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chap. II.] HIS EARLY EMPLOYMENTS. , 9
future engineer made his first essays in modelling. This early indication of a mechanical turn may remind the reader of a similar anecdote of the boy Smeaton, who, when missed one day by his parents, was found mounted on the roof of the cottage fixing a puny windmill. As the boy grew older and more able to work, he was set to lead the horses when ploughing, though scarce big enough to stride across the furrows; and he used afterwards to say that he rode to his work in the mornings, at an hour when most other children of his age were fast asleep in their beds. He was also employed to hoe turnips, and do similar farm work, for which he was paid the advanced wage of fourpence a day. But his highest ambition was to be taken on at the colliery where his father worked; and he shortly joined his elder brother James there as a “corf-bitter,” or “picker,” where he was employed in clearing the coal of stones, bats, and dross. His wages were now advanced to sixpence a day, and afterwards to eightpence when he was set to drive the Gin-horse. Shortly after, he went to Black Callerton Colliery to drive the Gin there. And as that colliery lies about two miles across the fields from Dewley Burn, the boy walked . that distance early in the morning to his work, returning home late in the evening. Some of the old people of Black Callerton still remember him as a “grit bare-legged laddie,” and they describe him as being then “very quick-witted, and full of fun and tricks.” As they said, “there was nothing under the sun but he tried to imitate.” He was usually foremost in the sports and pastimes of youth. Among his first strongly developed tastes, was the love of birds and animals, which he inherited from his father. Blackbirds were his especial favourites. The hedges between Dewley and Black Callerton were capital bird-nesting places; and there was not a nest there that he did not know of.
When the young birds were old enough, he would bring them home with him, feed them, and teach them to fly about the cottage unconfined by cages. One of his blackbirds became so tame that, after flying about the doors all day, and in and out of the cottage, it would take up its roost upon the bedhead at night. And most singular of all, the bird would disappear in the spring and summer months, when it was supposed to go into the woods to pair and rear its young, after which it would reappear at the cottage and resume its social habits during the winter. This went on for several years. George had also a stock of tame rabbits, for which he built a little house behind the cottage, and for many years he continued to pride himself upon the superiority of his breed. After he had driven the Gin for some time at Dewley and Black Callerton, he was taken on as an assistant to his father in firing the engine at Dewley. This was a step of promotion which he had anxiously desired; his only fear being lest he should be found too young for the work. Indeed, he afterwards used to relate how he was wont to hide himself from sight when the owner of the colliery went round, lest he should be thought too little a boy thus to earn his small wages. Since he had modelled his clay engines in the bog, his young ambition was to be an engineman. And to be an assistant fireman was the first step towards this position. Great, therefore, was his exultation when, at about fourteen years of age, he was appointed assistant fireman, at the wage of a shilling a day. But the coal at Dewley Burn being at length worked out, and the pit being about to be “laid in,” the family prepared for another removal. This time their removal was to Jolly's Close, a few miles to the south, close behind the village of Newburn, where another coal mine of the Duke's, called “the Duke's Winnin,” had recently been opened out. Jolly's Close then consisted of a small row of cottages
chap. II.] JOLLY's CLOSE. 11
situated upon a flat space of ground enclosed by lofty banks on either side, at the bottom of the narrow rift called Walbottle Dean. Jolly's Close, however, no longer exists, and only a few of the oldest people in the neighbourhood are aware that such a place ever was. A mountain of earth, shale, and débris, the accumulation of fifty years, lies tumbled, over its site, -the rubbish, or “deeds,” having been shot over from the hillside, once a green hill, but now a scarified, blasted rock, along which furnaces blaze and engines labour night and day. The stream in the hollow, which used to run in front of old Robert Stephenson's cottage door, is made to pay tribute in the form of water power at every wheel in the Dean; and only a narrow strip now remains of what was once a green meadow. One of the old persons in the neighbourhood, who knew the family well, describes the dwelling in which they lived, as a poor cottage of only one room, in which the father, mother, four sons and two daughters, lived and slept. It was crowded with three low-poled beds. This one apartment served for parlour, kitchen, sleeping-room, and all. The cottage went with the work, and the use of it formed part of the workman's wage,_the Duke being both the employer and the landlord. The children of the Stephenson family were now growing up apace, and were most of them of an age to be able to earn money at various kinds of colliery work. James and George, the two eldest sons, worked as assistant firemen; and the younger boys worked as wheelers or pickers on the banktops. The two girls helped their mother with the household work. So far as weekly earnings went, the family were at this time pretty comfortable. Their united earnings amounted to from 35s. to 40s. a week; and they were enabled to command a fair share of the necessaries of life. But it will be remembered that in those days, from 1797 to 1802, it was much more difficult for the working classes to live than it is now ; for money did not go nearly so far. The price of bread was excessive. Wheat, which for three years preceding 1795 had averaged only 54s., now advanced to 76s. a quarter; and it continued to rise until in December 1800 it had advanced to 130s., and barley and oats in proportion. There was a great dearth of provisions; corn riots were of frequent occurrence; and the taxes on all articles of consumption were very heavy. The war with Napoleon was then raging; derangements of trade were frequent, causing 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; ” there he had for his mate a young man named Bill Coe, and to these two was entrusted 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
chap. II.] FEATS OF STRENGTH. 13
not particularly robust, yet he was big and bony, and considered very strong for his age. His principal competitor was Robert Hawthorn, with whom he had frequent trials of muscular strength 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 stone weight in this way—a striking indication of his strength of bone and vigour of muscle. 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 Robert 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 Robert 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