EARLY ROAD TRANSPORT IN NORTH KENT
(this is the first of a series of articles which originally appeared in Bygone Kent)Mary Mills
I have written in the past about both Frank Hills and Joshua Beale both of whom had factories on Greenwich Marsh in the nineteenth century. Both were involved with the development of powered road transport. In the early 1840s at least two cars were made at Beale's Greenwich works at the end of today's Mauritius Road. They were the not the only experimental road transport which trundled round the roads of North Kent in the nineteenth century. From the 1820s onwards some Kentish roads were - well, almost - buzzing with newly invented vehicles. Most of them were steam powered and were developed as the same time as railway locomotives but they were lighter and smaller and, perhaps, more sophisticated.
Greenwich became a focus for some of this activity. Several attempts to provide an omnibus service to Greenwich using steam vehicles took place at around the same time as the first railway in London - the London and Greenwich - was opened in 1836. Greenwich was somewhere to which a transport link might be profitable - local residents would want to go to London, perhaps some of them might even commute. It was also a resort to which Londoners would want to go on a day out. It was on the main Dover Road and there was a need to supplement passenger transport on the river Thames where accidents were becoming ever more frequent.
Some steam carriages were manufactured in Greenwich by inventors or by manufacturers who working under contract to the inventor. Some other steam car experimenters owned factories north of the river but lived in Greenwich - presumably they commuted by ferry to Millwall. One such example is John Seaward who developed a steam carriage in 1859. He lived in Greenwich for a while although his factory was the City Canal Ironworks on the Isle of Dogs
Inventors needed publicity for their carriages and it was a very good advertisement to be seen taking the new vehicle over a difficult piece of public road. Shooters Hill was a firm favourite. It was on the Dover Road, near London and notoriously difficult. Anyone who wanted to see new cars out on their first run would have been well advised to live there! It is also worth remembering Dickens's description of Shooters Hill in Tale of Two Cities - although the novel was written in 1859 and set in 1775 - 'he walked uphill in the mire by the side of the mail as the other passengers did ... with drooping heads and tremulous tails [the horses] mashed their way through the thick mud ... there was a steaming mist in all the hollows ... a clammy and intensely cold mist .... a loaded blunderbuss lay on the top of six or eight loaded horse pistols, deposited on a substratum of cutlasses'.
The idea of steam road transport had been around a long time.. One of the earliest inventors was Richard Trevithick. He came from Cornwall in 1803 bringing with him a steam locomotive which he had developed in Cambourne and which had been demonstrated there on roads. He also demonstrated railway locomotives in London. It is not known if Trevithick ever brought his vehicles south of the river but he knew Kent well and was to die in Dartford. Thus, perhaps there is some association there between Kent and one of the very earliest road vehicles..
The first powered vehicle on a North Kent road seems to have been that built by Samuel Brown. It was, however, not a steam car
Brown's road vehicle was tested by driving up Shooters Hill on 27th May 1826 - before he moved to Greenwich. Unlike many later vehicles which climbed the hill it did not use steam but was powered either by coal gas or the vapour from commercial alcohol. The engine was known as a 'gas vacuum' and has been claimed as the forerunner of internal combustion. The car itself had four wooden wheels, a small seat for the driver and very little room for anything else on top of a gigantic engine. It climbed up Shooters Hill very slowly but 'with considerable ease'.
In the 1820s many people thought that Mr. Brown's carriage would never be able to go uphill because of something they called 'perpendicular resistance'. The drive up Shooters Hill was to disprove this once and for all. Mr. Brown's car went up it all right - and plenty more were to follow it.
Brown's ride up Shooters Hill has been given very little attention although it was well reported at the time in the technical press. Historians of motor transport have tended to ignore it because it was very early and, in some ways, isolated from the later development of the internal combustion engine. It has not been described in any detail in histories of steam transport because steam was not used. Brown himself seems to have abandoned the idea of using the system for a road vehicle and adapted to be used for powering boats. The 'Canal Gas Engine Company' was formed by a group of entrepreneurs to exploit the engine for use in vessels on the Croydon Canal. This canal ran from New Cross to Croydon going on the Kent side of the Surrey border for some distance through the Sydenham area - it was to become the route of the London Bridge/Norwood Junction railway line. It was not a success and the gas engine project floundered with it.
Brown was not the only person in Greenwich trying to put powered vehicles on the roads. At around the same time in the 1820s another inventor was working on a steam carriage. John Hill came from Greenwich, although it is not clear exactly who he was. Contemporary directories list a John Hill in Creek Street, Deptford - perhaps he thought 'Greenwich' was a politer address than 'Deptford'. 'John Hill' is, in any case, a common name. His partner in the steam carriage project was a Timothy Burstill who came from Edinburgh and was, of course, a competitor in the 1829 Rainhill Trials for an effective railway locomotive. He entered with 'Perseverance' - said to have 'no more than a glorified domestic boiler'.
In London Burstill and Hill made a very heavy, 8 ton, road steam carriage with a very large boiler. This meant that it was very slow and could only do, at the most, three or five miles an hour. They found it difficult to get passengers as because , it emerged, people were scared of sitting close to the enormous boiler. They were quite right to be afraid because this boiler eventually exploded during a demonstration run. This explosion probably happened in Deptford although no exact spot is given. No one was hurt in the accident although twenty three people were standing nearby 'on the bank' and one man had his foot on the machine itself . Burstill and Hill claimed that the fact that no one was killed showed how safe the engine really was! No more was heard of it.
Such steam carriages were experimental and none of them ever ran a regular public transport service. This changed in the late 1830s when new carriages came on to the roads which were designed to hold fifteen or more passengers and run an 'omnibus' service. The next article will look at them.
This article has been compiled from a variety of sources, in particular local newspapers and the trade press of the day. There is a considerable literature about steam road carriages, I have drawn particularly on William Fletcher's Steam on Common Roads. An article about Samuel Brown's car by L.Graham Davis appeared in True's Automobile Year Book, No.2. 1953.