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they possessed"—into their pockets, it was enough for them. The mania was not confined to the precincts of the stock exchange, but infected all ranks throughout the country. Share markets were established in the provincial towns, where people might play their stakes as on a roulette table. The game was open to all,—to the workman, who drew his accumulation of small earnings out of the savings' bank to try a venture in shares; to the widow and spinster of small means, who had up to that time blessed God that their lot had lain between poverty and riches, but were now seized by the infatuation of becoming suddenly rich; to the professional man, who, watching the success of others, at length scorned the moderate gains of his calling, and rushed into speculation. The madness spread everywhere. It embraced merchants and manufacturers, gentry and shopkeepers, clerks in public offices, and loungers at the clubs. Noble lords were pointed at as “stags; ” there were even clergymen who were characterised as “bulls;” and amiable ladies who had the reputation of “bears,” in the share markets. The few quiet men who remained uninfluenced by the speculation of the time, were, in not a few cases, even reproached for doing injustice to their families, in declining to help themselves from the stores of wealth that were poured out all around. Folly and knavery were, for a time, completely in the ascendant. The sharpers of society were let loose, and jobbers and schemers became more and more plentiful. They threw out railway schemes as mere lures to catch the unwary. They fed the mania with a constant succession of new projects. The railway papers became loaded with their adver
* The Marquis of Clanricarde brought under the notice of the House of Lords, in 1845, that one Charles Guernsey, the son of a charwoman, and a clerk in a broker's office at 12s, a week, had his name down as a subscriber for shares in the London and York line, for 52,000l. Doubtless, he had been made useful for the purpose by the brokers, his cmployers.
chap. xxxi.] SPECULATION RUN MAD. 435
tisements. The post office was scarcely able to distribute the multitude of prospectuses and circulars which they issued. For the time their popularity was immense. They rose like froth into the upper heights of society, and the flunky Fitz Plushe, by virtue of his supposed wealth, sat amongst peers and was idolised. Then was the harvest-time for scheming lawyers, parliamentary agents, engineers, surveyors, and traffic-takers, who were alike ready to take up any railway scheme, however desperate, and to prove any amount of traffic even where none existed. The traffic in the credulity of their dupes was, however, the great fact that mainly concerned them, and of the profitable character of which there could be no doubt. Many of them saw well enough the crash that was coming, and diligently made use of the madness while it served their turn. Even men of reputed sagacity in commercial undertakings, who had accumulated their wealth patiently and honestly, and who seemed most unlikely to risk their capital in such a mania, were drawn into the irresistible vortex, and invested in the new schemes in the hope of realising profits more rapidly, or obtaining a higher interest for their money. Parliament, whose previous conduct in connection with railway legislation was so open to reprehension, interposed no check—attempted no remedy. On the contrary, it helped to intensify the evils arising from this unseemly state of things. Many of its members were themselves involved in the mania, and as much interested in its continuance as were the vulgar herd of money-grubbers. The railway prospectuses now issued — unlike the original Liverpool and Manchester, and London and Birmingham schemes—were headed by peers, baronets, landed proprietors, and strings of M. Ps. Thus, it was found in 1845, that not fewer than 157 members of Parliament were on the lists of new companies as subscribers for sums ranging from 291,000l. downwards! The projectors of new lines even came to boast of their parliamentary strength, and of the number of votes which they could command in “ the House.” The influence which landowners had formerly brought to bear upon Parliament in resisting railways when called for by the public necessities, was now employed to carry measures of a far different kind, originated by cupidity, knavery, and folly. But these gentlemen had discovered by this time that railways were as a golden mine to them. They sat at railway boards, sometimes selling to themselves their own land at their own price, and paying themselves with the money of the unfortunate shareholders. Others used the railway mania as a convenient and, to themselves, comparatively inexpensive mode of purchasing constituencies. It was strongly suspected that honourable members adopted what Yankee legislators call “ log-rolling,” that is, “You help me to roll my log, and I help you to roll yours.” At all events, it is matter of fact, that, through parliamentary influence, many utterly ruinous branches and extensions projected during the mania, calculated only to benefit the inhabitants of a few miserable old boroughs, accidentally omitted from schedule A, were authorised in the memorable sessions of 1844 and 1845. Mr. Stephenson was anxiously entreated to lend his name to prospectuses during the railway mania; but he invariably refused. Had he been less scrupulous, he might, without any trouble, have thus earned an enormous income; but he had no desire to accumulate a fortune without labour and without honour. He himself never speculated in shares. When he was satisfied as to the merits of any line, he subscribed for a certain amount of capital in the undertaking, and held on, neither buying nor selling. At a time when the shares in most of the lines in which he held, were selling at high pre
cuAP. xxxi.] I).INNER AT BEN RYDDING. 437
miums, some sagacious friends, foreseeing the inevitable panic, urged him to realise. His answer was, “No : 1 subscribed for those shares to hold during my life-time, not to speculate with.” Thus, all the railway stock that he had subscribed for continued in his possession until his death, although much of it by that time had become greatly depreciated in value in consequence of the over-speculation in railways. In 1844 and 1845 he conscientiously stood aloof, and endeavoured, but in vain, to deter those who were imperilling the system which he had so laboriously worked out from engaging in rash and worthless schemes. At a dinner of the Leeds and Bradford directors at Ben Rydding in October, 1844, before the mania had reached its height, he warned those present against railway speculation. It was, he said, like walking upon a piece of ice with shallows and deeps; the shallows were frozen over, and they would carry, but it required great caution to get over the deeps. He was satisfied that in the course of the next year many would step on places not strong enough to carry them, and would get into the deeps; they would be taking shares, and afterwards be unable to pay the calls upon them. Yorkshiremen were reckoned clever men, and his advice to them was, to stick together and promote communication in their own neighbourhood, not to go abroad with their speculations. If any had done so, he advised them to get their money back as fast as they could, for if they did not they would not get it at all. He informed the company, at the same time, of his earliest holding of railway shares; it was in the Stockton and Darlington Railway, and the number he held was three —“a very large capital for him to possess at the time.” But a Stockton friend was anxious to possess a share, and he sold him one at a premium of 33s. ; he supposed he had been about the first man in England to sell a railway share at a premium.
During 1845, his son's offices in George Street, Westminster, were crowded with persons of various conditions seeking interviews, and presented very much the appearance of the levee of a minister of state. The Railway King, surrounded by an admiring group of followers, was often a prominent feature there; and a still more interesting person, in the estimation of many, was George Stephenson, dressed in black, his coat of somewhat old-fashioned cut, with square pockets in the tails. He wore a white neckcloth, and a large bunch of seals was suspended from his watch-ribbon. Altogether, he presented an appearance of health, intelligence, and good humour, that rejoiced one to look upon in that sordid, selfish, and eventually ruinous saturnalia of railway speculation.
Being still the consulting engineer for several of the older companies, he necessarily appeared before Parliament in support of their branches and extensions. In 1845 his name was associated with that of his son as the engineer for the Southport and Preston Junction. In the same session he gave evidence in favour of the Syston and Peterborough branch of the Midland Railway; but his principal attention was confined to the promotion of the line from Newcastle to Berwick, in which he had never ceased to take the deepest interest. At the same time he was engaged in examining and reporting upon certain foreign lines of considerable importance.
Powers were granted by Parliament, in 1845, to construct not less than 2883 miles of new railways in Britain, at an expenditure of about forty-four millions sterling ! Yet the mania was not appeased; for in the following session of 1846 applications were made to Parliament for powers to raise 389,000,000l. sterling for the construction of further lines; and powers were actually conceded for forming 4790 miles (including 60 miles of tunnels), at a cost of about 120,000,000l.