Why has the National Trust run out of steam at the Birthplace?
I have never understood why we do not make more fuss of George Stephenson. And now, to add insult to injury, National Trust has shut down his Birthplace on the waggon way at Wylam.
His statute in Neville Street is lost amongst the roadworks and, for some absurd reason known only to the sculptor, portrays him in classical fancy dress. The engineering works in Forth Street is neglected and his house in Killingworth is closed to the public. The so called Stephenson Quarter takes his name in vain. If you want to find out about George Stephenson, head for Chesterfield, where he ended his days and where he receives due honour.
As so often, I blame Margaret Thatcher. She is reputed to have never travelled on a train the entire time she was Prime Minister. Railways were deeply unpopular. In those far off days, we were bequeathed the National Glass Centre and the International Life Centre. It would have taken a brave man to propose the World Railway Centre but no one could have argued with the claim. Railways were born in the North East and George Stephenson was their Father. His 4 ft 81/2 inch gauge was adopted throughout the known universe.
George Stephenson ranks in the top one hundred Great Britons of all time. His face appeared on a five pound note even though he did not build the Skerne bridge pictured alongside him. Every schoolboy knows his name.
Stephenson’s story was embellished after his death by that great prophet of Victorian virtue, Samuel Smiles. Amazingly, his best selling biography of George was the standard work for over 100 years. As a self made man, Stephenson was the perfect example of Smiles gospel of self help and that is why the Birthplace is of such interest. Although the bulding looks impressive to anyone walking, running or cycling past the door, the Stephensons and their six children only rented one room from the mine owner in Wylam who employed George’s father. We know very little about these days though this did not stop Smiles making up a story or two.
The Birthplace shows how mining families lived in the late eighteenth century. Visitors are amazed that the family all slept in one four poster bed, which has a truckle underneath for the younger children, and drew their water from the river. Worldly wise school children express surprise that the family grew to such a size.
George never went to school and only learned to read and write at night school in his late teens. “ You can make your fortune even if you skip school” I tell then children to their parents disapproval on my occasional days as a volunteer guide.
As Adrian Jarvis points out in his reassessment of Stephenson’ career, he was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. Coal could not be transported by canal from the rich seams of the Northumberland and Durham coalfield. When most of the available horses were requisitioned for the Napoleonic wars, the mine owners needed to innovate and trusted the dependable young Stephenson. He built on other peoples work and was neither an outstanding surveyor or engineer, despite what Smiles might say.
George Stephenson grasped the potential for railways to carry people and had the vision of a joined up national rail network. After his success with the Stockton and Darlington and the Liverpool and Manchester railways, Stephenson became the ‘must have’ person to establish the credential of any new railway line.
He shrewdly bought mines and quarries near the new lines that accrued in value and ended his life as a wealthy man in a small stately home on top of extensive mineral rights. He was lucky to escape being brought down along with the fraudulent railway entrepreneur George Hudson. In fact, he was the kind of calculating businessman sailing close to the wind that Margaret Thatcher might have admired.
So why has National Trust closed the Birthplace for this coming year without warning or consultation? It is supposed to be a pause to evaluate how to make the best use of the property by engaging some university students to come up with bright ideas.
The Cottage is at the end of a long chain of command where the new smart tills have yet to be installed. It is poorly marketed and out of touch with the local community. The café provides the best bacon rolls for miles around to anyone passing by and the staff sell more raffle tickets than any other property of comparable size.
The answer is to invest in the Birthplace and build on the growing interest of the Great North Exhibition in 2018 when Stephenson’s famous Rocket is rumoured to be returning to the North East.
The National Trust is a wealthy organisation. It should look after the little gems like the Birthplace, Cherryburn and Washington Old Hall and not just put resources into corporate development and blockbuster attractions. In a fine turn of phrase, National Trust says it will not “engineer” all its properties in the same way but “ leave room for the application of common sense and discretion.” Think again National Trust because we want, perhaps late in the day, to praise our famous sons.
Published in Newcastle Journal 21st February 2017