Robert Stephenson

Before these pages will be in the hands of our readers a grave in Westminster Abbey will have opened and closed over the remains of Robert Stephenson. He too is gone — so soon after Brunel, that we conceive of the Angel of Death, our fancy playing with his terrors, as commissioned to remove the Chiefs of the engineering world. Both were the eminent sons of illustrious fathers, who died, like those sons, at no long interval from each other.

stephensonRobertBut it was the lot of Robert Stephenson to stand as it were in the shadow of a parent greater than himself in some respects: greater in the bound he made from lowliness to fame by a single conception and by herculean energy, but not greater in the largeness of his deservedly heart or understanding, or more honoured and beloved by the world.

Robert Stephenson was a great man, if we try him by his works and look only to the material tests of his professional eminence. If George Stephenson was the parent of the locomotive engine, Robert may be justly styled the parent of the railway system as it exists among us. He was the engineer of the London and Birmingham (now London and North-Western) railway, the first long line that was opened between the metropolis and the distant provinces: and, if the name of Brunel will be for ever associated with that of the Great Western on land, and the Great Eastern on the waters, the name of Robert Stephenson will live as long in connection with the great Tubular Bridge and the other mighty works of which he was the chief designer and constructor.

Robert Stephenson first saw the light in the village of Willington, at a cottage which his father occupied after his marriage with Miss Fanny Henderson — a marriage contracted on the strength of his first appointment as “breaksman” to the engine employed for lifting the ballast brought by the return collier ships to Newcastle. Here Robert was born on the 17th of November, 1803. As the cottage looked out upon a tram-way, the eyes of the child were naturally familiarised from infancy with sights and scenes most nearly connected with his future profession.

At this time, George Stephenson’s means were small, as indeed may be guessed from the fact, that nearly ten years later he thought himself a happy man when he succeeded in obtaining a post as engineer to a colliery with a salary of 100 l. a year. Notwithstanding these slender resources, the liberal minded father found means to give his son such an education as could be obtained in a provincial town, to which the energy and industry of the son superadded such of the rudiments of mechanics and engineering science as he could pick up in the long winter evenings, in the library of the Literary and Philosophical Institute at Newcastle.

Mr. Smiles tells us how keenly the father felt as he grew up the want of a solid education, and how perseveringly he laboured, after reaching the years of manhood, to make up for lost school-time during his leisure moments, and how he resolved that, poor as he was, his son should not suffer, in like manner, by the want of early instruction in reading, writing, and arithmetic, to which he added mechanics as a fourth desideratum.

The rudimentary and experimental knowledge which Robert picked up in his father’s workshop, came in naturally to the aid of the theoretic teaching of books, and supplemented his science by practical capacity. As an early proof of the latter, we may mention that there still stands over the door of the cottage at Killingworth, then occupied by George Stephenson, a sun-dial, the production of the hands of the son, at the age of thirteen, a work to which the elder Stephenson looked back with an honest pride to his dying day.

It is now just forty years ago since Robert was taken from school and taught to feel the truth of the old saying of Persius, Magister artis venter. In 1818 or 1819, we find him apprenticed as an under-viewer to a coal mine in the neighbourhood of the place in which he had spent his childhood. Having devoted a year or two to making himself practically acquainted with the machinery and working of a colliery, he was sent to the University of Edinburgh, where he spent a session in attending the courses of lectures on chemistry, natural philosophy, and geology.

How far he may have profited by this opportunity of increasing his scientific knowledge, we have the means of ascertaining, for he brought home a prize for mathematics, much to the delight of his father. He knew the value of opportunities, and he had the great secret of success — the art of availing himself of them. His mind was too eminently practical to forego any study or pursuit which was calculated, even in its remoter bearings, to help him on in the great struggle of life: and happy, indeed, are they who can look back with regret upon so few opportunities missed, so few court cards thrown away out of their hands, as Robert Stephenson.

Having spent a year or two as an apprentice in his father’s manufactory of locomotives at Newcastle (even at that time a school, if not of thought, yet of action), and two or three more years in South America, whither he was sent to examine and report upon the gold and silver mines of Colombia, he returned to England at the close of 1827.

He found the public mind greatly excited upon the railway question. “Can locomotives be successfully and profitably employed for passenger traffic?” was still a moot point, of which his father sustained the affirmative, alone against a host. It was almost a repetition of Athanasius contra mundum, when George Stephenson fought the battle of the Locomotive — of the Rail and Wheel — or as he himself termed them, “Man and Wife.” Mr. Smiles tells us how he struggled for their conjunction in the committee room of the House of Commons, and when men deemed him all but a maniac for persevering in his theory, how bravely and tenaciously he persisted till he had succeeded.

Joining forces with Mr. Joseph Locke, the eminent engineer, the son not only wrote the ablest pamphlets on the subject in debate, but he greatly aided his father in the construction of the Rocket — the celebrated prize locomotive — whose powers as displayed at Liverpool at once settled the question at issue: just as the trial trip of the Great Eastern has settled, we presume, the much-debated point as to whether so large a ship can possibly be manageable in a heavy sea.

One of those best qualified to speak to his contributions to the development of the locomotive engine informs us that, from about five years from his return from America, Robert Stephenson’s attention was chiefly directed to its improvement.

“None but those who accompanied him during the period in his incessant experiments can form an idea of the amazing metamorphosis which the machine underwent in it.The most elementary principles of the application of heat; of the mode of calculating the strength of cylindrical and other boilers; of the strength of rivetting and of staying flat portions of the boilers, were then far from being understood, and each step in the improvement of the engine had to be confirmed by the most careful experiments before the brilliant results of the Rocket and Planet engines (the latter being the type of the existing modern locomotive) could be arrived at.”

Stephenson’s time was not, however, so fully taken up during the above interval as to preclude attention to his other civil engineering business, and he executed within it the Leicester and Swannington, Whitby and Pickering, Canterbury and Whitstable, and Newton and Warrington Railways, while he also erected an extensive manufactory for locomotives at Newton, in Lancashire, in partnership with the Messrs. Tayleur.

About the middle of the above period also, the first surveys and estimates for the London and Birmingham Railway were framed, leading eventually to the obtaining of the act. Then followed the execution of that line, and here Robert Stephenson had an opportunity of showing his great talent for management of works on a large scale. This was the first railway of any magnitude executed under the contract system; perfect sets of plans and specifications (which have since served as a type for nearly all the subsequent lines) were prepared — no small matter for a series of works extending over 112 miles, involving tunnels and other works of a then unprecedented magnitude.

Many other railways in England and abroad were executed by him in rapid succession: the Midland, Blackwall, Northern and Eastern, Norfolk, Chester and Holyhead, together with numerous branch-lines, were executed in this country by him; and amongst railways abroad may be enumerated as works either executed by him or recommended in his capacity of a consulting engineer, the system of lines in Belgium, Italy, Norway and Egypt, and in France, Holland, Denmark, India, Canada, and New Zealand.

To these works of course must be added the enormous amount of work he went through in giving Parliamentary evidence, and in reports and arbitrations. The assistance afforded by him to the Sewage Board, when matters had come to a dead lock, will not soon be forgotten.

The bridges erected by him (although some of them contained in the previously enumerated railways) must not be passed over without special comment. Time was, and will be well remembered by every engineer, when in case of a railway having to be carried over openings exceeding thirty or forty feet wide, special plans had to be prepared and consultations held upon the subject; but now (such is the confidence acquired through the experience of Stephenson in the use of wrought-iron), that a bridge of three or four times the span is regarded as an ordinary work. This is the practical result brought about by the construction of the Conway and Britannia tubular bridges and by the high level bridge over the Tyne at Newcastle.

These works, so great in themselves, and without the power of constructing which some of our main lines of railway would not have existed, have — like difficult lessons learnt in other mental walks—yielded an abundant harvest in the facility they have given the engineer of mastering ordinary difficulties. Nor should mention be omitted here of the bridge of the enormous length of nearly two miles across the St. Lawrence, built under the direction of Stephenson, and about to be opened, it is expected, by the end of next month.

The unprecedented difficulties attending the construction of the piers of this bridge in the deep and rapid waters of the river, added to the depth to which it was necessary to sink their foundations below its bed, and the short portion of the year during which the engineering operations could be carried forward, render this work undoubtedly one of the most remarkable in the world.*

* Those who care to examine more closely into the matter, will find a full account of most of his more important works in the way of bridge-making, in an able article on Iron Bridges, contributed by Mr. Stephenson himself to the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

The last work to which Stephenson gave much personal attention, and in which he felt a very great interest, was the restoration and almost renewal of the superstructure of the noted bridge at Sunderland over the River Wear. The works were completed and opened to the public, without accident, in the month of July last.

On the completion of the tubular bridge across the Menai Straits, and again on the opening of his splendid bridge across the Tyne, Robert Stephenson was offered the honour of knighthood, which — like his father before him — he respectfully declined. For our own parts we think that many a baronetcy has been earned more cheaply; but even the honour of the “blood-red-hand” if added to his escutcheon on the part of her Majesty, as a reward of such signal services in the development of the resources of the nation over which she rules, could scarcely have added anything to the dignity of the man.

Still, assuming honours and titles to be regulated by a scale, it would seem an obvious question in the rule of three, if the ducal coronet did not misbecome the brows of the author of our canal system,** what title and what grade in the peerage would have been the fitting reward of the peaceful triumphs of George and Robert Stephenson? Coupled with his professional qualifications, there is no doubt that the quality which tended chiefly to the very elevated opinion of his worth entertained by his contemporaries, was his manly and straightforward probity.

** It is worth while to remark, that at the beginning of the present century the Duke of Bridgewater was almost the only person who foresaw the future importance of the railway system, if fully developed. As he chuckled over the huge income which he drew from his canal-shares, he is reported to have cried out one day, in the spirit of prophecy: “Confound these tram-ways, there’s mischief in ’em!”

He was the very antipodes of a mere advocate or partisan, and whether the matter before him was some important parliamentary evidence on a railway bill — some contest wherein he acted the part of an arbitrator — or some misunderstanding between any of his friends — his opinions and decisions always convinced the parties concerned of the amount of thought bestowed upon the matter, and of the fairness of his arguments.

In respect of any undertaking to which he was himself invited, he was, like his father, distinguished by the pains he took to assure himself of its eligibility and soundness in a commercial sense; and he invariably brought the weight of his knowledgo and position to bear in deterring others from expenditure which he considered unnecessary.

In his direction of public works he adopted an admirable management; admitting, almost at a glance, of his forming a precise idea of the state of all and every work under his charge. One of his chief characteristics consisted in the judgment with which he selected those he intended to take part under him, and in the power he possessed, not only of preserving harmony amongst them, but of creating in their hearts a warm friendship towards himself capable of supporting them and him amidst any difficulties. Amongst them his visits to the scene of their labours were always hailed, not more for the solution of any difficulties which might have arisen, than for the friendly and intellectual intercourse to which they gave rise, from which none were excluded, from the highest to the lowest.

Like all truly great minds, and we may add, like his father before him, he of whom we write was eminently unselfish and free from professional jealousy. He aided, most freely and most cheerfully, his fellow-labourers in the great human cause of taming the elements and of reducing nature to obedience to the ways and wills of mankind. To mention no other instance, the public at large are well aware that the aid rendered to him by his friend Brunel in the construction of the Menai tubular bridge was gratefully repaid by counsel and advice in the launching out of the Great Eastern.

We will not weary our readers by recording here the long list of learned societies that counted Robert Stephenson among their members: it will be sufficient to say that the Great Exhibition of 1851, the London Sanitary and Sewerage Commission, the Institute of Civil Engineers, and the Royal Society, all reaped in their turn the benefits of his clear head, his sound professional knowledge, and his willing and zealous co-operation.

As our readers are aware, he represented the sea-port of Whitby in the Conservative interest for the last ten or twelve years of his life. As a member of “the House,” he did not take any active part in questions of a purely political character; and he was of too large a mind and too liberal a nature to allow himself to be shackled by the ties of party.

He was no orator, nor did he pretend to what he was not; but upon such subjects as were fairly within his ken and his grasp, he spoke with a sound sense and shrewdness, and with an honest integrity, which always secured for him a respectful attention in that most fastidious of all audiences — St. Stephen’s. Upon the much debated questions of the Suez Canal Scheme, the Thames Embankment, Metropolitan Drainage, the Purification of the Serpentine, and the Construction of Metropolitan Railways, there was no one to whom “the ear of the house” was more readily accorded.

If there and elsewhere he will be heard no more, and the loss of his counsels may be esteemed a national loss in the deepest sense, there is yet another sense in which he will be regretted more widely than most men who have had equal opportunities of intercourse with society. Here he was simply charming and fascinating in the highest degree, from his natural goodness of heart and the genial zest with which he relished life himself and participated its enjoyment with others.

He was generous and even princely in his expenditure — not upon himself but on his friends — and his love of the English pastime of yachting amounted almost to a passion. On board the “Titania,” or at his house in Gloucester Square, his frequent and numerous guests found his splendid resources at all times converted to their gratification with a grace of hospitality which, although sedulous, was never oppressive. There was nothing of the patron in his manner, or of the Olympic condescension which is sometimes affected by much lesser men. A friend (and how many friends he had!) was at once his equal and treated with republican freedom, yet with the most high-bred courtesy and happy considerateness.

We may doubt whether any of the celebrated reception-houses of our aristocracy ever afforded more delightful gatherings than those with which Stephenson’s expansive tastes surrounded him in his home. Men of science, letters, art, great travellers, engineers, young and old of both sexes, and of varied accomplishments, gave to his reunions a completeness the more striking that it seemed never to be anxiously aimed at. Surrounded by his choice collection of modern works of art, or explaining his philosophical apparatus, or battling some scientific thesis, or exchanging some sprightly banter in asocial circle/the image of Robert Stephenson will rise up before his friends as a pillar bearing the record of some of their happiest hours.

What a favourite he was with all, especially with women and young persons! No one who enjoyed his intimacy can forget the easy and familiar manner in which he was accustomed to enlarge on interesting but abstruse points of natural philosophy; but to ladies, and the young especially, he made a point of explaining everything with more than usual care and definiteness, never quitting the subject until he was satisfied that he had been perfectly understood. Nor was his natural benevolence exemplified in the social sphere only.

Accessible almost to a fault, he never turned a deaf ear to the applications for counsel and assistance so constantly poured in upon him. Nor was his kindness to his fellow men more remarkable than his strong detestation of cruelty to animals. Those who knew him well will remember with pleasure this trait of true gentleness. It mattered not to him what was the occasion, or what the apparent reason for haste, but he never would suffer the horses in any of the vehicles under his control to be ill-used.

As readily he could waive his private gratification for the public good; as for example, when it was desired to ascertain some facts of a scientific nature with regard to Tenerife, he at once put his yacht and crew at the disposal of the parties to whom the mission was confided, and refused all reimbursement of his liberal expenditure. His payment of half the debt of 6000 l., which weighed like an incubus on an Institution at Newcastle, is generally known; but his private charities were as boundless as his nature was generous, and as quietly performed as that nature was unostentatious.

Such, then, was Robert Stephenson, totus teres atque rotundus, as complete a character in the multifarious relations of life as probably any man has met or will meet in the course of his experience. Not unlike, or rather exceedingly like, his father in some respects, especially in the easy unimposing manner in which he went about his life’s work, he was hardly to be accounted his father’s inferior, except perhaps in the heroic quality of combativeness. Father and son, independently of each other, and both in conjunction, have left grand and beneficent results to posterity, and both recal to us Monckton Milnes’s men of old, who

Went about their gravest tasks
like noble boys at play.

This choice quality of unconscious characters, a genuine boyishness, was the peculiarity of both Stephensons in a remarkable degree. Even up to his last trip to Norway, Robert Stephenson was just such “a noble boy at play,” —a boy till the last fell grip of disease laid him low, and we were startled to learn that a great man was gone from us, one who had rendered immense services to his countrymen, and whose ashes have been fitly laid in the national mausoleum.


October 1859



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