Robert Stephenson was an engineer and designer of locomotives. He is considered to be one of the greatest engineers of his era. He built on the considerable achievements of his father, George Stephenson who was known as the “Father of Railways”, enabling their expansion during the ‘railway mania’ of the mid-19th Century.
Before his father George established himself as an engineer, times were tough in the Stephenson household, with the whole family often living in only one room. However, George was determined that Robert would receive the full education that he was denied and, after leaving school at the age of 15, the young Robert was taken on as an apprentice mining engineer at Killingworth Colliery. With his increasing understanding of engineering, he helped his father survey the Stockton & Darlington Railway line and then the Liverpool & Manchester Railway. Robert also worked on the design of his father’s ‘Rocket’ locomotive and he continued to improve on Rocket’s design, building several other important early locomotives and providing the template for steam locomotives built worldwide during the 19th and 20th centuries.
After these successful and pioneering projects, Robert found himself in demand as a railway engineer. He was employed on a great number of railways in the midlands, north of England and north Wales. He also built some notable bridges as part of these projects, many of which are still in use today. On Tyneside, the High Level Bridge between Newcastle and Gateshead incorporated both a railway and a roadway on cast iron spans and in Berwick, the Royal Border Bridge spans the Tweed with 28 masonry arches. The High Level Bridge is considered to be the most notable historical engineering work in Newcastle and both structures are now Grade 1 listed.
As his reputation as a civil and mechanical engineer of railways grew, Robert was engaged as a consult on many railway-building projects across the world. These railways all made use of the Stephenson ‘standard’ gauge and had locomotives designed and built by Robert Stephenson & Co, Newcastle. By the time of his death, Robert Stephenson had received honours from many of these countries and he had seen his vision for the railways take off around the world.