Who was George Stephenson?
A self-taught engineer who developed the ‘Rocket’, an early locomotive, and built the first passenger railways.
Top 10 facts
- Stephenson was one of six children born into a poor mining family in Wylam, Northumberland on June 9th, 1781.
- His father, Robert, worked on the engines that were used to pump water from the mines and the young George Stephenson longed to be in charge of these steam-driven engines.
- As a young boy he had a number of jobs before going down the pit to mine coal at the age of ten. At 14 he became an assistant fireman and later worked on the winding machine which pulled the cages of miners up from the pit face.
- George did to know how to read or write until he was 18. He went to night school and taught himself over a three-year period. He wanted to learn as much as possible about engines.
- After George’s wife died, leaving him with a young son, Robert, George decided to go to Scotland and study engines. Later Robert helped his father on many projects and became a famous engineer and bridge builder in his own right.
- In 1811 George fixed the broken pump engine at a local flooded mine and impressed the owners. This led to him being promoted and acknowledged as a local expert on engines.
- He persuaded local backers to support his plan for a locomotive engine. In 1814 he built ‘Blucher’, his first locomotive, which travelled at 4mph whilst pulling a load of 30 tons.
- in 1823 Stephenson opened a locomotive factory in Newcastle. Two years later the first journey of his ‘Locomotion No 1’ with its carriage ‘Experiment” took place. The ‘Locomotion’ cost £500 to build, could carry 450 passengers and travel at 15 mph.
- In 1828 the Railway Board announced a competition to determine which was the best engine. Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’ beat four other entrants on the grounds of weight, speed, power and reliability. The ‘Rocket’ successfully completed ten laps of the track at Rainhill achieving the dazzling speed of 29 mph on the final lap.
- The Stockton to Darlington line was the world's first passenger railway. The Manchester Liverpool Railway was opened in 1830 and in 1838 the line from Birmingham to London was completed.
- 9th June 1781George Stephenson born Wylam Northumberland
- c1791Stephenson starts work at the mine
- c1795He becomes an assistant fireman
- 1802Stephenson marries Frances Henderson
- 1803Robert Stephenson born
- 1805/6Frances Stephenson dies
- 1814Stephenson builds his first locomotive, ‘Blucher'
- 1815Stephenson invents a mining lamp
- 1819First Railway at Hetton Colliery
- 1823Stephenson opens his locomotive factory in Newcastle
- 27th September 1825First journey of Locomotion No 1 on Stockton to Darlington line
- 1829The Rainhill trials; ‘Rocket’ proves its superiority over other engines
- 15th September 1830Manchester to Liverpool Railway opens; William Huskisson MP run over and killed by Rocket
- 1838London to Birmingham Railway completed
- 12th August 1848Death of George Stephenson
- 1859Death of Robert Stephenson
Did you know?
- The first man to be killed on the railways was a member of parliament, William Huskisson. He was knocked down by the Rocket at the opening of the Manchester to Liverpool Railway in 1830.
- Stephenson’s early locomotives had no brakes and had to be stopped by disconnecting the engine and the gears.
- In 1825 40,000 people came to watch the first journey of ‘Locomotion No 1’.
- Local miners preferred Stephenson’s mining lamp to that of Sir Humphrey Davy. They called the lamp ‘The Geordie’, after its inventor – a term used today to describe people who come from the North East.
- Robert Stephenson became almost as famous as his father. He became a Member of Parliament and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
- The standard gauge (4 feet, 8 1/2 inches) for railway tracks that Stephenson invented is still used all around the world.
Look through the gallery and see if you can spot the following:
- The cottage where George Stephenson was born
- George Stephenson on a £5 Note
- George Stephenson on a stamp
- George Stephenson as an older man
- A drawing of the Rocket
- A painting of the opening of the first railway
- Tapton House where Stephenson lived from 1832 until his death in 1848
A self-taught man from a poor background, George Stephenson combined his thirst for knowledge with a strong sense of self- belief and patience in the face of criticism.
Sir Humphrey Davy believed, wrongly, that Stephenson had stolen his idea for a miner’s lamp and there was much bitter feeling between the two.
Some people looked down on Stephenson because of his humble birth, but many more admired him for the obstacles he had overcome.
Many people feared that the speed and vibration of rail travel would prove to be bad for people's health and perhaps even be fatal. Others worried that by enabling poor people to move around the country the new railways could be a threat to law and order. Stephenson won over many objectors by persuading them that the railways would make money for them!
Stephenson was not the first man to invent a locomotive. In 1801 Richard Trevithick had invented a steam locomotive that ran on the roads, but his attempts to produce rail locomotives foundered due to the difficulty of producing rails strong enough for the heavy engine to run on.
Through careful observation and experiment Stephenson was able to develop the ideas of Trevithick and other pioneers. Stephenson had a creative and enquiring mind, inventing a mining lamp, a means of increasing the productivity of chickens and a frame for growing straight cucumbers! He also worked on the development of railway tracks and bridge building.
Although the Industrial Revolution was underway by the time of Stephenson’s birth his inventions accelerated the pace of change and altered the face of the landscape forever. Coal and engines powered the mills and Stephenson’s railways enabled the transport of goods and material cheaply over long distances at speeds far faster than had previously been possible. Britain became very prosperous as a result of these developments.
The railways changed the lives of ordinary people. It was now possible to travel long distances relatively swiftly and at low cost. Trips to the countryside, to the seaside and to the big cities now became possible.
Robert Stephenson (1803-1859) – George Stephenson’s son, also an engineer, he worked alongside his father and was instrumental in the development of the Rocket. He went on to become a famous bridge builder and later a member of parliament.
William Huskisson (1770-1830) – MP for Liverpool. He was killed by the Rocket at the opening of the Manchester to Liverpool Railway becoming the first ever casualty of the railways.
Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) – the hero of Waterloo and English Prime Minister from 1828-1830. He was a bit doubtful about the railways at first but was won over when he learned that they could make money. He attended the opening of the Manchester to Liverpool Railway. Witnessing the death of Huskisson put him off railway travel for life!
Just for fun...
- Build an engine game
- Test your knowledge of George Stephenson
- Print out and colour in a picture of the Rocket
- Take a Victorian train to the seaside
Find out more
- Watch a BBC Bitesize video about the story of the steam engine
- Find out more about the very first trains
- An animation showing how the Rocket worked
- How does a steam engine work?
- Find out more about how the railways changed Victorian Britain
- Watch a video about the scientific achievements of Thomas Newcomen and James Watt, who first transferred transfer heat energy into useable power using steam engines