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London Steam Carriage demonstration, site of
Leather Lane, Holborn, London, UK
associated engineer
Richard Trevithick
date  1803
era  Georgian  |  category  Steam Engine or Locomotive  |  reference  TQ311818
The second of engineer Richard Trevithick's steam-powered road locomotives, the so-called London Steam Carriage was the first covered steam-powered vehicle capable of transporting passengers. It was tested on the streets of London in the summer of 1803 but it never found commercial success.
Trevithick (1771-1833) had developed the London steam carriage with his cousin Andrew Vivian (1759-1842) and his brother-in-law William West (1751-1831). It had three wheels — a small one at the front for steering and two larger driving wheels at the rear.
The engine was manufactured and road tested in Cornwall. Its wrought iron boiler, cylinder and cast iron parts were from Harvey & Co. in Hayle. As with Trevithick’s 1801 first road locomotive Puffing Devil, it was assembled at John Tyack’s smithy in Camborne.
The new carriage was sent by sea from Falmouth to London and it arrived at William Felton’s carriage works at 36 Leather Lane in April 1803. Here Felton made the coach body, which could accommodate up to eight people — a standard stagecoach carried six people. The driver sat in front of and a little below the coach. He directed the front wheel using a tiller, while the engineman stood on a low step behind the coach.
Road tests in Cornwall had indicated that larger wheels would provide a smoother ride, reduce damage to the street surface and be less likely to get caught in ruts. Accordingly, the driving wheels were increased to 2.44m in diameter and the engine fixed between them, behind the axle and below the coach body. Simple gear wheels connected the engine to the rear wheels, which prevented the use of springs on the rear axle (the gears would not mesh if the crankshaft moved relative to the axle).
The engine weighed about 305kg and was said to be “about the size of an orchestra drum”. Its 140mm diameter single cylinder was set horizontally into the cylindrical boiler, 840mm long and 760mm in diameter, with the piston travelling 760mm every stroke. It worked at 50 strokes per minute for a pressure of 207kN per sq m in the boiler.
The total cost of the steam carriage was about £207, plus the cost of shipping — £20.75. Davies Giddy (later Gilbert, 1767-1839), Trevithick’s lifelong advisor and future President of the Royal Society, named the vehicle "Mr Trevithick’s dragon”.
Road trials in London took place early in the mornings over several months, the streets often being cleared of horse-drawn vehicles and pedestrians. Routes began and ended at the Felton works and included round trips to Oxford Street and Paddington — journeys of up to 16km. The carriage achieved a speed of 13-14km per hour on the flat. It was reported that "several men of science” steered the vehicle during a demonstration at Lord’s Cricket Ground in Marylebone and expressed "their perfect satisfaction as to the ease with which it was directed”.
That may have been the case on level ground but the problems of steering a vehicle without differential gears (meaning drive was applied only to one of the rear wheels at a time) would not be resolved for many years. The torsion produced during driving tended to twist the chassis, exacerbating the already uncomfortably juddering ride. In addition, the trials showed up defects in the firebox design — the motion of the carriage tended to shake loose the fire bars and burning coals dropped into the ash pan.
Though the carriage was seen by "tens of thousands” of spectators over the course of the trails, it failed to generate any orders for the three Cornish engineers. Its detractors argued that horse-drawn carriages were more comfortable, not as noisy, caused less damage to the roads and were cheaper to operate.
With their money running out and more interest being shown in Trevithick’s other engines, the steam carriage was abandoned. The coach body was sold and the prime mover was used as a stationary engine in a hoop iron rolling mill, where it worked for many years, but has not survived.
In the 1980s retired steam enthusiast Tom Brogden from Macclesfield began to construct a full size replica (4m high) of the London steam carriage. It ran through the streets of Camborne with the Trevithick Society’s Puffing Devil replica on 28th April 2001, and on 6th July 2003 it retraced part of the original route from the site of the Felton works in Leather Lane into St Cross Street. Trevithick’s great great great grandson Frank Masahiro Trevithick Okuno (1928-2009) unveiled a plaque to mark the occasion. It reads —
"William FELTON’s carriage works was close to this spot. In 1803 he built a carriage powered by a steam engine designed and supplied by Richard TREVITHICK, the great Cornish engineer. The carriage made several trips from here with up to about 8 passengers. In July of that year, one trip was made via Greys Inn Lane, Dorset Square and Tottenham Court Road to Paddington, returning the same day via Islington. This was the first self-powered vehicle to run in the streets of London and the world’s first self-powered road people carrier. The London Steam Carriage heralded the age of the car. This plaque was unveiled by Francis Trevithick Okuno, descendent of Richard Trevithick, on July 6th 2003”.
Supervising engineer: William West
Research: ECPK
bibliography
“Richard Trevithick: Giant of Steam” by Anthony Burton
Aurum Press Ltd, London, 2000
“The Cornish Giant: The Story of Richard Trevithick, father of the steam locomotive” by L.T.C. Rolt, Lutterworth Press, London, 1960
“The Mead & West Families in Cornwall 1751-1941”
by C.J.H. Mead, printed privately, Falmouth, 1941
“Richard Trevithick: the engineer and the man” by H.W. Dickinson and Arthur Titley, Cambridge University Press, London, 1934
“Life of Richard Trevithick, with an account of his inventions”
by Francis Trevithick, E. & F.N. Spon, London, 1872
“Memoir of Richard Trevithick” by Henry Hyde Clarke
in The Civil Engineer and Architect’s Journal, Scientific and Railway Gazette, Vol.II, pp.93-96, London, March 1839
www.steamcar.net
Location

London Steam Carriage demonstration, site of