Jason Clarke Antiques

Great Exhibition Royal Commission Services Medal to Robert Stephenson Engineer


For sale, a Great Exhibition Royal Commission Services Medal to Robert Stephenson inventor of The Rocket Locomotive and civil engineer.

The bronze medal for Service to The Great Exhibition is struck with central laurel wreath motif with the words “For Services” to the centre. The outer circumference of the wreath is further struck with the words, “Exhibition of The Works of Industry of all Nations” and the roman numerals for the year 1851.

The reverse has a bust portrayal of Prince Albert with the words, “HRH Prince Albert President of The Royal Commission” around the outer edge. The name of the artist W. Wyon RA is further embossed under the portrait of Prince Albert.

The edge of the medal is engraved with the recipient’s name: Robert Stephenson – Royal Comm(ission).

This historic medal is slightly larger than the exhibitor’s medal that was given out to all those that showed at The Great Exhibition, measuring 4.6cms in diameter. It was provided to numerous contributors up and down the country for assisting with the country wide organisation prior to and during the period of the Exhibition’s opening.

What gives this medal its historic presence is that it is one of only thirteen of these medals given to the Royal Commissioners who were hand picked by Price Albert to support him through this enormous undertaking. The Royal Commission included:

Mr (afterwards Sir) Charles W. Dilke, John Scott Russell, Mr (afterwards Sir) Henry Cole, Mr (afterwards Sir) Charles Fox, Joseph Paxton, Lord John (afterwards Earl) Russell, Sir Robert Peel, Robert Stephenson, Richard Cobden, Mr (afterwards Sir) Charles Barry, Lord Granville, Mr (afterwards Sir) William Cubitt, HRH The Prince Consort, Lord Derby.

Robert Stephenson was undoubtedly one of the most famous engineers of the early Nineteenth Century and is most renowned for building the The Rocket locomotive. It is quite fitting therefore that he is often dubbed, “the Father of Railways”.

Born in 1806 to the equally famous engineer, George Stephenson in Wallsend, Northumberland, Stephenson was first apprenticed to the mining engineer, Nicholas Wood before leaving that position to join his Father in surveying the Stockton & Darlington railway in 1821. Both Stephensons and a wool manufacturer, Edward Pease shortly after received a commission to build locomotives for this early railway line and in 1823, the company of Robert Stephenson & Co was created.

Between 1824 and 1827, under the Stephenson Company he worked as a mining engineer in Colombia but he returned again to work with his Father on building the Liverpool & Manchester railway. The Directors of the railway engaged in trials for various locomotives suitable for this new endeavour and in 1829, trials were held in Rainhill to decide which might be best suited.

For this occasion, Robert Stephenson designed and constructed what would later be famously named, “The Rocket” and in front of a crowd of fifteen thousand people the new locomotive outperformed all of its rivals and gained the Stephensons a contract to provide the railway with four similar engines. The railway was finally opened in 1830 with The Duke of Wellington travelling on the inaugural journey.

The 1830’s were a prolific period for the Stephensons and with Robert Stephenson & Co employed in building locomotives, a second company was created, George Stephenson & Son for the building of railways. This company was involved in numerous of the largescale contracts for railways that were now being built across the country including the Canterbury & Whitstable, the Leicester & Swannington, the Liverpool & Manchester, the Bolton & Leigh, the Warrington & Newton and the London & Birmingham lines.

Now a member of The Institution of Civil Engineers and with the onset of the London to Birmingham line, he moved from Newcastle to London and after four years, the line was finally opened in 1838. Although contracted to the London & Birmingham line throughout its duration, he still managed to consult on numerous others, also providing support and advice to foreign nations such as Italy, France and Belgium, the latter nation honouring both Robert and his Father George with the Order of Leopold for their services.

Demand had grown so high for the family’s services in 1830’s that new offices were opened next door to the Civil Engineer’s building in Great George Street, London with the Robert Stephenson Company still maintained in the North by William Hutchinson and in 1842 the Stephenson valve gear was developed. The year also saw the death of Stephenson’s wife, Fanny and although she gave her blessing for Stephenson to re-marry he remained single for the remainder of his life.

The first half of the 1840’s saw the Stephenson’s embroiled in an argument with Isambard Kingdom Brunel over the standard gauge of railway lines. The broad gauge preferred by Brunel was considered to be capable of higher speeds and the need for countrywide standardisation for locomotives resulted in a Royal Commission to decide the outcome. Although the broad gauge may well have been more appropriate, the outcome favoured four foot eight rails owing to the amount that had already been laid across the country. This standard remains in use today and the effects of this decision continue to have a wide ranging effect on the way that all types of transport are designed.

The latter half of the decade was marred somewhat by the failure of the bridge over the river Dee for which Stephenson had acted as Chief Engineer and the death of five people during the incident saw Stephenson representing himself in court. Although he was not prosecuted successfully, it is thought that the use of long iron girders was a strong contributor to the disaster but the experience did focus both Stephenson’s and Brunel’s resolve in improving designs for bridges. Stephenson’s tubular bridge designs were first tested at Conwy and in 1849 – 1850 with the assistance of Brunel a successful result was achieved. An iron bridge of Stephenson’s design was also opened by Queen Victoria in 1849 in Newcastle.

On a personal level, the 1840’s were a prolific time for Stephenson, he entered into politics as a conservative member of parliament in 1847 and his maiden speech was set aside for the promotion of The Great Exhibition after which both Stephenson and Brunel were chosen for a place on The Royal Commission alongside Prince Albert and for which he received this superb medal. His involvement at this point with the Royal Yacht Squadron probably helped to cement his position and it was during The Great Exhibition that The America’s Cup yacht race was first conceived.

In 1850, Brunel and Stephenson formed the building committee for the fair and a design competition was held for the world’s architect to design the building which would house the event. Within three weeks, the committee had received two hundred and forty five drawings however, none were considered either appropriate or more importantly cheap and fast enough to build. With time ebbing away, the committee finally received the historic designs of the garden designer, Joseph Paxton and with the cost to build being a vastly smaller sum than its competitors, the commission gave its approval.  

The Exhibition building was finally opened by Queen Victoria on the 1st of May 1851 and it housed over fifteen thousand exhibitors and admitted over six million people before it closed on the 15th of October 1851. It remained one of London’s most distinctive buildings until it was eventually destroyed by fire in 1936.

During the planning for the Exhibition, Stephenson continued to work, taking on the role of Chief Engineer for the Norwegian Trunk Railway and in 1852 he travelled to Canada to provide his expertise on the Grand Trunk Railway crossing of Montreal’s, St Lawrence river.

In the final decade of his life, he was elected President of the Institution of Civil Engineers (1856) and received the Legion D’Honneur from the Emperor of France but his health was failing by this time. In September 1859 on his return from the opening ceremony of the Norwegian Trunk Railway he fell ill aboard ship. He reached Britain but eventually died on the 12th of October 1859, a short time after his dear friend Brunel. His funeral procession was permitted to pass through Hyde Park by The Royal Family and he was buried in Westminster Abbey next to the engineer, Thomas Telford.

Stephenson’s contribution to British engineering and to industry in general cannot be understated and his medal for services rendered to The Great Exhibition, the most recognisable event of the Victorian period is a uniquely rare, museum worthy piece.

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