Checking the plates on the boiler
Bridgnorth celebrates the birth of the railway
Bridgnorth remembers the part it played in railway history when it celebrates the 200th anniversary of the birth of the world's first passenger locomotive in 2008.
People in Bridgnorth are preparing to celebrate one of the town's greatest achievements. 200 years ago Richard Trevithick and John Urpeth Rastrick built the world's first passenger steam locomotive on the banks of the Severn. Now local railway enthusiasts are building a working replica and you could see it in action this summer.
Costing around £100,000 the working engine has been designed by David Reynolds and is currently being built in Severn Valley Railway's workshops, less than a mile from Rastrick and Hazledine's original foundry.
Wheels are attached to Catch Me Who Can
The replica will be on show at Severn Park 19-20 July alongside three other Trevithick engines, a mouthwatering prospect for railway fans. It will be running along 150m of specially laid track.
In August Catch Me Who Can will appear alongside the last British Rail steam locomotive, Britannia Class Pacific No 70013 the Oliver Cromwell, which made its last journey on 11 August 1968.
Catch Me Who Can
Built some 20 years before George Stephenson's Rocket, Trevithick's 1808 engine Catch Me Who Can wasn't the world's first locomotive - that had been built by Trevithick a few years earlier. However, it was the first one to be designed specifically for pulling passengers... a concept that today we take for granted.
Trains were later to take over from canals as the principal means of moving freight around the country, driving the onslaught of industrialisation - but using rail to transport a fair-paying public was a truly revolutionary idea.
In truth Bridgnorth's Catch Me Who Can was little more than a fairground ride. It was transported down to London, put on a short, circular track and people were invited to buy a ticket and ride in a carriage pulled behind the locomotive. After a while the train started to jump the tracks and Trevithick chose to remove it in the interests of public safety. It ended up in industrial use before being scrapped.
Unfortunately little is known about the locomotive. It is believed that it operated south of what is now Euston Square tube station. The dimensions of the locomotive aren't recorded in any surviving document, and we don't even know the gauge of the track.
Statue of Richard Trevithick in Camborne
These were incredibly early days, not only for locomotives, but for engineering as a whole. It was some 50 years before steel came to the fore and many years before the introduction of a standard gauge track, or even the introduction of blueprints to record every project's precise dimensions and measurements.
This left the replica's designer and principal engineer David Reynolds with quite a task on his hands. Drawings and lithographs provided an idea of what it should look like, but no guidance to measurements. Luckily another Trevithick engine (also built in Hazledine's Bridgnorth foundry) had been rescued from a scrapyard, restored and now sat in the Science Museum in London.
David Reynolds used the Science Museum's engine as the basis for the Catch Me Who Can replica, although he had to make a few changes, as he explained: "The boiler is slightly longer than the one in the Science Museum. I'm fortunate to have that as a major reference source, it's better than any book, that's for sure.
"All I have done... is extend the boiler barrel on Catch Me Who Can by about 10 inches in order to introduce a little bit of vehicle stability... From a 30 inch stroke I've gone towards a four foot diameter wheel and when you put that with the boiler and you look at the picture, it comes very close - I'm satisfied I'm in the right ballpark."
It is incredibly rare for such a feat to be undertaken, not just because of the expense, but the lack of available information. This may be the first time Reynolds has attempted anything like this, but a love of steam seems to have given him a very instinctive approach: "I still have ghosts in my head telling me how to do various jobs. Even though I've never done them before I still know how to do them."
In the late 18th and early 19th Century the Ironbridge Gorge was the Silicon Valley of its day, the cradle of the Industrial Revolution. The gorge was the site of many world-firsts, not only the first iron structure in Darby's Iron Bridge, but also the pioneering use of iron rails and the earliest iron-hulled boat to be floated (among many other accomplishments). So perhaps it's not that surprising for Bridgnorth to occupy such a prominent place in early railway history.
The world's first locomotive was designed by Richard Trevithick and built in Coalbrookdale in 1802 - a replica stands at Blists Hill museum. However, little is known about this first attempt, including whether it ever actually ran. As a result, the 1804 Penydarren is generally recognised as the first successful steam locomotive. A replica of the Penydarren engine was built by the Welsh Industrial and Maritime Museum in 1981.
Replica of Trevithick's first locomotive
Ask most people who invented the steam engine, and the reply will almost certainly be George Stephenson. But at the same time Stephenson's Rocket gained its place in the history books, John Urpeth Rastrick was already exporting locomotives to the Delaware & Hudson Railroad in America from his new base in Stourbridge.
Meanwhile steam engines built in John Hazledine's Bridgnorth foundry were being sent down the River Severn, put on larger ships in ports such as Bristol and exported across the world, particularly South America. Steam power was arguably the most important invention of its day and Bridgnorth was at the heart of the industry, building for a truly global market.
Cornishman Richard Trevithick started his career as a mining engineer, building 'high pressure' engines to pump water from pits. Today 40 pounds per square inch (PSI) hardly seems like high pressure, but that didn't stop Trevithick's business competitor and 'low-pressure' advocate James Watt from attacking him for the terrible dangers he believed were associated with Trevithick's engines. A handfull of accidents further strengthened Watt's claims.
The locomotive will be 14 feet tall
Early steam locomotives were little more than stationary engines on wheels - very simple, though ingenious, designs. Grandfather of steam, Trevithick's hope was to prove that a railway locomotive could rival the horse as a means of transportation. He died penniless in 1833, but his ideas lived on. By 1845 thousands of miles of track covered the country and locomotives transported millions of passengers every year in the UK alone.
So how did Richard Trevithick, the man with the original vision, fail to reap greater rewards from this burgeoning industry? And why isn't Catch Me Who Can become as famous as Stephenson's Rocket (built in 1829)?
David De Haan at the Ironbridge Gorge Museums Trust believes that Trevithick wasn't easy to work with, and was a poor frontman for his inventions... hardly a rival to Isembard Kingdom Brunel's ringmaster-like charisma. David De Haan explains: "In the hands of someone else the keys to a real future, but because it was Trevithick it was a wonderful fairground."
Building the replica
In 2001 enthusiasts in Bridgnorth started to talk about marking the 2008 anniversary of Catch Me Who Can. Brian Davies explained the feeling at the time: "[We wanted] to recognise as a town Richard Trevithick... there was talk of a statue or a plaque or something to mark this particular year... why not build a locomotive?
"Bridgnorth was right at the cutting edge of transport technology. These were just ordinary working people in Bridgnorth and we want to celebrate those people who have never formally been recognised."
In 2006 David Reynolds started to draw up serious designs for the locomotive. A period of intensive fundraising then followed, before the boiler was built - taking almost 12 months. Since then other volunteers and specialists have been involved, but most of the components have been fabricated in the Severn Valley Railway's workshops, some of the best of their kind in the country.
Bridgnorth station (photo: Ian Slater)
David Reynolds first visited the Severn Valley Railway as an 18-year-old and as a youngster had won an apprenticeship to work on the railways. By that time steam was a rare sight. Even so, many of his older colleagues talked of the steam days and found in the young apprentice a ready audience.
"When you're stood next to a locomotive it's like an animal, you can feel the heat from it... They sit quiet, but when you grab hold of the handles... and they start to cough and bark or they can roar like a lion or a bear. And then you start to find out and realise that this thing is raw power."
As Reynolds has followed and forged his own way through the process he appreciates probably more than any other living person the ingenuity that was invested in these early engines.
last updated: 28/07/2008 at 09:34
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Richard W. A. Levitt