Museum's Fake Railway Sketch Could Re-write Early Steam Railway History

By 24 Hour Museum Staff | 25 June 2008
a drawing showing a circular arena within which a circular railway is running

© National Museum of Science and Industry

In a development that could radically alter historians’ understanding of the oldest steam-powered passenger railway in the world, museum experts are rethinking the authenticity of a key document in early steam railway history.

Science Museum curator John Liffen believes he has exposed a famous drawing of Richard Trevithick’s Catch Me Who Can locomotive, supposedly by Thomas Rowlandson (1757 – 1827), as a twentieth-century forgery. Although doubts have existed for some time about the drawing, it has still been widely accepted as a contemporary depiction of the world’s first passenger railway.

In the summer of 1808, a full 25 years before Stephenson’s Rocket steamed to success in the famous Rainhill Trials of Liverpool, entrepreneur Richard Trevithick built his small circular or elliptical railway (also described as a 'steam circus') to house a prototype steam engine of his own design.

Catch Me Who Can hauled carriages for the benefit of fare-paying passengers at the site near Euston Square – making it the world’s first steam-hauled passenger railway.

After studying the Rowlandson drawing, Liffen amassed a raft of evidence from local archives, estate maps, street plans and land ownership records from the early 19th century, suggesting it dates from much later than originally thought.

“This is a major discovery,” said John. “These runs round the small demonstration railway in September 1808 were the first time in the world that fare-paying passengers were hauled by a steam railway locomotive. It has historical resonances far beyond the interests of railway specialists.”

a drawing showing a church tower and surrounding buildings with hills in the distance

A close study of surrounding topographical details revealed some alarmimg inconsistencies in the drawing. © National Museum of Science and Industry

Apart from the fact that Rowlandson’s widely reproduced sketch bears an incorrect date, 1809, Liffen’s research reveals that it includes buildings that probably did not exist in London until even later, including the tower of St Mary’s church, Eversholt Street, not built until 1826. There are also traces of woodpulp in the paper used, which also suggests a later date of origin.

The pivotal ‘Rowlandson drawing’ lies at the heart of Britain’s national collection, and is held by the National Museum of Science and Industry, which includes the National Railway Museum and the Science Museum.

John has also identified an obscure wash drawing in the Guildhall Library, City of London, which he now believes is a contemporary source for the design of the locomotive, a source which confirms historians’ suspicions about the design of the locomotive based on a surviving admission ticket. John’s research has also established – definitively, he believes – the real location of the elusive railway.

“John Liffen’s work has not only confirmed the falsehood of the Rowlandson prints that has been suspected since the 1930s, it has also pinpointed the exact location of the circular exhibition railway,” said Jim Rees, Curator of Rail Vehicles at the National Railway Museum.

“The most important discovery by far is the hitherto unseen pen and wash illustration of the Catch me who can locomotive, a genuine and contemporary 1808 view of Trevithick’s work. Now we know more about the world’s first passenger locomotive than ever before.”

“We have knocked down the Rowlandson icon,” added Jim, “but replaced it with a better one; the most important early railway discovery for fifty years.”

John Liffen’s paper, Searching for Trevithick’s London Railway of 1808, was the opening presentation of the Fourth International Early Railways Conference, held on 12-15 June 2008 at University College London.

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