Bristol’s Real Steampunk Car: The 1875 Grenville Steam Carriage

And now, a bit of fun before I return to hammering the Theresa May and the Tories for their seven years of misgovernment, malice, and general misery.

Steampunk is the subspecies of Science Fiction, which wonders what would have happened if the Victorians had invented computers, flying machines, space travel and so on. One of the founding texts of the genre is William Gibson’s and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine (London: Victor Gollancz 1990), which imagines what Britain might have looked like if Charles Babbage’s pioneering mechanical computer, the Difference Engine, had actually been built and use by the British government. It’s set in an alternative history in which the Duke of Wellington and the Tory government of 1829 have been overthrown by a party of Industrial Radicals, led by Lord Byron. Instead of government by the landed aristocracy, the country is instead ruled by a scientific elite. Foremost of these is Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace, who wrote the first computer programme for the machine. Apart from the Difference Engine itself, which is used by various government departments to solve not only statistical and technical problems, but which also records images and information like a modern computer, the streets are packed with steam carriages, and the British army also uses steam driven armoured cars to carry troops to suppress industrial unrest.

In fact, as I’ve blogged about previously, a number of steam carriages and cars were built throughout the 19th century before the emergence of the internal combustion engine and the modern car.

R.N. Grenville in the steam carriage with his family and servants outside Butleigh Court c. 1895.

One of these vehicles, the Grenville Steam Carriage, was designed in 1875 by Robert Neville Grenville of Glastonbury in Somerset. He was aided by George Churchward, who later became the chief mechanical engineer of the Great Western Railway. After taking part in the 1946 London Jubilee Cavalcade in Regent’s Park, it was presented the following year to the City Museum in Bristol by Grenville’s nephew, Captain P.L. Neville. Over twenty years later the Museum’s Technology Conservator, F.J. Lester, carried out an overhaul of the vehicle with the ship repairers, Messrs Jefferies Ltd. of Avonmouth. It took part in the Lord Mayor’s Jubilee Procession in Bristol in 1977, before being displayed in the Industrial Museum in Bristol.

The City Museum published a leaflet about the vehicle, written by the director of the Industrial Museum, Andy King, the Curator of Technology, P. Elkin, and with a drawing of the carriage by F.J. Lester.

The leaflet states that Grenville and Churchward had been engineering pupils together at the workshops of the South Devon Railway in Newton Abbott, and remained friends throughout their lives. Most of the carriage was probably built at Grenville’s home in Butleigh Court in Glastonbury, where he had an extensive workshop. Some parts of it, such as the wheels, may have been made under Churchward’s supervision at the G.W.R.’s workshops in Swindon. Although the vehicle was designed in 1875, it was actually built over a period of 15 years, as components were adapted and altered according to a lengthy process of trial and error.

The carriage itself was more similar to the railway engines of the time than horse-drawn carriages. The boiler, engine, shaft-bearings, rear spring brackets and front suspension were supported by a frame of 4″ x 2″ girders. It had three wheels, composed of sixteen section of teak banded with an iron tyre. This was the same as the ‘Mansell’ wheel used in railway carriages from 1860 to 1910.

It possessed the same type of vertical boiler used in the steam fire engines of the time. It was believed that this was made by one of the companies that made them, Shand Mason & Co. The steam carriage also had one of these boilers after it was renovated. The boiler was supplied with water from a tank slung underneath the carriage by an injector.

The carriage was originally powered by a single cylinder engine mounted on the boiler. This was later replaced by a twin-cylinder engine.

Photo from The Garage & Motor Agent showing the steam carriage and an 1898 Benz in the 1946 Jubilee Cavalcade of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.

The carriage was operated by a crew of three – the driver, brakeman and a fireman, and there were also seats for four passengers. The driver steered the vehicle using a tiller system, as on ships; he also controlled the throttle, cut off levers and a whistle, which he worked with a pedal. The law stipulated that vehicles like the steam carriage had to carry a brakeman, who sat on the right-hand side of the driver and controlled the brakes, which were wooden blocks. The fireman also had his own small seat in the engine compartment.

The car consumed five gallons of water and 6 pounds of coal per mile, and on the flat could reach the astonishing speed of just under 20 miles an hour on the flat.

Grenville probably lost interest in the steam carriage just to its poor performance. It appeared at the same time as more efficient steam cars were being built in America, and the modern cars, driven by petrol and the internal combustion engine also appeared.

Before it was acquired by the City Museum, the carriage was used from 1898 to 1902 as a stationery engine to drive a cider mill at Butleigh Court. It was lent after Grenville’s death in 1936 to John Allen & Sons of Cowley in Oxfordshire, who rebuilt it, replacing the boiler and rear axle.

Next week on Radio 4 there’s a programme discussing the lack of people studying engineering, and asking what could be done to inspire more students to take up the subject.

I wondered if part of the solution might be to harness the immense interest the public has in cars, motorbikes and other motor vehicles as well as steam punk enthusiasts. Many proud owners of cars and bikes spend hours caring for and repairing their vehicles as a hobby, quite apart on the volunteers who give their labour and support to organisations like the former Industrial Museum helping to restore historic vehicles and other machines. There’s quite a large community of people, who design and make their own steampunk SF costumes and machines. And some of them have already built their alternative steam punk cars as a hobby. It might be possible to encourage more budding engineers and inventors of the future by showing some of the amazing machines built by the Victorians, which have formed the basis for this genre of Science Fiction and the worlds of wonder its writers have imagined.

The Industrial Museum was closed long ago, and its site is now that of Bristol’s M Shed, which has many of the old exhibits from its predecessor. I don’t know if the Grenville Steam Carriage is one of them, but it may well be, either on display or in storage.

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