Dartford Town Archive About the Archive Early History Medieval Period Early Modern 19th Century 20th Century Dartford Technology
HomepageThemes overviewTimelineBibliographyTeachers' resourcesSite search

Technology sub sectionsIntroductionPaperEngineeringCementPharmaceuticalsPowerCommunicationArt



Richard Trevithick, most famous as the inventor of the first railway locomotive, lived, worked, died and is buried at Dartford.

Richard was born in the Parish of Illogan, Cornwall in 1771. Later in life he was often described as the 'Cornish Giant'. He was tall, physically strong and generally renowned for his 'superhuman' strength. As a child he spent much time observing life and working practices in the Cornish tin mines, absorbing all he could about machinery. Steam power was then in its infancy. Trevithick was intrigued to watch the primitive pumping engines at work keeping the mines free from water. The young Richard managed to secure an apprenticeship, soon qualified as an engineer, and in 1797 was elected engineer to the main Cornish tin mines. Richard wasted no time in inventing new types of pumping engines for the mines and experimenting with high-pressure steam.

In 1801 Trevithick invented and road-tested the Camborne road locomotive, the first full-size locomotive to be built in Britain. A second locomotive was built in 1803. It was tested in Cornwall and then sent to London where it ran for some time daily through the streets, travelling at speeds of up to eight or nine mph. A much more successful locomotive was tested in South Wales in 1804. Later, in 1808, Trevithick constructed at his own cost not only a locomotive but a circular railway track on the parcel of land now forming the southern half of Euston Square in London. The engine, called 'Catch-me-who-can' weighed 10 tons, and attained a speed of 12 mph.

"Catch-me-who-can" locomotive

Trevithick was a prolific inventor. Inventions included a steam dredger, steam propulsion for ships, iron floating docks, the screw propeller, agricultural steam engines, pumping engines, hot-air heaters, a method of making ice, a scheme for draining the Dutch polders, and plans for the erection of a monument 1,000 ft high to commemorate the passing the Reform Bill.

From 1817 to 1822 Richard was in Peru supervising the installation and working of pumping engines at the gold and silver mines. The Peruvian Civil War of 1822 led to the complete destruction of Trevithick's machinery. He then moved onto the copper mines of Costa Rica. In one of his letters home he reported being 'half drowned, half hanged, and the rest devoured by alligators.' Trevithick returned safe but penniless to England.

Top of page  
Trevithick's plaque
Click to enlarge


In 1832 he was invited to Dartford by John Hall, the founder of Messrs J & E Hall Ltd, to carry out some experiments associated with '…the engine of a vessel lately built'. It is generally supposed that Trevithick was engaged with the development of a reaction turbine. The experimental work he conducted here cost Mr Hall £1,200. Richard was probably based at Hall's Dartford Engineering Works for about a year, during which time he lived at the Bull Hotel (now the Royal Victoria and Bull Hotel) in Dartford High Street.

Within five or six years John Hall needed larger premises and found them in Waterside (now Hythe Street) on land which had once formed part of Dartford Priory. Included eventually in the factory was the historic Priory House of which the firm made good use.Richard's son Francis, in his Life of Richard Trevithick, relates that 'His family in Cornwall received a letter, dated April 22nd, 1833, from Mr Rowley Potter, of Dartford (proprietor of the Bull Hotel), stating Mr Trevithick had died on the morning of that day, after a week's confinement to his bed'. He was penniless and without a relative by him in his last illness. The mechanics from Hall's Works acted as bearers at his funeral, and they paid the burial fees. They also paid for watchmen to remain by the grave to prevent body-snatching, then prevalent in the neighbourhood.

The funeral of Richard Trevithick took place four days after his death, in the churchyard of St Edmund, King and Martyr, on 26th April 1833. The Vicar of Dartford, the Rev Francis Bazett Grant, conducted the service. Local mourners and bearers included James Osbourne, John Ashworth, James Snowden, Underwood, Lawrence, Paull and Aldous. Trevithick was 62 when he died. Reputedly 6 ft 3 ins tall, he must have been a well-known figure in Dartford.

A Trevithick centenary memorial service was held at Holy Trinity Church on Sunday 23rd April 1933. Memorial plaques commemorating Trevithick are to be found at Holy Trinity, The Royal Victoria and Bull Hotel, and at the Upper Burial Ground, East Hill. Today there is a thriving Trevithick society with members all over Britain. An annual celebration marking his life and times is held at Camborne in Cornwall every year.

Unfortunately Dartford cannot claim Trevithick as a son, even though his final resting-place is here. Nevertheless, Trevithick's invention, the locomotive, revolutionised life in Dartford. The coming of the railway in 1847 helped to generate a boom economy, opened up new markets in Dartford-based industry, and led to the rapid expansion of the town.

Next topic: Everard Hesketh


Top of page  
  Site search
Search pages for: Any word All words Exact phrase