Jump to content
  • entries
  • comments
  • views

At the Dawn of Time - Chapter the First



In which the Author discovereth a Cardboard Box in the Study which recalleth his Childhood; and subsequently journeys into the Western-most Parts of Great-Britain.....


A few years ago I saw a reissue of the Airfix kit for Trevithick's locomotive in a shop. I had one of these as a child, when I was too young to have any real understanding of how to build it: I recall some attempt was made at it, though it certainly never got as far as any paint, and one or two cogs and bits survive somewhere in the depths of a scrapbox.


It has always lingered in my memory as one of the most interesting Airfix kits, both for the subject and for the fact that this one was supposed to work. In the 1970s there was supposed to be a motorising kit available, though I never had it, or knew of anywhere you could get it. Occasional sightings of a residual part would prompt the rueful reflection that it would be interesting to attempt the kit now - when I actually know what I'm doing and might make something of it.


So when I saw one I bought it, and brought the thing home - and it's been sitting in a pile of magazines on top of Tramlink
ever since. I seem to have bought it from Modelzone in High Holborn, it's that long ago.


The kit seems still to be available in places https://www.steamreplicas.co.uk/Airfix-1804-Steam-Loco.asp - I know nothing of these people except that they come up on a Google search and seem to specialise in Mamod live steam.


I was meaning to dig out the Judith Edge Vanguard Steelman kit this weekend . But there was the Airfix kit, and it doesn't need a soldering iron, and I don't have to worry about whether it will run... Also Ally Pally is coming up and there's usually someone there who sells display cases, into which I can put the finished model.


Here's the kit , with the basic boiler assembled:


Essentially the kit is built round the boiler


It's a very long time since I built an Airfix kit , other than a wagon kit, and impressions are pretty favourable.


It takes a little getting used to the idea that every part is numbered on the sprue and you assemble by part order. This isn't what you expect in a model railway kit. The pictorial instructions are clear, and once you recognise the code, quite detailed. I've only found one place where the instructions weren't clear exactly where a piece went in, and one place where it isn't entirely clear exactly how it will all fit together.


The fit of the parts is excellent - quite a bit better than I'm used to. In two places - the boiler and the chimney - two halves leave a seam through slight misalignment, and I've had to use filler and file/emery board to get a totally smooth finish. The seam at the top of the boiler is visible in the photo. Otherwise it's all startlingly good - and this is a forty year old kit. There's minimal flash on the parts. As a result of all this, I'm finding I true up and finish pieces to a fairly high standard


There are prototype issues.


Wikipedia is not a reliable source, but it is a convenient one: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Trevithick


In summary, accepted wisdom is that Trevithick's 1802 engine for the Coalbrookdale plateway was 3' gauge, and the furnace door and chimney were at the same end as the cylinder and the reciprocating machinery. It is generally assumed there would have been a small wooden tender pushed in front of the loco.


Firing under the piston, slide bar and connecting rod would seem fairly hazardous, and there seems general agreement -I'm not familiar enough with the scholarship to say upon what basis - that Trevithick reversed the arrangement for the 1804 engine, with the furnace door and chimney at the opposite end from the reciprocating machinery.


What Airfix have modelled is this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Coalbrookdale_loco.jpg , but to 5' gauge. As a modern image modeller I'm unfamiliar with the detailed provenance and exact sources of this drawing




A further point is the boiler cladding - or lack thereof. Airfix - and modern drawings - assume an unclad iron boiler , probably painted black.


However the only contemporary colour image of a Trevithick loco seems to be Thomas Rowlandson's watercolour of Catch Me Who Can at Euston in 1808. The best version I can find is here:




And to my eye that clearly depicts a brown /teak boiler , with horizontal lines and boiler bands . In fact it is plainly varnished wooden boiler cladding, as seen on the restored Locomotion No1 and Wylam Dilly, and on pictures of Planet, Murray's Middleton locos , and other early engines.


But Trevithick's tickets for the show just show a plain black boiler : https://www.gracesguide.co.uk/Richard_Trevithick:_Catch_Me_Who_Can


That , I suspect is the engineer's view - the boiler cladding is a detail to him.


I can't see why boiler cladding would have been newly invented in 1808 - surely the purpose was to lag the boiler and improve thermal efficiency?


So my money is on both the 1802 and 1804 locos having had varnished wooden boiler cladding as well

  • Like 6


Recommended Comments

There was a replica of the Coalbrookdale loco built a few years ago, it was displayed at Telford Central station for a time, but now the Ironbridge Gorge Museum has it, usually at Blists Hill. I had a thick book on early steam engines a few years back, research in that had the boiler existing for a long time as a water tank at a site near Ironbridge, and that records exist in a coroners court following a boiler explosion which placed it out of service, but further details are vague.

The site of the Hasldines foundry at Bridgnorth is recorded, which made the parts for other Trvithick engines such as the Penydarren and Catch me who can. There’s a replica of the Penydarren loco at the Waterfront Industrial Museum in Swansea.

Share this comment

Link to comment


Fascinating blog, really looking forward to seeing it built. A word of caution on the cladding though. The loco you're building never had any boiler cladding of any sort. Catch Me Who Can did but not this little feller, so I wouldn't be tempted to add something that was never there.

Bear in mind it did take a while for it to sink in that insulating such things improves efficiency. Cylinders were often not clad either for a good few years.

If there was any evidence of boiler cladding at any stage the replica would have it too. Save for a couple of extra safety features and some internal modifications, the replica is pretty accurate.


Share this comment

Link to comment

What's nagging at me with the cladding is that the only evidence Catch Me Who Can was wood-clad is the Rowlandson watercolour - which only exists because Trevithick made a public exhibition of himself in Euston Square (ie this is the late Georgian equivalent of celebrity culture). Take away that print - and the evidence for Catch Me Who Can is exactly the same as that for the earlier locomotives.


But the earlier locos were never going to be illustrated by an artist/cartoonist of the fashionable London scene... As the phrase has it "Absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence" , especially when the evidence is patchy and limited as it is with these -is there positive evidence that the earlier locos weren't clad? O


I do have a modest collection of coffee stirrers , though the build would certainly be simpler if I didn't fit them and didn't need to work round spraying black before they go on.

Share this comment

Link to comment

'Absence of evidence is not evidence of a absence' is an excellent point, although I think Carl Sagan was referring to little green men from outer space. Perhaps he had an interest in early railways too? I think it's worth considering standard practice of the period. The basic return flue boiler used in early locos was nothing more than a mini version of a Lancashire Boiler. I'm certainly no expert in such things but I can't think of any lagged examples from that period. If the Trevithick loco in question was lagged later on, that's possible, but as built? Not convinced.


Great to see a post about an old Airfix kit can create such an interesting discussion!

Share this comment

Link to comment

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
  • Create New...

Important Information

We have placed cookies on your device to help make this website better. You can adjust your cookie settings, otherwise we'll assume you're okay to continue.