Richard Trevithick in East Greenwich

‘He was one of the world’s great benefactors who have been rejected…. who have given us priceless possessions and have died in poverty’.

Arthur Mee, who wrote these words  in his ‘1000 Heroes’, came from Kent. He should have known better than to comment on the death  there of one of the most important  steam engine designers as if it had been ignominious. .  Richard Trevithick, sometimes called the Cornish giant, had been responsible for a series of engineering innovations in the early nineteenth century. Following a financially disastrous venture in South America he had returned to England and gone to work for John Hall in Dartford.  He died there in 1833 at the Bull Hotel.  Today a plaque in the Royal Victoria and Bull Hotel claims to mark the spot concerned – a remarkably prosperous setting for one said to die ‘in poverty’.  .  Trevithick  is buried in St, Edmunds’ churchyard, up on East Hill,  where a plaque indicates the location of his grave.  His biographers have tended to stress this as a sad and unworthy end although Trevithick was undertaking important work for Hall who was more than prepared to invest in new ideas.   Luckily for Kent these biographers but have failed to connect it with another turning point in both Trevithick’s life, and the history of the steam engine.

Trevithick came from Cornwall and worked in the world of  tin mining, an industry which was of great importance as customers for early steam engines.  Many of these engines were supplied by  James Watt who held an important patent which held back competitors for many years. He was later to prove, as Mee said,  a ‘bitter and jealous competitor’  to Trevithick and other rivals.   The use of high pressure steam had been considered by Watt who thought it too dangerous and too difficult to use but Trevithick began to develop an engine of this sort. . It  was small but  had a great deal of power and could develop steam at ten times the pressure of the atmosphere.  Trevithick  and his partners gradually began to sell these engines.  He is famous for his trials of a locomotive propelled by steam which he demonstrated in Cambourne, Cornwall,  in 1801 and later brought to London. However what was needed were engines to power industry and by 1800 steam engines were already becoming very important in London.  More and more firms were taking up the challenge; John Farey, a contemporary of Trevithick writing in 1827, estimated that 112 steam engines had been at work in London in 1805.  The majority of these were built by James Watt and his partner Matthew Boulton but other suppliers were already making inroads – and these included Richard Trevithick and his partners.

In 1802 Trevithick  set up in an office in Southampton Street, near the Strand. Sales were  handled by Andrew Vivian  one of the family involved in metal mining in the West Country and, latterly, in Wales Trevithick and Vivian did not manufacture engines  themselves but commissioned parts from a number of makers under a licensing system..They were mainly concerned with promotion and with large scale projects.  Trevithick had devised a ‘locomotive’ vehicle that he and Vivian  demonstrated in the London streets and he began to get contracts for work on a number of projects, some of which were on the Thames and some in Kent. For example, in 1803 he used steam power to break up a rocky shoal in the Thames which had been obstructing shipping at Blackwall.   He installed a fourteen horse power  engine at Deptford Dockyard  and tests on his engines were undertaken by ‘gentlemen from Woolwich’ – that is from the Royal Dockyard..

In 1803 a George Russell ordered an 8 horse power high pressure engine from Andrew Vivian.  Russell was the promoter of a  large tide mill on the Greenwich peninsula and the engine was to be used during construction work and for other purposes. The engine cost Russell £75.12s..

Russell’s engine was used for pumping out water during the construction of the tide mill which had been described in a previous article. It was on the East Greenwich marshes on the river side at the end of the lane, known then as Marsh Lane and today as Riverway.   Building work went on during 1803 in the charge of the foreman, a Mr. Dryden.  The steam engine began to give some concern.  The fire was directly in contact with the cast iron  of the boiler  and on Sunday 4th September it overheated. The boiler became red hot and some joints burnt out.  Despite this the engine was kept working and was the responsibility of an apprentice- whose name is not known.

On the following Thursday, the 8th September, this boy was called away from minding the engine and asked  to catch eels which had congregated under the foundations of the building.  It is not clear why he went  – perhaps they were a nuisance and he had been told to go and clear them by the foreman. However it was dinnertime and  eels can be  very tasty  spit roasted, or even  steamed. Workmen have always found ways of adapting  equipment to cookery  (my father used to describe using the steam hose to cook shrimps caught in Northfleet off Harmsworth’s jetty) . For whatever reason the boy went off and left  the steam lever – which vented the waste stream – fastened down. He had in fact wedged  a piece of timber between the top of the safety value and then bent it down so that it could not rise to let the steam escape.

A labourer was asked to mind the engine while the boy was gone and noticed that it had begun to run too fast. He was alarmed by this and shut it down but he did not remove the wedge that was jamming  the safety valve.  The result was inevitable and fatal. The boiler burst ‘with an explosion as sudden and as dreadful as a powder mill’.   One piece of  the boiler, an inch thick and weighing 5 cwt was thrown 125 yards in the air and ‘landing on the ground made  a hole eighteen inches deep’. Bricks were thrown  in a ‘circle of two hundred, no two of them stayed together’.  Three men were killed instantly, and three more were injured.

In my attempts to research this incident I have never managed  to trace the inquest records on the three who died. I do not know their names or anything about them.  Of the three who were injured, one went deaf but was soon to able to return to work. One, the boy, also fully recovered.  The third, Thomas Nailor, had been showered with boiling water and was badly scalded.  A wherry was called and he was taken to St.Thomas Hospital.   St. Thomas was then still on its old site in the Borough – on the site now occupied by the southern part of London Bridge Station. It was near the river and easy to reach by wherry.  Thus  Nailor went to one of the best hospitals in the country as quickly and efficiently as he could he could be got there. The incident  illustrates something about the response to  ‘casualties’ – something rarely mentioned in works about nineteenth century medicine. Despite the work of Mr. Bingham, the surgeon, Nailor died three days later.  It may be of interest that he, and those who gave evidence at his inquest, did not live in Greenwich but across the river in Poplar..

The newspapers were quick to report the accident  – although there is the suspicion that the story was given to them by  those who did not wish Trevithick well. In particular, he thought,  James Watt and his partner, Matthew Boulton, were against him. He said that ‘Boulton and Watt are about to do me every injury in their power for they have done the best to report the explosion both in the newspapers and in private letters very different to what it really was’. When The Times ran the story a week after the incident it was with the rider that Mr. Watt’s engines would not explode in this way..  However reports in the press, so far as they can be traced, do not really differ very much from Trevithick’s account of  the accident based on  his inspection of the site a week or so later.

Trevithick quickly made some changes to the design of his engine boilers.  It had been said in the press that  the accident should be a ‘warning to engineers to construct their  safety valves so that common workmen cannot stop them at their pleasure’.    In future Trevithick’s boilers had more than one safety vent and were constructed differently.  It was, however, an accident that was well remembered and is recounted in almost every account of Trevithick and the steam engine.  Few of these accounts are very clear as to where it happened – giving locations anywhere between Woolwich and Deptford!  What none of them have realised is the importance of the tide mill that was under construction at the time and that this accident was only one of several which took place on that site in the next hundred years.

How far the incident hurt Trevithick and the progress of his high pressure engine is very difficult to tell.  It has been said ‘history vindicated Trevithick for it was his high pressure engines that the steam locomotive possible’.  New developments often give problems and many such tragedies have taken place. Trevithick is known and honoured for his work. The real victims were the nameless men who died at East Greenwich.

This article is based on archive material in the City of London Record Office and elsewhere and on material in Francis Trevithick’s biography of his father. 

Return to New East Greenwich and the Tide Mill



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