The Father of the Railways

Resource Type: Image | Posted on 24th October 2011 by Liam Physick

One of the images donated to Metal by Eric Shenton. This portrait is a somewhat glorified image of George Stephenson, the “Father of the Railways”. Stephenson here strikes an impressive, dignified pose, reminiscent of portraits of the nobility, and is dressed in the clothes of a gentleman, despite his working-class background. In the background of the image, a locomotive passes through a rural area, quite possibly Chat Moss: arguably, Stephenson’s greatest achievement. Stephenson was a great hero to the Victorians, not just because of his remarkable achievements as an engineer and his role in pioneering the world’s first passenger railway, but also because he embodied the supreme Victorian virtue: self-help. It is no coincidence that Samuel Smiles, author of Self-Help; with Illustrations of Character and Conduct (1859), greatly admired him: in addition to the above-mentioned work, Smiles wrote The Life of George Stephenson (1857), as well as an abridged version, The Story of The Life of George Stephenson (1859). Because Stephenson came from a poor family but ended up as a world-famous engineer, and, moreover, taught himself to read and write, to self-help ideologues like Smiles he was living proof that anyone could achieve anything if only they worked hard enough. Thus, according to the prevailing political ideology, anyone who failed to achieve success was simply lazy or lacking in talent: everyone achieved what their talent and application deserved. The corollary of this was an opposition to welfare benefits on the grounds that they discouraged self-help and rewarded laziness, and support of the workhouse system, where inmates were deliberately treated harshly to deter them from seeking state support. Since the 1980s, these ideas have experienced a revival to once again become the unchallenged political orthodoxy. Perhaps also worth noting is that this portrait shows Chat Moss: is this to symbolise the triumph of man over nature, another Victorian value? In summary, Stephenson is an example of how one man’s remarkable achievements can be exploited to serve a political agenda

The Father of the Railways

Tagged under: steam locomotives, liverpool and manchester railway, eric shenton, george stephenson, chat moss, self-help, samuel smiles

Categorised under: The Station & Railway Pioneers

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