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By Nancy Hopkins on

Who were the Stephensons? Part II

In the second part of our blog post about George and Robert Stephenson, we turn our attention towards the younger's achievements and the elder's last years.

If you haven’t already, we thoroughly recommend you read Part I of this post first!

The Stephensons were in trouble

Whilst Robert had been in South America, George had been spending increasing amounts of time away from Newcastle and the family engineering business, focusing on the completion of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.

Formed in 1823, Robert Stephenson and Company was the world’s first company specifically established to manufacture locomotives. It was founded as part of the construction of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, the world’s first world’s first steam-powered public railway, which opened on 27 October 1825.

Wasn’t the Liverpool and Manchester Railway the world’s first railway?

Contrary to popular belief and despite the many amazing gifts we have given the world (universal suffrage, vegetarianism and Take That), Manchester is not the epicentre of the universe. The Stockton and Darlington Railway was the world’s first steam powered public railway, whereas the Liverpool and Manchester Railway was the world’s first intercity passenger railway.*

*DISCLAIMER: If fans of the Swansea and Mumbles Railway are reading this and want to start up the Twitter war again, we’re talking fully steam-powered railways here, not horses. And as lovely as Mumbles is, it isn’t a city.

The first locomotive to run on the railway was Locomotion No. 1, built by George and Robert. To find out more, read the story about the construction of the Stockton and Darlington Railway on the website of our sister museum Locomotion.

George Stephenson had been appointed official engineer for the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1821, in part due to the success of the steam locomotives he had designed and built during his tenure at Killingworth Colliery. Stephenson had been heavily influenced by locomotives such as Puffing Billy built by William Hedley, Jonathan Forster and Timothy Hackworth in 1813–14 for use in the nearby Wylam Colliery.

Indeed, Stephenson had built a locomotive that he named ‘Billy’ in 1816 for Killingworth Colliery. Billy is the world’s third oldest locomotive and is on display at the Stephenson Railway Museum in North Shields. Billy was used to haul waggons carrying coal from Killingworth Colliery to the River Tyne. Early locomotives like Billy were called ‘travelling engines’ because they were mobile versions of the steam engines used at mines.

A man in demand

The success of the Stockton and Darlington Railway meant that George’s skills were in demand and in 1826, George was appointed as the chief engineer of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.

The appointment meant that George was spending increasing amounts of time in the North West, away from the day-to-day running of Robert Stephenson and Company. Robert was also in Colombia, meaning that there wasn’t really anybody overseeing the day to day activities of the company. So, things got a bit loose.

George and Robert’s business partner Edward Pease wanted to retire, but as the success of steam locomotives hadn’t yet been proved, George didn’t have enough money to buy him out. Edward felt as if his only option was to ask Robert to return to England and try to reverse the fortunes of the company, so he wrote to him in secret:

I can assure thee that the business at Newcastle, as well as thy father’s engineering, have suffered very much from thy absence, and, unless thou soon return, the former will be given up, as Mr. Longridge is not able to give it that attention it requires; and what is done is not done with credit to the house.

The Life of George Stephenson (Samuel Smiles, 1868)

Edward Pease by William Miller line and stipple engraving, circa 1820-1850 NPG D8024 © National Portrait Gallery, London
Edward Pease
by William Miller
line and stipple engraving, circa 1820-1850
NPG D8024
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Robert to the rescue

As soon as Robert returned home, he set about sorting out the company. He unravelled the accounts which had been ‘allowed to fall into confusion during his father’s absence at Liverpool,’ which sounds a bit like the kind of thing you’d hear from a celebrity named in the Panama Papers.

Image courtesy of fatherted.gifglobe.com

As well as sorting out the business, Robert also made time to reacquaint himself with Frances (Fanny) Sanderson, a London lady he’d met before his travels in South America.

In March 1828 he wrote to a friend saying:

If I may judge from appearance, I am to get the Canterbury Railway, which you know is no inconvenient distance from London. How strange! Nay, why say strange, that all my arrangements instinctively regard Broad Street as the pole?

The Life of Robert Stephenson, F.R.S  (John Cordy Jeaffreson and William Pole, 1864)

Portrait of Robert Stephenson (1803-1859), painted by John Lucas, engraved by J.R. Jackson Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum, London
Portrait of Robert Stephenson (1803-1859), painted by John Lucas, engraved by J.R. Jackson
Science Museum Group Collection
© The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum, London

Lovestruck, he’s fallen for a lamp post…

Robert basically used work as a bit of an excuse to spend more time in London to get some quality time with Miss Sanderson. As Robert hadn’t yet built any of the railways connecting London with the rest of the country, these ‘brief’ visits had to be made by stagecoach, and therefore took up quite a bit of his time.

Robert’s behaviour in this regard resulted in some rather disgruntled business partners, especially Thomas Richardson, who accused him of ‘wasting on a pair of bright laughing eyes the time that might be more profitably spent in paying court to the magnates of change.’

Robert’s rebuttal was swift:

‘Dear Sir,

You do me injustice in supposing that the ladies in Broad Street engross the whole of my time; I am at present so ardently engaged in the Carlisle opposition that I have neither time to visit Broad Street or the Hill (i.e. Stamford Hill, Mr Richard’s residence), though a visit to either place would give me great pleasure. You are really too severe when you imagine, or rather conclude, that I neglect business for considerations of minor importance.’

Robert Stephenson, 31 March 1829

Hmmm. You doth protest too much Bob, methinks.

Anyhow, Robert soon proposed to Fanny and preparations were made. Robert didn’t have much of a stag do and spent the night before his wedding trying to sort out a collapsed bridge on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.

Robert and Fanny were married on 17 June 1829 at St Botolph without Bishopsgate, in London. Fittingly, St Botolph is the patron saint of wayfarers. 17 June is also his feast day, so a most auspicious start for the new Mr and Mrs Stephenson.

George had also married Elizabeth Hindmarsh in 1820, after the death of his first wife.

Parish & Ward Church of St. Botolph without Bishopsgate
The Parish & Ward Church of St. Botolph without Bishopsgate, image courtesy of botolph.org.uk

Money, money, money

Although Robert had plenty of projects in the pipeline, he was not at that stage a wealthy man. The Liverpool and Manchester Railway was still under construction and Robert was pitching for work up and down the country.

On 18 September 1830, George and Robert signed a contract to survey the route for the London and Birmingham Railway, leading to Robert being appointed chief engineer in 1833. This was the largest civil engineering project that had ever been attempted at the time and cemented Robert’s place in society as that of an exceptional engineer. It also meant Robert and Fanny had to move to London, settling in Haverstock Hill.

The route of the line at the London end was dictated by the need to reach the docks. Stephenson proposed a terminus in Camden Town for food passengers and freight, which was later extended to Euston just for passengers. When Euston station opened in 1837, it was London’s first intercity railway station, although it would still be a while before Londoners could make it up to Manchester.

Image courtesy of partridge.cloud

There’s coal in them thar hills

1830 was a busy year for both Stephensons. George had been asked to advise on the construction of a railway from Leicester to Swannington, in order to transport coal more quickly between the coal mine to the city.

When the land was being surveyed by Robert Stephenson, he noticed that the Snibston estate (where the train would run through) had come up for sale and reckoned that there could well be coal reserves on the estate.

At that time, the manufacturing town of Leicester relied on coal brought by canal from Derbyshire. Canny George spotted a gap in the market and snapped up the Snibston estate, hoping that there was indeed coal underground and knowing that as his son was engineering the construction of the line, a stop at Snibston could be put it in with little fuss.

George moved to the area in 1831 to oversee the sinking of the first pit, and despite initial difficulties in sinking the first pit due to flooding and solid bedrock (which George basically bashed through until he got to the coal seam), coal was soon coming out of the ground and onto the handily placed railway that started running in 1832, bound for Leicester.

Once operations were up and running, George set about establishing a small village for his workers, providing them cottages, a church and a school.

Robert Stephenson: International Man of Railways

After the official opening of the London and Birmingham Railway in 1838, Robert’s profile had been well and truly established. Although he was contractually bound to the London and Birmingham Railway and wasn’t allowed to work on any other railway projects, he travelled to Belgium with George in 1835 as a consultant to King Leopold for the building of the Belgium State Railway.

He returned to Belgium in 1838 to consult on extensions of the line, and also travelled to France and Spain to advise on their railways as well as working on the North Midland Railway that connected Derby to Leeds. Busy!

Did George ever come back to Manchester?

Whilst Robert was enjoying success across the world, George was keeping it real in the North and connecting the right side of the Pennines to the side with Yorkshire on it. For any of you who have ever made the journey over to Leeds from Manchester by train, it is beautiful. It is also full of long tunnels including the Summit Tunnel, a 1.6 mile feat of engineering that was the longest railway tunnel in the world when it was first opened in 1841.

The Summit Tunnel was designed by fellow Geordie Thomas Longridge Gooch, assisted by tunnel engineer Barnard Dickinson. Gooch had been an apprentice with George Stephenson and had risen through the ranks to become a trusted engineer for the company.

Some rotten scoundrel (probably from Yorkshire) started a rumour that the tunnel had had fallen in and buried some of the workmen. George Stephenson and a group of directors visited the tunnel and discovered that, although the there was a point of weakness about half a mile into the tunnel where an invert had given way, there had been no collapse.

Always being one to back his workers, Stephenson said ‘I will stake my character, my head, if that tunnel ever gives way, so as to cause danger to any of the public passing through it. Taking it as a whole, I don’t think there is another such piece of work in the world. It is the greatest work that has yet been done of this kind, and there has been less repairing than is usual—though an engineer might well be beaten in his calculations, for he cannot beforehand see into those little fractured parts of the earth he may meet with.’

The invert was repaired, and construction continued. But it wasn’t without cost. It went almost 50% over the original budget (coming in at a cool £250,000) and also claimed the lives of numerous labourers, with figures ranging from 16 to 41.

How on earth did they find the time to do it all?

Apparently, George was a champion sleeper who could kip anytime, anyplace. He could smash out a solid eight hours in his post-chaise whilst travelling, then wake up ready for action. We can only assume that he had a driver…

George also carried on with his childhood hobbies of bird nesting (as per our previous blog, don’t try this at home) and gardening by means of relaxation. His trusty steed Bobby was also a constant in his life, and a source of pleasure. Bobby had ferried George to and from work in his earlier years, but ‘towards the end of his life lived in clover, his master’s pet, doing no work’ (The Life of George Stephenson, Samuel Smiles, 1868)

In 1838, George moved to Tapton House in Derbyshire. Although he was supposed to be taking it easy by this stage in his life, he still consulted on occasional railway developments and still oversaw the collieries and limeworks he had accrued throughout his career. Ever the engineer, George designed numerous projects closer to home to keep him entertained, one of which was growing exotic fruits on an almost commercial scale.

He initially had two pineapple-growing houses built at 68 and 140 feet respectively, widening operations until he had 10 glass houses for tropical fruit production. He also developed an ingenious method for growing melons that involved suspending them in wire gauze baskets, relieving pressure on the stalk and allowing nutrition to flow more freely into the plant.

George still enjoyed a bit of a rumble, and even in his old age would invite visitors to a wrestle on the front lawn. He also enjoyed challenging his visitors with a race from Chesterfield station up the steep steps to Tapton House in a Rocky Balboa-like fashion. He also exhibited great kindness to those less fortunate than him, perhaps remembering his own modest background:

Needy men who had known him in their youth would knock at his door, and they were never refused access. But if he had heard of any misconduct on their part, he would rate them soundly. One who knew him intimately in private life has seen him exhorting such backsliders, and denouncing their misconduct and imprudence, with the tears streaming down his cheeks.

And he would generally conclude by opening his purse, and giving them the help which they needed to make a fresh start in the world.

The Life of George Stephenson (Smiles, 1868)

He spent the last 10 years of his life at Tapton House, where he died on 12 August 1848, aged 67.

Robert wrote to George’s old business partner and friend Edward Pease: ‘With deep pain I inform you, as one of his oldest friends, of the death of my dear father this morning at 12 o’clock, after about 10 days’ illness from severe fever.’

George was buried at Trinity Church, Chesterfield in a vault behind the Communion Table. His grave is marked by a rough slab of the Derbyshire stone flooring on which appears ‘G S 1848’.

The stained glass east window was given by Robert, in memory of his father.

A bridge over troubled water

Although Robert was enjoying great professional success, his personal life was not so rosy. His wife Fanny had been diagnosed with cancer in 1840 and died at the family home on Haverstock Hill in 1842.

My dear Fanny died this morning at five o’clock. God grant that I might close my life as she has done, in true faith and in charity with all men. Her last moments were perfect calmness.

Robert Stephenson diary entry on 4 October 1842 (Jeaffreson and Pole, 1864)

Robert’s work schedule was, quite frankly, brutal. After Fanny’s funeral on 11 October, his diary notes that he travelled from London up to the North East to work on the Stockton and Darlington Bridge for two days, to Maidstone for another two days and returning home to London on 15 October, less than two weeks after Fanny died.

It seems as if Robert buried himself in his work after Fanny died, taking on a staggering number of projects including more railway building and the design and construction of several notable bridges, including the High Level Bridge in Newcastle upon Tyne and the Britannia Bridge, which linked the island of Anglesey to the mainland of Wales.

Print of the York, Newcastle and Berwick Railway, high level bridge, Newcastle, 1849 Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum
Print of the York, Newcastle and Berwick Railway, high level bridge, Newcastle, 1849
Science Museum Group Collection
© The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

The High Level Bridge was the first bridge in the world to combine rail and road traffic. Permission to build was granted in 1845, with a four-year build schedule.

To avoid excessive width (and spending), it was decided to carry the railway above the roadway—a revolutionary idea at the time. 50,000 tonnes of stone were quarried in order to build the five masonry piers that the bridge sits on, and workers had to get through nine metres of silt before they hit bedrock that they could build on. They did this by using the newly invented Nasmyth steam hammer.

The High Level Bridge was opened by Queen Victoria on 27 September 1849 and is still in use today as a turning loop on the East Coast Mainline.

The Britannia Bridge

Although an earlier bridge (the Menai Suspension Bridge) had been erected, it was not feasible to add a railway line to this bridge and a new bridge needed to be built.

The new bridge needed to be strong enough to support two railway tracks, and also tall enough to allow ships to pass underneath it. The bridge consisted of two main spans of 460 feet and two smaller spans at each side of 230 feet, all supported by masonry towers. A revolutionary tubular system was used for the bridge, with the railway line running through tubes made up of wrought iron riveted plates.

Coloured lithograph of the view of the Britannia Tubular Bridge, 1850 Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum, London
Coloured lithograph of the view of the Britannia Tubular Bridge, 1850
Science Museum Group Collection
© The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum, London
Railway bridge section, portion of rivetted girder from Britannia Bridge, Menai Straits, 1850 Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum, London
Railway bridge section, portion of rivetted girder from Britannia Bridge, Menai Straits, 1850
Science Museum Group Collection
© The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum, London

The two longest tubes were built in sections on the shore, floated into position using pontoons then raised onto the towers using a hydraulic jack. Once in position they were joined inside the tower, making a continuous beam of 1511 feet—at the time the longest wrought iron span in the world.

It may sound as though Robert Stephenson was a master bridge builder. Not quite. In 1847, the bridge that he had designed to cross the River Dee collapsed, resulting in five fatalities and numerous injuries. The investigation into the cause of the disaster was carried out by the newly formed Railway Inspectorate, and their report suggested that frequent flexing of the girder had weakened it substantially, causing it to crack. Robert maintained that the locomotive had derailed, and the impact force had caused the crack, rather than an inherent weakness in the structure itself.

The Railway Inspectorate tested the remaining girders by driving a locomotive across them and found that they deflected by several inches under the moving load. This conclusion was also reached by the jury at the inquest and supported by eyewitnesses who saw the girder break first.

Running for Parliament

In 1847, Robert ran for Parliament and was elected as the conservative MP for Whitby. Unsurprisingly for a man of his position during that time, Robert was quite a staunch conservative. However, what is more surprising is his attitude towards intellectual improvements amongst the working classes, believing that:

It is all nonsense preaching and preaching education to the working classes. What the artisan wants is special education for his own particular speciality. And the more he leaves everything else alone the better.

Robert Stephenson, in a speech to the Royal Society, February 1859

This attitude seems really at odds with the story of George Stephenson’s rags to riches, self-improvement tale. It also contradicts some of his final acts, notably donating 1,200 pounds to schools in Willington Quay, where he grew up. Perhaps Robert never truly appreciated the hard graft his father had put in to ensure Robert had a better education than he did?

As he was well educated from the outset, spoke without a thick Northumberland accent and was more readily accepted into high society, he never faced the same type of discrimination that his father had done and never truly realised how much he had benefitted from a private education.

Perhaps we shouldn’t judge him by today’s standards as he was, after all, a product of his time.

End of an era

Like most of us, Robert felt the need to cut loose every so often. He worked hard and enjoyed a drink and a cigar, and was also fond of narcotics as a way of relaxing. No judgement here, Bob!

Alas, the cigar smoking coupled with the illnesses he’d had during his childhood did mean that his lungs were weakened and in the last few years of his life, he was afflicted with numerous chest infections, as well as liver and stomach issues.

In the summer of 1859, he sailed on his yacht, Titania, to Oslo, where he had been invited to the opening of the Norwegian Trunk Railway. Before leaving for Norway Stephenson revised his will, perhaps realising that he did not have long left to live.

When he returned from Norway in September 1859, it was clear that he was not a well man. He took to his bed and developed oedema (swelling of the ankles, feet and legs). Although not the formal cause of death, oedema often occurs at the end of life as a result of heart failure. The heart can no longer effectively pump blood, so fluid builds up and can get into the lungs.

Robert Stephenson died just before midday on 12 October 1859, aged 56.

National mourning

The outpouring of national grief was huge. Stephenson was given the honour of being buried at Westminster Abbey, and his cortege was given royal permission to pass through Hyde Park (something usually reserved for monarchs).

On the day of Robert’s funeral, ships on the Thames and the Tyne flew their flags at half mast. In Newcastle, Sunderland, North Shields, Tynemouth and Gateshead merchant offices, banks and shops were closed at noon as a mark of respect. 1,500 workers marched from the offices of Robert Stephenson and Co. in Newcastle to St Nicholas’ Cathedral, to attend a special service.

Although Stephenson had no children, his and his father’s outstanding engineering legacy has lasted several lifetimes, and continues to be felt to this day.


Come and see Stephenson’s Rocket at the museum until September 2019. Click here to find out more and plan your visit.

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