The great railway engineer, Robert Stephenson had many professional dealings with Parliament over railway development bills. And for 12 years in the mid-19th century, he saw Parliament from the inside as Conservative MP for Whitby.
His equally famous father, George Stephenson, had been offered a parliamentary seat at South Shields, but he declined. Though a Tory, George's politics were rather ill-defined, although he was strongly pro-free trade, unlike his protectionist son.
With the assistance of his father's former business partner - Sunderland MP George Hudson - Robert was invited to stand in Whitby at the 1847 general election, held in the aftermath of the split in the Tory party over the Corn Laws. Hudson, who had business interests in Whitby, was a strong protectionist, and promoted Robert as a fellow protectionist.
Despite Robert's busy railway activities, not least coping with the recent fatal rail accident on the Chester Dee Bridge he had designed, he accepted. When he arrived in the North Yorkshire fishing town on 27 July, Stephenson openly confessed his ignorance of maritime affairs, but pledged support for the navigation laws which protected British shipping interests.
In the three days until the poll on Friday 30 July, Stephenson was busy canvassing. He found the electors "very civil and to a man offered me support although we might differ a little in politics". These efforts were rewarded, when he was returned unopposed.
He was not an assiduous MP and did not make his maiden speech until 4 July 1850. As a member of the sponsoring Royal Commission, he strongly opposed a motion against the proposed 1851 Great Exhibition at Hyde Park. For the next several years he rarely spoke in the House, and when he did it was usually as an engineer rather than a parliamentarian. He spoke on thrilling issues such as the London (Watford) Spring Water Company Bill and the scale on official Ordnance Survey maps. He was one of only 53 members who voted against free trade in the famous November 1852 debate, a diehard protectionist group which earned the nickname of ‘cannon-balls', apparently because their heads were considered too hard to allow in new ideas.
He was often called upon as an expert member or witness during parliamentary inquiries. In 1852, he served on a select committee investigating ventilation and lighting problems in the newly built Palace of Westminster. Stephenson clearly saw this as a chore, as he wrote to Brunel on 7 April 1852: "I feel ... like ‘a cat in hell without claws' but as we have undertaken it I am determined to stick to it."
His opposition to proposals for the construction of a Suez Canal led to controversy. He was opposed to the proposed canal because he thought it both technically and economically impractical. However, there were suspicions that his opposition was due more to a desire to promote a railway link as an alternative.
Whatever his motives, his speeches in the two Commons debates on the subject in 1857 and 1858, while measured and technical, unfortunately appeared to suggest that he had personally been a member of an international feasibility study in Egypt in 1847. In fact he did not visit that country until late 1850. He also implied that some supporters of the enterprise had not been fully honest or consistent in their views.
This enraged the canal's proponents, including the developer Ferdinand de Lesseps, who travelled to London in July 1857 to challenge Stephenson to a duel if he would not withdraw his claims. Luckily this was smoothed over, when Stephenson assured de Lesseps that he intended no "personal allusion to yourself".
He was re-elected three more times for Whitby, which he represented until his death in 1859. There was much local dissatisfaction at his parliamentary performance, and neglect of his constituency and its shipping interests in favour of his railway obligations.
A Liberal, Edmund Phipps, stood against him in July 1852, and the contest was characterised by dirty tricks and threats, particularly from Stephenson's side. At the 8 July nomination, Phipps was declared the winner on a show of hands, but the Tories demanded a poll and then instigated a riot. The following day, Stephenson won by 218 to 109, the beneficiary of a sordid campaign.
Clearly Stephenson was more a ‘professional man in Parliament' than a ‘professional parliamentarian'. He remained loyal to his sometimes outdated political beliefs and to his party. But it is as an engineer, not a politician, that he will be remembered.