Wednesday, 7 September 2016

A contemporary's account of the railway pioneer George Stephenson

My writing of the historical novel Mr Stephenson's Regret has led to a number of interesting encounters and conversations, including many talks, particularly around the North East of England. This week, as I prepare for talks on the subject in Hartlepool and Darlington, one of the organizers kindly sent me an extract from a book she happens to have on her shelf. She describes the book as 'very fragile', and little wonder, it dates from 1853.

The extract she sent me was a brief biography of George Stephenson, contained in a book entitled Our coal and our coal-pits; the people in them, and the scenes around them: By a traveller underground, in two parts. I was immediately intrigued as this book had not surfaced in all my research when I was writing my novel. The date of publication puts the author as a near-contemporary of George, and certainly a contemporary of son Robert, and it must lay claim to being the first biographical account of the railway pioneer as it pre-dates by four years the famous biography written by the self-help author Samuel Smiles.

I've now researched further and discovered that the author was John R Leifchild, born in 1815, author of several non-fiction works in and of Victorian England. The publisher was Longman & Co and it was part of the Traveller's Library, a series in 25 volumes. At the time, Leifchild's book would have set you back two shillings and sixpence, or a shilling each if you bought the two parts separately. These days it is possible to buy a digitised reprint, if you are prepared to fork out anywhere between £60 and £90, which seems to be the going rate.

The chapter on Stephenson is full of interest, if a little mistaken on some of the personal details. The author claims, for example, that George's first wife, Frances Henderson, was the servant of the woman who refused him, Elizabeth Hindmarsh. Fanny was actually a servant, not at the Hindmarsh's Black Callerton Farm but at Red House Farm some distance away; and, far from refusing George, Betty Hindmarsh was devastated when her father would not allow her to marry the penniless pitman, and declared she would never marry anyone else. Of course, she did marry George eventually.

Anticipating Smiles, Leifchild entitles the chapter on George, 'Ascent of Pitmen in the Social Scale', and makes much of his triumph over adversity and lack of education. There is some fascinating incidental detail and an intimate feel to the writing which is fairly unusual for its time.

As the available reprints are so expensive, and as the book is well out of copyright, I have taken the liberty of re-scanning the chapter on George that was sent to me, and I reproduce it below as a contribution to Stephenson research, and because I think it will be of interest to many.



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