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Chap. XVI. HIS GENERAL DEPORTMENT. 345
In this respect, it is to be regarded as the grandest application of steam power that has yet been discovered.
The Locomotive, like the condensing engine, exhibits the realisation of various capital, but wholly distinct, ideas, promulgated by many ingenious inventors. Stephenson, like Watt, exhibited a power of selection, combination, and invention of his own, by which—while availing himself of all that had been done before him, and superadding the many skilful contrivances devised by himself — he was at length enabled to bring his engine into a condition of marvellous power and efficiency. He gathered together the scattered threads of ingenuity which already existed, and combined them into one firm and complete fabric of his own. He realised the plans which others had imperfectly formed; and was the first to construct, what so many others had unsuccessfully attempted, the practicable working locomotive.
In his deportment, Mr. Stephenson was simple, modest, and unassuming, but always manly. He was frank and social in spirit. When a humble workman, he had carefully preserved his sense of self-respect. His companions looked up to him, and his example was worth even more to many of them than books or schools. His devoted love of knowledge made his poverty respectable, and adorned his humble calling. When he rose to a more elevated station, and associated with men of the highest position and influence in Britain, he took his place amongst them with perfect self-possession. They wondered at the quiet ease and simple dignity of his deportment; and men in the best ranks of life have said of him that "He was one of Nature's gentlemen."
If he was occasionally impatient of the opposition of professional brethren, it is scarcely to be wondered at when we look at the simple earnestness of his character, and consider that his sole aim was the establishment of his own wellfounded convictions. No wonder that he should have been intolerant of that professional gladiatorship against which his life had been one prolonged struggle. Nor could he forget that the engineering class had been arrayed against him dur346 CLOSE OBSERVATION OF NATURE. Chap. XVI.
ing his arduous battle for the Locomotive, and that, but for his own pluck and persistency, they would have strangled it in its cradle. A man of his stern resolution might well be a little positive sometimes. Who that has made his way through so many difficulties would not be so? Especially was he annoyed at the " quirks and quiddities" of the barristers, who subjected him to annoying cross-examinationi before the Parliamentary Committees. On coming down from the witness-box on one occasion, he went up to the counsel who had been severely cross-examining him, and
said—" Oh T , I'm ashamed of you! You know my
line's the best, and that I'm in the right, and you're in the wrong, and yet you've been worrying me as if you didn't know that I was right."
Mr. Stephenson's close and accurate observation provided him with a fulness of information on many subjects, which often appeared surprising to those who had devoted to them a special study. On one occasion the accuracy of his knowledge of birds came out in a curious way at a convivial meeting of railway men in London. The engineers and railway directors present knew each other as railway men and nothing more. The talk had been all of railways and railway politics. Mr. Stephenson was a great talker on those subjects, and was generally allowed, from the interest of his conversation and the extent of his experience, to take the lead. At length one of the party broke in with— "Come now, Stephenson, we have had nothing but railways; cannot we have a change, and try if we can talk a little about something else?" "Well," said Mr. Stephenson, " I'll give you a wide range of subjects; what shall it be about?" "Say birds' nests!" rejoined the other, who prided himself on his special knowledge of this subject "Then birds' nests be it." A long and animated conversation ensued: the bird-nesting of his boyhood, the blackbird's nest which his father had held him up in his arms to look at when a child at Wylam, the hedges in which he had found the thrush's and the linnet's nests, the mossy bank where the robin built, the cleft in the branch of the young
Chap. XVI. DISLIKE OF " HUMBUGS." 347
tree where the chaffinch had reared its dwelling,—all rose "up clear in his mind's eye, and led him back to the scenes of his boyhood at Callerton and Dewley Burn. The colour and number of the birds' eggs, the period of their incubation, the materials employed by them for the walls and lining of their nests,—were described by him so vividly, and illustrated by such graphic anecdotes, that one of the party remarked that, if George Stephenson had not been the greatest engineer of his day, he might have been one of the greatest naturalists.
Mr. Stephenson had once a conversation with a watchmaker, whom he astonished by the extent and minuteness of his knowledge as to the parts of a watch. The watchmaker knew him to he an eminent engineer, and asked how he had acquired so extensive a knowledge of a branch of business so much out of his sphere. "It is very easy to be explained," said Mr. Stephenson; "I worked long at watch-cleaning myself, and when I was at a loss, I was never ashamed to ask for information."
It is Gothe, we believe, who has said that no man ever receives a new idea, at variance with his preconceived notions, after forty. But this observation, though it may be generally, is not invariably true. There are many great minds which never close. Mr. Stephenson, to the last, was open to the reception of new ideas, new facts, new theories. He was a late learner; but he went on learning to the end. He shut his mind, however, against what he considered humbugs—especially mechanical humbugs. Thus, he said at Tam worth, that he had not been to see the atmospheric railway, because it was a great humbug. He had gone to see Pinkus's model of it, and that had determined him on the subject. He then declared the atmospheric system to be "a rope of sand;" that it could never hold together, and he would not countenance it.
When he heard of Perkins's celebrated machine, which was said to work at a tremendous pressure, without steam, but with water in the boiler almost at red heat, he went with his son to see it. The engine exhibited was of six
348 "ORNAMENTAL INITIALS." Chap. XYL
horse power, and the pressure was said to be not less than 1500 lbs. to the square inch. Mr. Stephenson, said he thought it humbug; but he would test its power. Taking up a little oakum, and wrapping some round each hand, he firmly seized hold of the piston rod and held it down with all his strength. The machine was at once brought to a stand, very much to Mr. Perkins's annoyance. But the humbug had been exploded to Mr. Stephenson's satisfaction.
Towards the close of his life he frequently went down to Newcastle, and visited the scenes of his boyhood. "I have been to Callerton," said he one day to a friend, " and seen the fields in which I used to pull turnips at twopence a day; and many a cold finger, I can tell you, I had."
On one occasion, he accidentally met a gentleman and his wife at an inn in Derbyshire, whom he entertained for some time with his shrewd observations and playful sallies. At length the lady requested to know the name of the remarkable stranger. "Why madam," said he, "they used once to call me plain George Stephenson; I'm now called George Stephenson, Esquire, of Tapton House, near Chesterfield. And further let me say, that I've dined with princes, and peers, and commoners—with persons of all classes, from the highest to the humblest; I've made my dinner off a redherring in a hedge bottom, and gone through the meanest drudgery; I've seen mankind in all its phases, and the conclusion I have arrived at is—that if we were all stripped, there's not much difference."
His hand was open to his former ellow-workmen whom old age had left in poverty. To poor Robert Gray, of Newbum, who acted as his bridesman on his marriage to Fanny Henderson, he left a pension for life. He would slip a fivepound note into the hand of a poor man or a widow in such a way as not to offend their delicacy, but to make them feel as if the obligation were all on his side.
About the beginning of 1847, Mr. Stephenson was requested to state what were his "ornamental initials," in order that they might be added to his name in the title of a work proposed to be dedicated to him. His reply was
Chap. XVI. DECLINES KNIGHTHOOD. 349
characteristic. "I have to state," said Mr. Stephenson, "that I have no flourishes to my name, either before or after; and I think it will be as well if you merely say 'George Stephenson.' It is true that I am a Belgian knight, but I do not wish to have any use made of it. I have had the offer of knighthood of my own country made to me several times, but would not have it. I have been invited to become a fellow of the Royal Society, and also of the Civil Engineers' Society, but objected to the empty additions to my name. I am a member of the Geological Society; and I have consented to become President of, I believe, a highly respectable Mechanics' Institution at Birmingham."
During the summer of 1847, Mr. Stephenson was invited to offer himself as a candidate for the representation of South Shields in Parliament. But his politics were at best of a very undefined sort; indeed his life had been so much occupied with subjects of a practical character, that he had scarcely troubled himself to form any decided opinion on the party political topics of the day; and to stand the cross fire of the electors on the hustings might have been found an even more distressing ordeal than the cross-questioning of the barristers in the Committees of the House of Commons. "Politics," he used to say, "are all matters of theory—there is no stability in them; they shift about like the sands of the sea: and I should feel quite out of my element amongst them." He had accordingly the good sense respectfully to decline the honour of contesting the representation of South Shields.
Sir Eobert Peel made him an offer of knighthood more than once; but Mr. Stephenson had no desire to hang on the outskirts of the titled class, or to get perched into high places of any kind. Arago, in his Eloge, complained that Watt was not made a baron. But what lustre would such a title have added to the name of either Watt or Stephenson? Thank Heaven, the strongest and best men of England do their work without hope of any such reward. Never were men less the creatures of government, or of patronage, than James