Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

The Stephenson Railway Legacy by Colin Alexander

In the words of Captain J. M. Laws, speaking before the Gauge Commission in 1845 “We owe all our railways to the collieries in the North; and the difficulties which their industry overcame taught us to make railways and to make locomotives to work them”. Many of the difficulties of which he spoke were overcome by that legendary son of Northumberland, George Stephenson, and subsequently by his son, Robert.

The Stephenson Railway Museum, in the former Metro Test Track depot in North Shields, has a unique collection. Its most important exhibit is Billy, used at Killingworth and one of five surviving locomotives that predate Rocket. (c. Colin Alexander, The Stephenson Railway Legacy, Amberley Publishing)

Growing up as I did on the banks of the Tyne, it was impossible to escape the influence of the Stephensons. I share my birthplace with Robert. My mother went to the Stephenson Memorial School and I completed my main teaching practice at George Stephenson High School. Stephenson Streets abound on Tyneside, as well as the Stephenson Railway Museum (where visitors can admire the oldest surviving Stephenson locomotive, Billy of 1816), the cottage where George was born and another where they lived during their most formative time.

While Robert Stephenson himself acknowledged that “the locomotive is not the invention of one man but of a nation of mechanical engineers”, the Stephensons’ biographer Smiles wrote “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”. Among the many pioneers to emanate from that region, George and Robert Stephenson deservedly achieved a worldwide fame beyond all others.

As early as 1798, George was put in charge of steam power for the first time in the form of a pumping engine at a pit west of Newcastle. This event would change not only George’s life, but would ultimately change the whole world. The first locomotives, by Trevithick, Blenkinsopp and Hedley and others were not entirely successful but in the words of Smiles, through “application, industry and perseverance, (George Stephenson) carried into effect one of the most remarkable but peaceful revolutions”.

His first locomotive Blucher was financed by colliery owner Lord Ravensworth, who had been impressed by Stephenson’s improvements to his stationary engines. Blucher steamed in 1814, a steady 5mph plodder of a coal-hauler. Although she boasted some refinements compared to earlier engines she shared their vertical motion with its hammer-blow effect on brittle rails. Within fifteen years, the father-and-son team of George and Robert Stephenson would produce the fastest machine yet built, with smooth motion, mechanical efficiency and economy, capable of well over 30mph! Her name was, of course, the Rocket.

Robert Stephenson's Newcastle factory turned out several 7 foot 1/4 inch gauge locomotives for Brunel's Great Western Railway. Among them was 2-2-2 North Star, a full-sized replica of which is at Swindon's Steam Museum. (c. Alon Siton collection, The Stephenson Railway Legacy, Amberley Publishing)

George Stephenson’s fame derived from his willingness to experiment, along with confidence, perseverance and ingenuity that took the world into an exciting new Railway Age. His experiments saved lives too, for he famously invented the Stephenson miners’ safety lamp, predating the more widely-known Davy lamp.

His greatest achievements were arguably his victories in Parliament, where the uneducated Northumbrian was repeatedly and unfairly abused and ridiculed for his assertions. He faced opposition from powerful land-owners and canal operators who hired hard-hitting advocates to argue against the building of new railways. These vocal adversaries made ludicrous, unfounded assertions, including that in gale force winds it would be impossible for a steam train to move!

Stephenson’s common sense and determination saw him through, resulting in the building of the world’s first successful steam railway, the Stockton and Darlington, with rails laid at a gauge of 4’8½”. This would of course be adopted as ‘Standard Gauge’ across much of the world. The S&D’s first locomotives were built at the world’s first locomotive factory, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne under the name of Robert Stephenson & Company.

Back in Egypt, one of Stephenson's more unusual orders was this 1859 contraption for the Pasha of Egypt. (c. Alon Siton collection, The Stephenson Railway Legacy, Amberley Publishing)

Then followed the building of the world’s first ‘Inter-City’ line, the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, which would bring George and Robert lasting fame.

They would also go on to engineer much of Europe’s early railway network, including unprecedented individual feats of engineering in the form of tunnels and bridges.

George Stephenson died in 1848, aged 67, at his mansion near Chesterfield, a far cry from the family’s one room by the wagonway at Wylam.

His friend Nicholas Wood described him as “the most extraordinary man of the age, or indeed of any age”.

Statues were erected in Liverpool, Newcastle, London, Chesterfield and Budapest, demonstrating that his influence extended well beyond these shores.

Robert Stephenson died in 1859 aged only 56, as the world’s first engineering millionaire.  He was buried in Westminster Abbey and was described as “the greatest engineer of the present century”.

During his lifetime, Robert Stephenson received many more honours than his father ever did, such was the esteem in which the profession of railway engineering came to be held. These included the Swedish Cross of the Order of St Olaf, the French Legion D’Honneur and like his father before him, Knight of the Order of Leopold for his locomotive improvements that had revolutionised Belgium’s railways. Incidentally, both George and Robert had been offered knighthoods, and both declined.

RSH No.8136 of 1960 was one of twenty English Electric Type 4s built at Darlington for BR, the rest coming from Vulcan Foundry. Originally numbered D306, No.40106 became a celebrity as the last to retain green livery, taking part in the Rainhill 150th anniversary cavalcade of 1980. (c. Colin Alexander, The Stephenson Railway Legacy, Amberley Publishing)

Although there was a great sense of loss over the death of Robert, the company that carried his name went from strength to strength exporting locomotives all over the world.

The original Stephenson works in Newcastle closed its doors in 1960 after 137 years of production. The name lived on a while longer in the later Stephenson Works in Darlington, which manufactured main-line diesel locomotives for British Railways, but the last one left the works in 1964, marking the end of the most famous name in railway manufacturing history.

Meanwhile, there is much to be seen of the Stephensons’ legacy today. There are complete railways still in regular use that were engineered by the indomitable father and son. High-speed electric trains hurtle through Kilsby Tunnel daily. Every day, trains cross the High Level, Royal Border, Sankey and Britannia bridges.

On a broader scale though, surely the Stephensons’ greatest legacy is the railway network that they made practical and popular against all the odds. What was subsequently achieved all over the world in industry and commerce by the coming of the railways is immeasurable.

At the cutting of the first sod for the construction of the Eden Valley Railway in 1858, Lord Brougham said “To the public at large, to the community, the introduction of the railway has been of the greatest possible advantage, the prime blessing of the time. I take George Stephenson as the main cause of that success”.

Colin Alexander and Alon Siton's new book The Stephenson Railway Legacy is available for purchase now.