The Stephensons VII.
Home Up James Brindley Boulton and Watt Smeaton and Rennie Metcalfe & Telford Invention & Industry Brief Biographies Self Help Miscellanea Main Index Site Search


[Previous Page]



    OF the numerous extensive projects which followed close upon the completion of the Liverpool and Manchester line and the locomotive triumph at Rainhill, that of a railway between London and Birmingham was the most important.  The scheme originated at the latter place in 1830.  Two committees were formed, and two plans were proposed.  One was of a line to London by way of Oxford, and the other by way of Coventry.  The object of the promoters of both schemes being to secure the advantages of railway communication with the metropolis, they wisely determined to combine their strength to secure it.  They resolved to call George Stephenson to their aid, and requested him to advise them as to the two schemes which were before them.  After a careful examination of the country, Stephenson reported in favour of the Coventry route.  The Lancashire gentlemen, who were the principal subscribers to the project, having confidence in his judgment, supported his decision, and the line recommended by him was adopted accordingly.

    At the meeting of gentlemen held at Birmingham to determine upon the appointment of the engineer for the railway, there was a strong party in favour of associating with Stephenson a gentleman with whom he had been brought into serious collision in the course of the Liverpool and Manchester undertaking.  When the offer was made to him that he should be joint engineer with the other, he requested leave to retire and consider the proposal with his son.  The two walked into St. Philip's churchyard, which adjoined the place of meeting, and debated the proposal.  The father was in favour of accepting it.  His struggle heretofore had been so hard that he could not bear the idea of missing so promising an opportunity of professional advancement.  But the son, foreseeing the jealousies and heart-burnings which the joint engineership would most probably create, recommended his father to decline the connection.  George adopted the suggestion, and, returning to the committee, announced to them his decision, on which the promoters decided to appoint him the engineer of the undertaking in conjunction with his son.

    This line, like the Liverpool and Manchester, was very strongly opposed, especially by the land-owners.  Numerous pamphlets were published, calling on the public to "beware of the bubbles," and holding up the promoters of railways to ridicule.  They were compared to St. John Long and similar quacks, and pronounced fitter for Bedlam than to be left at large.  The canal proprietors, land-owners, and road trustees made common cause against them.  The failure of railways was confidently predicted—indeed, it was elaborately attempted to be proved that they had failed; and it was industriously spread abroad that the locomotive engines, having been found useless and highly dangerous on the Liverpool and Manchester line, were immediately to be abandoned in favour of horses—a rumour which the directors of the company thought it necessary publicly to contradict.

    Public meetings were held in all the counties through which the line would pass between London and Birmingham, at which the project was denounced, and strong resolutions against it were passed.  The attempt was made to conciliate the landlords by explanations, but all such efforts proved futile, the owners of nearly seven eighths of the land being returned as dissentients.  "I remember;" said Robert Stephenson, describing the opposition,

"that we called one day on Sir Astley Cooper, the eminent surgeon, in the hope of overcoming his aversion to the railway.  He was one of our most inveterate and influential opponents.  His country house at Berkhamsted was situated near the intended line, which passed through part of his property.  We found a courtly, fine-looking old gentleman, of very stately manners, who received us kindly, and heard all we had to say in favour of the project.  But he was quite inflexible in his opposition to it.  No deviation or improvement that we could suggest had any effect in conciliating him.  He was opposed to railways generally, and to this in particular.  'Your scheme,' said he, 'is preposterous in the extreme.  It is of so extravagant a character as to be positively absurd.  Then look at the recklessness of your proceedings!  You are proposing to cut up our estates in all directions for the purpose of making an unnecessary road.  Do you think for one moment of the destruction of property involved by it?  Why, gentlemen, if this sort of thing be permitted to go on, you will in a very few years destroy the noblesse!'  We left the honourable baronet without having produced the slightest effect upon him, excepting perhaps, it might be, increased exasperation against our scheme.  I could not help observing to my companions as we left the house, 'Well, it is really provoking to find one who has been made a "Sir" for cutting that wen out of George the Fourth's neck, charging us with contemplating the destruction of the noblesse because we propose to confer upon him the benefits of a railroad.'"

    Such being the opposition of the owners of land, it was with the greatest difficulty that an accurate survey of the line could be made.  At one point the vigilance of the land-owners and their servants was such that the surveyors were effectually prevented taking the levels by the light of day, and it was only at length accomplished at night by means of dark lanterns.  There was one clergyman, who made such alarming demonstrations of his opposition, that the extraordinary expedient was resorted to of surveying his property during the time he was engaged in the pulpit.  This was managed by having a strong force of surveyors in readiness to commence their operations, who entered the clergyman's grounds on one side the moment they saw him fairly off them on the other.  By a well-organized and systematic arrangement, each man concluded his allotted task just as the reverend gentleman concluded his sermon; so that, before he left the church, the deed was done, and the sinners had all decamped.  Similar opposition was offered at many other points, but ineffectually.  The laborious application of Robert Stephenson was such that, in examining the country to ascertain the best line, he walked the whole distance between London and Birmingham upward of twenty times.

    When the bill went before the committee of the Commons in 1832, a formidable array of evidence was produced.  All the railway experience of the day was brought to bear in support of the measure, and all that interested opposition could do was set in motion against it.  The necessity for an improved mode of communication between London and Birmingham was clearly demonstrated, and the engineering evidence was regarded as quite satisfactory.  Not a single fact was proved against the utility of the measure, and the bill passed the committee, and afterward the third reading in the Commons, by large majorities.

    It was then sent to the Lords, and went into committee, when a similar mass of testimony was again gone through.  But scarcely had the proceedings been opened when it became clear that the fate of the bill had been determined before a word of the evidence had been heard.  At that time the committees were open to all peers; and the promoters of the measure found, to their dismay, many of the lords who were avowed opponents of the measure as land-owners, sitting as judges to decide its fate.  Their principal object seemed to be to bring the proceedings to a termination as quickly as possible.  An attempt at negotiation was made in the course of the proceedings in committee, but failed, and the bill was thrown out on the motion of Earl Brownlow, one of Lady Bridgewater's trustees; but, though carried by a large majority, the vote was far from unanimous.

    As the result had been foreseen, measures were taken to neutralize the effect of this decision as regarded future operations.  Not less than £32,000 had been expended in preliminary and Parliamentary expenses up to this stage; but the promoters determined not to look back, and forthwith made arrangements for prosecuting the bill in a future session.  A meeting of the friends of the measure was held in London, attended by members of both houses of Parliament and by leading bankers and merchants, when a series of resolutions was passed, declaring their conviction of the necessity for the railway, and deprecating the opposition by which it had been encountered.  Lord Wharncliffe, who had acted as the chairman of the Lords' Committee, attributed the failure of the bill entirely to the land-owners; and Mr. Glyn subsequently declared that they had tried to smother it by the high price which they demanded for their property.  It was determined to reintroduce the bill in the following session (1833), and measures were taken to prosecute it vigorously.  Strange to say, the bill on this occasion passed both houses silently and almost without opposition.  The mystery was afterward solved by the appearance of a circular issued by the directors of the company, which it was stated that they had opened negotiations with the most influential of their opponents; that "these measures had been successful to a greater extent than they had ventured to anticipate; and the most active and formidable had been conciliated."  An instructive commentary on the mode by which these noble lords and influential landed proprietors had been "conciliated" was found in the simple fact that the estimate for land was nearly trebled, and that the owners were paid about £750,000 for what had been originally estimated at £250,000.  The total expenses of carrying the bill through Parliament amounted to the enormous sum of £72,868.

    The land-owners having been thus "conciliated," the promoters of the measure were at length permitted to proceed with the formation of their great highway.  Robert Stephenson was, with his father's sanction, appointed engineer-in-chief of the line, at a salary of £1500 a year.  He was now a married man, having become united to Miss Frances Sanderson in 1829, since which his home had been at Newcastle, near to the works there; but, on receiving his new appointment, he removed with his wife to London, to a house on Haverstock Hill, where he resided during the execution of the Birmingham Railway.

    Steps were at once taken to proceed with the working survey, to prepare the working drawings, and arrange for the prosecution of the undertaking.  Eighty miles of the line were shortly under construction; the works were let (within the estimates) to contractors, who were necessarily, for the most part, new to such work.  The business of railway construction was not then well understood.  There were no leviathans among contractors as now, able to undertake the formation of a line of railway hundreds of miles in length; they were, for the most part, men of small capital and slender experience.  Their tools and machinery were imperfect; they did not understand the economy of time and piece labour; the workmen, as well as their masters, had still to learn their trade; and every movement of an engineer was attended with outlays, which were the inevitable result of a new system of things, but which each succeeding day's experience tended to diminish.

    The difficulties encountered in the construction of this railway were thus very great, the most formidable of them originating in the character of the works themselves.  Extensive tunnels had to be driven through unknown strata, and miles of underground excavation had to be carried out in order to form a level road from valley to valley under the intervening ridges.  This kind of work was the newest of all to the contractors of that day.  Robert Stephenson's experience in the collieries of the North rendered him well fitted to grapple with such difficulties; yet even he, with all his practical knowledge, could scarcely have foreseen the serious obstacles which he was called upon to encounter in executing the formidable cuttings, embankments, and tunnels of the London and Birmingham Railway.  It would be an uninteresting, as it would be a fruitless task, to attempt to describe these works in detail; but a general outline of their extraordinary character and extent may not be out of place.

    The length of railway to be constructed between London and Birmingham was 112½ miles.  The line crossed a series of low-lying districts, separated from each other by considerable ridges of hills, and it was the object of the engineer to cross the valleys at as high an elevation, and the hills at as low a one as possible.  The high ground was therefore cut down, and the "stuff" led into embankments, in some places of great height and extent, so as to form a road upon as level a plane as was considered practicable for the working of the locomotive engine.  In some places the high grounds were passed in open cuttings, while in others it was necessary to bore through them in tunnels with deep cuttings at either end.


Tring Cutting under construction, London & Birmingham Railway.

Horse runs.

Building an embankment.


Ed.—Tring Cutting, driven through the "Tring Gap", a pass in the Chiltern Hills,  is 2.5 miles long and averages some 40 feet deep.  It was constructed using "horse runs". A horse at the top of the cutting was harnessed to a large barrow by a length of rope over a pulley. The barrow, when filled with débris (used to build embankments elsewhere), was hauled up a steep plank-way by the horse and guided by a navvy. Any irregular movement of the horse could throw both man and barrow down the slope at risk of life or limb. There were some 40 horse runs at Tring.

    The most formidable excavations on the line are those at Tring, Denbigh Hall, and Blisworth.  The Tring cutting is an immense chasm across the great chalk ridge of Ivinghoe. It is two miles and a half long, and for a quarter of a mile is fifty-seven feet deep.  A million and a half cubic yards of chalk and earth were taken out of this cutting by means of horse-runs, and deposited in spoil-banks, besides the immense quantity run into the embankment north of the cutting, forming a solid mound nearly six miles long and about thirty feet high.  Passing over the Denbigh Hall cutting, and the Wolverton embankment of a mile and a half in length across the valley of the Ouse, we come to the excavation at Blisworth, a brief description of which will give the reader an idea of one of the most formidable kinds of railway work.


    The Blisworth Cutting is a mile and a half long, in some places sixty-five feet deep, passing through earth, stiff clay, and hard rock.  Not less than a million cubic yards of these materials were dug, quarried, and blasted out of it.  One third of the cutting was stone, and beneath the stone lay a thick bed of clay, under which were found beds of loose shale so full of water that almost constant pumping was necessary at many points to enable the works to proceed.  For a year and a half the contractor went on fruitlessly contending with these difficulties, and at length he was compelled to abandon the adventure.  The engineer then took the works in hand for the company, and they were vigorously proceeded with.  Steam-engines were set to work to pump out the water; two locomotives were put on, one at either end of the cutting, to drag away the excavated rock and clay; and eight hundred men and boys were employed along the work, in digging, wheeling, and blasting, besides a large number of horses.  Some idea of the extent of the blasting operations may be formed from the fact that twenty-five barrels of gunpowder were exploded weekly, the total quantity used in forming this one excavation being about three thousand barrels.  Considerable difficulty was experienced in supporting the bed of rock cut through, which overlaid the clay and shale along either side of the cutting.  It was found necessary to hold it up by strong retaining walls, to prevent the clay bed from bulging out, and these walls were farther supported by a strong invert—that is, an arch placed in an inverted position under the road—thus binding together the walls on both sides.  Behind the retaining walls, a drift or horizontal drain was run to enable the water to escape, and occasional openings were left in the walls themselves for the same purpose.  The work was at length brought to a successful completion, but the extraordinary difficulties encountered in executing the undertaking had the effect of greatly increasing the cost of this portion of the railway.

    The Tunnels on the line are eight in number, their total length being 7336 yards.  The first high ground encountered was Primrose Hill, where the stiff London clay was passed through for a distance of about 1164 yards.  The clay was close, compact, and dry, more difficult to work than stone itself.  It was entirely free from water; but the absorbing properties of the clay were such that when exposed to the air it swelled out rapidly.  Hence an unusual thickness of brick lining was found necessary; and the engineer afterward informed the author that for some time he entertained an apprehension lest the pressure should force in the brick-work altogether, as afterward happened in the case of the short Preston Brook tunnel upon the Grand Junction Railway, constructed by his father.  The pressure behind the brickwork was so great that it made the face of the bricks to fly off in minute chips, which covered his clothes while he was inspecting the work.  The materials used in the building were, however, of excellent quality, and the work was happily brought to a completion without accident.

    At Watford the chalk ridge was penetrated by a tunnel about 1800 yards long, and at Northchurch, Lindslade, and Stowe Hill there were other tunnels of minor extent.  But the chief difficulty of the undertaking was the execution of that under the Kilsby ridge.  Though not the largest, this is in many respects one of the most interesting works of the kind.  It is about two thousand four hundred yards long, and runs at an average depth of about a hundred and sixty feet below the surface.  The ridge under which it extends is of considerable extent, the famous battle of Naseby having been fought upon one of the spurs of the same high ground, about seven miles to the eastward.


    Previous to the letting of the contract, the character of the underground soil was fairly tested by trial shafts, which indicated that it consisted of shale of the lower oolite, and the works were let accordingly.  But they had scarcely been commenced when it was discovered that, at an interval between the two trial-shafts, which had been sunk about two hundred yards from the south end of the tunnel, there existed an extensive quicksand under a bed of clay forty feet thick, which the borings had escaped in the most singular manner.  At the bottom of one of these shafts, the excavation and building of the tunnel were proceeding, when the roof at one part suddenly gave way, a deluge of water burst in, and the party of workmen with the utmost difficulty escaped with their lives.  They were only saved by means of a raft, on which they were towed by one of the engineers swimming with the rope in his mouth to the lower end of the shaft, out of which they were safely lifted to the daylight.

    The works were of course at that point immediately stopped.  The contractor who had undertaken the construction of the tunnel was so overwhelmed by the calamity that, though he was relieved by the company from his engagement, he took to his bed and shortly after died.  Pumping-engines were erected for the purpose of draining off the water, but for a long time it prevailed, and sometimes even rose in the shaft.  The question arose whether, in the face of so formidable a difficulty, the works should be proceeded with or abandoned.  Robert Stephenson sent over to Alton Grange for his father, and the two took serious counsel together.  George was in favour of pumping out the water from the top by powerful engines erected over each shaft, until the water was fairly mastered.  Robert concurred in that view, and, although other engineers who were consulted pronounced strongly against the practicability of the scheme and advised the abandonment of the enterprise, the directors authorized him to proceed, and powerful steam-engines were ordered to be constructed and delivered without loss of time.

    In the meantime Robert suggested to his father the expediency of running a drift along the heading from the south end of the tunnel, with the view of draining off the water in that way.  George said he thought it would scarcely answer, but that it was worth a trial, at all events until the pumping-engines were got ready.  Robert accordingly gave orders for the drift to be proceeded with.  The excavators were immediately set to work, and they had nearly reached the quicksand, when one day, while the engineer, his assistants, and the workmen were clustered about the open entrance of the drift-way, they heard a sudden roar as of distant thunder.  It was hoped that the water had burst in—for all the workmen were out of the drift—and that the sand-bed would now drain itself off in a natural way.  Instead of which, very little water made its appearance, and on examining the inner end of the drift, it was found that the loud noise had been caused by the sudden discharge into it of an immense mass of sand, which had completely choked up the passage, and thus prevented the water from draining off.

    The engineer now found that nothing remained but to sink numerous additional shafts over the line of the tunnel at the points at which it crossed the quicksand, and endeavour to master the water by sheer force of engines and pumps.  The engines, which were shortly erected, possessed an aggregate power of 160 horses; and they went on pumping for eight months, emptying out an almost incredible quantity of water.  It was found that the water, with which the bed of sand extending over many miles was charged, was in a great degree held back by the particles of the sand itself, and that it could only percolate through at a certain average rate.  It appeared in its flow to take a slanting direction to the suction of the pumps, the angle of inclination depending upon the coarseness or fineness of the sand, and regulating the time of the flow.  Hence the distribution of the pumping power at short intervals along the line of the tunnel had a much greater effect than the concentration of that power at any one place.  It soon appeared that the water had found its master.  Protected by the pumps, which cleared a space for engineering operations—carried on, as it were, amid two almost perpendicular walls of water and sand on either side—the workmen proceeded with the building of the tunnel at numerous points.  Every exertion was used to wall in the dangerous parts as quickly as possible, the excavators and bricklayers labouring night and day until the work was finished.  Even while under the protection of the immense pumping power above described, it often happened that the bricks were scarcely covered with cement ready for the setting ere they were washed quite clean by the streams of water which poured from overhead.  The men were accordingly under the necessity of holding over their work large whisks of straw and other appliances to protect the bricks and cement at the moment of setting.

    The quantity of water pumped out of the sand-bed during eight months of this incessant pumping averaged two thousand gallons per minute, raised from an average depth of 120 feet.  It is difficult to form an adequate idea of the bulk of water thus raised, but it may be stated that if allowed to flow for three hours only, it would fill a lake one acre square to the depth of one foot, and if allowed to flow for an entire day it would fill the lake to over eight feet in depth, or sufficient to float a vessel of a hundred tons' burden.  The water pumped out of the tunnel while the work was in progress would be nearly equivalent to the contents of the Thames at high water between London and Woolwich.  It is a curious circumstance, that notwithstanding the quantity of water thus removed, the level of the surface in the tunnel was only lowered about two and a half to three inches per week, showing the vast area of the quicksand, which probably extended along the entire ridge of land under which the railway passed.

    The cost of the line was greatly increased by the difficulties thus encountered at Kilsby.  The original estimate for the tunnel was only £99,000; but by the time it was finished it had cost about £100 per lineal yard forward, or a total of nearly £300,000.  The expenditure on the other parts of the line also greatly exceeded the amount first set down by the engineer, and, before the railway was complete, it had been more than doubled.  The land cost three times more than the estimate, and the claims for compensation were enormous.  Although the contracts were let within the estimates, very few of the contractors were able to finish them without the assistance of the company, and many became bankrupt.  Speaking of the difficulties encountered during the construction of the line, Robert Stephenson subsequently observed to us:

"After the works were let, wages rose, the prices of materials of all kinds rose, and the contractors, many of whom were men of comparatively small capital, were thrown on their beam-ends.  Their calculations as to expenses and profits were completely upset.  Let me just go over the list.  There was Jackson, who took the Primrose Hill contract—he failed.  Then there was the next length—Nowells; then Copeland and Harding; north of them Townsend, who had the Tring cutting; next Norris, who had Stoke Hammond; then Soars; then Hughes: I think all of these broke down, or at least were helped through by the directors.  Then there was that terrible contract of the Kilsby Tunnel, which broke the Nowells, and killed one of them.  The contractors to the north of Kilsby were more fortunate, though some of them pulled through only with the greatest difficulty.  Of the eighteen contracts in which the line was originally let, only seven were completed by the original contractors.  Eleven firms were ruined by their contracts, which were re-let to others at advanced prices, or were carried on and finished by the company.  The principal cause of increase in the expense, however, was the enlargement of the stations.  It appeared that we had greatly under-estimated the traffic, and it accordingly became necessary to spend more and more money for its accommodation, until I think I am within the mark when I say that the expenditure on this account alone exceeded by eight or ten fold the amount of the Parliamentary estimate."

    The magnitude of the works, which were unprecedented in England, was one of the most remarkable features in the undertaking.  The following striking comparison has been made between this railway and one of the greatest works of ancient times.  The great Pyramid of Egypt was, according to Diodorus Siculus, constructed by three hundred thousand—according to Herodotus, by one hundred thousand—men.  It required for its execution twenty years, and the labour expended upon it has been estimated as equivalent to lifting 15,733,000,000 of cubic feet of stone one foot high; whereas, if the labour expended in constructing the London and Birmingham Railway be in like manner reduced to one common denomination, the result is 25,000,000,000 of cubic feet more than was lifted for the Great Pyramid; and yet the English work was performed by about 20,000 men in less than five years.  And while the Egyptian work was executed by a powerful monarch concentrating upon it the labour and capital of a great nation, the English railway was constructed, in the face of every conceivable obstruction and difficulty, by a company of private individuals out of their own resources, without the aid of government or the contribution of one farthing of public money.

    The labourers who executed these formidable works were in many respects a remarkable class.  The "railway navvies," as they were called, were men drawn by the attraction of good wages from all parts of the kingdom; and they were ready for any sort of hard work. [p.362]  Many of the labourers employed on the Liverpool line were Irish; others were from the Northumberland and Durham railways, where they had been accustomed to similar work; and some of the best came from the fen districts of Lincoln and Cambridge, where they had been trained to execute works of excavation and embankment.  These old practitioners formed a nucleus of skilled manipulation and aptitude which rendered them of indispensable utility in the immense undertakings of the period.  Their expertness in all sorts of earth-work, in embanking, boring, and well-sinking—their practical knowledge of the nature of soils and rocks, the tenacity of clays, and the porosity of certain stratifications—were very great; and, rough-looking as they were, many of them were as important in their own department as the contractor or the engineer.

    During the railway-making period the navvy wandered about from one public work to another, apparently belonging to no country and having no home.  He usually wore a white felt hat with the brim turned up, a velveteen or jean square-tailed coat, a scarlet plush waistcoat with little black spots, and a bright-coloured kerchief round his Herculean neck, when, as often happened, it was not left entirely bare.  His corduroy breeches were retained in position by a leathern strap round the waist, and were tied and buttoned at the knee, displaying beneath a solid calf and foot encased in strong high-laced boots.  Joining together in a "butty gang," some ten or twelve of these men would take a contract to cut out and remove so much "dirt"—as they denominated earth-cutting—fixing, their price according to the character of the "stuff," and the distance to which it had to be wheeled and tipped.  The contract taken, every man put himself to his mettle; if any was found skulking, or not putting forth his full working power, he was ejected from the gang.  Their powers of endurance were extraordinary.  In times of emergency they would work for twelve and even sixteen hours, with only short intervals for meals.  The quantity of flesh-meat which they consumed was something enormous; but it was to their bones and muscles what coke is to the locomotive—the means of keeping up the steam.  They displayed great pluck, and seemed to disregard peril.  Indeed, the most dangerous sort of labour—such as working horse-barrow runs, in which accidents are of constant occurrence—has always been most in request among them, the danger seeming to be one of its chief recommendations.


    Working together, eating, drinking, and sleeping together, and eating, and daily exposed to the same influences, these railway labourers soon presented a distinct and well-defined character, strongly marking them from the population of the districts in which they laboured.  Reckless alike of their lives as of their earnings, the navvies worked hard and lived hard.  For their lodging, a but of turf would content them; and, in their hours of leisure, the meanest public house would serve for their parlour.  Unburdened, as they usually were, by domestic ties, unsoftened by family affection, and without much moral or religious training, the navvies came to be distinguished by a sort of savage manners, which contrasted strangely with those of the surrounding population.  Yet, ignorant and violent though they might be, they were usually goodhearted fellows in the main—frank and open-handed with their comrades, and ready to share their last penny with those in distress.  Their pay-nights were often a saturnalia of riot and disorder, dreaded by the inhabitants of the villages along the line of works.  The irruption of such men into the quiet hamlet of Kilsby must, indeed, have produced a very startling effect on the recluse inhabitants of the place.  Robert Stephenson used to tell a story of the clergyman of the parish waiting upon the foreman of one of the gangs to expostulate with him as to the shocking impropriety of his men working during Sunday.  But the head navvy merely hitched up his trousers and said, "Why, Soondays hain't cropt out here yet!"  In short, the navvies were little better than heathens, and the village of Kilsby was not restored to its wonted quiet until the tunnel-works were finished, and the engines and scaffolding removed, leaving only the immense masses of débris around the line of shafts which extend along the top of the tunnel.




    THE rapidity with which railways were carried out, when the spirit of the country became roused, was indeed remarkable.  This was doubtless in some measure owing to the increased force of the current of speculation at the time, but chiefly to the desire which the public began to entertain for the general extension of the system.  It was even proposed to fill up the canals and convert them into railways.  The new roads became the topic of conversation in all circles; they were felt to give a new value to time; their vast capabilities for "business" peculiarly recommended them to the trading classes, while the friends of "progress" dilated on the great benefits they would eventually confer upon mankind at large.  It began to be seen that Edward Pease had not been exaggerating when he said, "Let the country but make the railroads, and the railroads will make the country!"  They also came to be regarded as inviting objects of investment to the thrifty, and a safe outlet for the accumulations of inert men of capital.  Thus new avenues of iron road were soon in course of formation, branching in all directions, so that the country promised in a wonderfully short space of time to become wrapped in one vast network of iron.

    In 1836 the Grand Junction Railway was under construction between Warrington and Birmingham—the northern part by Mr. Stephenson, and the southern by Mr. Rastrick.  The works on that line embraced heavy cuttings, long embankments, and numerous viaducts; but none of these are worthy of any special description.  Perhaps the finest piece of masonry on the railway is the Dutton Viaduct across the valley of the Weaver.  It consists of 20 arches of 60 feet span, springing 16 feet from the perpendicular shaft of each pier, and 60 feet in height from the crown of the arches to the level of the river.  The foundations of the piers were built on piles driven 20 feet deep.  The structure has a solid and majestic appearance, and is perhaps the finest of George Stephenson's viaducts.


    The Manchester and Leeds line was in progress at the same time—an important railway connecting Yorkshire and Lancashire, passing through a district full of manufacturing towns and villages, the hives of population, industry, and enterprise.  An attempt was made to obtain the act as early as the year 1831, but its promoters were defeated by the powerful opposition of the land-owners, aided by the canal companies, and the project was not revived for several years.  The act authorizing the construction of the line was obtained in 1836; it was amended in the following year, and the first ground was broken on the 18th of August, 1837.

    An incident occurred while the second Manchester and Leeds Bill was before the Committee of the Lords which is worthy of passing notice in this place, as illustrative of George Stephenson's character.  The line which was authorized by Parliament in 1836 had been hastily surveyed within a period of less than six weeks, but before it received the royal assent the engineer became convinced that many important improvements might be made in it, and he communicated his views to the directors.  They determined, however, to obtain the act, although conscious at the time that they would have to go for a second and improved line in the following year.  The second bill passed the Commons in 1837 without difficulty, and was expected in like manner to pass the Lords' Committee.  Quite unexpectedly, however, Lord Wharncliffe, who was interested in the Manchester and Sheffield line, which passed through his colliery property in the south of Yorkshire, conceiving that the new Manchester and Leeds line might have some damaging effect upon it, appeared as an opponent of the bill.  Himself a member of the committee, he adopted the unusual course of rising to his feet, and making a set speech against the measure while the engineer was under examination.  He alleged that the act obtained in the preceding session was one that the promoters had no intention of carrying out, that they had only secured it for the purpose of obtaining possession of the ground and reducing the number of the opponents to their present application, and that, in fact, they had been practicing a deception upon the House.  Then, turning full round upon the witness, he said, "I ask you, sir, do you call that conduct honest?"  Stephenson, his voice trembling with emotion, replied, "Yes, my lord, I do call it honest.  And I will ask your lordship, whom I served for many years as your engine-wright at the Killingworth collieries, did you ever know me to do any thing that was not strictly honourable?  You know what the collieries were when I went there, and you know what they were when I left them.  Did you ever hear that I was found wanting when honest services were wanted, or when duty called me?  Let your lordship but fairly consider the circumstances of the case, and I feel persuaded you will admit that my conduct has been equally honest throughout in this matter."  He then briefly but clearly stated the history of the application to Parliament for the act, which was so satisfactory to the committee that they passed the preamble of the bill without farther objection; and Lord Wharncliffe requested that the committee would permit his observations to be erased from the record of the evidence, which, as an acknowledgment of his error, was allowed.  Lord Kenyon and several other members of the committee afterward came up to Mr. Stephenson, shook him by the hand, and congratulated him on the manly way in which he had vindicated himself from the aspersions attempted to be cast upon him.

    In conducting this project to an issue, the engineer had the usual opposition and prejudices to encounter.  Predictions were confidently made in many quarters that the line could never succeed.  It was declared that the utmost engineering skill could not construct a railway through such a country of hills and hard rocks; and it was maintained that, even if the railway were practicable, it could only be made at a cost altogether ruinous.


    During the progress of the works, as the Summit Tunnel near Littleborough was approaching completion, the rumour was spread abroad in Manchester that the tunnel had fallen in and buried a number of the workmen.  The last arch had been keyed in, and the work was all but finished, when a slight accident occurred which was thus exaggerated by the lying tongue of rumour.  An invert had given way through the irregular pressure of the surrounding earth and rock at a part of the tunnel where a "fault" had occurred in the strata.



    A party of the directors accompanied the engineer to inspect the scene of the accident.  They entered the tunnel mouth preceded by upward of fifty navvies, each bearing a torch.  After walking a distance of about half a mile, the inspecting party arrived at the scene of the "frightful accident," about which so much alarm had been spread abroad.  All that was visible was a certain unevenness of the ground, which had been forced up by the invert under it giving way; thus the ballast had been loosened, the drain running along the centre of the road had been displaced, and small pools of water stood about.  But the whole of the walls and the roof were as perfect as at any other part of the tunnel.  The engineer explained the cause of the accident; the blue shale, he said, through which the excavation passed at that point, was considered so hard and firm as to render it unnecessary to build the invert very strong there.  But shale is always a deceptive material.  Subjected to the influence of the atmosphere, it gives but a treacherous support.  In this case, falling away like quicklime, it had left the lip of the invert alone to support the pressure of the arch above, and hence its springing inward and upward.  Stephenson then directed the attention of the visitors to the completeness of the arch overhead, where not the slightest fracture or yielding could be detected.  Speaking of the work in the course of the same day, he said, "I will stake my character, my head, if that tunnel ever give way, so as to cause danger to any of the public passing through it.  Taking it as a whole, I don't think there is another such a piece of work in the world.  It is the greatest work that has yet been done of this kind, and there has been less repairing than is usual—though an engineer might well be beaten in his calculations, for he can not beforehand see into those little fractured parts of the earth he may meet with."  As Stephenson had promised, the invert was put in, and the tunnel was made perfectly safe.

    The construction of this subterranean road employed the labour of above a thousand men for nearly four years.  Besides excavating the arch out of the solid rock, they used 23,000,000 of bricks and 8000 tons of Roman cement in the building of the tunnel.  Thirteen stationary engines, and about 100 horses, were also employed in drawing the earth and stone out of the shafts.  Its entire length is 2869 yards, or nearly a mile and three quarters, exceeding the famous Kilsby Tunnel by 471 yards.

    The Midland Railway was a favourite line of Mr. Stephenson's for several reasons.  It passed through a rich mining district, in which it opened up many valuable coal-fields, and it formed part of the great main line of communication between London and Edinburgh.  The line was originally projected by gentlemen interested in the London and Birmingham Railway.  Their intention was to extend that line from Rugby to Leeds; but, finding themselves anticipated in part by the projection of the Midland Counties Railway from Rugby to Derby, they confined themselves to the district between Derby and Leeds, and in 1835 a company was formed to construct the North Midland line, with George Stephenson for its engineer.  The act was obtained in 1836, and the first ground was broken in February, 1837.

    Although the Midland Railway was only one of the many great works of the same kind executed at that time, it was almost enough of itself to be the achievement of a life.  Compare it, for example, with Napoleon's military road over the Simplon, and it will at once be seen how greatly it excels that work, not only in the constructive skill displayed in it, but also in its cost and magnitude, and the amount of labour employed in its formation.  The road of the Simplon is 45 miles in length; the North Midland Railway 72½ miles.  The former has 50 bridges and 5 tunnels, measuring together 1338 feet in length; the latter has 200 bridges and 7 tunnels, measuring together 11,400 feet, or about 2¼ miles.  The former cost about £720,000 sterling, the latter above £3,000,000.  Napoleon's grand military road was constructed in six years, at the public cost of the two great kingdoms of France and Italy, while Stephenson's railway was formed in about three years by a company of private merchants and capitalists out of their own funds and under their own superintendence.

    It is scarcely necessary that we should give any account in detail of the North Midland works.  The making of one tunnel so much resembles the making of another—the building of bridges and viaducts, no matter how extensive, so much resembles the building of others—the cutting out of "dirt," the blasting of rocks, and the wheeling of excavation into embankments, is so much matter of mere time and hard work, that it is quite unnecessary to detain the reader by any attempt at their description.  Of course there were the usual difficulties to encounter and overcome, but the railway engineer regarded these as mere matters of course, and would probably have been disappointed if they had not presented themselves.


    On the Midland, as on other lines, water was the great enemy to be fought against—water in the Clay-cross and other tunnels—water in the boggy or sandy foundations of bridges—and in cuttings and embankments.  As an illustration of the difficulties of bridge building, we may mention the case of the five-arch bridge over the Derwent, where it took two years work, night and day, to get in the foundations of the piers alone.  Another curious illustration of the mischief done by water in cuttings may be briefly mentioned.  At a part of the North Midland line, near Ambergate, it was necessary to pass along a hill-side in a cutting a few yards deep.  As the cutting proceeded, a seam of shale was cut across, lying at an inclination of 6 to 1; and shortly after, the water getting behind it, the whole mass of earth along the hill above began to move down across the line of excavation.  The accident completely upset the estimates of the contractor, who, instead of fifty thousand cubic yards, found that he had about five hundred thousand to remove, the execution of this part of the railway occupying fifteen months instead of two.


    The Oakenshaw cutting near Wakefield was also of a very formidable character.  About six hundred thousand yards of rock shale and bind were quarried out of it, and led to form the adjoining Oakenshaw embankment.  The Normanton cutting was almost as heavy, requiring the removal of four hundred thousand yards of the same kind of excavation into embankment and spoil.  But the progress of the works on the line was so rapid during 1839 that no less than 450,000 cubic yards of excavation were accomplished per month.

    As a curiosity in construction, we may also mention a very delicate piece of work executed on the same railway at Bull Bridge in Derbyshire, where the line at the same point passes over a bridge which here spans the River Amber, and under the bed of the Cromford Canal.  Water, bridge, railway, and canal were thus piled one above the other, four stories high.  In order to prevent the possibility of the waters of the canal breaking in upon the railway works, Stephenson had an iron trough made, 150 feet long, of the width of the canal, and exactly fitting the bottom.  It was brought to the spot in three pieces, which were firmly welded together, and the trough was then floated into its place and sunk, the whole operation being completed without in the least interfering with the navigation of the canal.  The railway works underneath were then proceeded with and finished.

    Another line of the same series, constructed by George Stephenson, was the York and North Midland, extending from Normanton—a point on the Midland Railway—to York; but it was a line of easy formation, traversing a comparatively level country.  The inhabitants of Whitby, as well as York, were projecting a railway to connect these towns as early as 1832, and in the year following Whitby succeeded in obtaining a horse line of twenty-four miles, connecting it with the small market-town of Pickering.  The York citizens were more ambitious, and agitated the question of a locomotive line to connect them with the town of Leeds.  Stephenson recommended them to connect their line with the Midland at Normanton, and they adopted his advice.  The company was formed, the shares were at once subscribed for, the act was obtained in the following year, and the works were constructed without difficulty.

    As the best proof of his conviction that the York and North Midland would prove a good investment, Stephenson invested in it a considerable portion of his savings, being a subscriber for 420 shares.  The interest taken in this line by the engineer was on more than one occasion specially mentioned by Mr. Hudson, then Lord-mayor of York, as an inducement to other persons of capital to join the undertaking; and had it not been afterward encumbered and overlaid by comparatively useless and profitless branches, in the projection of which Stephenson had no part, the sanguine expectations which he early formed of the paying qualities of that railway would have been more than realized.

    There was one branch, however, of the York and North Midland Line in which he took an anxious interest, and of which he may be said to have been the projector—the branch to Scarborough, which proved one of the most profitable parts of the railway.  He was so satisfied of its value, that, at a meeting of the York and North Midland proprietors, he volunteered his gratuitous services as engineer until the company was formed, in addition to subscribing largely to the undertaking.  At that meeting he took an opportunity of referring to the charges brought against engineers of so greatly exceeding the estimates: "He had had a good deal to do with making out the estimate of the North Midland Railway, and he believed there never was a more honest one.  He had always endeavoured to state the truth as far as was in his power.  He had known a contractor who, when he (Mr. Stephenson) had sent in an estimate, came forward and said, 'I can do it for half the money.'  The contractor's estimate went into Parliament, but it came out his.  He could go through the whole list of the undertakings in which he had been engaged, and show that he had never had any thing to do with stock-jobbing concerns.  He would say that he would not be concerned in any scheme unless he was satisfied that it would pay the proprietors; and in bringing forward the proposed line to Scarborough, he was satisfied that it would pay, or he would have had nothing to do with it."

    During the time that our engineer was engaged in superintending the execution of these undertakings, he was occupied upon other projected railways in various parts of the country.  He surveyed several lines in the neighbourhood of Glasgow, and afterward alternate routes along the east coast from Newcastle to Edinburg, with the view of completing the main line of communication with London.  When out on foot in the field on these occasions, he was ever foremost in the march, and he delighted to test the prowess of his companions by a good jump at any hedge or ditch that lay in their way.  His companions used to remark his singular quickness of observation.  Nothing escaped his attention—the trees, the crops, the birds, or the farmer's stock; and he was usually full of lively conversation, everything in nature affording him an opportunity for making some striking remark or propounding some ingenious theory.  When taking a flying survey of a new line, his keen observation proved very useful, for he rapidly noted the general configuration of the country, and inferred its geological structure.  He afterward remarked to a friend, "I have planned many a railway travelling along in a post-chaise, and following the natural line of the country."  And it was remarkable that his first impressions of the direction to be taken almost invariably proved correct; and there are few of the lines surveyed and recommended by him which have not been executed, either during his lifetime or since.  As an illustration of his quick and shrewd observation on such occasions, we may mention that when employed to lay out a line to connect Manchester, through Macclesfield, with the Potteries, the gentleman who accompanied him on the journey of inspection cautioned him to provide large accommodation for carrying off the water, observing, "You must not judge by the appearance of the brooks; for after heavy rains these hills pour down volumes of water, of which you can have no conception."  "Pooh! pooh! don't I see your bridges?" replied the engineer.  He had noted the details of each as he passed along.

    Among the other projects which occupied his attention about the same time were the projected lines between Chester and Holyhead, between Leeds and Bradford, and between Lancaster and Maryport by the west coast.  This latter was intended to form part of a western line to Scotland; Stephenson favouring it partly because of the flatness of the gradients, and because it could be formed at comparatively small cost, while it would open out a valuable iron-mining district, from which a large traffic in ironstone was expected.  One of its collateral advantages, in the engineer's opinion, was that, by forming the railway directly across Morecambe Bay, on the northwest coast of Lancashire, a large tract of valuable land might be reclaimed from the sea, the sale of which would considerably reduce the cost of the works.  He estimated that, by means of a solid embankment across the bay, not less than 40,000 acres of rich alluvial land would be gained.  He proposed to carry the road across the ten miles of sands which lie between Poulton, near Lancaster, and Humphrey Head on the opposite coast, forming the line in a segment of a circle of five miles' radius.  His plan was to drive in piles across the entire length, forming a solid fence of stone blocks on the land side for the purpose of retaining the sand and silt brought down by the rivers from the interior.  The embankment would then be raised from time to time as the deposit accumulated, until the land was filled up to high-water mark; provision being made, by means of sufficient arches, for the flow of the river waters into the bay.  The execution of the railway after this plan would, however, have occupied more years than the promoters of the West Coast line were disposed to wait, and eventually Mr. Locke's more direct but less level line by Shap Fell was adopted.  A railway has, however, since been carried across the head of the bay, in a modified form, by the Ulverstone and Lancaster Railway Company; and it is not improbable that Stephenson's larger scheme of reclaiming the vast tract of land now left bare at every receding tide may yet be carried out.

    While occupied in carrying out the great railway undertakings which we have above so briefly described, George Stephenson's home continued, for the greater part of the time, to be at Alton Grange, near Leicester.  But he was so much occupied in travelling about from one committee of directors to another—one week in England, another in Scotland, and probably the next in Ireland, that he often did not see his home for weeks together.  He had also to make frequent inspections of the various important and difficult works in progress, especially on the Midland and Manchester and Leeds lines, besides occasionally going to Newcastle to see how the locomotive works were going on there.  During the three years ending 1837—perhaps the busiest years of his life [p.377]—he travelled by post-chaise alone upward of 20,000 miles, and yet not less than six months out of the three years were spent in London.  Hence there is comparatively little to record of Mr. Stephenson's private life at this period, during which he had scarcely a moment that he could call his own.

    To give an idea of the number of projects which at this time occupied our engineer's attention, and of the extent and rapidity of his journeys, we subjoin from his private secretary's journal the following epitome of one of them, on which he entered immediately after the conclusion of the heavy Parliamentary session of 1836.

"August 9th. From Alton Grange to Derby and Matlock, and forward by mail to Manchester, to meet the committee of the South Union Railway.
August l0th. Manchester to Stockport, to meet committee of the Manchester and Leeds Railway; thence to meet directors of the Chester and Birkenhead, and Chester and Crewe Railways.
August 11th. Liverpool to Woodside, to meet committee of the Chester and Birkenhead line; journey with them along the proposed railway to Chester; then back to Liverpool.
August 12th. Liverpool to Manchester, to meet directors of the Manchester and Leeds Railway, and travelling with them over the works in progress.
August 13th. Continued journey over the works, and arrival at Wakefield; thence to York.
August 14th. Meeting with Mr. Hudson at York, and journey from York to Newcastle.
August 15th. At Newcastle, working up arrears of correspondence.
August 16th. Meeting with Mr. Brandling as to the station for the Brandling Junction at Gateshead, and stations at other parts of the line.
August 17th. Carlisle to Wigton and Maryport, examining the railway.
August 19th. Maryport to Carlisle, continuing the inspection.
August 20th. At Carlisle, examining the ground for a station; and working up correspondence.
August 21st. Carlisle to Dumfries by mail; forward to Ayr by chaise, proceeding up the valley of the Nith, through Thornhill, Sanquhar, and Cumnock.
August 22d. Meeting with promoters of the Glasgow, Kilmarnock, and Ayr Railway, and journey along the proposed line; meeting with the magistrates of Kilmarnock at Beith, and journey with them over Mr. Gale's proposed line to Kilmarnock.
August 23d. From Kilmarnock along Mr. Miller's proposed line to Beith, Paisley, and Glasgow.
August 24th. Examination of site of proposed station at Glasgow; meeting with the directors; then from Glasgow, by Falkirk and Linlithgow, to Edinburg, meeting there with Mr. Grainger, engineer, and several of the committee of the proposed Edinburg and Dunbar Railway.
August 25th. Examining the site of the proposed station at Edinburg; then to Dunbar, by Portobello, and Haddington, examining the proposed line of railway.
August 26th. Dunbar to Tommy Grant's, to examine the summit of the country toward Berwick, with a view to a through line to Newcastle; then return to Edinburgh.
August 27th. At Edinburgh, meeting the provisional committee of the proposed Edinburg and Dunbar Railway.
August 28th. Journey from Edinburg, through Melrose and Jedburg, to Horsley, along the route of Mr. Richardson's proposed railway across Carter Fell.
August 29th. From Horsley to Mr. Brandling's, then on to Newcastle; engaged on the Brandling Junction Railway.
August 30th. Engaged with Mr. Brandling; after which, meeting a deputation from Maryport.
August 31st. Meeting with Mr. Brandling and others as to the direction of the Brandling Junction in connection with the Great North of England line, and the course of the railway through Newcastle; then on to York.
September 1st. At York; meeting with York and North Midland directors; then journeying over Lord Howden's property, to arrange for a deviation; examining the proposed site of the station at York.
September 2d. At York, giving instructions as to the survey; then to Manchester by Leeds.
September 3d. At Manchester; journey to Stockport, with Mr. Bidder and Mr. Bourne, examining the line to Stockport, and fixing the crossing of the river there; attending to the surveys; then journey back to Manchester, to meet the directors of the Manchester and Leeds Railway.
September 4th. Sunday at Manchester.
September 5th. Journey along part of the Manchester and Leeds Railway.
September 6th. At Manchester, examining and laying down the section of the South Union line to Stockport; afterward engaged on the Manchester and Leeds working plans, in endeavouring to give a greater radius to the curves; seeing Mr. Seddon about the Liverpool, Manchester, and Leeds Junction Railway.
September 7th. Journey along the Manchester and Leeds line, then on to Derby.
September 8th. At Derby; seeing Mr. Carter and Mr. Beale about the Tamworth deviation; then home to Alton Grange.
September 10th. At Alton Grange, preparing report to the committee of the Edinburgh and Dunbar Railway."

    Such is a specimen of the enormous amount of physical and mental labour undergone by the engineer during the busy years above referred to.  He was no sooner home than he was called away again by some other railway or business engagement.  Thus, in four days after his arrival at Alton Grange from the above journey into Scotland, we find him going over the whole of the North Midland line as far as Leeds; then by Halifax to Manchester, where he staid for several days on the business of the South Union line; then to Birmingham and London; back to Alton Grange, and next day to Congleton and Leek; thence to Leeds and Goole, and home again by the Sheffield and Rotherham and the Midland works.  And early in the following month (October) he was engaged in the north of Ireland, examining the line, and reporting upon the plans of the projected Ulster Railway.  He was also called upon to inspect and report upon colliery works, salt works, brass and copper works, and such like, in addition to his own colliery and railway business.  He usually also staked out himself the lines laid out by him, which involved a good deal of labour since undertaken by assistants.  And occasionally he would run up to London, attending in person to the preparation and depositing of the plans and sections of the projected undertakings for which he was engaged as engineer.

    His correspondence increased so much that he found it necessary to engage a private secretary, who accompanied him on his journeys.  He was himself exceedingly averse to writing letters.  The comparatively advanced age at which he learned the art of writing, and the nature of his duties while engaged at the Killingworth Colliery, precluded that facility in correspondence which only constant practice can give.  He gradually, however, acquired great facility in dictation, and had also the power of labouring continuously at this work, the gentleman who acted as his secretary in the year 1835 having informed us that during his busy season he one day dictated no fewer than thirty-seven letters, several of them embodying the results of much close thinking and calculation.  On another occasion he dictated reports and letters for twelve continuous hours, until his secretary was ready to drop off his chair from sheer exhaustion, and at length pleaded for a suspension of the labour.  This great mass of correspondence, though closely bearing on the subjects under discussion, was not, however, of a kind to supply the biographer with matter for quotation, or to give that insight into the life and character of the writer which the letters of literary men so often furnish.  They were, for the most part, letters of mere business, relating to works in progress, Parliamentary contests, new surveys, estimates of cost, and railway policy—curt, and to the point; in short, the letters of a man every moment of whose time was precious.

    Fortunately, George Stephenson possessed a facility of sleeping, which enabled him to pass through this enormous amount of fatigue and labour without injury to his health.  He had been trained in a hard school, and could bear with ease conditions which, to men more softly nurtured, would have been the extreme of physical discomfort.  Many, many nights he snatched his sleep while travelling in his chaise; and at break of day he would be at work, surveying until dark, and this for weeks in succession.  His whole powers seemed to be under the control of his will, for he could wake at any hour, and go to work at once.  It was difficult for secretaries and assistants to keep up with such a man.

    It is pleasant to record that in the midst of these engrossing occupations his heart remained as soft and loving as ever.  In spring-time he would not be debarred of his boyish amusement of bird-nesting, but would go rambling along the hedges spying for nests.  In the autumn he went nutting, and when he could snatch a few minutes he indulged in his old love of gardening.  His uniform kindness and good temper, and his communicative, intelligent disposition, made him a great favourite with the neighbouring farmers, to whom he would volunteer much valuable advice on agricultural operations, drainage, ploughing, and labour-saving processes.  Sometimes he took a long rural ride on his favourite "Bobby," now growing old, but as fond of his master as ever.  Toward the end of his life "Bobby" lived in clover, his master's pet, doing no work; and he died at Tapton in 1845, more than twenty years old.

    During one of George's brief sojourns at the Grange he found time to write to his son a touching account of a pair of robins that had built their nest within one of the empty upper chambers of the house.  One day he observed a robin fluttering outside the windows, and beating its wings against the panes, as if eager to gain admission.  He went upstairs, and there found, in a retired part of one of the rooms, a robin's nest, with one of the parent birds sitting over three or four young—all dead.  The excluded bird outside still beat against the panes; and on the window being let down, it flew into the room, but was so exhausted that it dropped upon the floor.  Stephenson took up the bird, carried it down stairs, and had it warmed and fed.  The poor robin revived, and for a time was one of his pets.  But it shortly died too, as if unable to recover from the privations it had endured during its three days' fluttering and beating at the windows.  It appeared that the room had been unoccupied, and the sash having been let down, the robins had taken the opportunity of building their nest within it; but the servant having closed the window again, the calamity befell the birds which so strongly excited the engineer's sympathies.  An incident such as this, trifling though it may seem, gives a true key to the heart of a man.

    The amount of his Parliamentary business having greatly increased with the projection of new lines of railway, the Stephensons found it necessary to set up an office in London in 1836.  George's first office was at No. 9 Duke Street, Westminster, from whence he removed in the following year to 30½ Great George Street.  That office was the busy scene of railway politics for several years.  There consultations were held, schemes were matured, deputations were received, and many projectors called upon our engineer for the purpose of submitting to him their plans of railways and railway working.  His private secretary at the time has informed us that at the end of the first Parliamentary session in which he had been engaged as engineer for more companies than one, it became necessary for him to give instructions as to the preparation of the accounts to be rendered to the several companies.  In the simplicity of his heart, he directed Mr. Binns to take his full time at the rate of ten guineas a day, and charge the railway companies in the proportion in which he had actually been employed in their respective business during each day.  When Robert heard of this instruction, he went directly to his father and expostulated with him against this unprofessional course; and, other influences being brought to bear upon him, George at length reluctantly consented to charge as other engineers did, all entire day's fee to each of the companies for which he was concerned while their business was going forward; but he cut down the number of days charged for, and reduced the daily amount from ten to seven guineas.

    Besides his journeys at home, George Stephenson was on more than one occasion called abroad on railway business.  Thus, at the desire of King Leopold, he made several visits to Belgium to assist the Belgian engineers in laying out the national lines of the kingdom.  That enlightened monarch at an early period discerned the powerful instrumentality of railways in developing a country's resources, and he determined at the earliest possible period to adopt them as the great high roads of the nation.  The country, being rich in coals and minerals, had great manufacturing capabilities.  It had good ports, fine navigable rivers, abundant canals, and a teeming, industrious population.  Leopold perceived that railways were eminently calculated to bring the industry of the country into full play, and to render the riches of the provinces available to the rest of the kingdom.  He therefore openly declared himself the promoter of public railways throughout Belgium.  A system of lines was projected at his instance, connecting Brussels with the chief towns and cities of the state, extending from Ostend eastward to the Prussian frontier, and from Antwerp southward to the French frontier.

    Mr. Stephenson and his son, as the leading railway engineers of England, were consulted by the king, in 1835, as to the best mode of carrying out his intentions.  In the course of that year they visited Belgium, and had several interesting conferences with Leopold and his ministers on the subject of the proposed railways.  The king then appointed George Stephenson by royal ordinance a Knight of the Order of Leopold.  At the invitation of the monarch, Mr. Stephenson made a second visit to Belgium in 1837, on the occasion of the public opening of the line from Brussels to Ghent.  At Brussels there was a public procession, and another at Ghent on the arrival of the train.  Stephenson and his party accompanied it to the Public Hall, there to dine with the chief ministers of state, the municipal authorities, and about five hundred of the principal inhabitants of the city; the English ambassador being also present.  After the king's health and a few others had been drunk, that of Mr. Stephenson was proposed; on which the whole assembly rose up, amid great excitement and loud applause, and made their way to where he sat, in order to "jingle glasses" with him, greatly to his own amazement.  On the day following, our engineer dined with the king and queen at their own table at Laaken, by special invitation, afterward accompanying his majesty and suite to a public ball, given by the municipality of Brussels in honour of the opening of the line to Ghent, as well as of their distinguished English guests.  On entering the room, the general and excited inquiry was, "Which is Stephenson?"  The English engineer had not before imagined that he was esteemed to be so great a man.

    The London and Birmingham Railway having been completed in September, 1838, after being about five years in progress, the great main system of railway communication between London, Liverpool, and Manchester was then opened to the public.  For some months previously the line had been partially open, coaches performing the journey between Denbigh Hall (near Wolverton) and Rugby—the works of the Kilsby tunnel being still incomplete.  It was already amusing to hear the complaints of the travellers about the slowness of the coaches as compared with the railway, though the coaches travelled at a speed of eleven miles an hour.  The comparison of comfort was also greatly to the disparagement of the coaches.  Then the railway train could accommodate any quantity, whereas the road conveyances were limited; and when a press of travellers occurred—as on the occasion of the queen's coronation—the greatest inconvenience was experienced, as much as £10 having been paid for a seat on a donkey-chaise between Rugby and Denbigh.  On the opening of the railway throughout, of course all this inconvenience was brought to an end.

    Numerous other openings of railways constructed by George Stephenson took place about the same time.  The Birmingham and Derby line was opened for traffic in August, 1839; the Sheffield and Rotherham in November, 1839; and in the course of the following year, the Midland, the York and North Midland, the Chester and Crewe, the Chester and Birkenhead, the Manchester and Birmingham, the Manchester and Leeds, and the Maryport and Carlisle railways, were all publicly opened in whole or in part.  Thus 321 miles of railway (exclusive of the London and Birmingham), constructed under Mr. Stephenson's superintendence, at a cost of upward of eleven millions sterling, were, in the course of about two years, added to the traffic accommodation of the country.

    The ceremonies which accompanied the public opening of these lines were often of an interesting character.  The adjoining population held general holiday; bands played, banners waved, and assembled thousands cheered the passing trains amid the occasional booming of cannon.  The proceedings were usually wound up by a public dinner; and in the course of his speech which followed, Mr. Stephenson would revert to his favourite topic—the difficulties which he had early encountered in the promotion of the railway system, and in establishing the superiority of the locomotive.  On such occasions he always took great pleasure in alluding to the services rendered to himself and the public by the young men brought up under his eye—his pupils at first, and afterward his assistants.  No great master ever possessed a more devoted band of assistants and fellow-workers than he did; and it was one of the most marked evidences of his admirable tact and judgment that he selected, with such undeviating correctness, the men best fitted to carry out his plans. Indeed, the ability to accomplish great things, to carry grand ideas into practical effect, depends in no small measure on that intuitive knowledge of character which our engineer possessed in so remarkable a degree.

    At the dinner at York, which followed the partial opening of the York and North Midland Railway, Mr. Stephenson said "he was sure they would appreciate his feelings when he told them that, when he first began railway business, his hair was black, although it was now grey; and that he began his life's labour as but a poor ploughboy.  About thirty years since he had applied himself to the study of how to generate high velocities by mechanical means.  He thought he had solved that problem; and they had for themselves seen, that day, what perseverance had brought him to.  He was, on that occasion, only too happy to have an opportunity of acknowledging that he had, in the latter portion of his career, received much most valuable assistance particularly from young men brought up in his manufactory.  Whenever talent showed itself in a young man, he had always given that talent encouragement where he could, and he would continue to do so."

    That this was no exaggerated statement is amply proved by many facts which redound to Stephenson's credit.  He was no niggard of encouragement and praise when he saw honest industry struggling for a footing.  Many were the young men whom, in the course of his career, he took by the hand and led steadily up to honour and emolument, simply because he had noted their zeal, diligence, and integrity.  One youth excited his interest while working as a common carpenter on the Liverpool and Manchester line; and before many years had passed he was recognized as an engineer of distinction.  Another young man he found industriously working away at his by-hours, and, admiring his diligence, he engaged him as his private secretary, the gentleman shortly after rising to a position of eminent influence and usefulness.  Indeed, nothing gave the engineer greater pleasure than in this way to help on any deserving youth who came under his observation, and, in his own expressive phrase, to "make a man of him."

    The openings of the great main lines of railroad communication shortly proved the fallaciousness of the numerous rash prophecies which had been promulgated by the opponents of railways.  The proprietors of the canals were astounded by the fact that, notwithstanding the immense traffic conveyed by rail, their own traffic and receipts continued to increase; and that, in common with other interests, they fully shared in the expansion of trade and commerce which had been so effectually promoted by the extension of the railway system.  The cattle-owners were equally amazed to find the price of horseflesh increasing with the extension of railways, and that the number of coaches running to and from the new railway stations gave employment to a greater number of horses than under the old stage-coach system.  Those who had prophesied the decay of the metropolis, and the ruin of the suburban cabbage-growers, in consequence of the approach of railways to London, were disappointed; for, while the new roads let citizens out of London, they also let country-people in.  Their action, in this respect, was centripetal as well as centrifugal.  Tens of thousands who had never seen the metropolis could now visit it expeditiously and cheaply; and Londoners who had never visited the country, or but rarely, were enabled, at little cost of time or money, to see green fields and clear blue skies far from the smoke and bustle of town.  If the dear suburban-grown cabbages became depreciated in value, there were truck-loads of fresh-grown country cabbages to make amends for the loss: in this case, the "partial evil" was a far more general good.  The food of the metropolis became rapidly improved, especially in the supply of wholesome meat and vegetables.  And then the price of coals—an article which, in this country, is as indispensable as daily food to all classes—was greatly reduced.  What a blessing to the metropolitan poor is described in this single fact!

    The prophecies of ruin and disaster to landlords and farmers were equally confounded by the openings of the railways.  The agricultural communications, so far from being "destroyed," as had been predicted, were immensely improved.  The farmers were enabled to buy their coals, lime, and manure for less money, while they obtained a readier access to the best markets for their stock and farm-produce.  Notwithstanding the predictions to the contrary, their cows gave milk as before, the sheep fed and fattened, and even skittish horses ceased to shy at the passing trains.  The smoke of the engines did not obscure the sky, nor were farmyards burnt up by the fire thrown from the locomotives.  The farming classes were not reduced to beggary; on the contrary, they soon felt that, so far from having any thing to dread, they had very much good to expect from the extension of railways.

    Landlords also found that they could get higher rent for farms situated near a railway than at a distance from one.  Hence they became clamorous for "sidings."  They felt it to be a grievance to be placed at a distance from a station.  After a railway had been once opened, not a landlord would consent to have the line taken from him.  Owners who had fought the promoters before parliament, and compelled them to pass their domains at a distance, at a vastly increased expense in tunnels and deviations, now petitioned for branches and nearer station-accommodation.  Those who held property near towns, and had extorted large sums as compensation for the anticipated deterioration in the value of their building land, found a new demand for it springing up at greatly advanced prices.  Land was now advertised for sale with the attraction of being "near a railway station."

    The prediction that, even if railways were made, the public would not use them, was also completely falsified by the results.  The ordinary mode of fast travelling for the middle classes had heretofore been by mail-coach and stage-coach.  Those who could not afford to pay the high prices charged by such conveyances went by wagon, and the poorer classes trudged on foot.  George Stephenson was wont to say that he hoped to see the day when it would be cheaper for a poor man to travel by railway than to walk, and not many years passed before his expectation was fulfilled.  In no country in the world is time worth more money than in England; and by saving time—the criterion of distance—the railway proved a great benefactor to men of industry in all classes.

    Many deplored the inevitable downfall of the old stage-coach system.  There was to be an end of that delightful variety of incident usually attendant on a journey by road.  The rapid scamper across a fine country on the outside of the four-horse "Express" or "Highflyer;" the seat on the box beside Jehu, or the equally coveted place near the facetious guard behind; the journey amid open green fields, through smiling villages and fine old towns, where the stage stopped to change horses and the passengers to dine, was all very delightful in its way, and many regretted that this old-fashioned and pleasant style of travelling was about to pass away.  But it had its dark side also.  Any one who remembers the journey by stage from London to Manchester or York will associate it with recollections and sensations of not unmixed delight.  To be perched for twenty-four hours, exposed to all weathers, on the outside of a coach, trying in vain to find a soft seat—sitting now with the face to the wind, rain, or sun, and now with the back—without any shelter such as the commonest penny-a-mile Parliamentary train now daily provides—was a miserable undertaking, looked forward to with horror by many whose business required them to travel frequently between the provinces and the metropolis.  Nor were the inside passengers more agreeably accommodated.  To be closely packed in a little, inconvenient, straight-backed vehicle, where the cramped limbs could not be in the least extended, nor the wearied frame indulge in any change of posture, was felt by many to be a terrible thing.  Then there were the constantly-recurring demands, not always couched in the politest terms, for an allowance to the driver every two or three stages, and to the guard every six or eight; and if the gratuity did not equal their expectations, growling and open abuse were not unusual.  These désagrémens, together with the exactions practiced on travellers by innkeepers, seriously detracted from the romance of stage-coach travelling, and there was a general disposition on the part of the public to change the system for a better.

    The avidity with which the public at once availed themselves of the railways proved that this better system had been discovered.  Notwithstanding the reduction of the coach-fares on many of the roads to one third of their previous rate, the public preferred travelling by the railway.  They saved in time, and they saved in money, taking the whole expenses into account.  In point of comfort there could be no doubt as to the infinite superiority of the locomotive train.  But there remained the question of safety, which had been a great bugbear with the early opponents of railways, and was made the most of by the coach-proprietors to deter the public from using them.  It was predicted that trains of passengers would be blown to pieces, and that none but fools would entrust their persons to the conduct of an explosive machine such as the locomotive.  It appeared, however, that during the first eight years not fewer than five millions of passengers had been conveyed along the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, and of this vast number only two persons had lost their lives by accident.  During the same period, the loss of life by the upsetting of stage-coaches had been immensely greater in proportion.  The public were not slow, therefore, to detect the fact that travelling by railways was greatly safer than travelling by common roads, and in all districts penetrated by railways the coaches were very shortly taken off for want of support.

    George Stephenson himself had a narrow escape in one of the stage-coach accidents so common thirty years since, but which are already almost forgotten.  While the Birmingham line was under construction, he had occasion to travel from Ashby-de-la-Zouch to London by coach.  He was an inside passenger with several others, and the outsides were pretty numerous.  When within ten miles of Dunstable, he felt, from the rolling of the coach, that one of the linchpins securing the wheels had given way, and that the vehicle must upset.  He endeavoured to fix himself in his seat, holding on firmly by the arm-straps, so that he might save himself on whichever side the coach fell.  The coach soon toppled over, and fell crash upon the road, amid the shrieks of his fellow-passengers and the smashing of glass.  He immediately pulled himself up by the arm-strap above him, let down the coach-window, and climbed out.  The coachman and passengers lay scattered about on the road, stunned, and some of them bleeding, while the horses were plunging in their harness.  Taking out his pocket-knife, he at once cut the traces and set the horses free.  He then went to the help of the passengers, who were all more or less hurt.  The guard had his arm broken, and the driver was seriously cut and contused.  A scream from one of his fellow-passenger "insides" here attracted his attention: it proceeded from an elderly lady, whom he had before observed to be decorated with one of the enormous bonnets in fashion at the time.  Opening the coach-door, he lifted the lady out, and her principal lamentation was that her large bonnet had been crushed beyond remedy!  Stephenson then proceeded to the nearest village for help, and saw the passengers provided with proper assistance before he himself went forward on his journey.

    It was some time before the more opulent classes, who could afford to post to town in aristocratic style, became reconciled to the railway train.  It put an end to that gradation of rank in travelling which was one of the few things left by which the nobleman could be distinguished from the Manchester manufacturer and bagman.  But to younger sons of noble families the convenience and cheapness of the railway did not fail to commend itself.  One of these, whose eldest brother had just succeeded to an earldom, said to a railway manager, "I like railways—they just suit young fellows like me, with 'nothing per annum paid quarterly.'  You know, we can't afford to post, and it used to be deuced annoying to me, as I was jogging along on the box-seat of the stage-coach, to see the little earl go by, drawn by his four posters, and just look up at me and give me a nod.  But now, with railways, it's different.  It's true, he may take a first-class ticket, while I can only afford a second-class one, but we both go the same pace."

    For a time, however, many of the old families sent forward their servants and luggage by railroad, and condemned themselves to jog along the old highway in the accustomed family chariot, dragged by country post-horses.  But the superior comfort of the railway shortly recommended itself to even the oldest families; posting went out of date; post-horses were with difficulty to be had along even the great high roads; and nobles and servants, manufacturers and peasants, alike shared in the comfort, the convenience, and the dispatch of railway travelling.  The late Dr. Arnold, of Rugby, regarded the opening of the London and Birmingham line as another great step accomplished in the march of civilization.  "I rejoice to see it," he said, as he stood on one of the bridges over the railway, and watched the train flashing along under him, and away through the distant hedgerows—"I rejoice to see it, and to think that feudality is gone forever: it is so great a blessing to think that any one evil is really extinct."

    It was long before the late Duke of Wellington would trust himself behind a locomotive.  The fatal accident to Mr. Huskisson, which had happened before his eyes, contributed to prejudice him strongly against railways, and it was not until the year 1843 that he performed his first trip on the South-western Railway, in attendance upon her majesty.  Prince Albert had for some time been accustomed to travel by railway alone, but in 1842 the queen began to make use of the same mode of conveyance between Windsor and London.  Even Colonel Sibthorpe was eventually compelled to acknowledge its utility.  For a time he continued to post to and from the country as before.  Then he compromised the matter by taking a railway ticket for the long journey, and posting only a stage or two nearest town; until, at length, he undisguisedly committed himself, like other people, to the express train, and performed the journey throughout upon what he had formerly denounced as "the infernal railroad."





[Home] [Up] [James Brindley] [Boulton and Watt] [Smeaton and Rennie] [Metcalfe & Telford] [Invention & Industry] [Brief Biographies] [Self Help] [Miscellanea] [Main Index] [Site Search]

Correspondence should be addressed to....