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
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
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
"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
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
MANCHESTER AND LEEDS, AND MIDLAND RAILWAYS—STEPHENSON'S LIFE AT
ALTON—VISIT TO BELGIUM—GENERAL EXTENSION OF RAILWAYS AND THEIR
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
August 16th. Meeting with Mr. Brandling as to the station for
the Brandling Junction at Gateshead, and stations at other parts of
August 17th. Carlisle to Wigton and Maryport, examining the
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
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
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
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
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."