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Chap. I. KEELS AND KEELMEN. 7
But a great deal of the coal shipped from the Tyne comes from above-bridge, where sea-going craft cannot reach, and is floated down the river in " keels," in which the coals are sometimes piled up according to convenience when large, or, when the coal is small or tender, it is conveyed in tubs to prevent breakage. These keels are of a very ancient model,—perhaps the oldest extant in England: they are even said to be of the same build as those in which the Norsemen navigated the Tyne centuries ago. The keel is a tubby, grim-looking craft, rounded fore and aft, with a single large square sail, which the keel-bullies, as the Tyne watermen are called, manage with great dexterity; the vessel being guided by the aid of the " swape," or great oar, which is used as a kind of rudder at the stern of the vessel. These keelmen are an exceedingly hardy class of workmen, not by any means so quarrelsome as their designation of "bully" would imply—the word being merely derived from the obsolete term "boolie," or beloved, an appellation still in familiar use amongst brother workers in the coal districts. One of the most curious sights upon the Tyne is the fleet of hundreds of these black-sailed, black-hulled keels, bringing down at each tide their black cargoes for the ships at anchor in the deep water at Shields and other parts of the river below Newcastle.
These preliminary observations will perhaps be sufficient to explain the meaning of many of the occupations alluded to, and the phrases employed, in the course of the following narrative, some of which might otherwise have been comparatively unintelligible to the general reader.
The colliery of Wylam forms the nucleus of the village of the same name, situated on the north bank of the Tyne, some eight miles west of Newcastle. About the end of last century the colliery belonged to Mr. Blackett, a gentleman of considerable celebrity in coal mining, but probably then better known to the general public as the proprietor of the Globe newspaper. The village of Wylam, like most 8 BIUTHPLACE OF GEORGE STEPHENSON. Chap. I.
other colliery villages, consists of an unsightly pumping engine surrounded by heaps of ashes, coal dust, and slag; an iron-furnace, smoking and blazing by night and day; and a collection of labourers' dwellings of a very humble order. The place is more remarkable for the amount of its population than for its cleanness or neatness as a village — the houses, as in all colliery villages, being the property of the owners or lessees, who employ them for the temporary purpose of accommodating the workpeople, against whose earnings there is a weekly set-off of so much for house and coals. This village of Wylam would be altogether uninteresting but for the fact that in its immediate neighbourhood was born one of the most remarkable men of this century- —George Stephenson, the Eailway Engineer.
His father, Eobert Stephenson, or "Old Bob," as the neighbours termed him, worked for several years as engineman at the Wylam Pit. The old pumping engine has long since been pulled down; but the house still stands in which Eobert Stephenson lived, and in which his son George was born. It is situated a few hundred yards from the eastern extremity of the village, and is known by the name of High Street House. It is a common two storied, red-tiled, rubble house, portioned off into four labourers' compartments. It served the same use then which it does still—that of an ordinary labourer's dwelling. Its walls are still unplastered, its floor is of clay, and the bare rafters are exposed over head.
The lower room on the west end of this cottage was for some years the home of the Stephenson family; and there George Stephenson was born on the 9th of June, 1781, as appeal's from the record in the family Bible, which is still preserved. It does not appear that his birth was registered in the parish books, the author having made an unsuccessful search in the registers of Ovingham and Heddon-on-theWall to ascertain the fact. Though the village of Wylani is within the parish of Ovingham, High Street House stands exactly beyond its boundary and within that of Heddon. But the parish church was a long way off and the registry
of births was not then so well organized as it has since become.
Eobert Stephenson had lived and worked at Walbottle, a village situated about midway between Wylani and
High Street House.
Newcastle, during the earlier part of his life; and he removed from thence to Wylara as engineman. A tradition is preserved in the family, that Eobert Stephenson's father and mother came from beyond the Scottish Border, on the loss of considerable property, and a suit was even commenced for its recovery, but was dropped for want of the means to prosecute it. Certain it is, however, that Eobert's position throughout life was that of a humble workman. His wife, Mabel Carr, was a native of Ovingham, the daughter of one Robert Carr, a dyer. The Carrs were, for several generations, the owners of a house in that village adjoining the churchyard; and the family tombstone may still be seen standing against the east end of the chancel of the parish church, underneath the centre lancet window; as the 10 CHARACTER OF HIS FATHER. Chap. I.
tombstone of Thomas Bewick, the wood-engraver, occupies the western gable. The neighbours who remember Mabel Stephenson describe her as a woman of delicate constitution, and of extremely nervous temperament; but they concur in averring of her that "she was a real canny body." And a woman of whom this can be said by general consent in the Newcastle district may be pronounced a worthy person indeed; for it is about the highest praise of a woman which Northumbrians can express.
Old Eobert was a general favourite in the village, especially amongst the children, whom he was accustomed to draw about him whilst tending the engine-fire, and to feast their young imaginations with his tales of Sinbad the Sailor and Eobinson Crusoe, besides others of his own invention; and "Bob's engine-fire" came to be the most popular resort in the village. Another feature in his character, by which he was long remembered, was his affection for birds and animals; and he had many tame favourites of both sorts, which were as fond of resorting to his engine-fire as the boys and girls themselves. In the winter time he had usually a flock of tame robins about him; and they would come hopping familiarly to his feet, to pick up the crumbs which he had saved for them out of his slender dinner. At his cottage he was rarely without one or more tame blackbirds, which flew at liberty about the house, and in and out at the door. In summer time he would go a-birdnesting with his children; and one day he took his little boy George to see a blackbird's nest for the first time. Holding him up in his arms, he let the wondering boy peep down, through the branches held aside for the purpose, into a nest full of young birds,—a sight which the boy never forgot, but used to speak of with delight to his intimate friends when he himself had grown an old man.
The earnings of old Eobert were very small—they amounted to not more than twelve shillings a week; and as there was a growing family of six children to maintain,
Chap. I. HIS CHILDHOOD. 1 1
of whom George was the second, the family, during their stay at Wylam, were in very straitened circumstances. As an old neighbour said of them, "They had little to come and go upon; they were honest folk, but sore haudden doon in the world." The father's earnings being barely sufficient, even with the most rigid economy, for the sustenance of the family, there was little to spare for their clothing, and nothing for their schooling, so none of the children were sent to school.
The boy George led the ordinary life of working people's children. He played about the doors; went birdnesting when he could; and ran errands to the village. He was also an eager listener, with the other children, to his father's curious tales; and he early imbibed from him that affection for birds and animals which continued throughout his life. In course of time he was promoted to the office of carrying his father's dinner to him while at work, and it was on such occasions his great delight to see the little robins fed. At home he helped to nurse, and that with a careful hand, his younger brothers and sisters. One of his duties was to see that the younger children were kept out of the way of the chaldron waggons, which were then dragged by horses along the wooden tramroad immediately in front of the cottage door. This waggon-way was the first in the Northern district on which the experiment of a locomotive engine was tried. But at the time of which we speak, the locomotive had scarcely been dreamt of in England as a practicable working power; horses only were used to haul the coal; and one of the first sights with which the boy was familiar was the coal-waggons dragged by them along the wooden railway at Wylam.
Thus eight years passed; after which, the coal having been worked out on the north side, the old engine, which had grown "fearsome to look at," as an old workman described it, was pulled down; and then old Eobert, having obtained employment at the Dewley Burn Colliery as a fireman of the engine, removed with his family to that place. Dewley Burn, at this day, consists of a few old