Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

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Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Life of Richard Trevithick by F. Trevithick: Volume 1: Chapter 13

From Graces Guide


Trevithick and Dickinson's Specification, 31st October, 1808.

Instead of the packages, cases, chests, trunks, casks, vessels, or other receptacles heretofore and commonly used for the purpose of containing, enveloping, preserving and securing from damage the several articles of merchandise and other goods, whether in the solid and consistent or in the liquid form, which are taken and stowed on board ships and other vessels to be transported or consumed, or otherwise used and applied, we do construct, make, use, and apply certain other packages, vessels, or receptacles of iron, made by casting the said metal, or by forging, laminating, and riveting together plates or portions of the said metal, with covers adapted to and capable of being secured by screws, bolts, and other known means, to the said vessels or receptacles, so as to render the same (when shut) close, secure, and impenetrable to the external air or moisture, or other hurtful matters and things. And further, we do make our said packages, vessels, or receptacles of such figures or forms that they fit exteriorly to each other without that waste of space which takes place in the stowage of wooden casks. For this purpose different forms may be used, but we prefer rectangular or hexagonal prism forms to all others. Where the same economy of room is not requisite, we employ the cylindric form, but whichever form be employed a much larger quantity of goods can be stowed by means of our Invention than can be stowed in an equal space when the goods are put into packages made of wood, the sides and ends of which are necessarily of a great thickness compared with those made of iron. Nor is saving of room the only advantage which results from our aforesaid Invention. Water, oil, and various other fluids, as well as provisions of different kinds, will be better preserved from waste, putresceney, leakage, depredations from Insects and other living creatures, in iron vessels than in vessels made of wood. For some purposes we have our said iron packages, vessels, and other receptacles tinned on the inside, or coated with a varnish 'suited to the commodities they are destined to contain.

By our said Invention great advantages as to space and comfort will be afforded to those on board ships, without any detriment, but rather with advantage, to the proper trim of carrying sail, and the safe and expeditious performance of their respective voyages.

In witness whereof, we, the said Richard Trevithick and Robert Dickinson, have hereunto set our hands and seals, the Twenty-eighth day of April, in the year of our Lord One thousand eight hundred and nine.


The dredgers, the Thames Driftway, the London locomotive railway and engine, were all in hand about this time, but were not sufficient to give full scope and occupation to the never-tiring energy and fruitful invention of Trevithick. The few lines of his patent specification, though bearing mainly on tanks of iron holding liquids on board ship, have also reference to the general question of conveying small packages liable to damage, stowed in cases of iron, tinned or varnished, sometimes in the form of a cylinder, to be rolled to or from the ship to the storehouse, — even the trim and sailing qualities of the ship were to be improved by their use and the agreeability of the drinking-water on board ship was to be greatly increased by being stored in iron instead of in wood vessels. This latter idea originated when observing the purity of water in an old boiler that had been used at the Thames Driftway.

When a little boy, shortly after reaching London from Cornwall, about 1808, my father, on coming into the house on a Sunday morning, desired me to fetch a wineglass, and taking- me by the hand, walked to the old yard near the Tunnel works. There was an old steam-engine boiler in the yard; my father filled the glass with water from the boiler gauge-cock, and asked me to tell him if it was good water. We used to speak of this as the origin of the iron tanks.[1]

This happened in 1808, when removing certain machinery at the Thames Driftway, to make room for one of his 30-horse-power high-pressure engines. The water which had found a resting-place on iron was very clear and fresh-looking, — an old boiler was full of clear water, without unpleasant taste or smell. In a moment it was plain to him that an iron water-tank was preferable to one made of wood, and that by its use a serious evil of the day might be removed, for at that time sailors were obliged to drink stinking water, loaded with living and dead animalculae, and other impurities, and to have even of this a smaller allowance than was required for washing and cleanliness. Iron tanks could be fitted into the spare corners of vessels in a way that wooden casks could not, and both the quality and quantity of water would be increased. "The greater advantage as to space and comfort afforded to those on board ships, without any detriment, but rather with advantage, to the proper trim for carrying and the better preservation of water, oil, and various other fluids from putrescency, leakage, and depredations from insects, in iron vessels, than in vessels made of wood."

In February, 1809, the patentee published a pamphlet describing the advantages derivable under the patent.

The wood alone in a provision cask of Mr. Jellish's, containing 41 gallons, occupies a space equal to 19 gallons. A water-cask of one tun, or 252 gallons, has a loss from wood and space equal to 76 gallons. An iron cask being only 3/16ths of an inch thick, containing the same quantity, occupies the space of only 7 gallons, giving an advantage of 69 gallons of room saved in every tun of water, or 26 per cent., exclusive of the space occupied by the fathom wood, and the difference between squares and circles in stowage.

The improvements now submitted consist in the adaption, to the holds of vessels of a system of wrought or cast iron cases of a square, polygonal, or any other form, by which they may adapt themselves to each other without leaving any interstices, or made cylindrical where room can be spared.

A ship engaged in the whale fishery, belonging to Messrs. Bennet and Co., lately returned from a successful voyage, with what is called a full ship. This vessel is of the burthen of 208 tons ad measurement, and yet when her hold was completely full of wooden casks, the whole quantity of oil they contained was only 140 tons, being full one-third less than what she might have stowed in differently-formed packages.

The patentees now propose to furnish this ship with a ground-tier of wrought-iron tanks, 4 feet square by 8 feet long; each of these will contain 4 tons. The lower part of the hold will then stow 9 of these casks lengthways and 5 breadthways, being 45 casks, which together will contain 180 tons. This quantity of iron stowage will, of course, occupy a depth of only 4 feet, at the bottom of the hold, and her full tonnage remains to be made up with an additional quantity of oil, leaving a space in the hold unoccupied, from the top of the tanks to the deck, of 6 feet high, which space would stow considerably more than her admeasurement of 208 tons.

With respect to the Royal Navy, the patentees presume to think that the adoption of iron stowage would be advantageous in a more than common degree. If ships of war were provided with metal tanks for containing their beer, water, provisions, and stores, would not the necessity for ballast be in part done away?

This alteration would be attended with but little expense, as the iron ballast at present employed might be speedily converted at the foundries into iron tanks, adapted for the ground-tier of the hold. In a ground-tier iron cases might be made of a greater thickness for the sake of securing a proper sailing- trim when at sea; they will contain a much larger supply of fresh water in the same bulk than wooden casks, and when it is necessary to lighten the vessel in naval manoeuvring, these iron tanks may be speedily emptied by means of pumps and hose adapted to their orifice, and afterwards filled with sea-water, when circumstances require an addition of ballast.

As an illustration of the saving in point of expense, it may be mentioned that a first-rate man-of-war generally takes on board wooden casks for 600 tons of water; if supplied with iron stowage, there will be a saving of £2,400. To this saving may be added the annual expenses of hoops, cooperage, &c., which in vessels of these dimensions are never less than £500 a year; in short, from their present material, a total saving would accrue to Government of £500,000 per annum, by the adoption of iron casks alone, exclusively of the preservation or the stores, health of the crew, and advantage in stowage, which is incalculable.

A ship of 208 tons, returning from the whale fishery with a full-stowed cargo in wood casks, gave 140 tons of oil. The same vessel, fitted with a ground-tier of wrought-iron tanks, each of them 4 feet square and 8 feet long, carried 180 tons of oil, and still had 6 feet, in height unoccupied between the top of the tanks and the deck of the vessel.

Ships of war should carry liquids in iron tanks fitted to the form of the bottom of the hold, either to serve as drinking-water or as ballast so that in " naval manoeuvring " the vessel might be deepened, thereby exposing a less amount of vulnerable surface to an enemy, and again lightened by the nautical steam labourer pumping the water out of the tanks.

Should the Government object to the cost of wrought-iron tanks, their cast-iron ballast, "Seely's pigs," should he recast into tanks suitable to the form of the bold.

Trevithick was requested to meet some scientific and medical men at a Navy Board that those great advantages might be explained. Rising from the consultation in a huff, he exclaimed, “I had expected to find gentlemen who would understand the matter, but you seem to me to be a lot of old women." He then put on his hat and walked out.

On another occasion he recommended his iron tanks at the Admiralty Office, and was told that water from them would poison all the sailors in His Majesty's service. The question was referred to Sir Joseph Banks, who reported that "water kept in iron tanks looked very well, smelt very well, tasted very well, and produced no injurious effects on those who had drunk it." Trevithick's two eldest children[2] spoke of having fastened together pieces of cardboard to represent the forms for iron tanks and buoys, and were promised a pretty model of a ship, about 2 feet long, having little blocks of wood, representing iron tanks, fitted to the hold of the vessel, and kept in their places by wooden pins. All the deck part could be lifted off, that the tanks in the hold might be more easily seen.

This model was sent to the Admiralty, and neither Trevithick nor his family ever saw it again.

Capt. Aldridge,[3] commanding a Government vessel, solicited permission from the Navy Board to have some iron tanks placed in his vessel: it was refused. He procured a small one at his own expense.

Capt. Alder knew the admiral had some iron tanks sent on board, in opposition to the orders of the Victualling Department at Deptford.

Mr. Cockburn sailed on board the ‘Amphion’, 32-gun ship, in 1813. Iron water-tanks were fitted in the hold; a pump at the main hatchway filled the deck water-tank and the cook's coppers; by this means the ship's company were saved a great deal of labour. Before the iron tanks were used, the watch was employed the greater part of the afternoon in hoisting up and lowering down water-casks for the supply of the ship's company.

Colliers having iron tanks in the bottom of the hold would by their use avoid the expense and delay of ballasting, and consequently perform a greater number of voyages. This wise plan, so fully made public sixty years ago, both by practice and precept, has now come into general use.

Ballasting of Ships.

This is effected in a cheap, efficacious, and convenient manner, by employing tanks filled with water. The tanks used for this purpose are made of iron, and of shapes and forms adapted to the vessels or trade in which they are to be employed, actually occupying no more space when not employed for the purpose of ballasting than the bulk of the iron itself — of which they are made — namely, in a collier, about the space of half a chaldron of coals, for they are filled with coals when not used for ballasting. By this contrivance the expense and delay occasioned by taking ballast on board, and discharging it from time to time, are entirely done away, and a collier will be enabled to perform an extra voyage, or probably two extra voyages every year.

Greenlanders go out in ballast, and are exposed to considerable risks from its shifting in stormy weather. By adopting iron ballast tanks, the expense and danger of common ballast will not only be avoided, but the expense of wooden casks for the home cargo will be lessened by filling the tanks with oil, while the ship will also be enabled to bring home a much larger cargo, and with less waste, the iron occupying much less space than mood, and absorbing none of the contents.

The Admiralty were moved to use the water-tanks, and Trevithick asking for an acknowledgment of their usefulness was answered by the following letter, written on the 9th April, 1811:— "I am commanded by my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty to acquaint you that no report has been yet received relative to the iron tanks invented by you for stowing water."

During 1808, while Trevithick hoped for continued occupation on the Thames Tunnel, and profit from his patent inventions, be strongly advised his wife to leave Cornwall, and with her four little children, to join him in London. This troublesome journey was undertaken in the autumn of that year. A house had been selected at Rotherhithe, in a dingy situation, near the mouth of the driftway. There had been much correspondence about the wisdom of this move. Mrs. Trevithick's brother, Mr. Henry Harvey, advised her not to leave her home and friends, until things were more settled and more certain in London. Trevithick's notes to his wife, however, made everything easy and agreeable. More than 300 miles had to be travelled in a post-chaise, occupied by herself and her four little ones, the youngest of them a baby. The contrast between her clean and fresh Cornish home, and the habitation at Rotherhithe, did not help to remove the fatigue of the journey, and a further disappointment awaited her. In her husband's pocket were two of her last letters unopened. What reasons could possibly be offered for such hard-hearted ingratitude? Trevithick's answer to the charge was simply, "You know, Jane, that your notes were full of reasons for not coming to London, and I had not the heart to read an more of them."

On the breaking down of the Thames Driftway, they removed to No. 72. Fore Street Limehouse. In the yard Trevithick set up workshops for constructing iron tanks and buoys, and model iron ships; to his wife this noisy residence could not have been much more agreeable than gloomy Rotherhithe.

During these trials Mrs. Trevithick had the consolation of making the acquaintance of a friend in adversity. Mr. Vigurs, a Cornish acquaintance, had married a lady, driven by the French revolution from luxury in her native land to comparative poverty in London. The two ladies consoled one another over a cup of tea and a Cornish pasty at Limehouse; and on the return visit to Bond Street by a sample of French cookery.

The tank manufactory was under the foremanship of John Steel, with the wooden leg, who had been with Trevithick in South Wales and Newcastle-on-Tyne on the locomotive experiments. Mr. Savage and Thomas and Midge were also making iron buoys, under the patent, twelve of which had been supplied to Government. Samuel Hambly, who had worked on the Camborne locomotive and succeeding schemes, kept Steel company, both often having to wait for their wages until it was convenient to pay; this fraternity between Trevithick and his men extended through the Hambly family to a brother, old James hambly, who taught the writer to use mechanics' tools, because Captain Dick was such a wonderful man.

April 201h, 1810

Sir, — Above you have a sketch of an end section of a vessel I measured this morning, for a ground-tier of iron tanks to go into the South Sea Whale Fishery, belonging to Mr. Blyth. sail-maker, Limehouse.

Title of Image
Title of Image

The whole length of the tanks will be about 50 feet; across the upper surface, 14 feet 6 inches; the other two sides forming a triangle (to suit the bottom of the vessel), the perpendicular line of which is 5 feet; the whole containing about 55 tons.

The tanks will have to be made in lengths of 7 and 8 feet each, so as to stand in between the flooring pieces A and uprights A, which are ranged all the way along the keelson of the ship, at the distances of 7 and 8 feet.

The vessel being so extremely sharp, the tanks must be made of a peculiar form to fit it; of course will not easily fit any other; on that account it will be necessary to form a contract with Mr. Blyth for the time when to be completed, and the price per ton, together with the mode of payment. A contract must also be made with the manufacturer as to price and time of completion; otherwise we are running a great risk in having them thrown on our hands, the ship being in so great a hurry for them.

On Thursday last Mr. Savage received a letter from Mr. Dickinson recommending an improvement in the ends of the buoys, for the better purpose of (as he calls it) keelhauling, by having them made round at the ends, and a staple for making the rope fast to, one of which they have made, the staple of which is made fast with four small rivets, scarcely sufficient to bear the weight of the buoy itself, exclusive of its buoyancy.

After descanting a good deal on the superiority of this improvement, he tells him not to finish or send any more down here, but to have the twelve for Government ready for his delivery on his arrival home, and then concludes with an insinuation that these are not his only reasons why he does mot wish any more to be sent here; and it was with the greatest difficulty and through the greatest persuasion I was enabled last week to procure the two promised to Mr. Pickering before you left home.

Mr. Savage has made one with rounding ends brazed on, and the rings riveted in, the same as in the old method.

This I conceive would answer a very good purpose, provided they had made the end pieces of stronger iron than the buoy; but says Mr. Savage if he pursues this method the prices will have to be advanced, and in my opinion they are already as much as the buoys will bear.

Seven of the largest buoys for Government are finished, the other five want a few hours' work. Five more are about three-parts finished. And in this situation have things stood all this week, in consequence of Mr. D.'s leaving orders on Monday morning at Mr. Savage's not to proceed any farther till he saw them again; and the Lord knows when that will be as he has not been seen there since.

Mr. Savage was at Mr. D.'s house on Tuesday, and was told he would be in to dinner.

I called yesterday, and was told he was gone into the country the day before; but where he was gone to and when he would return again I could get no intelligence.

I shall go again to-morrrow to Somerset House, and shall call on Mr. D., and if he does not order to the contrary, I will call at Thomas and Rudge's and hear what they have to say about the making of tanks already mentioned.

I have to see Mr. Blyth again when he returns from Gravesend and Deal, which will probably be on Saturday or Sunday; when I shall very likely write to you again.

In the meantime I should like to hear what you have to say on the subject.
I remain, Sir,
Your most obedient servant,


This was followed by a letter apparently from Dickinson. The name and date are torn off.

I have only just received the letter sent you by Cockshott's attorney so long ago as the 6th, and which you had detained till the 11th, although it states that the expenses are going on, etc. This is most unaccountable.

Steel has never yet furnished me with Thomas and Rudge's account, made out as I desired a week ago. This is a conduct not to be allowed.

I have a letter before me just received from John Steel, Horseferry, for 90/. for barge hire. These with the acceptances I am under, and the sums I have paid already, make me begin to look about me, and for once to express myself dissatisfied generally.

It is but of little use I know, and for me to attempt to take any part in the management were ridiculous; and even Mrs. T. has flatly objected even to my sons being in the house; so that on the whole, to know anything about it, I must give myself wholly up to it.

I am much dissatisfied with the neglect of Steel as to the keeping amounts, as well as other things; seeing that half his time, I shall say nine-tenths, he does little or nothing. It were easy for him to have made a temporary set of books for the present, and to have entered every transaction, had it been only for my satisfaction.

The way we are going on I shall tire of, finding sums of money, and nothing done.

It were better that Penn's engine had never been undertaken, than that it should keep back, as I suspect it does, all other things.

A coal engine, with the caboose, might and should have been ready.

The first towing machine should have been got on with immediately on the others failing; not an hour ought to have been lost in applying to your friend Davies Giddy, as a stepping-stone to Lord Melville.

Since the tanks came home from the unfortunate Margate expedition, Steel might have been delivering the printed letters to the captains, and trying, at least, to get them on board; but really this man appears to me to be of very little use in getting things forward. The buoy scheme might, through him, have been forwarder; in short, he might if he had been active, have been doing many things which have stood still.

On the whole things begin –

Steel had to obey both Dickinson and Trevithick, and did not approve of the former's interference in engineering matters. Trevithick put the lawyer's letter in his pocket, and allowed it to remain there unnoticed. Steel, like Trevithick, was a poor hand at furnishing accounts. Things were going wrong money went out faster than it came in. Dickinson wished his sons to look after what was going on at the house and workyard, but they were refused admission to the house by Mrs. Trevithick. An account-book in Trevithick's writing shows that John Steel, Samuel Hambly, and Samuel Rowe were in constant pay in the workshop. Steel was a Newcastle-upon-Tyne man: he had been with Trevithick for seven or eight years; the first mention of his name being in connection with the Welsh tramroad locomotive as engine foreman in 1804.

Samuel Hambly, a cousin of Mrs. Trevithick's, and Samuel Rowe were still older hands, having worked upon the first high-pressure experiments and the Camborne, London, and Welsh locomotives: both Hambly and Rowe were Cornishmen; these men performed an important share in bringing those inventions into use, and often continued to work when there was not the means of paying them their wages.

The unfortunate Margate expedition is very characteristic of Trevithick's readily applying himself to new requirements; two vessels and sixteen men left London for Margate to raise a sunk ship. After nearly a month's labour, an attempt was made to fasten iron tanks to the vessel: one man refused to wet his feet, another was willing to fasten the tanks, but refused to put the bolts into their places for the purpose of fastening others would not go unless they could be brought back to their lodgings on shore, without the risk of being obliged to sleep on board a gun-boat. It was a case of mutiny. The account goes on to show that during forty-two days the men only worked on the sunken wreck six hours each, at an average cost per man of £23.

The late Mrs. Trevithick informed the writer that the vessel was really raised, and was being floated into shallower water, when a dispute arose about the payment. Her husband wished an immediate "yes" or "no" to his bargain. The ship owners wished to defer the answer until the ship was safe. In a moment the tanks were cast loose, and the vessel was again a sunken wreck.


(In Trevithick's handwriting:)

January 30th, 1810. Trevithick and Dickinson engaged sixteen men with two vessels and crews to go from London to Margate to recover a sunken ship.

These men were engaged at 10s. 6d. per tide when at work, and 7s. 6d. when idle or not able to work. They were provided with victuals and drink and lodgings.

On the 4th February, it being low water at five o'clock in the evening, Mr. Trevithick called on George Nicholls and four of his partners to go off to the sunken ship, which lay about four miles from the land; a gun-brig being stationed by order of the Admiralty, near the ship, for the purpose of protecting those men and the wreck, and assisting us.

About three o'clock in the afternoon of the 4th February, the boats belonging to the gun-brig were sent on shore to take these men off to the wreck: George Nicholls and four of his partners refused to go; one of them said he should not wet his feet, another said he did not come down to bore holes, and put screws into the ship's sides; that when the work was done, ready to put on the tanks, that then he should have no objection to go off to the ship and lash on the tanks, but he would be d- if he did any more.

The other three said they would not go, unless the gun-brig boats would bring them back again to their lodging that same evening.

My answer was that I would request the officer in the boat to take them back that evening, and I did not doubt but that he would; but if he would not take them back, the tide would not permit us to work on the wreck later than seven o'clock that evening, and they would then go on board the gun-boat and wait until ten o'clock, at which time there would be water to float one of our own ships out of Margate Harbour, and then they could go to their own hammocks on board our own ships. Their answer was, we will be d- before we will go on board the gun-brig.

This application of iron tanks must have been widely known, for shortly afterwards be was consulted by Lloyd's on the means of raising, under similar circumstances, a sunken ship.

26th March, 1812.

Lloyd's Agent, Liverpool,

Sir,— I have yours of the 14th, enclosed to me by Mr. Giddy, in answer to which, respecting the lifting of sunken vessels by wrought-iron tanks, the practice has been tried in London, and fully answered the purpose of raising vessel and cargo.

I can make and send to Liverpool any number or size of tanks you wish. The tanks made for London would lift about ten tons each, but I should prefer a larger size, about 7 feet diameter and 20 feet long. Eight tanks would lift a 500-ton ship, unless she was loaded with iron or some very heavy cargo. The expense would be about £200 each tank.

Four tanks will lift a ship of 300 tons, unless loaded with an unusually ponderous cargo.

If you wish to have a drawing or a model, to show the effect in a small way, please to write to me, and I will furnish you with every necessary for the purpose.
I remain, Sir,
Your very humble servant,


The tanks used at Margate lifted each of them 10 tons, but larger ones would be preferable, 7 feet in diameter and 20 feet long. His mind was running on his contemplated Cornish boilers, the first of which on a large scale was made in the latter part of that year, and did not differ much from the dimensions of the proposed tanks. The number and cost of the tanks required to raise the sunken vessel, and a drawing of their application, or a model of the ship with the tanks attached, was offered, making the whole business plain and distinct as though the designing it was mere child's play, and the putting it into execution the work of an intelligent boy.

Trevithick made no profit by the valuable invention and practical introduction of iron buoys and tanks. Mrs. Trevithick said that when at that period her husband was imprisoned for debt for the money he had expended in making known the usefulness of the tanks, Mr. Maudslay visited him, and expressing his concern that so clever a man should be shut up in prison, asked what the debt was, and what he intended doing with the patent. Trevithick replied that the patent had done him more harm than good, though he was sure it was an excellent thing; and on a sum of money being tendered in exchange for the patent, he was once more a free man.

Harry Maudslay was then spoken of as an excellent smith, and was the founder of the engineering firm of Maudslay, Son, and Field; his handywork helped some of Trevithick's schemes, and he is said to have profited by the manufacture of the patent iron tanks, the right to which be had bought.

Penn at the same time, now more than sixty years ago, was also employed by Trevithick to construct a coal-discharging engine, with steam-cooking apparatus, and a steam tug-boat, under the patents of 1808 and 1809, together with some other marine steam-engine, then in band, probably the adapting to steamboat propulsion the locomotive ‘Catch-me-who-can' of 1808, whose first application had been in the dredging barge of 1803, and was now in 1810 to propel a Lord Mayor's barge. Trevithick's eldest son still recollects seeing in 1809 or 1810 in Cockshott's yard an old Lord Mayor's barge in which his father was placing his high-pressure steam-puffer engine.

Lord Melville's influence was solicited for the encouragement of the Government in making useful such novel schemes, but the want of support and debts incurred ended in an attack of brain fever and postponement of the useful marine steam-engine.

Foot Notes

  1. Recollections of Mr. Richard Trevithick, residing at Pencliffe, Hayle, 1869
  2. Residing at Hayle in 1869
  3. Lately residing at Ilfracombe.

See Also