Reading it Right

“Stick to the facts!” said the dictatorial Thomas Gradgrind in trying to teach their reliability to the schoolchildren in his class, “the little pitchers before him’, in the 1854 novel Hard Times by Charles Dickens.

The question of interpreting a well-publicised fact is very much the centre of the latest find at Beamish Museum, County Durham, a handwritten letter by one of the railway pioneers, George Stephenson.

To be specific, the museum acquired two letters, one from George Stephenson, which I shall detail, and the other letter from George’s son, Robert, who was as much a bridge-builder as a railwayman.

Robert’s letter was dated London, May 12, 1836.  In it were the moans and groans of a rival, Joseph Locke, a former understudy to George Stephenson.

Railway memorabilia, artefacts and relics had always come in piecemeal over the years such as the nature of retrieval for any museum.  Andy Guy, an in-house researcher for Beamish Museum at the time of the letter finds in 1997 said:  ‘they had been with an art dealer who had stored them for years.”

In 1996, I undertook my own research into the railway pioneers; my plan was to write a play with songs.  In the end, there were more songs than drama.  I had written seven song lyrics under a working title:  Coupling/Uncoupling.  Then when I discovered a local newspaper report on the Beamish letter finds, I wrote another song lyric based upon the George Stephenson letter.

The main figure in the letter was his second wife Elizabeth, who was usually known by her nickname Betty.  Her maiden name was Hindmarsh.  She was a farmer’s daughter from a large farm at Black Callerton near Newcastle upon Tyne.  As to George’s love life, her parents were not keen on their daughter marrying a grimy pitman and so they had to meet in secret in the family’s orchard.  The relationship was doomed to failure.  Soon George took a fancy to a domestic servant called Ann Henderson at another nearby farm and it was reported ‘there was no dowry to add to the attraction’.  Still resilient, he next made a move towards her older sister and he married Frances Henderson in 1802.  Robert was born a year into the marriage.  But George’s wife died three years later in 1806.

Meanwhile, as Hunter Davies recounted in his biography on George Stephenson, ‘she [Elizabeth] declared she would never marry anyone else – and she didn’t’.  There was a 13 year gap until he married Elizabeth.  By that time, George was a ‘big catch’ as Hunter Davies goes on to say:

‘… [he was] an important engine-wright, earning over £200 a year, with a large cottage, several hundred pounds in savings and investments, turning down offers and jobs all over Tyneside’.

When the letter in question was written George was living at Tapton House, a Georgian mansion near Chesterfield, Derbyshire, a property he had bought in 1838.  By then George Stephenson was a household name, known for winning the Rainhill Trials with his locomotive The Rocket.  He received dignitaries from home and abroad and many other wealthy friends, but also some hangers-on.  They all had to participate into one of his many hobbies, for he built a contraption for taking the fingerprints of his invited guests and visitors.  Such were his suspicions that his favourite saying ‘Never judge a goose by its stuffin’ I made as the title to one of my song lyrics.

Here is some idea of how was living then as Hunter Davies recalled:

   When his sister Nelly [Eleanor], the one who’d brought up Robert, came down to visit her famous brother, the first thing that amazed her were the number of windows.  She counted 90 – 89 more than the whole family had had when they’d slept, all of them, in one room at Wylam.  It seems a ridiculous size for a canny northerner, with only a wife to help him occupy it, but by now he had rather a large domestic staff, including an old farmer from Killingworth who in earlier years had helped him read and write.

The letter was addressed to a “William Hardcastle, Esq, MD, Westgate Street, Newcastle upon Tyne”, a reply to his recent social visit.  He was a surgeon and physician to George Stephenson and his family.

It must be assumed from the opening paragraph that Mrs Stephenson had left early to go into Chesterfield.  On the way she had stopped by the railway station, but, unfortunately, she had misread the train timetable, and it was made all the more amusing as she was the wife of the famous railwayman.  George wrote:  ‘[She had] only got down to the bottom of the park when the train passed’.  Evidently, Mrs Stephenson had prolonged her shopping expedition in Chesterfield and, considering their visitors, she had decided to buy a basket of strawberries ‘and a most beautiful melon for old Mrs Hardcastle’, which George described in a business-like manner ‘[that it] came under my management after dinner and I assure you it was most luxurious’.  The fact that the melon was bought for Mrs Hardcastle made it clear there was an arrangement to hand over the fruit to the doctor and his wife at Chesterfield station and for them to eat both fruits n their journey back home to Newcastle.

So this opening paragraph was nothing but a confession to Doctor Hardcastle and his wife as to why Mrs Stephenson was unable to meet them as arranged and to tell them about their missed fruit.

But that wasn’t the end of it:  what was essentially a man’s letter to a man and generally patronising to women.

At the beginning of the second paragraph, much longer than the first, it closed the letter.  George commented on his wife’s other shopping in Chesterfield that day with her buying a bonnet for herself, and what turned out to be:

   ‘…  two pounds for such a thing!  I suppose a nice straw bonnet might have been got for 5 or 8 shillings – what a waste of money for taste, and taste for what?  For something for other people to look at, that you don’t care one fig about – comfort and decency ought to be considered but nothing more’.

George ranted on about domineering women in biblical hyperbole, and what would today be described as sexist:

   ‘Eve coaxing Adam to eat the forbidden fruit she engendered into her female offspring the controlling power over man, and I suppose we must quietly bend to their wishes:  to attempt to turn them is like turning the tide in the Ocean’.       

George ended things by carping on again about the cost of his wife’s bonnet, highlighting it with a romantic set of double exclamation marks.

Andy Guy had filed the letter find as The Husband’s Lament and added:  ‘He [George] always had a strong dislike for “showy” dress’.  This may in part be explained by his upbringing.

George had a sense of pride though in things he had done for himself on a practical level.  As Andy Guy noted further about his time at Tapton House.  ‘In these later years, he was interested in growing fruit and vegetables and gave great time and trouble to the problem of producing straight cucumbers’.

It seemed George never lost his inventive spirit and could turn his hand to many things.

As to the letter as a whole, it didn’t have the vocabulary usually associated with a pitman’s background.  George was illiterate until he was 19 and started to have lessons on reading and writing from a Killingworth farmer.  Some of his letters still showed misspellings.  But he got help, for instance, from the likes of engineer Nicholas Wood in the battle over the Safety Lamp with Sir Humphrey Davy, and, of course, living off his son Robert’s knowledge about engineering when he was able to pay for his formal education.  Now George had his Killingworth mentor living in at Tapton House, he could be called upon to help him out, even his signature changed into a well-developed business-like “Geo” and not “George”, something he had continued to do ever since he signed the register for his second marriage.

Overall, the idea of ‘reading it right’ was evident in the secondary source over my interest in writing my song lyric.  The local newspaper report that first gave me the idea was brief and had gaps in the story.  For instance, it read ‘…  Mrs Stephenson [was] buying a bonnet and missing a train after looking at the wrong timetable’.  It begged the question:  Had she missed her own train?  Was she on her own as there was no mention of the Hardcastle couple, and nothing about buying strawberries or a melon?  It was only after my further investigation and re-reading that the truth was established.

Although I wasn’t writing history, I decided to keep to what had actually happened.

My song lyric is part of a set of 11 northern sketches, including Pitman’s Ditty about George’s skills as a shoe repairer.  They are to be performed by schoolchildren at a Newcastle school concert in June 2013 for The Great North Festival, with music by Katie and Rosie Cochrane, the former, an Oxford University music student.  To give it some authenticity, I have based my lyric on the tune to the Victorian comic song by Jacob Beuler:  Shiverand Skakery, The Man That Couldn’t Get Warm.  My song lyric is written with elements of Geordie:

The Tale of Betty Stephenson
The Stephensons they did invite
The Hardcastles, doctor an’ wife
One day to taste their mansion life,
Come taste their mansion life.
The Hardcastles they came by train
To stay wi’ them all day remain
An’ catch the same train back again,
The same train back again.

La, la, la, la, la, la la,
Afore they gan, Betty must gan
To shop in toon an’ buy some scram
Some scram for them – take hyem.

Now to the station Betty’s gyen,
The timetable her eyes would scan
An’ found the train that hyemward ran,
The train that hyemward ran.

She’d warked oot there was time t’ kill,
She’d buy some claes, her husband thrill,
His railway money would pay the bill,
His money would pay the bill.

La, la, la, la, la, la, la,
She’d forget the money that was not hers;
She’d make her George look up t’ her,
Our George look up t’ her.

So to the shops she felt the need,
A draper’s shop her greatest need;
A bonnet that would grace her heid,
A bonnet to grace her heid.

She tried one on wi’ laces fine,
She tried one in another line,
“This’ll look good when I wine an’ dine,
Look good when I wine an’ dine’.

La. la, la, la, la, la, la,
She went to every shop she knew;
An’ that was how her hunger grew,
That was how her hunger grew.

She’d have to leave, she couldna stay,
She bought a melon on her way;
But soon there came another delay,
There came another delay.

For loads of strawberries she did buy,
A basketful to satisfy
The Hardcastles all theirs to try,
For it’s all theirs to try.

La, la la, la, la, la, la,
An’ to the station Betty’s gyen,
To keep on track what she had planned,
On track what she had planned.

She stood upon the platform there,
No Hardcastles or train was there,
No train will come; she felt despair,
Oh, dear, she felt despair.

So what will George, he think of her?
The train she should have knaan afore
Had gyen away some time afore,
Away some time afore.

La, la, la, la, la, la, la,
For Betty she had lived the lie
An’ time how it had passed her by,
How it had passed her by.


The book referred to in my article is George Stephenson:  A Biographical Study of the Father of the Railways, Hunter Davies, Quartet Books, 1975.

The George Stephenson letter appears by kind permission of Beamish Museum, County Durham.

‘Tapton House July 26th, 1844

‘My dear Sir,

‘I hope you and Mrs Hardcastle got safe home – Mrs Stephenson expected to have met you at the Station as you passed, she had unfortunately looked at the wrong time table and only got down to the bottom of the park when the train passed:  she had a basket of straw berries for your party which would have saved you eating I think all the way to Newcastle and a most beautiful melon for Old Mrs Hardcastle which came under my management after dinner and I assure you it as most luxurious.

‘Mrs Stephenson is delighted with her bonnet; but only think of two pounds for such a thing!  I suppose a nice straw bonnet might have been got for 5 or 8 shillings – what a waste of money for taste, and taste for what?  For something for other people to look at, that you do not care a fig abut – comfort and decency ought to be considered but nothing more.  But I suppose from the time of Eve coaxing Adam to eat the forbidden fruit she engendered into her female offspring the controlling power over man, and I suppose we must quietly bend to their wishes:  to attempt to turn them is like turning the tide in the Ocean.  However notwithstanding all their faults they can certainly sooth man when the world frowns upon him:  and I suppose it is best to let them go on having their own way to a moderate degree – but only think of two pounds for a bonnet!!

‘I am my dear Sir,

‘Yours truly

‘Geo. Stephenson

‘Wm. Hardcastle Esq.’

G. F. Phillips

Published in Vintage Script:  The writing magazine for all things vintage historical retro, edited by Emma Louise Oram. Winter 2013.


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