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C35 1869 a Vol-2
HEN we see a railway train drawn by à locomotive at the rate of forty miles an hour, and carrying as many as five hundred passengers,
how little are we apt to think that this marvel of science and art is due mainly to two men, who, in the outset of their career, occupied an obscure position
- James Watt and George Stephenson ; one a Scotsman, the other a native of the north of England, and both affording bright examples of what may be done in adverse circumstances by dint of well-directed labour, united with that degree of prudence without which ingenuity and toil are usually in vain. Of James Watt and the steam-engine, notice is elsewhere taken. Here
we have to speak of Stephenson-plain old George, with his Northumbrian burr-the perfecter of the locomotive, but for whom it might have been long before we should have seen a train running at the speed which now astonishes everybody.
George had a very humble beginning. His father, Robert Stephenson, with his wife Mabel, were a decent couple, living at a small colliery village called Wylam, situated on the north bank of the Tyne, about eight miles from Newcastle. Here 'old Bob,'as Robert was usually styled by the neighbours, was employed as fireman to the engine which pumped water from the coal-pit, an employment of a toilsome kind, but requiring no great skill, and accordingly requited by the wage of a common labourer. It is said that Bob was descended from a Scottish family which had emigrated into Northumberland, and had some pretensions to be of a superior class. But now, the family had settled down as hand-workers, a position in no respects dishonourable, for in every department of honest labour, no matter how humble, there is a dignity which nothing can overshadow. Lowly as was his situation in life, Robert Stephenson had tastes of no grovelling kind. Amiable in disposition, he was fond of animals, and loved to tell stories of one kind or other, which made him a great favourite with young persons. Mabel, his wife, good 'canny Mabel,' is reported to have been a woman of a thoughtful, nervous temperament; and it is not unlikely that, in this as in many other instances, the mother communicated the impress of her character to her children.
Robert Stephenson had six children, of whom George, the hero of our story, was the second ; born 9th June 1781. The lot of the family was to work, and work they did. We do not know whether the father, with all his tastes, had any wish to give his children a fair country education. Perhaps there were no schools near at hand ; but be this as it may, Bob's children, like their neighbours in like circumstances, were left entirely to themselves in the way of book-learning. When George was about eight years of age, his father removed to another colliery concern at Dewley Burn, where he filled a similar situation—that of shovelling in coal to a furnace which kept a steam-engine at work. It requires no stretch of imagination to fancy Bob here labouring daily in front of a glowing fire, with a big shovel in hand, clothed in coarse blue woollen trousers and shirt, and wiping the drops of perspiration from his face with a bunch of coarse tow. Could any one, looking at that toiling, perspiring man, have supposed that he was the father of one of England's great men? Bob, indeed, had not the slightest notion himself that he had a son who was to come to honour; and how could he?
Shortly after coming to Dewley Burn, George was put to work, for he was eight years old, and it was believed he could earn something to help on the family. A job was found for him ; it was to
herd a few cows, for which light duty he was paid twopence a day.We are now, as it were, introduced to George. He comes on the stage as a bare-legged herd-boy, driving cows, chasing butterflies, and amusing himself by making water-mills with reeds and straws, and even going the length of modelling small steam-engines with clay. In these pursuits we have a glimpse of his mechanical turn. Often we see that boys take a bent towards what first excites their fancy. Brought up among coal-pits and pumps, and wheels and engines, it was not surprising that his mind should have a bias to mechanics. Some boys, indeed, are so dull or heedless, that they may see the most curious works of art without giving them any sort of attention. But that was not George Stephenson's way. He pried into every mechanical contrivance that came under notice, and acquired a knack of making things with no other help than an old knife. There was the poor boy's genius. He did not stare at things stupidly, or with an affected air of indifference ; neither did he pretend to take an interest in works of art, in order to appear clever. He liked to work out his own ideas in his simple way, without a thought of results. From being a herd-boy, he was promoted to lead horses when ploughing, hoe turnips, and do other farm-work, by which he rose from twopence to fourpence a day. He might have advanced to be an able-bodied ploughman, but his tastes did not lie in the agricultural line. What he wished was, to be employed about a colliery, so as to be among bustle of wheels, gins, and pulleys. Accordingly, quitting farm-work, he got employment at Dewley Burn to drive a gin-horse, by which change he had another rise of twopence a day, his wages being now three
shillings a week. In a short time, he went as gin-horse driver to the colliery of Black Callerton; and as this was two miles from the parental home, he walked that distance morning and evening. This walk, however, was nothing to George, who was getting to be a big stout boy, fond of rambling about after birds' nests, and keeping tame rabbits, and always taking a part in country sports. His next rise was to act as an assistant-fireman to his father at Dewley. Gladly he accepted this situation, for besides that he was allowed a shilling a day, he looked to being promoted to be engineman, which now, in his fourteenth year, was the height of his ambition. George did not long remain here. The coal-pit was wrought out and deserted, and the workmen and apparatus were removed to a colliery at Jolly's Close, a few miles distant. The Stephenson family removed with the others, and now occupied a cottage of only a single apartment, situated in a row of similar dwellings, with a run of water in front, and heaps of débris all around.
In this miserably confined cottage, there were accommodated the father and mother and six children, some of them pretty well grown up; and as all helped by their work, there was nothing like poverty in the household. George and his elder brother James were assistant
firemen ; two younger boys performed some humble labour about the pit ; and two girls assisted their mother in household affairs. The total earnings of the father and sons amounted to from 35s. to 405. a week. As this was equal to about £100 per annum, we are entitled to say that on that sum old Bob ought to have brought up his family respectably, and given them at least the elements of education. But in this as in thousands of cases, little else was thought of than to consume the whole weekly earnings in a coarse kind of plenty, leaving chance or the parish to provide for the future. No doubt, humble as it was, this was a most extravagant way of living, and it is obviously by such improvidence that many of the manual labouring-classes ever keep themselves on the brink of poverty. The only excuse we can find for Bob and Mabel is, that they did not know any better, and deprived of suitable house-accommodation, had perhaps no heart to aspire to a more economic mode of life. Nor should we fail to remember, that unless school-instruction is obtruded in some shape or other on colliery villages and rural hamlets, the residents can scarcely be blamed for their ignorance. Recent statutes and arrangements have probably done much to remedy this social defect among the Northumbrian colliers, and their children must in many respects be better looked to than was the fortune of their predecessors. From whatever cause, the want of education was a serious disadvantage to the young Stephensons. Not one of them was taught to read. George, at fifteen years of age, when working as assistant-fireman, and forming one of a family who were earning about a hundred a year, and paying no house-rent, did not know a letter. To one with much natural sagacity, and an ambition to improve in circumstances, we cannot easily conceive a more dreary condition. Let any one picture to himself the situation of a friendless lad, totally uneducated, living in a colliery village, and then try to conceive by what force of circumstances that lad was to attain to eminence in wealth and station, and as a benefactor to mankind. In vain we make the effort, yet we shall see by what simple means Providence brings out great results, which no man can possibly discover by the most penetrating foresight.
Every man, no matter how lowly his lot, may be said to have a choice of two paths. He may fall in with the multitude of those who seek immediate self-indulgence, and take no thought of the future : or shrinking from this too common routine, he may, in the face of untold difficulties, make a sacrifice, for the sake of moral and intellectual improvement, with which not unusually comes an improvement in circumstances. We are now called on to notice which of the two paths was taken by George Stephenson. He chose immediate sacrifice, and lived to thank God for inspiring him to do
Let us see how he set about it, and how he carried it through. His duty consisted in attending to the furnace of one of those gigantic steam-engines which pumped water from a coal-pit. From