duration of agony which that malady sometimes inflicts upon its victims. Tender and true to the last, she studied to lighten the blow which was soon to fall upon Robert Stephenson, and which, as he long afterwards remarked to a friend, took away from him ‘ half his power of enjoying success.’ When he was created a Knight of the Order of Leopold she, already too sick to care for earthly honours, feigned the pleasure she would, a few years earlier, have really felt at the distinction. When the session of 1841-42 secured him from threatened insolvency, and commissioned him to lead the Northern Railway into his ‘dear old canny town,’ no one exulted more at his triumph than the gentle woman who knew full well that, while the sods were being cut to make way for the new road, the turf would be raised for her own grave.

Even while such a calamity was impending, Robert Stephenson could not defer the claims of business. His note-book and letters during the summer months of 1842 show him passing from place to place along the route of the Darlington and Newcastle road, posting from one midland town to another to be present at important negotiations, and, when he was in London, working more than twelve hours out of every twenty-four over calculations, plans, estimates, and the burdensome correspondence entailed upon him by his many engagements, from Wales to Hull, and from Northumberland to the South of Europe.

On September 17 he returned to London from Cardiff, where he had been for two days examining the docks, and immediately on reaching Great George Street had a consultation about the Hull Docks. The 18th (Sunday) was spent alone with Fanny: but the next six days were devoted to business. These are the engagements and objects of attention jotted down in his note-book.

19th.—Hull Docks—Darlington and Stockton Bridge—? French Railway.
20th. —French Railway—Bute Docks — Darlington Bridge.
21st.— French Railway Report.
22nd. — French Railway Report — Hull Docks.
23rd. — French Railway Report — Hull Docks.
24th. — French Railway Report — Hull Docks.

Sunday (the 25th) was, like the preceding day of rest, spent with Mrs. Stephenson; but during the three succeeding days the French Railway, the Stockton Bridge, and the Pontop and South Shields line, occupied most of his time and energy. The spaces allotted in the diary to the next five days are filled up with ‘At home—Fanny very ill.’ and then at the date of October 4, standing out in affecting contrast to the brief memorials of enterprise and labour by which it is surrounded, is the following entry in Robert Stephenson’s hand:— ‘My dear Fanny died this morning at five o’clock. God grant that I may close my life as she has done, in the true faith, and in charity with all men. Her last moments were perfect calmness.’ On the following Tuesday (October 11) she was interred in Hampstead churchyard, where in after years her husband often came to stand alone and indulge in solemn meditation. She wished him to marry again, and on her death-bed urged him to do so. It was the only wish of hers with which he did not comply.

Another extract from the note-book will show how he was literally dragged from his wife’s grave to the turmoil and agitation of business.

Oct. 11th — Funeral of my beloved wife.
12th.— Home — Stockton and Darlington Bridge.
13th.— Stockton Bridge, plans and specifications — West London, estimate and plans — French Railway Report with Berkley — Maidstone Bridge.
14th.— Maidstone Branch with Bidder—-Norwich plans — Newcastle and Darlington plans —French Railway Report.
15th. — Maidstone Branch with Bidder, and returned to London.

During the next two years he had perhaps more work on his hands than at any other time of his life; but of all his engagements—the continental lines, the docks, and his home railways—the task just then nearest to his heart was the construction of the Newcastle and Darlington Junction, the line which would unite the metropolis with his ‘aiu countree.’

Two years saw the necessary works for effecting the junction begun and ended, and on June 18, 1844, the line was opened with general rejoicing and a public reception of the two Stephensons at Newcastle. The population on the banks of Tyne displayed great excitement. Bells were rung, cannon fired, and triumphal arches raised. Processions of workmen headed by bands of music, marched up and down the precipitous streets of the two boroughs, which throughout the day were crowded by the inhabitants of the surrounding colliery villages. The London ‘Morning Herald’ came to Tyneside that day within eight hours after its publication—a feat never before achieved. Antiquarians, who abound in Newcastle, ferreted up old newspapers, letters, and account-books, throwing fight on the means of transit enjoyed by their ancestors. Copies of the following advertisement (inserted in the ‘Newcastle Courant’ in 1712) were, with many other interesting scraps, handed about, and in due course enlivened the columns of the local papers :—

Edinbro’, Berwick, Newcastle, Durham, and London stagecoach begins on Monday, October 13, 1712. All that desire to pass from Edinbro’ to London, or any place on the road, let them repair to Mr. John Baillie’s at the Coach and Horses at the Head of Canongate, Edinbro’, every other Saturday, or to the Black Swan in Holborn every other Monday, at both of which places they may be received in the stage-coach, which performs the whole journey in thirteen days without any stoppages (if God permit), having eighty able horses to perform the whole journey, each passenger paying four pounds ten shillings, allowing each passenger 20 lbs. of luggage; all above, sixpence per lb. The coach sets off at six o’clock in the morning.

The Darlington and Newcastle line is by no means devoid of engineering interest, for one of its principal works is the Victoria Bridge, which spans the river Wear and the rich valley watered by that important river. Built of stone, this beautiful bridge will probably exist a memorial of Robert Stephenson’s capacity, when his later viaducts of more stupendous dimensions, and carried through the air at far greater heights, shall, in consequence of their less durable material, live only in history. A fairer monument no engineer could desire. Surrounded by scenery of uncommon loveliness, its bright arches thrown from ridge to ridge (one of them leaping at a bound the entire width of the navigable river, the others spanning the fat pastures and wooded ascents on either side of the valley), present a spectacle singularly expressive of the grace and power of genius. No excursionist to the North of England should fail to leave the train at Washington, and spend a few hours at the base of Pensher Hill, in the valley of the Wear. On the summit of the hill is the ill-designed monument to the memory of Lord Durham, whilst rising from the ground beneath are Robert Stephenson’s elegant curves of massive stone.

An important part of the celebration at Newcastle on June 18, 1844, was the dinner in the Town Hall, of which about 350 gentlemen partook. George Hudson was in the chair, Mr. Davies, the vice-chairman of the Company, officiating as vice-president, and Mr. John Bright, the present member for Birmingham, being one of many notable persons present.

The speech of the day was made by George Stephenson. The Hon. H. T. Liddell, M.P., on proposing the health of the father of ‘ the railway system ’ gave utterance to the following erroneous statement.

Of all men now living, concluded Mr. Liddell, none have conferred so great an amount of practical benefit on society as his respected friend, and their admired guest, Mr. Stephenson, who, aided by strong natural talents, commencing from a working engineer to a colliery in this neighbourhood, constructed the first locomotive that ever went by its own spontaneous movement along iron rails. (Applause.)

To appreciate the full force of this blunder the reader must bear in mind that the Liddells reside in the immediate neighbourhood of Newcastle; that Sir Thomas Liddell (afterwards Lord Ravensworth), as one of the ‘ grand allies,’ was amongst George Stephenson’s early employers; and that it was on the property of the ‘ grand allies ’ that the locomotive (to which the speaker referred) was used, after it had been built with Sir T. Liddell’s money subsequent to the use of locomotives running with smooth wheels on smooth rails at Wylam. When a man of high character and ability could be so misinformed not only as to the history of the locomotive, but as to facts that occurred almost within gunshot of his father’s park, readers need not wonder at the prevalence of the popular error which attributes to George Stephenson the invention of the locomotive.

Anxious that his father should be the principal hero of the day, Robert Stephenson, on his health being drunk with a tumult of applause, spoke no more than a few sentences, observing in the course of his brief reply that ‘ It was only ten years since he left the North to execute the London and Birmingham Railway, since which time he and his father had had the honour of being more or less connected with every railway between Birmingham and Newcastle.’

Whilst the Newcastle and Darlington Railway was in course of execution Robert Stephenson made two visits to the continent. In 1843 he spent several days at Naples considering railway projects, and more especially protecting the interests of the Newcastle factory from the unscrupulous competition of persons whom he had uniformly treated with liberality. On his return home he visited various parts of Germany, securing, as his letters to Newcastle testify, new and powerful connections wherever he went.

By this time he had given up his establishment on Haverstock Hill, and moved to Cambridge Square, Hyde Park. After Mrs. Stephenson’s death he conceived a dislike for the home which he had inhabited for eight of the happiest years of his life. It was too far from town, now that it was no longer presided over by a wife. A widower, like a bachelor, finds it best to dwell near the clubs, so that he can readily find society. Connected with Robert Stephenson’s residence in Cambridge Square- was a trifling incident, which should be mentioned, as it serves to show how careless he was about arrangements that were not connected with his profession.

Scarcely had his furniture been shifted from Haverstock Hill to Cambridge Square when much of it was destroyed by a fire that broke out in the middle of the night. Robert Stephenson, who had only slept once or twice before in his new residence, narrowly escaped with his life from the flames. While the house was undergoing restoration—a work that occupied nearly a twelvemonth—he took up his quarters in furnished lodgings, s 2 and had almost reconciled himself to the destruction of his property by fire, when he was greatly surprised by a demand from his landlord for the rent of the dwelling which had for ten months been unfit for use. He was not aware that in case of fire the tenant, unless he be protected by a special clause in his lease, or by the terms of a fire-insurance policy, endures the consequences of the casualty to the extent of paying rent for an unserviceable tenement.

On the night of this fire George Stephenson was sleeping in his son’s house. The first in the house to sniff the smell of fire, he lost no time in taking care of himself. When Robert Stephenson and his servants were in the act of flying from the burning house in their night-clothes, the prudent father made his appearance in the hall, dressed even to his white neckcloth, and with his carpet-bag packed and swinging in his hand. This anecdote is told by friends as a story highly characteristic of his presence of mind and readiness of action.

The year 1844 is a conspicuous landmark in the career of Robert Stephenson. For twenty years he had been at work without intermission, and as the result of his exertions he found himself, whilst he was still only forty years of age, in the first rank of his profession. Had he however died then, he would have left nothing to which history could point as the monument of original and distinctive genius. He had raised the locomotive by a series of beautiful improvements from the ill-proportioned and ineffective machine of 1828 almost to its present perfection of mechanism. He had, in conjunction with his father, so fixed the English railway system in continental countries, that throughout Europe his name was identified with the new means of locomotion. His engineering achievements were beyond all cavil works of great ability—but not of distinctive genius. Hitherto he had, in the manner of a master, carried out the principles and developed the conceptions of previous teachers, of whom his father was the most important. The time, however, was now come for him to take a higher position and accomplish works altogether without precedent.

The next six years of Robert Stephenson’s life - years memorable in the annals of social folly, crime, and suffering - witnessed the exertions by which his influence and name will reach future generations. They saw the atmospheric contest, the battle of the gauges, the construction of the tubular bridge, and the completion of the high level bridge.

It is impossible to record the labours of the engineer during the interval between the opening of 1844 and the close of 1850 without contrasting them with the intrigues of adventurers who regarded railway enterprise as gamesters regard a gambling table. The triumph of these adventurers was brief. Just as the worker reached the fullness of his fame, the chief speculator dropped from, his eminence, to be scouted by those who had fawned on him in prosperity, and to be despoiled by those whom he had benefited even more than by those whom he had wronged.

The rest of this memoir will be devoted to a consideration of Robert Stephenson’s great public parliamentary contests, in connection with the atmospheric system and the gauges; to a description of those remarkable achievements by which he will be known as the ‘ builder of iron bridges,’ - and to a general view of his professional and personal history from the time of his entrance into the House of Commons as member for Whitby in 1847 up to the time of his death eleven years afterwards.

But before this second portion of Robert Stephenson’s life is entered upon, in order that the reader may have a complete picture of the movement which he influenced, it will be necessary to glance at the history of railway enterprise and railway legislation.

See Also

Loading...

Sources of Information