Robert Stephenson Trust
c/o The North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers, Neville Hall, Westgate Road, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 1SE
Email: rstrust@robertstephensontrust.com
The Life of Robert Stephenson – a Timeline

Railways and Bridges

1845  Britain experienced railway mania again, with Robert acting as witness for or against some 60 parliamentary bills.  He took over as Engineer-in-Chief of the Londonderry & Enniskillen Railway and saved the company £209,000.  Robert produced drawings for a tubular girder bridge to span the Conway (400ft [122m]) for the Chester & Holyhead Railway.  A parliamentary select committee investigated the case for the atmospheric system. Robert was still against it. Time proved it to be a technical failure.  He started the design of a box-girder bridge to cross the Menai Strait (two spans of 460ft [140m]; and two of 230ft [70m]).On the 31st July the Newcastle & Berwick Railway Bill was approved and Robert was appointed in charge.  He was responsible for all structures including Dean Street viaduct, the High Level Bridge over the Tyne, Central Station in Newcastle and the Royal Border Bridge over the Tweed at Berwick. The high level bow-string iron girder design is exceptional in having a top level for trains and a lower level for other traffic.  On the 6th August the Gauge Commission started to examine whether Britain should adopt George Stephenson’s 4ft 8½in [1.435m] width between rails or Brunel’s favoured 7ft 0¼in [2.140m].   Robert gave evidence in favour of the narrower gauge. This was eventually adopted as standard.






1847  A trussed iron-girder bridge over the Dee collapsed, killing 5 people.  Though it was not designed by Robert, he was responsible for it.  A Royal Commission on the Application of Iron to Railway Structures (AIRS) was set up.  On the 30th July he was elected Tory MP for Whitby.  Robert visited Norway as a railway consultant and moved home again to 34 Gloucester Square, London.


1848  The first of the Conway bridge tubes was floated into position. Robert was responsible for the design and all arrangements connected to its erection. The tube was raised to its final position on 16th April.   Two days later Robert drove the first locomotive through the tube.  He gave evidence to the AIRS Commission and maintained faith in tubular girder wrought iron structures.  On the 12th August George Stephenson died at his home, Tapton House, Derbyshire.  Robert was chief mourner at George’s funeral on the 17th .


1849  Robert was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.  On the 20th June the Britannia Bridge’s first tube was floated into position.  Nearly a year later Robert drove the last rivet into the girder and also the first train over the strait.  On the 28th September Newcastle’s High Level Bridge was officially opened by Queen Victoria.


1850  A dinner was held on the Newcastle Central Station platform to celebrate the creation of a continuous line of railway from Euston to Berwick.  Robert had a yacht ‘Titania’ built and became a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron.  In July he accepted a challenge from Commodore Stevens to race 'Titania’ against his 'America'.  Thus was born the America's Cup race.  On the 29th August: Queen Victoria opened the Royal Border Bridge at Berwick. Robert declined a knighthood.  He travelled to Switzerland and gave advice about a railway network.  He sailed to Egypt in 'Titania' and whilst he was there the Pasha sought his advice on railways.


1851  Robert became Engineer-in-Chief for the Alexandria to Cairo Railway.   As a Commissioner of the Great Exhibition, he helped to ensure Paxton’s design for the Crystal Palace was accepted.   Robert travelled to Norway as Engineer-in-Charge of the Christiania (Oslo) to Miosen Lake Railway.


1853  Robert submitted designs for a tubular girder bridge to span the St. Lawrence at Montreal. When built it became the world’s longest bridge.


1854  Robert was nominated by Faraday and became a member of the Royal Institution.  He spent a month in the north-east helping Samuel Smiles with his biography of George Stephenson.


1855  Robert was made a ‘Chevalier de Legion d’Honneur’ by Napoleon III.


1856  Robert was elected President of the Institution of Civil Engineers for a two-year term. He lent his yacht to the Astronomer Royal, Prof. Piazzi Smythe.


1857  His godson, Robert Stephenson Smyth Powell (later Lord Baden-Powell), was born.  Robert received a Doctorate of Civil Law from Oxford University.


1858  Robert visited Sunderland to see his reconstruction of Paine’s bridge over the Wear. He remarked: ‘there are no members of society for whom I have a higher respect than for industrious and intelligent workmen. It is to them that the engineer is indebted for the full and efficient realisation of his conceptions’.  In October he sailed to Egypt and took what was to be a last Christmas dinner for both men with Brunel in Cairo.


1859  After another sailing trip, this time to Norway, Robert became ill and died at home on 12th October ‘of obstinate congestion of the liver followed by dropsy of the whole system’.  He was buried in Westminster Abbey. His long-time friend and colleague Joseph Locke spoke for all when he said: ‘Robert Stephenson achieved some of the greatest works of art which have been witnessed in our day, and obtained an eminence in the scientific world rarely reached by any practical professional man'.