Great Englishmen - M. B. Synge

George Stephenson (1781-1848)

About eight miles from Newcastle, and on the river Tyne, there stands a little village, and in this little village stands a labourer's cottage with whitewashed walls, clay floor, and rafters overhead.

It was at this cottage, on a bright June day, that George Stephenson was born, and the cottage still stands to mark the birthplace of the man to whom we owe our railways.

His father, Robert Stephenson, or "Old Bob," as he was called in the village, was a labourer at the village colliery. His wages were very poor, and barely enough to support his wife and six children. He was very fond of birds and animals, and in the winter time he generally had a flock of tame robins round him.

One day he took his little boy, George, to see a blackbird's nest for the first time. He held the little fellow in his arms, and let him peep down between the branches at the nest full of little birds. Though only a baby, he never forgot the sight, which awoke in him an intense love of birds and animals such as his father had.

George led an ordinary village life. He played about out of doors, ran errands, and in course of time was allowed the honour of carrying his father's dinner to him, and, to his great delight, seeing the robins fed.

When he grew a little older George begged to have some real work. A widow near needed a boy to herd the cows. George applied, and he was appointed, and to his great joy received twopence a day.

It was light work, and he had plenty of spare time on his hands, which he spent in bird-nesting and making whistles out of the reeds. But his chief amusement was making little engines out of clay, like those he had seen at the colliery where his father worked. A boy named Bill used to help him, and the two young engineers played happily together, while the cows grazed peacefully in the fields.

As George grew older he was set to lead the horses while ploughing, "though he was scarce big enough to stride across the furrows," and a short time after he went to help his father at the engine. He had longed for this step, and great was his joy, when at fourteen, he was made fireman at the wages of a shilling a day.

George was tall, and very strong and bony. He was a good runner, and foremost in all the village sports. He was a steady boy, and worked very hard. At the age of seventeen he was manager of an engine, and had already got ahead of his father as a workman. His duty was to watch the engine, and see that it worked well, and that the pumps drew water properly. His engine was a sort of pet to him, and he was never tired of watching it, cleaning it, and taking it to pieces.

But all this time George Stephenson had never learnt to read any more than his fellow-workmen. Sometimes they would get someone who could read, to read out pieces from the newspaper, and they listened eagerly to the accounts of Nelson and Napoleon, who were then surprising Europe by their victories.

Stephenson soon found out that he could never learn well about the engine if he could not read what had been written of it in books, so he joined a night-school in the village. Here he soon learnt to read, and make pot-hooks, and at nineteen was very proud of being able to write his name.

He then went to another master to learn how to do sums. He worked very hard and steadily. He would take his slate to work with him, and then every spare minute he did a sum, and took them to the master in the evening. Thus he got on very quickly, and soon knew as much as was needed.

When he was twenty-one he was an expert workman, and so honest and steady that all looked up to him. About this time he had saved money enough to marry, and he and his wife lived very happily together.

In 1802 his only son was born, and christened Robert. But two years after, his wife died, and the poor father was left alone with his baby boy. He sent the child to his father and mother to be brought up, and went to Scotland to manage a large engine in some spinning works. But there he only stayed a year. His longing to see his child again was intense, and he returned home to Killingworth to find that his aged father was totally blind. For some time George supported him entirely, and worked at his old engine again.

His boy Robert was a great comfort and delight to him, and the little fellow loved to watch his father's engine, and see him taking clocks to pieces. The cottage was well worth seeing, being filled with models of machines, and wheels, and engines. Stephenson was a great favourite, especially with the women, for he used to connect the babies' cradles to the smoke-jack, and so make them rock themselves.

Once he and his son Robert made a sun-dial to place over the cottage door, and there it still hangs, silently marking the hours, when the sun shines bright.

Now at this time there were no trains such as we see puffing along now, there were few railroads such as we see everywhere now all over the country, and there were no steam-engines which would go along at a good rate.

The great waggons full of coal had to be drawn from place to place by horses. Several things had been tried to get the heavy waggons about faster. One clever man made a tramway—that is, put down iron rails, put the waggon on them, and then hoisted a sail on the waggon, hoping the wind would take it along like a ship on the water. But that did not answer very well.

At last somebody thought of making an engine that would go along by steam. He made it very cleverly with very heavy wheels, but the chief objection to it was that it would not move! Somebody else made one to go upon four legs, and these iron legs were to move like a horse; but the first time he tried it, the boiler burst, so that was a failure.

Then one was made that would move, and did not burst, but went along at the rate of a mile an hour.

All these trials and failures Stephenson knew about, and he now resolved to set to work and invent an engine that was not quite so clumsy, and would move faster than one mile an hour.

For ten months he and a number of workmen worked hard at the new engine. At last they finished it, and to their joy found it would go four miles an hour with a weight behind it. Still it was very clumsy, moved often by jerks, and made a rattling noise as it went along. The following year he made a better one.

There had been several explosions lately in the coal mines near Stephenson's home, caused often by the lighted candles that the miners used underground coming in contact with gas in the air.

After much thought Stephenson made a safety-lamp which was covered in, and yet would burn brightly without lighting the explosive air. It required the stoutest heart to try this lamp. One night Stephenson with his first lamp went down the mine, entered the most dangerous part, and held out the lighted lamp firmly in the foul air. In one moment it might have exploded and left Stephenson dead, but he was brave, he would risk his life to save others. The lamp was a success, and Stephenson was doubly repaid by the thankfulness of the miners.

Besides this he received a sum of 1,000 for this life-saving invention, which was known as the "Geordy Lamp."

His own engine still went on, but little was known of it as yet.

One day Stephenson heard that a railway was going to be made from Stockton to Darlington by a Mr. Pease. As soon as he heard it, he set off to see Mr. Pease, and to offer his help in the proposed railway.

He described himself as "only the engine-wright at Killingworth," and Mr. Pease liking the "honest, sensible look about him," readily engaged him.

"Come over to Killingworth and see what my engine can do, sir," he said; "seeing is believing."

Mr. Pease was indeed delighted with it, and intrusted Stephenson with the plans for the new railway. He set steadily to work, and in the year 1825 the railway was opened.

An immense crowd was assembled to see the opening of the first public railway, some to rejoice, some to see the "bubble burst." But it did not burst. Far from it. Stephenson drove the engine himself. "The signal being given, the engine started off with an immense train of carriages," and went at the rate of four or five miles an hour.

Such was the success of this railway that it was resolved to open another from Manchester to Liverpool, both large trading towns in Lancashire. At first people did not like this idea. Some said the noise, and hiss, and smoke of the engines was dreadful, others said engines were a bad invention, and the peace and quiet of the kingdom would be quite destroyed. The engine would burst, and the passengers be killed, the animals in the fields would die of fright at the noise!

"Suppose now," said a member of the House of Commons to Stephenson, "Suppose now, one of these engines to be going along the railroad at the rate of ten miles an hour, and that a cow were to stray upon the line, and get in the way of the engine; would not that be very awkward?"

"Yes," replied Stephenson, in his broad dialect, with a twinkle of his eye, "very awkward—for the cow!"

After a time, however, people gave way, and the plans were drawn out. This was more difficult than the last, and many a time would the men have given up if their stout-hearted master had not kept bravely on. At one place they had to make a long bridge over a marsh, called Chat Moss, before the rails could be laid down at all.

There was then a long dispute as to what engine should be used. It was to be settled by competition, and a prize.

On the appointed day four engines were produced, Stephenson's engine among them. Crowds were assembled, and a grand stand was put up, so that the ladies might have a share in the exciting scene. Stephenson's engine went first, the other three followed. Loud were the cheers as Stephenson's engine was declared to be the best and fastest.

In 1830 the railway between Liverpool and Manchester was opened. People of rank flocked from all parts of the country to see the wonderful sight, the Duke of Wellington, then prime minister, amongst them. The train was cheered by thousands, as it sped along over bridges and through tunnels at the rate of twenty-four miles an hour.

After this railroads were made everywhere, and even now new railways are opened yearly. For it is only a little over fifty years since the first railway was opened, and there are many, many people living now who remember well the days when journeys had to be made in a stage-coach, and trains were unheard of.

After this Stephenson left all the active work to his son Robert, though he still continued to plan railroads and do a great deal of work.

Although greeted by all as one of the greatest men of his time, George Stephenson was still the simple, true, modest workman of thirty years before. His career was drawing to a close, and his last years were spent in rest and quiet. All his early love of birds and animals came back. He kept dogs, and cows, and horses. There was not a bird's nest in the country round that he did not know. Books wearied him, and sent him to sleep, he said. The young men loved him, and always came to him for help. He was ever ready to give them good advice, ever ready to listen to their trouble. The tears would stream down his brown cheeks, and he would end by opening his purse and help them "to make a fresh start in the world." He never forgot his old friends. Sometimes he went to see them, and finding they had retired into their cottages, he would go in, strike his stick on the paved floor, and "holding his noble person upright, he would say in his own kind way 'Well, and how's all here to-day?'"

He died at the age of sixty-seven, beloved, admired, honoured by all who knew him, leaving to all the example of a simple workman, who, from keeping cows in a field, rose to be one of England's greatest men.