Rail historians rocket Stephenson

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The Independent Online
HE IS one of the towering figures in British history. George Stephenson, the father of our railways, is a man so important to our heritage that his face appears on every five pound note.

Or he was until today.

This morning, just a few miles from Stephenson's birthplace, railway historians will present a debunking of what they believe is the myth surrounding the man most of us know as the inventor of the steam locomotive. At the end of a day that will have the self-taught engineer steaming in his grave, delegates to the International Early Railways Conference in Durham will have heard that Stephenson did not invent the locomotive at all.

His first engine, My Lord, built in 1814, was, according to Andy Guy, the historian giving the talk, a joint effort between Stephenson and two other engineers, who never received credit. "All the work done on My Lord had been done before," said Mr Guy, a historian at the Beamish Museum, Co Durham. "Stephenson wasn't entitled to make the patent claim he made in 1815." The historians believe his "greatness" was partly a construct of his self-aggrandisement.

The new evidence shows William Chapman and John Buddle, engineers who have little chance of appearing on a fiver, had "significant input" into the design of Stephenson's first inventions, Mr Guy said.

Alan Pearce, another Durham-based railway historian, compares Stephenson to today's Japanese car manufacturers. "He went around looking at other people's inventions and said, `That looks good, I'll use that bit and that bit'."

The engineer is the latest historical or cultural figure to have his reputation debunked. Military hero Lord Kitchener is now seen as a brutal man who invented concentration camps during the Boer War. The statures of Field-Marshal Bernard Montgomery, Scout founder Robert Baden-Powell and RAF chief Arthur "Bomber" Harris have suffered similarly.

The two railway historians emphasise that they are not out to blacken Stephenson's name.

"He was one of the railway pioneers of the time, and he was the most prominent" said Mr Guy.