Robert Stephenson was born on 16 October 1803,
[note 1] at
Willington Quay, east of
Newcastle upon Tyne, to
George Stephenson and Frances née Henderson, usually known as Fanny. She was twelve years older than George, and when they met was working as a servant where George was lodging. After marriage George and Fanny lived in an upper room of a cottage; George worked as a brakesman on the
stationary winding engine on the Quay, and in his spare time cleaned and mended clocks and repaired shoes. Fanny was suffering from
tuberculosis (known at the time as consumption), so George would take care of his son in the evening. Robert later recalled how he would sit on his father's left knee with his right arm wrapped around him while he watched him work or read books; his biographer Jeaffreson explained this is why Robert's left arm was the stronger. In autumn 1804 George became a brakesman at the West Moor Pit and the family moved to two rooms in a cottage at
Killingworth. On 13 July 1805 Fanny gave birth to a daughter who lived for only three weeks, Fanny's health deteriorated and she died on 14 May 1806.
Dial Cottage, Killingworth, where Robert grew up
George employed a housekeeper to look after his son and went away for three months to look after a
Watt engine in
Montrose, Scotland. He returned to find his housekeeper had married his brother Robert.
[note 2] He moved back into the cottage with his son and briefly employed another housekeeper before his sister Eleanor moved in. Known to Robert as Aunt Nelly, Eleanor had been engaged to be married before travelling to London to work in domestic service. However, returning to get married Eleanor's ship was delayed by poor winds and she arrived to find her fiancé had already married. Eleanor attended the local
Methodist church, whereas George would not regularly attend church, preferring on Sundays to work on engineering problems and meet his friends.
Robert was first sent to a village school 1 1⁄2 miles (2.4 km) away in
Long Benton, where he was taught by Thomas (Tommy) Rutter. On his way to school, he would carry
picks to the smith's at Long Benton to be sharpened. George was promoted in 1812 to be enginewright at
Killingworth Colliery with a salary of £100 per annum. He built his first steam locomotive,
Blücher, in 1814 and the following year was earning £200 per annum. George had received little formal education but was determined that his son would have one, and so sent the eleven-year-old Robert to be taught by John Bruce at the Percy Street Academy in Newcastle. Most of the children came from middle-class families, and it was while he was at the academy that Robert lost most of his Northumberland accent. At first Robert walked the 10 miles (16 km), but was liable to catch a cold; George fearing tuberculosis bought him a donkey. Robert became a member of the
Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society and borrowed books for him and his father to read. In the evening he would work with George on designs for steam engines. In 1816 they made a
sundial together, which is still in place above the cottage door.
After leaving school in 1819, Robert was apprenticed to the mining engineer
Nicholas Wood, who was viewer (manager) of Killingworth colliery. The following year Robert's Aunt Nelly married and George married Elizabeth Hindmarsh. George had courted Elizabeth before he had met Fanny, but the relationship had been put to an end by Elizabeth's father; Elizabeth had sworn at the time that she would not marry anyone else.
[note 3] As an apprentice Robert worked hard and lived frugally, and unable to afford to buy a
mining compass, he made one that he would later use to survey the
High Level Bridge in Newcastle. Robert learnt to play the flute, which he played during services at the local parish church.