Read CHAPTER I. of Lives of the Engineers The Locomotive. George and Robert Stephenson , free online book, by Samuel Smiles, on


In no quarter of England have greater changes been wrought by the successive advances made in the practical science of engineering than in the extensive colliery districts of the North, of which Newcastle-upon-Tyne is the centre and the capital.

In ancient times the Romans planted a colony at Newcastle, throwing a bridge across the Tyne near the site of the low-level bridge shown in the prefixed engraving, and erecting a strong fortification above it on the high ground now occupied by the Central Railway Station.  North and north-west lay a wild country, abounding in moors, mountains, and morasses, but occupied to a certain extent by fierce and barbarous tribes.  To defend the young colony against their ravages, a strong wall was built by the Romans, extending from Wallsend on the north bank of the Tyne, a few miles below Newcastle, across the country to Burgh-upon-Sands on the Solway Firth.  The remains of the wall are still to be traced in the less populous hill-districts of Northumberland.  In the neighbourhood of Newcastle they have been gradually effaced by the works of succeeding generations, though the “Wallsend” coal consumed in our household fires still serves to remind us of the great Roman work.

After the withdrawal of the Romans, Northumbria became planted by immigrant Saxons from North Germany and Norsemen from Scandinavia, whose Eorls or Earls made Newcastle their principal seat.  Then came the Normans, from whose New Castle, built some eight hundred years since, the town derived its present name.  The keep of this venerable structure, black with age and smoke, still stands entire at the northern end of the noble high-level bridge ­the utilitarian work of modern times thus confronting the warlike relic of the older civilisation.

The nearness of Newcastle to the Scotch Border was a great hindrance to its security and progress in the middle ages of English history.  Indeed, the district between it and Berwick continued to be ravaged by moss-troopers long after the union of the Crowns.  The gentry lived in their strong Peel castles; even the larger farm-houses were fortified; and bloodhounds were trained for the purpose of tracking the cattle-reavers to their retreats in the hills.  The Judges of Assize rode from Carlisle to Newcastle guarded by an escort armed to the teeth.  A tribute called “dagger and protection money” was annually paid by the Sheriff of Newcastle for the purpose of providing daggers and other weapons for the escort; and, though the need of such protection has long since ceased, the tribute continues to be paid in broad gold pieces of the time of Charles the First.

Until about the middle of last century the roads across Northumberland were little better than horse-tracks, and not many years since the primitive agricultural cart with solid wooden wheels was almost as common in the western parts of the county as it is in Spain now.  The tract of the old Roman road continued to be the most practicable route between Newcastle and Carlisle, the traffic between the two towns having been carried along it upon packhorses until a comparatively recent period.

Since that time great changes have taken place on the Tyne.  When wood for firing became scarce and dear, and the forests of the South of England were found inadequate to supply the increasing demand for fuel, attention was turned to the rich stores of coal lying underground in the neighbourhood of Newcastle and Durham.  It then became an article of increasing export, and “seacoal” fires gradually supplanted those of wood.  Hence an old writer described Newcastle as “the Eye of the North, and the Hearth that warmeth the South parts of this kingdom with Fire.”  Fuel has become the staple product of the district, the quantity exported increasing from year to year, until the coal raised from these northern mines amounts to upwards of sixteen millions of tons a year, of which not less than nine millions are annually conveyed away by sea.

Newcastle has in the mean time spread in all directions far beyond its ancient boundaries.  From a walled mediaeval town of monks and merchants, it has been converted into a busy centre of commerce and manufactures inhabited by nearly 100,000 people.  It is no longer a Border fortress ­a “shield and defence against the invasions and frequent insults of the Scots,” as described in ancient charters ­but a busy centre of peaceful industry, and the outlet for a vast amount of steam-power, which is exported in the form of coal to all parts of the world.  Newcastle is in many respects a town of singular and curious interest, especially in its older parts, which are full of crooked lanes and narrow streets, wynds, and chares, formed by tall, antique houses, rising tier above tier along the steep northern bank of the Tyne, as the similarly precipitous streets of Gateshead crowd the opposite shore.

All over the coal region, which extends from the Coquet to the Tees, about fifty miles from north to south, the surface of the soil exhibits the signs of extensive underground workings.  As you pass through the country at night, the earth looks as if it were bursting with fire at many points; the blaze of coke-ovens, iron-furnaces, and coal-heaps reddening the sky to such a distance that the horizon seems to be a glowing belt of fire.

From the necessity which existed for facilitating the transport of coals from the pits to the shipping places, it is easy to understand how the railway and the locomotive should have first found their home in such a district as we have thus briefly described.  At an early period the coal was carried to the boats in panniers, or in sacks upon horses’ backs.  Then carts were used, to facilitate the progress of which tramways of flag-stone were laid down.  This led to the enlargement of the vehicle, which became known as a waggon, and it was mounted on four wheels instead of two.  A local writer about the middle of the seventeenth century says, “Many thousand people are engaged in this trade of coals; many live by working of them in the pits; and many live by conveying them in waggons and wains to the river Tyne.”

Still further to facilitate the haulage of the waggons, pieces of planking were laid parallel upon wooden sleepers, or imbedded in the ordinary track, by which friction was still further diminished.  It is said that these wooden rails were first employed by one Beaumont, about 1630; and on a road thus laid, a single horse was capable of drawing a large loaded waggon from the coal-pit to the shipping staith.  Roger North, in 1676, found the practice had become extensively adopted, and he speaks of the large sums then paid for way-leaves; that is, the permission granted by the owners of lands lying between the coal-pit and the river-side to lay down a tramway between the one and the other.  A century later, Arthur Young observed that not only had these roads become greatly multiplied, but important works had been constructed to carry them along upon the same level.  “The coal-waggon roads from the pits to the water,” he says, “are great works, carried over all sorts of inequalities of ground, so far as the distance of nine or ten miles.  The tracks of the wheels are marked with pieces of wood let into the road for the wheels of the waggons to run on, by which one horse is enabled to draw, and that with ease, fifty or sixty bushels of coals.”

Similar waggon-roads were laid down in the coal districts of Wales, Cumberland, and Scotland.  At the time of the Scotch rebellion in 1745, a tramroad existed between the Tranent coal-pits and the small harbour of Cockenzie in East Lothian; and a portion of the line was selected by General Cope as a position for his cannon at the battle of Prestonpans.

In these rude wooden tracks we find the germ of the modern railroad.  Improvements were gradually made in them.  Thus, at some collieries, thin plates of iron were nailed upon their upper surface, for the purpose of protecting the parts most exposed to friction.  Cast-iron rails were also tried, the wooden rails having been found liable to rot.  The first rails of this kind are supposed to have been used at Whitehaven as early as 1738.  This cast-iron road was denominated a “plate-way,” from the plate-like form in which the rails were cast.  In 1767, as appears from the books of the Coalbrookdale Iron Works, in Shropshire, five or six tons of rails were cast, as an experiment, on the suggestion of Mr. Reynolds, one of the partners; and they were shortly after laid down to form a road.

In 1776, a cast-iron tramway, nailed to wooden sleepers, was laid down at the Duke of Norfolk’s colliery near Sheffield.  The person who designed and constructed this coal line was Mr. John Curr, whose son has erroneously claimed for him the invention of the cast-iron railway.  He certainly adopted it early, and thereby met the fate of men before their age; for his plan was opposed by the labouring people of the colliery, who got up a riot in which they tore up the road and burnt the coal-staith, whilst Mr. Curr fled into a neighbouring wood for concealment, and lay there perdu for three days and nights, to escape the fury of the populace.  The plates of these early tramways had a ledge cast on their edge to guide the wheel along the road, after the manner shown in the annexed cut.

In 1789, Mr. William Jessop constructed a railway at Loughborough, in Leicestershire, and there introduced the cast-iron edge-rail, with flanches cast upon the tire of the waggon-wheels to keep them on the track, instead of having the margin or flanch cast upon the rail itself; and this plan was shortly after adopted in other places.  In 1800, Mr. Benjamin Outram, of Little Eaton, in Derbyshire (father of the distinguished General Outram), used stone props instead of timber for supporting the ends or joinings of the rails.  Thus the use of railroads, in various forms, gradually extended, until they were found in general use all over the mining districts.

Such was the growth of the railway, which, it will be observed, originated in necessity, and was modified according to experience; progress in this, as in all departments of mechanics, having been effected by the exertions of many men, one generation entering upon the labours of that which preceded it, and carrying them onward to further stages of improvement.  We shall afterwards find that the invention of the locomotive was made by like successive steps.  It was not the invention of one man, but of a succession of men, each working at the proper hour, and according to the needs of that hour; one inventor interpreting only the first word of the problem which his successors were to solve after long and laborious efforts and experiments.  “The locomotive is not the invention of one man,” said Robert Stephenson at Newcastle, “but of a nation of mechanical engineers.”

The same circumstances which led to the rapid extension of railways in the coal districts of the north tended to direct the attention of the mining engineers to the early development of the powers of the steam-engine as a useful instrument of motive power.  The necessity which existed for a more effective method of hauling the coals from the pits to the shipping places was constantly present to many minds; and the daily pursuits of a large class of mechanics occupied in the management of steam power, by which the coal was raised from the pits, and the mines were pumped clear of water, had the effect of directing their attention to the same agency as the best means for accomplishing that object.

Among the upper-ground workmen employed at the coal-pits, the principal are the firemen, enginemen, and brakes-men, who fire and work the engines, and superintend the machinery by means of which the collieries are worked.  Previous to the introduction of the steam-engine the usual machine employed for the purpose was what is called a “gin.”  The gin consists of a large drum placed horizontally, round which ropes attached to buckets and corves are wound, which are thus drawn up or sent down the shafts by a horse travelling in a circular track or “gin race.”  This method was employed for drawing up both coals and water, and it is still used for the same purpose in small collieries; but where the quantity of water to be raised is great, pumps worked by steam power are called into requisition.

Newcomen’s atmospheric engine was first made use of to work the pumps; and it continued to be so employed long after the more powerful and economical condensing engine of Watt had been invented.  In the Newcomen or “fire engine,” as it was called, the power is produced by the pressure of the atmosphere forcing down the piston in the cylinder, on a vacuum being produced within it by condensation of the contained steam by means of cold water injection.  The piston-rod is attached to one end of a lever, whilst the pump-rod works in connexion with the other, ­the hydraulic action employed to raise the water being exactly similar to that of a common sucking-pump.

The working of a Newcomen engine was a clumsy and apparently a very painful process, accompanied by an extraordinary amount of wheezing, sighing, creaking, and bumping.  When the pump descended, there was heard a plunge, a heavy sigh, and a loud bump:  then, as it rose, and the sucker began to act, there was heard a croak, a wheeze, another bump, and then a strong rush of water as it was lifted and poured out.  Where engines of a more powerful and improved description are used, the quantity of water raised is enormous ­as much as a million and a half gallons in the twenty-four hours.

The pitmen, or “the lads belaw,” who work out the coal below ground, are a peculiar class, quite distinct from the workmen on the surface.  They are a people with peculiar habits, manners, and character, as much as fishermen and sailors, to whom, indeed, they bear, in some respects, a considerable resemblance.  Some fifty years since they were a much rougher and worse educated class than they are now; hard workers, but very wild and uncouth; much given to “steeks,” or strikes; and distinguished, in their hours of leisure and on pay-nights, for their love of cock-fighting, dog-fighting, hard drinking, and cuddy races.  The pay-night was a fortnightly saturnalia, in which the pitman’s character was fully brought out, especially when the “yel” was good.  Though earning much higher wages than the ordinary labouring population of the upper soil, the latter did not mix nor intermarry with them; so that they were left to form their own communities, and hence their marked peculiarities as a class.  Indeed, a sort of traditional disrepute seems long to have clung to the pitmen, arising perhaps from the nature of their employment, and from the circumstance that the colliers were among the last classes enfranchised in England, as they were certainly the last in Scotland, where they continued bondmen down to the end of last century.  The last thirty years, however, have worked a great improvement in the moral condition of the Northumbrian pitmen; the abolition of the twelve months’ bond to the mine, and the substitution of a month’s notice previous to leaving, having given them greater freedom and opportunity for obtaining employment; and day-schools and Sunday-schools, together with the important influences of railways, have brought them fully up to a level with the other classes of the labouring population.

The coals, when raised from the pits, are emptied into the waggons placed alongside, from whence they are sent along the rails to the staiths erected by the river-side, the waggons sometimes descending by their own gravity along inclined planes, the waggoner standing behind to check the speed by means of a convoy or wooden brake bearing upon the rims of the wheels.  Arrived at the staiths, the waggons are emptied at once into the ships waiting alongside for cargo.  Any one who has sailed down the Tyne from Newcastle Bridge cannot but have been struck with the appearance of the immense staiths, constructed of timber, which are erected at short distances from each other on both sides of the river.

But a great deal of the coal shipped from the Tyne comes from above-bridge, where sea-going craft cannot reach, and is floated down the river in “keels,” in which the coals are sometimes piled up according to convenience when large, or, when the coal is small or tender, it is conveyed in tubs to prevent breakage.  These keels are of a very ancient model, ­perhaps the oldest extant in England:  they are even said to be of the same build as those in which the Norsemen navigated the Tyne centuries ago.  The keel is a tubby, grimy-looking craft, rounded fore and aft, with a single large square sail, which the keel-bullies, as the Tyne watermen are called, manage with great dexterity; the vessel being guided by the aid of the “swape,” or great oar, which is used as a kind of rudder at the stern of the vessel.  These keelmen are an exceedingly hardy class of workmen, not by any means so quarrelsome as their designation of “bully” would imply ­the word being merely derived from the obsolete term “boolie,” or beloved, an appellation still in familiar use amongst brother workers in the coal districts.  One of the most curious sights upon the Tyne is the fleet of hundreds of these black-sailed, black-hulled keels, bringing down at each tide their black cargoes for the ships at anchor in the deep water at Shields and other parts of the river below Newcastle.

These preliminary observations will perhaps be sufficient to explain the meaning of many of the occupations alluded to, and the phrases employed, in the course of the following narrative, some of which might otherwise have been comparatively unintelligible to the general reader.