It’s summer. It’s dang hot. I’m tired of writing about Regency midwives and man-midwives. What sort of light-hearted topic might suit for a short July blog post? Quite by accident I came across an image of Trevithick’s “Catch-Me-Who-Can” steam circus. Ah! Just the thing. This Regency marvel captured my interest on first reading about it in Georgette Heyer’s novel Frederica.
Felix and the Catch-Me-Who-Can
Frederica is one of my favorite Heyer novels, second only to Black Sheep. Those of you who have read the story will remember Miss Frederica Merriville’s younger brother Felix, who was mad, mad, mad about all things mechanical. Early in Heyer’s story, the 12-year-old Felix meets Lord Alverstoke and, not being the least impressed by his lordship’s wealth and style, pesters him with questions about the Catch-me-who-can railway steam locomotive, shown above. The aristocratic Alverstoke, unaccustomed to being questioned by precocious boys, graciously responds: “There was such a locomotive, Felix, but I am afraid it’s a thing of the past. I rather think that Trevithick [the inventor/engineer] hired some ground, near Fitzroy Square, fenced it in and laid down a circular track.”1
The Catch-Me-Who-Can Steam Circus
When I saw the drawing I thought: “Oh! The steam locomotive running on its circular track was called a ‘steam circus.’” It cost one shilling to ride. The idea behind the circus was to show that the steam locomotive on its track traveled faster than a horse. The tall fence around the track presumably prevented people who hadn’t paid for the privilege of seeing the beast from getting a glimpse of it.
The origin of this image is in question. The Wikimedia Commons text first suggests the drawing is from an 1808 illustration, but then reveals there is evidence the drawing was made long after the event.
According to Wikimedia Commons, the steam circus might have been erected on the site of the current Chadwick Building at University College London off Euston Road, based on archaeological evidence. This places the location of the steam circus about 1/4 mile east of Fitzroy Square where Georgette Heyer placed it. I can’t quibble about the difference, for Heyer is known for her meticulous research and would not have had access to contemporary archaeologic findings.
Richard Trevithick: Inventor and Engineer
The Regency wonder was designed by Richard Trevithick, a British inventor and mining engineer. He was an early pioneer of steam transport for roads and rail and is widely credited with building the first high-pressure steam engine in 1801, which he named the “Puffing Devil.” It carried six passengers along Camborne’s Fore Street and up Camborne Hill to the nearby Cornwall village of Beacon. He also built a steam-powered vehicle which he called the London Steam Carriage. In 1803 he aroused considerable public attention when he drove it from Holborn to Paddington and back. His invention was abandoned because many London passengers found its ride uncomfortable and because it cost more to operate than a horse-drawn carriage. AboutBridgnorth.com also has information about Trevithick’s career.
In Heyer’s novel Frederica, young Felix Merriville was captivated by a new technology: steam power. There were steam locomotives, steam engines, steamboats and steam packets. By 1825 steam yachts or packets, powered by low-pressure steam engines, ran daily to Richmond, Gravesend and Margate during the summer months. They were quite proper and safe and pleasant, and the voyage between London and Margate often took as little as eight hours.2
Eight hours! Today, even with London being rather congested, it takes 2 hours and 20 minutes to cover the 82 miles (106 kilometers) between London and Margate by car on the M2. Flying takes only 38 minutes. What would Felix think about that?
1Heyer, Georgette. Frederica. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Casablanca, 1965, Kindle loc 437 (chapter 4).
2Britton, J. The Original Picture of London, 26th ed. London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown & Green, 1825, p. 371 (PDF p. 477).