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Birthplace of George Stephenson
Wylam, Northumberland, UK
Birthplace of George Stephenson
associated engineer
George Stephenson
date  9th June 1781
era  Georgian  |  category  Birthplace of Engineer  |  reference  NZ124649
photo  High Street House in 1890, copyright Newcastle City Library
A humble shared cottage was the birthplace of George Stephenson (1781-1848), self-taught mechanical engineer and founder of the modern railway system. With his son, Robert, he ensured the viability of steam locomotion, which changed global transportation forever. His birthplace is now Grade II* listed and preserved by the National Trust.
The cottage where George Stephenson was born, on 9th June 1781, sits on the north bank of the River Tyne, about 1km to the east of Wylam and some 14km west of Newcastle upon Tyne. He was the second of six children born to Robert Stephenson senior (1748-1817) and Mabel Carr.
The two storey dwelling was built in about 1750, and is of random rubble stone. It has a chimney at each gable end and a pitched pantile roof with lower edges of slate. At the front (south elevation) are four 12-pane Yorkshire sash windows and a central door of timber planks with a six-pane window above. The ground floor windows include timber shutters
The house was occupied by four families. The Stephensons lived in one room, on the ground floor in the west side of the cottage. The wagonway leading to Wylam colliery passed right in front of the house, and a path from the door to a level crossing across the tracks is shown in a photograph taken in about 1890.
George's father was a fireman (stoker) for Wylam colliery's pumping engine. As a boy George is said to have worked as a cowherd before beginning his first colliery job at Wylam, driving a gin horse. Soon afterwards he took the first steps towards an engineering career, joining his father as an engine fireman at the colliery.
George designed and built his first steam-powered locomotive in 1814, and followed it with two improved locomotives in 1815, for which he patented the enhancements. Also in 1815, he designed one of the first two safety lamps for miners to protect them from gas explosions the other was designed concurrently by Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829), elsewhere in the country.
After designing a series of locomotives, Stephenson engineered a railway track from Hetton colliery to Sunderland (Hetton Colliery Railway), laid in 1820-1 the first railway to be powered by machines rather than animals. He followed this success with the Stockton & Darlington Railway and Liverpool & Manchester Railway, among many others. In 1829, the famous Rocket locomotive, with its tubular boiler, won the 500 prize at the Rainhill Trials.
George Stephenson married three times and was widowed twice. His only son, Robert Stephenson (1803-59), was the child of his first marriage and was also instrumental in the design and construction of Rocket. Robert would go on to eclipse but not outstrip his father's achievements.
A bronze plaque on the front of the cottage reads "George Stephenson 1781-1848 born in this house 9 June 1781. This tablet was erected by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers of which he was the first president and by the North East Coast Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders. Unveiled by the Lord Mayor of Newcastle upon Tyne Councillor Arthur W Lambert MC in the year of the centenary of the success of The Rocket at Rainhill" (plaque erected 1929).
In 1948, to commemorate the centenary of his death, the North East Coast Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders set up a fund to purchase the house and present it to the National Trust. It has been in their care ever since. The room where the Stephensons lived has been recreated and is open to the public. Now whitewashed, the cottage would probably have been unrendered stone in the 18th century.
The cottage was Grade II* listed in April 1969.
Research: ECPK
bibliography
"George Stephenson" by Adrian Jarvis, Lifelines 45, Shire Publications Ltd, Princes Risborough, 2006
"George Stephenson: The Remarkable Life of the Founder of the Railways" by Hunter Davies, revised edition, Sutton Publishing Limited, Stroud, 2004
"George and Robert Stephenson: The Railway Revolution" by L.T.C. Rolt, Penguin Books Ltd, London, 1984
www.historicengland.org.uk
www.nationaltrust.org.uk
www.transportheritage.com
reference sources   Smiles3
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Birthplace of George Stephenson