Monday, 8 April 2013

Steam Cars in Greenwich - final puffs

One of the last steam cars to run experimentally on Kent roads was that built by the man who  became the torpedo manufacturer,  Sir Alfred Yarrow.   Yarrow was born in Islington and trained as an engineer.  As a young man, together with a friend, James Hilditch, he experimented with a whole range of inventions. One of these was a steam car and in 1861 this was taken up and made  by T.W.Cowan of Greenwich.   Cowan was at  the Kent Iron Works earlier owned by William Joyce. Perhaps Cowan worked for or with Joyce.

Yarrow's vehicle was driven from Greenwich to Bromley once a week. This was to demonstrate the machine to possible purchasers. In Bromley the party would stop for 'some refreshment' before returning to Greenwich.

A number of stories are told about these journey's in Yarrow's biography.  People along the route were clearly disturbed by the noise of the engine. It is said that one old lady seeing it go past, ran to her window.  Seeing the flames and smoke she thought the devil was there.  It has not proved easy to discover the truth of this of this story  Many of the early road vehicles are supposed to have led to stories of how people thought  they were 'the devil' .  One good example of this is the first steam car of all - built by William Murdoch built in  1780s .  It was said that the local  Vicar who thought Murdoch's car was the devil but in Samuel Smiles's interview with the Vicar's daughter and it is quite clear that it was part of a casual, jokey,  interchange. It is hard to believe that by 1862 there could have been any old ladies left on the roads around Bromley who did not know what a steam vehicle looked like!  She probably had good reason for disliking the smoke and noise - perhaps 'the devil' is the term she was using for Yarrow and his noisy friends!

Yarrow's biographer goes on to say that on another occasion the carriage met a mounted policeman whose horse took fright and threw him, breaking his leg.   This is said to be the incident which led to the infamous 'red flag act by which all steam vehicles had to proceed at the pace of man who had to walk in front of them holding a red flag.   This would be a wonderful story and I would love to be able to say that this Act originated in Kent but  I must again admit to some doubt about this statement.   There is no obvious sign of the story in local papers - although an incident like this could be easily missed. particularly as the date isn't given. However  if the incident was so important as to change the law surely it would have been headlined!

There was a series of Acts of Parliament and amendments to do with road transport in the early 1860s and the red flag requirement (which was only sometimes in force) was part of one of them. Before each Act was passed  there was some discussion in Parliament and a couple of  Parliamentary Committees were also held.  I have not able to find in any of these mention of this incident. In their discussions Members of Parliament were more  concerned about road surfaces and the damage done to them by increasingly heavy road vehicles. They also wanted to give power to various local authorities to control where these vehicles were allowed to go and where not (perhaps the old lady had got on to her MP!).   Many Members were at pains to say that although horses might be frightened by noisy mechanical contraptions they soon got used to them and anyway sensible grooms held the horse's head as the steam vehicle went past.

In the back of Parliament's mind must also have been the dangers involved in these very young men (Yarrow was only 20 driving heavy vehicles over ordinary roads at night while fuelled with drink from the numerous 'entertainment' stops.

Yarrow went on to found the shipbuilding company for which he became famous. He  lived for a while in Blackheath, at 113 Blackheath Park, and later at Woodlands - when this article was first written it was the Greenwich Local History Library where much of the research for it was done.  It has been said that Woodlands has survived because of Yarrow's involvement with the building.

After the 1860s the use of steam vehicles on Kentish roads was very limited and the glamorous and exciting experimental runs stopped.  Development of steam road vehicles turned to heavy haulage. It was this period that Kent became famous for steam traction vehicles.  The development of firms like Aveling and Porter is outside the subject area of this article but we can all be proud to see the Kentish 'Invicta' badge today on so many preserved traction engines.   At Crockenhill I remember an exciting visit to the Foundry Garage's workshops and see engines hidden away under covers at the back - it was from Bygone Kent that I first learnt they were there. 

Steam vehicles were still made in Greenwich the twentieth century -  by Frank Hill's son.   In the 1870s Frank Hills took control of one of the most important shipbuilding yards in London - Thames Ironworks. This was based on the banks of Bow Creek in Essex.  When Frank died control of Thames Ironworks passed to his son, Arnold.   Arnold Hills would make the subject of another long article. Most of his working life was spent in Essex and elsewhere  but although he was eventually to retire to Kent. He bought Hammerfield near Penshurst and  he is buried in St.Luke's Church Chiddingstone. He was a militant vegetarian and teetotaller who bravely fought to save London shipbuilding despite almost complete paralysis.

In 1899 Thames Ironworks took over the old established Greenwich engineering firm of John Penn, based on Blackheath Hill and on the Deptford riverfront..  Marine engineering, which both Penn and Thames Ironworks  had specialised in, was beginning to fail in London. Arnold Hills looked round for other things which could be profitably made.  It is clear from the company's house journal that the newly emergent motor industry was of great interest to them and in the early part of the new century Thames Ironworks began to make vehicles.

Steam driven lorries were certainly made in Greenwich under the trade name of 'Thames'.   In particular there was a five ton wagon.   It is interesting to note that its first test run was on Frank Hills' old route from Blackheath Hill to Bromley. It did this as 5 mph using 79 gallons of water and 3 qtrs. of coke.

Thames Ironworks made a variety of  vehicles. although it not clear  if they were actually made in Greenwich or elsewhere. Steam lorries were a natural progression from the sort of things Penn's already had in production.  This was not so of the racing cars which Thames demonstrated at Brooklands Racetrack , where they also maintained workshops.  They also made a luxury car called 'Conqueror' and a smaller car called the 'Cynosure'.  The Hills family have pictures of these vehicles although  I am not aware if any preserved vehicles remain. The only relic I know of is in the Beaulieu Motor Museum. This is a coach made in June 1911 as the first of a fleet ordered by a West End distributor. It is a large and impressive vehicle - very reminiscent of what we imagine the earlier steam cars looked like. The notes provided by the Beaulieu Museum have avoided saying where it was made. 

There were no successors, The story of the end of Thames Ironworks is dramatic and sad - because it signalled the end of ship building on the Thames. Penn's closed in 1912 and with them went car manufacture in Greenwich.    There were, of course, other manufactures of motor cars and steam vehicles in Kent but this article has attempted to tell the story of the days when Shooters Hill and the road between Bromley and Greenwich were test tracks for what was hoped to be a new breed of locomotive transport.

Mary Mills

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