RICHARD TREVITHICK AND THE WRECK OF THE "RICHARD"

Featured in the October 2008 handbook.

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Richard Trevithick, a genius ahead of his time and one of the greatest engineers this country has ever produced, was buried in the graveyard of St. Edmund, King and Martyr Church at Dartford., in April, 1833. A complete lack of business acumen ensured that poor old Trevithick never made the fortunes from his inventions that his engineering contemporaries did, and as a result he has never received the proper credit for all the innovation in the field of engineering which is rightly his. his career was a wild ride of ups and downs and took in such far flung places as Holland, Peru and Costa Rica, where his high pressure water pumps and ore crushing mills were much in demand. He was the leading pioneer in high- pressure steam, and was using it at 150lbs in turbine experiments at the Dartford factory of John Hall in 1832. But it is an earlierperiod of his life which concerns us here, and one that became a nightmare for him at Margate.

Whilst engaged in experimental work designing buoys at Limehouse, and up to his ears in debt, Trevithick had the brainwave of making large portable iron tanks for storing water, and his fertile mind soon realised that they would be equally useful, if sunk into position and then pumped full of air, in lifting sunken ships. in January 1810, yet another vessel met with disaster out in the Estuary off Margate.” the RICHARD” was laden with tallow, hides and hair when she struck the Margate Sand then drifted off, slowly filling with water to sink where it was too deep to salvage her cargo by the normal means. Trevithick and his partner in the venture, a Mr Dickinson, hurried down to Margate with their tanks and pumps to put their theory to the test, as well as making some money. But instead of raising RICHARD themselves and claiming salvage on the vessel and cargo, proving their equipment and making a return on their substantial outlay, the partners foolishly decided to work as contractors to Francis Cobb,s Marine Salvage Agency.

The operation to raise t RICHARD was a complete success and she was lifted onto a higher part of the Margate Sand which dried at low water, thus enabling Cobb,s swarm of boatmen, who were expert in such matters, to speedily extricate her cargo and bring it ashore for drying, it being spread out as per usual practice on Cobb’s green at The Fort with the customary auction following. Now whatever Cobb might have been in the eyes of the world in business matters he was absolutely ruthless, showing no mercy. His Salvage Agency took a 50% cut of all proceeds from wreck sales, and there were many in those days of sail, and once daylight dawned on poor old Trevithick that Cobb was going to treat him , an engineer with a now proven prototype in the same way as he would a lowly boatman, his heart must have sunk.

The Archive tells us that the total value of the salvage, less the hull, was £2,710, less expenses

of £599, leaving £2,111. Captain Stranack, Cobb’s salvage master, was paid £1,013 with just a little over £42 being shared betweem 6 sub-contractors, and of these Trevithick and Dickinson were paid the lion’s share of just £15.16s.4d!

Having spent more money than he had in perfecting his tanks and pumps, and his entreaties to Cobb falling on deaf ears, poor old Trevithick returned to Limehouse, where he promply found himself cast into prison by his creditors. Whilst languishing there in the most squalid conditions, weakened and sick with Typhus and Gastric Fever, he received a visit from one of his old friends, Henry Maudsley, anoth legendary figure in engineering history. But like Cobb, Maudsley was shrewd and ruthless in business matters. Knowing the extent of Trevithick’s debt, he offered him that exact amount for the patent of his tanks, thus ensuring for himself a solid investment for the future. This bought Trevithick release from his Margate nightmare!

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