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Steam Power and Tragedies

The year 1814 witnessed George Stephenson construct his first steam locomotive while working as an enginewright at the West Moor Pit, Killingworth Colliery. The creation of this “travelling engine” was a momentous step as it led Stephenson on to become a leading pioneer of the steam locomotive and of railway engineering.

The first “travelling engine” was invented by Cornishman Richard Trevithick, but George Stephenson honed the locomotive into workable, practical form.

Other pioneers experimenting with such engines in the North-East, including William Hedley, Timothy Hackworth, John Forster, William Chapman, John Blenkinsop and Matthew Murray also played an important part in the development of the steam locomotive, but George Stephenson became by far the most successful man in the field. He had almost certainly learned a considerable amount by observing the efforts of these pioneers. Yet his development of the potential of railways as a means of transport went much further.

Born in 1781 in a humble cottage at Wylam, George was one of six children of a poor family. His father was a fireman employed to stoke the pumping engine at Wylam Colliery. The family all lived together in one room of the cottage. The remaining rooms were occupied by three other families.

George Stephenson's birthplace. The cottage at Wylam. Photo: Tom Yellowley

Stephenson's first locomotive, built at the Killingworth Colliery workshops, ran on iron rails and had flanged wheels. In July, 1814, the engine was successfully put into operation on the Killingworth Waggonway, which was connected to staiths at Wallsend. It achieved four or possibly five miles per hour as it pulled a train of coal waggons. After this initial success, George went on to build 15 more “travelling engines” at the Killingworth workshops.

Iron rails were essential for the development of steam power. Wooden ones, which were used on horse-operated waggonways, were too weak to withstand the weight of locomotives. Also, Stephenson eventually came to realise that wrought iron was more suitable for rails than cast iron. The cast variety had a brittle tendency, sometimes cracking under the weight of the engines.

From 1819 to 1822, George engineered the building of the Hetton Colliery Railway in County Durham. Part of this line, which ran to staiths on the River Wear at Sunderland, was operated by three locomotives designed by Stephenson, with self-acting inclines and stationary engines being used to move waggons of coal along other sections. It was opened in 1822.

Another momentous step in George's engineering career came in 1823 when he and his son, Robert, together with partners Edward Pease and Michael Longridge, set up the Forth Street locomotive works in Newcastle. It was the first locomotive factory in the world. The engines for the Stockton and Darlington Railway were built there. This railway, engineered by George, opened in 1825. It was the first public railway in the world to use steam locomotives.

The year 1830 witnessed the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, also engineered by George. It was the first public railway in the world carrying passengers and freight to be operated entirely by steam locomotives. The engines for the line were all built at the Forth Street Works in Newcastle, the most famous being the Rocket. During all this work, George's son Robert played a key role as managing director of the Forth Street Works.

However, George's life was not without its tragedies. In November, 1802, he had married Frances Henderson, known as Fanny, at Newburn Church. The following year the newlyweds moved to a cottage at Willington Quay, near Wallsend, on the banks of the Tyne. It was familiar accommodation to George. They lived in one room. It was all a poor Tyneside worker could expect in those days of tough conditions. The rest of the cottage housed other families.

Newburn Church, where George Stephenson and Frances Henderson were married in 1802. Tragically, Frances, known as Fanny, died from TB in 1805. Newburn Church was also the scene of George's second marriage, to Elizabeth Hindmarsh, in 1820. She died in 1845 and he married again, to Ellen Gregory, shortly before his death in 1848. Photo: Tom Yellowley

Sailing ships, returning from their coal voyages to London and other ports would unload their ballast at various points along the Tyne. Hills of ballast would thus be formed as more and more ballast material, such as chalk, sand and stones, was added. One of these hills was at Willington Quay and George's job was as brakesman in charge of the stationary engine which pulled full waggons to the top of this mound by means of cables.

George and Fanny's only son, Robert, was born in the cottage at Willington Quay in 1803. However, the following year George, Fanny and baby Robert moved to West Moor Pit, Killingworth Colliery, a few miles to the north of Newcastle. The young father had been appointed a brakesman at the pit and the family lived in a home at West Moor, later to be known as Dial Cottage.

A close-up view of Dial Cottage, West Moor, Killingworth, with the sun dial made by George and his son, Robert, visible above the front door. Photo: Tom Yellowley

It was in this cottage that the couple's daughter, named after her mother, was born in 1805. However, the baby only lived three weeks. Tragedy struck again when Fanny, who had been in poor health, died of TB at the age of 37 the following year.

It may be that George needed a period away from the North-East of England to think and recover to some degree from these traumatic events. He went off to work for a short time in Scotland, leaving his son in the care of a local woman. He is likely to have walked all the way.

The promising young mechanic suffered a new blow several months later when he returned to Northumberland to find that his father, also named Robert, had been blinded. A blast of steam had been accidentally released into his face from an engine boiler. The son decided to support his father and mother for the rest of their lives.

However, a happy development in the life of George Stephenson came in 1812 when he was appointed enginewright by the Killingworth Colliery owners. In 1815 he developed his famous miner's safety lamp, known as the Geordie.

In 1816, George and son Robert constructed a sun dial for their cottage at West Moor. Today, the dial can still been seen above the front door.

A statue of George is located at the junction of Newcastle's Westgate Road and Neville Street, sited appropriately close to the city's magnificent Central Station and not far from the location of the Stephenson works in South Street, off Forth Street. Also close by is the impressive two-deck High Level Bridge across the Tyne, designed by his son, Robert.

The statue of George is the work of sculptor John Graham Lough and stands as a lasting tribute to the man from the banks of the Tyne who played a fundamental role in the development of the steam locomotive and railways.

The George Stephenson memorial statue near Newcastle's Central Station. It was sculpted by John Graham Lough. Photo: Tom Yellowley


Retired Newcastle journalist Ken Smith is co-author, with his wife Jean, of The Great Northern Miners. He has also written more than 20 other books on aspects of North-East history, often with co-authors, including shipbuilding and shipping as well as coal mining.


Some sources consulted and further reading:

Steam and Speed. Railways of Tyne and Wear from the Earliest Days. By Andy Guy (Tyne Bridge Publishing, City of Newcastle upon Tyne Education and Libraries Directorate, 2003).

George and Robert Stephenson. The Railway Revolution. By L.T.C. Rolt (Longmans, Green & Co. Ltd., 1960).

George Stephenson. A Biographical Study of the Father of Railways. By Hunter Davies (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1975).

The Life of George Stephenson. By Samuel Smiles (John Murray, fourth edition, revised with additions, 1857).

Stephenson Power. The Story of George and Robert Stephenson. By Ken Smith (Tyne Bridge Publishing, City of Newcastle upon Tyne Education and Libraries Directorate, 2003, revised reprint 2006)


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