Wylam is a small village ten miles west of Newcastle upon Tyne. The earliest recorded reference tells that the settlement belonged to Tynemouth Priory. It is believed that Guy de Balliol, Lord of Bywell, gave Wylam to the Priory in 1085, and the lands were held until the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. Once an industrial workplace with collieries and an ironworks, it is now a commuter village for Newcastle and Hexham.
A famous man was born in the cottage (see above) on the north bank of the Tyne. George Stephenson arrived in the world on 9th June 1781. The tiny cottage housed three other families along with the Stephensons and conditions were cramped. He wasn’t the only rail pioneer in the area. Timothy Hackworth, also born in the village, worked with Stephenson. William Hedley, born in the nearby village of Newburn, designed the engine named Puffing Billy in 1813, two years before Stephenson produced his first locomotive Blucher.
At 14 George worked on a farm, and by 17 became the engineman at Water Row pit in Newburn. Still illiterate, he paid to study reading, writing and arithmetic at night, and in 1801 became brakesman who controlled the winding gear at Black Callerton Colliery. He courted Elizabeth Hindmarsh, a farmer’s daughter in the area, but because her father thought him not good enough for her, they met in secret in her orchard.
In 1802 he courted Anne Henderson, daughter of the house in which he lodged in Willington Quay, but she rejected his advances, so he transferred his attention to her sister Frances and married her in 1802. They lived in one room of a cottage in Willington Quay, east of Newcastle. He made shoes and mended clocks to supplement his income. Their son Robert was born in 1803 and in 1804 they moved to West Moor, near Killingworth where he worked at the Killingworth Pit. In 1806 Frances died of tuberculosis. George left his son with a local woman and went to work in Scotland at Montrose, but returned to West Moor after a few months when his father was blinded in a mining accident. In 1811 the pumping engine at Killingworth stopped working and George offered to get it working again. His success brought him the post of enginewright for all the colliery engines at Killingworth.
He went on to become an expert in steam-driven machinery. Now a much more successful man, he married his first love, Elizabeth Hindmarsh on 29th March,1820.
The earliest form of railway used horses to pull carts along rails. Work with steam engines progressed throughout the 18th century. Richard Trevithick had a working steam locomotive on rails in Wales in 1804 and it worked with mixed success. He visited Newcastle and colliery owners and engineers began experimenting with steam locomotives. In 1825 George Stephenson built the Locomotion for the Stockton and Darlington railway company. In 1829 he built the Rocket which won the Rainhill Trials which established Stephenson and his company as the pre-eminent builder of steam locomotives in the world. His rail gauge of 4 feet 81/2 inches is the world’s standard gauge.
Stephenson purchased Tapton House, a Georgian mansion, near Chesterfield and went into business partnerships in coalmines, ironworks and limestone quarries. He also bought a small farm and experimented with stock breeding. His second wife died in 1845, and he married Ellen Gregory, a farmer’s daughter from Bakewell, who had been his housekeeper, in 1848 just before he died, aged 67 from a bout of pleurisy.
A full life, by any standard!