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Archive: History that turned full circle; Chris Upton charts the beginning of our railway network - a train with no destination.

Byline: Chris Upton

A train that goes nowhere. The idea is not immediately appealing, but bear with me.

In July 1808, the engineer Richard Trevithick constructed a circular railway track at Torrington Square in London. And on that track he put a steam locomotive and a carriage. And on that carriage he put passengers They were charged one shilling a ride, which was a tidy sum, but for a bob they had the honour and the privilege of being the first fare-paying railway passengers in the world.

The train itself had the name Catch me who can, and given that it could reach speeds of 12 mph and more, it's unlikely that anyone could. The advertising slogan underlined the fact. 'Mechanical power subduing animal speed,' it said on the tickets.

Note the date here. This was a full 17 years before the opening of George Stephenson's Stockton to Darlington railway in 1825. The latter had the advantage of going somewhere, but only if you wanted to go to Darlington. Otherwise it was useless.

To George Stephenson goes the credit of creating The Rocket and the first public railway. But in reality Stephenson was standing on the shoulders of giants, and one of those giants was Trevithick.

Richard Trevithick was one of those casualties with which the history of technology is littered. Creative and ambitious to his fingertips, he was not blessed with good fortune.

When he died in 1833, his workmates had to club together to pay for the funeral, and his grave in Dartford is unmarked. It shows that the dif-ference between a Brunel, a Stephenson and a Trevithick is luck.

What, you might be asking, has a Cornishman who died in Kent, and a circular railway in London to do with the Midlands? The answer is to be found in the Shropshire town of Bridgnorth, for it was there that Catch me who can was built.

It seems a perfectly circular piece of history (as circular as the track in Torrington Square) that the birthplace of the train is now one of the last bastions of steam in the country.

Bridgnorth might seem an unlikely setting for one of the great leaps of technology, but Shropshire, remember, was the heart of the Industrial Revolution, and the River Severn was its main artery. It was on the Low Town bank of the river that three brothers - John, Robert and Thomas - founded the Hazeldine Foundry around 1794.

They began by manufacturing general ironwork and agricultural machinery, but by early in the next century rather more pioneering work was afoot. Mr Trevithick had begun to put in orders.

Richard Trevithick seems to have been partial to the quality of the boiler plates and ironwork produced in Shropshire. Indeed, his very first steam locomotive, designed to run on the road, had been made up the river at Coalbrookdale, but even that great foundry was struggling to cope with all of the inventor's demands. Trevithick was designing stationary engines, high pressure engines, engines to do dredging work on the Thames, as well as one to run on rails.

Hazeldine & Co certainly took orders for the dredging engines, and as the complexity of the work grew the company took on a skilled engineer to supervise the engine work. This was John Urpeth Rastrick, who was later to become a partner in the firm at Bridgnorth.

By the 1820s and 1830s railway fever would be gripping the imagination of everyone, but this was not the case when Rastrick and Trevithick were working on Catch me who can.

A locomotive might be useful for transporting goods to a canal, and might conceivably be more economical than a horse, but there were doubts about both of these. And the concept of a steam engine that carried people was decidedly unorthodox. In such circumstances a fairground train in the middle of London was probably as good a way to change minds as anything.

The engine in question looked like a boiler on wheels, with a tall chimney at the front and weighing more than eight tons. Once it had done its stuff in London, Trevithick intended to take the engine up to Newmarket and race it against any horse that fancied the challenge.

Catch me who can was delivered to London on July 12, 1808, and began taking passengers later that month.

It was then that Richard Trevithick's luck ran out, as it was wont to do. An early sign of problems to come was the way the rails sank into the ground or snapped under the considerable weight of the engine.

Trevithick laid additional support under the track and for a few weeks the train ran as planned, though the cost of the site and its maintenance far exceeded the money coming in from passengers. Finally, during one circuit, a rail broke and the engine left the line, careered into the fence and overturned. The show was over.

Richard Trevithick's career was to follow a similar trajectory. As for the other characters in the story, they had better fortune. John Rastrick was to become one of the great names in railway history, promoting lines and designing locomotives not only in Britain but in America, too.

As for the engine that had so misbehaved, it was taken off its wheels and installed in a boat that had once been the Lord Mayor's barge.

Freed from the rails that had let it down, the engine chugged happily up and down on the water of the Thames instead.

Nor was this the end of the line for Torrington Square either. Thirty years later it was transformed into Euston station, the terminus of George Stephenson's London to Birmingham railway.

There was a sad irony in this, but Richard Trevithick was no longer around to appreciate it


The Catch me who can; The Catch me who can in Torrington Square, London, above; the engineer Richard Trevithick, left
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jun 25, 2005
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