I came across this lithograph at the Museum of London site, showing the steam-propelled carriage being driven sedately on its way between London and Bath in 1829. I rather assumed that this indicated a regular service: far from it, because the service was plagued with difficulties which eventually forced one Mr Goldsworthy Gurney into bankruptcy with debts of well over two hundred thousand pounds. Behind his fall from grace lies a story of under-hand dealings, shenanigans in the House, and corruption among the rural gentry.
Goldsworthy (later Sir Goldsworthy) was born on Valentine’s Day 1793 near Padstow in Cornwall. He went on to become a scientist, inventor, surgeon, chemist and lecturer. In other words he was a thoroughly good egg who was rather clever at a lot of things.
In 1820 he moved up to London from Cornwall in order to further his career as a surgeon, and settled at 7 Argyle Street near Hanover Square. Curiously, he decided to expand his influence by lecturing … on the merits of steam locomotion.
Earlier, he had met fellow Cornishman Richard Trevithick who was one of the pioneers of steam-powered engines.
Trevithick had produced a steam carriage in 1803 and many of Gurney’s ideas were derived from this. In 1825 Gurney rented workshop premises just off Oxford Street and started tinkering with steam engine parts, particularly the blast pipe needed to increase the power-to-weight ratio of the steam engine . He soon took out a patent for “An apparatus for propelling carriages on common roads or railways – without the aid of horses, with sufficient speed for the carriage of passengers and goods”. Goldsworthy Gurney decided to move into the manufacture of steam carriages, and uprooted his family to go nearer Regents Park, where he took over an existing factory and made a number of important technical improvements to his original design. It must have caused a sensation when he took his vehicles out for a spin on the normal roads - a carriage moving without horses!
It was not always free from risk – in May 1828 a Gurney carriage climbed Highgate Old Hill (no mean achievement). On the return journey the workmen, ever so proud of their success, forgot to lock the drive-shaft to the rear wheels, and the contraption careered out of control down to the bottom of the hill. Fortunately for Gurney, who was steering the thing, neither he nor anyone else was injured, but a wheel fell off.
A similar problem with keeping the wheels on happened a while later, in thick fog, when a Gurney carriage had to swerve to avoid an oncoming mail-coach which suddenly emerged out of the gloom. The carriage crashed into a pile of bricks, damaging the drive mechanism, but it is reported that the carriage still managed to continue on its journey, with power to only one wheel, and overtook at least fifty horse drawn vehicles along the way. Let’s all have a quick rendition of “One wheel on my carriage, but I’m still rolling along…”
Eventually he decided to do a there-and-back journey to Bath, a feat accomplished at an average speed of 14 miles per hour (including stops for re-fuelling, taking on water etc.). This was twice as fast as a horse-drawn carriage. It was not entirely without incident, as his daughter remarked in a letter to The Times some years later “I never heard of any accident or injury to anyone with it, except in the fray at Melksham on the noted journey to Bath, when the fair people set upon it, burnt their fingers, threw stones, and wounded poor Martyn the stoker”. Well that says all you need to know about the good burghers of Melksham… but they were apparently mostly unemployed mill-workers so perhaps their luddism can be excused. The vehicle had to be escorted under guard to Bath to prevent further vandalism.
Unfortunately the general public were not convinced that it was a terribly good idea to sit atop a carriage next to a pressurised steam engine, particularly one which belched burning cinders out of every aperture. Our intrepid hero therefore developed what you might call ‘a Gurney gurney’ – an articulated trolley towed by the steam engine, on which the paying public might sit. But no-one really wanted to be towed along in this fashion, and GG quickly started to run out of money.
It wasn’t helped when a boiler exploded on one occasion, killing two people. Not good for business, as a writer of the time pointed out, when you buy a ticket to London but end up going to heaven instead…
For a short while a service was successfully operated between Cheltenham and Gloucester, using three of Gurney’s steam carriages. The service was operated by Sir Charles Dance, and ran every four hours. In one four-month period of 1831, his vehicles carried nearly 3,000 passengers, “including many ladies,” and travelled over 4,000 miles. But then an unholy alliance was entered into between the owners of the the horse-drawn coach businesses, the local magistrates and various prominent land-owners. The latter persuaded “their” M.P.’s to push a series of Private Members Bills through Parliament raising the toll on steam carriages to two pounds per trip (as against a couple of shillings for the equivalent vehicle pulled by horses). In all over fifty such bills were passed. Talk about protectionism!
To make matters worse, landowners in Cheltenham took it upon themselves to cover a long section of the road with a layer of loose gravel, about a foot deep, in order to make the heavy horse-less carriage sink up to its axle. This, combined with the prohibitively high tolls, was the death knell of the venture, and GG quickly went bankrupt. (It appears that the landowners were far more interested in selling their land to the new railroad companies – carriages on existing roads brought them no profit at all).
Suffice to say he went on to invent all manner of useful and exciting things, but that was in the reign of Queen Victoria and, as anyone who knows this blog is aware, that is totally outside my area of interest!