History has been a little unkind to Robert Stephenson (1803-1859); often overshadowed by his father George, aka ‘The Father of Railways’. Many achievements attributed to George were in fact joint efforts. And in truth, the famous Rocket locomotive (click here to see an animated Rocket) was more the product of his own homework than that of his old man’s.
The Stephenson’s background has since been covered by the cobwebs of time. In an age where social mobility hadn’t even been defined, his father rose to success by climbing the career ladder with literally no education.
George poured most of his early fortune into Robert’s education, but witness accounts paint the picture of bullying from upper-class peers and indifference from teachers; Robert was forced to battle for recognition.
Back in their day, Victorian society held them as popular heroes, rising up through sheer determination against societal odds. But this underdog story has ceded space in the history books to the details of their vast work.
Work that ultimately proved ground-breaking; Robert beat the odds and took on his father’s legacy from a young age and through the first railway expansion dared to break convention to make a better world.
The Dawn of the Railway
At that time there was considerable opposition to the railways. Critics claimed heads would fall off, noise would stop cows producing milk and sheep would turn black from the smoke. Lord Derby was one of “three of Lancashire’s great men” who led the opposition to the Liverpool & Manchester Railway scheme. The line was planned to run across his estates – and he opposed the scheme vigorously – as can be seen in his archived letters. Clearly engaging with stakeholders was as important in the 19th century as it is today.
Robert inherited a world where people barely travelled beyond their village, continents took months to cross and fish stayed by the coast; but his railways transformed it to one where holidays were no longer fantastical notions, an industrial revolution would change the country immeasurably and cod and chips could sit on any plate, the national dish.
His mode of transport has become an inescapable part of many people’s lives. Europe’s current largest construction project – the Crossrail train line in London – would not exist without his work. So ingrained are trains in today’s economies, it will bring £42 billion of economic benefit to the city over its lifetime.
Father and Son
The following video provides an insight into how the Stevenson’s father-and-son relationship helped them succeed.
Some of Robert Stephenson’s more significant projects include: