The Stephensons II.
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    IN no quarter of England have greater changes been wrought by the successive advances made in the practical science of engineering than in the extensive colliery districts of the North, of which Newcastle-upon-Tyne is the centre and the capital.

    In ancient times the Romans planted a colony at Newcastle, throwing a bridge across the Tyne near the site of the low-level bridge shown in the prefixed engraving, and erecting a strong fortification above it on the high ground now occupied by the Central Railway Station.  North and northwest lay a wild country, abounding in moors, mountains, and morasses, but occupied to a certain extent by fierce and barbarous tribes.  To defend the young colony against their ravages, a strong wall was built by the Romans, extending from Wallsend on the north bank of the Tyne, a few miles below Newcastle, across the country to Burgh-upon-Sands on the Solway Frith.  The remains of the wall are still to be traced in the less populous hill-districts of Northumberland.  In the neighbourhood of Newcastle they have been gradually effaced by the works of succeeding generations, though the "Wallsend" coal consumed in our household fires still serves to remind us of the great Roman work.

    After the withdrawal of the Romans, Northumbria became planted by immigrant Saxons from North Germany and Norsemen from Scandinavia, whose eorls or earls made Newcastle their principal seat.  Then came the Normans, from whose New Castle, built some eight hundred years since, the town derives its present name.  The keep of this venerable structure, black with age and smoke, still stands entire at the northern end of the noble high-level bridge—the utilitarian work of modern times thus confronting the warlike relic of the older civilization.



    The nearness of Newcastle to the Scotch Border was a great hindrance to its security and progress in the middle ages of English history.  Indeed, the district between it and Berwick continued to he ravaged by moss-troopers long after the union of the crowns.  The gentry lived in their strong Peel castles; even the larger farm-houses were fortified; and blood-hounds were trained for the purpose of tracking the cattle-reavers to their retreats in the hills.  The judges of Assize rode from Carlisle to Newcastle guarded by an escort armed to the teeth.  A tribute called "danger and protection money" was annually paid by the sheriff of Newcastle for the purpose of providing daggers and other weapons for the escort; and, though the need of such protection has long since ceased, the tribute continues to be paid in broad gold pieces of the time of Charles the First.

    Until about the middle of last century the roads across Northumberland were little better than horse-tracks, and not many years since the primitive agricultural cart with solid wooden wheels was almost as common in the western parts of the county as it is in Spain now.  The track of the old Roman road long continued to be the most practicable route between Newcastle and Carlisle, the traffic between the two towns having been carried on pack-horses until within a comparatively recent period.

    Since that time great changes have taken place on the Tyne.  When wood for firing became scarce and dear, and the forests of the South of England were found inadequate to supply the increasing demand for fuel, attention was turned to the rich stores of coal lying underground in the neighbourhood of Newcastle and Durham.  It then became an article of increasing export, and "sea-coal" fires gradually superseded those of wood.  Hence an old writer describes Newcastle as "the Eye of the North, and the Hearth that warmeth the South parts of this kingdom with Fire."  Fuel became the staple product of the district, the quantity exported increasing from year to year, until the coal raised from these northern mines amounts to upward of sixteen millions of tons a year, of which not less than nine millions are annually conveyed away by sea.

    Newcastle has in the mean time spread in all directions far beyond its ancient boundaries.  From a walled mediaeval town of monks and merchants, it has been converted into a busy centre of commerce and manufactures inhabited by nearly 100,000 people.  It is no longer a Border fortress—a "shield and defence against the invasions and frequent insults of the Scots," as described in ancient charters—but a busy centre of peaceful industry, and the outlet for a vast amount of steam-power, which is exported in the form of coal to all parts of the world.  Newcastle is in many respects a town of singular and curious interest, especially in its older parts, which are full of crooked lanes and narrow streets, wynds, and chares, formed by tall, antique houses, rising tier above tier along the steep northern bank of the Tyne, as the similarly precipitous streets of Gateshead crowd the opposite shore.

All over the coal region, which extends from the Coquet to the Tees, about fifty miles from north to south, the surface of the soil exhibits the signs of extensive underground workings.  As you pass through the country at night, the earth looks as if it were bursting with fire at many points, the blaze of coke-ovens, iron-furnaces, and coal-heaps reddening the sky to such a distance that the horizon seems like a glowing belt of fire.

    Among the upper-ground workmen employed at the coal-pits, the principal are the firemen, engine-men, and brakesmen, who fire and work the engines, and superintend the machinery by means of which the collieries are worked.  Previous to the introduction of the steam-engine, the usual machine employed for the purpose was what is called a "gin."  The gin consists of a large drum placed horizontally, round which ropes attached to buckets and corves are wound, which are thus drawn up or sent down the shafts by a horse travelling in a circular track or "gin race."  This method was employed for drawing up both coals and water, and it is still used for the same purpose in small collieries; but where the quantity of water to be raised is great, pumps worked by steam-power are called into requisition.

    Newcomen's atmospheric engine was first made use of to work the pumps, and it continued to be so employed long after the more powerful and economical condensing engine of Watt had been invented.  In the Newcomen or "fire-engine," as it was called, the power is produced by the pressure of the atmosphere forcing down the piston in the cylinder, on a vacuum being produced within it by condensation of the contained steam by means of cold-water injection.  The piston-rod is attached to one end of a lever, while the pump-rod works in connection with the other, the hydraulic action employed to raise the water being exactly similar to that of a common sucking-pump.

    The working of a Newcomen engine was a clumsy and apparently a very painful process, accompanied by an extraordinary amount of wheezing, sighing, creaking, and bumping.  When the pump descended, there was heard a plunge, a heavy sigh, and a loud bump; then, as it rose, and the sucker began to act, there was heard a creak, a wheeze, another bump, and then a rush of water as it was lifted and poured out.  Where engines of a more powerful and improved description were used, as is now the case, the quantity of water raised is enormous—as much as a million and a half gallons in the twenty-four hours.

    The pitmen, or "the lads belaw," who work out the coal below ground, are a peculiar class, quite distinct from the workmen on the surface.  They are a people with peculiar habits, manners, and character, as much so as fishermen and sailors, to whom, indeed, they bear, in some respects, a considerable resemblance.  Some fifty years since, they were a much rougher and worse educated class than they are now; hard workers, but very wild and uncouth; much given to "steeks," or strikes; and distinguished, in their hours of leisure and on pay-nights, for their love of cock-fighting, dog-fighting, hard drinking, and cuddy races.  The pay-night was a fortnightly saturnalia, in which the pitman's character was fully brought out, especially when the "yel" [Ed.—"ale"] was good.  Though earning much higher wages than the ordinary labouring population of the upper soil, the latter did not mix nor intermarry with them, so they were left to form their own communities, and hence their marked peculiarities as a class.  Indeed, a sort of traditional disrepute seems long to have clung to the pitmen, arising perhaps from the nature of their employment, and from the circumstance that the colliers were among the last classes enfranchised in England, as they were certainly the last in Scotland, where they continued bondmen down to the end of last century.  The last thirty years, however, have worked a great improvement in the moral condition of the Northumbrian pitmen; the abolition of the twelve months' bond to the mine, and the substitution of a month's notice previous to leaving, having given them greater freedom and opportunity for obtaining employment; and day-schools and Sunday-schools, together with the important influences of railways, have brought them fully up to a level with the other classes of the labouring population.

    The coals, when raised from the pits, are emptied into the wagons placed alongside, from whence they are sent along the rails to the staiths erected by the river-side, the wagons sometimes descending by their own gravity along inclined planes, the wagoner standing behind to check the speed by means of a convoy or wooden brake bearing upon the rims of the wheels.  Arrived at the staiths, the wagons are emptied at once into the ships waiting alongside for cargo.  Any one who has sailed down the Tyne from Newcastle Bridge can not but have been struck with the appearance of the immense staiths, constructed of timber, which are erected at short distances from each other on both sides of the river.

    But a great deal of the coal shipped from the Tyne comes from above-bridge, where sea-going craft can not reach, and is floated down the river in "keels," in which the coals are sometimes piled up according to convenience when large, or, when the coal is small or tender, it is conveyed in tubs to prevent breakage.  These keels are of a very ancient model—perhaps the oldest extant in England: they are even said to be of the same build as those in which the Norsemen navigated the Tyne centuries ago.  The keel is a tubby, grimy-looking craft, rounded fore and aft, with a single large square sail, which the keel-bullies, as the Tyne water-men are called, manage with great dexterity; the vessel being guided by the aid of the "swape," or great oar, which is used as a kind of rudder at the stem of the vessel.  These keelmen are an exceedingly hardy class of workmen, not by any means as quarrelsome as their designation of "bully" would imply—the word being merely derived from the obsolete term "boolie," or beloved, an appellation still in familiar use among brother workers in the coal districts.  One of the most curious sights on the Tyne is the fleet of hundreds of these black-sailed, black-hulled keels, bringing down at each tide their black cargoes for the ships at anchor in the deep water at Shields and other parts of the river below Newcastle.

    These preliminary observations will perhaps be sufficient to explain the meaning of many of the occupations alluded to, and the phrases employed, in the course of the following narrative, some of which might otherwise have been comparatively unintelligible to the reader.

    The colliery village of Wylam is situated on the north bank of the Tyne, about eight miles west of Newcastle.  The Newcastle and Carlisle Railway runs along the opposite bank; and the traveller by that line sees the usual signs of a colliery in the unsightly pumping-engines surrounded by heaps of ashes, coal-dust, and slag, while a neighbouring iron-furnace in full blast throws out dense smoke and loud jets of steam by day and lurid flames at night.  These works form the nucleus of the village, which is almost entirely occupied by coal-miners and iron-furnace-men.  The place is remarkable for its large population, but not for its cleanness or neatness as a village; the houses, as in most colliery villages, being the property of the owners or lessees, who employ them in temporarily accommodating the work-people, against whose earnings there is a weekly set-off for house and coals.  About the end of last century, the estate of which Wylam forms part belonged to Mr. Blackett, a gentleman of considerable celebrity in coal-mining, then more generally known as the proprietor of the "Globe" newspaper.

    There is nothing to interest one in the village itself.  But a few hundred yards from its eastern extremity stands a humble detached dwelling, which will he interesting to many as the birthplace of one of the most remarkable men of our times—George Stephenson, the Railway Engineer.  It is a common, two-storied, red-tiled, rubble house, portioned off into four labourers' apartments.  It is known by the name of High-street House, and was originally so called because it stands by the side of what used to be the old riding post-road or street between Newcastle and Hexham, along which the post was carried on horseback within the memory of persons living.


    The lower room in the west end of this house was the home of the Stephenson family, and there George Stephenson was born, the second of a family of six children, on the 9th of June, 1781.  The apartment is now, what it was then, an ordinary labourer's dwelling; its walls are unplastered, its floor is of clay, and the bare rafters are exposed overhead.

    Robert Stephenson, or "Old Bob," as the neighbours familiarly called him, and his wife Mabel, were a respectable couple, careful and hard-working.  Robert Stephenson's father was a Scotchman, who came into England in the capacity of a gentleman's servant.[p.104]  Mabel, his wife, was the second daughter of Robert Carr, a dyer at Ovingham.  The Carrs were for several generations the owners of a house in that village adjoining the church-yard; and the family tomb-stone may still be seen standing against the east end of the chancel of the parish church, underneath the centre lancet window, as the tomb-stone of Thomas Bewick, the wood-engraver, occupies the western gable.  Mabel Stephenson was a woman of somewhat delicate constitution, and troubled occasionally, as her neighbours said, with "the vapours."  But those who remembered her concurred in describing her at "a real canny body;" and a woman of whom this is said by general consent in the Newcastle district may be pronounced a worthy person indeed, for it is about the highest praise of a woman which Northumbrians can express.


    For some time after their marriage, Robert resided with his wife at Walbottle, a village situated between Wylam and Newcastle, where he was employed as a labourer at the colliery; after which the family removed to Wylam, where he found employment as a fireman of the old pumping-engine at that colliery.

    George Stephenson was the second of a family of six children. [p.105]

    It does not appear that the birth of any of the children was registered in the parish books, the author having made an unsuccessful search in the registers of Ovingham and Heddon-on-the-Wall to ascertain the fact.

    An old Wylam collier, who remembered George Stephenson's father, thus described him: "Geordie's faytlier war like a peer o' deals nailed thegither, an' a bit o' flesh i' th' inside; he war as queer as Dick's hatband—went thrice aboot, an' wudn't tie.  His wife Mabel war a delicat' boddie, an' varry flighty.  They war an honest family, but sair hadden doon i' th' world."  Indeed, the earnings of old Robert did not amount to more than twelve shillings a week; and, as there were six children to maintain, the family, during their stay at Wylam, were necessarily in very straitened circumstances.  The father's wages being barely sufficient even with the most rigid economy, for the sustenance of the household, there was little to spare for clothing, and nothing for education, so that none of the children were sent to school.

    Old Robert was a general favourite in the village, especially among the children, whom he was accustomed to draw about him while tending the engine-fire, and feast their young imaginations with tales of Sinbad the Sailor and Robinson Crusoe, besides others of his own invention; so that "Bob's engine-fire" came to be the most popular resort in the village.  Another feature in his character, by which he was long remembered, was his affection for birds and animals; and he had many tame favourites of both sorts, which were as fond of resorting to his engine-fire as the boys and girls themselves.  In the winter time he had usually a flock of tame robins about him; and they would come hopping familiarly to his feet to pick up the crumbs which he had saved for them out of his humble dinner.  At his cottage he was rarely without one or more tame blackbirds, which flew about the house, or in and out at the door.  In summer time he would go bird-nesting with his children; and one day he took his little boy George to see a blackbird's nest for the first time.  Holding him up in his arms, he let the wondering boy peep down, through the branches held aside for the purpose, into a nest full of young birds—a sight which the boy never forgot, but used to speak of with delight to his intimate friends when he himself had grown an old man.

    The boy George led the ordinary life of working people's children.  He played about the doors; went bird-nesting when he could; and ran errands to the village.  He was also an eager listener, with the other children, to his father's curious tales, and he early imbibed from him his affection for birds and animals.  In course of time he was promoted to the office of carrying his father's dinner to him while at work, and at home he helped to nurse his younger brothers and sisters.  One of his earliest duties was to see that the other children were kept out of the way of the chaldron wagons, which were then dragged by horses along the wooden tram-road immediately in front of the cottage door.

    This wagon-way was the first in the northern district on which the experiment of a locomotive engine was tried.  But, at the time of which we speak, the locomotive had scarcely been dreamt of in England as a practicable working power; horses only were used to haul the coal; and one of the first sights with which the boy was familiar was the coal-wagons dragged by them along the wooden railway at Wylam.

    Thus eight years passed; after which, the coal having been worked out on the north side, the old engine, which had grown "dismal to look at," as an old workman described it, was pulled down; and then old Robert, having obtained employment as a fireman at the Dewley Burn Colliery, removed with his family to that place.

    Dewley Burn, at this day, consists of a few old-fashioned, low-roofed cottages standing on either side of a babbling little stream.  They are connected by a rustic wooden bridge, which spans the rift in front of the doors.  In the central one-roomed cottage of this group, on the right bank, Robert Stephenson lived for a time with his family, the pit at which he worked standing in the rear of the cottages.

    Young though he was, George was now of an age to be able to contribute something toward the family maintenance; for, in a poor man's house, every child is a burden until his little hands can be turned to profitable account.  That the boy was shrewd and active, and possessed of a ready mother-wit, will be evident enough from the following incident.  One day his sister Nell went into Newcastle to buy a bonnet, and Geordie went with her "for company."  At a draper's shop in the Bigg Market Nell found a "chip" quite to her mind, but on pricing it, alas! it was found to be fifteen pence beyond her means.  Girl-like, she had set her mind upon that bonnet, and no other would please her.  She accordingly left the shop very much dejected.  But Geordie said, "Never heed, Nell; come wi' me, and I'll see if I canna win siller enough to buy the bonnet; stand ye there till I come back."  Away ran the boy, and disappeared amid the throng of the market, leaving the girl to wait his return.  Long and long she waited, until it grew dusk, and the market-people had nearly all left.  She had begun to despair, and fears crossed her mind that Geordie must have been run over and killed, when at last up he came running, almost breathless.  "I've gotten the siller for the bonnet, Nell!" cried he.  "Eh, Geordie!" she said, "but hoo hae ye gotten it!"  "Hauddin the gentlemen's horses!" was the exultant reply.  The bonnet was forthwith bought, and the two returned to Dewley in triumph.

    George's first regular employment was of a very humble sort.  A widow, named Grace Ainslie, then occupied the neighbouring farm-house of Dewley.  She kept a number of cows, and had the privilege of grazing them along the wagon-ways.  She needed a boy to herd the cows, to keep them out of the way of the wagons, and prevent their straying or trespassing on the neighbours' "liberties;" the boy's duty was also to bar the gates at night after all the wagons had passed.  George petitioned for this post, and, to his great joy, he was appointed, at the wage of twopence a day.

    It was light employment, and he had plenty of spare time on his hands, which he spent in bird-nesting, making whistles out of reeds and scrannel straws, and erecting Liliputian mills in the little water-streams that ran into the Dewley bog.  But his favourite amusement at this early age was erecting clay engines in conjunction with his playmate, Bill Thirlwall.  The place is still pointed out where the future engineers made their first essays in modelling.  The boys found the clay for their engines in the adjoining bog, and the hemlocks which grew about supplied them with imaginary steam-pipes.  They even proceeded to make a miniature winding-machine in connection with their engine, and the apparatus was erected upon a bench in front of the Thirlwalls' cottage.  Their corves were made out of hollowed corks; their ropes were supplied by twine; and a few bits of wood gleaned from the refuse of the carpenters' shop completed their materials.  With this apparatus the boys made a show of sending the corves down the pit and drawing them up again, much to the marvel of the pitmen.  But some mischievous person about the place seized the opportunity early one morning of smashing the fragile machinery, greatly to the grief of the young engineers.  We may mention, in passing, that George's companion afterward became a workman of repute, and creditably held the office of engineer at Shilbottle, near Alnwick, for a period of nearly thirty years.

    As Stephenson grew older and abler to work, he was set to lead the horses when ploughing, though scarce big enough to stride across the furrows; and he used afterward to say that he rode to his work in the mornings at an hour when most other children of his age were asleep in their beds.  He was also employed to hoe turnips, and do similar farm-work, for which he was paid the advanced wage of fourpence a day.  But his highest ambition was to be taken on at the colliery where his father worked; and he shortly joined his elder brother James there as a "corf-bitter," or "picker," to clear the coal of stones, bats, and dross.  His wages were then advanced to sixpence a day, and afterward to eightpence when he was sent to drive the gin-horse.

    Shortly after, George went to Black Callerton Colliery to drive the gin there; and, as that colliery lies about two miles across the fields from Dewley Burn, the boy walked that distance early in the morning to his work, returning home late in the evening.  One of the old residents at Black Callerton, who remembered him at that time, described him to the author as "a grit growing lad, with bare legs an' feet;" adding that he was "very quick-witted, and full of fun and tricks: indeed, there was nothing under the son but he tried to imitate."  He was usually foremost also in the sports and pastimes of youth.

    Among his first strongly developed tastes was the love of birds and animals, which he inherited from his father.  Blackbirds were his special favourites.  The hedges between Dewley and Black Callerton were capital bird-nesting places, and there was not a nest there that he did not know of.  When the young birds were old enough, he would bring them home with him, feed them, and teach them to fly about the cottage unconfined by cages.  One of his blackbirds became so tame that, after flying about the doors all day, and in and out of the cottage, it would take up its roost upon the bed-head at night.  And, most singular of all, the bird would disappear in the spring and summer months, when it was supposed to go into the woods to pair and rear its young, after which it would reappear at the cottage, and resume its social habits during the winter.  This went on for several years. George had also a stock of tame rabbits, for which he built a little house behind the cottage, and for many years he continued to pride himself upon the superiority of his breed.

    After he had driven the gin for some time at Dewley and Black Callerton, he was taken on as assistant to his father in firing the engine at Dewley.  This was a step of promotion which he had anxiously desired, his only fear being lest he should be found too young for the work.  Indeed, he afterward used to relate how he was wont to hide himself when the owner of the colliery went round, in case he should be thought too little a boy to earn the wages paid him.  Since he had modelled his clay engines in the bog, his young ambition was to be an engine-man; and to be an assistant fireman was the first step toward this position.  Great, therefore, was his joy when, at about fourteen years of age, he was appointed assistant fireman, at the wage of a shilling a day.

    But the coal at Dewley Burn being at length worked out, the pit was ordered to be "laid in," and old Robert, and his family were again under the necessity of shifting their home; for, to use the common phrase, they must "follow the wark."






    On quitting their humble home at Dewley Burn, the Stephenson family removed to a place called Jolly's Close, a few miles to the south, close behind the village of Newburn, where another coal-mine belonging to the Duke of Northumberland, called "the Duke's Winnin" had recently been opened out.

    One of the old persons in the neighbourhood, who knew the family well, describes the dwelling in which they lived as a poor cottage of only one room, in which the father, mother, four sons, and two daughters lived and slept.  It was crowded with three low-poled beds.  The one apartment served for parlour, kitchen, sleeping-room, and all.

    The children of the Stephenson family were now growing apace, and several of them were old enough to be able to earn money at various kinds of colliery work, James and George, the two eldest sons, worked as assistant firemen; and the younger boys worked as wheelers or pickers on the bank-tops; while the two girls helped their mother with the household work.

    Other workings of the coal were opened out in the neighbourhood, and to one of these George was removed as fireman on his own account.  This was called the "Mid Mill Winnin," where he had for his mate a young man named Coe.  They worked together there for about two years, by twelve hour shifts, George firing the engine at the wage of a shilling a day.  He was now fifteen years old.  His ambition was as yet limited to attaining the standing of a full workman, at a man's wages, and with that view he endeavoured to attain such a knowledge of his engine as would eventually lead to his employment as engine-man, with its accompanying advantage of higher pay.  He was a steady, sober, hard-working young man, but nothing more in the estimation of his fellow-workmen.

    One of his favourite pastimes in by-hours was trying feats of strength with his companions.  Although in frame he was not particularly robust, yet he was big and bony, and considered very strong for his age.  At throwing the hammer George had no compeer.  At lifting heavy weights off the ground from between his feet, by means of a bar of iron passed through them—placing the bar against his knees as a fulcrum, and then straightening his spine and lifting them sheer up—he was also very successful.  On one occasion he lifted as much as sixty (sic.) stones' weight—a striking indication of his strength of bone and muscle. [Ed.—"sixteen" stones seems more likely.]

    When the pit at Mid Mill was closed, George and his companion Coe were sent to work another pumping-engine erected near Throckley Bridge, where they continued for some months.  It was while working at this place that his wages were raised to 12s. a week—an event to him of great importance.  On coming out of the foreman's office that Saturday evening on which he received the advance, he announced the fact to his fellow-workmen, adding triumphantly, "I am now a made man for life!"

    The pit opened at Newburn, at which old Robert Stephenson worked, proving a failure, it was closed, and a new pit was sunk at Water-row, on a strip of land lying between the Wylam wagon-way and the River Tyne, about half a mile west of Newburn Church.  A pumping-engine was erected there by Robert Hawthorn, the duke's engineer, and old Stephenson went to work it as fireman, his son George acting as the engine-man or plugman.  At that time he was about seventeen years old—a very youthful age at which to fill so responsible a post.  He had thus already got ahead of his father in his station as a workman; for the plugman holds a higher grade than the fireman, requiring more practical knowledge and skill, and usually receiving higher wages.

    George's duties as plugman were to watch the engine, to see that it kept well in work, and that the pumps were efficient in drawing the water.  When the water-level in the pit was lowered, and the suction became incomplete through the exposure of the suction-holes, it was then his duty to proceed to the bottom of the shaft and plug the tube so that the pump should draw: hence the designation of "plugman." If a stoppage in the engine took place through any defect which he was incapable of remedying, it was his duty to call in the aid of the chief engineer to set it to rights.

    But from the time that George Stephenson was appointed fire-man, and more particularly afterward as engine-man, he applied himself so assiduously and successfully to the study of the engine and its gearing—taking the machine to pieces in his leisure hours for the purpose of cleaning it and understanding its various parts—that he soon acquired a thorough practical knowledge of its construction and mode of working, and very rarely needed to call the engineer of the colliery to his aid.  His engine became a sort of pet with him, and he was never wearied of watching and inspecting it with admiration.

    There is, indeed, a peculiar fascination about an engine to the person whose duty it is to watch and work it.  It is almost sublime in its untiring industry and quiet power; capable of performing the most gigantic work, yet so docile that a child's hand may guide it.  No wonder, therefore, that the workman who is the daily companion of this life-like machine, and is constantly watching it with anxious care, at length comes to regard it with a degree of personal interest and regard.  This daily contemplation of the steam-engine, and the sight of its steady action, is an education of itself to an ingenious and thoughtful man.  And it is a remarkable fact, that nearly all that has been done for the improvement of this machine has been accomplished, not by philosophers and scientific men, but by labourers, mechanics, and engine-men.  Indeed, it would appear as if this were one of the departments of practical science in which the higher powers of the human mind must bend to mechanical instinct.

    Stephenson was now in his eighteenth year, but, like many of his fellow-workmen, he had not yet learned to read.  All that he could do was to get some one to read for him by his engine-fire, out of any book or stray newspaper which found its way into the neighbourhood.  Bonaparte was then overrunning Italy, and astounding Europe by his brilliant succession of victories; and there was no more eager auditor of his exploits, as read from the newspaper accounts, than the young engine-man at the Water-row Pit.

    There were also numerous stray bits of information and intelligence contained in these papers which excited Stephenson's interest.  One of them related to the Egyptian method of hatching birds' eggs by means of artificial heat.  Curious about every thing relating to birds, he determined to test it by experiment.  It was spring time, and he forthwith went bird-nesting in the adjoining woods and hedges.  He gathered a collection of eggs of various sorts, set them in flour in a warm place in the engine-house, covered the whole with wool, and waited the issue.  The heat was kept as steady as possible, and the eggs were carefully turned every twelve hours; but, though they chipped, and some of them exhibited well-grown chicks, they never hatched.  The experiment failed, but the incident shows that the inquiring mind of the youth was fairly at work.

    Modelling of engines in clay continued to be another of his favourite occupations.  He made models of engines which he had seen, and of others which were described to him.  These attempts were an improvement upon his first trials at Dewley Burn bog, when occupied there as a herd-boy.  He was, however, anxious to know something of the wonderful engines of Boulton and Watt, and was told that they were to be found fully described in books, which he must search for information as to their construction, action, and uses.  But, alas! Stephenson could not read; he had not yet learned even his letters.

    Thus he shortly found, when gazing wistfully in the direction of knowledge, that to advance farther as a skilled workman he must master this wonderful art of reading—the key to so many other arts.  Only thus could he gain an access to books, the depositories of the wisdom and experience of the past.  Although a grown man, and doing the work of a man, he was not ashamed to confess his ignorance, and go to school, big as he was, to learn his letters.  Perhaps, too, he foresaw that, in laying out a little of his spare earnings for this purpose, he was investing money judiciously, and that, in every hour he spent at school, he was really working for better wages.

    His first schoolmaster was Robin Cowens, a poor teacher in the village of Walbottle.  He kept a night-school, which was attended by a few of the colliers' and labourers' sons in the neighbourhood.  George took lessons in spelling and reading three nights in the week.  Robin Cowen's teaching cost threepence a week; and though it was not very good, yet George, being hungry for knowledge and eager to acquire it, soon learned to read.  He also practiced "pot-hooks," and at the age of nineteen he was proud to be able to write his own name.

    A Scotch dominie, named Andrew Robertson, set up a night-school in the village of Newburn in the winter of 1799.  It was more convenient for George to attend this school, as it was nearer his work, being only a few minutes' walk from Jolly's Close.  Besides, Andrew had the reputation of being a good arithmetician, and this was a branch of knowledge that Stephenson was very desirous of acquiring.  He accordingly began taking lessons from him, paying fourpence a week.  Robert Gray, junior fire-man at the Water-row Pit, began arithmetic at the same time; and Gray afterward told the author that George learned "figuring" so much faster than he did, that he could not make out how it was—"he took to figures so wonderful."  Although the two started together from the same point, at the end of the winter George had mastered "reduction," while Robert Gray was still struggling with the difficulties of simple division.  But George's secret was his perseverance.  He worked out the sums in his by-hours, improving every minute of his spare time by the engine-fire, there studying the arithmetical problems set for him upon his slate by the master. In the evenings he took to Robertson the sums which he had "worked," and new ones were "set" for him to study out the following day.  Thus his progress was rapid, and, with a willing heart and mind, he soon became well advanced in arithmetic.  Indeed, Andrew Robertson became very proud of his scholar; and shortly after, when the Water-row Pit was closed, and George removed to Black Callerton to work there, the poor schoolmaster, not having a very extensive connection in Newburn, went with his pupils, and set up his night-school at Black Callerton, where he continued his lessons.

    George still found time to attend to his favourite animals while working at the Water-row Pit.  Like his father, he used to tempt the robin-redbreasts to hop and fly about him at the engine-fire by the bait of bread-crumbs saved from his dinner.  But his chief favourite was his dog—so sagacious that he almost daily carried George's dinner to him at the pit.  The tin containing the meal was suspended from the dog's neck, and, thus laden, he proceeded faithfully from Jolly's Close to Water-row Pit, quite through the village of Newburn.  He turned neither to left nor right, nor heeded the barking of curs at his heels.  But his course was not unattended with perils.  One day the big, strange dog of a passing butcher, espying the engine-man's messenger with the tin can about his neck, ran after and fell upon him.  There was a terrible tussle and worrying, which lasted for a brief while, and, shortly after, the dog's master, anxious for his dinner, saw his faithful servant approaching, bleeding but triumphant.  The tin can was still round his neck, but the dinner had been spilled in the struggle.  Though George went without his dinner that day, he was prouder of his dog than ever when the circumstances of the combat were related to him by the villagers who had seen it.

    It was while working at the Water-row Pit that Stephenson learned the art of brakeing an engine.  This being one of the higher departments of colliery labour, and among the best paid, George was very anxious to learn it.  A small winding-engine having been put up for the purpose of drawing the coals from the pit. Bill Coe, his friend and fellow-workman, was appointed the brakesman.  He frequently allowed George to try his hand at the machine, and instructed him how to proceed.  Coe was, however, opposed in this by several of the other workmen, one of whom, a banksman named William Locke,[p.116] went so far as to stop the working of the pit because Stephenson had been called in to the brake.  But one day, as Mr. Charles Nixon, the manager of the pit, was observed approaching, Coe adopted an expedient which put a stop to the opposition.  He called upon Stephenson to "come into the brake-house and take hold of the machine."  Locke, as usual, sat down, and the working of the pit was stopped.  When requested by the manager to give an explanation, he said that "young Stephenson couldn't brake, and, what was more, never would learn, he was so clumsy."  Mr. Nixon, however, ordered Locke to go on with the work, which he did; and Stephenson, after some farther practice, acquired the art of brakeing.

    After working at the Water-row Pit and at other engines near Newburn for about three years, George and Coe went to Black Callerton early in 1810.  Though only twenty years of age, his employers thought so well of him that they appointed him to the responsible office of brakesman at the Dolly Pit.  For convenience' sake, he took lodgings at a small farmer's in the village, finding his own victuals, and paying so much a week for lodging and attendance.  In the locality this was called "picklin in his awn poke neuk."  It not unfrequently happens that the young workman about the collieries, when selecting a lodging, contrives to pitch his tent where the daughter of the house ultimately becomes his wife.  This is often the real attraction that draws the youth from home, though a very different one may be pretended.

    George Stephenson's duties as brakesman may be briefly described.  The work was somewhat monotonous, and consisted in superintending the working of the engine and machinery by means of which the coals were drawn out of the pit.  Brakesmen are almost invariably selected from those who have had considerable experience as engine-firemen, and borne a good character for steadiness, punctuality, watchfulness, and "mother wit."  In George Stephenson's day the coals were drawn out of the pit in corves, or large baskets made of hazel rods.  The corves were placed together in a cage, between which and the pit-ropes there was usually from fifteen to twenty feet of chain.  The approach of the corves toward the pit mouth was signalled by a bell, brought into action by a piece of mechanism worked from the shaft of the engine.  When the bell sounded, the brakesman checked the speed by taking hold of the hand-gear connected with the steam-valves, which were so arranged that by their means he could regulate the speed of the engine, and stop or set it in motion when required.  Connected with the fly-wheel was a powerful wooden brake, acting by pressure against its rim, something like the brake of a railway carriage against its wheels.  On catching sight of the chain attached to the ascending corve-cage, the brakesman, by pressing his foot upon a foot-step near him, was enabled, with great precision, to stop the revolutions of the wheel, and arrest the ascent of the corves at the pit mouth, when they were forthwith landed on the "settle-board."  On the full corves being replaced by empty ones, it was then the duty of the brakesman to reverse the engine, and send the corves down the pit to be filled again.

    The monotony of George Stephenson's occupation as a brakesman was somewhat varied by the change which he made, in his turn, from the day to the night shift.  His duty, on the latter occasions, consisted chiefly in sending men and materials into the mine, and in drawing other men and materials out.  Most of the workmen enter the pit during the night shift, and leave it in the latter part of the day, while coal-drawing is proceeding.  The requirements of the work at night are such that the brakesman has a good deal of spare time on his hands, which he is at liberty to employ in his own way.  From an early period, George was accustomed to employ those vacant night hours in working the sums set for him by Andrew Robertson upon his slate, practicing writing in his copy-book, and mending the shoes of his fellow-workmen.  His wages while working at the Dolly Pit amounted to from £1 15s. to £2 in the fortnight; but he gradually added to them as he became more expert at shoe-mending, and afterward at shoe-making.

    Probably he was stimulated to take in hand this extra work by the attachment he had by this time formed for a young woman named Fanny Henderson, who officiated as servant in the small farmer's house in which he lodged.  "We have been informed that the personal attractions of Fanny, though these were considerable, were the least of her charms.  Mr. William Fairbairn, who afterward saw her in her home at Willington Quay, describes her as a very comely woman.  But her temper was one of the sweetest; and those who knew her were accustomed to speak of the charming modesty of her demeanour, her kindness of disposition, and, withal, her sound good sense.

    Among his various mendings of old shoes at Callerton, George was on one occasion favoured with the shoes of his sweetheart to sole.  One can imagine the pleasure with which he would linger over such a piece of work, and the pride with which he would execute it.  A friend of his, still living, relates that, after he had finished the shoes, he carried them about with him in his pocket on the Sunday afternoon, and that from time to time he would pull them out and hold them up, exclaiming "what a capital job he had made of them!"

    Not long after he began to work at Black Callerton as brakesman he had a quarrel with a pitman named Ned Nelson, a roistering bully, who was the terror of the village.  Nelson was a great fighter, and it was therefore considered dangerous to quarrel with him.  Stephenson was so unfortunate as not to be able to please this pitman by the way in which he drew him out of the pit, and Nelson swore at him grossly because of the alleged clumsiness of his brakeing.  George defended himself, and appealed to the testimony of the other workmen.  Nelson had not been accustomed to George's style of self-assertion, and, after a great deal of abuse, he threatened to kick the brakesman, who defied him to do so.  Nelson ended by challenging Stephenson to a pitched battle, and the latter accepted the challenge, when a day was fixed on which the fight was to come off.

    Great was the excitement at Black Callerton when it was known that George Stephenson had accepted Nelson's challenge.  Every body said he would be killed.  The villagers, the young men, and especially the boys of the place, with whom George was a great favourite, all wished that he might beat Nelson, but they scarcely dared to say so.  They came about him while he was at work in the engine-house to inquire if it was really true that be was "goin' to fight Nelson."  "Ay; never fear for me; I'll fight him."  And fight him he did.  For some days previous to the appointed day of battle, Nelson went entirely off work for the purpose of keeping himself fresh and strong, whereas Stephenson went on doing his daily work as usual, and appeared not in the least disconcerted by the prospect of the affair.  So, on the evening appointed, after George had done his day's labour, he went into the Dolly Pit Field, where his already exulting rival was ready to meet him.  George stripped, and "went in" like a practiced pugilist, though it was his first and last fight.  After a few rounds, George's wiry muscles and practiced strength enabled him severely to punish his adversary and to secure an easy victory.

    This circumstance is related in illustration of Stephenson's personal pluck and courage, and it was thoroughly characteristic the man.  He was no pugilist, and the reverse of quarrelsome.  But he would not be put down by the bully of the colliery, and he fought him.  There his pugilism ended; they afterward shook hands, and continued good friends.  In after life Stephenson's mettle was often as hardly tried, though in a different way, and he did not fail to exhibit the same courage in contending with the bullies of the railway world as he showed in his encounter with Ned Nelson, the fighting pitman of Callerton.






    GEORGE STEPHENSON had now acquired the character of an expert workman.  He was diligent and observant while at work, and sober and studious when the day's work was done.  His friend Coe described him to the author as "a standing example of manly character."  On pay-Saturday afternoons, when the pit men held their fortnightly holiday, occupying themselves chiefly in cock-fighting and dog-fighting in the adjoining fields, followed by adjournments to the "yel-house," George was accustomed to take his engine to pieces, for the purpose of obtaining "insight," and he cleaned all the parts and put the machine in thorough working order before leaving her.  His amusements continued to be principally of the athletic kind, and he found few that could beat him at lifting heavy weights, leaping, and throwing the hammer.

    In the evenings he improved himself in the arts of reading and writing, and occasionally he took a turn at modelling.  It was at Callerton, his son Robert informed us, that he began to try his hand at original invention, and for some time he applied his attention to a machine of the nature of an engine-brake, which reversed itself by its own action.  But nothing came of the contrivance, and it was eventually thrown aside as useless.  Yet not altogether so; for even the highest skill must undergo the inevitable discipline of experiment, and submit to the wholesome correction of occasional failure.

    After working at Callerton for about two years, Stephenson received an offer to take charge of the engine on Willington Ballast Hill at an advanced wage.  He determined to accept it, and at the same time to marry Fanny Henderson, and begin housekeeping on his own account.  Though he was only twenty-one years old, he had contrived, by thrift, steadiness, and industry, to save as much money as enabled him, with the help of Fanny's small hoard, to take a cottage dwelling at Willington Quay, and furnish it in a humble but comfortable style for the reception of his bride.

    Willington Quay lies on the north bank of the Tyne, about six miles below Newcastle.  It consists of a line of houses straggling along the river side, and high behind it towers up the huge mound of ballast emptied out of the ships which resort to the quay for their cargoes of coal for the London market.  The ballast is thrown out of the ships' holds into wagons laid alongside.  When filled, a train of these is dragged to the summit of the Ballast Hill, where they are run out, and their contents emptied on to the monstrous accumulation of earth, chalk, and Thames mud already laid there, probably to form a puzzle for future antiquaries and geologists when the origin of these immense hills along the Tyne has been forgotten.  At the foot of this great mound of shot rubbish was a fixed engine, which drew the trains of laden wagons up the incline by means of ropes working over pulleys, and of this engine George Stephenson acted as brakes-man.

    The cottage in which he took up his abode was a small two-storied dwelling, standing a little back from the quay, with a bit of garden ground in front; [p.122] but he only occupied the upper room in the west end of the cottage.  Close behind rose the Ballast Hill.

    When the cottage dwelling had been made snug and was ready for his wife's reception, the marriage took place.  It was celebrated in Newburn Church on the 28th of November, 1802.  George Stephenson's signature, as it stands in the register, is that of a person who seems to have just learned to write. With all the writer's care, however, he had not been able to avoid a blotch. The name of Frances Henderson has the appearance of being written by the same hand.


    After the ceremony, George and his newly-wedded partner proceeded to the house of old Robert Stephenson and his wife Mabel at Jolly Close.  The old man was now becoming infirm, though he still worked as an engine-fireman, and contrived with difficulty "to keep his head above water."  When the visit had been paid, the bridal party prepared to set out for their new home at Willington Quay.  They went in a style which was quite common before travelling by railway had been invented.  Two farm-horses, borrowed from a neighbouring farmer, were each provided with a saddle and a pillion, and George having mounted one, his wife seated herself behind him, holding on by her arms round his waist.  The brideman and bridesmaid in like manner mounted the other horse, and in this wise the wedding party rode across the country, passing through the old streets of Newcastle, and then by Wallsend to Willington Quay—a long ride of about fifteen miles.

    George Stephenson's daily life at Willington was that of a steady workman.  By the manner, however, in which he continued to improve his spare hours in the evening, he was silently and surely paving the way for being something more than a manual labourer.  He diligently set himself to study the principles of mechanics, and to master the laws by which his engine worked.  For a workman, he was even at that time more than ordinarily speculative, often taking up strange theories, and trying to sift out the truth that was in them.  While sitting by the side of his young wife in his cottage dwelling in the winter evenings, he was usually occupied in studying mechanical subjects or in modelling experimental machines.

    Among his various speculations while at Willington, he tried to discover a means of Perpetual Motion.  Although he failed, as so many others had done before him, the very efforts he made tended to whet his inventive faculties and to call forth his dormant powers.  He actually went so far as to construct the model of a machine for the purpose.  It consisted of a wooden wheel, the periphery of which was furnished with glass tubes filled with quicksilver; as the wheel rotated, the quicksilver poured itself down into the lower tubes, and thus a sort of self-acting motion was kept up in the apparatus, which, however, did not prove to be perpetual.  Where he had first obtained the idea of this machine—whether from conversation, or reading, or his own thoughts, is not known; but his son Robert was of opinion that he had heard of an apparatus of this kind as described in the "History of Inventions."  As he had then no access to books, and, indeed, could scarcely yet read, it is probable that he had been told of the invention, and set about testing its value according to his own methods.


Sir William Fairbairn F.R.S., LL.D. (1789-1874)
structural engineer.

    Much of his spare time continued to be occupied by labour more immediately profitable, regarded in a pecuniary point of view.  In the evenings, after his day's labour at his engine, he would occasionally employ himself for a few hours in casting ballast out of the collier ships, by which means he was enabled to earn a few shillings weekly.  Mr. William Fairbairn, of Manchester, has informed the author that, while Stephenson was employed at the Willington Ballast Hill, he himself was working in the neighbourhood as an engine apprentice at the Percy Main Colliery [Ed.—see the poet Joseph Skipsey].  He was very fond of George, who was a fine, hearty fellow, besides being a capital workman.  In the summer evenings young Fairbairn was accustomed to go down to Willington to see his friend, and on such occasions he would frequently take charge of George's engine for a few hours, to enable him to take a two or three hours' turn at heaving ballast out of the ships' holds.  It is pleasant to think of the future President of the British Association thus helping the future Railway Engineer to earn a few extra shillings by overwork in the evenings, at a time when both occupied the rank but of humble working men in an obscure northern village.

    Mr. Fairbairn was also a frequent visitor at George's cottage on the Quay, where, though there was no luxury, there was comfort, cleanness, and a pervading spirit of industry.  Even at home George was never for a moment idle.  When there was no ballast to heave, he took in shoes to mend; and from mending he proceeded to making them, as well as shoe-lasts, in which he was admitted to be very expert.  William Coe, who continued to live at Willington in 1851, informed the author that he bought a pair of shoes from George Stephenson for 7s. 6d., and he remembered that they were a capital fit, and wore very well.

    But an accident occurred in Stephenson's household about this time which had the effect of directing his industry into a new and still more profitable channel.  The cottage chimney took fire one day in his absence, when the alarmed neighbours, rushing in, threw quantities of water upon the flames; and some, in their zeal, even mounted the ridge of the house, and poured buckets of water down the chimney.  The fire was soon put out, but the house was thoroughly soaked.  When George came home, he found the water running out of the door, every thing in disorder, and his new furniture covered with soot.  The eight-day clock, which hung against the wall—one of the most highly-prized articles in the house—was seriously damaged by the steam with which the room had been filled.  Its wheels were so clogged by the dust and soot that it was brought to a complete stand-still.

    George was advised to send the article to the clock-maker, but that would cost money; and he declared that he would repair it himself—at least he would try.  The clock was accordingly taken to pieces and cleaned; the tools which he had been accumulating for the purpose of constructing his Perpetual Motion machine readily enabled him to do this, and he succeeded so well that, shortly after, the neighbours sent him their clocks to clean, and he soon became one of the most expert clock-cleaners in the neighbourhood.

    It was while living at Willington Quay that George Stephenson's only son was born on the 16th of October, 1803. [126-1]  The child was from the first, as may well be imagined, a great and favourite with his father, and added much to the happiness of his evening hours.  George Stephenson's strong "philoprogenitivenees,'' as phrenologists call it, had in his boyhood expended itself on birds, and dogs, and rabbits, and even on the poor old gin-horses which he had driven at the Callerton Pit, and now he found in his child a more genial object for the exercise of his affection.

    The christening of the boy took place in the school-house at Wallsend, the old parish church being at the time in so dilapidated a condition from the "creeping" or subsidence of the ground, consequent upon the excavation of the coal, that it was considered dangerous to enter it. [126-2]  On this occasion, Robert Gray and Anne Henderson, who had officiated as brideman and bridesmaid at the wedding, came over again to Willington, and stood godfather and godmother to little Robert, as the child was named, after his grandfather.

    After working for about three years as a brakesman at the Willington machine, George Stephenson was induced to leave his situation there for a similar one at the West Moor Colliery, Killingworth.  It was not without considerable persuasion that he was induced to leave the Quay, as he knew that he should thereby give up the chance of earning extra money by casting ballast from the keels.  At last, however, he consented, in the hope of making up the loss in some other way.


    The village of Killingworth lies about seven miles north of Newcastle, and is one of the best-known collieries in that neighbourhood.  The workings of the coal are of vast extent, and give employment to a large number of work-people.  To this place Stephenson first came as a brakesman about the end of 1804.  He had not been long in his new home ere his wife died of consumption, leaving him with his only child Robert.  George deeply felt the loss, for his wife and he had been very happy together.  Their lot had been sweetened by daily successful toil.  George had been hard-working, and his wife had made his hearth so bright and his home so snug, that no attraction could draw him from her side in the evening hours.  But this domestic happiness was all to pass away, and the bereaved husband felt for a time as one that had thenceforth to tread the journey of life alone.

    Shortly after this event, while his grief was still fresh, he received an invitation from some gentlemen concerned in large spinning-works near Montrose, in Scotland, to proceed thither and superintend the working of one
of Boulton and Watt's engines.  He accepted the offer, and made arrangements to leave Killingworth for a time.

    Having left his boy in charge of a respectable woman who acted as his housekeeper, he set out on the journey to Scotland on foot, with his kit upon his back.  While working at Montrose, he gave a striking proof of that practical ability in contrivance for which he was afterward so distinguished.  It appears that the water required for the purposes of his engine, as well as for the use of the works, was pumped from a considerable depth, being supplied from the adjacent extensive sand strata.  The pumps frequently got choked by the sand drawn in at the bottom of the well through the snore-holes, or apertures through which the water to be raised is admitted.  The barrels soon became worn, and the bucket and clack leathers destroyed, so that it became necessary to devise a remedy; and with this object, the engine-man proceeded to adopt the following simple but original expedient.  He had a wooden box or boot made, twelve feet high, which he placed in the sump or well, and into this he inserted the lower end of the pump.  The result was, that the water flowed clear from the outer part of the well over into the boot, and was drawn up without any admixture of sand, and the difficulty was thus conquered.[p.128]

    During his stay in Scotland, Stephenson, being paid good wages, contrived to save a sum of £28, which he took back with him to Killingworth, after an absence of about a year.  Longing to get back to his kindred, and his heart yearning for the boy whom he had left behind, our engine-man bade adieu to his Montrose employers, and trudged back to Killingworth on foot as he had gone.  He related to his friend Coe, on his return, that when on the borders of Northumberland, late one evening, footsore and wearied with his long day's journey, he knocked at a small farmer's cottage door, and requested shelter for the night.  It was refused; and then he entreated that, being sore tired and unable to proceed any farther, they would permit him to lie down in the outhouse, for that a little clean straw would serve him.  The farmer's wife appeared at the door, looked at the traveller, then retiring with her husband, the two confabulated a little apart, and finally they invited Stephenson into the cottage.  Always full of conversation and anecdote, he soon made himself at home in the farmer's family, and spent with them some pleasant hours.  He was hospitably entertained for the night, and when he left the cottage in the morning, he pressed them to make some charge for his lodging, but they refused to accept any recompense.  They only asked him to remember them kindly, and if he ever came that way, to be sure and call again.  Many years after, when Stephenson had become a thriving man, he did not forget the humble pair who had thus succoured and entertained him on his way; he sought their cottage again when age had silvered their hair; and when he left the agèd couple on that occasion, they may have been reminded of the old saying that we may sometimes "entertain angels unawares."

    Reaching home, Stephenson found that his father had met with a serious accident at the Blucher Pit, which had reduced him to great distress and poverty.  While engaged in the inside of an engine, making some repairs, a fellow-workman inadvertently let in the steam upon him.  The blast struck him full in the face; he was terribly scorched, and his eyesight was irretrievably lost.  The helpless and infirm man had struggled for a time with poverty; his sons who were at home, poor as himself, were little able to help him, while George was at a distance in Scotland.  On his return, however, with his savings in his pocket, his first step was to pay off his father's debts, amounting to about £15; and, shortly after, he removed the agèd pair from Jolly's Close to a comfortable cottage adjoining the tram-road near the West Moor at Killingworth, where the old man lived for many years, supported by his son.

    Stephenson was again taken on as a brakesman at the West Moor Pit.  He does not seem to have been very hopeful as to his prospects in life at the time.  Indeed, the condition of the working classes was then very discouraging.  England was engaged in a great war, which pressed upon the industry, and severely tried the resources of the country.  Heavy taxes were imposed upon all the articles of consumption that would bear them.  There was a constant demand for men to fill the army, navy, and militia.  Never before had England witnessed such drumming and fifing for recruits.  In 1805, the gross forces of the United Kingdom amounted to nearly 700,000 men, and early in 1808 Lord Castlereagh carried a measure for the establishment of a local militia of 200,000 men.  These measures were accompanied by general distress among the labouring classes.  There were riots in Manchester, Newcastle, and elsewhere, through scarcity of work and lowness of wages.  The working people were also liable to be pressed for the navy, or drawn for the militia; and though people could not fail to be discontented under such circumstances, they scarcely dared even to mutter their discontent to their neighbours.

    George Stephenson was one of those drawn for the militia.  He must therefore either quit his work and go a-soldiering, or find a substitute.  He adopted the latter course, and borrowed £6, which, with the remainder of his savings, enabled him to provide a militia-man to serve in his stead.  Thus the whole of his hard-won earnings were swept away at a stroke.  He was almost in despair, and contemplated the idea of leaving the country, and emigrating to the United States.  Although a voyage thither was then a much more formidable thing for a working man to accomplish than a voyage to Australia is now, he seriously entertained the project, and had all but made up his mind to go.  His sister Ann, with her husband, emigrated about that time, but George could not raise the requisite money, and they departed without him.  After all, it went sore against his heart to leave his home and his kindred, the scenes of his youth and the friends of his boyhood, and he struggled long with the idea, brooding over it in sorrow.  Speaking afterward to a friend of his thoughts at the time, he said: "You know the road from my house at the West Moor to Killingworth.  I remember once when I went along that road I wept bitterly, for I knew not where my lot in life would be cast."  But his poverty prevented him from prosecuting the idea of emigration, and rooted him to the place where he afterward worked out his career so manfully and victoriously.

    In 1808, Stephenson, with two other brakesmen, took a small contract under the colliery lessees, brakeing the engines at the West Moor Pit.  The brakesmen found the oil and tallow; they divided the work among them, and were paid so much per score for their labour.  There being two engines working night and day, two of the three men were always on duty, the average earnings of each amounting to from 18s. to 20s. a week.  It was the interest of the brakesmen to economize the working as much as possible, and George no sooner entered upon the contract than he proceeded to devise ways and means of making the contract "pay."  He observed that the ropes with which the coal was drawn out of the pit by the winding-engine were badly arranged; they "glued" and wore each other to tatters by the perpetual friction.  There was thus great wear and tear, and a serious increase in the expenses of the pit.  George found that the ropes which, at other pits in the neighbourhood, lasted about three months, at the West Moor Pit became worn out in about a month.  He accordingly set himself to ascertain the cause of the defect; and, finding that it was occasioned by excessive friction, he proceeded, with the sanction of the head engine-wright and of the colliery owners, to shift the pulley-wheels so that they worked immediately over the centre of the pit.  By this expedient, accompanied by an entire rearrangement of the gearing of the machine, he shortly succeeded in greatly lessening the wear and tear of the ropes, to the advantage of the owners as well as of the workmen, who were thus enabled to labour more continuously and profitably.

    About the same time he attempted an improvement in the winding-engine which he worked, by placing a valve between the air-pump and condenser.  This expedient, although it led to no practical result, showed that his mind was actively engaged in studying new mechanical adaptations.  It continued to be his regular habit, on Saturdays, to take his engine to pieces, for the purpose at the same time of familiarizing himself with its action, and of placing it in a state of thorough working order; and by mastering the details of the engine, he was enabled, as opportunity occurred, to turn to practical account the knowledge thus diligently and patiently acquired.

    Such an opportunity was not long in presenting itself.  In the year 1810, a pit was sunk by the "Grand Allies" (the lessees of the mines) at the village of Killingworth, now known as the Killingworth High Pit.  An atmospheric or Newcomen engine, originally made by Smeaton, was fixed there for the purpose of pumping out the water from the shaft; but, somehow or other, the engine failed to clear the pit.  As one of the workmen has since described the circumstance—"She couldn't keep her jack-head in water: all the engine-men in the neighbourhood were tried, as well as Crowther of the Ouseburn, but they were clean bet."  The engine had been fruitlessly pumping for nearly twelve months, and came to be regarded as a total failure.  Stephenson had gone to look at it when in course of erection, and then observed to the over-man that he thought it was defective; he also gave it as his opinion that if there were much water in the mine, the engine could never keep it under.  Of course, as he was only a brakesman, his opinion was considered to be worth very little on such a point.  He continued, however, to make frequent visits to the engine to see "how she was getting on."  From the bank-head where he worked his brake he could see the chimney smoking at the High Pit; and as the workmen were passing to and from their work, he would call out and inquire "if they had gotten to the bottom yet."  And the reply was always to the same effect—the pumping made no progress, and the workmen were still "drowned out."

    One Saturday afternoon he went over to the High Pit to examine the engine more carefully than he had yet done.  He had been turning the subject over in his mind, and, after a long examination, he seemed to have satisfied himself as to the cause of the failure.  Kit Heppel, one of the sinkers, asked him, "Weel, George, what do you mak' o' her?  Do you think you could do any thing to improve her?"  "Man," said George, in reply, "I could alter her and make her draw: in a week's time from this I could send you to the bottom."

    Heppel at once reported this conversation to Ralph Dodds, the head viewer, who, being now quite in despair, and hopeless of succeeding with the engine, determined to give George's skill a trial.  George had already acquired the character of a very clever and ingenious workman, and, at the worst, he could only fail, as the rest had done.  In the evening Dodds went in search of Stephenson, and met him on the road, dressed in his Sunday's suit, on his way to "the preaching" in the Methodist Chapel, which he at that time attended.  "Well, George," said Dodds, "they tell me that you think you can put the engine at the High Pit to rights."  "Yes, sir," said George, "I think I could."  "If that's the case, I'll give you a fair trial, and you must set to work immediately.  We are clean drowned out, and can not get a step farther.  The engineers hereabouts are all bet; and if you really succeed in accomplishing what they can not do, you may depend upon it I will make you a man for life."

    Stephenson began his operations early next morning.  The only condition that he made, before setting to work, was that he should select his own workmen.  There was, as he knew, a good deal of jealousy among the "irregular" men that a colliery brakesman should pretend to know more about their engine than they themselves did, and attempt to remedy defects which the most skilled men of their craft, including the engineer of the colliery, had failed to do.  But George made the condition a sine qua non.  "The workmen," said he, "must either be all Whigs or all Tories."  There was no help for it, so Dodds ordered the old hands to stand aside.  The men grumbled, but gave way; and then George and his party went in.

    The engine was taken entirely to pieces.  The cistern containing the injection water was raised ten feet; the injection cock, being too small, was enlarged to nearly double its former size, and it was so arranged that it should be shut off quickly at the beginning of the stroke.  These and other alterations were necessarily performed in a rough way, but, as the result proved, on true principles.  Stephenson also, finding that the boiler would bear a greater pressure than five pounds to the inch, determined to work it at a pressure of ten pounds, though this was contrary to the directions of both Newcomen and Smeaton.

    The necessary alterations were made in about three days, and many persons came to see the engine start, including the men who had put her up.  The pit being nearly full of water, she had little to do on starting, and, to use George's words, "came bounce into the house."  Dodds exclaimed, "Why, she was better as she was; now, she will knock the house down."  After a short time, however, the engine got fairly to work, and by ten o'clock that night the water was lower in the pit than it had ever been before.  The engine was kept pumping all Thursday, and by the Friday afternoon the pit was cleared of water, and the workmen were "sent to the bottom,'' as Stephenson had promised.  Thus the alterations effected in the pumping apparatus proved completely successful. [p.134]

    Mr. Dodds was particularly gratified with the manner in which the job had been done, and he made Stephenson a present of ten pounds, which, though very inadequate when compared with the value of the work performed, was accepted with gratitude.  George was proud of the gift as the first marked recognition of his skill as a workman; and he used afterward to say that it was the biggest sum of money he had up to that time earned in one lump.  Ralph Dodds, however, did more than this; he released the brakes man from the handles of his engine at "West Moor, and appointed him engine-man at the High Pit, at good wages, during the time the pit was sinking—the job lasting for about a year; and he also kept him in mind for farther advancement.

    Stephenson's skill as an engine-doctor soon became noised abroad, and he was called upon to prescribe remedies for all the old, wheezy, and ineffective pumping-machines in the neighbourhood.  In this capacity he soon left the "regular" men" behind, though they, in their turn, were very much disposed to treat the Killingworth brakesman as no better than a quack.  Nevertheless, his practice was really founded upon a close study of the principles of mechanics, and on an intimate practical acquaintance with the details of the pumping-engine.

    Another of his smaller achievements in the same line is still told by the people of the district.  At the corner of the road leading to Long Benton there was a quarry from which a peculiar and scarce kind of ochre was taken.  In the course of working it out, the water had collected in considerable quantities; and there being no means of draining it off, it accumulated to such an extent that the farther working of the ochre was almost entirely stopped.  Ordinary pumps were tried, and failed; and then a windmill was tried, and failed too.  On this, George was asked what ought to be done to clear the quarry of the water.  He said "he would set up for them an engine, little bigger than a kail-pot, that would clear them out in a week."  And he did so.  A little engine was speedily erected, by means of which the quarry was pumped dry in the course of a few days.  Thus his skill as a pump-doctor soon became the marvel of the district.

    In elastic muscular vigour Stephenson was now in his prime, and he still continued zealous in measuring his strength and agility with his fellow-workmen.  The competitive element in his nature was always strong, and his success in these feats of rivalry was certainly remarkable.  Few, if any, could lift such weights, throw the hammer and put the stone so far, or cover so great a space at a standing or running leap.  One day, between the engine hour and the rope-rolling hour, Kit Heppel challenged him to leap from one high wall to another, with a deep gap between.  To Heppel's surprise and dismay, George took the standing leap, and cleared the eleven feet at a bound.  Had his eye been less accurate, or his limbs less agile and sure, the feat must have cost him his life.

    But so full of redundant muscular vigour was he, that leaping, putting, or throwing the hammer, were not enough for him.  He was also ambitious of riding on horseback; and, as he had not yet been promoted to an office enabling him to keep a horse of his own, he sometimes borrowed one of the gin-horses for a ride.  On one of these occasions he brought the animal back reeking, when Tommy Mitcheson, the bank horse-keeper, a rough-spoken fellow, exclaimed to him, "Set such fellows as you on horseback, and you'll soon ride to the De'il."  But Tommy Mitcheson lived to tell the story, and to confess that, after all, there had been a better issue of George's horsemanship than what he had predicted.

    Old Cree, the engine-wright at Killingworth High Pit, having been killed by an accident, George Stephenson was, in 1812, appointed engine-wright of the colliery at the salary of £100 a year.  He was also allowed the use of a galloway to ride upon in his visits of inspection to the collieries leased by the "Grand Allies" in that neighbourhood.

    The "Grand Allies" were a company of gentlemen, consisting of Sir Thomas Liddell (afterward Lord Ravensworth), the Earl of Strathmore, and, and Mr. Stuart Wortley (afterward Lord Wharncliffe), the lessees of the Killingworth collieries.  Having been informed of the merits of Stephenson, of his indefatigable industry, and the skill which he had displayed in the repairs of the pumping-engines, they readily acceded to Mr. Dodds's recommendation that he should be appointed the colliery engine-wright; and, as we shall afterward find, they continued to honour him by distinguished marks of their approval.






    GEORGE STEPHENSON had now been diligently employed for several years in the work of self-improvement and he experienced the usual results in increasing mental strength, capability, and skill.  Perhaps the secret of every man's best success in life is to be found in the alacrity and industry with which he takes advantage of the opportunities which present themselves for well-doing.  Our engine-man was an eminent illustration of the importance of cultivating this habit of life.  Every spare moment was laid under contribution by him, either for the purpose of adding to his earnings or to his knowledge.  He missed no opportunity of extending his observations, especially in his own department of work, aiming at improvement, and trying to turn all that he did know to useful practical account.

    He continued his attempts to solve the mystery of Perpetual Motion, and contrived several model machines with the object of embodying his ideas in a practical working shape.  He afterward used to lament the time he had lost in these futile efforts, and said that if he had enjoyed the opportunities which most young men now have, of learning from books what previous experimenters had accomplished, he would have been spared much labour and mortification.  Not being acquainted with what other mechanics had done, he groped his way in pursuit of some idea originated by his own independent thinking and observation, and, when he had brought it into some definite form, lo! he found that his supposed invention had long been known and recorded in scientific books.  Often he thought he had hit upon discoveries which he subsequently found were but old and exploded fallacies.  Yet his very struggle to overcome the difficulties which lay in his way was of itself an education of the best sort.  By wrestling with them, he strengthened his judgment and sharpened his skill, stimulating and cultivating his inventiveness and mechanical ingenuity.  Being very much in earnest, he was compelled to consider the subject of his special inquiry in all its relations, and thus he gradually acquired practical ability through his very efforts after the impracticable.

    Many of his evenings were spent in the society of John Wigham, whose father occupied the Glebe farm at Benton close at hand.  John was a fair penman and good arithmetician, and Stephenson frequented his society chiefly for the purpose of improving himself in writing and "figuring."  Under Andrew Robertson he had never quite mastered the Rule of Three, and it was only when Wigham took him in hand that he made progress in the higher branches of arithmetic.  He generally took his slate with him to the Wighams' cottage, when he had his sums set, that he might work them out while tending his engine on the following day.  When too busy with other work to be able to call upon Wigham in person, he sent the slate by a fellow-workman to have the former sums corrected and new ones set.  Sometimes also, at leisure moments, he was enabled to do a little "figuring" with chalk upon the sides of the coal-wagons.  So much patient perseverance could not but eventually succeed; and by dint of practice and study, Stephenson was enabled to master the successive rules of arithmetic.

    John Wigham was of great use to his pupil in many ways.  He was a good talker, fond of argument, an extensive reader as country reading went in those days, and a very suggestive thinker.  Though his store of information might be comparatively small when measured with that of more highly cultivated minds, much of it was entirely new to Stephenson, who regarded him as a very clever and extraordinary person.  Wigham also taught him to draw plans and sections, though in this branch Stephenson proved so apt that he soon surpassed his master.  A volume of "Ferguson's Lectures on Mechanics" which fell into their hands was a great treasure to both the students.  One who remembers their evening occupations says he "used to wonder what they meant by weighing the air and water in so odd a way."  They were trying the specific gravities of objects; and the devices which they employed, the mechanical shifts to which they were put, were often of the rudest kind.  In these evening entertainments the mechanical contrivances were supplied by Stephenson, while Wigham found the scientific rationale.  The opportunity thus afforded to the former of cultivating his mind by contact with one wiser than himself proved of great value, and in after life Stephenson gratefully remembered the assistance which, when a humble workman, he had received from John Wigham, the farmer's son.

    His leisure moments thus carefully improved, it will be inferred that Stephenson continued a sober man.  Though his notions were never extreme on this point, he was systematically temperate.  It appears that on the invitation of his master, Ralph Dodds—and an invitation from a master to a workman is not easy to resist—he had, on one or two occasions, been induced to join him in a forenoon glass of ale in the public house of the village.  But one day, about noon, when Mr. Dodds had got him as far as the public-house door, on his invitation to "come in and take a glass o' yel," Stephenson made a dead stop, and said, firmly, "No, sir, yon must excuse me; I have made a resolution to drink no more at this time of day."  And he went back.  He desired to retain the character of a steady workman; and the instances of men about him who had made shipwreck of their character through intemperance were then, as now, unhappily too frequent.

    But another consideration besides his own self-improvement had already begun to exercise an important influence upon his life.  This was the training and education of his son Robert, now growing up an active, intelligent boy, as full of fun and tricks as his father had been.  When a little fellow, scarce big enough to reach so high as to put a clock-head on when placed upon the table, his father would make him mount a chair for the purpose; and to "help father" was the proudest work which the boy then, and ever after, could take part in.  When the little engine was set up at the Ochre Quarry to pump it dry, Robert was scarcely absent for an hour.  He watched the machine very eagerly when it was set to work, and he was very much annoyed at the fire burning away the grates.  The man who fired the engine was a sort of wag, and thinking to get a laugh at the boy, he said, "Those bars are getting varra bad, Robert; I think we maun cut up some of that hard wood, and put it in instead."  "What would be the use of that, you fool?" said the boy, quickly.  "You would no sooner have put them in than they would be burnt out again!"


    So soon as Robert was of a proper age, his father sent him over to the road-side school at Long Benton, kept by Rutter, the parish clerk.  But the education which he gave was of a limited kind, scarcely extending beyond the primer and pothooks.  While working as a brakesman on the pit-head at Killingworth, the father had often bethought him of the obstruction he had himself encountered in life through his want of schooling, and he formed the determination that no labour, nor pains, nor self-denial on his part should be spared to furnish his son with the best education that it was in his power to bestow.

    It is true, his earnings were comparatively small at that time.  He was still maintaining his infirm parents, and the cost of living continued excessive.  But he fell back, as before, upon his old expedient of working up his spare time in the evenings at home, or during the night shifts when it was his turn to tend the engine, in mending and making shoes, cleaning clocks and watches, making shoe-lasts for the shoemakers of the neighbourhood, and cutting out the pitmen's clothes for their wives; and we have been told that to this day there are clothes worn at Killingworth made after "Geordy Steevie's cut."  To give his own words: "In the earlier period of my career," said he, "when Robert was a little boy, I saw how deficient I was in education, and I made up my mind that he should not labour under the same defect, but that I would put him to a good school, and give him a liberal training.  I was, however, a poor man; and how do you think I managed?  I betook myself to mending my neighbours' clocks and watches at nights, after my daily labour was done, and thus I procured the means of educating my son." [p.141]

    By dint of such extra labour in his by-hours, with this object, Stephenson contrived to save a sum of £100, which he accumulated in guineas, each of which he afterward sold to Jews, who went about buying up gold coins (then dearer than silver), at twenty-six shillings apiece; and he lent out the proceeds at interest.  He was now, therefore, a comparatively thriving man.

    "When he was appointed engine-wright of the colliery, he was, of course, still easier in his circumstances; and, carrying out the resolution which he had formed as to his boy's education, Robert was sent to Mr. Bruce's school in Percy Street, Newcastle, at mid-summer, 1815, when he was about twelve years old.  His father bought for him a donkey, on which he rode into Newcastle and back daily; and there are many still living who remember the little boy, dressed in his suit of homely gray stuff cut out by his father, cantering along to school upon the "cuddy," with his wallet of provisions for the day, and his bag of books slung over his shoulder.

    When Robert went to Mr. Bruce's school he was a shy, unpolished country lad, speaking the broad dialect of the pitmen; and the other boys would occasionally tease him, for the purpose of provoking an outburst of his Killingworth Doric.  As the shyness got rubbed off by familiarity, his love of fun began to show itself, and he was found able enough to hold his own among the other boys.  As a scholar he was steady and diligent, and his master was accustomed to hold him up to the laggards of the school as an example of good conduct and industry.  But his progress, though satisfactory, was by no means extraordinary.  He used in after life to pride himself on his achievements in mensuration, though another boy, John Taylor, beat him at arithmetic.  He also made considerable progress in mathematics; and in a letter written to the son of his teacher, many years after, he said, "It was to Mr. Bruce's tuition and methods of modelling the mind that I attribute much of my success as an engineer, for it was from him that I derived my taste for mathematical pursuits and the facility I possess of applying this kind of knowledge to practical purposes, and modifying it according to circumstances."


    During the time Robert attended school at Newcastle, his father made the boy's education instrumental to his own.  Robert was accustomed to spend some of his spare time at the rooms of the Literary and Philosophical Institute, and when he went home in the evening he would recount to his father the results of his reading.  Sometimes he was allowed to take with him to Killingworth a volume of the "Repertory of Arts and Sciences," which father and son studied together.  But many of the most valuable works belonging to the Newcastle Library were not permitted to be removed from the rooms; these Robert was instructed to read and study, and bring away with him descriptions and sketches for his father's information.  His father also practiced him in the reading of plans and drawings without at all referring to the written descriptions.  He used to observe to his son, "A good drawing or plan should always explain itself;" and, placing a drawing of an engine or machine before the youth, he would say, "There, now, describe that to me—the arrangement and the action."  Thus he taught him to read a drawing as easily as he would read a page of a book.  Both father and son profited by this excellent practice, which shortly enabled them to apprehend with the greatest facility the details of even the most difficult and complicated mechanical drawing.

    While Robert went on with his lessons in the evenings, his father was usually occupied with his watch and clock cleaning, or contriving models of pumping-engines, or endeavouring to embody in a tangible shape the mechanical inventions which he found described in the odd volumes on Mechanics which fell in his way.  This daily and unceasing example of industry and application, working on before the boy's eyes in the person of a loving and beloved father, imprinted itself deeply upon his mind in characters never to be effaced.  A spirit of self-improvement was thus early and carefully planted and fostered in him, which continued to influence his character through life; and toward the close of his career he was proud to confess that if his professional success had been great, it was mainly to the example and training of his father that he owed it.

    Robert was not, however, exclusively devoted to study, but, like most boys full of animal spirits, he was very fond of fun and play, and sometimes of mischief.  Dr. Bruce relates that an old Killingworth labourer, when asked by Robert, on one of his last visits to Newcastle, if he remembered him, replied with emotion, "Ay, indeed!  Haven't I paid your head many a time when you came with your father's bait, for you were always a sad hempy?"

    The author had the pleasure, in the year 1854, of accompanying Robert Stephenson on a visit to his old home and haunts at Killingworth.  He had so often travelled the road upon his donkey to and from school that every foot of it was familiar to him, and each turn in it served to recall to mind some incident of his boyish days. [p.144]  His eyes glistened when he came in sight of Killingworth pit head.  Pointing to a humble red-tiled house by the roadside at Benton, he said, "You see that house—that was Rutter's, where I learned my ABC, and made a beginning of my school learning; and there," pointing to a colliery chimney on the left, "there is Long Benton, where my father put up his first pumping-engine; and a great success it was.  And this humble clay-floored cottage you see here is where my grandfather lived till the close of his life.  Many a time have I ridden straight into the house, mounted on my cuddy, and called upon grandfather to admire his points.  I remember the old man feeling the animal all over—he was then quite blind—after which he would dilate upon the shape of his ears, fetlocks, and quarters, and usually end by pronouncing him to be a 'real blood.'  I was a great favourite with the old man, who continued very fond of animals, and cheerful to the last; and I believe nothing gave him greater pleasure than a visit from me and my cuddy."

    On the way from Benton to High Killingworth, Mr. Stephenson pointed to a corner of the road where he had once played a boyish trick upon a Killingworth collier.  "Straker," said he, "was a great bully, a coarse, swearing fellow, and a perfect tyrant among the women and children.  He would go tearing into old Nanny the huxter's shop in the village, and demand in a savage voice, 'What's ye'r best ham the pund?' 'What's floor the hunder?' 'What d'ye ax for prime bacon?'—his categories usually ending with the miserable order, accompanied with a tremendous oath, of 'Gie's a penny rrow (roll) an' a baubee herrin'!'  The poor woman was usually set 'all of a shake' by a visit from this fellow.  He was also a great boaster, and used to crow over the robbers whom he had put to flight; mere men in buckram, as every body knew.  "We boys," he continued, "believed him to be a great coward, and determined to play him a trick.  Two other boys joined me in waylaying Straker one night at that corner," pointing to it.  "We sprang out and called upon him, in as gruff voices as we could assume, to 'stand and deliver!'  He dropped down upon his knees in the dirt, declaring he was a poor man, with a sma' family, asking for 'mercy,' and imploring us, as 'gentlemen, for God's sake, t' let him a-be!'  We couldn't stand this any longer, and set up a shout of laughter.  Recognizing our boys' voices, he sprang to his feet again and rattled out a volley of oaths, on which we cut through the hedge, and heard him shortly after swearing his way along the road to the yel-house." [Ed.—"ale-house"]

    On another occasion Robert played a series of tricks of a somewhat different character.  Like his father, he was very fond of reducing his scientific reading to practice; and after studying Franklin's description of the lightning experiment, he proceeded to expend his store of Saturday pennies in purchasing about half a mile of copper wire at a brazier's shop in Newcastle.  Having prepared his kite, he set it up in the field opposite his father's door, and bringing the wire, insulated by means of a few feet of silk cord, over the backs of some of Farmer Wigham's cows, he soon had them skipping about the field in all directions with their tails up.  One day he had his kite flying at the cottage-door as his father's galloway was hanging by the bridle to the paling, waiting for the master to mount.  Bringing the end of the wire just over the pony's crupper, so smart an electric shock was given it that the brute was almost knocked down.  At this juncture his father issued from the house, riding-whip in hand, and was witness to the scientific trick just played off upon his galloway.  "Ah! you mischievous scoondrel!" cried he to the boy, who ran off, himself inwardly chuckling with pride, nevertheless, at Robert's successful experiment.[p.145]


At this time, and for many years after, Stephenson dwelt in a cottage standing by the side of the road leading from the West Moor Pit to Killingworth.  The railway from West Moor crosses this road close by the easternmost end of the cottage.  The dwelling originally consisted of but one apartment on the ground floor with a garret overhead, to which access was obtained by means of a step-ladder.  With his own hands Stephenson built an oven and in the course of time he added rooms to the cottage, until it became expanded into a comfortable four-roomed dwelling, in which he remained as long as he lived at Killingworth.

    He continued as fond of birds and animals as ever, and seemed to have the power of attaching them to him in a remarkable degree.  He had a blackbird at Killingworth so fond of him that it would fly about the cottage, and on holding out his finger the bird would come and perch upon it directly.  A cage was built for "blackie" in the partition between the passage and the room, a square of glass forming its outer wall; and Robert used afterward to take pleasure in describing the oddity of the bird, imitating the manner in which it would cock its head on his father's entering the house, and follow him with its eye into the inner apartment.

    Neighbours were accustomed to call at the cottage and have their clocks and watches set to rights when they went wrong.  One day, after looking at the works of a watch left by a pitman's wife, George handed it to his son: "Put her in the oven, Robert," said he, "for a quarter of an hour or so."  It seemed an odd way of repairing a watch; nevertheless, the watch was put into the oven, and at the end of the appointed time it was taken out, going all right.  The wheels had merely got clogged by the oil congealed by the cold, which at once explains the rationale of the remedy adopted.

    There was a little garden attached to the cottage, in which, while a workman, Stephenson took a pride in growing gigantic leeks and astonishing cabbages.  There was great competition in the growing of vegetables among the villagers, all of whom he excelled excepting one, whose cabbages sometimes outshone his.  To protect his garden-crops from the ravages of the birds, he invented a strange sort of "fley-craw," which moved its arms with the wind; and he fastened his garden-door by means of a piece of ingenious mechanism, so that no one but himself could enter it.  His cottage was quite a curiosity-shop of models of engines, self-acting planes, and perpetual-motion machines.  The last named contrivances, however, were only unsuccessful attempts to solve a problem which had already baffled hundreds of preceding inventors.

    His odd and eccentric contrivances often excited great wonder among the Killingworth villagers.  He won the women's admiration by connecting their cradles with the smoke-jack, and making them self-acting.  Then he astonished the pitmen by attaching an alarm to the clock of the watchman whose duty it was to call them betimes in the morning.  He also contrived a wonderful lamp which burned under water, with which he was afterward wont to amuse the Brandling family at Gosforth—going into the fish-pond at night, lamp in hand, attracting and catching the fish, which rushed wildly toward the flame.

    Dr. Bruce tells of a competition which Stephenson had with the joiner at Killingworth as to which of them could make the best shoe-last; and when the former had done his work, either for the humour of the thing or to secure fair play from the appointed judge, he took it to the Morrisons in Newcastle, and got them to put their stamp upon it; so that it is possible the Killingworth brakesman, afterward the inventor of a safety-lamp and originator of the locomotive railway system, and John Morrison, the last-maker, afterward the translator of the Scriptures into the Chinese language, may have confronted each other in solemn contemplation of the successful last, which won the verdict coveted by its maker. [Note]

    Sometimes George would endeavour to impart to his fellow-workmen the results of his scientific reading.  Every thing that he learned from books was so new and so wonderful to him, that he regarded the facts he drew from them in the light of discoveries, as if they had been made but yesterday.  Once he tried to explain to some of the pitmen how the earth was round, and kept turning round.  But his auditors flatly declared the thing to be impossible, as it was clear that "at the bottom side they must fall off!"  "Ah!" said George, "you don't quite understand it yet."  His son Robert also early endeavoured to communicate to others the information which he had gathered at school; and Dr. Bruce relates that, when visiting Killingworth on one occasion, he found him engaged in teaching algebra to such of the pitmen's boys as would become his pupils.

    While Robert was still at school, his father proposed to him during the holidays that he should construct a sun-dial, to be placed over their cottage-door at West Moor.  "I expostulated with him at first," said Robert, "that I had not learned sufficient astronomy and mathematics to enable me to make the necessary calculations.  But he would have no denial.  'The thing is to be done,' said he, 'so just set about it at once.'  Well, we got a 'Ferguson's Astronomy,' and studied the subject together.  Many a sore head I had while making the necessary calculations to adapt the dial to the latitude of Killingworth.  But at length it was fairly drawn out on paper, and then my father got a stone, and we hewed, and carved, and polished it, until we made a very respectable dial of it; and there it is, you see," pointing to it over the cottage door, "still quietly numbering the hours when the sun shines.  I assure you, not a little was thought of that piece of work by the pitmen when it was put up, and began to tell its tale of time."  The date carved upon the dial is "August 11th, MDCCCVI."  Both father and son were in after life very proud of their joint production.  Many years after, George took a party of savans, when attending the meeting of the British Association at Newcastle, over to Killingworth to see the pits, and he did not fail to direct their attention to the sun-dial; and Robert, on the last visit which he made to the place, a short time before his death, took a friend into the cottage, and pointed out to him the very desk, still there, at which he had sat when making his calculations of the latitude of Killingworth.

    From the time of his appointment as engineer at the Killingworth Pit, George Stephenson was in a measure relieved from the daily routine of manual labour, having, as we have seen, advanced himself to the grade of a higher-class workman.  He had not ceased to be a worker, though he employed his industry in a different way.  It might, indeed, be inferred that he had now the command of greater leisure; but his spare hours were as much as ever given to work, either necessary or self-imposed.  So far as regarded his social position, he had already reached the summit of his ambition; and when he had got his hundred a year, and his dun galloway to ride on, he said he never wanted to be any higher.  When Robert Wetherly offered to give him an old gig, his travelling having so much increased of late, he accepted it with great reluctance, observing that he should be ashamed to get into it, "people would think him so proud,"

    When the High Pit had been sunk and the coal was ready for working, Stephenson erected his first winding-engine to draw the coals out of the pit, and also a pumping-engine for Long Benton colliery, both of which proved quite successful.  Among other works of this time, he projected and laid down a self-acting incline along the declivity which fell toward the coal-loading place near Willington, where he had formerly officiated as brakesman; and he so arranged it that the full wagons, descending, drew the empty wagons up the railroad.  This was one of the first self-acting inclines laid down in the district.

    The following is Stephenson's own account of his various duties and labours at this period of his life, as given before a Committee of the House of Commons in 1835: [p.150]

"After making some improvements in the steam-engines above ground, I was requested by the manager of the colliery to go underground along with him, to see if any improvements could be made in the mines by employing machinery as a substitute for manual labour and horse-power in bringing the coals out of the deeper workings of the mine.  On my first going down the Killingworth pit, there was a steam-engine underground for the purpose of drawing water from a pit that was sunk at some distance from the first shaft.  The Killingworth coalfield is considerably dislocated.  After the colliery was opened, at a very short distance from the shaft, one of those dislocations was met with.  The coal was thrown down about forty yards.  Considerable time was spent in sinking another pit to this depth.  And on my going down to examine the work, I proposed making the engine (which had been erected some time previously) to draw the coals up an inclined plane which descended immediately from the place where it was fixed.  A considerable change was accordingly made in the mode of working the colliery, not only in applying the machinery, but in employing putters instead of horses in bringing the coals from the hewers; and by those changes the number of horses in the pit was reduced from about 100 to 15 or 16.  During the time I was engaged in making these important alterations, I went round the workings in the pit with the viewer almost every time that he went into the mine, not only at Killingworth, but at Mountmoor, Derwentcrook, Southmoor, all of which collieries belonged to Lord Ravensworth and his partners; and the whole of the machinery in all these collieries was put under my charge."

    It will thus be observed that Stephenson had now much better opportunities for improving himself in mechanics than he had heretofore possessed.  His practical knowledge of the steam-engine could not fail to prove of the greatest value to him.  His shrewd insight, together with his intimate acquaintance with its mechanism, enabled him to apprehend, as if by intuition, its most abstruse and difficult combinations.  The study which he had given to it when a workman, and the patient manner in which he had groped his way through all the details of the machine, gave him the power of a master in dealing with it as applied to colliery purposes.

    Sir Thomas Liddell was frequently about the works, and took pleasure in giving every encouragement to the engine-wright in his efforts after improvement.  The subject of the locomotive engine was already occupying Stephenson's careful attention, although it was still regarded in the light of a curious and costly toy, of comparatively little real use.  But he had at an early period recognized its practical value, and formed an adequate conception of the might which as yet slumbered within it, and he now proceeded to bend the whole faculties of his mind to the development of its powers.



Note: I suspect that Smiles may here be confusing John Robert Morrison (1814-43), with his father, Robert Morrison (1782-1834) and his grandfather, James Morrison, a manufacturer of lasts and boot trees.  See the "Oxford Dictionary of National Biography". Ed.




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