Изображения страниц
PDF
EPUB

249

VII.
GEORGE STEPHENSON AND THE RAILWAY.”

NCE upon a time, the idea called up before the mind’s eye of an Englishman by the name of a Railway, was that of a rickety and uneven track, consisting of two parallel bars of cast-iron, with a horse-path, deeply indented and never repaired, between these two iron bars. Along this track a wretched horse, probably blind and certainly lame, drew three or four rudelyconstructed wagons a few miles from the coal-pit where they were filled, to the wharf where their contents were tilted on shipboard. Even at that day the advantages of the railway were manifest; for the poor animal already mentioned was able, without any considerable effort, to draw along this tram-road a burden four or five times as great as that which it could have drawn along an ordinary highway. Next there came a period when the steam-engine, at that time associated in the minds of most men with smoke, noise, and dirt, came to be employed to convey the wagons of coal from the fields of proprietors of an enterprising turn and with a taste for novelty. The engine made use of was extremely heavy and clumsy; it gave forth horrible screams as of a being in torment, the result of steam escaping at high pressure : it poured out volumes of smoke; and while it succeeded partially in dragging heavy weights, it succeeded thoroughly in disseminating along the track it followed all the benefits of immediate vicinity to the coal-pit it came from. It was, as far as dirt, smoke, and noise were concerned, a travelling coal-pit brought to the door of each house it passed. It blighted all the neighbouring fields with smoke: it alarmed horses and men by its unearthly noises and its unwieldy movements: it jolted and strained along at the rate of two and a half miles in the hour; and in some cases it was regularly attended by a team of horses, who were to draw it home when it broke down, which it did daily. Such was the earliest type of the railway and the locomotive. Never was there contrast more &omplete than that between these things as they were forty years since, and as they are to-day. For the slow, awkward, dirty engine of former times, we have the elegant, smokeless, noiseless locomotive, so neat and ornamental with its burnished brass, with all its parts playing so smoothly and exactly,–with its pace of fifty or sixty miles an hour, -ready to dash out into the bleak waste upon the dark winter night, no man dreaming that it will fail to bear him safely and swiftly over it, coming in to the minute assigned by Bradshaw after a run of four hundred miles. And as for the railway

* The Life of George Stephenson, Railway Engineer. By Samuel Smiles. London: 1857.

itself, it has changed from the old blighted track to a trim road between green slopes of cutting and over graceful viaducts of better than classical design; its stationhouses along the way being pretty little cottages covered with flowers and evergreens; winding through parks and pleasure-grounds, where, if it be not too near, there is a positive beauty in the rapid flitting of the train of carriages among the clumps of wood, and the white vapour dying away after it is gone. And for the old plateway (for so it was called at first), laid down in the rudest way, and only on a dead level, we have now gigantic roads which hold right on in spite of all intervening obstacles, piercing underneath the hills, flying over rivers and valleys, spanning across stormy arms of the sea, -the grandest triumphs of modern engineering skill. And while railway and locomotive have thus changed, an equal change has passed upon the burden they convey. Not that British Railways have ever quite forgotten their old freight—coal, once their only freight: but after all, the great feature in railway traffic is the conveyance of passengers. And among the millions who yearly avail themselves of the facilities afforded by the railway are numbered people of all sorts and conditions—from our good Queen, who flits through her country in the state carriage of a special train, to the poor working man or woman who pays a penny a mile for a seat in the third-class carriage of a parliamentary one. As for the moral effects of the railway in abolishing local prejudices and enlightening men’s minds, we can only say that they are wholly incalculable.

It was very fit that a life of George Stephenson should be written. It is mainly to his ingenuity and perseverance that Britain and the world owe the railway and the locomotive engine. For all practical purposes, he was the inventor of the locomotive ; and for many years he stood alone in his advocacy of its merits. He was regarded as a mischievous lunatic by men of science; and even persons who had some confidence in him lamented that he should be guilty of the extravagant folly of maintaining that a locomotive engine might be made capable of travelling at a rate of ten, twelve, or sixteen miles an hour. But Stephenson was a sterling Englishman, and he never for a moment lost confidence in his great invention: he was not to be discouraged or put down; and he lived to witness the triumph of the locomotive, and to be universally hailed as one of the most substantial benefactors of mankind. Apart from the interest which all thinking men must feel in tracing the career of a great public benefactor, there is a special interest in a life like that of Stephenson. We should like to see this biography in the hands of all our young men. One breathes a healthful, bracing atmosphere in reading this book. It sets before us a fine instance of success in life attained purely in the exercise of genuine qualities. There was no sham about George Stephenson. His character, his biographer remarks, ‘exhibits a striking combination of those sterling qualities which we are proud to regard as essentially English.’ His ingenuity and resolution were not more remarkable than his honesty, his kind-heartedness, his self-denial, his industry, his

modesty. He was a great and good man, and we can give his Life no higher praise than to say that it is worthy of its subject. Mr. Smiles is evidently so anxious to place the character and career of Stephenson justly before his readers that he quite forgets himself. We do not know how a biographer could do better. Mr. Smiles has produced a manly, unaffected book, which places Stephenson before us as he lived, and which well repays perusal. On the north bank of the river Tyne, eight miles from Newcastle, stands a colliery village named Wylam. Like most colliery villages, it is a dirty, uninteresting place. At one end of the straggling street there is a brick tenement, with a roof of red tiles, with unplastered walls, and a floor of clay. This humble edifice is divided into four labourers' dwellings. Here George Stephenson was born on the 9th of June, 1781. His father, Robert Stephenson, commonly known as Old Bob, was fireman of the colliery steam-engine, and a man of excellent character and no small intelligence. His mother, Mabel Stephenson, was a woman of delicate constitution and nervous temperament, but she is still spoken of by the workers at Wylam as “a rale canny body’—a phrase which Mr. Smiles assures us is “about the highest praise of a woman which Northumbrians can express.’ The wages of a fireman when in full employment did not exceed twelve shillings a week; and upon this income the worthy couple had to maintain a family of six children, of whom George was the second. They had a hard struggle to find food and raiment, and never had the means of sending any

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »