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About eight miles west of Newcastle-on-Tyne stands the colliery village of Wylam, consisting of a number of mean cottages, situated on the north bank of the river Tyne. The Newcastle and Carlisle railway runs along the opposite bank; and the traveller by that line sees only the usual signs of a colliery in the unsightly pumping-engine surrounded by heaps of ashes, coal-dust, and slag; while a neighbouring iron-furnace, in full blast, throws out dense smoke and loud jets of steam by day, and lurid flames at night. These works form the nucleus of the village, which is almost entirely occupied by coal miners and iron-furnace men.
There is nothing to interest one in the village itself. But a few hundred yards from its eastern extremity stands a humble detached dwelling, which will be interesting to many as the birthplace of George Stephenson, the Railway Engineer. It is a common, two-storied, red-tiled building, portioned off into four labourers' apartments. The house is known by the name of High Street House, and was originally so called because it stands by the side of what used to be the old riding Post Road or Street, between Newcastle and Hexham, along which the Post was carried on horseback within the memory of people still living. At an earlier period, this road used to be so unsafe that the Judges, when on circuit, were escorted along it by a considerable body of armed men, as a protection against the freebooters who infested the district. A sum of money, denominated "dagger money," was annually contributed by the Sheriff of Newcastle, for the purpose of providing daggers and other weapons for the escort; and it is a curious fact that this tribute still continues to be paid in broad gold pieces of Charles the First's coinage, though the necessity for it has long since ceased.*
The lower room in the west end of the humble cottage referred to, was the home of the Stephenson family; and there George Stephenson was born on the 9th of June, 1781. The apartment is now, what it was then, an ordinary labourer's dwelling, — its walls unplastered, its floor of clay, and the bare rafters are exposed overhead.
Robert Stephenson, or "Old Bob," as the neighbours familiarly called him, and his wife Mabel, were a respectable couple, careful and hard working. They belonged to the ancient and honourable family of Workers — that extensive family which constitutes the backbone of our country's greatness— the common working people of England. A tradition is, indeed, preserved in the family, that old Robert Stephenson's father and mother came across the Border from Scotland, on the loss of considerable property there: Miss Stephenson, daughter of Robert Stephenson's third son John, states that
* Notes and Queries, December 27th, 1856.
Chap. I.] HIS MOTHER. ~ 3
a suit was even commenced for the recovery of the property, but was dropt for want of means to prosecute it. Certain it is, however, that Robert Stephenson's position throughout life was that of a humble workman. After marrying at Walbottle, a village situated between Wylam and Newcastle, he removed with his wife Mabel to Wylam, where he found employment as fireman of the old pumping-engine at that colliery. The engine which he "fired" has long since been removed: as an old villager said of it, "she stood till she grew fearsome to look at, and then she was pulled down."
Mabel Stephenson was the only daughter of Robert Carr, a dyer at Ovingham. Her family had dwelt in the neighbourhood of Newcastle for generations. The author, when engaged in tracing the early history of George Stephenson, casually entered into conversation one day with an old man near Dewley, a hamlet close adjoining Walbottle. Mabel Stephenson, he said, had been his mother's cousin; and all their "forbears" belonged to that neighbourhood. It appears that she was a woman of somewhat delicate constitution, nervous in temperament, and troubled occasionally, as her neighbours said, with the "vapours." But those who remember her concur in asserting that " she was a rale canny body." And a woman of whom this is said by general consent, in' the Newcastle district, may be pronounced a worthy person indeed. It is about the highest praise of a woman which Northumbrians can express. The meaning of the word "canny" with them is quite different from that which it bears in Yorkshire or the Scotch Lowlands. To be "canny," amongst the Scotch, is to be somewhat innocuous and rather soft; in Yorkshire, it means sly and knowing, with an assumed simplicity of manner; but in Northumberland, it means goodness itself—something closely approaching to perfection. Applied to a woman, it " caps" every other compliment, and is a climax to them all.