Life of George Stephenson (Centenary Edition), by Samuel Smiles, LL.D, John Murray, 1881[ebook]


Hard back book, 7”x 4.75” pp.229, plus several pages of adverts not scanned. Cover, engraving of the Rocket locomotive. Frontispiece – steel engraving portrait of George Stephenson, title page- vignette steel engraving of Stephenson’s Birthplace. Published to commemorate the centenary of George Stephenson’s birth, this is also a pretty comprehensive biography of George’s son Robert. Because they worked on so many projects together, Smiles only had to add chapters covering Robert’s ill-fated South American venture, his major projects after George’s retirement, and Robert’s own years of semi-retirement, to describe the son’s life in some detail. Quite a tale it is too, from the schoolboy riding several miles to and from school in Newcastle each day on a donkey, to the millionaire engineer and MP, cruising the Med in his steam yacht “Titania”.


It is however George’s life which is the most remarkable. He was undoubtedly a visionary genius, who rose from being the ill-educated, barely literate son of a colliery worker to the inspiration behind the steam locomotive worked railway that would spread throughout the world He did not invent the railway, nor did he invent the steam locomotive, but a good decade before the opening of the world’s first public steam operated railway, the Stockton & Darlington which he engineered, his vision was of railways spreading everywhere. He was canny enough to keep his own counsel on the subject, realizing that many  improvements would be needed in the crude locomotives he was familiar with as a young man, and that vast civil engineering works, on a hitherto unprecedented scale would be required. As a rather tongue tied working man, no one would have listened to him anyway, so he patiently set to work, accepting jobs building colliery railways, gradually improving the design and performance of the successive locomotives he built.

Very conscious of his lack of education, while still working as a colliery engineman, George took on extra work, mending and making boots, repairing clocks and watches, and even cutting out cloth for colliers wives to sew into clothes for their husbands. The extra money earned was saved, eventually being used to send Robert to Edinburgh University. Thus when the time came to work on engineering projects together, the son was able to educate the father.

Samuel Smiles (1812-1904) could hardly have been better fitted to write George Stephenson’s life. He came from a strict Presbyterian Scottish family. He left school aged 14, and was apprenticed to a doctor (a legitimate way of entering the profession at the time). He then went to Edinburgh University for further study. When Samuel was 20, his father died, leaving his widow with nine children younger than Samuel to support. She would not hear of Samuel leaving University, but worked unceasingly in the small family owned store to support them, and in the home to care for them. Her example helped imbue Smiles with two of the guiding principles which he held were required for success in life – “Thrift” and “Self Help”.

Smiles became involved in politics while still a student, and turned to journalism. If his writings have a fault, it is that he never quite shook off the habit of expecting payment by the line!

Editorship of a Leeds newspaper took him into railway management, first as secretary of the Leeds and Thirsk Railway, then to a similar post with the South Eastern. Through railway business, Smiles came to know George Stephenson in the old gentleman’s later years, and became a close friend of Robert, so much of his material was gained first hand.

There have been other biographies of the Stephensons, but to my mind this is still the best, because of that personal contact. Smiles may bang the “Thrift” and “Self Help” drum a little too hard at times, but by following these precepts, not only Stephenson, but thousands of other young men, born into poverty in the 19thc educated themselves, and made something of their lives, often achieving great success. They were not all in the genius category by any means. I sometimes feel, when I hear modern “Yoof” complaining of lack of opportunity, that they should be locked in a room, with no mobile phone, laptop, PC or tablet, on Stephenson’s diet of oatmeal and water, and not let out until they have read this book…

Oh well, if I were in a good mood, I might let them read it on a kindle… They would probably just stare at the book, wondering how to plug it in.



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