Steam Powered Road Vehicles

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Most of the songs in this category deal with steam powered road coaches. They were written for performance in Pleasure Gardens and popular theatres. Their viewpoint is that of the middle and upper classes who were the patrons of the steam carriage trade. Several of the songs were printed as broadsides. The two songs dating from the 1880s deal with steam trams and a traction engine is the subject of the song from 1927.

Main Themes and Motifs

  • Speed of steam coaches compared to horse-drawn vehicles
  • Risk of boiler explosions
  • Impact of steam coaches on the those employed in horse-drawn transport.


1800-09   051
1820-29   267; 271; 624; 625
1830-39   099; 542; 613; 729
1880-89   258; 418; 
1890-99   743
1920-29   444

Uncertain 557


Historical Background

1. The Brief Heyday of the Steam Coach

At the beginning of the 19th century it was by no means obvious that the railway would become the dominant form of land transport. During the first quarter of the century several attempts were made to establish steam powered road vehicles. (See bar051 Camborne Hill). By 1825 the volume of road traffic was increasing, the condition of the roads was improving, the government had been investing in road building and the economic situation made alternatives to horse power attractive. The stage was set for the entry of the steam carriage as a commercial enterprise. 


'The Progress of Steam -
A View in Regent Park 1831,
by Henry Thomas

Science Museum Group Collection

Main roads were managed by Turnpike Trusts. Many trustees were farmers, corn-merchants and others who made money from horse-power. James Stone, who worked on the steam coaches running between Gloucester and Cheltenham Steam reported

"We have charged less than one-half of the horse coach fares for the last three months. This is a very bad place to commence on: we are surrounded with prejudiced people - agriculturalists. Coach proprietors, coachmen, stable boys and others directly or indirectly connected with them; these, with the old ladies of Cheltenham, I assure you, offer a formidable opposition to any innovation. Whenever we are a few minutes after our time, it is regularly reported that we have either blown up or broke down, or both. I am happy to say however that we have not met with the most trifling accident up to this time."

[Gurney s notes to parliament]

During the 1830s parliament passed new Turnpike Acts giving Trusts the power to impose additional tolls. The trustees took the opportunity to price steam carriages out of business. For example - a steam carriage travelling from Exeter to Barnstaple had to pay five times the toll demanded of a stage-coach. Trust thus left he way clear for the railways to take over long and medium distance travel (see The Impact of Steam on Horse Powered Transport).

2. Later Steam Powered Road Vehicles

Development of steam coaches diminished greatly after 1835 and by 1840 only agricultural traction engines were being made. Parliamentary legislation that favoured the horse trade impeded development of steams cars until 1896. However; steam cars proved unreliable. of the eight steam cars that entered the Paris Rouen Trial in 1894 four broke down in contrast all of the 13 cars with internal combustion engines completed the course. [ii] Some larger steam powered vehicles, including lorries appeared in the early 20th century but the only vehicles to appear in songs were steam trams.

References and Footnotes

[i] A toll board in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter shows the toll for the 6.5 miles from Chenson to Coplestone as 6d for a stage coach and two shillings and sixpence for a steam carriage
[ii] Bird, Anthony & Montagu of Beaulieu Edward Douglas-Scott - The History of Steam Cars 1770-1970 (Cassell & Co Ltd, 1971)

3 across Articles in this Category: click a link

Steam Coach

bar624: Dates ----~1828|

A young woman persuades her wealthy parents to pay her to take a pleasure ride on the new steam coach

My Grandfather's Days

bar542: Dates 1836~----|

A general complaint about political changes and new technology includes references to steam coaches and railways.

Camborne Hill

bar051: Dates 1801~----|

Richard Trevithick's "Puffing Devil"

Connaughtman's Adventures in Dublin

bar613: Dates 1835~----|

A country man where he cheated out of money and clothes by a young woman and her accomplices. Mentions a steam coach.

John Gilpin's Steam Coach Excursion

bar197: Dates ----~1837|

Gilpin's misadventures driving a steam "coach"

London sights

bar625: Dates ----~1828|

A countryman is impressed by London including Gurney's steam coach. [625Synopsis] 

Traffic Through the Streets

bar258: Dates 1882~1884|

Mentions steam trams in Plymouth

New Invented Steam Carriage

bar267: Dates 1827~1828|

Immediate reaction to the steam coach and its impact upon stage coaches.

New Steam Carriage Blown Up, The

bar271: Dates 1823~----|

The dangers of travelling by steam coach

Steam carriages by land

bar557: Dates ----~----|

Fragment noting the arrival of the steam coach.

Steam Tram Lines

bar418: Dates ----~1886|

Steam bus service in Birmingham and the consequent air pollution

Traction Engine, The

bar444: Dates ----~1927|

Song for children

Dublin Steam Coach

bar099a: Dates 1835~----|

A visitor to Dublin sees the first railway in Ireland and also the road steam coach Erin.

Steam! Steam!! Steam!!!

bar416a: Dates 1834~1835|

Alludes to the London to Brighton steam coach.


bar729: Dates 1831~1839|

Refers to a steam coach as a "Gurney" after the engineer Goldsworthy Gurney.

Death of John Thomas Hirst

bar743: Dates 1891~1891|

A tram cleaner killed when the engine explodes. [Fragment]

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