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 4

From Graces Guide


RICHARD TREVITHICK, jun., was born on the 13th of April, 1771, under the parental roof, in the parish of Illogan, county of Cornwall. His birth-place is now a double cottage, around which clouds of mineral sand from the surrounding mine works float in the wind, depositing layers of pounded rock on everything in house and garden. A hundred years ago it was the manager's residence, delightfully situated at the foot of the north-west slope of Caen Brea Hill, with its ancient castle and Druidical legends. It is in the centre of the famous old and rich mines of Dolcoath, Cook's Kitchen, Pool, Tin Croft, and Roskear, and within a mile of each of them.

He was the first surviving son of five children, and was the mother's pet. Shortly after his birth the family removed a few miles, to a leasehold of Penponds, near Camborne. His mother's wedding ring, which the writer has just placed on his finger, is seven-eighths of an inch internal diameter, and weighs a quarter of an ounce. On the inside of the ring are the words, "God above, increase our love." The letters are not engraved, but indented with a common chisel, probably the lover's handiwork. The boy's first and only school was in the adjoining small town of Camborne; the master reported him a disobedient, slow, obstinate, spoiled boy, frequently absent, and very inattentive. Stories are told of his remaining by himself for hours, drawing lines and figures on his slate in place of the school lesson.

His school attainments were limited to reading, writing, and arithmetic. The master once said, "Your sum may be right, but it is not done by the rule." Trevithick replied, "I'll do six sums to your one." His father wished him to sit at the office desk in one of the mines, but he chose to wander through the mines by himself, holding little converse with others, but well able to defend himself in case of attack.

A difficulty among mine agents about some underground levels led young Trevithick to offer to correct the error. Old beads disapproved at first, and then allowed him to try his hand. Genius enabled him to comprehend the rude surveying instruments of that day, and the untrustworthy character of the magnetic needle when near iron tools or machinery , and he laid down a course which was successfully followed, where older heads with more experience had failed.

A letter, written in 1845 by Captain Henry Vivian, describes Trevithick, and his partner in connection with the first high-pressure steam-engines.

My father was a man of great inventive and arithmetical powers of mind; he has often made up the duty of an engine while we have been walking the road together, multiplying six figures by four figures, and giving the answer without aid of pen or paper, by retaining the figures in memory.

Mr. Trevithick was a man of still greater powers of mind but would too often run wild, from want of calculation. They did well together, but badly when separated

Among the traditions of Trevithick, a favourite one is the story of a mine account, at which the mine agents and adventurers met, and after settling the accounts, partook of a good dinner and mine-account punch, followed as a matter of course by rough jokes, which passed freely in those times. Captain Hodge, a large, strong man of six feet in height, ventured on a little friendly tussle with Trevithick. Hodge was seized by the middle, and turned upside down; the print of his shoes being left in the ceiling of the room. What a jolly roar of laughter burst from those originals! That account-house in Dolcoath was allowed to stand for many years as a memento of his great strength. He threw a sledge-hammer, they say, 14 lbs. weight, over the engine-house chimney, but the writer's informant could not tell him the height; some said it never came down again.

He was famous also as the only one who could throw a ball over the Camborne church-tower, when standing near enough its base to touch it with one foot.

One day the mine athletes, in their trials of strength, attempted to lift from the ground a 9-inch cast-iron pump, such as was used in the mines, weighing seven or eight hundredweight. When Trevithick's turn came, lie lifted the pump on to his shoulder and carried it off.

His excusable vanity was gratified by a request from a member of the College of Surgeons that he would show them his strong frame and their telling him that they had never before seen muscle so finely developed, interested his Cornish friends, who delighted in physical strength.

Captain Joseph Vivian, when a young man, knew Trevithick well. Bowls was a favourite game in Cornwall, and sometimes they used to try who could throw the jack ball to reach the church door before it touched the ground. Captain Dick threw the jack not only to reach the church, but clean over it, and it fell in Jacky Williams' garden. At Crane Mine, the young men standing in the door of the smiths' shop tried to throw a sledge against the wall of the engine-house across the yard but Captain Dick happening to come by, threw the sledge across the yard and over the roof of the engine-house.

Captain Andrew Vivian's story was, that one day he and Trevithick were walking in London, when a lot of pickpocket fellows hustled them about Captain Dick laid hold of one in each hand, and knocking their heads together, gave them a swing and scattered the whole lot.

Vivian had often seen him write his name quite easily on a beam about six feet above the floor, with a 56-lb. weight suspended from his thumb, the arm being extended at full length. Captain Andrew thought himself a good hand at figures, and sometimes when he was working away at a calculation, Trevithick, who had not made a figure, would say, "Well, Captain Andrew, it will be about so and so;" and was always very near the truth.

Mr. Hugh Hunter, aged eighty-seven years, the foreman carpenter in Cook's Kitchen for the last sixty-six years, has often seen Captain Trevithick lift the mandril, and hundreds of people used to come to see him do it. He used to put a bar of iron inside the mandril and fasten another bar to it so that he could get a good hold. A strong stool was placed on each side of the mandril, upon which he would stand with the mandril between his legs, and would lift it of the ground. He was an uncommon quick-spirited man, and the strongest ever known. The weight of the mandril was ten hundredweight.[1]

John Vivian, the foreman smith, had worked in the mine for fifteen years. The mandril was always known as the one that Captain Dick used to lift, and that nobody else could. His father worked in Dolcoath under Captain Dick about 1800, and he used to say how Captain Dick would climb up the great shears, or triangles, fifty or sixty feet high, and, standing on the top of the three poles or shear-legs, would swing around a heavy sledge-hammer. He did it for exercise, and to steady his head and his foot.[2]

When the writer was a young in Kneebone, strong Cornish wrestler, working in the tin-smelting works at Hayle, lifted him from the ground with one hand, at arm's length; be then raised two blocks of tin, each of them three hundredweight, from the ground, remarking, "Captain Dick Trevithick could lift three blocks as easy as I can two; and he also lifted an old piston-rod, seven or eight hundredweight, with a man sitting on each end of it.

Two rocks rising from the sea, a short distance from the cliffs, at St. Agnes Head, near Redruth, named in charts "The Man and his Man," were for many years known in the neighbourhood under the familiar term, “Captain Dick and Captain Andrew" one of the rocks is much larger than the other.

The earliest trace of steady occupation followed by Richard Trevithick, jun., is in his father's account-book of Stray Park Mine in 1790, where he received 30s. a month. His father, as the manager of the mine, stands at the head of the book at 40s. a month.

Trevithick was then eighteen years old, and in the rate of wakes paid in the mine came next to the manager; he must therefore have had years of experience before that period. Boys then left the village school for the fight of life at ten or twelve years of age.

The name appears in the monthly accounts without intermission for two years, until 1792, when he was employed by the shareholders in Tin Croft Mine to examine and report on the relative duties, or work done with a certain quantity of coal, in the patent engine of Watt, and in that of the double-cylinder engine of Hornblower, who stood high in Cornwall as an engineer before the time of Watt.

At the early age of twenty-one Trevithick was therefore in public and professional contact with Watt, and from that period dates the competition of the great low-pressure engineer and his youthful and vigorous high-pressure rival.

In 1795 Trevithick erected a steam-engine at Wheal Treasury Mine, competing with Watt, and also with Bull, jun., both of whom received pay for the saving of fuel by improvements in the steam-engine in mines under the management of Trevithick, sen. This continued until the end of 1797, when the account ceases.

Wheal Treasury Cost, June, 1793:—

  • Richard Trevithick, jun., 13 days at 8s. 6d.
  • Richard Trevithick, sen., for expenses at Helston, at sundry times, and at other places, waiting on the adventurers, 7s. 6d.
  • Richard Trevithick, jun., for moving and erecting the eastern engine, 21/. "Ditto, for one month's attendance on ditto, 1/. 11s. 6d.
  • Ditto, for one month's saving respecting the eastern engine, 18/.
  • To Edward Bull, for his attendance, 2l. 2s.
  • To Mr. Bull's engine, for two months' saving respecting his engine, 43l. 12s. "

1796, April:—

  • The said Richard Moyle subjects himself to pay any demands which may be hereafter made by Messrs. Boulton and Watt, for savings in the said mine
  • At a meeting of the old adventurers of Wheal Treasury Mine, held this 27th day of March, 1797, at Praise-an-Beeble, it was unanimously resolved that the earnings claimed by Boulton and Watt should not be paid till the validity of their Patent should be fully proved."

Trevithick, jun., had taken down an old engine probably a Newcomen atmospheric, and re-erected it with his own particular improvements, from which be received about the same rate of "saving money" as Bull. There is no entry of saving money paid to Watt; but in the following year an outgoing shareholder was made liable for any demand Watt might make, and again in the next year the mine determined to refuse Watt's claim for " saving money." Smiles says that Wheal Treasury had been supplied with an engine by Watt so there were three rival engines and rival engineers under the management of Trevithick, sen., as there had been twenty years before at Dolcoath.

Trevithick, sen., put but a small money value on his labours, for Helston was about ten miles distant; his travelling to it and to other places, " sundry times, waiting on the adventurers," led to a bill of 7s. 6d. for expenses. His son, who had been entrusted with the improving and re-erecting of an engine, received as daily pay 3s. 6d., and at the age of twenty-four was in open and active opposition to the sweeping claims of Watt.

The late Captain Richard Eustace related, as an early incident in Trevithick's life, that "at Wheal Treasury one of Boulton and Watt's pumping engines worked badly, and at last stopped. The engineman in charge could do nothing with her; the water was rising in the mine when Trevithick, jun., offered his services, and made things right. His father boasted that the best man in the mine could not do what his boy had done."

There is no record of the particular kind of engine then erected by Trevithick he was not, as has been stated, in partnership with Bull, jun., for during the three years the monthly saving in coal by his engine and the entries to Bull are quite distinct, and also their monthly payment as engineers keeping the engines in order. They both strove to avoid Watt's patent claims by combinations and improvements, especially by an engine since known as Bull's. A drawing[3] made by Trevithick probably in those early days represents this kind of engine, which remained in use in Cornwall for many years several are at work in the London Water-works, and one or two at Battersea at the present moment.

This double-acting engine has never received its fair share of credit, for as compared with its rival, the 'Boulton and Watt patent engine, it is more simple, and less costly; matters of more importance then than now. The doing away with the heavy beam and parallel motion, the placing the injection-valve in the exhaust- steam pipe, thereby avoiding the larger and separate condensing vessel used by Watt, and the double-acting air-pump, were bold and successful ideas, easy of construction, economical in operation, and widely different from the Watt engine.

Plate II. Bull Pumping Engine

Plate II. shows a side elevation of this direct-action or Bull engine, drawn by Richard Trevithick, probably in 1795. a is a steam-cylinder b, wood beams supporting cylinder c, piston-rod d, pump-rods; e, pumps; f, engine-shaft g, balance-beam connecting rod; h, balance-beam; i, box for balance-weights j, plug-rod and air-pump bucket connecting rod k, snifting valve; 1, air-pump; in, air-pump bucket-rod n, condensing water cistern o, pipe-condenser p, injection-valve; q, plug-rod r, gear-handles; s, the valve-nozzles t, floor of engine-house; u, condensing chamber v, ground level; w, roof of engine-house.

The four walls of the engine-house surround the pump-shaft, over which the steam-cylinder with close top and bottom is placed, supported' on strong beams crossing from will to wall of the house, the piston-rod going direct to the pump-rods, by which the necessity for the large beam and parallel motion is done away. The usual balance-bob attached to the pump-rods gives motion to the air-pump bucket and to the plug-rod for working the valves. The condensation of the steam takes place in the exhaust-pipe, on which due injection-valve is fixed. The valves are worked by tappets and toothed segments. The air-pump bucket was a solid piston, that of Watt a piston with valves. This kind of engine remained in use in Cornwall for thirty years, and is the early type of the modern direct-action engines it had many new ideas, and clever modifications of those not new.

Trevithick in 1797 was the engineer at Ding Dong. Mine, near Penzance, where he had erected an engine on which Boulton and Watt laid an injunction for infringement of their patent; to avoid payment the engine was converted into an open-top cylinder, without beam or parallel motion. About the same time a Bull engine was erected at the Herland Mine, in the spirit of rivalry with Watt, who had placed there one of his best engines.

The late Captain Samuel Grose said:

My first occupation, after leaving school, was as a young assistant-engineer for Mr. Trevithick. In 1802, an engine worked at the Herland Mine, which had been erected by Bull, jun., and Trevithick about 1798, whose cylinder, 60 inches in diameter, was placed over the shaft; the piston-rod attached to the pump-rods it had an air-pump, and low- pressure boilers; there were no large high-pressure engines then. Bull, sen., died about 1780, and shortly after Captain Trevithick was the head engineer in the county.[4]

It seems, therefore, that the elder Bull died in the earlier part of the fight between Cornish engineers and Watt. His son Edward Bull followed in his father's steps as an engineer. Trevithick, jun., and Bull, jun., worked together in the improvement of the steam-engine but no trace has reached the writer of the form of the Bull engine on the death of William Bull, sen., at which time Trevithick, jun., was nine years old. Trevithick used and improved the Bull engine after the death of its inventor, and in conjunction with Edward Bull, jun., erected engines to compete with Watt during the very height of the acrimonious and long-pending patent lawsuits.

James Bolitho -

- had worked in Ding Dong for fifty years his father, Thomas Bolitho, worked all his life in the mine, and frequently spoke about the engine that Captain Trevithick put up she had not worked long before Boulton and Watt came down with an injunction printed out, and pasted it up on the door of the engine-house, and upon the heaps of mine-stuff, and nobody dared to touch them. But Captain Trevithick did not care he and Bull and William West came and turned the cylinder upside down, right over the pump- rods in the shaft; they took off the cylinder top (it was the cylinder bottom before they turned it upside down) water and oil used to be on the top of the piston to keep it tight. Captain Trevithick at that time put a wind-engine in the mine sometimes it went so fast that they could not stop it some sailors came from Penzance and made a plan for reefing the sails.[5]

This was one of the many skirmishes with Watt, causing the engine to work as an open-top cylinder atmospheric, rather than pay the patent demands.

Davies Gilbert thus describes his first acquaintance with Trevithick:

EAST BOURNE, April 29, 1839.
I will give as good an account as I can of Richard Trevithick. His father was the chief manager in Dolcoath Mine, and he bore the reputation of being the best informed and most skilful captain in all Western mines; for as broad a line of distinction was then made between the eastern and western mines (the Gwennap and the Camborne Mines) as between those of different nations.<br.

I knew the father very well, and about the year 1790 I remember hearing from Mr. Jonathan Hornblower that a tall and strong young man had made his appearance among engineers, and that on more than one occasion he had threatened some people who contradicted him to fling them into the engine-shaft. In the latter part of November of that year I was called to London as a witness in a steam-engine cause between Messrs. Boulton and Watt and Maberley. There I believe that I first saw Mr. Richard Trevithick, jun., and certainly there I first became acquainted with him. Our correspondence commenced soon afterwards, and he was very frequently in the habit of calling at Tredrea to ask my opinion on various projects that occurred to his mind — some of them very ingenious, and others so wild as not to rest on any foundation at all. I cannot trace the succession in point of time.

On one occasion Trevithick came to me and inquired with great eagerness as to what I apprehended would be loss of power in working an engine by the force of steam, raised to the pressure of several atmospheres, but instead of condensing to let the steam escape. I of course answered at once that the loss of power would be one atmosphere, diminished power by the saving of an air-pump with its friction, and in many cases with the raising of condensing water. I never saw a man more delighted, and I believe that within a month several puffers were in actual work.


J. S. ENYS, Esq.

Probably the meeting with engineers at those legal contests and the shrewd questioning of lawyers led him to ponder on the possibility of working an engine without air-pump or vacuum, and within a few months several steam-puffers were at work; the idea was soon made practically useful, showing not only the energy of Trevithick's resources, but also his practical authority as an acting engineer. The high-pressure steam-engine may be said to date from 1796.

The first account-book in my possession in the hand- writing of Richard Trevithick, jun., is dated 1797. The pages are headed Dr. and Cr. but during the several years the book was in use not one single account was balanced it commenced as a ledger, but was used as a day-book. Comparatively large amounts of money passed through his hands. He was the engineer supplying machinery, and having mechanics in his pay in the following mines:— Ding Dong, Wheal Bog, Wheal Druid, Hallamanin, Wheal Prosper, Wheal Hope, Wheal Abraham, Dolcoath, Rosewall Mine, Polgrane, Trenethick Wood, Baldue, Trevenen, Wheal Rose, Wheal Malkin, East Pool, Wheal Seal-hole, Cook's Kitchen, and Camborne Vean.

Many of the entries are for his improved plunger-pole pit-work, and also for his high-pressure portable steam-engines; for from that time he made no more low-pressures.

On the death of his father in 1797 he was elected and employed to fill the vacant position of leading engineer in Cornish mining. Supreme in the district west from Dolcoath, but having an opposing, or Watt party, in the Gwennap, or eastern district.

About this time, while preparing machinery at Hayle Foundry, his friend William West had fallen in love and married Miss Johanna Harvey. Trevithick followed his friend's example, and while on high-pressure engine business at Mr. Harvey's foundry, fell in love with Miss Jane Harvey. The marriage was in 1797. Both families were well known for business ability and good looks. The bride was tall and of fair complexion, with brown hair. The bridegroom 6 feet 2 inches high, broad shouldered, well-shaped massive head, blue eyes, with a winning mouth, somewhat large, but having an undefinable expression of kindness and firmness.

Their first residence was at Moreton House, near Redruth, within a stone's throw of Murdoch's house, and but little farther from Watt's residence at Plane-an-Guarry. Murdoch's house still stands, in Cross Street, Redruth those still live who saw the gas-pipes conveying gas from the retort in the little yard to near the ceiling of the room, just over the table a hole for the pipe was made in the window-frame. The old window is now replaced by a new frame. Mrs. Trevithick had seen Murdoch once in her house; he was considered a clever and agreeable person. Mr. Trevithick was friendly with him, but not intimate. Watt lived close by, but never came to their house.

Moreton House was taken for a year, but after nine months' occupation, Camborne became their place of residence. Soon after their removal a demand was made for a second year's rent for Moreton House. Trevithick threatened to shake the applicant; did not everybody know that he had left the house months before? "Perhaps so," said the man, "but you promised to give me the key, and I have not got it yet." The key was found in some cast-off coat-pocket of Trevithick's, and his carelessness cost him a year's rent.

The Williamses, Foxes, and others, men of money and business experience, controlled the Gwennap district, and encouraged Watt to erect his engines in Cornwall. Trevithick, jun., belonging to the western or Camborne district, gave evidence against Watt's claim in 1796, and was then spoken of as the tall and strong young man who cared not for Watt.

The idea of working an engine by the pressure of steam flashed on his mind as a real and important discovery; his scientific friend, who was perfectly conversant with Watt's engine, viewed it in the same light, though failing to trace its full practical bearing. "A puffer-engine would lose the power from vacuum, minus the power required to work the air-pump, and the conveyance of condensing water." This was the methodical answer of the man of learning, describing the difference between the low-pressure steam vacuum engine of Watt, commonly called steam-engine, and the proposed engine of Trevithick, relying on the pressure of steam for its power; but the latter saw its extensive range and value in a practical sense not dreamt of by his friend, and within a month several such engines were at work, some of which have continued in constant operation almost to the present day. The new principle then discovered is unchanged, and is most prominently illustrated in the locomotive engine, where the vacuum engine of Watt could not be used.

Foot Notes

  1. This mandril is in the Patent Museum at Kensington. The statement was by Hunter at Pool to the writer in 1869.
  2. Statement by Vivian, working in Cook's Kitchen Mine, to the writer, 1869
  3. The drawing was given by Trevithick to the writer, in 1830, as a sample of a properly-made mechanical drawing: it had neither name, date, nor scale attached—a strong evidence of an original Trevithick drawing.
  4. Statement given in 1858, not long before Captain Grose's death.
  5. Statement by James Bolitho in 1868.

See Also