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Chap. I. FEATS OF STRENGTH. 17
occasional suspensions of employment in all departments of industry, from the pressure of which working people are always the first to suffer.
During this severe period George Stephenson continued to live with his parents at Jolly's Close. Other workings of the coal were opened out in the neighbourhood; and to one of these he was removed as fireman on his own account. This was called the "Mid Mill Winnin," where he had for his mate a young man named Bill Coe; and to these two was intrusted the working of the little engine put up at Mid Mill. They worked together there for about two years, by twelve-hour shifts, George firing the engine at the wage of a shilling a-day.
He was now fifteen years old. His ambition was as yet limited to attaining the standing of a full workman, at a man's wages; and with that view he endeavoured to attain such a knowledge of his engine as would eventually lead to his employment as an engineman, with its accompanying advantage of higher pay. He was a steady, sober, hard-working young man, and nothing more, according to the estimate of his fellow workmen.
One of his favourite pastimes in by-hours was trying feats of strength with his companions. Although in frame he was not particularly robust, yet he was big and bony, and considered very strong for his age. His principal competitor was Eobert Hawthorn, with whom he had frequent trials of muscular streugth and dexterity, such as lifting heavy weights, throwing the hammer, and putting the stone. At throwing the hammer George had no compeer; but there was a knack in putting the stone which he could never acquire, and here Hawthorn beat him. At lifting heavy weights off the ground from between his feet, —by means of a bar of iron passed through them, the bar placed against his knees as a fulcrum, and then straightening the spine and lifting them sheer up,—Stephenson was very successful. On one occasion, they relate, he lifted as much as sixty stones weight in this way—a striking indication of his strength of bone and vigour of muscle.
18 APPOINTED PLUGMAN. Chap. I.
When the pit at Mid Mill was closed, George and his companion Coe were sent to work another pumping engine erected near Throckley Bridge, where they continued for some months. It was while working at this place that his wages were raised to 12s. a week,—an event of no small importance in his estimation. On coming out of the foreman's office that Saturday evening on which he received the advance, he announced the fact to his fellow workmen, adding triumphantly, "I am now a made man for life!"
The pit opened at Newburn, at which old Eobert Stephenson worked, proving a failure, it was closed; and a new pit was sunk at Water-row, on a strip of land lying between the Wylam waggon-way and the river Tyne, about half a mile west of Newburn Church. A pumping engine was erected there by Eobert Hawthorn, now the Duke's engineer at Walbottle; and old Stephenson went to work it as fireman, his son George acting as the engineman or plugman. At this time he was about seventeen years old, —a very youthful age for occupying so responsible a post. He had thus already got ahead of his father in his station as a workman; for the plugman holds a higher grade than the fireman, requiring more practical knowledge and skill, and usually receiving higher wages.
The duty of the plugman was to watch the engine, and to see that it kept well in work, and that the pumps were efficient in drawing the water. When the water-level in the pit was lowered, and the suction became incomplete through the exposure of the suction holes, then his business was to proceed to the bottom of the shaft and plug the tube so that the pump should draw: hence the designation of "plugman." If a stoppage in the engine took place through any defect in it which he was incapable of remedying, then it was his duty to call in the aid of the chief engineer of the colliery to set the engine to rights.
But from the time when George Stephenson was appointed fireman, and more particularly afterwards as engineman, he applied himself so assiduously and so successfully to the Chap. I. THE STEAM-ENGINE. 19
study of the engine and its gearing,—taking the machine to pieces in his leisure hours for the purpose of cleaning and mastering its various parts,—that he soon acquired a thorough practical knowledge of its construction and mode of working, and thus he very rarely needed to call to his aid the engineer of the colliery. His engine became a sort of pet with him, and he was never wearied of watching and inspecting it with devoted admiration.
There is indeed a peculiar fascination about an engine to the intelligent workman who watches and feeds it. It is almost sublime in its untiring industry and quiet power: capable of performing the most gigantic work, yet so docile that a child's hand may guide it. No wonder, therefore, that the workman who is the daily companion of this lifelike machine, and is constantly watching it with anxious care, at length comes to regard it with a degree of personal interest and regard, speaking of it often in terms of glowing admiration. This daily contemplation of the steamengine, and the sight of its steady action, is an education of itself to the ingenious and thoughtful workman. It is certainly a striking and remarkable fact, that nearly all that has been done for the improvement of this machine has been accomplished, not by philosophers and scientific men, but by labourers, mechanics, and enginemen. It would appear as if this were one of the departments of practical science in which the higher powers of the human mind must bend to mechanical instinct. The steam-engine was but a mere toy until it was taken in hand by workmen. Savery was originally a working miner, Newcomen a blacksmith, and his partner Cawley a glazier. In the hands of Watt, the instrument maker, who devoted almost a life to the subject, the condensing engine acquired gigantic strength; and George Stephenson, the colliery engineman, was certainly not the least of those who have assisted to bring the high-pressure engine to its present power.
While studying to master the details of his engine, to know its weaknesses, and to quicken its powers, George 20
Stephenson gradually acquired the character of a clever and improving workman. Whatever he was set to do, that he endeavoured to do well and thoroughly; never neglecting small matters, but aiming at being a complete workman at all points; thus gradually perfecting his own mechanical capacity, and securing at the same time the respect of his fellow workmen and the increased confidence and esteem of his employers.
Chap. II. SELF-CULTURE. 21
Newborn And Callerton— Engineman And Brakesmax.
George Stephenson was eighteen years old before he learnt to read. He was now almost a full-grown workman, earning his twelve shillings a week, and having the charge of an engine, which occupied his time to the extent of twelve hours every day. He had thus very few leisure moments that he could call his own. But the busiest man will find them if he watch for them; and if he be careful in turning these moments to useful account, he will prove them to be the very "gold-dust of time," as Young has so beautifully described them.
To his poor parents George Stephenson owed a sound constitution and vigorous health. They had also set before him an example of sobriety, economy, and patient industry —habits which are in themselves equivalent to principles. For habits are the most inflexible of all things; and principles are, in fact, but the names which we assign to them. If his parents, out of their small earnings and scanty knowledge, were unable to give their son any literary culture, at all events they had trained him well, and furnished him with an excellent substratum of character.
We have seen how Stephenson's play hours were occasionally occupied—in a friendly rivalry with his fellows in feats of strength. Much also of his spare time, when he was not actually employed in working the engine, was devoted to cleaning it and taking it to pieces, for the purpose of mastering its details. At this time he was also paying some attention to the art of brakeing, which he had expressed to Coe his desire to learn, in order that he might improve his position and be advanced to higher wages.
Not many of his fellow-workmen had learnt to read; but those who could do so were placed under frequent contri