Thursday, 22 March 2012

The Stephenson Women

I am currently engaged in a busy series of of talks and readings from my novel Mr Stephenson’s Regret about the railway pioneers. Next week is the first of a number of talks I’m doing specifically for women’s groups who have shown an interest in hearing about the Stephenson women. George married three times in his lifetime and had two sisters, and son Robert also married, yet the women in these lives have been all but ignored in the histories and biographies. There is not even a single portrait of any of them - the painting I’ve reproduced above is a confused and idealised one of George and his family, purporting to show not only his mother Mabel standing with some vessel improbably balanced on her head but, even more improbably, two of his wives Fanny and Betty (seated) in the scene. I can assure you that George was not a bigamist. This painting was commissioned from the artist John Lucas in 1857, long after all but one of the people in the painting (Robert) had died. I can’t speak for the dog.

One of the pleasurable things about being a novelist is that you can let your imagination fill in the gaps between the known facts. I’ve done this in Mr Stephenson’s Regret and have tried to give more substance to the Stephenson women than the histories do - indeed one of my main reasons for creating this biographical fiction was to explore the relationships more fully than had been attempted before. In this blog posting, however, I have tried to assemble for readers some of the more interesting facts that I gleaned about the women during my research. This was the raw material I drew on for the characters portrayed in the novel.

George’s mother and sisters

George’s mother Mabel (1749-1818) was the daughter of George Carr, a bleacher and dyer from Ovingham, Northumberland, and a farmer’s daughter Eleanor Wilson, who had married beneath her social status. Despite her ‘superior’ roots Mabel was, like her husband, illiterate - they both signed the marriage register with an X.

The one brief description we have of Mabel is an intriguing one from an old Wylam miner who described her as “a delicate body and very flighty”. He goes on to say of the Stephensons: “They were an honest family, but sair hadden doon in the world.” In other words they were impoverished. Mabel, her husband Bob, and eventually six children somehow lived in one tiny room of a labourer’s cottage in Wylam, with unplastered wall, bare rafters and a clay floor. (The cottage is still there - see my earlier posting Back to George’s roots.) Later, Mabel had to deal with the total blindness of Old Bob as a result of an accident with steam in the colliery where he worked. They came to rely on George, a poor man himself at that time, for everything. Mabel died not long after George’s fortunes improved, and well before he achieved his national reputation.

Unusually for the time, all of Mabel’s six children survived and grew up healthy. Two were girls - Eleanor (1784-1847) known as Nelly, and Ann (1792-1860).

While still a young girl, Nelly went to London to work in domestic service, but came back because she received a letter from a sweetheart back in Tyneside offering marriage. It was a difficult return by boat up the North Sea coast, and when Nelly arrived home she found that her intended had married someone else. Nelly was left with no job, no savings and no lover. She turned to the church for comfort. It seemed Nelly would continue a spinster, especially after she took on the upbringing of her brother George's son, Robert. She lived with the widowed father and her nephew in their cottage (one room and a garret then) in West Moor near Killingworth; but in time there was a new romance for Nelly. Through the church, she met and (at the age of 40) married Stephen Liddle.

Despite Nelly’s age on marriage, the couple went on to have three children, Stephenson Liddle (1825-1843), Eleanor Liddle (1826-1826) and Margaret Liddle (1825-1852). Nelly's husband Stephen worked for George at the Forth Street Works where The Rocket was made, and was unfortunately fatally injured there in an accident. (George's brother John also died in an accident at the works.) George subsequently paid for Nelly's keep until her own death a year before his, and after her death made provision for her surviving daughter Margaret, who went to live with a housekeeper, Mrs Willis.

Nelly’s younger sister Ann was much quicker to the altar. She was only 22 when she married local man John Nixon in 1814 and, like many working class couples at the time, they emigrated to America, specifically Pittsburgh which was industrialising rapidly. The couple had six children: Jane (1815-1884), Robert (1818-1900), Mary (1821-1892), Joseph (1824-1892), Ann (1826-??), and Ellen (1831-1900). After her husband's death, Ann remarried and was subsequently known as Mrs Anna York. She died, still in Pittsburgh, in 1860, long after the rest of her brothers and sisters.

Robert’s mother and sister

George met Frances (Fanny) Henderson (1768-1806) at the farm house where he lodged when he was a young engine mechanic. Fanny had been a servant at the farm for ten years, described by the owner as “of sober disposition, an honest servant and of good family.” She was not George’s first sweetheart (see my notes below) and indeed was not even the first to attract him in this house, for he had earlier paid court to Fanny’s sister Ann who refused him. Fanny was perhaps a surprising choice for George, being nine years older than him and generally thought of as an old maid since her first fiancee, a school-master from Black Callerton, had died suddenly at the age of 26. Nevertheless George proposed and they were married at Newburn Church on 28 November 1802 when Fanny was 33. She made only her mark in the marriage register, and her name is in her new husband’s unsteady hand, George having just a couple of years earlier taught himself to read and write.

Robert was born a year later, and a year after that the three of them moved to the cottage near Killingworth that housed the Stephenson family until George was on the verge of his greatest fame as pioneer of the public railway. Fanny though, knew nothing but the early years of poverty. She was ill for several months after Robert’s birth, and worse when she delivered a baby sister for Robert when he was two years old. Baby Fanny lived just three weeks, and her mother followed her into the grave a few months later, a victim of what was then called consumption and which we now know as pulmonary tuberculosis, one of the principal diseases associated with poverty. Mother and baby are buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in the grounds of Longbenton Church.

George’s second wife

According to George Stephenson’s first biographer Samuel Smiles, his first sweetheart and the one to whom he first proposed was neither of the Henderson girls but a prosperous farmer’s daughter from Black Callerton, Elizabeth (Betty) Hindmarsh (1777-1845). Smiles’ story is that he was refused, not by Betty but by her father Thomas Hindmarsh, who would not allow his daughter to marry a penniless pitman. This romantic account was corrected by the author himself when he was later assured that George did not meet Betty until he was locally successful, but for the purposes of my novel I have accepted the original Smiles version as true, not because it makes a better story (though it does) but because there is no objective evidence to support the second assertion, and chiefly because it makes logical sense that George should have met Betty when he lived and worked near Black Callerton, not when he was several miles away in Killingworth where Betty had no reason to be anywhere near him territorially, socially or professionally.

In their young days the couple would meet under the trees in the orchard next to the farmhouse. Being a girl, Betty was brought up to be cultivated rather than educated, could play the piano and liked reading - quite different accomplishments to George’s, but she sincerely loved him, and was so devastated by her father’s refusal of George’s hand that she declared she would never marry anyone else, and didn’t, though it was thirteen years after Fanny’s death that George plucked up the courage to ask her again, and was accepted. This time there were no objections from her father to Betty marrying the well-to-do engineer.

They married in Newburn Parish Church, the place of George’s first marriage to Fanny, but Betty needed no help with her signature in the marriage register, while George’s was a much more confident flourish than his earlier effort. By this time George was 39 and his bride even older, 43.

From the scant evidence available, Betty seems to have been a great calming influence on George, who had a reputation for irascibility. She is described in George Parker Bidder’s correspondence as ‘homely, good and kind’. She was a lover of animals; we know for example that late in life she kept two African grey parrots in their Chesterfield home and made a less than successful attempt at bee-keeping. She was a great influence on Robert too. Almost certainly it was she who encouraged him to take up the flute and become a member of the church band (Mrs Stephenson was a dedicated Methodist) and tellingly it was his stepmother who was the recipient of Robert’s most affectionate and personal letters.

Betty died at Tapton House on 3 August 1845 after an untroubled if childless twenty-five year marriage. She is buried in the family vault alongside George in Chesterfield’s Holy Trinity Church. George, though, did not join her there until three years later, by which time he was married again, to his housekeeper.

George’s third wife

Ellen Gregory (1808-1865) was twenty-seven years younger than George and almost five years younger than his son. Her father was Richard Gregory, a farmer from Bakewell in Derbyshire; her mother Ellen (or Elin, nee Stanley). She had one younger brother, Richard. A spinster until her marriage to George, she seems to have been housekeeper at Tapton for a number of years, certainly before Betty’s death. She married George on 11 January 1848, just six months before his death, at St John’s Church in Shrewsbury. (Incidentally, George gave both his and his father’s rank and profession as ‘gentleman’ on the marriage certificate.)

Stephenson’s biographers have even less to say about Ellen than his other two wives (in Smiles’ book she is relegated to a single footnote), almost as if they regard her presence as a smirch on his life, and best forgotten. Robert, too, was highly displeased by his father’s remarriage, and obviously regarded the woman as a gold-digger. He may not have been wrong; despite having been left £1000 as a lump sum and £800 a year as long as she didn’t remarry, plus furniture and sundries, the last Mrs Stephenson applied to executor Robert for a better settlement. This was a woman whom a year before had been earning £40 per annum as housekeeper. It says everything about the coldness of their relationship that Robert referred her to his solicitor.

After George’s death Ellen stayed for a time at Tapton House before moving to Shrewsbury to live with her sister and brother-in-law who was minister of the Swan Hill Independent Church there. She did not remarry (perhaps not wishing to lose her annuity) and died at Beauchamp near Shrewsbury in 1865. 

Robert’s wife

The difference between George’s social standing as a young man in his twenties and Robert’s around the same age is revealed by the contrasting backgrounds of the women they courted and brought to the altar. Both brides were called Fanny, but there the resemblance ends. Frances (Fanny) Sanderson (1803-1842) was the daughter of a City of London merchant John Sanderson, who met Robert through incidental business with the emerging railway company. This was shortly before Robert went off for three years to Colombia, but he kept in touch with Fanny and she with him, we assume - Robert's correspondence was lost in a shipwreck he suffered on his way back to England. A couple of years after his return they were married at Bishopgate Parish Church. There wasn’t much time for a honeymoon, the Rainhill Trials only a few months away - they stayed just a few days in Wales en route to Liverpool where Robert had railway business. Like George’s Betty, Robert’s Fanny played second fiddle to work in the life of her man.

The only physical description we have of Fanny is that she was “not beautiful, but she had an elegant figure, a delicate and animated countenance, and a pair of singularly expressive dark eyes.” These were the only clues that artist Peter Fussey had to go on as he imagined the newly married Fanny with her husband at the Rainhill Trials in 1829 for the front cover of Mr Stephenson’s Regret.

Fanny seems to have been like Betty in many ways. Both liked music (when Robert and Fanny set up house in Greenfield Place in Newcastle Fanny insisted on having her piano brought up from London), poetry and the arts. Fanny was by repute an accomplished portrait painter, but none of her work seems to have survived. She was, like Betty, an animal lover, with a Newfoundland dog to keep her company during Robert’s absences. Most significantly like her mother-in-law Fanny’s influence on her husband seems to have been quiet but profound. There is evidence of her adding personal touches to at least one of his letters and we are told by one of Robert’s early biographers she was “an unusually clever woman, and possessed of great tact in influencing others, without letting anyone see her power.”

Perhaps though there was a slight hint of social pretension (typical of the Victorian age) about Fanny. When she got wind of a possible connection between Old Bob Stephenson’s father and the Stephensons (or Stevensons) of Mont Grenan in Ayrshire who boasted a coat of arms, she persuaded her husband to apply to the College of Heralds for use of the devices. Purchasing them cost Robert a substantial fee, and he was never comfortable with the idea - in one conversation with a friend not long before his death he pointed out the crest on the family crockery and remarked, “Ah, I wish I hadn’t adopted that foolish coat of arms! Considering what a little matter it is, you could scarcely believe how often I have been annoyed by that silly picture.”

Fanny was also like Betty in being childless (a great source of sorrow for the Stephensons) and in dying after a painful illness. In Fanny’s case she suffered a form of cancer for two years before her early death. Knowing she was going to die, she urged Robert to remarry for the sake of having children, but he never did, though he survived her by seventeen years. Fanny was buried in Hampstead churchyard where she was visited regularly by her grieving husband.

For the sake of completeness on the story of the Stephenson women I should mention (though I make no use of this in my novel) a rumour that Robert Stephenson had a long-term affair with Henrietta, the wife of his friend Baden-Powell, and fathered a child with her in 1857. Though there is no evidence beyond hearsay for this, it is true that he became godfather to the child who was christened Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell. This infant would grow up to become the hero of Mafeking and founder of the Boy Scout movement.


  1. Very interesting, David, and wonderful that you have told the story of these women who were previously unknown.

  2. Thanks, Emma. It was quite a useful exercise prior to my first talk on The Stephenson Women which I did on Tuesday evening - seemed to go down well.

    By the way, if anyone out there would like me to visit for a talk or reading please contact me through my blog comment function or through Twitter @writerinnorth