Stephenson, Robert (DNB00)

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STEPHENSON, ROBERT (1803–1859), civil engineer, only son of George Stephenson [q. v.], was born at Willington Quay, near Newcastle, on 16 Oct. (not November) 1803 (cf. Register). The following year his father removed to Killingworth, where on 14 May 1806 his mother died of consumption. His first elements of education were acquired in the village school of Long Benton. In 1814 his father, whose circumstances were now improving, and who felt keenly his own want of a sound education, sent him to Bruce's academy at Newcastle, and made him a member of the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society. Leaving school in 1819, he was apprenticed to Nicholas Wood (M.I.C.E.), viewer of Killingworth colliery. In 1821 he assisted his father in the survey of Stockton and Darlington Railway, and then in 1822 spent six months studying at Edinburgh University. There he met, as a fellow student, his lifelong friend, George Parker Bidder [q. v.], with whom he afterwards carried on much of his professional work. On leaving the university he settled down in Newcastle to manage the locomotive factory which his father established there in 1823, but his health soon broke down, and he accepted an offer to go abroad to Columbia in South America to superintend the working of some gold and silver mines. He left England in June 1824, and was absent three years. Difficulties in the working of the locomotive factory led to a request for him to return; on the return journey he met Richard Trevithick [q. v.], then on his way back to England, a penniless, broken man. Stephenson reached England in 1827, in the thick of the controversy as to the most suitable system of traction for use on the Liverpool and Manchester line. The famous Rocket was eventually built under his direction at the Newcastle works, the securing of the tubes in their plates giving him great trouble before the difficulty was overcome. Most of the subsequent improvements in the details of the locomotive were due to his skill. From 1827 to 1833 besides this work he assisted his father generally in the Liverpool and Manchester line, in the Leicester and Swannington line, and in other minor lines.

In 1833 the act for the London and Birmingham line was passed; Stephenson became engineer, and was solely responsible for its success. The work is a memorable one, not only from the great difficulties encountered in its construction—as, for example, in the Blisworth cutting and in the long Kilsby tunnel—but also because it was the first railway into London. It was completed in 1838. He took an active part in the great ‘battle of the gauges’ which was fought out in parliament, and also in the great struggle between the rival advocates of the locomotive and of the atmospheric system, in both contests supporting with all the strength of his powerful and clear intellect the causes which the judgment of experience has shown to be the right ones. From 1838 till the close of his life he was engaged on railway work, not only in Great Britain, but all over the world; railways were constructed either under his own direct supervision or under his advice which have since become the trunk lines of the countries in which they were laid down.

The greatest works he carried out, or at any rate those by which he will be best known to posterity, were his bridges. The splendid high-level bridge over the Tyne at Newcastle and the Victoria bridge at Berwick were two of his earliest and most successful examples of this branch of engineering. When the act was passed in 1844 for the Chester and Holyhead line, Stephenson gave long and anxious consideration to the best type of bridge for crossing the Conway and the Menai Straits. Eventually he decided upon the tubular girder form, the type of railway bridge which will always remain inseparably connected with his name. Assisted by Hodgkinson, Fairbairn, and Clarke, his schemes were carefully worked out, every step being tested by experiment, and his labours were eventually crowned with success when the Menai bridge was opened for traffic on 5 March 1850. He constructed on similar lines the great Victoria bridge over the St. Lawrence at Montreal, which was begun in 1854 and completed in 1859, and was for many years the longest bridge in the world, and also two others in Egypt. For his invention of the system of tubular-plate railway bridges he was awarded by the council of the French Exhibition of 1855 their great gold medal of honour.

On 30 July 1847 Stephenson was returned to parliament as member for Whitby, which town he represented till his death, being re-elected on 10 July 1852, 27 March 1857, and 29 April 1859. He was a conservative and protectionist. He rarely spoke except on engineering matters; he was an opponent in the house of the Suez Canal scheme. In 1830 he became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and eventually became president, occupying the chair during 1856 and 1857. He received numerous distinctions—the Order of Leopold from the King of the Belgians in 1841, the grand cross of St. Olaff of Norway in 1848, he was elected F.R.S. on 7 June 1849, and on 24 June 1857 he was created a D.C.L. of Oxford University. He married, on 17 June 1829, Frances, daughter of John Sanderson of London. She died without issue at Hampstead on 4 Oct. 1842, aged thirty-nine (Gent. Mag. 1842, ii. 553). His health had long been very unsatisfactory, and early in 1859 he was advised to stop all work and take a yachting cruise (the only recreation he indulged in). Eventually, in September 1859, he left for Norway; but after a temporary rally he rapidly grew worse, and was brought back in great haste to die at his own home, No. 34 Gloucester Square on 12 Oct. 1859. He was buried on 22 Oct. in Westminster Abbey, by the side of Telford, amid signs of general mourning throughout the engineering world.

Apart from his numerous reports on professional matters, Stephenson undertook little literary work, his only important work being the article on ‘Iron Bridges’ he wrote for the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica’ (8th ed.).

There are three portraits at the Institution of Civil Engineers—one by H. Phillips, one by J. Lucas, and a third, with his father, also by Lucas. A portrait by George Richmond (1849) was engraved for Mr. Jeaffreson's ‘Life.’ There is also a bronze statue by Marochetti, and a memorial brass in Westminster Abbey.

[Smiles's Life of George and Robert Stephenson; Obituary Notices in Proc. Inst. Civil Eng. xix. 176; The Life of Robert Stephenson, F.R.S., by J. C. Jeaffreson, with descriptive chapters on his professional works by William Pole, F.R.S., London, 1864, 2 vols., with two portraits.]

T. H. B.