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Son of a renowned engineering pioneer, Robert Stephenson adopted a similar career. He helped to establish the locomotive works at Newcastle-on-Tyne, where the famous Rocket was built, and was appointed Engineer to the London and Birmingham Railway. Later he built railway bridges in various parts of the world


Robert StephensonTHE son of George Stephenson, whose life is described on page 1000, Robert Stephenson followed his father’s footsteps in the world of engineering. His career entitles him also to an important place in the history of engineering.

Born at Willington Quay, then a mere hamlet about six miles below Newcastle-on-Tyne, on October 16, 1803, the boy may be thought to have had a poor start in life. His mother died in 1806 and his father left him in other hands for a year or so afterwards. This temporary separation, however, did not arise from want of feeling, for few sons could have had more painstaking care bestowed on them during boyhood. The elder Stephenson, mindful of his own ignorant childhood, was determined that young Robert should not be equally handicapped. That the means should be forthcoming to prevent this, the father worked in what spare time he had at shoemaking, cleaning watches and clocks and even at cutting out clothes for the pitmen.

Robert was therefore sent to a good school at Newcastle, cantering there and back daily on a donkey that his father had given him. In the evenings the boy and his father would pore over scientific books borrowed from a library, and the father would carefully instruct his son in that essential art of the engineer - the making and reading of drawings. Robert’s education was not finished here, for after he had left school he spent some years as an apprentice at Killingworth in learning the business of mining. In 1822, his father, at some personal sacrifice, sent the youth to Edinburgh University, for the study of chemistry and physics, at which he proved a diligent and painstaking student. George Stephenson here anticipated a modern form of technical training known as the “sandwich system”.

Robert then assisted his father in the survey for the Stockton and Darlington Railway, and helped with the establishment of the locomotive works at Newcastle which the elder Stephenson and Edward Pease had started. He was next engaged as engineer for some silver mines in Colombia, South America, and thither he went in 1824, to stay until 1827, when he returned to England to assist his father. Before he left Colombia he had an accidental meeting with Richard Trevithick, who had been there since 1816, and was then returning after many discouraging experiences.

Back at Newcastle, Robert Stephenson was concerned with the building of the locomotive Rocket and with other matters connected with the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. In 1830 he was appointed engineer for a line, about sixteen miles long, between Leicester and Swannington. The line presented no great difficulties, but during its construction the young engineer detected signs of coal near Ashby de la Zouch. Its presence being confirmed by his father, the elder Stephenson, with two Liverpool friends, bought an estate on the spot, and sunk a shaft, with satisfactory results to the inhabitants of the town of Leicester; for it enabled them to save about £40,000 a year on their coal purchases, and the cheap coal greatly helped the expansion of local industries.

Robert Stephenson’s next commission was that of Engineer to the London and Birmingham Railway, much of which was to become famous later as part of the London and North Western main line. This line was completed in 1838. It is scarcely possible for the present generation to realize how determined and bitter was the opposition to railways in these early years. At many points the lines had to be diverted to avoid towns which later on demanded diversions and branches to them. This opposition involved the spending of much of the time of the early engineers on attendance at Parliamentary Committees and with other legal business. Some few years later, however, a mania for promoting railways, many entirely unnecessary, developed; but both the Stephensons rigidly declined to have anything to do with these dubious schemes.

Robert Stephenson’s name after a time became identified with the building of railway bridges across waterways - a new science. One of his early works was the fine twenty-eight-arches viaduct at Berwick, built in connexion with the line between Newcastle and Edinburgh. Another was the High Level Bridge at Newcastle, a double-decked structure opened in 1849. Then came the tubular bridges at Conway and across the Menai Straits. The type was repeated later on the St. Lawrence River, Canada, and on the River Nile, Egypt, so wide had Robert Stephenson’s practice become.

His advice was sought also for railways in Belgium - where his father was responsible for the first railway - in Sweden, in Switzerland, in Denmark and in other lands. Many professional honours were his, such as the Presidency of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and he served on numerous public bodies. For twelve years he was Member of Parliament for Whitby, Yorkshire, Robert Stephenson survived his father by only eleven years, as he died in 1859. Between the two there had always been strong affection and hearty cooperation. While both were alive each helped the other, but in death they lie far apart, the father in Holy Trinity Church, Chesterfield, and the son by the side of Thomas Telford in Westminster Abbey.

[From part 46, published 11 January 1938]

You can read more on “Building the Menai Bridges”, “George Stephenson” and “Isambard Kingdom Brunel” on this website.

Robert Stephenson