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By Nancy Hopkins on

Fanny Kemble: Rocket’s celebrity passenger

We've been thinking about Rocket a lot recently. Not just its engineering excellence that sets it apart from its rivals, but the stories of the people surrounding the iconic locomotive as well.

Please note: Stephenson’s Rocket is no longer on display at the Science and Industry Museum. To find out what exhibitions and activities are open today, visit our What’s On section

We’ve scoured our archives and, although we have a guest list for the opening ceremony on 15 September 1830, they don’t tell us who rode in which carriage, or which engine was pulling them.

The list of passengers for Rocket’s maiden journey
© The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum


However, we do know that there was a woman named Fanny Kemble, who was offered a preview ride on 26 August.

Who was Fanny Kemble?

Born in 1809, Fanny Kemble was a British actress who made her theatrical debut in October 1829 in Covent Garden, around the same time that Rocket triumphed at the Rainhill Trials.

Portrait of Fanny Kemble
Fanny Kemble
by Peter Frederick Rothermel
oil on canvas, 1849
NPG 5462
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Fanny originally took to the stage in order to help out her father Charles Kemble, who was co-proprietor of the Covent Garden theatre, which was struggling financially. Charles managed the theatre from 1822 to 1832, during a time when most of the theatre’s major stars were defecting to Drury Lane, including popular singer Catherine Stephens (who later married the 5th Earl of Essex, an octogenarian widower who died a year later and left her with a ton of cash, FYI).

Portrait of Charles Kemble
Charles Kemble
by Henry Perronet Briggs
oil on canvas, 1830s
NPG 5687
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Fanny’s debut as Juliet shot her to fame almost overnight. Of her almost instant success, she said (as found in Records of a Girlhood):

“It would be difficult to imagine anything more radical than the change which three weeks had made in the aspect of my whole life. From an insignificant school-girl, I had suddenly become an object of general public interest.”

Poster of Fanny Kemble playing Juliet
Fanny Kemble as Juliet
after Unknown artist
wood engraving, 1829
NPG D34183
© National Portrait Gallery, London

And it didn’t stop there. Much like many of today’s modern celebrities, ‘Brand Kemble’ was soon everywhere:

“When I saw the shop windows full of Lawrence’s sketch of me, and knew myself the subject of almost daily newspaper notices; when plates and saucers were brought to me with small figures of me as Juliet and Belvidera on them; and finally, when gentlemen showed me lovely buff-coloured neck-handkerchiefs which they had bought, and which had, as I thought, pretty lilac-coloured flowers all over them, which proved on nearer inspection to be minute copies of Lawrence’s head of me, I not unnaturally, in the fullness of my inexperience, believed in my own success.”

How did she become one of the first people to ride on the Rocket?

As you have probably gathered, Fanny Kemble was quite the celebrity. Young, good looking and a talented actress to boot, having Fanny at one of your events was a sign of success.

Fanny was on a tour that had taken in Bath and Dublin, then on to Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham. It was whilst she was in Liverpool that a trip on Rocket was proposed, ahead of the official opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.

“While we were acting at Liverpool an experimental trip was proposed upon the line of railway which was being constructed between Liverpool and Manchester, the first mesh of that amazing iron net which now covers the whole surface of England and all the civilized portions of the earth.

The Liverpool merchants, whose far-sighted self-interest prompted them to wise liberality, had accepted the risk of George Stephenson’s magnificent experiment, which the committee of inquiry of the House of Commons had rejected for the government.”

By all accounts, spirits were high and, although they only went 15 miles to the first viaduct, the trip made a huge impression on Fanny.

“A common sheet of paper is enough for love, but a foolscap extra can alone contain a railroad and my ecstasies… a party of sixteen persons was ushered, into a large court-yard, where, under cover, stood several carriages of a peculiar construction, one of which was prepared for our reception.”

This sounds quite dramatic when you read it in 2018, but bear in mind people had literally never seen a locomotive before, let alone one that moved at speed on rails. Witchcraft!

I felt as if no fairy tale was ever half so wonderful as what I saw…

In a letter to a friend dated 26 August 1830, Fanny goes on to describe her journey in great detail.

It’s interesting to see how she speaks about the engine in equine terms, as this would have been one of the commonest forms of transport, and it’s something that her friend would have been able to easily relate to. Here are the highlights of her account:

“[The engine] goes upon two wheels, which are her feet, and are moved by bright steel legs called pistons; these are propelled by steam, and in proportion as more steam is applied to the upper extremities (the hip-joints, I suppose) of these pistons, the faster they move the wheels… The reins, bit, and bridle of this wonderful beast is a small steel handle, which applies or withdraws the steam from its legs or pistons, so that a child might manage it.

“The coals, which are its oats, were under the bench, and there was a small glass tube affixed to the boiler, with water in it, which indicates by its fullness or emptiness when the creature wants water… This snorting little animal, which I felt rather inclined to pat, was then harnessed to our carriage, and, Mr. Stephenson having taken me on the bench of the engine with him, we started at about ten miles an hour.”

Gorgeous George

Rocket wasn’t the only thing that was getting Fanny excited on that trip. She also reveals that she had a bit of a crush on Geordie heartthrob, George Stephenson.

“Now for a word or two about the master of all these marvels, with whom I am most horribly in love. He is a man of from fifty to fifty-five years of age; his face is fine, though careworn, and bears an expression of deep thoughtfulness; his mode of explaining his ideas is peculiar and very original, striking, and forcible; and although his accent indicates strongly his north-country birth, his language has not the slightest touch of vulgarity or coarseness. He has certainly turned my head.”

Can you imagine if they’d got together? Move over George and Amal Clooney or Jay Z and Beyoncé, Fanny and George would have been the ULTIMATE power couple.

Black and white portrait of George Stephenson
George Stephenson, 1838

What happened next?

Not long after her journey on Rocket, Fanny went to the US on tour, debuting in New York and enjoying critical acclaim on across the country.

Sadly she never got it together with George Stephenson and, in June 1834, married Pierce Butler. When they married, Pierce was not a slaveowner, but by the time their two children had been born, he had inherited four plantations and 638 slaves. A rift soon developed between the two and in 1838, Pierce took Fanny to live on his Georgia plantation.

Daguerreotype of Pierce Butler c.1847
Daguerreotype of Pierce Butler c.1847
Image credit: Courtesy of Hargrett Rare Book & Mauscript Library/University of Georgia Libraries

Seeing first-hand the conditions that the slaves lived in disgusted Fanny further, especially the way in which women were viewed as sexual commodities by the plantation owners and managers, and how the ill and infirm were treated:

“And here, in their hour of sickness and suffering, lay those whose health and strength are spent in unrequited labour for us—those who, perhaps even yesterday, were being urged onto their unpaid task—those whose husbands, fathers, brothers and sons, were even at that hour sweating over the earth, whose produce was to buy for us all the luxuries which health can revel in, all the comforts which can alleviate sickness. I stood in the midst of them, perfectly unable to speak, the tears pouring from my eyes at this sad spectacle of their misery, myself and my emotion alike strange and incomprehensible to them.”

– Fanny Kemble, Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation

She threatened to end the marriage if he continued to profit from slavery, but he was immune to her protestations. In 1845, Fanny left her husband and in 1848, she divorced him.

Fanny continued to perform (partly in order to earn money after her divorce) and in later life returned to London where she was welcome back into society. She died peacefully in London on 15 January 1893, aged 84.

3 comments on “Fanny Kemble: Rocket’s celebrity passenger

  1. I don’t think 1888 is the correct date for her to be moving to Georgia, Mayke 1838?

  2. Well done for publishing this as it is an important account of the events of that time by someone outwith the industry. I’m currently reading “George Stephenson, Father of Railways by Ada Louise Barrett” which had the same transcript word for word, so it’s nice to see the same words here obviously from the original letter. The book does contradict another work I have read called “famous engineers” which does not have the full transcript from Kemble but does mention that she fell in love with Stephenson on her journey, the main contradiction is in how Rocket was transported to Liverpool. Barrett intimates road transport and that the tender was built in Liverpool, Famous Engineers described a perilous sea journey from Newcastle in which tender wheels were lost overboard requiring wooden wheels to be made in Liverpool to suit and that the precious cargo was presumed lost until the ship arrived in port very late. I wonder if there is any supporting evidence for the transportation method of rocket from the works to Rainhill. I have not yet read Samuel Smiles book, maybe there is insight there.

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