Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Historical heroes & heroines: Part Two, George and Robert Stephenson

It’s back to the north east for the second of the “historical heroes and heroines” series. Here I salute two more heroes of the industrial age: father and son George and Robert Stephenson.
George Stephenson
It’s hard to know where to begin with this pair. Perhaps most famous for their pioneering work on the railways, between them they notched up a considerable number of firsts. Although neither could claim that they invented the steam locomotive (this was the work of Richard Trevithick in 1804), in 1820 George was to build the first railway in the world to use them, running from Hetton Colliery to Sunderland. Hailing from the north east, it was inevitable that the need to transport coal and other heavy goods inspired the development of the railways. It was not long before father and son set up in business as railway engineers, and were responsible for designing many lines throughout the land. In another landmark, on the opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1825 father and son attached a passenger carriage to one of the locomotives—and so this was the first time a passenger car had run on a steam locomotive railway. And almost as famous as its creator, George’s Rocket won the Rainhill Trials in 1820 for use on the Liverpool to Manchester Railway—this was his X Factor moment and forevermore the Stephensons were synonymous with railway achievements.


How inspiring, then, that this pair laid the foundations for rail travel not just here but the world over. Towards the end of his life George was appointed one of the first directors of the Great Indian Peninsular Railway Company, and Robert a consulting engineer, for the first proposals to construct a railway system in India (nowadays the fourth most extensive railway network in the world). Sadly, George died in 1848 and did not live to see the first commercial train run from Bombay to Thana in 1853. (In a personal aside, my great-great-grandfather was a train driver for the Northern Railway in India at the inception of the railways. His career move from lush but limited County Wicklow several thousand miles east informed the course of my family’s history, and established connections all over the subcontinent, from Kolkotta to Karachi with Simla and Amritsar in-between, but that’s an entire other blog post.)

But it wasn’t all railways! Although Sir Humphrey Davy is often credited with doing so, it was George who created the first miners’ safety lamp in 1815. There was disbelief that an uneducated man such as George could have trumped SHD, but he was, in the end, exonerated of stealing his idea. And some say that George inadvertently gave the name “Geordies” to the folk of Tyneside—Stephenson’s lamp was informally referred to as a “Geordie lamp”, and so the phrase spread from a reference to the miners who used it to any native of Tyneside.

There were bridges too. Robert designed the double-decker High Level Bridge in Newcastle, still in use today, and many others used to support the new railway lines, such as the Royal Border Bridge over the Tweed, with its impressive 28 arches.

And perhaps most thrilling of all, George invented the cucumber straightener—a straight, thick glass tube for propagating straight as opposed to curved cucumbers. I don’t know what your feelings on the topic are, but as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing more perverse than a curvy cucumber, so for this achievement alone the man should be hailed a hero. These amazing items can still be viewed today at the Chesterfield Museum, Derbyshire. He is also believed to be responsible for the invention of the cucumber slicer, which, as it name suggests, produced slices as fine and even as a fairy’s wings. The cucumber sandwich is forever indebted.
This lady looks delighted with her cucumber straightener 
What is particularly poignant, I think, is to compare these outstanding achievements with George’s modest background and upbringing here in the north east. I shan’t recount the details here as Vintage Script writer David Williams has already done so more eloquently than I ever could in his recently-published novel Mr Stephenson’s Regret. Check out David’s blog Writer in the North, always an inspiring read, where he describes his travels around the north east on the trail of the Stephensons.
Although George was not the inventor per se of the locomotive, it was he and his son who progressed the railways so that within a relatively short space of time, rail travel became an accessible liberator of the masses. The safety lamp, of course, can be credited with saving many lives. And where would we be without the cucumber straightener? It sends a shiver down my spine to imagine a world without the Stephensons and their far-reaching, liberating and eclectic contributions to life as we know it today.


  1. Great post, Emma - enlightening and witty. Thanks for the links.

  2. You're welcome, David - thanks for the inspiration!