Viaduct across the Sankey


George Stephenson is rightly known as a great engineer. He is primarily associated with railways but he was active in other areas – there were lively debates, encompassing supporter’s gatherings, witness statements and letters, discussing whether he or Humphrey Davy invented the safety lamp. Here at IMechE, we hold a large collection of Stephenson material, both for George and Robert, and their companies – including the aforementioned safety lamp material. Recently we have been able to make sections of the Stephenson Collections publicly available online, although more sits in our archive in London today we will look at some of the online items that are ripe for study.

Stephenson 30 Nov 1843 p1.jpg
Stephenson to Longridge, 30 Nov 1843 p1

Our own investigations into George Stephenson’s letters point to subjects of great interest contained within such as disputes over land use and railway routes which echo current wrangling over HS2. In one letter to Michael Longridge, Stephenson’s frustration seems to reach a fever point – Stephenson states he shall become a Tory and buy some land in Newcastle so to circumnavigate Lord Howick’s opposition to the proposed route for the Newcastle to Berwick Railway. He observes that the route through England and Scotland should not be turned aside because of Howick and remarks that legislators should look to the comfort of the public and not the few as “times are changed” (30 Nov 1843). He is clearly astonished by Howick’s opposition, the latter was a continued opponent but as the letters show, he was not alone in not wanting railway lines through/near his land. Yet other opponents didn’t want the lines rivalling profitable canal routes they owned. As far as we are aware, these letters have never been fully studied.

Water Street Station
Water Street Station, L&MR

Many of the letters reference major railway projects and associated engineers. Material about one of the most famous is in a related collection however. The Liverpool and Manchester Railway (L&MR) papers include details of the famous crossing of Chat Moss such as a hitherto unknown sheet of costings for the crossing. The Railway route included several engineering challenges such as how to cross a bog, how to tunnel and how to cross a valley. The initial 1823 survey for the line was carried out by William James but was considered defective, so in 1824 George Stephenson was appointed engineer in his place. Stephenson was then replaced by George and John Rennie, who chose Charles Blacker Vignoles as their surveyor. The crossing of Chat Moss saw both Rennie’s and the Vignoles resign and led to the return of Stephenson as engineer with Joseph Locke as his assistant (later removed). The L&MR papers include reports by Stephenson on Locke and Vignoles (and others), the costing and illustrations. As far as we known these have not been studied by a historian.

George Stephenson's cucumber straightener
George Stephenson’s cucumber straightener

Curiosities in the collection include a glass tube which you can now see online. In retirement, Stephenson invented this odd object as his solution to cucumbers growing bent. Apparently he was determined that his should grow straight – his tubes were employed in his greenhouses to this end! Some less bizarre but equally as rare objects are his railway tokens, or passes, made from fine materials such as mother of pearl. They are engraved with the name of Stephenson and the relevant railway company; they afforded him free travel on their routes. These are too delicate for public view and handling but have been photographed and can be seen online. They were unknown until recently (there are tokens in other locations but not for Stephenson, as far as we know). [You will need Adobe Flash Player to see the 3D artefacts.]

All the online Stephenson items can be seen via Virtual Archive. To search all our Stephenson items, not just those online, you can use our online catalogue. Items not online can be seen by appointment at 1 Birdcage Walk, please email us to book a viewing.

Archive, Institution of Mechanical Engineers

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