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12 EMPLOYED AS A COWHERD. Chap. I.
fashioned low-roofed cottages, standing on either side of a babbling little stream. They are connected by a rustic wooden bridge, which spans the rift in front of the doors. In the central one-roomed cottage of this group, on the right bank, Eobert Stephenson lived for a time with his family. The pit at which he worked stood in the rear of the cottages. The coal has long since been worked out, and the pit closed in; and only the marks of it are now visible,—a sort of blasted grass covering, but scarcely concealing, the scoria? and coal-dust accumulated about the mouth of the old pit. Looking across the fields, one can still discern the marks of the former waggon-way, leading in the direction of Walbottle. It was joined on its course by another waggon-road leading from the direction of Black Callerton. Indeed, there is scarcely a field in the neighbourhood that does not exhibit traces of the workings of former pits.
As every child in a poor man's house is a burden until his little hands can be turned to profitable account and made to earn money towards supplying the indispensable wants of the family, George Stephenson was put to work as soon as an opportunity of employment presented itself. A widow, named Grace Ainslie, then occupied the neighbouring farmhouse of Dewley. She kept a number of cows, and had the privilege of grazing them along the waggon-ways. She needed a boy to herd the cows, to keep them out of the way of the waggons, and prevent their straying or trespassing on the neighbours' "liberties ;" the boy's duty was also to bar the gates at night after all the waggons had passed. George petitioned for this post, and, to his great joy, he was appointed, at the wage of twopence a-day.
It was light employment, and he had plenty of spare time on his hands, which he spent in birdnesting, making whistles out of reeds and scrannel straws, and erecting Lilliputian mills in the little water-streams that ran into tne Dewley bog. But his favourite amusement at this early age was erecting clay engines in conjunction with Chap I. DRIVES A GIN-HORSE. 13
his chosen playmate, Bill Thirlwall. The place is still pointed out, "just aboon the cut.end," as the people of the hamlet describe it, where the future engineers made their first essays in modelling. The boys found the clay for their engines in the adjoining bog, and the hemlocks which grew about supplied them with imaginary steam-pipes. They even proceeded to make a miniature winding machine in connexion with their engine, and the apparatus was erected upon a bench in front of the Thirlwalls' cottagedoor. Their corves were made out of hollowed corks; their ropes were supplied by twine; and a few bits of wood gleaned from the refuse of the carpenters' shops completed their materials. With this apparatus the boys made a show of sending the corves down the pit and drawing them up again, much to the marvel of the pitmen. But some of the more mischievous among them seized the opportunity of smashing the fragile machinery early one morning when going to their work, greatly to the sorrow of the young engineers. We may mention, in passing, that George Stephenson's companion afterwards became a workman of repute, and creditably held the office of engineer at Shilbottle, near Alnwick, for a period of nearly thirty years.
As George Stephenson grew older and more able to work, he was set to lead the horses when ploughing, though scarce big enough to stride across the furrows; and he used afterwards to say that he rode to his work in the mornings at an hour when most other children of his age were fast asleep in their beds. He was also employed to hoe turnips, and do similar farm work, for which he was paid the advanced wage of fourpence a-day. But his highest ambition was to be taken on at the colliery where his father worked; and he shortly joined his elder brother James there as a "corf-bitter," or "picker," where he was employed in clearing the coal of stones, bats, and dross. His wages were now advanced to sixpence a-day, and afterwards to eightpence when he was set to drive the gin-horse.
LOVE OF BIRDS AND ANIMALS.
Shortly after he went to Black Callerton Colliery to drive the gin there; and as that colliery lies about two miles across the fields from Dewley Burn, the boy walked that distance early in the morning to his work, returning home late in the evening. Some of the old people of Black Callerton still remember him as a "grit bare-legged laddie," and they describe him as being then "very quick-witted, and full of fun and tricks." As they said, "there was nothing under the sun but he tried to imitate." He was usually foremost in the sports and pastimes of youth.
Among his first strongly developed tastes was the love of birds and animals, which he inherited from his father. Blackbirds were his especial favourites. The hedges between Dewley and Black Callerton were capital birdnesting places; and there was not a nest there that he did not know of. When the young birds were old enough, he' would bring them home with him, feed them, and teach them to fly about the cottage unconfined by cages. One of his blackbirds became so tame that, after flying about the doors all day, and in and out of the cottage, it would take up its roost upon the bed-head at night. And most singular of all, the bird would disappear in the spring and Chap. I. AN ASSISTANT FIREMAN. 15
summer months, when it was supposed to go into the woods to pair and rear its young, after which it would reappear at the cottage and resume its social habits during the winter. This went on for several years. George had also a stock of tame rabbits, for which he built a little house behind the cottage, and for many years he continued to pride himself upon the superiority of his breed.
After he had driven the gin for some time at Dewley and Black Callerton, he was taken on as an assistant to his father in firing the engine at Dewley. This was a step of promotion which he had anxiously desired; his only fear being lest he should be found too young for the work. Indeed, he afterwards used to relate how he was wont to hide himself from sight when the owner of the colliery went round, lest he should be thought too little a boy thus to earn his small wages. Since he had modelled his clay engines in the bog, his young ambition was to be an engineman; and to be an assistant fireman was the first step towards this position. Great, therefore, was his exultation when, at about fourteen years of age, he was appointed assistant fireman, at the wage of a shilling a. day.
But the coal at Dewley Burn being at length worked out, and the pit about to be "laid in," the family prepared for another change. This time their removal was tc Jolly's Close, a few miles to the south, close behind the village of Newburn, where another coal mine belonging to the Duke of Northumberland, called " the Duke's Winnin," had recently been opened out.
Jolly's Close then consisted of a small row of cottages situated upon a flat space of ground enclosed by lofty banks on either side, at the bottom of the narrow rift called Walbottle Dean. Jolly's Close, however, no longer exists, and only a few of the oldest people in the neighbourhood are aware that such a place ever was. A mountain of earth, shale, and debris, the accumulation of fifty years, lies tumbled over its site,—the rubbish, or " deeds," having been shot over from the hillside, once a green hill, but 16 EARNINGS OF THE FAMILY. Chap. t.
now a scarified, blasted rock, along which furnaces blaze and engines labour night and day. The stream in the hollow, which used to run. in front of old Eobert Stephenson's cottage door, is made to pay tribute in the form of water power at every wheel in the Dean; and only a narrow strip now remains of what was once a green meadow.
One of the old persons in the neighbourhood, who knew the family well, describes the dwelling in which they lived as a poor cottage of only one room, in which the father, mother, four sons, and two daughters lived and slept. It was crowded with three low-poled beds. Thin one apartment served for parlour, kitchen, sleeping-room, and all. The cottage went with the work, and the use of it formed part of the workman's wage,—the Duke being both the employer and the landlord.
The children of the Stephenson family were now growing up apace, and were most of them of an age to be able to earn money at various kinds of colliery work. James and George, the two eldest sons, worked as assistant firemen; and the younger boys worked as wheelers or pickers on the bank-tops. The two girls helped their mother with the household work.
So far as weekly earnings went, the family were at this time pretty comfortable. Their united earnings amounted to from 35s. to 40s. a week; and they were enabled to command a fair share of the necessaries of life. But it will be remembered that in those days, from 1797 to 1802, it was much more difficult for the working classes to live than it is now; for money did not go nearly so far. The price of bread was excessive. Wheat, which for three years preceding 1795 had averaged only 54s., now advanced to 76s. a quarter ; and it continued to rise until, in December, 1800, it had advanced to 130s., and barley and oats in proportion. There was a great dearth of provisions; corn riots were of frequent occurrence; and the taxes on all articles of consumption were very heavy. The war with Napoleon was then raging; derangements of trade were frequent, causing