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


The directors of the Railway now began to see daylight; and they derived encouragement from the skilful manner in which their engineer had overcome the principal difficulties of the undertaking.  He had formed a solid road over Chat Moss, and thus achieved one “impossibility;” and he had constructed a locomotive that could run at a speed of 30 miles an hour, thus vanquishing a still more formidable difficulty.

A single line of way was completed over Chat Moss by the 1st of January, 1830; and on that day, the “Rocket” with a carriage full of directors, engineers, and their friends, passed along the greater part of the road between Liverpool and Manchester.  Mr. Stephenson continued to direct his close attention to the improvement of the details of the locomotive, every successive trial of which proved more satisfactory.  In this department he had the benefit of the able and unremitting assistance of his son, who, in the workshops at Newcastle, directly superintended the construction of the new engines required for the public working of the railway.  He did not by any means rest satisfied with the success, decided though it was, which had been achieved by the “Rocket.”  He regarded it but in the light of a successful experiment; and every succeeding engine placed upon the railway exhibited some improvement on its predecessors.  The arrangement of the parts, and the weight and proportions of the engines, were altered, as the experience of each successive day, or week, or month, suggested; and it was soon found that the performances of the “Rocket” on the day of trial had been greatly within the powers of the locomotive.

The first entire trip between Liverpool and Manchester was performed on the 14th of June, 1830, on the occasion of a Board meeting being held at the latter town.  The train was on this occasion drawn by the “Arrow,” one of the new locomotives, in which the most recent improvements had been adopted.  Mr. Stephenson himself drove the engine, and Captain Scoresby, the circumpolar navigator, stood beside him on the foot-plate, and minuted the speed of the train.  A great concourse of people assembled at both termini, as well as along the line, to witness the novel spectacle of a train of carriages dragged by an engine at a speed of 17 miles an hour.  On the return journey to Liverpool in the evening, the “Arrow” crossed Chat Moss at a speed of nearly 27 miles an hour, reaching its destination in about an hour and a half.

In the mean time Mr. Stephenson and his assistants were diligently occupied in making the necessary preliminary arrangements for the conduct of the traffic against the time when the line should be ready for opening.  The experiments made with the object of carrying on the passenger traffic at quick velocities were of an especially harassing and anxious character.  Every week, for nearly three months before the opening, trial trips were made to Newton and back, generally with two or three trains following each other, and carrying altogether from 200 to 300 persons.  These trips were usually made on Saturday afternoons, when the works could be more conveniently stopped and the line cleared.  In these experiments Mr. Stephenson had the able assistance of Mr. Henry Booth, the secretary of the Company, who contrived many of the arrangements in the rolling stock, not the least valuable of which was his invention of the coupling screw, still in use on all passenger railways.

At length the line was finished, and ready for the public ceremony of the opening, which took place on the 15th September, 1830, and attracted a vast number of spectators.  The completion of the railway was justly regarded as an important national event, and the opening was celebrated accordingly.  The Duke of Wellington, then Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, and Mr. Huskisson, one of the members for Liverpool, were among the number of distinguished public personages present.

Eight locomotive engines, constructed at the Stephenson works, had been delivered and placed upon the line, the whole of which had been tried and tested weeks before, with perfect success.  The several trains of carriages accommodated in all about six hundred persons.  The procession was cheered in its progress by thousands of spectators ­through the deep ravine of Olive Mount; up the Sutton incline; over the great Sankey viaduct, beneath which a great multitude of persons had assembled, ­carriages filling the narrow lanes, and barges crowding the river; the people below gazing with wonder and admiration at the trains which sped along the line, far above their heads, at the rate of some 24 miles an hour.

At Parkside, about 17 miles from Liverpool, the engines stopped to take in water.  Here a deplorable accident occurred to one of the illustrious visitors, which threw a deep shadow over the subsequent proceedings of the day.  The “Northumbrian” engine, with the carriage containing the Duke of Wellington, was drawn up on one line, in order that the whole of the trains on the other line might pass in review before him and his party.  Mr. Huskisson had alighted from the carriage, and was standing on the opposite road, along which the “Rocket” was observed rapidly coming up.  At this moment the Duke of Wellington, between whom and Mr. Huskisson some coolness had existed, made a sign of recognition, and held out his hand.  A hurried but friendly grasp was given; and before it was loosened there was a general cry from the bystanders of “Get in, get in!” Flurried and confused, Mr. Huskisson endeavoured to get round the open door of the carriage, which projected over the opposite rail; but in so doing he was struck down by the “Rocket,” and falling with his leg doubled across the rail, the limb was instantly crushed.  His first words, on being raised, were, “I have met my death,” which unhappily proved true, for he expired that same evening in the parsonage of Eccles.  It was cited at the time as a remarkable fact, that the “Northumbrian” engine, driven by George Stephenson himself, conveyed the wounded body of the unfortunate gentleman a distance of about 15 miles in 25 minutes, or at the rate of 36 miles an hour.  This incredible speed burst upon the world with the effect of a new and unlooked-for phenomenon.

The accident threw a gloom over the rest of the day’s proceedings.  The Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel expressed a wish that the procession should return to Liverpool.  It was, however, represented to them that a vast concourse of people had assembled at Manchester to witness the arrival of the trains; that report would exaggerate the mischief, if they did not complete the journey; and that a false panic on that day might seriously affect future railway travelling and the value of the Company’s property.  The party consented accordingly to proceed to Manchester, but on the understanding that they should return as soon as possible, and refrain from further festivity.

As the trains approached Manchester, crowds of people were found covering the banks, the slopes of the cuttings, and even the railway itself.  The multitude, become impatient and excited by the rumours which reached them, had outflanked the military, and all order was at an end.  The people clambered about the carriages, holding on by the door-handles, and many were tumbled over; but, happily no fatal accident occurred.  At the Manchester station, the political element began to display itself; placards about “Peterloo,” etc., were exhibited, and brickbats were thrown at the carriage containing the Duke.  On the carriages coming to a stand in the Manchester station the Duke did not descend, but remained seated, shaking hands with the women and children who were pushed forward by the crowd.  Shortly after, the trains returned to Liverpool, which they reached, after considerable interruptions, in the dark, at a late hour.

On the following morning the railway was opened for public traffic.  The first train of 140 passengers was booked and sent on to Manchester, reaching it in the allotted period of two hours; and from that time the traffic has regularly proceeded from day to day until now.

It is scarcely necessary that we should speak at any length of the commercial results of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.  Suffice it to say that its success was complete and decisive.  The anticipations of its projectors were, however, in many respects at fault.  They had based their calculations almost entirely on the heavy merchandise traffic ­such as coal, cotton, and timber, ­relying little upon passengers; whereas the receipts derived from the conveyance of passengers far exceeded those derived from merchandise of all kinds, which, for a time continued a subordinate branch of the traffic.

For some time after the public opening of the line, Mr. Stephenson’s ingenuity continued to be employed in devising improved methods for securing the safety and comfort of the travelling public.  Few are aware of the thousand minute details which have to be arranged ­the forethought and contrivance that have to be exercised ­to enable the traveller by railway to accomplish his journey in safety.  After the difficulties of constructing a level road over bogs, across valleys, and through deep cuttings, have been overcome, the maintenance of the way has to be provided for with continuous care.  Every rail with its fastenings must be complete, to prevent risk of accident; and the road must be kept regularly ballasted up to the level, to diminish the jolting of vehicles passing over it at high speeds.  Then the stations must be protected by signals observable from such a distance as to enable the train to be stopped in event of an obstacle, such as a stopping or shunting train being in the way.  For some years the signals employed on the Liverpool railway were entirely given by men with flags of different colours stationed along the line; there were no fixed signals, nor electric telegraphs; but the traffic was nevertheless worked quite as safely as under the more elaborate and complicated system of telegraphing which has since been established.

From an early period it became obvious that the iron road as originally laid down was far too weak for the heavy traffic which it had to carry.  The line was at first laid with fish-bellied rails weighing thirty-five pounds to the yard, calculated only for horse-traffic, or, at most, for engines like the “Rocket,” of very light weight.  But as the power and the weight of the locomotives were increased, it was found that such rails were quite insufficient for the safe conduct of the traffic, and it therefore became necessary to re-lay the road with heavier and stronger rails at considerably increased expense.

The details of the carrying stock had in like manner to be settled by experience.  Everything had, as it were, to be begun from the beginning.  The coal-waggon, it is true, served in some degree as a model for the railway-truck; but the railway passenger-carriage was an entirely novel structure.  It had to be mounted upon strong framing, of a peculiar kind, supported on springs to prevent jolting.  Then there was the necessity for contriving some method of preventing hard bumping of the carriage-ends when the train was pulled up; and hence the contrivance of buffer-springs and spring frames.  For the purpose of stopping the train, brakes on an improved plan were also contrived, with new modes of lubricating the carriage-axles, on which the wheels revolved at an unusually high velocity.  In all these arrangements, Mr. Stephenson’s inventiveness was kept constantly on the stretch; and though many improvements in detail have been effected since his time, the foundations were then laid by him of the present system of conducting railway traffic.  As an illustration of the inventive ingenuity which he displayed in providing for the working of the Liverpool line, we may mention his contrivance of the Self-acting Brake.  He early entertained the idea that the momentum of the running train might itself be made available for the purpose of checking its speed.  He proposed to fit each carriage with a brake which should be called into action immediately on the locomotive at the head of the train being pulled up.  The impetus of the carriages carrying them forward, the buffer-springs would be driven home and, at the same time, by a simple arrangement of the mechanism, the brakes would be called into simultaneous action; thus the wheels would be brought into a state of sledge, and the train speedily stopped.  This plan was adopted by Mr. Stephenson before he left the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, though it was afterwards discontinued; but it is a remarkable fact, that this identical plan, with the addition of a centrifugal apparatus, has quite recently been revived by M. Guerin, a French engineer, and extensively employed on foreign railways, as the best method of stopping railway trains in the most efficient manner and in the shortest time.

Finally, Mr. Stephenson had to attend to the improvement of the power and speed of the locomotive ­always the grand object of his study, ­with a view to economy as well as regularity of working.  In the “Planet” engine, delivered upon the line immediately subsequent to the public opening, all the improvements which had up to that time been contrived by him and his son were introduced in combination ­the blast-pipe, the tubular boiler, horizontal cylinders inside the smoke-box, the cranked axle, and the fire-box firmly fixed to the boiler.  The first load of goods conveyed from Liverpool to Manchester by the “Planet” was 80 tons in weight, and the engine performed the journey against a strong head wind in 2.5 hours.  On another occasion, the same engine brought up a cargo of voters from Manchester to Liverpool, during a contested election, within a space of sixty minutes!  The “Samson,” delivered in the following year, exhibited still further improvements, the most important of which was that of coupling the fore and hind wheels of the engine.  By this means, the adhesion of the wheels on the rails was more effectually secured, and thus the full hauling power of the locomotive was made available.  The “Samson,” shortly after it was placed upon the line, dragged after it a train of waggons weighing 150 tons at a speed of about 20 miles an hour; the consumption of coke being reduced to only about a third of a pound per ton per mile.

The success of the Liverpool and Manchester experiment naturally excited great interest.  People flocked to Lancashire from all quarters to see the steam-coach running upon a railway at three times the speed of a mailcoach, and to enjoy the excitement of actually travelling in the wake of an engine at that incredible velocity.  The travellers returned to their respective districts full of the wonders of the locomotive, considering it to be the greatest marvel of the age.  Railways are familiar enough objects now, and our children who grow up in their midst may think little of them; but thirty years since it was an event in one’s life to see a locomotive, and to travel for the first time upon a public railroad.

The practicability of railway locomotion being now proved, and its great social and commercial advantages ascertained, the general extension of the system was merely a question of time, money, and labour.  Although the legislature took no initiative step in the direction of railway extension, the public spirit and enterprise of the country did not fail it at this juncture.  The English people, though they may be defective in their capacity for organization, are strong in individualism; and not improbably their admirable qualities in the latter respect detract from their efficiency in the former.  Thus, in all times, their greatest enterprises have not been planned by officialism and carried out upon any regular system, but have sprung, like their constitution, their laws, and their entire industrial arrangements, from the force of circumstances and the individual energies of the people.

The mode of action in the case of railway extension, was characteristic and national.  The execution of the new lines was undertaken entirely by joint-stock associations of proprietors, after the manner of the Stockton and Darlington, and Liverpool and Manchester companies.  These associations are conformable to our national habits, and fit well into our system of laws.  They combine the power of vast resources with individual watchfulness and motives of self-interest; and by their means gigantic undertakings, which otherwise would be impossible to any but kings and emperors with great national resources at command, were carried out by the co-operation of private persons.  And the results of this combination of means and of enterprise have been truly marvellous.  Within the life of the present generation, the private citizens of England engaged in railway extension have, in the face of Government obstructions, and without taking a penny from the public purse, executed a system of communications involving works of the most gigantic kind, which, in their total mass, their cost, and their public utility, far exceed the most famous national undertakings of any age or country.

Mr. Stephenson was of course, actively engaged in the construction of the numerous railways now projected by the joint-stock companies.  The desire for railway extension principally pervaded the manufacturing districts, especially after the successful opening of the Liverpool and Manchester line.  The commercial classes of the larger towns soon became eager for a participation in the good which they had so recently derided.  Railway projects were set on foot in great numbers, and Manchester became a centre from which main lines and branches were started in all directions.  The interest, however, which attaches to these later schemes is of a much less absorbing kind than that which belongs to the earlier history of the railway and the steps by which it was mainly established.  We naturally sympathise more keenly with the early struggles of a great principle, its trials and its difficulties, than with its after stages of success; and, however gratified and astonished we may be at its consequences, the interest is in a great measure gone when its triumph has become a matter of certainty.

The commercial results of the Liverpool and Manchester line were so satisfactory, and indeed so greatly exceeded the expectations of its projectors, that many of the abandoned projects of the speculative year 1825 were forthwith revived.  An abundant crop of engineers sprang up, ready to execute railways of any extent.  Now that the Liverpool and Manchester line had been made, and the practicability of working it by locomotive power had been proved, it was as easy for engineers to make railways and to work them, as it was for navigators to find America after Columbus had made the first voyage.  Mr. Francis Giles attached himself to the Newcastle and Carlisle and London and Southampton projects.  Mr. Brunel appeared as engineer of the line projected between London and Bristol; and Mr. Braithwaite, the builder of the “Novelty” engine, acted in the same capacity for a railway from London to Colchester.

The first lines constructed subsequent to the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, were mostly in connection with it, and principally in the county of Lancaster.  Thus a branch was formed from Bolton to Leigh, and another from Leigh to Kenyon, where it formed a junction with the main line between Liverpool and Manchester.  Branches to Wigan on the north, and to Runcorn Gap and Warrington on the south of the same line, were also formed.  A continuation of the latter, as far south as Birmingham, was shortly after projected under the name of the Grand Junction Railway.

The last mentioned line was projected as early as the year 1824, when the Liverpool and Manchester scheme was under discussion, and Mr. Stephenson then published a report on the subject.  The plans were deposited, but the bill was thrown out through the opposition of the landowners and canal proprietors.  When engaged in making the survey, Stephenson called upon some of the landowners in the neighbourhood of Nantwich to obtain their assent, and was greatly disgusted to learn that the agents of the canal companies had been before him, and described the locomotive to the farmers as a most frightful machine, emitting a breath as poisonous as the fabled dragon of old; and telling them that if a bird flew over the district where one of these engines passed, it would inevitably drop down dead!  The application for the bill was renewed in 1826, and again failed; and at length it was determined to wait the issue of the Liverpool and Manchester experiment.  The act was eventually obtained in 1833.

When it was proposed to extend the advantages of railways to the population of the midland and southern counties of England, an immense amount of alarm was created in the minds of the country gentlemen.  They did not relish the idea of private individuals, principally resident in the manufacturing districts, invading their domains; and they everywhere rose up in arms against the “new-fangled roads.”  Colonel Sibthorpe openly declared his hatred of the “infernal railroads,” and said that he “would rather meet a highwayman, or see a burglar on his premises, than an engineer!” The impression which prevailed in the rural districts was, that fox-covers and game-preserves would be seriously prejudiced by the formation of railroads; that agricultural communications would be destroyed, land thrown out of cultivation, landowners and farmers reduced to beggary, the poor-rates increased through the number of persons thrown out of employment by the railways, ­and all this in order that Liverpool, Manchester, and Birmingham shopkeepers and manufacturers might establish a monstrous monopoly in railway traffic.

The inhabitants of even some of the large towns were thrown into a state of consternation by the proposal to provide them with the accommodation of a railway.  The line from London to Birmingham would naturally have passed close to the handsome town of Northampton, and was so projected; but the inhabitants of the shire, urged on by the local press, and excited by men of influence and education, opposed the project, and succeeded in forcing the promoters, in their survey of the line, to pass the town at a distance.  When the first railway through Kent was projected, the line was laid out so as to pass by Maidstone, the county town.  But it had not a single supporter amongst the townspeople, whilst the landowners for many miles round combined to oppose it.  In like manner, the line projected from London to Bristol was strongly denounced by the inhabitants of the intermediate districts; and when the first bill was thrown out, Eton assembled under the presidency of the Marquis of Chandos to congratulate the country upon its defeat.

During the time that the works of the Liverpool and Manchester line were in progress, our engineer was consulted respecting a short railway proposed to be formed between Leicester and Swannington, for the purpose of opening up a communication between the town of Leicester and the coal-fields in the western part of the county.  The projector of this undertaking had some difficulty in getting the requisite capital subscribed for, the Leicester townspeople who had money being for the most part interested in canals.  George Stephenson was invited to come upon the ground and survey the line.  He did so, and then the projector told him of the difficulty he had in finding subscribers to the concern.  “Give me a sheet,” said Stephenson, “and I will raise the money for you in Liverpool.”  The engineer was as good as his word, and in a short time the sheet was returned with the subscription complete.  Mr. Stephenson was then asked to undertake the office of engineer for the line, but his answer was that he had thirty miles of railway in hand, which were enough for any engineer to attend to properly.  Was there any person he could recommend?  “Well,” said he, “I think my son Robert is competent to undertake the thing.”  Would Mr. Stephenson be answerable for him?  “Oh, yes, certainly.”  And Robert Stephenson, at twenty-seven years of age, was installed engineer of the line accordingly.

The requisite Parliamentary powers having been obtained, Robert Stephenson proceeded with the construction of the railway, about 16 miles in length, towards the end of 1830.  The works were comparatively easy, excepting at the Leicester end, where the young engineer encountered his first stiff bit of tunnelling.  The line passed underground for 1.75 mile, and 500 yards of its course lay in loose dry running sand.  The presence of this material rendered it necessary for the engineer first to construct a wooden tunnel to support the soil while the brickwork was being executed.  This proved sufficient, and the whole was brought to a successful termination within a reasonable time.  While the works were in progress, Robert kept up a regular correspondence with his father at Liverpool, consulting him on all points in which his greater experience was likely to be of service.  Like his father, Robert was very observant, and always ready to seize opportunity by the forelock.  It happened that the estate of Snibston, near Ashby-de-la-Zouch, was advertised for sale; and the young engineer’s experience as a coal-viewer and practical geologist suggested to his mind that coal was most probably to be found underneath.  He communicated his views to his father on the subject.  The estate lay in the immediate neighbourhood of the railway; and if the conjecture proved correct, the finding of coal would necessarily greatly enhance its value.  He accordingly requested his father to come over to Snibston and look at the property, which he did; and after a careful inspection of the ground, he arrived at the same conclusion as his son.

The large manufacturing town of Leicester, about fourteen miles distant, had up to that time been exclusively supplied with coal brought by canal from Derbyshire; and Mr. Stephenson saw that the railway under construction from Swannington to Leicester, would furnish him with a ready market for any coals which he might find at Snibston.  Having induced two of his Liverpool friends to join him in the venture, the Snibston estate was purchased in 1831:  and shortly after, Stephenson removed his home from Liverpool to Alton Grange, for the purpose of superintending the sinking of the pit.  He travelled thither by gig with his wife, ­his favourite horse “Bobby” performing the journey by easy stages.

Sinking operations were immediately begun, and proceeded satisfactorily until the old enemy, water, burst in upon the workmen, and threatened to drown them out.  But by means of efficient pumping-engines, and the skilful casing of the shaft with segments of cast-iron ­a process called “tubbing,” which Mr. Stephenson was the first to adopt in the Midland Counties ­it was eventually made water-tight, and the sinking proceeded.  When a depth of 166 feet had been reached, a still more formidable difficulty presented itself ­one which had baffled former sinkers in the neighbourhood, and deterred them from further operations.  This was a remarkable bed of whinstone or green-stone, which had originally been poured out as a sheet of burning lava over the denuded surface of the coal measures; indeed it was afterwards found that it had turned to cinders one part of the seam of coal with which it had come in contact.  The appearance of this bed of solid rock was so unusual a circumstance in coal mining, that some experienced sinkers urged Stephenson to proceed no further, believing the occurrence of the dyke at that point to be altogether fatal to his enterprise.  But, with his faith still firm in the existence of coal underneath, he fell back on his old motto of “Persevere.”  He determined to go on boring; and down through the solid rock he went until, twenty-two feet lower, he came upon the coal measures.  In the mean time, however, lest the boring at that point should prove unsuccessful, he had commenced sinking another pair of shafts about a quarter of a mile west of the “fault;” and after about nine months’ labour he reached the principal seam, called the “main coal.”

The works were then opened out on a large scale, and Mr. Stephenson had the pleasure and good fortune to send the first train of main coal to Leicester by railway.  The price was immediately reduced to about 8s. a ton, effecting a pecuniary saving to the inhabitants of the town of about 40,000 pounds per annum, or equivalent to the whole amount then collected in Government taxes and local rates, besides giving an impetus to the manufacturing prosperity of the place, which has continued down to the present day.  The correct principles upon which the mining operations at Snibston were conducted offered a salutary example to the neighbouring colliery owners.  The numerous improvements there introduced were freely exhibited to all, and they were afterwards reproduced in many forms all over the Midland Counties, greatly to the advantage of the mining interest.

Nor was Mr. Stephenson less attentive to the comfort and well-being of those immediately dependent upon him ­the workpeople of the Snibston colliery and their families.  Unlike many of those large employers who have “sprung from the ranks,” he was one of the kindest and most indulgent of masters.  He would have a fair day’s work for a fair day’s wages; but he never forgot that the employer had his duties as well as his rights.  First of all, he attended to the proper home accommodation of his workpeople.  He erected a village of comfortable cottages, each provided with a snug little garden.  He was also instrumental in erecting a church adjacent to the works, as well as Church schools for the education of the colliers’ children; and with that broad catholicity of sentiment which distinguished him, he further provided a chapel and a school-house for the use of the Dissenting portion of the colliers and their families ­an example of benevolent liberality which was not without a salutary influence upon the neighbouring employers.