Cornwall’s Steam Heritage – Legacy of Richard Trevithick

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Richard Trevithick, a famous son of Cornwall whose work developing early steam locomotives doesn’t receive the nation wide praise it should.

The number of steam fairs which take place in Cornwall each year, and the coverage given to them – whether it be the Cornish Steam & Country Fair at Stithians, the Boconnoc Fair, rallies at Launceston and St. Mawgan – indirectly honour one man, who is an undoubted Cornish hero, albeit sadly forgotten when it comes to considering the ‘big names’ of steam/locomotion history – Richard Trevithick.

Trevithick, whose legacy is celebrated in Camborne each April with a day in his honour, is the man whose steam carriage travelled up Camborne hill in December 1801 in a trial. The engine was assembled by town blacksmith Jonathan Tyack, and an account of this event, which pre-dated the work of Stephenson is described in Anthony Burton’s book Richard Trevithick: Giant of Steam as “a four wheeled vehicle, rather like a flat truck with a steam cylinder sat vertically over one set of wheels and a huge boiler, like an overgrown kettle, occupying the rest of the space” (p71). It was Trevithick’s design, where exhaust steam from the cylinder past down a pipe to the chimney, which rendered bellows as unnecessary – something which Robert Stephenson repeated when he designed the Rocket. Unfortunately, when it came to the real event, on 28th December, the steering handle was jerked when the engine went over an open water course which went across the road, and the engine overturned.

Despite this, in 1803, Trevithick went to London and built a body on a steam chassis which was sent by boat to the capital from Falmouth. His steam engine travelled from Paddington to Islington carrying several passengers – but bad luck hit Trevithick again, as it would so often in his career, as no investors stepped forward to develop the plan further. If things had been different, Trevithick’s name could well have been attached to steam locomotion in the way that Stephenson’s now is.

As his career went on, Trevithick went to Wales to build a steam locomotive in the Merthyr Tydfil area, but the trial was cancelled. Further designs for steamers on water, including a steam dredger for the Thames were also put forward.

So why is it that Trevithick’s name is not celebrated nationally in the way that Stephenson is? Why is it that in his recent Great British Railway Journeys series, Michael Portillo waxes lyrical over Stephenson when visiting the North-East, yet didn’t even get the train to Camborne to examine the Trevithick legacy in the programme’s first series when it came to Cornwall? Perhaps, if there is a seventh series of this popular programme in 2016 it could still be rectified! And, why, most scandalously of all is the man himself buried in an unmarked grave in Dartford, Kent?

Cornwall is rightly proud of it’s native heroes and the work done to celebrate Richard Trevithick, born near Dolcoath Mine to the mine captain’s family is excellent, as are the large number of steam fairs held in the territory which indirectly honour his legacy. Yet isn’t it about time that the wider British nation became aware of the work Trevithick did before that of Stephenson in the development of steam locomotion?

BIBLOGRAPHY:

Burton, Anthony (2000): Richard Trevithick: Giant of Steam: Aurum Press Ltd: London

WIDER READING:

myCornwall Magazine: April-May issue 2015: Trevithick: An Anniversary p48

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