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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 X (Volume 2)

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 X. (Volume 2). Last Scenes - Plus APPENDIX

THE next morning (Sunday) he was decidedly worse, and by night it was felt that, unless he made good speed to England, he would most probably die away from his native country. Early on Monday morning (September 5) the yachts dropped down the Christiania fiord. When they were just off Drobak— from which place the London market obtains the ice sold as ‘ Wenham Lake Ice ’— he became much worse, and there were good grounds for fear that he would not reach the British coast alive. While the passengers on board the ‘ Mayfly ’ were at breakfast, Mr. Gooch came alongside in one of the ‘ Titania’s ’ boats, begging Mr. Perry (who was a member of the medical profession, though he had relinquished practice) to pay ‘ the chief ’ a visit. The wind was up, and momentarily blowing stronger, and the yachts were fast approaching the open sea, when, in case of rougher weather, it would be impossible to send messengers from one vessel to the other. It was therefore decided that Mr. Gooch should take back with him to the ‘ Titania ’ Mr. and Mrs. Perry, and replace them without delay by Mr. Phipps and Mr. Italy. This shifting of passengers would give the invalid the benefit of medical attendance.

Two hours later, and the change could not have been effected. Heavy weather ensued, and the homeward passage was rude and perilous enough to try the endurance and fortitude of trained sailors. Jaundice, in a most aggravated form, had supervened upon other mischief, and the dying ‘ chief ’ passed days and nights in extreme danger. To make matters even more dismal, the ‘Titania’ was denied the companionship of the ‘ Mayfly.’. In the darkness the two yachts missed each other. The ‘ Titania ’ being by far the slower craft, her captain, judging that the ‘ Mayfly ’ had unawares gone much ahead of her, deemed it best to make all possible way, in the hope of overtaking her. On the other hand, the ‘Mayfly,’ knowing her own superior powers, slackened pace so that she might be overtaken, when, in reality, instead of having outstripped the ‘ Titania,’ she was far behind her. The consequence was, that the vessels did not again speak with each other until the close of the passage.

On the 13th the ‘Titania’ neared the Suffolk coast, and after beating about for several hours in darkness, she found the ‘Mayfly’ close beside her, waiting to enter Lowestoft port. As no arrangement had been made for the two parties to meet at that point, the occurrence was an agreeable surprise to both. A pilot having been obtained, the yachts entered the fine harbour of Lowestoft at early dawn. The sight of ‘ the old country ’ did the sick man good. He was well enough to walk on shore from his yacht to the railway station, where he had to wait a short time for a train. It was suggested that he should be carried, but he insisted on walking—and he walked, leaning on the arms of two friends.

To convey him from the coast to London was the work of a short time. The sight of home appeared to restore him, after the fatigue and suffering of the preceding days. No time was lost in sending a messenger for Dr. Frederick Bird, who with Dr. Baly remained in constant attendance until the end.

From the day of reaching Gloucester Square till the following Sunday he seemed to improve. Certainly he gained strength. On Sunday afternoon, without medical permission, he astonished the members of his household by appearing in the drawing-room, and declaring that he had grown tired of his bedroom, and was resolved no longer to be treated as a sick man. But the exertion and the excitement of conversation were too much for him, and he was carried, rather than led, back to the apartment in which he died.

The next morning he was much worse; obstinate congestion of the liver was followed by dropsy of the whole system, and it was seen by his physicians that the close was not far distant. Aware of his position, he manifested a serenity that would have been perfect, had it not been occasionally broken by anxiety for Mrs. Bidder and the other affectionate friends who watched him day and night. For death he had no fear. Indeed, as a place of rest the grave he had long been prepared for.

Whilst death stood over him, the concern of the public mind was deep and universal. A continual stream of callers enquired at the door, and intelligence of his state was daily sent by rail or telegraph, to the chief centres of British industry.

At mid-day (shortly before the clocks marked the hour of twelve), on October 12, 1859, Robert Stephenson breathed his last.

As soon as it was learnt that he was no more, there was an universal exclamation of regret. Although his celebrity had made him a familiar name in every civilised community, he was, in the ordinary sense of the term, ‘ a private person.’ It was only occasionally that he had acted as the commissioned servant of the entire nation. Never before had the death of a private person struck so deeply the feelings of his country. Coming so soon after that of the younger Brunel, his irreparable loss left a blank which no one living engineer could be expected to fill.

The regret was uniform throughout all ranks. Neither party nor clique contradicted the one prevailing sentiment. The man who in his life had been incapable of jealousy or meanness, was followed to the grave by men of every shade of opinion.

Not five days after his death, the following letter was penned by the Viceroy of Egypt, who, ignorant that the final blow had fallen, was anxious to express his sympathy with the affliction of a much-valued friend.

(See PDF version for the text of the letter)

In London and in the North of England the emotion was more personal than elsewhere. In the metropolis, as an eminently popular member of Parliament, as Commissioner on the Health of Towns, a Commissioner for the great Exhibition, the consulting engineer of several railway companies and commercial associations, and an active member of learned societies, he necessarily left behind him a larger number of personal acquaintances than are claimed by most men of active habits. And to have talked with Robert Stephenson once was to feel a cordial affection for him ever afterwards. But even in places which he had never visited, and by men whom he had never seen, he was mourned for, as a great friend snatched away, rather than as a great man summoned to eternity. Strangers had looked upon him in his works, and had surveyed his career again and again in that powerful biography which has made George Stephenson loved by thousands who will never have an opportunity of examining the monuments of his industry.

To the enquiry where Robert Stephenson should be buried, there was only one answer. Without a dissentient voice, pub-

(See PDF version for missing text)

SIR,— Before sanctioning your proposal that the Funeral Procession of the late Mr. Stephenson should be allowed to pass through Hyde Park on its way to Westminster Abbey, His ROYAL HIGHNESS deemed it expedient to take HER MAJESTY’S pleasure on so unusual an application, and for which no precedent exists. HER MAJESTY considers that as the late Mr. STEPHENSON is to be buried in Westminster Abbey, in acknowledgment of the high position he occupied, and the world-wide reputation he had won for himself as an Engineer, his funeral, though strictly speaking private, as being conducted by his friends, partakes of the character of a public ceremony; and being anxious, moreover, to show that she fully shares with the public in lamenting the loss which the country has sustained by his death—she cannot hesitate for a moment in giving her entire sanction to the course which His ROYAL HIGHNESS THE RANGER recommends.

I have the honour to be, Sir, Your obedient servant, (Signed) J. MACDONALD.

On Friday October 21, the body was conveyed to the tomb. Shortly before 11 o’clock, A.M. the procession, consisting of the hearse drawn by six horses, mourning carriages drawn by four horses each, and a long line of private carriages, formed in Gloucester Square, and wended its way slowly in the direction of the Abbey.

Entering Hyde Park at the Victoria Gate, the cortege moved past the Serpentine to Apsley House, down Grosvenor Place, and along Victoria Street, ultimately pausing in the Cloisters of the Abbey. Throughout the route dense throngs paid, by their quiet demeanour, a genuine tribute of respect to the dead.

The great west door receives the mortal remains only of monarchs and nobles. Borne into the Abbey by a side door, the body of the untitled engineer was received by the dean and clergy, attended by the choir. The pall was borne by the Marquis of Chandos, Mr. G. C. Glyn, M.P., Mr. Joseph Locke, M.P., Sir Roderick Murchison, Mr. Samuel Beale, M.P., and Mr. John Chapman.

On the procession approaching the Abbey, the council and officers of the Institution of Civil Engineers advanced in order from the Jerusalem Chamber, where they had assembled, and took rank with the mourners. In the cloisters also, ready to join in the line, were deputations from the Grand Trunk Canada Railway, the Electric Telegraph Company (of which the deceased was chairman at the time of his death), the Victoria Dock Company, the Royal Society, the Royal Geographical Society, the Geological Society, the Society of Arts, the Meteorological Society, the Astronomical Society, the Birmingham Institution of Mechanical Engineers, and the directors and officers of many railway companies.

So great was the anxiety of the public to obtain admittance to the Abbey, that the approaches were thronged from an early hour by persons seeking entrance. More than two thousand tickets of invitation were issued, and it was computed that at least three thousand persons were present. In that vast assemblage were the best and wisest of the land. Nor was long time to elapse before three of the distingtiished crowd followed their friend to the unseen world. Since that day, Joseph Locke, Professor Baden Powell, and Professor Eaton Hodgkinson have been taken from the pursuits by which they conferred enduring benefit on their feUow-men.

On the day of the funeral, the shipping on the river carried their fiags half-mast high. At Newcastle, Gateshead, North Shields, Tynemouth, and Sunderland, merchants’ offices, banks, and shops were closed at noon, the shipping on the Wear and Tyne paying the deceased the same honour as the fleets upon the Thames. At Whitby the mourning was universal. Other towns showed no less respect to the dead. And at Newcastle, the workmen from the factory of Robert Stephenson and Co., more than fifteen hundred strong, marched to St. Nicholas’ Church, and attended divine service.

This strong mark of respect was paid by the men spontaneously, and so much pleasure did their conduct give to Mr. George Robert Stephenson, that two months later he wrote the following letter to Mr. William Pearson, Treasurer of the Workmen’s Sick Fund at Messrs. Robert Stephenson & Co.’s Engine Manufactory, Newcastle.

24 Great George Street, London: Dec. 16,1859.

DEAR SIR,— I am desirous to express my sense of the admirable way in which the workmen showed their respect and affection for my late cousin Mr. Robert Stephenson, on the day of his funeral. When I first heard of their request, that there should be a special service in St. Nicholas’ Church, at the hour of his interment in Westminster Abbey, and of their wish to attend in a body, for the purpose of paying the last tribute to his memory, I felt that such an act, besides being most gratifying to myself, and the other friends of the deceased, also reflected the highest credit on the men themselves, and demanded from me a marked acknowledgment. I therefore propose to contribute to the Workmen’s Sick Fund the sum of £500, with the understanding that this amount shall be under the control of trustees, to be invested for the benefit of the fund. I shall feel obliged by your communicating this to the men, with my personal thanks for their conduct on the melancholy occasion referred to.

I remain, dear Sir, Yours faithfully, GEORGE ROBERT STEPHENSON.

Another expression of regret for the great commander of workmen deserves record. On the day preceding the funeral, an urgent application for a card of admission to the Abbey during the ceremony, was made to Mr. Charles Manby. The applicant was Henry Weatherburn, a workman employed on the South-Eastern Railway, who based his request on the fact that, many years before, he drove the first locomotive engine, called the ‘Harvey Coombe,’ that was used in the construction of the London and Birmingham Railway. It is needless to say that the merit of the claim was recognised.

Robert Stephenson’s grave in Westminster Abbey occupies a spot nearly in the centre of the nave, near the grave of Bell, the founder of the Madras system of teaching, Telford the engineer, and John Hunter the physiologist.

The plate on his coffin-lid bears this inscription—

ROBERT STEPHENSON, ESQ. CIVIL ENGINEER,
D.C.L. AND F.R.S.
Born November 16, 1803.
Died October 12, 1859.

The monumental brass which has recently been placed over the site of his tomb is surrounded by this legend:—

Sacred to the memory of ROBERT STEPHENSON, M.P., D.C.L., F.R.S., &c., late President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, who Died Oct. 12, A.D. 1859, aged 56 years.

A memorial window in honour of the Engineer has recently been placed in the Abbey by his executors, and a bronze statue, by Baron Marochetti, will be erected in the vicinity of Great George Street; that street which, by future generations, will be associated with the name of— ROBERT STEPHENSON.


APPENDIX. (See PDF Version for the Appendices)


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