George Stephenson

 George Stephenson – Train Engineer.

He may be one of the most recognisable figures in British history but he came from very humble beginning in Wylam, having been born on June 9th 1781 to a poor, illiterate couple. George may have had a poor education during his upbringing, no doubt due to his low status and the poor wage of his fire-fighting father, but he still saw the potential for learning and bettering himself. At seventeen he used some of his earnings from his job at thein Newburn to pay for a night course and he become literateby the time he was eighteen. This spirit and desire is part of the reason that Stephenson was able to make such a name for himself but there were other influences at work.

George Stephenson's Blue Plaque in Chesterfield Train Station.

George Stephenson’s Blue Plaque in Chesterfield Train Station.

 Stephenson’s personal life and his journey into engineering.
In his early years, George had little success with the ladies but he was not deterred and over the course of his life he found himself with three different wives. His first love rejected him because her father, a local farmer, did not approve of her marrying someone of such poor status. He later fell for a Anne Henderson, a young lodger in his household, and once she had also rejected his advances he turned his attentions towards her older sister Frances. It was a case of third time lucky for George because Frances accepted his proposal and the couple were married on November 28th 1802. The following year Fanny, as she was affectionately known, give birth to a son called Robert and in 1805 they had a daughter who was named after her mother.

George may have finally found the wife and family he desired but he was set to endure a series of family tragedies that would end up playing their part in shaping his future career. Just a few months after she was born, Fanny died and her mother was to follow her a year after when she contracted tuberculosis. Now a single father with a young son, George was forced to reassess his family life and he brought his sister with him back in Killingworth – a decision that was probably also partly due to an accident that had blinded his father. It was his return to the town that arguably sparked his future career because when he was ordered to fix the engine in the pumping room at High Pit he did such a good job that he earned a promotion to the role of enginewright for the entire collieries and their engines.

Stephenson's Statue outside Chesterfield railway station

Stephenson’s Statue outside Chesterfield railway station

He had many achievements in the locomotive industry throughout his life.
Stephenson’s first job was the role of brakesman, a meagre living which was supplemented by mending shoes on the side, but in 1814 he designed his first engine. Blucher was the first in a long line of engines designed during his time in Killingworth and it was invented as a means for transporting coal on the local wagon-way. By 1821, Stephenson had been joinedRobert, who had recently turned eighteen, and the pair aided the building of the Railway at the Hetton Colliery. As he added many railways and designs to his name he became more famous and appreciated by others in his field. One of his more respected creations, which still stands today, is the Skew bridge that crosses the Liverpool-Manchester railway in Rainhill and many foreign engineers came to the area to learn from him. Among his more notable students were the builders that would start the great American railroads.

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The achievements already mentioned should surely be enough on their own to warrant a place in the history books yet it is a different moment in George Stephenson’s life that ensured that his name would be remembered by British school children for centuries to come – The Rocket. The tale of Stephenson’s Rocket is one that captures people imaginations because of the historical significance, grand ceremony and tragic end. When the Liverpool-Manchester Railway was close to being completed, a competition was announced for the right to build the locomotives. Naturally, Stephenson entered and he won with Rocket, although it should be noted that a lot of the work and ideas actually came from his son Robert and he held more of an advisory role. During the grand reopening on September 13th 1830, the Stephensons and their assistant Joseph Locke drove a procession of engines, including Northumbrian and Phoenix, before a crowd of distinguished guests including Dukes and members of parliament. During the ceremony, Rocket, which was not being driven by either of the Stephensons, struck the MP for Liverpool causing fatal injuries.

Stephenson's iconic Rocket

Stephenson’s iconic Rocket

George Stephenson’s death and long-lasting legacy.
After the success of the Rocket and his work in the locomotive industry, in 1845, George’s second wife Betty died. He later married a final time, this time to Derbyshire farmer’s daugher called Ellen Gregory who also happened to be his former housekeeper but unfortunately this marriage was not to be a happy and long-lived one because just six months after the wedding, on August 12th 1848, George Stephenson died from pleurisy in his Chesterfield home. He was buried beside Betty in the town’s Holy Trinity Church.

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When George died he left behind a series of engines that would inspire many other inventors and designers and an understanding of the industry that would spark a new attitude towards the railways. The most notable people to carry on his work were Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Stephenson’s own son Robert and, while there are few physical remnants of George’s own work remaining aside from the bridge, his influence is seen in replicas – such as the Rocket – numerous, later feats of engineering and the railway network as a whole. Over a century after the creation of his locomotive engines, Stephenson is still highly regarded by the British public, having been named one of theGreatest ever Britons in a BBC poll, and for many years his face could be seen on the back of every Bank of England £5 note. Today his birthplace can still be visited as a tourist attraction and his statue stands inthe Railway Museum in York.