George Stephenson (1781-1848)
The life and times of George Stephenson are widely documented for all who wish to make a study of him, so this short biography mainly deals with his days in Chesterfield, Derbyshire.
George Stephenson is most famously remembered for coming from a very humble background to building the world’s first public railway between Stockton and Darlington and the ‘Rocket’, which won the Rainhill trials in 1829. The opening of the Stockton to Darlington railway and the success of the 'Rocket' inspired the laying of railway lines and the construction of locomotives all over the country. He became chief engineer on a number of these projects and was consulted on the development of railways in Belgium, France and Spain.
Stephenson’s attention was first drawn to the Chesterfield area in 1837, when he was asked to survey and supervise the construction of the North Midland Railway. When cutting the Clay Cross tunnel a rich seam of coal was found and, as a result, he formed the Clay Cross Company in 1837. Stephenson was the chairman of the company and, within a few years, it employed more than 1,000 people.
George was so struck with the mineral resources of the area that he purchased land at Clay Cross and sank a coal mine. The produce of this mine was sent to Ambergate and applied to the production of lime.
A keen gardener, Stephenson corresponded often with Joseph Paxton, head gardener at nearby Chatsworth. Years before genetic intervention, he became fascinated by the prospect of growing straight cucumbers. The system he used to achieve this is part of the George Stephenson collection at Chesterfield Museum and is often on display.
Another of his hobbies, rooted in his early days in Wylam in Northumberland, was wrestling. Ned Nelson, the village bully often picked on young George, who in turn, attempting to avoid flailing fists, would wrestle his opponent to the ground. This was the start of a lifelong passion for the sport. A few months before his death, whilst visiting his son Robert at his home in London, George challenged his old friend George Bidder to an impromptu wrestle, the result being three broken chairs and a hefty joiner’s repair bill!
He also kept bees but was disappointed by the low levels of honey they produced. He came to the conclusion that the bees were tired by having to fly to their hives at the top of Tapton Hill in the grounds of his Chesterfield home, Tapton House. He moved the hives to the bottom of the Hill and was rewarded by more honey!
During his lifetime George married three times. Aged 21 he married farm servant Frances Henderson, who was twelve years his senior. She gave birth to Robert. She died of tuberculosis four years later. Some time later, he married farmer’s daughter Elizabeth Hindmarsh, She was his first love, but they had been forbidden to marry because of his lowly status. Elizabeth vowed never to marry another, and kept her promise, eventually getting her man 20 years later. She died in 1845, and George subsequently married his housekeeper, Ellen Gregory from Bakewell. Ellen was to outlive George.
Stephenson died on 12 August 1848 in Chesterfield. He is buried in a simple tomb inside the town’s Holy Trinity Church on Newbold Road. The Church’s stained glass east window was installed in his memory by his son Robert who was also a railway engineer and worked with his father on many of his projects. Despite a call to have him interred in Westminster Abbey (where Robert was buried in 1859), George insisted that he have a simple send off and be buried next to his beloved Elizabeth.