Robert Stephenson, called the greatest engineer of the nineteenth century, was buried beside Thomas Telford in the centre part of the nave of Westminster Abbey. He was born on 16 October 1803 near Newcastle upon Tyne, the only son of George Stephenson, railway engineer, and his wife Frances (Henderson). He studied in Newcastle and Edinburgh and then became manager of the firm of Robert Stephenson & Co, founded for him by his father, and later spent some time in Columbia on mining projects. On 17 June 1829 he married Frances Sanderson but they had no children. His steam engine Rocket was entered for the Rainhill Trials in 1829 and won the prize. He is remembered also for his civil engineering work especially railway bridges. In 1847 he became Member of Parliament for Whitby and was later elected a Fellow of the Royal Society but he declined a knighthood. He died on 12 October 1859.
Gravestone and memorial window
A brass over his grave, designed by Sir Gilbert Scott, shows him in contemporary dress with his arms folded. The inscription reads:
“SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF ROBERT STEPHENSON M.P. D.C.L. F.R.S. etc. LATE PRESIDENT OF THE INSTITUTION OF CIVIL ENGINEERS WHO DIED 12th OCTOBER A.D. 1859 AGED 56 YEARS”.
A stained glass window was erected near the grave in 1862, designed by William Wailes but amended by Sir Gilbert Scott. This was moved in 1934 to the north choir aisle. The order of the medallions was changed at this time and plain glass substituted for the original coloured background. At the top are portrait heads of his father George, Thomas Telford, John Smeaton, Robert himself, James Watt and John Rennie. Depictions of Robert’s bridges over the Nile, the St Lawrence river in Canada, the Tyne and the Menai Straits appear, together with scenes showing Biblical building projects. Smaller portrait heads of famous builders of history also appear including Noah, Cheops, Hiram, Euclid, Archimedes, Michaelangelo and Christopher Wren. In 1948 a representation of the Rocket locomotive was added at the base of the window and the inscription was altered to include his father’s name. The inscription reads:
“Robert Stephenson MP,DCL,FRS 1803-1859 President of the Institution of Civil Engineers son of George Stephenson 1781-1848 Father of Railways”.
Photographs of the brass and window can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 2004
“Robert Stephenson, Engineer and Scientist...” Victoria Haworth, 2004.
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