George Stephenson was born in the coalfields village of Wylam in Northumberland, on 9th June 1781. His parents, Robert 'Old Bob' Stephenson (1748-1817) and Mabel Carr (1749-1818), had married on 17th May 1778. George was the second of their six children. His siblings were James 'Jemmy' (1779-1847), Eleanor 'Nelly' (1784-1847), Robert (1788-1837), John (1789-1831) and Ann (1792-1860).
Mabel was a local woman, the daughter of Richard Carr, a bleacher and dyer from nearby Ovingham. Old Bob's family were believed to have roots in Scotland, where his father was said to have been a gentleman's servant. Both were illiterate. They worked hard and suceeded in raising healthy children who all survived into adulthood, despite the lack of advantages.
Old Bob was a labourer at Walbottle Colliery (between Wyam and Newcastle), where he worked until April 1787 when he transferred to Wylam Colliery. He later became a fireman (stoker) for Wylam's pumping engine, earning up to 12 shillings (60p) a week. He was a friendly man who in his spare moments loved to watch and tame birds. He also delighted in storytelling to children.
The family home was a single ground floor room on the west side of High Street House
, shared with three other families, and this was where George was born. The building is still standing and lies 1.3km to the east of Wylam on the north bank of the River Tyne. Its walls are of rubble and the roof was once slate. None of the children attended school, as finding money for food and clothing left nothing spare for the 'luxury' of formal education. All were expected to contribute to the household budget as soon as possible.
As a child, George Stephenson's first task was to keep his younger siblings away from the horses pulling loaded coal wagons (chaldrons) along the timber rails of Wylam Wagonway, which passed within two metres of their front door. The wagonway had been constructed in 1748 to transport the colliery's output to Lemington, from where it was taken downstream for transfer into sailing ships and onward export.
In 1789, when Stephenson was eight years old, the family moved east from Wylam to Dewley. As collieries exhausted the accessible coalfields, they opened new pits in new locations — colliery families followed them. Old Bob now worked as a fireman at Dewley Burn Colliery, near the Walbottle Moors Wagonway.
Stephenson apparently earned 2d (0.8p) a day minding cows and preventing them from straying onto the wagonway. He later doubled his daily wage to 4d (1.7p) as a farm labourer, hoeing turnips and leading a horse and plough. He grew into a sturdy muscular boy, different in build from his small slender parents.
However, it seems found mining more attractive than farming, and he joined his father and elder brother James at Dewley Burn Colliery, initially working for 6d (2.5p) a day taking the miners' picks for sharpening and removing dirt and stones from the coal. He was soon promoted to driving the gin horse that powered the pit's windlass, earning 8d (3.3p) a day. He later drove a gin horse at Black Callerton Colliery.
In 1795, the 14 year old Stephenson was appointed assistant fireman to his father at Dewley. When the pit closed shortly afterwards, the family moved into one room of a house at Jolly's Close between Newburn and Walbottle. Old Bob worked at the short-lived Duke's Winning Pit near Newburn, and his son (still only 15) became a fireman at the adjacent Mid Hill Winning Pit and later at Throckley Bridge, where he earned 12 shillings (60p) a week and declared himself "a made man for life".
When he was 17, he improved his position and became plug minder (engineman) in charge of the Newcomen-type pumping engine erected by Robert Hawthorn senior (1760-1842) at Water Row Colliery, where his father was now fireman. While his brothers James and John were content to labour at Walbottle Colliery, Stephenson used some of his pay for tuition in mathematics and literacy. He mastered arithmetic quickly but failed to grasp theoretical calculation. Although he learned to read and write, he would always be a laborious writer. Naturally curious, he was an astute observer and would soon show exceptional ability with anything mechanical.
In 1801, Stephenson left his teenage years behind and returned to Black Callerton Colliery, but not to drive a gin horse. At Dolly Pit he took on the post of brakesman, a skilled job that involved driving and maintaining the mechanism of a steam-driven whim (winding) engine, which was used to raise and lower the men and bring up loaded baskets of coal. This was comparatively well-paid at between 17s 6d (87.5p) and £1 a week. He supplemented his income by making and repairing shoes during less-busy night shifts at the pit, and later added clock mending to his skills.
The pit was some 5km from home, so he took lodgings with tenant farmer Thomas Thompson at Lough House, Black Callerton. Pursuing his career away from his parents and siblings, Stephenson started to think about a wife and family of his own. He began courting farmer's daughter Elizabeth Hindmarsh (1777-1845), only to be warned off by her father. He then approached Ann Henderson, domestic servant and daughter of Capheaton farmer John Henderson, but was rebuffed. He swiftly turned his attention to her elder sister Frances 'Fanny' Henderson (1768-1806) who was in service at Lough House.
Frances had worked for the farm's previous tenant George Alder, and had stayed on during Thompson's tenancy. In a testimonial of 10th April 1791, Alder described her as "a girl of sober disposition, an honest servant, and of a good family". Her betrothal to the village schoolmaster had ended when the schoolmaster died in 1794, and until Stephenson proposed she faced the prospect of spinsterhood.
They married on 28th November 1802, at St Michael & All Angels church, Newburn. Stephenson was 21 and his bride 34 years old. Thompson acted as one of the witnesses and provided a wedding breakfast, after which the couple departed for their new lodgings nearby.
A short time later, Hawthorn offered Stephenson the job of brakesman for a new winding engine at Willington Quay on the north bank of the Tyne, east of Wallsend, where ships bound for London discharged ballast to take on coal. The engine powered a rope-worked incline, hauling loaded wagons to the top of a growing mound known as Ballast Hill where they were emptied, and presumably returned under gravity.
Stephenson and Frances borrowed a horse for the 24km journey from Black Callerton, moving into an upper room in a cottage on Willington Quay and using some of their meagre savings for furnishings.
On 16th October 1803, Frances gave birth to their son Robert Stephenson
(1803-59) (birthplace of Robert Stephenson
). Neither mother nor son were strong, and relatives feared Robert would not live long. In fact he would grow up to eclipse even his father's groundbreaking achievements. George would prove a proud and affectionate father.
Dedicatation had taken Stephenson from labourer to skilled craftsman. Through observation and dextrous handling of machinery, he rapidly acquired a comprehensive understanding of steam engines, and his practical approach to solving operational hitches provided a valuable grounding in mechanical engineering. He was passionate about finding out how things worked and doggedly determined to succeed.
While he was establishing his family, war was brewing between Britain and France. One consequence of this would be a dramatic rise in the use of steam power instead of horse power for industry, as fodder became scarcer and more expensive. Stephenson's hands-on experience would prove invaluable in relation to the exciting new development that came with this change — the steam locomotive.
engraving by W Holl after a portrait by John Lucas, published 1862 by John Murray, Albemarle Street, London