Robert "Rocket" Stephenson

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Robert "Rocket" Stephenson

Birthplace: Willington Quay, Northumberland, England (United Kingdom)
Death: October 12, 1859 (55)
at his own home at 34 Gloucester Square, London, England (United Kingdom)
Place of Burial: Westminster Abbey, England
Immediate Family:

Son of George Stephenson and Frances Stephenson
Husband of Frances Fanny Stephenson
Brother of Frances Stephenson

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Robert "Rocket" Stephenson



Robert Stephenson, the only son of George Stephenson, was born on 16th October, 1803. The following year the family moved to Killingworth where George became an enginewright at the local colliery. Robert's mother died of consumption at Killingworth in 1806.

Robert went to the local village school at Long Benton. George Stephenson's growing success as a locomotive engineer meant that he could afford to pay for Robert to have a private education. Between 1814 and 1819 Robert attended the Bruce Academy in Newcastle. Robert also became a member of the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society.

In 1819 Robert was apprenticed to Nicholas Wood, the manager of Killingworth Colliery. Three years later he joined his father to help him survey the Stockton & Darlington line. The following year Robert attended Edinburgh University where he met another student, George Bidder. The two men became close friends and were to work together on several different railway projects during the next twenty-five years.

In 1823 Robert Stephenson joined with George Stephenson and Edward Pease to form a company to make locomotives. The Robert Stephenson & Company, at Forth Street, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, became the world's first locomotive builder. To gain further experience, Robert went to Columbia in South America in 1824 where he worked at gold and silver mines. While in Columbia Robert Stephenson met the inventor, Richard Trevithick, and provided the funds that he needed to get back to Britain.

After three years in South America, Stephenson was recalled to England and began work on the Rocket locomotive. Robert's abilities as an engineer was illustrated by the success of the Rocket at the Rainhill Trials in October, 1829. During this period Robert and George Stephenson were kept busy producing locomotives for the Bolton & Leigh Railway and the Liverpool & Manchester Railway. This included locomotives such as the Northumbrian and the Lancashire Witch.

In 1833 Robert Stephenson was appointed chief engineer of the London & Birmingham line. This was the first railway into London and involved solving difficult engineering problems such as the Blisworth Cutting and the Kilsby Tunnel.

The London & Birmingham line was completed in 1838. For the next few years Stephenson was involved in constructing railways all over the world. He also built bridges, including those that crossed the Tyne at Newcastle and the Menai Straits. The Britannia Bridge at Conway was made up of two huge, rectangular, wrought iron tubes. Stephenson constructed a similar bridge over the St. Lawrence at Montreal, Canada (1854-59). For many years, this was the longest bridge in the world.

In the 1847 General Election Stephenson was elected as the Conservative MP for Whitby. Stephenson did not take an active role in the House of Commons and usually only contributed to debates on engineering issues.

Stephenson never enjoyed good health and early in 1859 he was advised to retire from business and politics. He took a yachting cruise but when he arrived in Norway his condition deteriorated and he was rushed back to England. Robert Stephenson died on 12th October, 1859.


1824 His first engagement to work abroad was with the firm of Graham, Herring and Powles who were behind the development of silver mines in South America. Largely as a result of submitting a very well received report on his earlier visit to mines in Cornwall Robert was placed in charge of an expedition to Colombia sailing on 18 th June and not returning before the end of 1827.

1839 Robert spent 3 months travelling on the European Continent, seeking orders and working as a consultant.

1843 Robert again visited the Continent and carried out further work as a consultant.

1847 He visited Norway and carried on work as a consultant there. Later in the year, or possibly in 1848 he visited Egypt in connection with his involvement with a canal proposal to unite the Mediterranean and Red Seas.

1850 He again visited Egypt to conclude his work in connection with the canal project and had discussions with Abbas Pasha about railways.

1851 He accepted an appointment as Engineer-in-Chief to the Egyptian Railway between Alexandria and Cairo. Later in the year Robert travelled to Norway as Engineer-in-Charge of the Christiania (Oslo) to Miosen Lake Railway before making a further journey to Egypt to finalise plans for crossing the Nile and other principal waterways.

1853 Robert visits Canada in connection with his work as designer of the tubular girder bridge crossing the St. Lawrence River at Montreal.

1856 Robert was again in Egypt finalising affairs with the Egyptian Railway his two tubular swing bridges having been opened in the Autumn of 1855.

1858 A final journey to Egypt was made partly social and partly in connection with outstanding matters connected with the Egyptian Railway.

1859 In mid-August he again sailed for Norway where he was taken ill and arrived back in Lowestoft, a very sick man, on 13th September.


Whereas his father, George Stephenson, has been given due accolades, the role of Robert Stephenson as a locomotive and civil engineering pioneer has never fully been acknowledged other than during his lifetime. Robert possessed similar energy and inventive flair to his father but had too an intellectual capacity for scientific learning.

Robert's career started with him assisting his father around Tyneside and then moved on to co-founding the world's first purpose built locomotive factory in Newcastle upon Tyne where he was the Managing Partner. In this factory Robert's original designs established the basis of all future steam locomotive development. It was here that many of the world's pioneer locomotives were manufactured including the Rocket, winner of the famous Rainhill trials held on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.

But it is as a civil engineer that Robert became particularly renowned through his involvement in the development of many national railways both in Great Britain and overseas. His reputation was made with the construction of the London and Birmingham Railway where he overcame complex problems in this outstanding engineering feat. Later his development of tubular bridges to span the Menai Strait and the River Conway produced totally original structures of engineering and architectural merit.

While Robert had to establish his office in London and travel far afield in pursuit of his career he retained an affinity to Newcastle referring to it as 'his native town'. Engineering monuments to his prowess in the North East remain for all to see along the route of the East Coast Main Line starting with the High Level Bridge between Gateshead and Newcastle upon Tyne and ending with the Royal Border Bridge between Tweedmouth and Berwick upon Tweed and with numerous bridges in between.

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Robert "Rocket" Stephenson's Timeline

October 16, 1803
Willington Quay, Northumberland, England
October 12, 1859
Age 55
at his own home at 34 Gloucester Square, London, England
October 22, 1859
Age 55
Westminster Abbey, England