Tuesday 2 April 2013



An earlier article looked at some early experimental road vehicles run in the Greenwich area in the 1820s. Future articles will look at manufacturers - particularly Joshua Beale and Frank Hills - and some more experiments.   In the early 1830s there were attempts to run omnibus services in several parts of the country - some long distance on the long haul coach routes to places like Bath, and some shorter suburban services. Greenwich was a popular destination for these - both as a stop on the Dover Road and as a town near enough London to almost count as a suburb.  Greenwich was also was handily near the premises of several engine builders and had a number engineering works in the town itself.,

One of the most successful  builders whose carriages made long regular runs was Goldsworthy Gurney. He seems to have had no connection with Kent but some of his carriages were adapted for a proposed run to Greenwich.  He had built a carriage in 1826 which was about 20 feet long and would take six inside passengers and fifteen outside. It will be seen that these were on the same principle as a stage coach and designed for carrying passengers on service routes - not as individual private transport.

Gurney's carriages were being used in the Gloucestershire area by Sir Charles Dance.  The service encountered a great deal of opposition from both stage coach proprietors and the Turnpike Trusts.  A Parliamentary Committee examined the subject of steam carriage services and found in favour, but a Steam Carriage Bill could not be got through the House of Lords.   It must, however, have seened likely that suburban services were a better possibility.

In 1831 Dance went to the engineering firm of Maudslay, Sons and Field, then based at Waterloo - they  later moved a site on  Greenwich Marsh where they built ships. Dance asked Maudslay to  make Gurney's  carriage more powerful and this was done.   During the autumn of  1833 this rebuilt vehicle made a number of test runs from Maudslay's works in  Waterloo. With a party of fifteen observers on board they went to places like  Merstham on the Brighton Road and visited Beulah Spa and some other  spas in the Sydenham area .

In October 1833 Dance's new carriage ran for a fortnight between Waterloo Bridge and Greenwich.  It was always said that it  was not intended that this should be a proper public transport service so ordinary people were deterred from using it by the price of tickets - 'half a crown for tickets each way'.    That was the end of  this brief omnibus service which did not continue and there seems to be no record of what happened to the carriage.  The service must have failed for reasons which were not made public.

A year or so later another omnibus service ran between London to Greenwich using coaches built by John Scott Russell.  Russell was Scottish and these carriages had been designed and built by him  in  Edinburgh. They had been used for a service between Glasgow and Paisley but in the summer of 1834 one of the carriages had overturned.  It was later said that this was because the turnpike trustees in Glasgow had put extra thick layers of stone on the road to stop his carriages running. As a result five passengers were killed and the Scottish Courts forbade him to run the carriages again in Scotland.   So, unable to use them in Scotland,  Russell sent two of  the carriages by ship to London for use in  trips to Greenwich.

For this service on these, rather compromised, carriages the fares were kept cheap. The vehicles had to haul a tender full of coke along the road behind them and pick up water at places along the way as they went.  Scott Russell himself came to London to live in 1838. He was to become an important ship builder - he designed the Great Eastern - and he eventually  lived in Sydenham.  It does not seem to have persisted with the omnibus service to Greenwich and after an attempt to sell the carriages no more was heard of them.

There were probably several inventors trying to design steam road carriages. In 1834 Francis Maceroni - more of him later - gave a list of  steam carriage builders whose vehicles ' would not move at all'.  This is just a list of names without details and many have not yet been traced.  One who may have a Greenwich connection was  'Mr. Joyce' . William Joyce owned an engineering company at the Kent Ironworks in Greenwich where he designed and made a successful steam engine. Kent Ironworks was situated on the first site on the right after crossing today's Creek Bridge from Deptford.  Joyce probably started in work in Greenwich in 1841 when he acquired part of an old gas works site but whether he is the Mr. Joyce mentioned by Maceroni and whether this abortive steam car was made in Greenwich is not known.  Kent Ironworks would later produce a more successful steam road vehicle as we will see.

The most successful of the steam carriage builders of the 1830s was Walter Hancock who designed and made vehicles in Stratford, east London.  Hancock was one of a most interesting family - his brother, Thomas, has been called  'the foremost rubber technologist in England' and was a partner of the, better known, Mr. Charles Mackintosh.  Another brother, Charles, was responsible for the first use of gutta percha which was to revolutionise Thameside cable manufacture.  Walter Hancock was happy to advertise his brother's products by his 'flexible tubing' to suck up water for his steam road vehicles

Walter Hancock was the only one of the early road vehicle inventors who designed a locomotive which could go through crowded London streets on busy days.  Some of his coaches were run in an omnibus service to Greenwich - but accounts of what happened are often confusing and contradictory.

Hancock's coaches all had  identifying names - one was even called 'Autopsy'.  A coach called 'Era' is shown in illustrations, dating from 1832, and advertising a service between London and Greenwich.   Era was built by Hancock for a body called the London and  Greenwich Steam Carriage Company.  It appears that  separate companies had been set up to run omnibus routes - one of them, for instance, was the London and Paddington Steam Carriage Company. These companies, ostensibly different, all seem to have had most of the same people behind them.  The London and Greenwich Steam Carriage was not a Greenwich based company but a body set up in London which wanted to run an omnibus service to Greenwich. 

The engineer of the London and Greenwich Steam Carriage company was D. Redmund, was based in City Road, Islington and there are conflicting accounts of exactly what happened. Redmund  is said to have ordered a different bus - called Enterprise - for Greenwich from Hancock.  When Enterprise  arrived Redmund took it to pieces and noted down all the dimensions. He then began to build another bus himself -  called Alpha - which was an almost  complete copy of Enterprise.   The vehicle ran some test runs but never seems to have gone into service. 

 'Era' is not mentioned in the account of 'Enterprise' but  Hancock himself said he had made 'Era' for work in Greenwich. It may be that  the problems which Hancock had with David Redmund meant that the vehicle never actually ran a service. 'Era'anbH carried sixteen people sitting inside and two outside. In addition there was crew of three - the driver, an engineer and a lad.  There were two engines  for the engineer to manage.  The 'lad' stoked the boiler with 'common gas coke ' - that is coke bought from the gas works. 

Potential passengers, worried about a boiler explosion, were assured that ' the only parts of the boiler which can be dreaded are the sides - but good ties will keep them together'   and, as for the rest of the boiler 'its power of doing mischief is not worth notice'.

The drawing of 'Era' shows a comfortable looking vehicle with a driver at the front and the engine completely shielded from the passengers. There is a grand crest on the side of the coach which perhaps meant to imply some sort of aristocratic patronage. 

Hancock made a number of very successful steam omnibuses some which on service routes for some time. However he seems to have made little money and gave up work in the late 1830s.  It is to be hoped that 'Era' did see some service on the road to Greenwich but it is more likely that she never got beyond the stage of running trials.  In 1832 the line which was to become the London and Greenwich Railway had already been surveyed and, when complete, may well have provided competition which Era could not have met.

By the end of the 1830s steam road transport was a reality. Kentish roads had already seen some experimental vehicles and attempts to run public services.  The first years of the next decade would see attempts to make vehicles in Greenwich and witness their first trials around Kent.

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.  (1891)  Walter Hancock wrote his own biography but all accounts conflict on details of events. 

Mary Mills

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Walter Hancock was a true Steam Carriage genius and carried 12600 fare paying passengers over a continuous 6 month period on routes through the streets of London in 1833.