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  Goldsworthy Gurney and the Steam Drag

Iron Horse or Fable?

Gurney's 1829 pattern steam drag or light tractor as used by Sir Charles 		Dance on the Cheltenham - Gloucester service

On a recent the visit to Glasgow I managed to find the time to visit the museum of Transport in the Kelvin Halls. This excellent collection from road, rail, and sea is well worth a visit. To anyone with an interest in older styles of transport it is an absolute must. There is also a condensing Stanley resting there. The purpose of my visit was to track down a certain chassis, which had been identified as Gurney's Steam Drag.

As I had only a couple of hours of free time I made a number of phone calls on the previous day and located the curator of Transport Alistair Smith. He kindly arranged to meet me during his lunch hour in order that I might photograph the exhibit and also to ask him any questions that may enhance our knowledge of this industrial antiquity.

The information that I had previously obtained on the exhibit was very limited, suggesting that only the basic chassis and crank remained. I was astounded to see an almost complete chassis with the engine, some pipe work, the valve gear and the steering gear. The wheels, boiler and bodywork are missing. The whole is painted red and this has made photography difficult but appears to have preserved this item, as it is untouched since arriving at the Museum in 1889!

The museum has comparatively little information on the Drag except that it was presented to the museum in 1889 having been found in a barn near the Paisley Road. As one of John Scott Russell's carriages had blown up with fatal results on the Paisley Road in 1834 it was assumed for many years that this was the vehicle in question. Indeed it had been exhibited in the Art Gallery and Museum as such for many years.

As we now know, Gurney sent two carriages to Glasgow around 1830. The first was sent by sea to Leith, but it was damaged in transit. It appears that this carriage was left in Scotland while Gurney returned to London for spares. He gave instructions for it not to be used, but it was transferred to the military barracks where it was steamed and a boiler explosion ensued, severely injuring two people. The second carriage may have run a service for a short time but it remains unclear whether any passengers were carried for money. The local press carried the story of the explosion. Anthony Bird and Lord Montagu of Beaulieu in their book "Steam Cars 1770- 1970" mention "remnants in a Museum in Glasgow" and suggest they belong to the damaged Drag.

South of the border the press coverage severely damaged his reputation and by 1832 Gurney was effectively out of business. Although we have described the above as carriages it would be more likely that they where the Steam Drags, effectively an Iron Horse pushing or pulling a modified carriage. The change from carriage to Drag took place after trials on the London to Bath road, probably some time after July 1829. Illustrations of Hancock's, James, Church's and Scott Russell's show what complex and flamboyant vehicles these were not unlike Gurney's own of 1827/8. It was with the Drag that Gurney achieved commercial success on the London to Bath road.

A brief description of the Drag would include a boiler consisting of two parallel horizontal cylindrical drums and above the other surmounted by a third separator drum. There was a small heating surface on Gurney's original but Mr. Dance remedied this with a water-tube generator, which was much more successful, having a larger heating surface. The engine consisted of two parallel cylinders fixed along the length of the carriage and operating cranks on the revolving rear axle. The wheels turn loose on the axles and were driven by arms through the felloes. Normally on level ground only one arm was engaged but it was possible to engage both for the ascent of steep hills.

In Gurney's later tractors the steering was by a sector with the centre pivot operating by a gear wheel at the end of the revolving steering post. I believe this is the type of carriage in Glasgow and shown in the accompanying pictures. The valve gear requires further study and I am unclear whether any provision for reverse was made. Quite a lot remains of the controls above the cylinder block along with some pipe work. The wheel crosshead and guide is remarkable and appears in the illustrations of the Drag dated before the turn of this century.

Is all this relevant to "The Steam Car" fraternity and beyond? I think the answer is yes. Why? I will try to answer in few separate paragraphs.

The Drag is probably the oldest surviving self-propelled road vehicle in the United Kingdom. It was the first design to be successful in that it could travel up to eighty miles a day before 1830, reasonably reliably. It seems to have been commercially viable; carrying passengers for money. It competed with the emerging railways.

Gurney is an important figure in our industrial heritage. He was also a doctor and man of science. As well as the steam carriage he gave us the steam cleaning of drains following an outbreak of Cholera in London, the lighting for the new Houses of Parliament and also its heating and ventilation system. Steam also featured as a means for the ventilation of mineshafts and in a system to fight underground fires. Gurney also gave us a method for lighting theatres with pure lime. With this he had great success, giving rise to the expression "in the limelight". A similar system was used in the lighthouses along with revolving mirrors. Gurney was knighted in 1863.

Gurney was at the centre of one of the most controversial and important developments of the nineteenth century; the steam jet or "blast nozzle". This he developed between 1824 and 1827, amongst others. It is well known that he communicated this to Timothy Hackworth. There seems to be little doubt that this was adapted by Hackworth for the Stockton and Darlington locomotive Royal George in 1827, with a dramatic performance improvement. It appears that Hackworth claimed that the night before the Rainhill Trials, Stevenson sent men to study the steam jet on Royal George. It was reproduced for the Rocket and the rest, as they say, is history! Should Gurney have the credit for such a revolution it transportation?

The above is a brief attempt to create a thumbnail sketch of Gurney and the Steam Drag. It has been written and researched quickly over a period of a week or so. I apologise for any inaccuracies in my text but felt it was important to put this article into the current issue of our magazine. I feel this is such an important piece of history that we should have a view as to its future. My own feelings are that much more research is needed and that the Drag should be cleaned and displayed perhaps with wheels in a diorama at the Museum. I think we should make plans to fund, perhaps with Lottery money, an accurate working replica so that a much wider audience can appreciate the contribution Gurney and his ideas made to transportation history.

Those of you who wish to read further could like to try the following:

History of Steam Cars 1770-1970 Montagu & Bird (out of print but can be found in specialist shops)

The Suppression of the Automobile David Beasley (Greenwood Press 1988 ISBN 0-313-26144-X)

Steam Cars 1903 Homans (reprinted in Modeltec USA in the 1980's)

The Life and Times of Sir Goldsworthy Gurney: Gentleman Scientist and Inventor 1793-1875 Dale H. Porter (1998 - just published)

David West Lancashire, 1998


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