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The development of railways came about largely through the enterprise and foresight of George Stephenson, whose engine Locomotion No. 1 was the first in history to haul a trainload of fare-paying passengers.

George StephensonTHE story of the later life of George Stephenson, the village boy whose unremitting industry brought railways into being, has been written in endless lines of gleaming steel. The history of his earlier years is little known.

Born on June 9, 1781, in a little cottage at Wylam, some eight miles west of Newcastle-on-Tyne, George Stephenson was the son of a colliery fireman who earned twelve shillings a week. As George was one of six children, he was set to work as soon as he was able to earn anything. His first job was to herd cows at a wage of twopence a day. Hoeing turnips and similar farm jobs when he was older brought in a little more remuneration. Then the boy was greatly elated at being taken on at the colliery at which his father worked. The boy’s task was to pick shale from coal and, later, to drive the horse working the gin (hoisting machine) by which the coals were drawn from the pit.

He had set his heart, however, on becoming an engineman. He was a proud boy when, at the age of fourteen, he was appointed assistant fireman at a shilling a day. By the time he was seventeen he had realized his ambition, for he was assistant engineman at a new pit where his father was fireman. In his new post George Stephenson set himself to study the engine, taking it adrift and cleaning it with anxious care. Eighteen found him doing a man’s work, although he had not learned to read. So he attended a night-school and laboured hard with slate and pencil.

These years had not all been spent at Wylam. There were many removals as pit after pit was worked out. One of these removals was on the occasion of his marriage in 1802, when the newly-wedded pair set up house at Willington Quay, not far from the mouth of the River Tyne. Here Stephenson was able to increase his income by helping, after his day’s work was done, to unload ballast from the colliers which came to the quay to load up with coal. Yet he still found time to study “mechanics” and to test the principles of the science by making models. At Willington was born Robert Stephenson, the son who was to follow closely in the father’s footsteps.

Then followed a move, in 1805, full of fate for George Stephenson. This was to Killingworth, seven miles north of Newcastle. He went there as brakesman, that is, in charge of the winding engines which had then taken the place of the old horse-gin but scarcely had he settled down when be became a widower. Under the stress of grief Stephenson took a job in connexion with a Boulton and Watt engine, at Montrose, Angus, leaving his small son to the care of friends. Stephenson remained there a year, returning to find his father had been blinded in an accident. Thereafter Stephenson entirely supported his parents, while working at his former job.

In 1810, a new pit having been sunk, the Newcomen pumping engine built by Smeaton failed to keep it dry. Stephenson was appealed to. He lost no time in putting the engine right, a feat which led to his advancement, first to engineman and finally to enginewright to a group of collieries. During these years a colliery owner, Mr. Blackett, of Wylam, made the acquaintance of Richard Trevithick and realized the importance of mechanical haulage. Before long, therefore, two or three crude locomotives were to be seen on the tramway that ran past Stephenson’s birthplace. Stephenson studied these machines and was eventually entrusted with the building of a locomotive for Killingworth. This engine, the Blucher, was set to work in 1814, and was followed next year by a greatly improved locomotive.

The success of the Killingworth engines led to the employment of Stephenson as engineer for an 8-miles colliery line at Hetton, Co. Durham. For this line, opened in 1822, he made five engines. In 1821, however, Stephenson had secured the interest of Edward Pease, the projector of the Stockton and Darlington Railway. Having been appointed engineer to this line, Stephenson had it ready for traffic by 1825, and upon it fare-paying passengers were carried by a steam train for the first time in history. The first engine, Locomotion No. 1, is still to be seen at Bank Top Station, Darlington. Then came the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, and the building and triumph, at the Rainhill (Lancashire) trials of 1829, of the famous Rocket.

It is still commonly stated that George Stephenson invented the locomotive, but it had been developing for twenty-one years when Locomotion No. 1 came into being, Trevithick’s Penydarran engine having been at work in 1804 (see page 356). Stephenson was endowed with a remarkable degree of foresight which enabled him to visualize the part the railway would play in the world. His perseverance, energy and genius converted visions into realities.

After Rainhill the career of Stephenson was one of unbroken success until it was ended by his death on August 12, 1848. As he was the first President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, the portrait of George Stephenson adorns the official documents of that body and his memory is justly kept alive in many other ways and places.

[From part 35, published 26 October 1937]

George Stephenson