George Stephenson

George Stephenson

George Stephenson, the son of a colliery fireman, was born at Wylam, eight miles from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, on 9th June, 1781. The cottage where the Stephenson family lived was next to the Wylam Wagonway, and George grew up with a keen interest in machines. (1)

George's first employment was herding cows but when he was fourteen he joined his father at the Dewley Colliery. George was an ambitious boy and at the age of eighteen he began attending evening classes where he learnt to read and write. (2)

According to Maurice W. Kirby: "Stephenson also received instruction in arithmetic, a subject which he mastered quickly, although theoretical calculation remained beyond his capacity. Writing, too, proved to be a persistent difficulty, and in later life he was obliged to employ a secretary to write for him". (3)

Stephenson married Frances Henderson, the daughter of a poor farmer, on 28th November 1802. His only son, Robert Stephenson, was born the following year. Like many colliery workers, he took on a variety of freelance jobs, notably clock-mending. Samuel Smiles has pointed out: "He also diligently set himself to study the principles of mechanics, and to master the laws by which the engine worked. For a workman, he was even at that time more than ordinarily speculative, often taking up strange theories, and trying to sift out the truth that was in them." (4)

Francis Stephenson, who was twelve years older than her husband, died of consumption in May 1806 soon after giving birth to a daughter who also died. He left his young son Robert in the care of relatives and went to Scotland in search of better-paid work but he was forced to return when his father was blinded in a mining accident. (5)

In 1808 he found employment as an engineman at Killingworth Colliery. Every Saturday he took the engines to pieces in order to understand how they were constructed. This included machines made by Thomas Newcomen and James Watt. By 1812 Stephenson's knowledge of engines resulted in him being employed as the colliery's engine wright. The following year the mine-owners asked Stephenson to build a steam engine. (6)


In 1813 Stephenson became aware of attempts by William Hedley and Timothy Hackworth, at Wylam Colliery, to develop a locomotive. Stephenson successfully convinced his colliery manager, Nicholas Wood, his to allow him to try to produce a steam-powered machine. By 1814 he had constructed a locomotive that could pull thirty tons up a hill at 4 mph. Stephenson called his locomotive, the Blucher, and like other machines made at this time, it had two vertical cylinders let into the boiler, from the pistons of which rods drove the gears. (7)

Where Stephenson's locomotive differed from those produced by John Blenkinsop, Hedley and Hackworth, was that the gears did not drive the rack pinions but the flanged wheels. The Blucher was the first successful flanged-wheel adhesion locomotive. Stephenson continued to try and improve his locomotive and in 1815 he changed the design so that the connecting rods drove the wheels directly. These wheels were coupled together by a chain. Over the next five years Stephenson built sixteen engines at Killingworth. Most of these were used locally but some were produced for the Duke of Portland's wagonway from Kilmarnock to Troon. (8)

Roger Osborne, the author of Iron, Steam and Money: The Making of the Industrial Revolution (2013) has argued: "Stephenson was a brilliant builder of locomotives, his greatest contribution was to bring engines and railways together. He improved the tracks, which were still liable to buckle or break even if they were made of cast iron, and worked to distribute the weight of the engines through more axles." (9)

Working at a colliery, George Stephenson was fully aware of the large number of accidents caused by explosive gases. In his spare time Stephenson began work on a safety lamp for miners. By 1815 he had developed a lamp that did not cause explosions even in parts of the pit that were full of inflammable gases. Unknown to Stephenson, Humphry Davy was busy producing his own safety lamp. (10)

Steam Railways

The owners of the colliery were impressed with Stephenson's achievements and in 1819 he was given the task of building a eight mile railroad from Hetton to the River Wear at Sunderland. While he was working on this Stephenson became convinced that to be successful, steam railways had to be made as level as possible by civil engineering works. The track was laid out in sections. The first part was worked by locomotives, this was followed by fixed engines and cables. After the railway reached 250 feet above sea level, the coal wagons travelled down over 2 miles of self-acting inclined plane. This was followed by another 2 miles of locomotive haulage. George Stephenson only used fixed engines and locomotives and had therefore produced the first ever railway that was completely independent of animal power. (11)

On 19th April 1821 an Act of Parliament was passed that authorized a company owned by Edward Pearse to build a horse railway that would link the collieries in West Durham, Darlington and the River Tees at Stockton. Stephenson arranged a meeting with Pease and suggested that he should consider building a locomotive railway. Stephenson told Pease that "a horse on an iron road would draw ten tons for one ton on a common road". Stephenson added that the Blutcher locomotive that he had built at Killingworth was "worth fifty horses". (12)

The Blutcher
The Blutcher

That summer Edward Pease took up Stephenson's invitation to visit Killingworth Colliery. When Pease saw the Blutcher at work he realised George Stephenson was right and offered him the post as the chief engineer of the Stockton & Darlington company. It was now now necessary for Pease to apply for a further Act of Parliament. This time a clause was added that stated that Parliament gave permission for the company "to make and erect locomotive or moveable engines". Stephenson wrote to Pease: "I am glad to learn that the Parliament Bill has been passed for the Darlington Railway. I am much obliged by the favourable sentiments you express towards me, and shall be happy if I can be of service in carrying into execution your plans". (13)

Stephenson began working with William Losh, who owned an ironworks in Newcastle. Together they patented their own make of cast iron rails. In 1821 John Birkinshaw, an engineer at Bedlington Ironworks, developed a new method of rolling wrought iron rails in fifteen feet lengths. Stephenson went to see these malleable rails and decided they were better than those that he was making with Losh. Although it cost him a considerable amount of money, Stephenson decided to use Birkinshaw's rails, rather than those he made with Losh, on the Stockton & Darlington line.

In 1823 Edward Pease joined with Michael Longdridge, George Stephenson and his son Robert Stephenson, to form a company to make the locomotives. The Robert Stephenson & Company, at Forth Street, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, became the world's first locomotive builder. Stephenson recruited Timothy Hackworth, one of the engineers who had helped William Hedley to produce Puffing Billy, to work for the company. The first railway locomotive, Locomotion, was finished in September 1825. The locomotive was similar to those that Stephenson had produced at the collieries at Killingworth and Heaton. (14)

Work on the track began in 1822. George Stephenson used malleable iron rails carried on cast iron chairs. These rails were laid on wooden blocks for 12 miles between Stockton and Darlington. The 15 mile track from the collieries and Darlington were laid on stone blocks. While building this railway Stephenson discovered that on a smooth, level track, a tractive force of ten pounds would move a ton of weight. However, when there was a gradient of 1 in 200, the hauling power of a locomotive was reduced by 50 per cent. Stephenson came to the conclusion that railways must be specially designed with the object of avoiding as much as possible changes in gradient. This meant that considerable time had to be spent on cuttings, tunnels and embankments. (15)

The Stockton & Darlington line was opened on 27th September, 1825. Large crowds saw George Stephenson at the controls of the Locomotion as it pulled 36 wagons filled with sacks of coal and flour. The initial journey of just under 9 miles took two hours. However, during the final descent into the Stockton terminus, speeds of 15 mph (24 kph) were reached.

Opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway
Opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway

The Durham County Advertiser reported: "The hour of ten arrived before all was ready to start. About this time the locomotive engine, or steam horse, as it was more generally termed, gave note of preparation. The scene, on the moving of the engine, sets description at defiance. Astonishment was not confined to the human species, for the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air seemed to view with wonder and awe the machine, which now moved onward at a rate of 10 or 12 mph with a weight of not less than 80 tons attached to it... The whole population of the towns and villages within a few miles of the railway seem to have turned out, and we believe we speak within the limits of truth, when we say that not less than 40 or 50,000 persons were assembled to witness the proceedings of the day." (16)

Liverpool & Manchester Railway

The Stockton & Darlington line successfully reduced the cost of transporting coal. By 1825, locomotives on the railway were hauling trains of up to eighty tons at speeds of fifteen miles an hour. The reduction in his transport costs enabled Pearse to cut the price of his coal from 18s. to 8s. 6d. a ton. One newspaper reported that the "Stockton & Darlington rail-road, a work which will for ever reflect honour on its authors, for the new and striking manner in which it practically demonstrated all the advantages of the invention." (17)

In 1826 Stephenson was appointed engineer and provider of locomotives for the Bolton & Leigh railway. He also was the chief engineer of the proposed Liverpool & Manchester railway. Stephenson was faced with a large number of serious engineering problems. This included crossing the unstable peat bog of Chat Moss, a nine-arched viaduct across the Sankey Valley and a two-mile long rock cutting at Olive Mount. (18)

The directors of the Liverpool & Manchester company were unsure whether to use locomotives or stationary engines on their line. To help them reach a decision, it was decided to hold a competition where the winning locomotive would be awarded £500. The idea being that if the locomotive was good enough, it would be the one used on the new railway.

The competition was held at Rainhill during October 1829. Each competing locomotive had to haul a load of three times its own weight at a speed of at least 10 mph. The locomotives had to run twenty times up and down the track at Rainhill which made the distance roughly equivalent to a return trip between Liverpool and Manchester. Afraid that heavy locomotives would break the rails, only machines that weighed less than six tons could compete in the competition. Ten locomotives were originally entered for the Rainhill Trials but only five turned up and two of these were withdrawn because of mechanical problems. Sans Pariel and Novelty did well but it was the Rocket, produced by George and his son, Robert Stephenson, that won the competition. (19)

The Liverpool & Manchester railway was opened on 15th September, 1830. Fanny Kemble was an invited guest to the proceedings: "The most intense curiosity and excitement prevailed, and though the weather was uncertain, enormous masses of densely packed people lined the road, shouting and waving hats and handkerchiefs as we flew by them. We travelled at 35 miles an hour (swifter than a bird flies). When I closed my eyes this sensation of flying was quite delightful. I had been unluckily separated from my mother in the first distribution of places, but by an exchange of seats which she was enabled to make she rejoined me when I was at the height of my ecstasy, which was considerably damped by finding that she was frightened to death, and intent upon nothing but devising means of escaping from a situation which appeared to her to threaten with instant annihilation herself and all her travelling companions." (20)

The prime minister, the Duke of Wellington, and a large number of important people attended the opening ceremony that included a procession of eight locomotives. Unfortunately, when the train stopped at a halfway point to take on water, one of the government ministers, William Huskisson, got down from his carriage and stepped on to the parrallel track where he was hit by a locomotive travelling in the opposite direction. He died later that day. (21)

Painting of a train on the Manchester to Liverpool railway (1831)
Painting of a train on the Manchester to Liverpool railway (1831)

Thomas Southcliffe Ashton has argued that "it was only with the newly constructed Liverpool and Manchester Railway, that the potentialities of steam transport were fully realized". (22) It soon became clear that large profits could be made by building railways and railways quickly became the basic infrastructure for the nation's transport. As they were built and run by individual companies at their own risk, the result was a fairly haphazard network, including many duplications of routes. (23)


George Stephenson continued to work on improving the quality of the locomotives used on the railway lines he constructed. This included the addition of a steam-jet developed by Goldsworthy Gurney that increased the speed of the Rocket to 29 mph.

In 1838 Stephenson purchased Tapton House, a Georgian mansion near Chesterfield. Stephenson went into partnership with George Hudson and James Sanders and together they opened coalmines, ironworks and limestone quarries in the area. Stephenson also owned a small farm where he experimented with stock breeding, new types of manure and animal food. He also developed a method of fattening chickens in half the usual time. He did this by shutting them in dark boxes after a heavy feed. (24)

Stephenson's second wife, Elizabeth Hindley, died in 1845. George Stephenson married for a third time just before he died at Tapton House, Chesterfield on 12th August, 1848.

Primary Sources

(1) George Stephenson, letter to Edward Pease (28th April, 1821)

I am glad to learn that the Parliament Bill has been passed for the Darlington Railway. I am much obliged by the favourable sentiments you express towards me, and shall be happy if I can be of service in carrying into execution your plans.

(2) John Sykes was one of those who witnessed the opening of the Stockton to Darlington Railroad.

The novelty of the scene, and the fineness of the day, had attracted an immense concourse of spectators, the fields on each side of the railway being literally covered with ladies and gentlemen on horseback, and pedestrians of all kinds. The train of carriages was then attached to a locomotive engine, built by George Stephenson, in the following order: (1) Locomotive engine, with the engineer (Mr. George Stephenson) and assistants. (2) Tender, with coals and water; next, six wagons, laden with coals and flour; then an elegant covered coach, with the committee and other proprietors of the railway; then 21 wagons, fitted up for passengers; and last of all, six wagons laden with coal, making altogether, a train of 38 carriages. By the time the cavalcade arrived at Stockton, where it was received with great joy, there were not less than 600 persons within, and hanging by the carriages.

(3) George Stephenson, letter published in The Philosophical Magazine (13th March, 1817)

I observe you have thought proper to insert the last number of the Philosophical Magazine your opinion that my attempts at the safety tubes and apertures were borrowed from what I have heard of Sir Humprey Davy's researches. The principles upon which a safety lamp might be constructed I stated to several persons long before Sir Humphrey Davy came into this part of the country. The plan of such a lamp was seen by several and the lamp itself was in the hands of the manufacturers during the time he was here.

(4) Dr. Paris, Life of Sir Humphry Davy (1831)

It will hereafter be scarcely believed that an invention so eminently scientific, and which could never have been derived but from the sterling treasury of science, should have been claimed on behalf of an engine-wright of Killingworth, of the name of Stephenson - a person not even possessing a knowledge of the elements of chemistry.

(5) George Stephenson, letter to the directors of the Stockton & Darlington Railway in 1821 after he has seen the rails being made by John Birkinshaw.

To tell you the truth although it would put £500 in my pockets to specify my own patent rails, I cannot do so after the experience I have had.

(6) George Stephenson, letter to Joseph Sandars (December, 1824)

The rage for railroads is so great that many will be laid in parts where they will not pay.

(7) On 25th April, 1825, George Stephenson gave evidence to the House of Commons committee looking into the proposed Liverpool & Manchester Railway. Edward Alderson, the counsel employed by those opposing the railway, severely criticised the evidence given by Stephenson.

This railway is the most absurd scheme that ever entered into the head of a man to conceive. Mr. Stephenson never had a plan - I do not believe he is capable of making one. He is either ignorant or something else which I will not mention. His is a mind perpetually fluctuating between opposite difficulties; he neither knows whether he is to make bridges over roads or rivers, or of one size or another; or to make embankments, or cuttings, or inclined planes, or in what way the thing is to be carried into effect. When you put a question to him upon a difficult point, he resorts to two or three hypothesis, and never comes to a decided conclusion. Is Mr. Stephenson to be the person upon whose faith this Committee is to pass this Bill involving property to the extent of £400,000/£500,000 when he is so ignorant of his profession as to propose to build a bridge not sufficient to carry off the flood water of the river or to permit any of the vessels to pass which of necessity must pass under it.

(8) Robert Stephenson told Samuel Smiles how his father liked to wrestle with his old friend, George Bidder.

When my father came about the office he sometimes did not well know what to do with himself. So he used to invite Bidder to have a wrestle with him, for old acquaintance sake. And the two wrestled together so often, and had so many falls (sometimes I thought they would bring the house down between them), that they broke half the chairs in my outer office.

(9) John Dixon, quoted by Samuel Smiles, Life of George Stephenson (1875)

George Stephenson told me as a young man that railways will supersede almost all other methods of conveyance in this country - when mail-coaches will go by railway, and railroads will become the great highway for the king and all his subjects. I know there are great and almost insurmountable difficulties to be encountered; but what I have said will come to pass as sure as you live.

(10) Edward Pease, diary entry (16th August, 1846)

Left home in company with John Dixon to attend the internment of George Stephenson at Chesterfield. I fear he died an unbeliever. When I reflect on my first acquaintance with him and the resulting consequences my mind seems lost in doubt as to the beneficial results - that humanity has been benefited in the diminished use of horses and by the lessened cruelty to them, that much ease, safety, speed, and lessened expense in travelling is obtained, but as to the results and effects of all that railways had led my dear family into, being in any sense beneficial is uncertain.

Student Activities

Child Labour Simulation (Teacher Notes)

Road Transport and the Industrial Revolution (Answer Commentary)

Richard Arkwright and the Factory System (Answer Commentary)

Robert Owen and New Lanark (Answer Commentary)

James Watt and Steam Power (Answer Commentary)

The Domestic System (Answer Commentary)

The Luddites: 1775-1825 (Answer Commentary)

The Plight of the Handloom Weavers (Answer Commentary)


(1) Maurice W. Kirby, George Stephenson : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(2) George M. Trevelyan, English Social History (1942) page 492

(3) Maurice W. Kirby, George Stephenson : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(4) Samuel Smiles, Life of George Stephenson (1875) page 124

(5) Roger Osborne, Iron, Steam and Money: The Making of the Industrial Revolution (2013) page 275

(6) Gavin Weightman, The Industrial Revolutionaries (2007) pages 121-122

(7) Samuel Smiles, Life of George Stephenson (1875) page 166

(8) Maurice W. Kirby, George Stephenson : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(9) Roger Osborne, Iron, Steam and Money: The Making of the Industrial Revolution (2013) pages 275-276

(10) Maurice W. Kirby, George Stephenson : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(11) Samuel Smiles, Life of George Stephenson (1875) page 124

(12) Thomas Southcliffe Ashton, The Industrial Revolution 1760-1830 (1948) page 71

(13) George Stephenson, letter to Edward Pease (28th April, 1821)

(14) Maurice W. Kirby, George Stephenson : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(15) Gavin Weightman, The Industrial Revolutionaries (2007) page 127

(16) Durham County Advertiser (1st October, 1825)

(17) The Sunday Observer (25th April, 1830)

(18) Roger Osborne, Iron, Steam and Money: The Making of the Industrial Revolution (2013) pages 275-276

(19) Samuel Smiles, Life of George Stephenson (1875) page 318

(20) Frances Ann Kemble, Record of a Childhood (1878) page 299

(21) The Sunday Observer (19th September 1830)

(22) Thomas Southcliffe Ashton, The Industrial Revolution 1760-1830 (1948) page 71

(23) Roger Osborne, Iron, Steam and Money: The Making of the Industrial Revolution (2013) page 289

(24) Maurice W. Kirby, George Stephenson : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)