Alnwick, History Society

The beautiful display of spring flowers at Bowburn Park beside Alnwick Castle.
Picture Jane Coltman
The beautiful display of spring flowers at Bowburn Park beside Alnwick Castle. Picture Jane Coltman

A railway family

The May meeting of Alnwick Family History Society (NDFHS) welcomed Michael Taylor MBE to speak about the Stephenson family and their achievements in railway history.

His talk was an eclectic mix of pictures and stories, and focused on Robert Stephenson, the greatest engineer of the 19th century.

Robert was born in 1803 at Willington Quay, Northumberland, the only son of the George the ‘Father of the Railways’, and he was to build on his father’s achievements.

Despite early hard times in the family, George was hard working and ambitious and ensured that Robert attended Bruce’s Academy in Newcastle and then Edinburgh University.

George and Robert worked together on the Stockton to Darlington railway in 1821, along with Edward Pease, and the Liverpool Manchester railway. George was an ambitious entrepreneur who could see the demand for railways, and used his connections with other engineers and businessmen.

The Robert Stephenson Company in South Street, Darlington, opened in 1823, with Robert, aged 19, as manager. The company was the largest employer in Darlington and made locomotives up until the 1960s. Together, they recognised the demand for steam engines and railways, and their locomotive works was the first in the country.

Next, Robert travelled to Columbia to work as an engineer in the silver mines, and on his return built the famous Rocket, which won the Rainhill Trials in 1829.

In 1833 Robert was appointed chief engineer of the London to Birmingham Railway, and he was to be involved in the third largest railway system in the country.

His many achievements included the design of the Royal Border Bridge on the East Coast Main Line and the High Level Bridge between Newcastle and Gateshead. He is notable for his tubular structures for bridges, the Britannia Bridge in Wales and the Victoria Bridge in Montreal, once the longest bridge in the world.

In Egypt he built a bridge to span the Nile, and worked with companies in Belguim, Norway and France. He received many acknowledgments from these countries, but declined a knighthood in order not to overshadow his father.

Sadly, there are no direct descendants of Robert, but many families are interested in their link as Stephensons.

Robert was responsible for the expansion of the railways during the “railway mania” of the mid 19th century. His expertise in both civil and mechanical engineering established the concept of the railway, which spread across the world. This was recognised in his being buried in Westminster Abbey alongside Thomas Telford.

The next meeting will be on June 7, which will be a chance to share family stories. All welcome at the Bailifagate Museum, at 7.15pm.