Thursday 4 April 2013

Steam cars on the road in Greenwich

One of the most coloourful and prolific builder of steam carriagfes in thius periud was Colonel Francis Maceroni.  He was of Sicilian origin although born and brought up in Manchester.  He had seen service in Italy. Wherever steam carriages were built Maceroni was to be found. It was said of him that since he had been an 'aide de camp to the King of Naples -- he still retains his love of quick motion'.    Maceroni designed a number of steam vehicles which were made at his own works in Paddington. However he very quickly fell into debt and was pursued by creditors so that he hardly enough money to continue with his carriages. On one trip to Windsor his watch had to be sacrificed to buy  coal to get back to London.  Maceroni was involved in other inventions. He was interested, for instance, in using tar for road surfaces and it is from him that the information comes about an early tarred surface used on Margate Pier and about the first tarred garden path in Blackheath. 

Maceroni's involvement in steam cars made in Greenwich is only part of a long and tangled tale.  Much of the evidence is contradictory but, whatever the truth, is shows that steam vechicles made in Greenwich were tested on Kentish roads.  This saga includes two people who already had manufacutreies in Greenwcih and who I have written about elsewhere - Joshua Beale and Frank Hills.

In 1841 Maceroni called a meeting of interested parties and a committee was set up to run what was to be called the  'Common Road Steam Conveyance Company'.  This seems to have consisted of a number of local business men - some of them publicans - although many people appear to have been involved  some  were to a very limited exent.  They eventually found out however that they would have to pick up the bills..  They employed as an engineer 'Mr. Gordon' .  Although there are several 'Mr. Gordons'  who this could have been the main candidate is  Alexander Gordon.  It is about time that he was introduced into this narrartive because he is one of the main sources for what is known about steam cars asnd will appear again. His father, David Gordon, had been one of the original pioneers in the field and Alexander wrote a book called 'Elemental Lococmotion' about his fathers work and experiences.   Although there is no record of Alexander building cars himself he was very close to most of the engine builders and during the 1830s and 1840s wrote frenquently to the trade press about developments in the field.    It is very unlikley that Alexnader Gordon had any connection with the Deptford shipbuilding company run by Adam Gordon.  Elsewhere on this blog have been some reference to Gordon's lighthouse building.

Maceroni and his associates went to Joshua Beale at his East Greenwich Engineering works for vehicles to be made and which Gordon supervised. Joshua's brother Benjamin Beale helped with the drawings and together they went to Wright's carriage works in Ray Street, Clerkenwell, and selected a carriage to which they could add the steam engine.  When the carriage was tested it was discovered that the steam blew the fire out and so alterations had to be made. This extra work was done by Beale.

There is a description of a trip on the first locomotive which Beale made. They began from the works at East Greenwich, with 23 people on board., They went to Footscray at 20 miles an hour.   On a Wednesday in 1840 another party went in Maceroni's carriage from East Greenwich through Lewisham to Bromley 'a distance of 8 miles, performing the journey in the (almost) incredible short time of 28 minutes'.  They finished by going up Blackheath Hill at 12 miles per hour 'with only one wheel clutched' 'in gallant style with a load of 17 passengers'   The next day they went up Shooters Hill at 14  mph with steam blown off at the top, having left.  This was done in the 'incredible time of 28 mins'.  On the way back they went up Blackheath Hill in gallant style and at the top of Shooters Hill with they stopped at The Bull for what they said was water. 

 Inevitably, water was not all they took at the Bull - 'the men were regaled  and eulogised the scientific engineer'.  They carried on across Blackheath and on up Shooters Hill at the speed of 14 miles and hour and so back to East Greenwich,. Everyone was delighted.

Maceroni had told the company that he would charge £800 each for the carriages but Mr. Beale's Bill to Maceroni for making it was £1,100. Thus there was a problem,. The money was not paid and Beale impounded the carriage. Maceroni found himself in dept and everything he had was seized by the bailiffs. He had no choice but to put his patent up for sale.  Following this a number of law suits took place but the hoped for steam carriage service did not run.
I have elsewhere written at length about Frank Hills who was working as a manufacturing chemist at Deptford and East Greenwich. In 1839 Frank Hills travelled on one of Walter Hancock's coaches, Automaton, on its inaugural run to Cambridge,  and 'was doubtless taking a lesson in steam carriage construction during the journey'.   When he got back he began to design a steam coach for himself.   This included 'several improvement which .. are stated to have fully realised his most sanguine expectations;.    It was said that he had managed to reduce the weight and to make a boiler 'equal to every exigency'.  He advertised that he was not going to take 'short trips on good suburban roads' but ' roads which .. with peculiar difficulties'.

In 1840 he went on various trips - to Sevenoaks, Tunbridge Wells .. and on the Brighton Road,  He could go up steep hills fully loaded at 12 miles and hour and on the level at 16.....  London Street Greenwich 100 yards in deep  gravel up   Further afield he went to Hastings and back .. 'a delightful trip'.  He travelled along the road we would now recognise as the A21, going through Tunbridge and Sevenoaks.   He could, he said, do the journey 'at half the expense and with double the speed of a stage coach' 

One of the difficulties in making these vehicles was the problem of connection of the driving wheels and machinery while allowing the vehicle to ruin corners. Some of the vehicles - like those designed by Hancock - were in fact three wheelers. In  1833 a Mr. Roberts of Manchester had built a road steam vehicle which he had run around Manchester. It was very successful and included a compensating gear which allowed the vehicle to turn a sharp corner with no problem.   He patented this in 1832. The idea was taken up by a number of other inventors but it was Frank Hills who patented some developments of the idea in 1843.  It has been widely suggested  however that Frank Hills' patent infringed Roberts' rights. (there were many accusations on this sort of issue in other areas directed towards Frank Hills - who died one of the richest men in England).

In his booklet on steam carriages Mr. Kidner has pointed out that there are two 'contradictory engravings' of Hills' carriages. As he says 'no single items agree.. One is a sporting looking phaeton. The other a cumbersome double brougham'    A picture, drawn by an unknown artist and in the possession of the Hills family, shows the latter in action.  Mr. Kidner goes on to quote an account in Mechanics Magazine of a factory visit undertaken in 1839 and speculates that this is to wherever Hills carriages were being built. This visitor saw two carriages there - one to seat 15 and the other 20.  It is however possible that Beale's factory in Greenwich was producing steam cars for both Maceroni and Hills in this period.

The General Steam Carriage Company was formed to exploit Frank Hills' patents - although how much this has in common with the 'Common Steam Carriage Company' mentioned above is a mater for speculation.   The new company claimed that Hills design was 'the most perfect now known in England'  The vehicle was taken out on more trips - this time on more dangerous and difficult roads.   He went to Hastings, and back, 128 miles in a day - half the time it took a stage coach.   They went 'up and down the hills about Blackheath, Bromley and neighbour..... on the Hastings Road as far as Tunbridge band back ' Hills boasted of difficult hills he went up 'Quarry Hill rises 1 in 13, River Hill - said by coachmen to be the worst hill in the county, rises 1 in 12.   Hills claimed to do them all.  He claimed that passengers COULD BE Conveyed in this way at half the cost and double the speed of stage coaches.

Alexander Gordon said that this was not all strictly true. He said that there had been collisions on bad roads . Frank Hills protested that the only problem was with taking in muddy water .  Gordon went on to point out that if these vehicles were to undertake regular and reliable services then they needed to demonstrate that they could do it. Why they publicise, he asked, when ever they' 'ascended a hill' or went over a 'newly gravelled road' or met with one of the 'collisions so natural on common roads'. This might have perhaps been remarkable when Samuel Brown  went up over Shooters Hill but 15 years later in 1840 vehicles should be able to cope.   If Mr. Beale and Mr. Hills had these wonderful cars - then, asked Alexander Gordon, were they not running regular services in them?  

Frank Hills replied that he had met with no problems or 'derangement's' on his trips around Kent - well only once, there had been some problem with muddy water, but that had only stopped them a few times  ... missing Alexander Gordon's point, that he had been up all the hills in Seveoaks and Tunbridge Wells with no problems at all.     Beale also protested at what Alexander Gordon had said - he had been that day to Footscray at 20 miles and hour and in London Street, Greenwich they had been over a hundred yards in 'deep loose gravel.,. all up hill'  It is difficult to imagine this because London Street, Greenwich' - today's Greenwich High road is completely flat. Were there hills on it a hundred and fifty years ago?
this article originally appeared in By Gone Kent
Mary Mills

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