George Stephenson – The Father of Railways

George Stephenson – The Father of Railways

George Stephenson (1781 – 1848) was born in Wylam, Northumberland and was the second child of Robert and Mabel.

His father being the fireman for the Wylam Colliery pumping engine. At 17, George Stephenson became an engineman at Water Row Pit, Newburn. and realizing the value of education went to night school – learning the “Three Rs” – reading, writing and arithmetic. In 1801 he began work at Black Callerton colliery as a ‘brakesman’, controlling the winding gear of the pit.

The following year he married Frances (Fanny) Henderson and moved to Willington Quay, east of Newcastle, where he worked as a brakesman. In 1803 their son Robert was born, and in 1804 they moved to West Moor, near Killingworth while George worked as a brakesman at Killingworth pit. The following year his wife gave birth to a daughter, who died after a few weeks, and in 1806 Fanny died of consumption.

George, then decided to find work in Scotland, and he left Robert with a local woman while he went to work in Montrose. After a few months he returned, probably because his father was blinded in a mining accident. George moved back into his cottage at West Moor and his unmarried sister Eleanor moved in to look after Robert. In 1811 the pumping engine at High Pit, Killingworth was not working properly and Stephenson offered to fix it. He did so with such success that he was soon promoted to enginewright for the neighbouring collieries at Killingworth, responsible for maintaining and repairing all of the colliery engines. He soon became an expert in steam-driven machinery.

In 1818, aware of the explosions often caused in mines by naked flames, Stephenson began to experiment with a safety lamp that would burn without causing an explosion. At the same time, Sir Humphry Davy, the eminent scientist was also solving the problem. Despite his lack of any scientific knowledge, Stephenson, by trial and error, devised a lamp. For his invention Davy was awarded £2,000, whilst Stephenson was accused of stealing the idea from Davy. A local committee of enquiry exonerated Stephenson, proved that he had been working separately and awarded him £1,000 but Davy and his supporters refused to accept this. They could not see how an uneducated man such as Stephenson could come up with the solution that he had. In 1833 a House of Commons committee found that Stephenson had equal claim to having invented the safety lamp but Davy went to his grave believing that Stephenson had stolen his idea. The Stephenson lamp was used exclusively in the North East, whereas the Davy lamp was used everywhere else. The experience with Davy gave Stephenson a life-long distrust of London-based, theoretical, scientific experts.

Richard Trevithick is credited with the first realistic design of the steam locomotive in 1804. Later, he visited Tyneside and built an engine there for a mine-owner. Several local men were inspired by this, and designed engines of their own. Stephenson designed his first locomotive ten years later, a travelling engine designed for hauling coal on the Killingworth waggonway, and named Blücher after the Prussian general. This locomotive could haul 30 tons of coal up a hill at 4 mph, and was the first successful flanged-wheel adhesion locomotive: its traction depended only on the contact between its flanged wheels and the rail. Altogether, Stephenson is said to have produced 16 locomotives at Killingworth, it has never proved possible to produce a convincing list of all 16. The new engines were too heavy to be run on wooden rails, and iron rails were in their infancy, with cast iron exhibiting excessive brittleness. Stephenson improved the design of cast iron rails to reduce breakage. For the Stockton and Darlington Railway, however, Stephenson would use only wrought iron rails, notwithstanding the financial loss he would suffer from not using his own, patented design.

Stephenson was hired to build an 8-mile railway from Hetton colliery to Sunderland in 1820. The finished result used a combination of gravity on downward inclines and locomotives for level and upward stretches. It was the first railway using no animal power. Also in 1820 on 29 March, George married Betty Hindmarsh at Newburn. The marriage seems to have been a happy one, but there were no children from this union, and Betty died in 1845.

In 1821, a parliamentary bill was passed to allow the building of the Stockton and Darlington Railway (S&DR). The 25-mile railway was intended to connect various collieries situated near Bishop Auckland to the River Tees at Stockton, passing through Darlington on the way. The original plan was to use horses to draw coal carts on metal rails, but after company director Edward Pease met Stephenson he agreed to change the plans. Stephenson surveyed the line in 1821, assisted by his eighteen-year-old son Robert. That same year construction of the line began.

A manufacturer was now needed to provide the locomotives for the new line. As it turned out, Pease and Stephenson jointly established a company in Newcastle to manufacture locomotives. The company was set up as Robert Stephenson and Company, and George’s son Robert was the managing director. A fourth partner was Michael Longridge of Bedlington Ironworks.

In September 1825 the works at Forth Street, Newcastle completed the first locomotive for the new railway: originally named Active, it was soon renamed Locomotion. It was followed by “Hope”, “Diligence” and “Black Diamond”. The Stockton and Darlington Railway opened on 27 September 1825. Driven by Stephenson, Locomotion hauled an 80-ton load of coal and flour nine miles in two hours, reaching a speed of 24 miles per hour on one stretch. The first purpose-built passenger car, dubbed Experiment, was attached, and carried dignitaries on the opening journey. It was the first time passenger traffic had been run on a steam locomotive railway.

The rails used for the new line were wrought-iron ones, produced by John Birkinshaw at the Bedlington Ironworks. Wrought-iron rails could be produced in much longer lengths than the cast-iron ones and were much less liable to crack under the weight of heavy locomotives. The gauge that Stephenson chose for the line was 4 feet 8½ inches and this subsequently came to be adopted as the standard gauge for railways, not only in Britain, but also throughout the world.

While building the Stockton and Darlington Railway, Stephenson had noticed that even small inclines greatly reduced the speed of locomotives (and slight declines would have made the primitive brakes nearly useless). He came to the conclusion that railways should be kept as level as possible. He used this knowledge while working on the Bolton and Leigh Railway, and the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (L&MR), executing a series of difficult cuts, embankments and stone viaducts to smooth the route the railways took. Defective surveying of the original route of the L&MR caused by the hostility of some of the affected landowners meant that Stephenson encountered difficulty during Parliamentary scrutiny of the original bill, especially under cross-examination by Edward Hall Alderson. The Bill was rejected.

A revised bill with a new alignment was submitted and passed in a subsequent session. The revised alignment presented a considerable problem: the crossing of Chat Moss, an apparently bottomless peat bog, which Stephenson eventually overcame by unusual means, effectively floating the line across it.

As the L&MR approached completion in 1829, its directors arranged for a competition to decide who would build its locomotives, and the Rainhill Trials were run in October 1829. Stephenson’s entry was Rocket built by his son Robert, and its performance in winning the contest made it famous.

The opening ceremony of the L&MR, on 15 September 1830, was a considerable event, drawing luminaries from the government and industry, including the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington. However the day was marred by the death of William Huskisson Liverpool’s M.P. who was struck and killed by Rocket, but the railway was a resounding success and Stephenson became famous, and was offered the position of chief engineer for a wide variety of other railways.

The next ten years were the busiest of Stephenson’s life, as he was besieged with requests from railway promoters. Many of the first American railroad builders came to Newcastle to learn from Stephenson, and indeed, the first dozen or so locomotives utilized in the U.S. were purchased from the Stephenson shops. Other talented men were starting to make their marks, such as his son Robert, his pupil Joseph Locke and finally Isambard Kingdom Brunel. His conservative views on the capabilities of locomotives meant that he favoured circuitous routes and civil engineering that were more costly than his successors thought necessary.

Despite Stephenson losing some routes to competitors due to his caution, he was offered more work than he could cope with, and was unable to decline offers for additional work. He worked on the North Midland line from Derby to Leeds, the York and North Midland line from Normanton to York, the Manchester and Leeds, the Birmingham and Derby, the Sheffield and Rotherham among many others. Stephenson tended to become a reassuring name, rather than a cutting-edge technical adviser.

He was the first president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers on its formation in 1847. He had by this time settled into semi-retirement, supervising his mining interests in Derbyshire – tunnelling work for the North Midland Railway had revealed unworked coal seams, and Stephenson put much of his money into their exploitation.

On 11 January 1848, at St John’s Church in Shrewsbury, George married for the third time, to Ellen Gregory, another farmer’s daughter originally from Bakewell in Derbyshire, who had been his housekeeper. Six months after his wedding, George contracted pleurisy and died, aged 67, on 12 August 1848 at Tapton House in Chesterfield, Derbyshire. He was buried at Holy Trinity Church, Chesterfield, alongside his second wife. His son Robert survived him by eleven years.