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The Northumbrian people, generally, exhibit many striking and characteristic qualities, inherited most probably from the hardy and energetic Northmen who settled in such numbers along the north-eastern coasts many centuries ago. Taking them as a whole, they are bigger and hardier men",—more enterprising, energetic, and laborious, -and of more marked individuality, - than the inhabitants of our more southern counties. They are rougher in manner and more difficult to polish; but they are full of shrewdness and mother wit, and possessed of great strength of character, of which, indeed, their remarkable guttural speech is but a type. The name Stephenson or Stevenson is said to signify, in the Norse tongue, the son of Steeve, or the strong; and certainly the subject of this story exhibited, in a remarkable manner, the characteristic quality of his family. George Stephenson was the second of a family of six children. The family bible of Robert and Mabel Stephenson, which seems to have come into their possession in November, 1790, contains the following record of the births of these children, evidently written by one hand and at one time: — “A Rechester of the children belonging Robert and Mabel Stepheson— “James Stepheson Was Born March the 4 day 1779 “George Stepheson Was Born June 9 day 1781 “Elender Stepheson Was Born April the 16 day 1784 “Robert Stepheson Was Born March the 10 day 1788
“John Stepheson Was Born November the 4 day 1789
As the wages earned by Robert Stephenson as fireman,
* Their tenacity of life would seem to be greater. The locomotive engineer of a large railway informs me, as the result of a long experience, that the north-country engine-drivers and stokers usually recover from injuries to body and limb, which to south-country workmen are almost invariably fatal.
t Of the two daughters, Eleanor married Stephen Liddell, afterwards employed in the Locomotive Factory in Newcastle; and Ann married John Nixon, with whom she emigrated to the United States. John Stephenson was accidentally killed at the Locomotive Factory in January, 1831.
chap. 1.] HIS FATHER. 5
when in full work, did not amount to more than twelve shillings a week, it may be inferred that, even with the most rigid economy, there was very little to spare for the clothing, and nothing for the schooling, of the children. As an aged neighbour, who remembers them well, says of the parents— “They had very little to come and go upon—they were honest folk, but sore haudden doon in the world.” Robert Stephenson was a slender man, of attenuated frame. He was an exceedingly amiable person, and was long remembered for his curious love of nature as well as of romance. He was accustomed, while tending his engine-fire in the evenings, to draw around him the young people of the village, and to feast their imaginations with his wonderful stories of Sinbad the Sailor, and Robinson Crusoe, besides others of his own invention. Hence he was an immense favourite with all the boys and girls of the place, and “Bob’s engine-fire” was always their favourite resort. Another feature in his character, by which he was long remembered, was his strong affection for birds and animals of all sorts. In the winter time, he had usually a flock of tame robins about him; and they would come hopping familiarly round the engine-fire, to pick up the crumbs which he saved for them out of his slender dinner. In summer time, he went bird-nesting in his leisure hours; 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, the boy gazed with wonder into the nest full of young birds—a sight which he never forgot, but used to speak of with delight to his intimate friends, when he himself had grown an old man. While a boy at Wylam, George led the ordinary life of working-people's children. He played about the doors; went bird-nesting when he could; and ran errands to the village. In course of time he was promoted to the office of carrying his father's dinner to him while at work; and he helped to nurse his younger brothers and sisters at home, for in the poor man's dwelling every hand must early be turned to useful account. None of the children ever went to school; the family was too poor, and food too dear, to admit of that. One of the duties of the elder children was to see that the younger ones 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. Wooden railways were early used in Northumberland; and this at Wylam was destined to be the first on which a locomotive engine travelled regularly between the coal-pit and the loading-quay. At the time, however, of which we speak, locomotives had scarcely been dreamt of; horses were still the only tractive power; and one of the daily sights of young Stephenson was the coal-waggons dragged by their means along this wooden railway at Wylam. Thus eight years passed; after which, the coal having been worked out on the north side, the old engine was pulled down, and the Stephenson family, following the work, removed from Wylam to Dewley Burn. The Duke of Northumberland (to whom most of the property in the neighbourhood belongs) had opened a new pit there. An engine was erected, of which Robert Hawthorn, father of the afterwards celebrated Newcastle engineers, was the plugman or engineman; and Robert Stephenson was appointed to act as his fireman. Dewley Burn at this day consists of a few old-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, Robert Stephenson settled for a time with his family. The pit at which he was employed stood in the rear of the cottages. It has long since been worked out and closed in; and only the
cHAP. I.] DEWLEY BURN. 7
marks of it are now visible,_a sort of blasted grass covering, but scarcely concealing the scoriae 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. But grass now grows over all the waggonroads there. The coal has all been worked out, and pit engines, apparatus, and workmen have long since passed away.
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 bird-nesting, making whistles out of reeds and scrannel straws, and erecting Lilliputian mills in the little water-streams that ran into the Dewley bog. But his favourite amusement at this early age was erecting clay engines in conjunction with his chosen playmate, Tom Thirlaway. They found the clay for their engines in the adjoining bog; and the hemlock, which grew about, supplied them with abundance of imaginary steampipes. The place is still pointed out, “just aboon the cutend,” as the people of the hamlet describe it, where the