Dr Church’s Steam Carriage

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Experiments with steam transport dates back possibly to as early as the 17th century, but it was with the expansion of road links in the later 18th century that interest in developing efficient forms of transport really took off.  I came across the following extract when browsing through Langford’s for information on something totally unrelated, but it is very easy to go off on a tangent when looking through his fascinating, somewhat quirky, account of Birmingham’s history.

Being a town built on manufacture and trade, roads and transport were incredibly important to Birmingham. One of the key reasons for the founding of the town’s first improvement body, the Street Commissioners, was to ensure that roads and byways were kept in order and it was this body that would later oversee the arrival of the railways.  So it is perhaps of little surprise that the minds of Birmingham’s innovative businessmen were absorbed in attempts to perfect modes of transport. If you travel along Broad Street today you will see a gold-coloured statue of three men, all members of the Lunar Society,  contemplating a document. One of those men depicted is William Murdoch, an early pioneer of steam transportation, although the other two men in the statue, Matthew Boulton and James Watt, did try to talk him out of it. Nevertheless, interest in the use of steam in road transportation continued to capture the imagination and in 1835 the London and Birmingham Steam Carriage Company was formed, following the successful patenting of a steam carriage by Dr William Church of Birmingham. The account in Langford’s seems to describe an early outing of his patent – very likely the one in the picture at the top of the page. It must have caused some excitement in the town and I wonder what the Brums thought of it as it trundled along.

Langford’s A Century of Birmingham Life, 1741-1841 was published in two volumes in 1868, and there should be a copy available in the Local History section of the Library of Birmingham. This is taken from volume II.

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2 thoughts on “Dr Church’s Steam Carriage

  1. A very interesting article. But oh dear it did not last long!

    The Company was formed in 1834 and stated that the Carriage would benefit trade that would otherwise be taken by the introduction of the railroads. The idea was formed, perhaps, in 1832 to use Dr Church’s Patent Safety Steam Carriage. Shares would be 10,000 at 20 pounds each.

    In 1834 it was stated that the Carriage was now in working order and could be inspected at the Bordesley Works. Concerns about the ability to pull loads were dispelled as we are told that it has a Drag Engine of 50 HP that could haul 30 passengers and their luggage.

    In 1835 all difficulties overcome, and gravel tracks laid at the side of roads where the ascent was considerable.

    In 1837 the Company was dissolved with consent and approbation of the required number of directors.

    In 1838 the Co advertise the lease of Hayward House and the sale of machinery, tools and stock.

    • Ohh, what a shame, but thanks for the update again. I think that perhaps the business may have been scuppered by the arrival of the railways around the same time. Toll roads were not popular with commercial travellers, because of the expense involved. Also from the mid-1830s there was a terrible economic recession which hit Birmingham very hard. Langford (again) wrote that ‘soup, bread, potatoes and coals were supplied’ to the workers who had been hit hardest ‘with the liberality which is one of the most gratifying traits of the people of Birmingham’. Many businesses can be seen to have entered insolvency at this time so maybe it was a pragmatic decision to wind up the steam coach company. From the etching though, it did look a fine way to travel!

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