A chit's yearly list of nonsense

Trevithick’s Steam Circus in 1808

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I recently read a regency that featured Richard Trevithick’s Catch Me Who Can steam locomotive and it intrigued me. Incidentally, that regency is up for grabs in my first giveaway.

Steam Circus

Only open for two months the fourth steam locomotive was put on display to showcase Trevithick’s latest advancement.  He hoped to spur an increased interest in the populace though he was a bit ahead of his time.

I thought it made perfect sense that a bet help garner the Steam Circus and his invention the little interest it received since gambling on any matter was common then.  Trevithick’s locomotive was pitted against a horse carriage in a 24 hour race.  One of his friend’s sister, Mrs. Mary Philippa Guillemard, is known to have named it so aptly, Catch Me Who Can.

Horse versus Steam

An advert in the Observer newspaper on September 18, 1808 wasn’t clear on the winner of the race but described it as an “extraordinary wager”.

“It has been some time announced, that the new machine for travelling without horses, being impelled entirely by steam, was matched to run twenty-four hours against any horse in the kingdom. This bet, so novel in the sporting world, will be decided on Wednesday and Thursday next [21st and 22nd September].

The machine is to start at two o’clock on Wednesday, on its ground in the fields, near Russel-square, to demonstrate the extent of its speed and continuance. It is calculated that the machine, though weighing eight tuns, will travel 240 miles, at least, within the time limited. Very large sums are depending on the issue.”1

While Dr. Sanjay Rana’s Steam Circus research site places the race in August of 1808 and Catch Me Who Can was the winner based on an online conversation.

This locomotive was built to try and get the general public interest in this new form of transport. It was run on a purpose built circular track pulling an open four-wheeled carriage. This took place between 8th July and 18th September 1808 with tickets costing two shillings (10 pence). On the 3rd of August, Richard won a large bet when he raced it against a racehorse and won.

 

A letter in the London Times dated October 16th 1829, says that “public expectation rose to a high pitch : nothing less was talked of, nor thought of.” 2

Where was it really?

That seems a bit of a mystery and the precise location continues to be debated.  Even the eyewitness accounts seem varied.  Not to mention that London was growing and constantly changing it is difficult to pinpoint the spot.

The same letter above mentioned one suggested location as the now Euston Square though it is still not clear.

It is believed that Davis Giddy arranged for a piece of land known as Bedford Nursery Grounds, now Euston Square to be used to demonstrate the device.”3

How much was it?

Again, not all sources are agreeing. I’ve seen anywhere from 1 shilling to 5 shillings to ride. Regardless of how much the novelty ride was when the tracks (placed on soft land) broke Trevithick closed up the Steam Circus disillusioned and moved on to other projects.

What it must of felt like!

Can you imagine living in a world where machine monsters and steel contraptions were being introduced to compete with horse power?  I’m looking for accounts now on who rode it and what they thought.  If they ever get the replica up and taking on passengers I’d be more than ecstatic to go to London for that!  This gives me plenty ideas for my Regency stories.

Sources 

Dr. Sanjay Rana’s Steam Circus research site.

Trevithick Society. Which also has a very interesting book about Trevithick, The Oblivion of Trevithick. I had to pin it to my Regency board!


 footnotes:

  1. from Engineering Timelines
  2. George Pritchard conversation
  3. George Pritchard’s conversation

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