From the perspective of eighteenth century London, the Celtic lands of the west Cornwall peninsula, also known as West Barbary, seemed far off and isolated. Overland travel was hazardous as there were few made roads, and a sea voyage was thought even worse because of the rocky shores and risk of piracy.
Richard Trevithick's father, Richard Francis (1735-97), was manager (or captain) at a number of Cornish mines, in the Camborne and Redruth district north west of Falmouth — Dolcoath
, Wheal Chance, Wheal Treasury and Eastern Stray Park
. He earned £2 a month from each. From 1777 onwards he was also mineral agent for the Tehidy estate near Portreath, owned by Francis Bassett (1757-1835). Richard senior was a Methodist class leader and knew one of the movement's founders, the famous preacher John Wesley (1703-91).
Trevithick's grandparents, John (1694-1750) and Elizabeth (c.1705-56), lived in Camborne and had five children, of whom Richard senior was the second. Richard senior married Trevithick's mother, Anne Teague (1736-1810), in Camborne on 9th November 1760. Her parents were John Teague (c.1706-86) and Prudence Creed (d.1784). The Teague family originated in Ireland and were also associated with Redruth mines.
The couple had eight children — Elizabeth, Anne, Prudence, Mary, Richard, Thomasina, Sarah and Alexander. Three of Trivithick's sisters would marry in Camborne — Elizabeth (1761-1823) to blacksmith John Tyack on 28th November 1782, Anne (1763-1830) to engineer William Edwards on 18th April 1791 and Thomasina (1773-1850) to Henry Vivian (1771-1817) on 7th December 1796. Mary (1768-90) apparently died unmarried, while Prudence (1765-75), Sarah (1775-80) and Alexander (1779-90) died in childhood.
Trevithick was born at home
on 13th April 1771 in a cottage that stood on the site of present-day 35 Station Road, Pool, in the parish of Illogan — opposite South Wheal Crofty mine. Soon afterwards, the growing family moved to a house with some land on Higher Penponds Road, Penponds, south west of Camborne. At the time, this was a prime residential area with much higher rates than Camborne itself. The house still stands and is now known as Trevithick Cottage
The young Trevithick grew to be tall and strong — and headstrong — and he was indulged by his mother and sisters. He attended school in Camborne where he was taught the 'three Rs', though he never mastered spelling. His unconventional approach to arithmetic annoyed his schoolmaster as his quick brain would arrive at the right answer without bothering with orthodox calculations.
By the time he was 19 (1790), Trevithick was 1.88m tall (6ft 2in) — at a time when the average British male was 1.7m in height (5ft 7in) — and he was generally known as the Cornish Giant. It is claimed that doctors from the Royal College of Surgeons examined him and said they had never seen such finely developed musculature.
His strength was such that stories circulated about him, saying he could lift a 500kg blacksmith’s mandrel (the tapered cast iron pipe used for shaping), hurl a sledge hammer over the top of an engine house and write his name on an overhead surface while a 25kg weight was attached to his thumb. He was also a noted Cornish wrestler.
Within a couple of kilometres of his birthplace were five prosperous mines, recovering tin, copper and other minerals — Dolcoath
, Cook's Kitchen, Pool, Tin Croft and Wheal Chance (later known as Roskear). Trevithick probably left school at 10 or 12 years old, as was customary then, and spent his time observing how mine work was done.
The first record of him working is in 1786, aged 15 years, at Dolcoath mine where he earned 24 shillings a month. In the previous decade his father had erected a second-hand Newcomen engine (see biography of Thomas Newcomen
for information on Newcomen engines) there and helped to construct a new deep adit (horizontal access passage).
Between the ages of 15 and 18 years Trevithick consolidated his experience, perhaps working at several mines. At some time during this period it is claimed that he solved a problem with underground mine levels that had baffled surveyors. In March 1790, Trevithick was employed as an engineer at Eastern Stray Park
mine, Camborne, where his pay increased from 26 to 30 shillings (£1.50) a month.
Trevithick’s father, his uncle John Trevithick senior (1731-96) and his cousin John junior (1776-1827) also worked at Eastern Stray Park, so he was continuing a family tradition. This is his first known full-time job, and he would work at Eastern Stray Park for two years.
portrait of Richard Trevithick Institution of Civil Engineers