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Birthplace of Robert Stephenson, site of
Willington Quay, Howden, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK
Birthplace of Robert Stephenson, site of
associated engineer
Robert Stephenson
date  16th October 1803
UK era  Georgian  |  category  Birthplace of Engineer  |  reference  NZ325665
photo  Stephenson's cottage at Willington Quay by Richard Pettigrew Leitch (1826-82)
Robert Stephenson, the only surviving child of engineer George Stephenson (1781-1848), was born at Willington Quay at the time when his father was employed at the nearby works. Father and son went on to revolutionise railway travel. Robert was a key figure in the history of structural engineering, pioneering new techniques and pushing the boundaries of achievement.
Robert Stephenson's (1803-59) birthplace no longer exists but stood near the Howden end of the modern Tyne Pedestrian and Cycle Tunnels.
Stephenson is celebrated for the role he played in the development of the railways, though his impact on the history of structural engineering in Britain is no less important. In the course of building rail lines and locomotives, he set new standards for experimentation with materials, now considered early steps in the science of structures. His innovative designs for bridges and viaducts featured spans unprecedented in length.
His parents were: "the father of railways" George Stephenson, then a 21 year old engine mechanic at Black Callerton, and Frances (Fanny) Henderson (1768-1806), a 34 year old farm servant. They married on 28th November 1802, at St Michael & All Angels church in Newburn.
Soon after the wedding, George was offered a job as brakesman for a new steam winding engine at Willington Quay on the north bank of the Tyne, east of Wallsend. Ships docked at the quay to discharge ballast and load up with coal for London. The engine George tended powered a rope-worked incline hauling loaded wagons to the top of a hill where the ballast was tipped.
The Stephensons moved into an upper room in the west end of a cottage on Willington Quay (on the left in the picture above). On 16th October 1803, Frances gave birth to Robert. According to Samuel Smiles (1812-1904), he was baptised in the schoolhouse at Wallsend as the parish church was suffering from subsidence caused by coal mining and thought too dangerous to use.
Little is known of Robertís time at Willington Quay. When he was about a year old, in 1804, George Stephenson became brakesman for an engine at West Moor Colliery near Killingworth and the family moved into a two-room terrace house in Paradise Row at West Moor.
On 13th July 1805, Frances gave birth to a daughter, who lived for only three weeks. On 14th May 1806, Frances died from consumption (pulmonary tuberculosis), aged 37. Robert was not yet three years old.
With his contemporaries Joseph Locke (1805-60) and Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59), Robert Stephenson oversaw the development of a network of railways throughout Britain and revolutionised the transportation of goods and people for ever. His many achievements include some 160 commissions for railways in the UK and elsewhere, the locomotive Rocket (1829), High Level Bridge in Newcastle (1849), Britannia Bridge over the Menai Straits (1850) and Great Victoria Bridge in Montreal, Canada (1859).
Despite a punishing work schedule, Stephenson did not forget his birthplace. In later life he contributed £1200 to the fund established for raising the Stephenson Memorial Schools on the site of the cottage at Willington Quay where he drew his first breath.
The school buildings also no longer stand. However, the north end of the Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnels (constructed 1947-50, opened 1951) is almost exactly where Stephensonís cottage once stood. The modern road passing north and west of the tunnel entrance is named Stephenson Street.
Research: ECPK
"Obituary. Robert Stephenson, (Past President and Vice-President), 1803-1859", Minutes of the Proceedings of the ICE, Vol.19, pp.176-182, London, 1860
"George and Robert Stephenson: The Railway Revolution" by L.T.C. Rolt, Penguin Books Ltd, London, 1984
reference sources   DNBSmiles3BDCE2

Birthplace of Robert Stephenson, site of