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Remembering Steam Wagons in London

Credit – Barry Ashworth

Recently , I mentioned Barry Ashworth and his long career at Dunbar Wharf, when he first started work at the wharf in the 1960s he came across a number of documents and photographs from Dunbar Wharf’s previous owner, Francis Vernon Smythe. One of those photographs illustrates a long forgotten mode of transport on London streets and the various connections within the British Empire.

The fascinating photograph in question features a steam wagon collecting silver ingots in the City of London, more information is given at the bottom of the photograph with the caption ‘Steam Wagons loading Bar Silver for the British India Steamer.’ On the side of the trucks is F.V. Smythe of Dunbar Wharf, Limehouse. The photograph is taken outside the offices of Durham Stokes which was a stockbrokers in Old Broad Street and seems to be in the early 20th century.

The British India Steamer referred to in the photograph is the British India Steam Navigation Company which was formed in 1856 as the Calcutta and Burmah Steam Navigation Company. It became the British India Steam Navigation Company in 1862, Lord Inchcape, became chairman in 1913 and the company became part of the P&O group of companies in 1914, it kept its own identity and organisation for another nearly 60 years until 1972, when it was fully absorbed into P&O.

At its peak, the company was one of the largest shipowners of all time, the company owned more than 500 ships and managed 150 more for other owners. The main shipping routes of the line were: Britain to India, Australia and Kenya but ran services throughout Asia and Africa. Silver Bullion was an important cargo for the ships from the UK to satisfy the demand for the metal in India where it was used in a variety of ways especially in its currency.

Alley & McLellan steam wagon (Mechanical Transport,1911)

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, the steam wagon was considered the alternative to horse drawn vehicles especially for heavy hauling and short journeys. They first made an appearance in London in 1879, a newspaper report gives more details.

1879 A New Steam Waggon

A new style of road vehicle, designed to be propelled by mechanical power, has made its appearance in London, England. The carriage closely resembles an ordinary dog-cart; the shafts are very short, and incline together, meeting two feet in front of the dashboard; between them there is a third wheel, working upon an upright shaft, which could be turned by a handle placed the same as that of a bicycle; this handle is worked by reins in the hands of the driver. The motive power is obtained by the combustion of beozoline, a small jet of which is admitted into the burner. Itis then set on fire, and is completely consumed by a current of air, which until the machine is in action, is produced by turning the small handle already alluded to. The burner, about the size of an ordinary chimney-pot hat, and quite as elegant, is lined by coils of a copper tube containing water.

Thorneycroft steam wagon (Modern_Engines, Vol III)

By the early 20th century, steam wagons were a common sight on London roads and in 1903 there was a parade in the capital of the latest models.

1903 A Steam Waggon Parade.

On May Day last a display took place in London which may probably lead to an important annual function in future years This was a parade of self-propelled vehicles for carrying heavy freights, and this description, so far as last week’s gathering was concerned, is synonymous with “steam waggon,” for all the vehicles that attended were propelled by the time-honoured engine and boiler. Possibly by next May Day the internal-combustion engine may have been sufficiently improved to take its place as an important factor in the propulsion of heavy freight-in waggons.

The parade of thirty steam powered vehicles had been arranged by the Thorneycroft Steam Waggon Company, as in the older established cart-horse parade, the object was the encouragement of drivers, and three prizes were offered.

However by the 1920s, petrol and diesel lorries were considered cheaper and more efficient and steam wagons were considered slow and sometimes dangerous.

1929 Steam Waggons in London: Coroner Criticism

A rider to the ‘effect that steam waggons should no longer be licensed unless the driver has a full and unrestricted view of the whole road was added by the Jury at a Westminster Inquest. A verdict of accidental death was returned in the case of Laura Hodman, 18, typist, of High Street,Islington, who while crossing the Victoria Embankment to catch a tramcar during the rush hours on Tuesday evening was run over by a steam waggon.

Mr Ingleby Oddle (the coroner) said that the accident was a simple one. The girl did not look to see, If anything was coming on her left, the driver of the steam waggon was sitting on the near side, and could not see on the oft side at all, having to rely on his fireman.

“It is perfectly obvious , to me that the time has long since, gone by when vehicles of this type should not be permitted on the streets at all.”

The time of the steam wagon was almost over and new road taxes and limits on weight sent them to scrapyards in large numbers, although some were saved and preserved and can sometimes seen at steam fairs. Steam wagons were largely a short lived British phenomenon and quickly became forgotten as internal combustion powered vehicles took over the roads.

It is always remarkable how one photograph can takes us back to a forgotten piece of London history and many thanks to Barry Ashworth for permission to use the photograph and related information. I have undertaken some research into the photograph but if anyone has any more information, please comment below.