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- Biographies of Working Men - 4/22 -


II.

GEORGE STEPHENSON, ENGINE-MAN.

Any time about the year 1786, a stranger in the streets of the grimy colliery village of Wylam, near Newcastle, might have passed by without notice a ragged, barefooted, chubby child of five years old, Geordie Stephenson by name, playing merrily in the gutter and looking to the outward eye in no way different from any of the other colliers' children who loitered about him. Nevertheless, that ragged boy was yet destined in after-life to alter the whole face of England and the world by those wonderful railways, which he more than any other man was instrumental in first constructing; and the story of his life may rank perhaps as one of the most marvellous in the whole marvellous history of able and successful British working men.

George Stephenson was born in June, 1781, the son of a fireman who tended the pumping engine of the neighbouring colliery, and one of a penniless family of six children. So poor was his father, indeed, that the whole household lived in a single room, with bare floor and mud wall; and little Geordie grew up in his own unkempt fashion without any schooling whatever, not even knowing A from B when he was a big lad of seventeen. At an age when he ought to have been learning his letters, he was bird's-nesting in the fields or running errands to the Wylam shops; and as soon as he was old enough to earn a few pence by light work, he was set to tend cows at the magnificent wages of twopence a day, in the village of Dewley Burn, close by, to which his father had then removed. It might have seemed at first as though the future railway engineer was going to settle down quietly to the useful but uneventful life of an agricultural labourer; for from tending cows he proceeded in due time (with a splendid advance of twopence) to leading the horses at the plough, spudding thistles, and hoeing turnips on his employer's farm. But the native bent of a powerful mind usually shows itself very early; and even during the days when Geordie was still stumbling across the freshly ploughed clods or driving the cows to pasture with a bunch of hazel twigs, his taste for mechanics already made itself felt in a very marked and practical fashion. During all his leisure time, the future engineer and his chum Bill Thirlwall occupied themselves with making clay models of engines, and fitting up a winding machine with corks and twine like those which lifted the colliery baskets. Though Geordie Stephenson didn't go to school at the village teacher's, he was teaching himself in his own way by close observation and keen comprehension of all the machines and engines he could come across.

Naturally, to such a boy, the great ambition of his life was to be released from the hoeing and spudding, and set to work at his father's colliery. Great was Geordie's joy, therefore, when at last he was taken on there in the capacity of a coal-picker, to clear the loads from stones and rubbish. It wasn't a very dignified position, to be sure, but it was the first step that led the way to the construction of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Geordie was now fairly free from the uncongenial drudgery of farm life, and able to follow his own inclinations in the direction of mechanical labour. Besides, was he not earning the grand sum of sixpence a day as picker, increased to eightpence a little later on, when he rose to the more responsible and serious work of driving the gin-horse? A proud day indeed it was for him when, at fourteen, he was finally permitted to aid his father in firing the colliery engine; though he was still such a very small boy that he used to run away and hide when the owner went his rounds of inspection, for fear he should be thought too little to earn his untold wealth of a shilling a day in such a grown-up occupation. Humbler beginnings were never any man's who lived to become the honoured guest, not of kings and princes only, but of the truly greatest and noblest in the land.

A coal-miner's life is often a very shifting one; for the coal in particular collieries gets worked out from time to time; and he has to remove, accordingly, to fresh quarters, wherever employment happens to be found. This was very much the case with George Stephenson and his family; all of them being obliged to remove several times over during his childish days in search of new openings. Shortly after Geordie had attained to the responsible position of assistant fireman, his father was compelled, by the closing of Dewley Burn mine, to get a fresh situation hard by at Newburn. George accompanied him, and found employment as full fireman at a small working, whose little engine he undertook to manage in partnership with a mate, each of them tending the fire night and day by twelve-hour shifts. Two years later, his wages were raised to twelve shillings a week, a sure mark of his diligent and honest work; so that George was not far wrong in remarking to a fellow- workman at the time that he now considered himself a made man for life.

During all this time, George Stephenson never for a moment ceased to study and endeavour to understand the working of every part in the engine that he tended. He was not satisfied, as too many workmen are, with merely learning the routine work of his own trade; with merely knowing that he must turn such and such a tap or valve in order to produce such and such a desired result: he wanted to see for himself how and why the engine did this or that, what was the use and object of piston and cylinder and crank and joint and condenser--in short, fully to understand the underlying principle of its construction. He took it to pieces for cleaning whenever it was needful; he made working models of it after his old childish pattern; he even ventured to tinker it up when out of order on his own responsibility. Thus he learnt at last something of the theory of the steam-engine, and learnt also by the way a great deal about the general principles of mechanical science. Still, even now, incredible as it seems, the future father of railways couldn't yet read; and he found this terrible drawback told fatally against his further progress. Whenever he wanted to learn something that he didn't quite understand, he was always referred for information to a Book. Oh, those books; those mysterious, unattainable, incomprehensible books; how they must have bothered and worried poor intelligent and aspiring but still painfully ignorant young George Stephenson! Though he was already trying singularly valuable experiments in his own way, he hadn't yet even begun to learn his letters.

Under these circumstances, George Stephenson, eager and anxious for further knowledge, took a really heroic resolution. He wasn't ashamed to go to school. Though now a full workman on his own account, about eighteen years old, he began to attend the night school at the neighbouring village of Walbottle, where he took lessons in reading three evenings every week. It is a great thing when a man is not ashamed to learn. Many men are; they consider themselves so immensely wise that they look upon it as an impertinence in anybody to try to tell them anything they don't know already. Truly wise or truly great men--men with the capability in them for doing anything worthy in their generation--never feel this false and foolish shame. They know that most other people know some things in some directions which they do not, and they are glad to be instructed in them whenever opportunity offers. This wisdom George Stephenson possessed in sufficient degree to make him feel more ashamed of his ignorance than of the steps necessary in order to conquer it. Being a diligent and willing scholar, he soon learnt to read, and by the time he was nineteen he had learnt how to write also. At arithmetic, a science closely allied to his native mechanical bent, he was particularly apt, and beat all the other scholars at the village night school. This resolute effort at education was the real turning- point in George Stephenson's remarkable career, the first step on the ladder whose topmost rung led him so high that he himself must almost have felt giddy at the unwonted elevation.

Shortly after, young Stephenson gained yet another promotion in being raised to the rank of brakesman, whose duty it was to slacken the engine when the full baskets of coal reached the top of the shaft. This was a more serious and responsible post than any he had yet filled, and one for which only the best and steadiest workmen were ever selected. His wages now amounted to a pound a week, a very large sum in those days for a skilled working-man.

Meanwhile, George, like most other young men, had fallen in love. His sweetheart, Fanny Henderson, was servant at the small farmhouse where he had taken lodgings since leaving his father's home; and though but little is known about her (for she unhappily died before George had begun to rise to fame and fortune), what little we do know seems to show that she was in every respect a fitting wife for the active young brakesman, and a fitting mother for his equally celebrated son, Robert Stephenson. Fired by the honourable desire to marry Fanny, with a proper regard for prudence, George set himself to work to learn cobbling in his spare moments; and so successfully did he cobble the worn shoes of his fellow-colliers after working hours, that before long he contrived to save a whole guinea out of his humble earnings. That guinea was the first step towards an enormous fortune; a fortune, too, all accumulated by steady toil and constant useful labour for the ultimate benefit of his fellow-men. To make a fortune is the smallest and least noble of all possible personal ambitions; but to save the first guinea which leads us on at last to independence and modest comfort is indeed an important turning-point in every prudent man's career. Geordie Stephenson was so justly proud of his achievement in this respect that he told a friend in confidence he might now consider himself a rich man.

By the time George was twenty-one, he had saved up enough by constant care to feel that he might safely embark on the sea of housekeeping. He was able to take a small cottage lodging for himself and Fanny, at Willington Quay, near his work at the moment, and to furnish it with the simple comfort which was all that their existing needs demanded. He married Fanny on the 28th of November, 1802; and the young couple proceeded at once to their new home. Here George laboured harder than ever, as became the head of a family. He was no more ashamed of odd jobs than he had been of learning the alphabet. He worked overtime at emptying ballast from ships; he continued to cobble, to cut lasts, and even to try his hand at regular shoemaking; furthermore, he actually acquired the art of mending clocks, a matter which lay strictly in his own line, and he thus earned a tidy penny at odd hours by doctoring all the rusty or wheezy old timepieces of all his neighbours. Nor did he neglect his mechanical education meanwhile; for he was always at work upon various devices for inventing a perpetual motion machine. Now perpetual motion is the most foolish will-o'-the-wisp that ever engaged a sane man's attention: the thing has been proved to be impossible from every conceivable point of view, and the attempt to achieve it, if pursued to the last point, can only end in disappointment if not in ruin. Still, for all that, the work George Stephenson spent upon this unpractical object did really help to give him an insight into mechanical science which proved very useful to him at a later date. He didn't discover perpetual motion, but he did invent at last the real means for making the locomotive engine a practical power in the matter of travelling.

A year later, George's only son Robert was born; and from that moment the history of those two able and useful lives is almost inseparable. During the whole of George Stephenson's long upward struggle, and during the hard battle he had afterwards to fight on behalf of his grand design of railways, he met with truer sympathy, appreciation, and comfort from his brave and gifted son than from any other person whatsoever. Unhappily, his pleasure and delight in the up-bringing of his boy was soon to be clouded for a while by the one great bereavement of an otherwise singularly placid and happy existence. Some two years after her marriage, Fanny Stephenson died, as yet a mere girl, leaving her lonely husband to take care of their baby boy alone and unaided. Grief for this irretrievable loss drove the young widower away for a while from his accustomed field of work among the Tyneside coal-pits; he accepted an invitation to go to Montrose in Scotland, to overlook the


Biographies of Working Men - 4/22

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