Remembering George Stephenson
In 1836, at the time of the Rainhill Trials
, maverick author and lecturer Dr Dionysius Lardner (1793-1859) referred to George Stephenson in a public lecture on steam engines as 'father of the locomotive'. This was the beginning of a high level of recognition for Stephenson, but also some confusion, not helped by his early biographer Samuel Smiles. Stephenson was in partnership with his son Robert, principal designer of the well known steam locomotive Rocket
, who became famous in his own right. A certain amount of misinformation resulted from the confusion between their names.
However, George Stephenson's achievements were many and world-changing. The later epithet 'father of railways' (coined by John Uniacke, chairman of Chester & Crewe Railway, in 1839) is perhaps more fitting for him. He did not invent the steam engine. But he did realise that steam locomotion could and would change the world by making the transport of materials and people easier, faster and cheaper. Doggedly determined and fiercely proud, he led the way in making it happen.
As his later biographer Hunter Davies (b.1936) put it, "Would railways have arrived without Stephenson? Probably ... but he was the single most important element ... Railways affected everything. People lived differently, worked differently, ate differently, had holidays differently. Suburbs were created because people no longer needed to live on top of their work[place] ... people were brought nearer to each other, the world began to shrink".
Outgoing and friendly, Stephenson had simple tastes, hating pomposity and pretentiousness. He never lost his Geordie accent, despite working closely with people of all social levels and from all parts of the country. It can be said that his accent counted against him — he was derided for it when he spoke before Parliament concerning the Liverpool & Manchester Railway
. But he was not easily intimidated, and was never shy of championing his opinions over those of others.
Despite his lack of formal education, Stephenson was welcomed into the mechanical engineering fraternity, particularly in the north east and the Midlands. Yet there remained a certain bitterness — even jealousy — between him and the influential civil engineers of the time, who were mostly based in London. Though invited to become a Fellow of the Royal Society and the Institution of Civil Engineers, he declined both, apparently seeing no advantage in joining. However, he is proudly remembered by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers as one of the founders and their first President.
As L.T.C. Rolt writes: "Although George Stephenson had felt in his younger days, unreasonably at times, that every man's hand was against him, yet he was one of those few fortunate pioneers who lived to enjoy both wealth and honour".
His achievements are impressive: the building of the first permanent public steam-powered railway in the world, and the first inter-city railway — along with the design and construction of many famous steam engines and groundbreaking railway infrastructure of the sort that we now take for granted. No wonder he was something of a legend in the North, and is widely appreciated today. The Stephenson legacy is all around us, ingrained in every rail track.
Perhaps the last word should go to his celebrated son, engineer Robert Stephenson
(1803-59), who concluded his inaugural Presidential address (January 1856) to the Institution of Civil Engineers with: " ... all I know and all I have done, is primarily due to the Parent whose memory I cherish and revere".
Some of the many memorials to George Stephenson ...
— Bust : by Edward William Wyon (1811-85), cast iron, circa 1830s, located in the archive of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers
— Plaque : celebrating the building of Stephenson's first steam locomotive, stone, date unknown, located beneath the sundial on the facade of Dial Cottage, West Moor, Tyne and Wear
: erected by the City of Liverpool, enamel on metal mounted on composite, date unknown, located at 34 Upper Parliament Street, Liverpool, where Stephenson lived during construction of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway
— Plaque : erected by Chesterfield Civic Society, date unknown, located at Tapton House, Chesterfield, where Stephenson lived 1838-48
: by John Gibson (1790-1866), marble, 1848, commissioned by the directors of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway Company, located at George's Hall, Liverpool
— Statue : by Joseph Durham, limestone, 1860, located in the Oxford Museum of Natural History, Oxford
— Statue : by John Graham Lough (1798-1876), bronze, 1862, located outside Newcastle upon Tyne railway station
: bronze and marble, 1928, commissioned by the Republic of Argentina and presented to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers on the occasion of the centenary of the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway
, located at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers
: bronze, 8th June 1929, commissioned to mark the centenary of the Rainhill Trials
, located at Wylam on the cottage where Stephenson was born
(now National Trust)
: by Charles Sansbury (1916-89), steel, 3rd October 1971, commissioned to mark the bicentenary of the construction of Blucher
, originally located at the Killingworth Centre, now located at Southgate roundabout, Killingworth
— Portrait : printed banknotes, 1990-2003, commissioned by the Bank of England for the Series E £5 notes in general circulation in the UK
: by Stephen Hicklin, bronze, 28th October 2005, located outside Chesterfield Station, Derbyshire
— Plaque : erected by Tyne and Wear County Council, cast metal, date unknown, located at West Farm, Black Callerton, near Dolly Pit where Stephenson worked 1801-2
— Plaque : ceramic (blue), October 2011, commissioned by Derbyshire County Council, located inside Chesterfield Station, Derbyshire
— Plaque : ceramic (green), December 2015, located at Alton Grange, Ravenstone, Leicestershire, where Stephenson lived 1832-8
engraving by W Holl after a portrait by John Lucas, published 1862 by John Murray, Albemarle Street, London