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Biographies of Working Men by Grant Allen

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This etext was produced by Charles Aldarondo Aldarondo@yahoo.com
and Don Lainson dlainson@sympatico.ca














My acknowledgments are due to Dr. Smiles's "Lives of the
Engineers," "Life of the Stephensons," and "Life of a Scotch
Naturalist;" to Lady Eastlake's "Life of Gibson;" to Mr. Holden's
"Life of Sir William Herschel;" to M. Seusier's "J. F. Millet, Sa
Vie et Ses Oeuvres;" and to Mr. Thayer's "Life of President
Garfield;" from which most of the facts here narrated have been





High up among the heather-clad hills which form the broad dividing
barrier between England and Scotland, the little river Esk brawls
and bickers over its stony bed through a wild land of barren
braesides and brown peat mosses, forming altogether some of the
gloomiest and most forbidding scenery in the whole expanse of
northern Britain. Almost the entire bulk of the counties of
Dumfries, Kirkcudbright, and Ayr is composed of just such solemn
desolate upland wolds, with only a few stray farms or solitary
cottages sprinkled at wide distances over their bare bleak surface,
and with scarcely any sign of life in any part save the little
villages which cluster here and there at long intervals around some
stern and simple Scottish church. Yet the hardy people who inhabit
this wild and chilly moorland country may well be considered to rank
among the best raw material of society in the whole of Britain; for
from the peasant homes of these southern Scotch Highlands have come
forth, among a host of scarcely less distinguished natives, three
men, at least, who deserve to take their place in the very front
line of British thinkers or workers--Thomas Telford, Robert Burns,
and Thomas Carlyle. By origin, all three alike belonged in the very
strictest sense to the working classes; and the story of each is
full of lessons or of warnings for every one of us: but that of
Telford is perhaps the most encouraging and the most remarkable of
all, as showing how much may be accomplished by energy and
perseverance, even under the most absolutely adverse and difficult

Near the upper end of Eskdale, in the tiny village of Westerkirk,
a young shepherd's wife gave birth to a son on the 9th of August,
1757. Her husband, John Telford, was employed in tending sheep on
a neighbouring farm, and he and his Janet occupied a small cottage
close by, with mud walls and rudely thatched roof, such as in
southern England even the humblest agricultural labourer would
scarcely consent willingly to inhabit. Before the child was three
months old, his father died; and Janet Telford was left alone in
the world with her unweaned baby. But in remote country districts,
neighbours are often more neighbourly than in great towns; and a
poor widow can manage to eke out a livelihood for herself with an
occasional lift from the helping hands of friendly fellow-
villagers. Janet Telford had nothing to live upon save her own ten
fingers; but they were handy enough, after the sturdy Scotch
fashion, and they earned some sort of livelihood in a humble way
for herself and her fatherless boy. The farmers about found her
work on their farms at haymaking or milking, and their wives took
the child home with them while its mother was busy labouring in the
harvest fields. Amid such small beginnings did the greatest of
English engineers before the railway era receive his first hard
lessons in the art of life.

After her husband's death, the poor widow removed from her old
cottage to a still more tiny hut, which she shared with a
neighbour--a very small hut, with a single door for both families;
and here young Tam Telford spent most of his boyhood in the quiet
honourable poverty of the uncomplaining rural poor. As soon as he
was big enough to herd sheep, he was turned out upon the hillside
in summer like any other ragged country laddie, and in winter he
tended cows, receiving for wages only his food and money enough to
cover the cost of his scanty clothing. He went to school, too;
how, nobody now knows: but he DID go, to the parish school of
Westerkirk, and there he learnt with a will, in the winter months,
though he had to spend the summer on the more profitable task of
working in the fields. To a steady earnest boy like young Tam
Telford, however, it makes all the difference in the world that he
should have been to school, no matter how simply. Those twenty-six
letters of the alphabet, once fairly learnt, are the key, after
all, to all the book-learning in the whole world. Without them,
the shepherd-boy might remain an ignorant, unprogressive shepherd
all his life long, even his undeniable native energy using itself
up on nothing better than a wattled hurdle or a thatched roof; with
them, the path is open before him which led Tam Telford at last to
the Menai Bridge And Westminster Abbey.

When Tam had gradually eaten his way through enough thin oatmeal
porridge (with very little milk, we fear) to make him into a hearty
lad of fifteen, it began to be high time for him to choose himself
a final profession in life, such as he was able. And here already
the born tastes of the boy began to show themselves: for he had no
liking for the homely shepherd's trade; he felt a natural desire
for a chisel and a hammer--the engineer was there already in the
grain--and he was accordingly apprenticed to a stonemason in the
little town of Lochmaben, beyond the purple hills to eastward. But
his master was a hard man; he had small mercy for the raw lad; and
after trying to manage with him for a few months, Tam gave it up,
took the law into his own hands, and ran away. Probably the
provocation was severe, for in after-life Telford always showed
himself duly respectful to constituted authority; and we know that
petty self-made master-workmen are often apt to be excessively
severe to their own hired helpers, and especially to helpless lads
or young apprentices. At any rate, Tam wouldn't go back; and in
the end, a well-to-do cousin, who had risen to the proud position
of steward at the great hall of the parish, succeeded in getting
another mason at Langholm, the little capital of Eskdale, to take
over the runaway for the remainder of the term of his indentures.

At Langholm, a Scotch country town of the quietest and sleepiest
description, Tam Telford passed the next eight years of his
uneventful early life, first as an apprentice, and afterwards as a
journeyman mason of the humblest type. He had a good mother, and
he was a good son. On Saturday nights he generally managed to walk
over to the cottage at Westerkirk, and accompany the poor widow to
the Sunday services at the parish kirk. As long as she lived,
indeed, he never forgot her; and one of the first tasks he set
himself when he was out of his indentures was to cut a neat
headstone with a simple but beautiful inscription for the grave of
that shepherd father whom he had practically never seen. At
Langholm, an old maiden lady, Miss Pasley, interested herself
kindly in Janet Telford's rising boy. She lent him what of all
things the eager lad most needed--books; and the young mason
applied himself to them in all his spare moments with the vigorous
ardour and perseverance of healthy youth. The books he read were
not merely those which bore directly or indirectly upon his own
craft: if they had been, Tam Telford might have remained nothing
more than a journeyman mason all the days of his life. It is a
great mistake, even from the point of view of mere worldly success,
for a young man to read or learn only what "pays" in his particular
calling; the more he reads and learns, the more will he find that
seemingly useless things "pay" in the end, and that what apparently
pays least, often really pays most in the long run. This is not
the only or the best reason why every man should aim at the highest
possible cultivation of his own talents, be they what they may; but
it is in itself a very good reason, and it is a sufficient answer
for those who would deter us from study of any high kind on the
ground that it "does no good." Telford found in after-life that
his early acquaintance with sound English literature did do him a
great deal of good: it opened and expanded his mind; it trained his
intelligence; it stored his brain with images and ideas which were
ever after to him a source of unmitigated delight and unalloyed
pleasure. He read whenever he had nothing else to do. He read
Milton with especial delight; and he also read the verses that his
fellow-countryman, Rob Burns, the Ayrshire ploughman, was then just
beginning to speak straight to the heart of every aspiring Scotch
peasant lad. With these things Tam Telford filled the upper
stories of his brain quite as much as with the trade details of his
own particular useful handicraft; and the result soon showed that
therein Tam Telford had not acted uncannily or unwisely.

Nor did he read only; he wrote too--verses, not very good, nor yet
very bad, but well expressed, in fairly well chosen language, and
with due regard to the nice laws of metre and of grammar, which is
in itself a great point. Writing verse is an occupation at which
only very few even among men of literary education ever really
succeed; and nine-tenths of published verse is mere mediocre
twaddle, quite unworthy of being put into the dignity of print.
Yet Telford did well for all that in trying his hand, with but poor
result, at this most difficult and dangerous of all the arts. His
rhymes were worth nothing as rhymes; but they were worth a great
deal as discipline and training: they helped to form the man, and
that in itself is always something. Most men who have in them the
power to do any great thing pass in early life through a verse-
making stage. The verses never come to much; but they leave their
stamp behind them; and the man is all the better in the end for
having thus taught himself the restraint, the command of language,
the careful choice of expressions, the exercise of deliberate pains
in composition, which even bad verse-making necessarily implies.
It is a common mistake of near-sighted minds to look only at the
immediate results of things, without considering their remoter
effects. When Tam Telford, stonemason of Langholm, began at
twenty-two years of age to pen poetical epistles to Robert Burns,
most of his fellow-workmen doubtless thought he was giving himself
up to very foolish and nonsensical practices; but he was really
helping to educate Thomas Telford, engineer of the Holyhead Road
and the Caledonian Canal, for all his future usefulness and

As soon as Tam was out of his indentures, he began work as a
journeyman mason at Langholm on his own account, at the not very
magnificent wages of eighteenpence a day. That isn't much; but at
any rate it is an independence. Besides building many houses in
his own town, Tam made here his first small beginning in the matter
of roads and highways, by helping to build a bridge over the Esk at
Langholm. He was very proud of his part in this bridge, and to the
end of his life he often referred to it as his first serious
engineering work. Many of the stones still bear his private mark,
hewn with the tool into their solid surface, with honest
workmanship which helps to explain his later success. But the
young mason was beginning to discover that Eskdale was hardly a
wide enough field for his budding ambition. He could carve the
most careful headstones; he could cut the most ornamental copings
for doors or windows; he could even build a bridge across the
roaring flooded Esk; but he wanted to see a little of the great
world, and learn how men and masons went about their work in the
busy centres of the world's activity. So, like a patriotic
Scotchman that he was, he betook himself straight to Edinburgh,
tramping it on foot, of course, for railways did not yet exist, and
coaches were not for the use of such as young Thomas Telford.

He arrived in the grey old capital of Scotland in the very nick
of time. The Old Town, a tangle of narrow alleys and close
courtyards, surrounded by tall houses with endless tiers of floors,
was just being deserted by the rich and fashionable world for the
New Town, which lies beyond a broad valley on the opposite
hillside, and contains numerous streets of solid and handsome stone
houses, such as are hardly to be found in any other town in
Britain, except perhaps Bath and Aberdeen. Edinburgh is always,
indeed, an interesting place for an enthusiastic lover of building,
be he architect or stonemason; for instead of being built of brick
like London and so many other English centres, it is built partly
of a fine hard local sandstone and partly of basaltic greenstone;
and besides its old churches and palaces, many of the public
buildings are particularly striking and beautiful architectural
works. But just at the moment when young Telford walked wearily
into Edinburgh at the end of his long tramp, there was plenty for a
stout strong mason to do in the long straight stone fronts of the
rising New Town. For two years, he worked away patiently at his
trade in "the grey metropolis of the North;" and he took advantage
of the special opportunities the place afforded him to learn
drawing, and to make minute sketches in detail of Holyrood Palace,
Heriot's Hospital, Roslyn Chapel, and all the other principal old
buildings' in which the neighbourhood of the capital is particularly
rich. So anxious, indeed, was the young mason to perfect himself by
the study of the very best models in his own craft, that when at the
end of two years he walked back to revisit his good mother in
Eskdale, he took the opportunity of making drawings of Melrose
Abbey, the most exquisite and graceful building that the artistic
stone-cutters of the Middle Ages have handed down to our time in all

This visit to Eskdale was really Telford's last farewell to his old
home, before setting out on a journey which was to form the
turning-point in his own history, and in the history of British
engineering as well. In Scotch phrase, he was going south. And
after taking leave of his mother (not quite for the last time) he
went south in good earnest, doing this journey on horseback; for
his cousin the steward had lent him a horse to make his way
southward like a gentleman. Telford turned where all enterprising
young Scotchmen of his time always turned: towards the unknown
world of London--that world teeming with so many possibilities of
brilliant success or of miserable squalid failure. It was the year
1782, and the young man was just twenty-five. No sooner had he
reached the great city than he began looking about him for suitable
work. He had a letter of introduction to the architect of Somerset
House, whose ornamental fronts were just then being erected, facing
the Strand and the river; and Telford was able to get a place at
once on the job as a hewer of the finer architectural details, for
which both his taste and experience well fitted him. He spent some
two years in London at this humble post as a stone-cutter; but
already he began to aspire to something better. He earned first-
class mason's wages now, and saved whatever he did not need for
daily expenses. In this respect, the improvidence of his English
fellow-workmen struck the cautious young Scotchman very greatly.
They lived, he said, from week to week entirely; any time beyond a
week seemed unfortunately to lie altogether outside the range of
their limited comprehension.

At the end of two years in London, Telford's skill and study began
to bear good fruit. His next engagement was one which raised him
for the first time in his life above the rank of a mere journeyman
mason. The honest workman had attracted the attention of competent
judges. He obtained employment as foreman of works of some
important buildings in Portsmouth Dockyard. A proud man indeed was
Thomas Telford at this change of fortune, and very proudly he wrote
to his old friends in Eskdale, with almost boyish delight, about
the trust reposed in him by the commissioners and officers, and the
pains he was taking with the task entrusted to him. For he was
above all things a good workman, and like all good workmen he felt
a pride and an interest in all the jobs he took in hand. His sense
of responsibility and his sensitiveness, indeed, were almost too
great at times for his own personal comfort. Things WILL go wrong
now and then, even with the greatest care; well-planned undertakings
will not always pay, and the best engineering does not necessarily
succeed in earning a dividend; but whenever such mishaps occurred to
his employers, Telford felt the disappointment much too keenly, as
though he himself had been to blame for their miscalculations or
over-sanguine hopes. Still, it is a good thing to put one's heart
in one's work, and so much Thomas Telford certainly did.

About this time, too, the rising young mason began to feel that he
must get a little more accurate scientific knowledge. The period
for general study had now passed by, and the period for special
trade reading had set in. This was well. A lad cannot do better
than lay a good foundation of general knowledge and general
literature during the period when he is engaged in forming his
mind: a young man once fairly launched in life may safely confine
himself for a time to the studies that bear directly upon his own
special chosen subject. The thing that Telford began closely to
investigate was--lime. Now, lime makes mortar; and without lime,
accordingly, you can have no mason. But to know anything really
about lime, Telford found he must read some chemistry; and to know
anything really about chemistry he must work at it hard and
unremittingly. A strict attention to one's own business, understood
in this very broad and liberal manner, is certainly no bad thing for
any struggling handicraftsman, whatever his trade or profession may
happen to be.

In 1786, when Telford was nearly thirty, a piece of unexpected good
luck fell to his lot. And yet it was not so much good luck as due
recognition of his sterling qualities by a wealthy and appreciative
person. Long before, while he was still in Eskdale, one Mr.
Pulteney, a man of social importance, who had a large house in the
bleak northern valley, had asked his advice about the repairs of
his own mansion. We may be sure that Telford did his work on that
occasion carefully and well; for now, when Mr. Pulteney wished to
restore the ruins of Shrewsbury Castle as a dwelling-house, he
sought out the young mason who had attended to his Scotch property,
and asked him to superintend the proposed alterations in his
Shropshire castle. Nor was that all: by Mr. Pulteney's influence,
Telford was shortly afterwards appointed to be county surveyor of
public works, having under his care all the roads, bridges, gaols,
and public buildings in the whole of Shropshire. Thus the Eskdale
shepherd-boy rose at last from the rank of a working mason, and
attained the well-earned dignity of an engineer and a professional

Telford had now a fair opportunity of showing the real stuff of
which he was made. Those, of course, were the days when railroads
had not yet been dreamt of; when even roads were few and bad; when
communications generally were still in a very disorderly and
unorganized condition. It is Telford's special glory that he
reformed and altered this whole state of things; he reduced the
roads of half Britain to system and order; he made the finest
highways and bridges then ever constructed; and by his magnificent
engineering works, especially his aqueducts, he paved the way
unconsciously but surely for the future railways. If it had not
been for such great undertakings as Telford's Holyhead Road, which
familiarized men's minds with costly engineering operations, it is
probable that projectors would long have stood aghast at the
alarming expense of a nearly level iron road running through tall
hills and over broad rivers the whole way from London to

At first, Telford's work as county surveyor lay mostly in very
small things indeed--mere repairs of sidepaths or bridges, which
gave him little opportunity to develop his full talents as a born
engineer. But in time, being found faithful in small things, his
employers, the county magistrates, began to consult him more and
more on matters of comparative importance. First, it was a bridge
to be built across the Severn; then a church to be planned at
Shrewsbury, and next, a second church in Coalbrookdale. If he was
thus to be made suddenly into an architect, Telford thought, almost
without being consulted in the matter, he must certainly set out to
study architecture. So, with characteristic vigour, he went to
work to visit London, Worcester, Gloucester, Bath, and Oxford, at
each place taking care to learn whatever was to be learned in the
practice of his new art. Fortunately, however, for Telford and for
England, it was not architecture in the strict sense that he was
finally to practise as a real profession. Another accident, as
thoughtless people might call it, led him to adopt engineering in
the end as the path in life he elected to follow. In 1793, he was
appointed engineer to the projected Ellesmere Canal.

In the days before railways, such a canal as this was an
engineering work of the very first importance. It was to connect
the Mersey, the Dee, and the Severn, and it passed over ground
which rendered necessary some immense aqueducts on a scale never
before attempted by British engineers. Even in our own time, every
traveller by the Great Western line between Chester and Shrewsbury
must have observed on his right two magnificent ranges as high
arches, which are as noticeable now as ever for their boldness,
their magnitude, and their exquisite construction. The first of
these mighty archways is the Pont Cysylltau aqueduct which carries
the Ellesmere Canal across the wide valley of the Dee, known as the
Vale of Llangollen; the second is the Chirk aqueduct, which takes
it over the lesser glen of a minor tributary, the Ceriog. Both
these beautiful works were designed and carried out entirely by
Telford. They differ from many other great modern engineering
achievements in the fact that, instead of spoiling the lovely
mountain scenery into whose midst they have been thrown, they
actually harmonize with it and heighten its natural beauty. Both
works, however, are splendid feats, regarded merely as efforts of
practical skill; and the larger one is particularly memorable for
the peculiarity that the trough for the water and the elegant
parapet at the side are both entirely composed of iron. Nowadays,
of course, there would be nothing remarkable in the use of such a
material for such a purpose; but Telford was the first engineer to
see the value of iron in this respect, and the Pont Cysylltau
aqueduct was one of the earliest works in which he applied the new
material to these unwonted uses. Such a step is all the more
remarkable, because Telford's own education had lain entirely in
what may fairly be called the "stone age" of English engineering;
while his natural predilections as a stonemason might certainly
have made him rather overlook the value of the novel material. But
Telford was a man who could rise superior to such little accidents
of habit or training; and as a matter of fact there is no other
engineer to whom the rise of the present "iron age" in engineering
work is more directly and immediately to be attributed than to

Meanwhile, the Eskdale pioneer did not forget his mother. For
years he had constantly written to her, in PRINT HAND, so that the
letters might be more easily read by her aged eyes; he had sent her
money in full proportion to his means; and he had taken every
possible care to let her declining years be as comfortable as his
altered circumstances could readily make them. And now, in the
midst of this great and responsible work, he found time to "run
down" to Eskdale (very different "running down" from that which we
ourselves can do by the London and North Western Railway), to see
his aged mother once more before she died. What a meeting that
must have been, between the poor old widow of the Eskdale shepherd,
and her successful son, the county surveyor of Shropshire, and
engineer of the great and important Ellesmere Canal!

While Telford was working busily upon his wonderful canal, he had
many other schemes to carry out of hardly less importance, in
connection with his appointment as county surveyor. His beautiful
iron bridge across the Severn at Buildwas was another application
of his favourite metal to the needs of the new world that was
gradually growing up in industrial England; and so satisfied was he
with the result of his experiment (for though not absolutely the
first, it was one of the first iron bridges ever built) that he
proposed another magnificent idea, which unfortunately was never
carried into execution. Old London Bridge had begun to get a
trifle shaky; and instead of rebuilding it, Telford wished to span
the whole river by a single iron arch, whose splendid dimensions
would have formed one of the most remarkable engineering triumphs
ever invented. The scheme, for some good reason, doubtless, was
not adopted; but it is impossible to look at Telford's grand
drawing of the proposed bridge--a single bold arch, curving across
the Thames from side to side, with the dome of St. Paul's rising
majestically above it--without a feeling of regret that such a
noble piece of theoretical architecture was never realized in
actual fact.

Telford had now come to be regarded as the great practical
authority upon all that concerned roads or communications; and he
was reaping the due money-reward of his diligence and skill. Every
day he was called upon to design new bridges and other important
structures in all parts of the kingdom, but more especially in
Scotland and on the Welsh border. Many of the most picturesque
bridges in Britain, which every tourist has admired, often without
inquiring or thinking of the hand that planned them, were designed
by his inventive brain. The exquisite stone arch which links the
two banks of the lesser Scotch Dee in its gorge at Tongueland is
one of the most picturesque; for Telford was a bit of an artist at
heart, and, unlike too many modern railway constructors, he always
endeavoured to make his bridges and aqueducts beautify rather than
spoil the scenery in whose midst they stood. Especially was he
called in to lay out the great system of roads by which the Scotch
Highlands, then so lately reclaimed from a state of comparative
barbarism, were laid open for the great development they have since
undergone. In the earlier part of the century, it is true, a few
central highways had been run through the very heart of that great
solid block of mountains; but these were purely military roads, to
enable the king's soldiers more easily to march against the
revolted clans, and they had hardly more connection with the life
of the country than the bare military posts, like Fort William and
Fort Augustus, which guarded their ends, had to do with the
ordinary life of a commercial town. Meanwhile, however, the
Highlands had begun gradually to settle down; and Telford's roads
were intended for the far higher and better purpose of opening out
the interior of northern Scotland to the humanizing influences of
trade and industry.

Fully to describe the great work which the mature engineer
constructed in the Highland region, would take up more space than
could be allotted to such a subject anywhere save in a complete
industrial history of roads and travelling in modern Britain. It
must suffice to say that when Telford took the matter in hand, the
vast block of country north and west of the Great Glen of Caledonia
(which divides the Highlands in two between Inverness and Ben
Nevis)--a block comprising the counties of Caithness, Sutherland,
Ross, Cromarty, and half Inverness--had literally nothing within it
worthy of being called a road. Wheeled carts or carriages were
almost unknown, and all burdens were conveyed on pack-horses, or,
worse still, on the broad backs of Highland lassies. The people
lived in small scattered villages, and communications from one to
another were well-nigh impossible. Telford set to work to give the
country, not a road or two, but a main system of roads. First, he
bridged the broad river Tay at Dunkeld, so as to allow of a direct
route straight into the very jaws of the Highlands. Then, he also
bridged over the Beauly at Inverness, so as to connect the opposite
sides of the Great Glen with one another. Next, he laid out a
number of trunk lines, running through the country on both banks,
to the very north of Caithness, and the very west of the Isle of
Skye. Whoever to this day travels on the main thoroughfares in the
greater Scottish Islands--in Arran, Islay, Jura, Mull; or in the
wild peninsula of Morvern, and the Land of Lorne; or through the
rugged regions of Inverness-shire and Ross-shire, where the railway
has not yet penetrated,--travels throughout on Telford's roads.
The number of large bridges and other great engineering
masterpieces on this network of roads is enormous; among the most
famous and the most beautiful, are the exquisite single arch which
spans the Spey just beside the lofty rearing rocks of Craig
Ellachie, and the bridge across the Dee, beneath the purple
heather-clad braes of Ballater. Altogether, on Telford's Highland
roads alone, there are no fewer than twelve hundred bridges.

Nor were these the only important labours by which Telford
ministered to the comfort and well-being of his Scotch fellow-
countrymen. Scotland's debt to the Eskdale stonemason is indeed
deep and lasting. While on land, he improved her communications by
his great lines of roads, which did on a smaller scale for the
Highland valleys what railways have since done for the whole of the
civilized world; he also laboured to improve her means of transit
at sea by constructing a series of harbours along that bare and
inhospitable eastern coast, once almost a desert, but now teeming
with great towns and prosperous industries. It was Telford who
formed the harbour of Wick, which has since grown from a miserable
fishing village into a large town, the capital of the North Sea
herring fisheries. It was he who enlarged the petty port of
Peterhead into the chief station of the flourishing whaling trade.
It was he who secured prosperity for Fraserburgh, and Banff, and
many other less important centres; while even Dundee and Aberdeen,
the chief commercial cities of the east coast, owe to him a large
part of their present extraordinary wealth and industry. When one
thinks how large a number of human beings have been benefited by
Telford's Scotch harbour works alone, it is impossible not to envy
a great engineer his almost unlimited power of permanent usefulness
to unborn thousands of his fellow-creatures.

As a canal-maker, Telford was hardly less successful than as a
constructor of roads and harbours. It is true, his greatest work
in this direction was in one sense a failure. He was employed by
Government for many years as the engineer of the Caledonian Canal,
which runs up the Great Glen of Caledonia, connecting the line of
lakes whose basins occupy that deep hollow in the Highland ranges,
and so avoiding the difficult and dangerous sea voyage round the
stormy northern capes of Caithness. Unfortunately, though the
canal as an engineering work proved to be of the most successful
character, it has never succeeded as a commercial undertaking. It
was built just at the exact moment when steamboats were on the
point of revolutionizing ocean traffic; and so, though in itself a
magnificent and lordly undertaking, it failed to satisfy the
sanguine hopes of its projectors. But though Telford felt most
bitterly the unavoidable ill success of this great scheme, he might
well have comforted himself by the good results of his canal-
building elsewhere. He went to Sweden to lay out the Gotha Canal,
which still forms the main high-road of commerce between Stockholm
and the sea; while in England itself some of his works in this
direction--such as the improvements on the Birmingham Canal, with
its immense tunnel--may fairly be considered as the direct
precursors of the great railway efforts of the succeeding

The most remarkable of all Telford's designs, however, and the one
which most immediately paved the way for the railway system, was
his magnificent Holyhead Road. This wonderful highway he carried
through the very midst of the Welsh mountains, at a comparatively
level height for its whole distance, in order to form a main road
from London to Ireland. On this road occurs Telford's masterpiece
of engineering, the Menai suspension bridge, long regarded as one
of the wonders of the world, and still one of the most beautiful
suspension bridges in all Europe. Hardly less admirable, however,
in its own way is the other suspension bridge which he erected at
Conway, to carry his road across the mouth of the estuary, beside
the grey old castle, with which its charming design harmonizes so
well. Even now it is impossible to drive or walk along this famous
and picturesque highway without being struck at every turn by the
splendid engineering triumphs which it displays throughout its
entire length. The contrast, indeed, between the noble grandeur of
Telford's bridges, and the works on the neighbouring railways, is
by no means flattering in every respect to our too exclusively
practical modern civilization.

Telford was now growing an old man. The Menai bridge was begun in
1819 and finished in 1826, when he was sixty-eight years of age;
and though he still continued to practise his profession, and to
design many valuable bridges, drainage cuts, and other small jobs,
that great undertaking was the last masterpiece of his long and
useful life. His later days were passed in deserved honour and
comparative opulence; for though never an avaricious man, and
always anxious to rate his services at their lowest worth, he had
gathered together a considerable fortune by the way, almost without
seeking it. To the last, his happy cheerful disposition enabled
him to go on labouring at the numerous schemes by which he hoped to
benefit the world of workers; and so much cheerfulness was surely
well earned by a man who could himself look back upon so good a
record of work done for the welfare of humanity. At last, on the
2nd of September, 1834, his quiet and valuable life came gently to
a close, in the seventy-eighth year of his age. He was buried in
Westminster Abbey, and few of the men who sleep within that great
national temple more richly deserve the honour than the Westerkirk
shepherd-boy. For Thomas Telford's life was not merely one of
worldly success; it was still more pre-eminently one of noble ends
and public usefulness. Many working men have raised themselves by
their own exertions to a position of wealth and dignity far
surpassing his; few indeed have conferred so many benefits upon
untold thousands of their fellow-men. It is impossible, even now,
to travel in any part of England, Wales, or Scotland, without
coming across innumerable memorials of Telford's great and useful
life; impossible to read the full record of his labours without
finding that numberless structures we have long admired for their
beauty or utility, owe their origin to the honourable, upright,
hardworking, thorough-going, journeyman mason of the quiet little
Eskdale village. Whether we go into the drained fens of
Lincolnshire, or traverse the broad roads of the rugged Snowdon
region; whether we turn to St. Katharine's Docks in London, or to
the wide quays of Dundee and those of Aberdeen; whether we sail
beneath the Menai suspension bridge at Bangor, or drive over the
lofty arches that rise sheer from the precipitous river gorge at
Cartland, we meet everywhere the lasting traces of that inventive
and ingenious brain. And yet, what lad could ever have started in
the world under apparently more hopeless circumstances than widow
Janet Telford's penniless orphan shepherd-boy Tam, in the bleakest
and most remote of all the lonely border valleys of southern



Any time about the year 1786, a stranger in the streets of the
grimy colliery village of Wylam, near Newcastle, might have passed
by without notice a ragged, barefooted, chubby child of five years
old, Geordie Stephenson by name, playing merrily in the gutter and
looking to the outward eye in no way different from any of the
other colliers' children who loitered about him. Nevertheless,
that ragged boy was yet destined in after-life to alter the whole
face of England and the world by those wonderful railways, which he
more than any other man was instrumental in first constructing; and
the story of his life may rank perhaps as one of the most marvellous
in the whole marvellous history of able and successful British
working men.

George Stephenson was born in June, 1781, the son of a fireman who
tended the pumping engine of the neighbouring colliery, and one of
a penniless family of six children. So poor was his father,
indeed, that the whole household lived in a single room, with bare
floor and mud wall; and little Geordie grew up in his own unkempt
fashion without any schooling whatever, not even knowing A from B
when he was a big lad of seventeen. At an age when he ought to
have been learning his letters, he was bird's-nesting in the fields
or running errands to the Wylam shops; and as soon as he was old
enough to earn a few pence by light work, he was set to tend cows
at the magnificent wages of twopence a day, in the village of
Dewley Burn, close by, to which his father had then removed. It
might have seemed at first as though the future railway engineer
was going to settle down quietly to the useful but uneventful life
of an agricultural labourer; for from tending cows he proceeded in
due time (with a splendid advance of twopence) to leading the
horses at the plough, spudding thistles, and hoeing turnips on his
employer's farm. But the native bent of a powerful mind usually
shows itself very early; and even during the days when Geordie was
still stumbling across the freshly ploughed clods or driving the
cows to pasture with a bunch of hazel twigs, his taste for
mechanics already made itself felt in a very marked and practical
fashion. During all his leisure time, the future engineer and his
chum Bill Thirlwall occupied themselves with making clay models of
engines, and fitting up a winding machine with corks and twine like
those which lifted the colliery baskets. Though Geordie Stephenson
didn't go to school at the village teacher's, he was teaching
himself in his own way by close observation and keen comprehension
of all the machines and engines he could come across.

Naturally, to such a boy, the great ambition of his life was to be
released from the hoeing and spudding, and set to work at his
father's colliery. Great was Geordie's joy, therefore, when at
last he was taken on there in the capacity of a coal-picker, to
clear the loads from stones and rubbish. It wasn't a very
dignified position, to be sure, but it was the first step that led
the way to the construction of the Liverpool and Manchester
Railway. Geordie was now fairly free from the uncongenial drudgery
of farm life, and able to follow his own inclinations in the
direction of mechanical labour. Besides, was he not earning the
grand sum of sixpence a day as picker, increased to eightpence a
little later on, when he rose to the more responsible and serious
work of driving the gin-horse? A proud day indeed it was for him
when, at fourteen, he was finally permitted to aid his father in
firing the colliery engine; though he was still such a very small
boy that he used to run away and hide when the owner went his
rounds of inspection, for fear he should be thought too little to
earn his untold wealth of a shilling a day in such a grown-up
occupation. Humbler beginnings were never any man's who lived to
become the honoured guest, not of kings and princes only, but of
the truly greatest and noblest in the land.

A coal-miner's life is often a very shifting one; for the coal in
particular collieries gets worked out from time to time; and he has
to remove, accordingly, to fresh quarters, wherever employment
happens to be found. This was very much the case with George
Stephenson and his family; all of them being obliged to remove
several times over during his childish days in search of new
openings. Shortly after Geordie had attained to the responsible
position of assistant fireman, his father was compelled, by the
closing of Dewley Burn mine, to get a fresh situation hard by at
Newburn. George accompanied him, and found employment as full
fireman at a small working, whose little engine he undertook to
manage in partnership with a mate, each of them tending the fire
night and day by twelve-hour shifts. Two years later, his wages
were raised to twelve shillings a week, a sure mark of his diligent
and honest work; so that George was not far wrong in remarking to a
fellow-workman at the time that he now considered himself a made
man for life.

During all this time, George Stephenson never for a moment ceased
to study and endeavour to understand the working of every part in
the engine that he tended. He was not satisfied, as too many
workmen are, with merely learning the routine work of his own
trade; with merely knowing that he must turn such and such a tap or
valve in order to produce such and such a desired result: he wanted
to see for himself how and why the engine did this or that, what
was the use and object of piston and cylinder and crank and joint
and condenser--in short, fully to understand the underlying
principle of its construction. He took it to pieces for cleaning
whenever it was needful; he made working models of it after his old
childish pattern; he even ventured to tinker it up when out of
order on his own responsibility. Thus he learnt at last something
of the theory of the steam-engine, and learnt also by the way a
great deal about the general principles of mechanical science.
Still, even now, incredible as it seems, the future father of
railways couldn't yet read; and he found this terrible drawback
told fatally against his further progress. Whenever he wanted to
learn something that he didn't quite understand, he was always
referred for information to a Book. Oh, those books; those
mysterious, unattainable, incomprehensible books; how they must
have bothered and worried poor intelligent and aspiring but still
painfully ignorant young George Stephenson! Though he was already
trying singularly valuable experiments in his own way, he hadn't
yet even begun to learn his letters.

Under these circumstances, George Stephenson, eager and anxious for
further knowledge, took a really heroic resolution. He wasn't
ashamed to go to school. Though now a full workman on his own
account, about eighteen years old, he began to attend the night
school at the neighbouring village of Walbottle, where he took
lessons in reading three evenings every week. It is a great thing
when a man is not ashamed to learn. Many men are; they consider
themselves so immensely wise that they look upon it as an
impertinence in anybody to try to tell them anything they don't
know already. Truly wise or truly great men--men with the
capability in them for doing anything worthy in their generation--
never feel this false and foolish shame. They know that most other
people know some things in some directions which they do not, and
they are glad to be instructed in them whenever opportunity offers.
This wisdom George Stephenson possessed in sufficient degree to
make him feel more ashamed of his ignorance than of the steps
necessary in order to conquer it. Being a diligent and willing
scholar, he soon learnt to read, and by the time he was nineteen he
had learnt how to write also. At arithmetic, a science closely
allied to his native mechanical bent, he was particularly apt, and
beat all the other scholars at the village night school. This
resolute effort at education was the real turning-point in George
Stephenson's remarkable career, the first step on the ladder whose
topmost rung led him so high that he himself must almost have felt
giddy at the unwonted elevation.

Shortly after, young Stephenson gained yet another promotion in
being raised to the rank of brakesman, whose duty it was to slacken
the engine when the full baskets of coal reached the top of the
shaft. This was a more serious and responsible post than any he
had yet filled, and one for which only the best and steadiest
workmen were ever selected. His wages now amounted to a pound a
week, a very large sum in those days for a skilled working-man.

Meanwhile, George, like most other young men, had fallen in love.
His sweetheart, Fanny Henderson, was servant at the small farmhouse
where he had taken lodgings since leaving his father's home; and
though but little is known about her (for she unhappily died before
George had begun to rise to fame and fortune), what little we do
know seems to show that she was in every respect a fitting wife for
the active young brakesman, and a fitting mother for his equally
celebrated son, Robert Stephenson. Fired by the honourable desire
to marry Fanny, with a proper regard for prudence, George set
himself to work to learn cobbling in his spare moments; and so
successfully did he cobble the worn shoes of his fellow-colliers
after working hours, that before long he contrived to save a whole
guinea out of his humble earnings. That guinea was the first step
towards an enormous fortune; a fortune, too, all accumulated by
steady toil and constant useful labour for the ultimate benefit of
his fellow-men. To make a fortune is the smallest and least noble
of all possible personal ambitions; but to save the first guinea
which leads us on at last to independence and modest comfort is
indeed an important turning-point in every prudent man's career.
Geordie Stephenson was so justly proud of his achievement in this
respect that he told a friend in confidence he might now consider
himself a rich man.

By the time George was twenty-one, he had saved up enough by
constant care to feel that he might safely embark on the sea of
housekeeping. He was able to take a small cottage lodging for
himself and Fanny, at Willington Quay, near his work at the moment,
and to furnish it with the simple comfort which was all that their
existing needs demanded. He married Fanny on the 28th of November,
1802; and the young couple proceeded at once to their new home.
Here George laboured harder than ever, as became the head of a
family. He was no more ashamed of odd jobs than he had been of
learning the alphabet. He worked overtime at emptying ballast from
ships; he continued to cobble, to cut lasts, and even to try his
hand at regular shoemaking; furthermore, he actually acquired the
art of mending clocks, a matter which lay strictly in his own line,
and he thus earned a tidy penny at odd hours by doctoring all the
rusty or wheezy old timepieces of all his neighbours. Nor did he
neglect his mechanical education meanwhile for he was always at
work upon various devices for inventing a perpetual motion machine.
Now, perpetual motion is the most foolish will-o'-the-wisp that
ever engaged a sane man's attention: the thing has been proved to
be impossible from every conceivable point of view, and the attempt
to achieve it, if pursued to the last point, can only end in
disappointment if not in ruin. Still, for all that, the work
George Stephenson spent upon this unpractical object did really
help to give him an insight into mechanical science which proved
very useful to him at a later date. He didn't discover perpetual
motion, but he did invent at last the real means for making the
locomotive engine a practical power in the matter of travelling.

A year later, George's only son Robert was born; and from that
moment the history of those two able and useful lives is almost
inseparable. During the whole of George Stephenson's long upward
struggle, and during the hard battle he had afterwards to fight on
behalf of his grand design of railways, he met with truer sympathy,
appreciation, and comfort from his brave and gifted son than from
any other person whatsoever. Unhappily, his pleasure and delight
in the up-bringing of his boy was soon to be clouded for a while by
the one great bereavement of an otherwise singularly placid and
happy existence. Some two years after her marriage, Fanny
Stephenson died, as yet a mere girl, leaving her lonely husband to
take care of their baby boy alone and unaided. Grief for this
irretrievable loss drove the young widower away for a while from
his accustomed field of work among the Tyneside coal-pits; he
accepted an invitation to go to Montrose in Scotland, to overlook
the working of a large engine in some important spinning-works. He
remained in this situation for one year only; but during that time
he managed to give clear evidence of his native mechanical insight
by curing a defect in the pumps which supplied water to his engine,
and which had hitherto defied the best endeavours of the local
engineers. The young father was not unmindful, either, of his duty
to his boy, whom he had left behind with his grandfather on
Tyneside; for he saved so large a sum as 28 pounds during his
engagement, which he carried back with him in his pocket on his
return to England.

A sad disappointment awaited him when at last he arrived at home.
Old Robert Stephenson, the father, had met with an accident during
George's absence which made him quite blind, and incapacitated him
for further work. Helpless and poor, he had no resource to save
him from the workhouse except George; but George acted towards him
exactly as all men who have in them a possibility of any good thing
always do act under similar circumstances. He spent 15 pounds of
his hard-earned savings to pay the debts the poor blind old engine-
man had necessarily contracted during his absence, and he took a
comfortable cottage for his father and mother at Killingworth,
where he had worked before his removal to Scotland, and where he
now once more obtained employment, still as a brakesman. In that
cottage this good and brave son supported his aged parents till
their death, in all the simple luxury that his small means would
then permit him.

That, however, was not the end of George's misfortunes. Shortly
after, he was drawn by lot as a militiaman; and according to the
law of that time (for this was in 1807, during the very height of
the wars against Napoleon) he must either serve in person or else
pay heavily to secure a substitute. George chose regretfully the
latter course--the only one open to him if he wished still to
support his parents and his infant son. But in order to do so, he
had to pay away the whole remainder of his carefully hoarded
savings, and even to borrow 6 pounds to make up the payment for the
substitute. It must have seemed very hard to him to do this, and
many men would have sunk under the blow, become hopeless, or taken
to careless rowdy drinking habits. George Stephenson felt it
bitterly, and gave way for a while to a natural despondency; he
would hardly have been human if he had not; but still, he lived
over it, and in the end worked on again with fuller resolution and
vigour than ever.

For several years Geordie, as his fellow-colliers affectionately
called him, continued to live on at one or other of the Killingworth
collieries. In a short time, he entered into a small contract with
his employers for "brakeing" the engines; and in the course of this
contract, he invented certain improvements in the matter of saving
wear and tear of ropes, which were both profitable to himself and
also in some small degree pointed the way toward his future plans
for the construction of railways. It is true, the two subjects have
not, apparently, much in common; but they are connected in this way,
that both proceed upon the principle of reducing the friction to the
smallest possible quantity. It was this principle that Stephenson
was gradually learning to appreciate more and more at its proper
value; and it was this which finally led him to the very summit of a
great and pre-eminently useful profession. The great advantage,
indeed, of a level railway over an up-and-down ordinary road is
simply that in the railway the resistance and friction are almost
entirely got rid of.

It was in 1810, when Stephenson was twenty-nine, that his first
experiment in serious engineering was made. A coal-pit had been
sunk at Killingworth, and a rude steam-engine of that time had been
set to pump the water out of its shaft; but, somehow, the engine
made no headway against the rising springs at the bottom of the
mine. For nearly a year the engine worked away in vain, till at
last, one Saturday afternoon, Geordie Stephenson went over to
examine her. "Well, George," said a pitman, standing by, "what do
you think of her?" "Man," said George, boldly, "I could alter her
and make her draw. In a week I could let you all go the bottom."
The pitman reported this confident speech of the young brakesman
to the manager; and the manager, at his wits' end for a remedy,
determined to let this fellow Stephenson try his hand at her.
After all, if he did no good, he would be much like all the others;
and anyhow he seemed to have confidence in himself, which, if well
grounded, is always a good thing.

George's confidence WAS well grounded. It was not the confidence
of ignorance, but that of knowledge. He UNDERSTOOD the engine now,
and he saw at once the root of the evil. He picked the engine to
pieces, altered it to suit the requirements of the case, and set it
to work to pump without delay. Sure enough, he kept his word; and
within the week, the mine was dry, and the men were sent to the
bottom. This was a grand job for George's future. The manager, a
Mr. Dodds, not only gave him ten pounds at once as a present, in
acknowledgment of his practical skill, but also appointed him
engine-man of the new pit, another rise in the social scale as well
as in the matter of wages. Dodds kept him in mind for the future,
too; and a couple of years later, on a vacancy occurring, he
promoted the promising hand to be engine-wright of all the
collieries under his management, at a salary of 100 pounds a year.
When a man's income comes to be reckoned by the year, rather than
by the week or month, it is a sign that he is growing into a person
of importance. George had now a horse to ride upon, on his visits
of inspection to the various engines; and his work was rather one
of mechanical engineering than of mere ordinary labouring

The next few years of George Stephenson's life were mainly taken up
in providing for the education of his boy Robert. He had been a
good son, and he was now a good father. Feeling acutely how much
he himself had suffered, and how many years he had been put back,
by his own want of a good sound rudimentary education, he
determined that Robert should not suffer from a similar cause.
Indeed, George Stephenson's splendid abilities were kept in the
background far too long, owing to his early want of regular
instruction. So the good father worked hard to send his boy to
school; not to the village teacher's only, but to a school for
gentlemen's sons at Newcastle. By mending clocks and watches in
spare moments, and by rigid economy in all unnecessary expenses
(especially beer), Stephenson had again gathered together a little
hoard, which mounted up this time to a hundred guineas. A hundred
guineas is a fortune and a capital to a working man. He was
therefore rich enough, not only to send little Robert to school,
but even to buy him a donkey, on which the boy made the journey
every day from Killingworth to Newcastle. This was in 1815, when
George was thirty-four, and Robert twelve. Perhaps no man who ever
climbed so high as George Stephenson, had ever reached so little of
the way at so comparatively late an age. For in spite of his
undoubted success, viewed from the point of view of his origin and
early prospects, he was as yet after all nothing more than the
common engine-wright of the Killingworth collieries--a long way off
as yet from the distinguished father of the railway system.

George Stephenson's connection with the locomotive, however, was
even now beginning. Already, in 1816, he and his boy had tried a
somewhat higher flight of mechanical and scientific skill than
usual, in the construction of a sun-dial, which involves a
considerable amount of careful mathematical work; and now George
found that the subject of locomotive engines was being forced by
circumstances upon his attention. From the moment he was appointed
engine-wright of the Killingworth collieries, he began to think
about all possible means of hauling coal at cheaper rates from the
pit's mouth to the shipping place on the river. For that humble
object alone--an object that lay wholly within the line of his own
special business--did the great railway projector set out upon his
investigations into the possibilities of the locomotive. Indeed,
in its earliest origin, the locomotive was almost entirely
connected with coals and mining; its application to passenger
traffic on the large scale was quite a later and secondary
consideration. It was only by accident, so to speak, that the true
capabilities of railways were finally discovered in the actual
course of their practical employment.

George Stephenson was not the first person to construct either a
locomotive or a tramway. Both were already in use, in more or less
rude forms, at several collieries. But he WAS the first person to
bring the two to such a pitch of perfection, that what had been at
first a mere clumsy mining contrivance, became developed into a
smooth and easy iron highway for the rapid and convenient
conveyance of goods and passengers over immense distances. Of
course, this great invention, like all other great inventions, was
not the work of one day or one man. Many previous heads had helped
to prepare the way for George Stephenson; and George Stephenson
himself had been working at the subject for many years before he
even reached the first stage of realized endeavour. As early as
1814 he constructed his first locomotive at Killingworth colliery;
it was not until 1822 that he laid the first rail of his first
large line, the Stockton and Darlington Railway.

Stephenson's earliest important improvement in the locomotive
consisted in his invention of what is called the steam-blast, by
which the steam is made to increase the draught of the fire, and
so largely add to the effectiveness of the engine. It was this
invention that enabled him at last to make the railway into the
great carrier of the world, and to begin the greatest social and
commercial upheaval that has ever occurred in the whole history of
the human race.

Meanwhile, however, George was not entirely occupied with the
consideration of his growing engine. He had the clocks and watches
to mend; he had Robert's schooling to look after; and he had
another practical matter even nearer home than the locomotive on
which to exercise his inventive genius. One day, in 1814, the main
gallery of the colliery caught fire. Stephenson at once descended
into the burning pit, with a chosen band of volunteers, who
displayed the usual heroic courage of colliers in going to the
rescue of their comrades; and, at the risk of their lives, these
brave men bricked up the burning portion, and so, by excluding the
air, put out the dangerous fire. Still, even so, several of the
workmen had been suffocated, and one of the pitmen asked Geordie in
dismay whether nothing could be done to prevent such terrible
disasters in future. "The price of coal-mining now," he said, "is
pitmen's lives." Stephenson promised to think the matter over; and
he did think it over with good effect. The result of his thought
was the apparatus still affectionately known to the pitmen as "the
Geordie lamp." It is a lamp so constructed that the flame cannot
pass out into the air outside, and so cause explosions in the
dangerous fire-damp which is always liable to occur abundantly in
the galleries of coal mines. By this invention alone George
Stephenson's name and memory might have been kept green for ever;
for his lamp has been the means of saving thousands of lives from a
sudden, a terrible, and a pitiful death. Most accidents that now
occur in mines are due to the neglect of ordinary precautions, and
to the perverse habit of carrying a naked lighted candle in the
hand (contrary to regulations) instead of a carefully guarded
safety lamp. Yet so culpably reckless of their own and other men's
lives are a large number of people everywhere, that in spite of the
most stringent and salutary rules, explosions from this cause (and,
therefore, easily avoidable) take place constantly to the present
day, though far less frequently than before the invention of the
Geordie lamp.

Curiously enough, at the very time when George Stephenson was busy
inventing his lamp at Killingworth, Sir Humphrey Davy was working
at just the same matter in London; and the two lamps, though a
little different in minor points of construction, are practically
the same in general principle. Now, Sir Humphrey was then the
great fashionable natural philosopher of the day, the favourite of
London society, and the popular lecturer of the Royal Institution.
His friends thought it a monstrous idea that his splendid life-
saving apparatus should have been independently devised by "an
engine-wright of Killingworth of the name of Stephenson--a person
not even possessing a knowledge of the elements of chemistry."
This sounds very odd reading at the present day, when the engine-
wright of the name of Stephenson has altered the whole face of the
world, while Davy is chiefly remembered as a meritorious and able
chemist; but at the time, Stephenson's claim to the invention met
with little courtesy from the great public of London, where a
meeting was held on purpose to denounce his right to the credit of
the invention. What the coal-owners and colliers of the North
Country thought about the matter was sufficiently shown by their
subscription of 1000 pounds, as a Stephenson testimonial fund.
With part of the money, a silver tankard was presented to the
deserving engine-wright, while the remainder of the sum was handed
over to him in ready cash. A very acceptable present it was, and
one which George Stephenson remembered with pride down to his dying
day. The Geordie lamp continues in use to the present moment in
the Tyneside collieries with excellent effect.

For some years more, Mr. Stephenson (he is now fairly entitled to
that respectable prefix) went on still further experimenting on the
question of locomotives and railways. He was now beginning to
learn that much unnecessary wear and tear arose on the short lines
of rail down from the pit's mouths to the loading-places on the
river by the inequalities and roughnesses of the joints; and he
invented a method of overlapping the rails which quite got over
this source of loss--loss of speed, loss of power, and loss of
material at once. It was in 1819 that he laid down his first
considerable piece of road, the Hetton railway. The owners of a
colliery at the village of Hetton, in Durham, determined to replace
their waggon road by a locomotive line; and they invited the now
locally famous Killingworth engine-wright to act as their engineer.
Stephenson gladly undertook the post; and he laid down a railway of
eight miles in length, on the larger part of which the trucks were
to be drawn by "the iron horse," as people now began to style the
altered and improved locomotive. The Hetton railway was opened in
1822, and the assembled crowd were delighted at beholding a single
engine draw seventeen loaded trucks after it, at the extraordinary
rate of four miles an hour--nearly as fast as a man could walk.
Whence it may be gathered that Stephenson's ideas upon the question
of speed were still on a very humble scale indeed.

Before the Hetton railway was opened, however, George Stephenson
had shown one more proof of his excellence as a father by sending
his boy Robert, now nineteen, to Edinburgh University. It was a
serious expense for a man who was even now, after all, hardly more
than a working man of the superior grade; but George Stephenson was
well repaid for the sacrifice he thus made on behalf of his only
son. He lived to see him the greatest practical engineer of his
own time, and to feel that his success was in large measure due to
the wider and more accurate scientific training the lad had
received from his Edinburgh teachers.

In 1819 George married again, his second wife being the daughter of
a farmer at Black Callerton.

The work which finally secured the position of George Stephenson
and of his dearly loved locomotive was the Stockton and Darlington
railway. Like all the other early railways, it was originally
projected simply as a mineral line. Darlington lies in the centre
of a rich inland mining district; but the impossibility of getting
the coal carried to the sea by cart or donkey, long prevented the
opening up of its immense natural wealth. At last, as early as
1817, Edward Pease and a few other enterprising Darlington Quakers
determined to build a line of railway from the mining region to
Stockton, on the river Tees, where the coal could be loaded into
sea-going ships. It was a very long line, compared to any railway
that had yet been constructed; but it was still only to be worked
by horse-power--to be, in fact, what we now call a tramway, rather
than a railway in the modern sense. However, while the plan was
still undecided, George Stephenson, who had heard about the
proposed scheme, went over to Darlington one day, and boldly asked
to see Mr. Pease. The good Quaker received him kindly, and
listened to his arguments in favour of the locomotive. "Come over
to Killingworth some day and see my engine at work," said
Stephenson, confidently; "and if you do you will never think of
horses again." Mr. Pease, with Quaker caution, came and looked.
George put the engine through its paces, and showed off its
marvellous capabilities to such good effect that Edward Pease was
immediately converted. Henceforth, he became a decided advocate of
locomotives, and greatly aided by his wealth and influence in
securing their final triumph.

Not only that, but Mr. Pease also aided Stephenson in carrying out
a design which George had long had upon his mind--the establishment
of a regular locomotive factory, where the work of engine-making
for this particular purpose might be carried on with all the
necessary finish and accuracy. George himself put into the concern
his precious 1000 pounds, not one penny of which he had yet
touched; while Pease and a friend advanced as much between them. A
factory was forthwith started at Newcastle on a small scale, and
the hardworking engine-wright found himself now fully advanced to
the commercial dignity of Stephenson and Co. With the gradual
growth of railways, that humble Newcastle factory grew gradually
into one of the largest and wealthiest manufacturing establishments
in all England.

Meanwhile, Stephenson was eagerly pushing on the survey of the
Stockton and Darlington railway, all the more gladly now that he
knew it was to be worked by means of his own adopted child, the
beloved locomotive. He worked at his line early and late; he took
the sights with the spirit-level with his own eye; he was
determined to make it a model railway. It was a long and heavy
work, for railway surveying was then a new art, and the appliances
were all fresh and experimental; but in the end, Stephenson brought
it to a happy conclusion, and struck at once the death-blow of the
old road-travelling system. The line was opened successfully in
1825, and the engine started off on the inaugural ceremony with a
magnificent train of thirty-eight vehicles. "Such was its
velocity," says a newspaper of the day, "that in some parts the
speed was frequently twelve miles an hour."

The success of the Stockton and Darlington railway was so immense
and unexpected, the number of passengers who went by it was so
great, and the quantity of coal carried for shipment so far beyond
anything the projectors themselves could have anticipated, that a
desire soon began to be felt for similar works in other places.
There are no two towns in England which absolutely need a railway
communication from one to the other so much as Liverpool and
Manchester. The first is the great port of entry for cotton, the
second is the great centre of its manufacture. The Bridgewater
canal had helped for a time to make up for the want of water
communication between those two closely connected towns; but as
trade developed, the canal became too small for the demands upon
it, and the need for an additional means of intercourse was deeply
felt. A committee was formed to build a railway in this busy
district, and after a short time George Stephenson was engaged to
superintend its construction.

A long and severe fight was fought over the Liverpool and Manchester
railway, and it was at first doubtful whether the scheme would ever
be carried out. Many great landowners were strongly opposed to it,
and tried their best to keep the bill for authorizing it from
passing through Parliament. Stephenson himself was compelled to
appear in London as a witness before a parliamentary committee, and
was closely cross-examined as to the possibilities of his plan. In
those days, even after the success of the Stockton and Darlington
line, his views about the future of railways were still regarded by
most sober persons as ridiculously wild and enthusiastic; while the
notion that trains might be made to travel twice as fast as
stage-coaches, was scouted as the most palpable and ridiculous
delusion. One of the members of the committee pressed Stephenson
very hard with questions. "Suppose," he said, "a cow were to get
upon the line, and the engine were to come into collision with it;
wouldn't that be very awkward, now?" George looked up at him with
a merry twinkle of the eye, and answered in his broad North Country
dialect, "Oo, ay, very awkward for the COO."

In spite of all Stephenson's earnestness and mother wit, however,
Parliament refused to pass the bill (in 1825), and for the moment
the engineer's vexation was bitter to behold. He and his friends
plucked up heart, however; they were fighting the winning battle
against prejudice and obstruction, and they were sure to conquer in
the long run. The line was resurveyed by other engineers; the
lands of the hostile owners were avoided; the causes of offence
were dexterously smoothed down; and after another hard fight, in
1826, the bill authorizing the construction of the Liverpool and
Manchester railway was finally passed. The board at once appointed
Stephenson engineer for constructing the line, at a salary of 1000
pounds a year. George might now fairly consider himself entitled
to the honours of an Esquire.

The line was a difficult one to construct; but George Stephenson
set about it with the skill and knowledge acquired during many
years of slow experience; and he performed it with distinguished
success. He was now forty-four; and he had had more to do with the
laying down of rails than any other man then living. The great
difficulty of the Liverpool and Manchester line lay in the fact
that it had to traverse a vast shaking bog or morass, Chat Moss,
which the best engineers had emphatically declared it would be
impossible to cross. George Stephenson, however, had a plan for
making the impossible possible. He simply floated his line on a
broad bottom, like a ship, on the top of the quaking quagmire; and
proceeded to lay down his rails on this seemingly fragile support
without further scruple. It answered admirably, and still answers
to the present day. The other works on the railway, especially the
cuttings, were such as might well have appalled the boldest heart
in those experimental ages of railway enterprise. It is easy
enough for us now to undertake tunnelling great hills or filling up
wide valleys with long ranges of viaduct, because the thing has
been done so often, and the prospect of earning a fair return on
the money sunk can be calculated with so high a degree of
reasonable probability. But it required no little faith for George
Stephenson and his backers to drive a level road, for the first
time, through solid rocks and over trembling morasses, the whole
way from Liverpool to Manchester. He persevered, however, and in
1830, after four years' toilsome and ceaseless labour, during which
he had worked far-harder than the sturdiest navvy on the line, his
railway was finally opened for regular traffic.

Before the completion of the railway, George Stephenson had taken
part in a great contest for the best locomotive at Liverpool, a
prize of 500 pounds having been offered by the company to the
successful competitor. Stephenson sent in his improved model, the
Rocket, constructed after plans of his own and his son Robert's,
and it gained the prize against all its rivals, travelling at what
was then considered the incredible rate of 35 miles an hour. It
was thus satisfactorily settled that the locomotive was the best
power for drawing carriages on railways, and George Stephenson's
long battle was thus at last practically won.

The opening of the Liverpool and Manchester railway was an era in
the history of the world. From the moment that great undertaking
was complete, there could no longer be any doubt about the utility
and desirability of railways, and all opposition died away almost
at once. New lines began immediately to be laid out, and in an
incredibly short time the face of England was scarred by the main
trunks in that network of iron roads with which its whole surface
is now so closely covered. The enormous development of the railway
system benefited the Stephenson family in more than one way.
Robert Stephenson became the engineer of the vast series of lines
now known as the London and North Western; and the increased demand
for locomotives caused George Stephenson's small factory at
Newcastle to blossom out suddenly into an immense and flourishing
manufacturing concern.

The rest of George Stephenson's life is one long story of unbroken
success. In 1831, the year after the opening of the Liverpool and
Manchester line, George, being now fifty, began to think of
settling down in a more permanent home. His son Robert, who was
surveying the Leicester and Swannington railway, observed on an
estate called Snibston, near Ashby-de-la-Zouch, what to his
experienced geological eye looked like the probable indications of
coal beneath the surface. He wrote to his father about it, and as
the estate was at the time for sale, George, now a comparatively
wealthy man, bought it up on his son's recommendation. He also
pitched his home close by at Alton Grange, and began to sink shafts
in search of coal. He found it in due time; and thus, in addition
to his Newcastle works, he became a flourishing colliery
proprietor. It is pleasing to note that Stephenson, unlike too
many other self-made men, always treated his workmen with the
greatest kindness and consideration, erecting admirable cottages
for their accommodation, and providing them with church, chapel,
and schools for their religious and social education.

While living at Alton Grange, Stephenson was engaged in laying out
several new lines in the middle and north of England, especially
the Grand Junction and the Midland, both of which he constructed
with great boldness and practical skill. As he grew older and more
famous, he began to mix in the truly best society of England; his
acquaintance being sought by all the most eminent men in
literature, science, and political life. Though but an uneducated
working man by origin, George Stephenson had so improved his mind
by constant thought and expansive self-education, that he was able
to meet these able and distinguished friends of his later days on
terms of perfect intellectual and social equality. To the last,
however, he never forgot his older and poorer friends, nor was he
ever ashamed of their acquaintance. A pleasant trait is narrated
by his genial biographer, Dr. Smiles, who notices that on one
occasion he stopped to speak to one of his wealthy acquaintances in
a fine carriage, and then turned to shake hands with the coachman
on the box, whom he had known and respected in his earlier days.
He enjoyed, too, the rare pleasure of feeling his greatness
recognized in his own time: and once, when he went over to Brussels
on a visit to the king of the Belgians, he was pleased and
surprised, as the royal party entered the ball-room at the Town
Hall, to hear a general murmur among the guests of "Which is

George Stephenson continued to live for sixteen years, first at
Alton Grange, and afterwards at Tapton House, near Chesterfield, in
comfort and opulence; growing big pines and melons, keeping birds
and dogs, and indulging himself towards the end in the well-earned
repose to which his useful and laborious life fully entitled him.
At last, on the 12th of August, 1848, he died suddenly of
intermittent fever, in his sixty-seventh year, and was peacefully
buried in Chesterfield church. Probably no one man who ever lived
did so much to change and renovate the whole aspect of human life
as George Stephenson; and, unlike many other authors of great
revolutions, he lived long enough to see the full result of his
splendid labours in the girdling of England by his iron roads. A
grand and simple man, he worked honestly and steadfastly throughout
his days, and he found his reward in the unprecedented benefits
which his locomotive was even then conferring upon his fellow-men.
It is indeed wonderful to think how very different is the England
in which we live to-day, from that in which we might possibly have
been living were it not for the barefooted little collier boy who
made clay models of engines at Wylam, and who grew at last into the
great and famous engineer of the marvellous Liverpool and Manchester
railway. The main characteristic of George Stephenson was
perseverance; and it was that perseverance that enabled him at last
to carry out his magnificent schemes in the face of so much bitter
and violent opposition.



In most cases, the working man who raises himself to wealth and
position, does so by means of trade, which is usually the natural
outgrowth of his own special handicraft or calling. If he attains,
not only to riches, but to distinction as well, it is in general by
mechanical talent, the direction of the mind being naturally biased
by the course of one's own ordinary occupations. England has been
exceptionally rich in great engineers and inventive geniuses of
such humble origin--working men who have introduced great
improvements in manufactures or communications; and our modern
English civilization has been immensely influenced by the lives of
these able and successful mechanical toilers. From Brindley, the
constructor of the earliest great canal, to Joseph Gillott, the
inventor of the very steel pen with which this book is written;
from Arkwright the barber who fashioned the first spinning-machine,
to Crompton the weaver, whose mule gave rise to the mighty
Manchester cotton trade; from Newcomen, who made the first rough
attempt at a steam-engine, to Stephenson, who sent the iron horse
from end to end of the land,--the chief mechanical improvements in
the country have almost all been due to the energy, intelligence,
and skill of our labouring population. The English mind is
intensely practical, and the English working man, for the last two
centuries at least, has been mainly distinguished for his great
mechanical aptitude, bursting out, here and there, in exceptional
persons, under the form of exceedingly high inventive genius.

At our very doors, however, there is a small nation of largely
different blood and of wholly different speech from our own; a
nation forming a part of our own kingdom, even more closely than
the Scotch or the Irish, and yet in some respects further from us
in mind and habit of life than either; a nation marked rather by
the poetical and artistic, than by the mechanical and practical
temperament--the ancient and noble Welsh people. It would hardly
be reasonable to expect from the Welsh exactly the same kind of
success in life which we often find in English workmen; the aims
and ideals of the two races are so distinct, and it must be frankly
confessed the advantage is not always on the side of the Englishman.
The Welsh peasants, living among their own romantic hills and
valleys, speaking their own soft and exquisite language, treasuring
their own plaintive and melodious poetry, have grown up with an
intense love for beauty and the beautiful closely intwined into the
very warp and woof of their inmost natures. They have almost always
a natural refinement of manner and delicacy of speech which is
unfortunately too often wanting amongst our rougher English
labouring classes, especially in large towns. They are intensely
musical, producing a very large proportion of the best English
singers and composers. They are fond of literature, for which they
have generally some natural capacity, and in which they exercise
themselves to an extent unknown, probably, among people of their
class in any other country. At the local meetings of bards (as they
call themselves) in Wales, it is not at all uncommon to hear that
the first prize for Welsh poetry has been carried off by a shepherd,
and the first prize for Welsh prose composition by a domestic
servant. In short, the susceptibilities of the race run rather
toward art and imagination, than toward mere moneymaking and
practical ingenuity.

John Gibson, sculptor, of Rome, as he loved to call himself, was
a remarkable embodiment, in many ways, of this self-respecting,
artistic, ideal Welsh peasant temperament. In a little village
near Conway, in North Wales, there lived at the end of the last
century a petty labouring market gardener of the name of Gibson,
who knew and spoke no other tongue than his native Welsh. In 1790,
his wife gave birth to a son whom they christened John, and who
grew up, a workman's child, under the shadow of the great castle,
and among the exquisite scenery of the placid land-locked Conway
river. John Gibson's parents, like the mass of labouring Welsh
people, were honest, God-fearing folk, with a great earnestness of
principle, a profound love of truth, and a hatred of all mean or
dirty actions. They brought up the boy in these respects in the
way he should go; and when he was old he indeed did not depart from
them. Throughout his life, John Gibson was remarkable for his
calm, earnest, straightforward simplicity, a simplicity which
seemed almost childish to those who could not understand so grand
and uncommon and noble a nature as his.

From his babyhood, almost, the love of art was innate in the boy;
and when he was only seven years old, he began to draw upon a slate
a scene that particularly pleased him--a line of geese sailing upon
the smooth glassy surface of a neighbouring pond. He drew them as
an ordinary child almost always does draw--one goose after another,
in profile, as though they were in procession, without any attempt
at grouping or perspective in any way. His mother praised the
first attempt, saying to him in Welsh, "Indeed, Jack, this is very
like the geese;" and Jack, encouraged by her praise, decided
immediately to try again. But not being an ordinary child, he
determined this time to do better; he drew the geese one behind the
other as one generally sees them in actual nature. His mother then
asked him to draw a horse; and "after gazing long and often upon
one," he says, "I at last ventured to commit him to the slate."
When he had done so, the good mother was even more delighted. So,
to try his childish art, she asked him to put a rider on the
horse's back. Jack went out once more, "carefully watched men on
horseback," and then returning, made his sketch accordingly. In
this childish reminiscence one can see already the first workings
of that spirit which made Gibson afterwards into the greatest
sculptor of all Europe. He didn't try even then to draw horse or
man by mere guesswork; he went out and studied the subject at first
hand. There are in that single trait two great elements of success
in no matter what line of life--supreme carefulness, and perfect
honesty of workmanship.

When Jack was nine years old, his father determined to emigrate to
America, and for that purpose went to Liverpool to embark for the
United States. But when he had got as far as the docks, Mrs.
Gibson, good soul, frightened at the bigness of the ships (a queer
cause of alarm), refused plumply ever to put her foot on one of
them. So her husband, a dutiful man with a full sense of his
wife's government upon him, consented unwillingly to stop in
Liverpool, where he settled down to work again as a gardener.
Hitherto, Jack and his brothers had spoken nothing but Welsh; but
at Liverpool he was put to school, and soon learned to express
himself correctly and easily in English. Liverpool was a very
different place for young Jack Gibson from Conway: there were no
hills and valleys there, to be sure, but there were shops--such
shops! all full of the most beautiful and highly coloured prints
and caricatures, after the fashion of the days when George IV. was
still Prince Regent. All his spare time he now gave up to
diligently copying the drawings which he saw spread out in tempting
array before him in the shop-windows. Flattening his little nose
against the glass panes, he used to look long and patiently at a
single figure, till he had got every detail of its execution fixed
firmly on his mind's eye; and then he would go home hastily and
sketch it out at once while the picture was still quite fresh in
his vivid memory. Afterwards he would return to the shop-window,
and correct his copy by the original till it was completely
finished. No doubt the boy did all this purely for his own
amusement; but at the same time he was quite unconsciously teaching
himself to draw under a very careful and accurate master--himself.
Already, however, he found his paintings had patrons, for he sold
them when finished to the other boys; and once he got as much as
sixpence for a coloured picture of Napoleon crossing the Alps--"the
largest sum," he says brightly in his memoirs long after, "I had
yet received for a work of art."

Opportunities always arise for those who know how to use them.
Little Jack Gibson used to buy his paper and colours at a
stationer's in Liverpool, who one day said to him kindly, "My lad,
you're a constant customer here: I suppose you're a painter."
"Yes, sir," Jack answered, with childish self-complacency, "I do
paint." The stationer, who had himself studied at the Royal
Academy, asked him to bring his pictures on view; and when Jack did
so, his new friend, Mr. Tourmeau, was so much pleased with them
that he lent the boy drawings to copy, and showed him how to draw
for himself from plaster casts. These first amateur lessons must
have given the direction to all Gibson's later life: for when the
time came for him to choose a trade, he was not set to till the
ground like his father, but was employed at once on comparatively
artistic and intelligent handicraft.

Jack was fourteen when his father apprenticed him to a firm of
cabinet-makers. For the first year, he worked away contentedly at
legs and mouldings; but as soon as he had learnt the rudiments of
the trade he persuaded his masters to change his indentures, and
let him take the more suitable employment of carving woodwork for
ornamental furniture. He must have been a good workman and a
promising boy, one may be sure, or his masters would never have
countenanced such a revolutionary proceeding on the part of a raw
apprentice. Young Gibson was delighted with his new occupation,
and pursued it so eagerly that he carved even during his leisure
hours from plaster casts. But after another year, as ill-luck or
good fortune would have it, he happened to come across a London
marble-cutter, who had come down to Liverpool to carve flowers in
marble for a local firm. The boy was enchanted with his freer and
more artistic work; when the marble-cutter took him over a big
yard, and showed him the process of modelling and cutting, he began
to feel a deep contempt for his own stiff and lifeless occupation
of woodcarving. Inspired with the desire to learn this higher
craft, he bought some clay, took it home, and moulded it for
himself after all the casts he could lay his hands on. Mr.
Francis, the proprietor of the marble works, had a German workman
in his employ of the name of Luge, who used to model small figures,
chiefly, no doubt, for monumental purposes. Young Gibson borrowed
a head of Bacchus that Luge had composed, and made a copy of it
himself in clay. Mr. Francis was well pleased with this early
attempt, and also with a clever head of Mercury in marble, which
Gibson carved in his spare moments.

The more the lad saw of clay and marble, the greater grew his
distaste for mere woodwork. At last, he determined to ask Mr.
Francis to buy out his indentures from the cabinet-makers, and let
him finish his apprenticeship as a sculptor. But unfortunately the
cabinet-makers found Gibson too useful a person to be got rid of so
easily: they said he was the most industrious lad they had ever
had; and so his very virtues seemed as it were to turn against him.
Not so, really: Mr. Francis thought so well of the boy that he
offered the masters 70 pounds to be quit of their bargain; and in
the end, Gibson himself having made a very firm stand in the
matter, he was released from his indentures and handed over finally
to Mr. Francis and a sculptor's life.

And now the eager boy was at last "truly happy." He had to model
all day long, and he worked away at it with a will. Shortly after
he went to Mr. Francis's yard, a visitor came upon business, a
magnificent-looking old man, with snowy hair and Roman features.
It was William Roscoe, the great Liverpool banker, himself a poor
boy who had risen, and who had found time not only to build up for
himself an enormous fortune, but also to become thoroughly well
acquainted with literature and art by the way. Mr. Roscoe had
written biographies of Lorenzo de Medici, the great Florentine, and
of Leo X., the art-loving pope; and throughout his whole life he
was always deeply interested in painting and sculpture and
everything that related to them. He was a philanthropist, too, who
had borne his part bravely in the great struggle for the abolition
of the slave trade; and to befriend a struggling lad of genius like
John Gibson was the very thing that was nearest and dearest to his
benevolent heart. Mr. Francis showed Roscoe the boy's drawings and
models; and Roscoe's appreciative eye saw in them at once the
visible promise of great things to be. He had come to order a
chimney-piece for his library at Allerton, where his important
historical works were all composed; and he determined that the
clever boy should have a chief hand in its production. A few days
later he returned again with a valuable old Italian print. "I want
you to make a bas-relief in baked clay," he said to Gibson, "from
this print for the centres of my mantelpiece." Gibson was
overjoyed. The print was taken from a fresco of Raphael's in the
Vatican at Rome, and Gibson's work was to reproduce it in clay in
low relief, as a sculpture picture. He did so entirely to his new
patron's satisfaction, and this his first serious work is now duly
preserved in the Liverpool Institution which Mr. Roscoe had been
mainly instrumental in founding.

Roscoe had a splendid collection of prints and drawings at Allerton;
and he invited the clever Welsh lad over there frequently, and
allowed him to study them all to his heart's content. To a lad like
John Gibson, such an opportunity of becoming acquainted with the
works of Raphael and Michael Angelo was a great and pure delight.
Before he was nineteen, he began to think of a big picture which he
hoped to paint some day; and he carried it out as well as he was
able in his own self-taught fashion. For as yet, it must be
remembered, Gibson had had no regular artistic instruction: there
was none such, indeed, to be had at all in Liverpool in his day; and
there was no real art going on in the town in any way. Mr. Francis,
his master, was no artist; nor was there anybody at the works who
could teach him: for as soon as Mr. Francis found out the full
measure of Gibson's abilities, he dismissed his German artist Luge,
and put the clever boy entirely in his place. At this time, Gibson
was only receiving six shillings a week as wages; but Mr. Francis
got good prices for many of his works, and was not ashamed even to
put his own name upon the promising lad's artistic performances.

Mr. Roscoe did not merely encourage the young sculptor; he set him
also on the right road for ultimate success. He urged Gibson to
study anatomy, without which no sculpture worthy of the name is
possible. Gibson gladly complied, for he knew that Michael Angelo
had been a great anatomist, and Michael was just at that moment the
budding sculptor's idol and ideal. But how could he learn? A
certain Dr. Vose was then giving lectures on anatomy to young
surgeons at Liverpool, and on Roscoe's recommendation he kindly
admitted the eager student gratis to his dissecting-room. Gibson
dissected there with a will in all his spare moments, and as he put
his mind into the work he soon became well versed in the
construction of the human body.

From the day that Gibson arrived at man's estate, the great dream
of his life was to go to Rome. For Rome is to art what London is
to industry--the metropolis in its own way of the entire earth.
But travelling in 1810 cost a vast deal of money; and the poor
Liverpool marble-cutter (for as yet he was really nothing more)
could hardly hope to earn the immense sum that such an expedition
would necessarily cost him. So for six years more he went on
working at Liverpool in his own native untaught fashion, doing his
best to perfect himself, but feeling sadly the lack of training and
competition. One of the last works he executed while still in Mr.
Francis's service was a chimney-piece for Sir John Gladstone,
father of the future premier. Sir John was so pleased with the
execution, that he gave the young workman ten pounds as a present.
But in spite of occasional encouragement like this, Gibson felt
himself at Liverpool, as he says, "chained down by the leg, and
panting for liberation."

In 1817, when he was just twenty-seven, he determined to set off to
London. He took with him good introductions from Mr. Roscoe to Mr.
Brougham (afterwards Lord Chancellor), to Christie, the big
picture-dealer, and to several other influential people. Later on,
Roscoe recommended him to still more important leaders in the world
of art--Flaxman the great sculptor, Benjamin West, the Quaker
painter and President of the Royal Academy, and others of like
magnitude. Mr. Watson Taylor, a wealthy art patron, gave Gibson
employment, and was anxious that he should stop in London. But
Gibson wanted more than employment; he wanted to LEARN, to perfect
himself, to become great in his art. He could do that nowhere but
at Rome, and to Rome therefore he was determined to go. Mr. Taylor
still begged him to wait a little. "Go to Rome I will," Gibson
answered boldly, "even if I have to go there on foot."

He was not quite reduced to this heroic measure, however, for his
Liverpool friends made up a purse of 150 pounds for him (we may be
sure it was repaid later on); and with that comparatively large sum
in his pocket the young stone-cutter started off gaily on his
continental tour, from which he was not to return for twenty-seven
years. He drove from Paris to Rome, sharing a carriage with a
Scotch gentleman; and when he arrived in the Pope's city (as it
then was) he knew absolutely not a single word of Italian, or of
any other language on earth save Welsh and English. In those days,
Canova, the great Venetian sculptor, was the head of artistic
society in Rome; and as ALL society in Rome is more or less
artistic, he might almost be said to have led the whole life of the
great and lively city. Indeed, the position of such a man in Italy
resembles far more that of a duke in England than of an artist as
we here are accustomed to think of him. Gibson had letters of
introduction to this prince of sculptors from his London friends;
and when he went to present them, he found Canova in his studio,
surrounded by his numerous scholars and admirers. The Liverpool
stone-cutter had brought a few of his drawings with him, and Canova
examined them with great attention. Instinctively he recognized
the touch of genius. When he had looked at them keenly for a few
minutes, he turned kindly to the trembling young man, and said at
once, "Come to me alone next week, for I want to have a talk with

On the appointed day, Gibson, quivering with excitement; presented
himself once more at the great master's studio. Canova was
surrounded as before by artists and visitors; but in a short time
he took Gibson into a room by himself, and began to speak with him
in his very broken English. Many artists came to Rome, he said,
with very small means, and that perhaps might be Gibson's case.
"Let me have the gratification, then," he went on, "of assisting
you to prosecute your studies. I am rich. I am anxious to be of
use to you. Let me forward you in your art as long as you stay in

Gibson replied, with many stammerings, that he hoped his slender
means would suffice for his personal needs, but that if Canova
would only condescend to give him instruction, to make him his
pupil, to let him model in his studio, he would be eternally
grateful. Canova was one of the most noble and lovable of men. He
acceded at once to Gibson's request, and Gibson never forgot his
kind and fatherly assistance. "Dear generous master," the Welsh
sculptor wrote many years after, when Canova had long passed away,
"I see you before me now. I hear your soft Venetian dialect, and
your kindly words inspiring my efforts and gently correcting my
defects. My heart still swells with grateful recollection of you."

Canova told his new pupil to devote a few days first to seeing the
sights of Rome; but Gibson was impatient to begin at once. "I
shall be at your studio to-morrow morning," the ardent Welshman
said; and he kept his word. Canova, pleased with so much
earnestness and promptitude, set him to work forthwith upon a clay
model from his own statue of the Pugilist. Gibson went to the task
with a will, moulding the clay as best he could into shape; but he
still knew so little of the technical ways of regular sculptors
that he tried to model this work from the clay alone, though its
pose was such that it could not possibly hold together without an
iron framework. Canova saw his error and smiled, but let him go on
so that he might learn his business by experience. In a day or two
the whole thing, of course, collapsed by its own weight; and then
Canova called in a blacksmith and showed the eager beginner how the
mechanical skeleton was formed with iron bars, and interlacing
crosses of wood and wire. This was quite a new idea to Gibson, who
had modelled hitherto only in his own self-taught fashion with
moist clay, letting it support its own weight as best it might.
Another pupil then fleshed out the iron skeleton with clay, and
roughly shaped it to the required figure, so that it stood as firm
as a rock for Gibson to work upon. The new hand turned to
vigorously once more; and, in spite of his seeming rawness,
finished the copy so well that Canova admitted him at once to the
Academy to model from life. At this Academy Canova himself, who
loved art far more than money, used to attend twice a week to give
instruction to students without receiving any remuneration
whatsoever. It is of such noble men as this that the world of art
is largely made up--that world which we too-practical English have
always undervalued or even despised.

Gibson's student period at Rome under Canova was a very happy
episode in a uniformly happy and beautiful life. His only trouble
was that he had not been able to come there earlier. Singularly
free from every taint of envy (like all the great sculptors of his
time), he could not help regretting when he saw other men turning
out work of such great excellence while he was still only a
learner. "When I observed the power and experience of youths much
younger than myself," he says in his generous appreciative fashion,
"their masterly manner of sketching in the figure, and their
excellent imitation of nature, my spirits fell many degrees, and I
felt humbled and unhappy." He need not have done so, for the man
who thus distrusts his own work is always the truest workman; it is
only fools or poor creatures who are pleased and self-satisfied
with their own first bungling efforts. But the great enjoyment of
Rome to Gibson consisted in the free artistic society which he
found there. At Liverpool, he had felt almost isolated; there was
hardly anybody with whom he could talk on an equality about his
artistic interests; nobody but himself cared about the things that
pleased and engrossed his earnest soul the most. But at Rome,
there was a great society of artists; every man's studio was open
to his friends and fellow-workers; and a lively running fire of
criticism went on everywhere about all new works completed or in
progress. He was fortunate, too, in the exact moment of his
residence: Rome then contained at once, besides himself, the two
truest sculptors of the present century, Canova the Venetian, and
Thorwaldsen the Dane. Both these great masters were singularly
free from jealousy, rivalry, or vanity. In their perfect
disinterestedness and simplicity of character they closely
resembled Gibson himself. The ardent and pure-minded young
Welshman, who kept himself so unspotted from the world in his utter
devotion to his chosen art, could not fail to derive an elevated
happiness from his daily intercourse with these two noble and
sympathetic souls.

After Gibson had been for some time in Canova's studio, his
illustrious master told him that the sooner he took to modelling a
life-size figure of his own invention, the better. So Gibson hired
a studio (with what means he does not tell us in his short sketch
of his own life) close to Canova's, so that the great Venetian was
able to drop in from time to time and assist him with his criticism
and judgment. How delightful is the friendly communion of work
implied in all this graceful artistic Roman life! How different
from the keen competition and jealous rivalry which too often
distinguishes our busy money-getting English existence! In 1819,
two years after Gibson's arrival at Rome, he began to model his
Mars and Cupid, a more than life-size group, on which he worked
patiently and lovingly for many months. When it was nearly
finished, one day a knock came at the studio door. After the
knock, a handsome young man entered, and announced himself
brusquely as the Duke of Devonshire. "Canova sent me," he said,
"to see what you were doing." Gibson wasn't much accustomed to
dukes in those days--he grew more familiar with them later on--and
we may be sure the poor young artist's heart beat a little more
fiercely than usual when the stranger asked him the price of his
Mars and Cupid in marble. The sculptor had never yet sold a
statue, and didn't know how much he ought to ask; but after a few
minutes' consideration he said, "Five hundred pounds. But,
perhaps," he added timidly, "I have said too much." "Oh no," the
duke answered, "not at all too much;" and he forthwith ordered (or,
as sculptors prefer to say, commissioned) the statue to be executed
for him in marble. Gibson was delighted, and ran over at once to
tell Canova, thinking he had done a splendid stroke of business.
Canova shared his pleasure, till the young man came to the price;
then the older sculptor's face fell ominously. "Five hundred
pounds!" he cried in dismay; "why, it won't cover the cost of
marble and workmanship." And so indeed it turned out; for when the
work was finished, it had stood Gibson in 520 pounds for marble and
expenses, and left him twenty pounds out of pocket in the end. So
he got less than nothing after all for his many months of thought
and labour over clay and marble alike.

Discouraging as this beginning must have proved, it was nevertheless
in reality the first important step in a splendid and successful
career. It is something to have sold your first statue, even if you
sell it at a disadvantage. In 1821 Gibson modelled a group of
Pysche and the Zephyrs. That winter Sir George Beaumont, himself a
distinguished amateur artist, and a great patron of art, came to
Rome; and Canova sent him to see the young Welshman's new
composition. Sir George asked the price, and Gibson, this time more
cautious, asked for time to prepare an estimate, and finally named
700 pounds. To his joy, Sir George immediately ordered it, and also
introduced many wealthy connoisseurs to the rising sculptor's
studio. That same winter, also, the Duke of Devonshire came again,
and commissioned a bas-relief in marble (which is now at Chatsworth
House, with many other of Gibson's works), at a paying price, too,
which was a great point for the young man's scanty exchequer.

Unfortunately, Gibson has not left us any notice of how he managed
to make both ends meet during this long adult student period at
Rome. Information on that point would indeed be very interesting;
but so absorbed was the eager Welshman always in his art, that he
seldom tells us anything at all about such mere practical every-day
matters as bread and butter. To say the truth, he cared but little
about them. Probably he had lived in a very simple penurious style
during his whole studenthood, taking his meals at a cafe or eating-
house, and centering all his affection and ideas upon his beloved
studio. But now wealth and fame began to crowd in upon him, almost
without the seeking. Visitors to Rome began to frequent the
Welshman's rooms, and the death of "the great and good Canova,"
which occurred in 1822, while depriving Gibson of a dearly loved
friend, left him, as it were, that great master's successor.
Towards him and Thorwaldsen, indeed, Gibson always cherished a most
filial regard. "May I not be proud," he writes long after, "to
have known such men, to have conversed with them, watched all their
proceedings, heard all their great sentiments on art? Is it not a
pleasure to be so deeply in their debt for instruction?" And now
the flood of visitors who used to flock to Canova's studio began to
transfer their interest to Gibson's. Commission after commission
was offered him, and he began to make money faster than he could
use it. His life had always been simple and frugal--the life of a
working man with high aims and grand ideals: he hardly knew now how
to alter it. People who did not understand Gibson used to say in
his later days that he loved money, because he made much and spent
little. Those who knew him better say rather that he worked much
for the love of art, and couldn't find much to do with his money
when he had earned it. He was singularly indifferent to gain; he
cared not what he eat or drank; he spent little on clothes, and
nothing on entertainments; but he paid his workmen liberally or
even lavishly; he allowed one of his brothers more than he ever
spent upon himself, and he treated the other with uniform kindness
and generosity. The fact is, Gibson didn't understand money, and
when it poured in upon him in large sums, he simply left it in the
hands of friends, who paid him a very small percentage on it, and
whom he always regarded as being very kind to take care of the
troublesome stuff on his account. In matters of art, Gibson was a
great master; in matters of business, he was hardly more than a
simple-minded child.

Sometimes queer incidents occurred at Gibson's studio from the
curious ignorance of our countrymen generally on the subject of
art. One day, a distinguished and wealthy Welsh gentleman called
on the sculptor, and said that, as a fellow Welshman, he was
anxious to give him a commission. As he spoke, he cast an admiring
eye on Gibson's group of Psyche borne by the Winds. Gibson was
pleased with his admiration, but rather taken aback when the old
gentleman said blandly, "If you were to take away the Psyche and
put a dial in the place, it'd make a capital design for a clock."
Much later, the first Duke of Wellington called upon him at Rome
and ordered a statue of Pandora, in an attitude which he described.
Gibson at once saw that the Duke's idea was a bad one, and told him
so. By-and-by, on a visit to England, Gibson waited on the duke,
and submitted photographs of the work he had modelled. "But, Mr.
Gibson," said the old soldier, looking at them curiously, "you
haven't followed my idea." "No," answered the sculptor, "I have
followed MY OWN." "You are very stubborn," said Wellington.
"Duke," answered the sturdy sculptor, "I am a Welshman, and all the
world knows that we are a stubborn race." The Iron Duke ought to
have been delighted to find another man as unbending as himself,
but he wasn't; and in the end he refused the figure, which Gibson
sold instead to Lady Marian Alford.

For twenty-seven years Gibson remained at Rome, working assiduously
at his art, and rising gradually but surely to the very first place
among then living sculptors. His studio now became the great
centre of all fashionable visitors to Rome. Still, he made no
effort to get rich, though he got rich without wishing it; he
worked on merely for art's sake, not for money. He would not do as
many sculptors do, keep several copies in marble of his more
popular statues for sale; he preferred to devote all his time to
new works. "Gibson was always absorbed in one subject," says Lady
Eastlake, "and that was the particular work or part of a work--were
it but the turn of a corner of drapery--which was then under his
modelling hands. Time was nothing to him; he was long and
fastidious." His favourite pupil, Miss Hosmer, once expressed
regret to him that she had been so long about a piece of work on
which she was engaged. "Always try to do the best you can," Gibson
answered. "Never mind how long you are upon a work--no. No one
will ask how long you have been, except fools. You don't care what
fools think."

During his long life at Rome, he was much cheered by the presence
and assistance of his younger brother, Mr. Ben, as he always called
him, who was also a sculptor, though of far less merit than John
Gibson himself. Mr. Ben came to Rome younger than John, and he
learned to be a great classical scholar, and to read those Greek
and Latin books which John only knew at second hand, but from whose
beautiful fanciful stories of gods and heroes he derived all the
subjects for his works of statuary. His other brother, Solomon, a
strange, wild, odd man, in whom the family genius had degenerated
into mere eccentricity, never did anything for his own livelihood,
but lived always upon John Gibson's generous bounty. In John's
wealthy days, he and Mr. Ben used to escape every summer from the
heat and dust of Rome--which is unendurable in July and August--to
the delightfully cool air and magnificent mountain scenery of the
Tyrol. "I cannot tell you how well I am," he writes on one of
these charming visits, "and so is Mr. Ben. Every morning we take
our walks in the woods here. I feel as if I were new modelled."
Another passage in one of these summer tourist letters well
deserves to be copied here, as it shows the artist's point of view
of labours like Telford's and Stephenson's. "From Bormio," he
says, "the famous road begins which passes over the Stelvio into
the Tyrol; the highest carriage-road in the world. We began the
ascent early in the morning. It is magnificent and wonderful. Man
shows his talents, his power over great difficulties, in the
construction of these roads. Behold the cunning little workman--he
comes, he explores, and he says, 'Yes, I will send a carriage and
horses over these mighty mountains;' and, by Jove, you are drawn up
among the eternal snows. I am a great admirer of these roads."

In 1844 Gibson paid his first visit to England, a very different
England indeed to the one he had left twenty-seven years earlier.
His Liverpool friends, now thoroughly proud of their stone-cutter,
insisted upon giving him a public banquet. Glasgow followed the
same example; and the simple-minded sculptor, unaccustomed to such
honours, hardly knew how to bear his blushes decorously upon him.
During this visit, he received a command to execute a statue of the
queen. Gibson was at first quite disconcerted at such an awful
summons. "I don't know how to behave to queens," he said. "Treat
her like a lady," said a friend; and Gibson, following the advice,
found it sufficiently answered all the necessities of the
situation. But when he went to arrange with the Prince Consort
about the statue, he was rather puzzled what he should do about
measuring the face, which he always did for portrait sculpture with
a pair of compasses. All these difficulties were at last smoothed
over; and Gibson was also permitted to drape the queen's statue in
Greek costume, for in his artistic conscientiousness he absolutely
refused to degrade sculpture by representing women in the
fashionable gown of the day, or men in swallow-tail coats and high

Another work which Gibson designed during this visit possesses for
us a singular and exceptional interest. It was a statue of George
Stephenson, to be erected at Liverpool. Thus, by a curious
coincidence, the Liverpool stone-cutter was set to immortalize the
features and figure of the Killingworth engine-man. Did those two
great men, as they sat together in one room, sculptor and sitter,
know one another's early history and strange struggles, we wonder?
Perhaps not; but if they did, it must surely have made a bond of
union between them. At any rate, Gibson greatly admired
Stephenson, just as he had admired the Stelvio road. "I will
endeavour to give him a look capable of action and energy," he
said; "but he must be contemplative, grave, simple. He is a good
subject. I wish to make him look like an Archimedes."

If Gibson admired Stephenson, however, he did not wholly admire
Stephenson's railways. The England he had left was the England of
mail-coaches. In Italy, he had learnt to travel by carriage, after
the fashion of the country; but these new whizzing locomotives,
with their time-tables, and their precision, and their inscrutable

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