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29 October 2014

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You are in: Shropshire > History > Industrial Heritage > Bridgnorth celebrates the birth of the railway

Checking the plates on the boiler

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 the Trevithick engine

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

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."

Why Bridgnorth?

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 Coalbrookdale locomotive

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.

Trevithick's vision

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 completed locomotive will be 14 feet tall

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.

Severn Valley Railway (photo: Ian Slater)

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
created: 27/12/2007

Have Your Say

How important was Richard Trevithick, the train and the Ironbridge Gorge area to the modern world?

The BBC reserves the right to edit comments submitted.

Richard Pearson
In answer to Alan Anerick Trevithick is pivotal in the development of the steam locomotive despite the lack of success of the early locomotives which was due to poor rails rather than a fault in the locomotives.Details of the Penydarren locomotive were passed to Wylam Colliery which led to Hedleys Puffing Billy and ispired George Stephensons at Killingworth.Catch Me who Can was built by Raistrick who later built the Stourbridge Lion the first locomotive to run in the USA. The Stephonsons recognised the contribution of Trevithick to locomotive development, and I believe they helped him when he fell on hard times.The Stockton and Darlington Railway is important as the first real railway to be built for locomotives with steel rails, and was an important first step.Locomotion No 1 is only significant in running on the S&D, Rocket is much more important as itintroduced advances on Trevithicks original concept which gave us the locomotives we know today.The Liverpool and Manchester, and Rocket were the Stephensons greatest contribution as they gave us the railway we know today.

Richard W. A. Levitt
I'm a Nuneatonian, the centre of the rail network on our island, since 1959 living in paradise, sorry Australia. I grew up with trains and the Flying Scot flew past the bottom of our Garden. Richard Trevthic should have been the solution to the Climate Change in that he invented long distance overland transport that, correctly managed interfaces at some point with every town city and hamlet: Each line carrying several hundred passengers as oposed to several hundred cars carrying one to five/seven passengers or dozens of coaches carrying up to sixty passengers. It is man's inferiority complex that demands symbols of importance and boosts the car as the preferred choice of transport to Public. Oh I forgot class how could you possibly travel with the lower classes? A complex that in the fifties cost the individual more than the cost of a house.In 1986 I eliminated a company vehicle from the Business. My business, in building as a Painting Contractor, requires that I travel frequently between properties across the entire Eastern Seaboard of Australia. I now rely entirely on the Public Transport infrastructure and occassional car hire and have reduced my overhead from $23,000 per annum to an average $3,200 per annum.In 1987, my longest Journey, and the first undertaken without a company vehicle, from Peppimenarti via (360Km)Darwin in the far north of the Northern Territory to Armidale, 2,800 km, on the Northern Tabelands of New South Wales, with my kit, and took only three and a half days by Coach and Rail at a cost of $129.00. I was four hours late on site.Generally however the inter-city journeys are accomplished by Rail/road. As the rail reaches it's extremes the passengers fan out from the hub town Terminal, immediately Dubbo, into rail contracted coaches.For the English readers a bush city such as Cobar or Lightning ridge sustains population often of less than ten thousand. One Town I service, Nymagee, at the very Heart of New South Wales, has a population of twenty eight people.If the travelling public really are concerned about Air Polution and economy and want the prestige of a car then travel between your destinations by rail and hire a car at either end. Taxis are the most economical car hire since you only pay for time used and if in business can, as you can your rail ticket, be claiimed on tax.You cut out the cost of the car, insurance, stamp duty, registration, maintenance, storage and depreciation and are cheufer driven in a modern Limo.Sit down with a piece of paper folks and work it out for yourself. If you're pride's to big to ignore the status symbol of car ownership mugs then buy a nice cheapy with a good marque and park it in front of your house and leave it there: The neighbours will be impressed and never know the difference. The jump on a train, enjoy good tucker, being pampered by the staff and arrive at your destination, rested, well fed and richer by several hundred dollars.I save $23,000 per annum. Mind you I live in a bus that we relocate from site to site about three time a year on a permit. I'm chaufer driven around town and it saves my customers about $80.00 on the cost of their job.Richard Trevithick is of significant importance to history and the stupidity of those who ignore his invention as their transport.

Laurence Blundell
Trevithick and his 'Catch Me Who Can' locomotive were very important,though some years ahead of their time.Had more people shared Trevithick's vision for a steam hauled passenger railway back in 1808,the course of history might have been different.

ken smith
first rail passenger services fron one town to another was between sildon and stockton in 1825,

Alan Anerick
Surely "Locomation" & The Darlinton & Stockton railway were the most important front runners!

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