MMIM Hall of Fame

Thomas Rickett

    Britain had been at the forefront of steam engine design in the late 1700s and early 1800s, Hancock, Murdoch, Trevithick and others had all produced road going locomotives but the lapse from the late 1830s was profound. In the 1840s and ‘50s there was virtually no road locomotion development in Britain. In the other areas of steam powered machinery this wasn’t the case. Railway engines and steamboat designs moved on quickly and steam powered agricultural implements became more and more popular.

   The man who revived the road locomotion movement is Thomas Rickett. He was born on the 17th of May, 1825, in Kidderminster to a Grocer called John Rickett and his wife Mary Rickett (nee Pallett). Little else is known of Thomas Rickett but he is known to have worked in Birmingham making agricultural implements. In 1856 Rickett was working at the Castle Iron Works, more usually recorded as the “Castle Foundry” at the end of Chandos Road in Buckingham, where he designed farming equipment. The Castle Foundry had expanded by 1857 to manufacture stationary steam engines to power various pieces of farm machinery, in the 1861 census it is mentioned as manufacturing engineers employing 10 men and 1 boy. Rickett was clearly a talented engineer as he patented an equilibrium pressure gauge which was recorded in the "Practical Mechanic's" Journal on 1st of May, 1856. Technological innovations in engineering led Rickett to combine the ideas of agricultural machinery and steam power, in 1858 he built a traction engine and a Patent self-propelling cultivator now generally referred to as a steam plough, which cost £500 and needed three men to operate.

Rickett’s 1st Carriage.

   The steam plough gained enough notoriety to come to the attention of the Marquess of Stafford. This title is actually a subsidiary title (amongst many), of the Duke of Sutherland. George Granville William Sutherland-Leveson-Gower (1828-1892), 3rd Duke of Sutherland (and Marquess of Stafford) and his son Cromartie Sutherland-Leveson-Gower (1851-1913), the 4th Duke of Sutherland are remembered for their intense interest in bicycles and automobiles. Described by Malcolm Asquith as ‘pioneer motorists’ the Leveson-Gower family would go on to have a number of cars on their estates, both for estate use and the Duke’s own private use. In the Sutherland Papers we can find much evidence of this and understand that most were housed in the Stables at Lilleshall under the care of a man named William Watson who oversaw their use, maintenance, and recorded expenditure and driver allocations.

   We can easily find that sometime around 1858 the Duke contacted Rickett and enquired about a road going locomotive. However, more in-depth investigation discovers that the vehicle Rickett built was conceived by James Edward McConnell, of whom very little information can be found. It is known that J.E. McConnell was a locomotive engineer working as “Locomotive Superintendent” at LNWR's Southern Division at Wolverton railway works between 1847 to 1862.

   It is possible that the vehicle was the work J.E. McConnell and built by Rickett, or, that Rickett built his machines off the back of McConnell’s experimental designs. Buckingham and Wolverton are within travelling distance for the machine and each man was working in the locations at the time so they may well have corresponded or even met and discussed the designs. Whatever the precursor might have been, Rickett, while manager of the Castle Foundry, built a road going steam locomotive there which was first tested in the March of 1858. Furthermore, it was purchased by the Duke of Sutherland. It is thus believed to be the first car manufactured for commercial sale and that the Duke was the first private citizen to own a car in Britain. 

Description & features of the 1st Rickett carriage.

   The car itself is interesting, clearly cutting-edge design for the late 1850s, and Thomas Rickett had high hopes for the idea even intending to set up for a production run. Unlike other early cars it did not look at all like a carriage but rather a small locomotive with a bench seat in front of the boiler and atop the crank shaft. According to “The Engineer” for 7th March, 1859, the Duke made a successful run with the vehicle in during the latter part of 1858. It was reported to be “capable of traversing any road, and could be steered with precision”; a more in-depth account will be covered a little later in this biography.

   The machine ran on three wheels, two 3ft. diameter driving wheels at the back and a smaller front wheel which steered the vehicle, each wheel had an iron "tyre". These were fitted to a frame formed by a pair of longitudinal iron tanks which carried ninety gallons of water, enough for a ten-mile run. Fixed at the rear of the frame was an internal flue and return-tube type coal fired steam boiler made of steel. There was a foot plate area behind the boiler which carried a coal bunker and a seat for the boilerman/stoker who managed the engine. Two cylinders of 3in’ diameter and 9in’ stroke, giving a displacement of about 3402cc each, were laid horizontally, one either side of the boiler and connected to a crank shaft was placed beneath the front bench seat. Reported power output for the engine was 10hp at a steam pressure up to 110psi. The crank shaft was keyed on its right-hand end to affix a small chain wheel which, by means of an endless pitch chain, transmitted power to a larger diameter chain wheel keyed onto the right-hand side of the rear axle. The right-hand wheel was permanently in drive mode but the left-hand rear wheel ran freely except when extra drive was required for hills etc. in which case it could be engaged by a clutch. The relative sizes of the two chain wheels was 1 to 2.5. Working within axle boxes fitted with springs the driving axle sat as closely under the boiler as possible. Sited in front of the boiler was the bench seat which carried three people. The right hand person steered the vehicle by means of a handle attached to a tiller which in turn was connected to the front fork of the smaller front wheel, the fork yoke shaft came up through the frame and was fitted with a guide in order to allow for the action of top mounted transverse leaf spring. As well as steering this person also controlled the regulator by which speed built up or reduced, a reversing lever and the brake lever which caused blocks to act upon the iron tyres of the rear wheels.

   A full load-water weighed 12cwt and the coal 3cwt. Passengers consisted an expected 5cwt. Added to the 30 cwt of the vehicle the gross weight was around 2 tons. Even at this weight the machine could propel itself along good level roads at about twelve miles an hour with some reports that it could go as fast as 19mph, the average was more like 10mph. Coal consumption being in the order of 8 to 10 lbs per mile.

The recorded journey 

   As mentioned previously a journey was undertaken by the Duke and reported in "The Engineer" on the 7th of March, 1859. The report says:

“Lord Stafford and party made another trip with the steam carriage from Buckingham to Wolverton. His Lordship drove and steered, and although the roads were very heavy, they were not more than an hour in running the nine miles to Wolverton. His Lordship has repeatedly said that it is guided with the greatest of ease and precision. It was designed by Mr. Rickett to run ten miles an hour. One mile in five minutes has been attained, at which it was perfectly steady, the centre of gravity being not more than two feet. From the ground. A few days afterwards this little engine started from Messrs. Hayes Works, Stoney Stratford, with a party consisting of the Marquis of Stafford, Lord Alfred Paget and two Hungarian Noblemen. They proceeded through the town of Stone Stratford at a rapid pace, and after a short trip returned to the Wolverton railway station. The trip was in all respects successful, and shows, beyond a doubt, that steam locomotion for common roads is practicable.”

Rickett's second steam carriage

   Rickett refined his design to produce a second carriage in 1860. This time it was the 14th Earl of Caithness, James Sinclair, who was the purchaser. Sinclair was a well-respected scientist and inventor in his own right. A Fellow of the Royal Society he invented the gravitating compass, a tape-loom, an automatic rail-carriage washer and even an artificial leg, for which he was awarded a prize at the French Exhibition of 1866, held in Paris. He is also recorded as an inventor of a steam carriage himself but this is now thought to have been a development of a steam plough which was used on his farm estate at Philip Mains, Mey, in order to make it safer. Earl Caithness later published “Lectures on Popular and Scientific Subjects”. From all this we can see why he would have been so enamoured of a road going steam locomotive.

   This second Rickett road locomotive was heavier than the original weighing in at some five thousand pounds. Nominally looking much like the first steam carriage this one also carried three people at the front ahead of the boiler, behind which dwelt the boilerman; and running on three wheels. The right hand side passenger again handled the tiller steering and other controls.

   This second steam vehicles biggest difference was the drive system, the pitch chain was dropped in favour of spur gearing. This time two sets of spur wheels and pinions gave a gear system which was incorporated to make the most of the almost 100% transfer of power for climbing steep hills or traversing rough terrain. The lower gearing ratio multiplied the tractive force by two and a half times giving proportionate speeds of ten and four miles an hour. This new drive train required the cylinders to move a little, still set either side of the boiler they were now further forward and almost under the passenger seat. The crank-shaft was also repositioned rearward and situated under the boiler behind the rear axle where the spur gearing could act directly on the rear axle. The rear axle bearings carried the springs and worked in a set of guides lying at an angle so the rise and fall of the axle didn’t disrupt the spur gearing

   Working steam pressure was at a similar level to the first steam carriage being around 110 psi and it is reputed that the machine could reach a speed as high as 19mph (30kph) and travelled well on good roads.

A record setting journey 

   The Earl of Caithness took his road-going steam locomotive on an extended run from Inverness to Borrogil Castle, his family seat, which is only a few miles short of John o' Groat's House; a distance of some 146 miles, or 235km. The Earl himself drove being accompanied by his wife and another gentleman up front while Thomas Rickett himself worked as the boiler man at the rear. This journey was made 25 years earlier, and was twice as long as, the much-vaunted journey made by Bertha Benz' in a car powered by an internal combustion engine.  The Earl was delighted and wrote about his experience as follows:

“I may state that such a feat as going over the Ord of Caithness has never before been accomplished by steam, as I believe we rose one thousand miles in about five miles. The Ord is one of the largest and steepest hills in Scotland. The turns in the road are very sharp. All this I got over without trouble. There is, I am confident, no difficulty in driving a steam carriage on a common road. It is cheap, and on a level I got as much as nineteen miles an hour.”

   Many in the informed engineering community thought road going steam locomotion was here to stay after “The Engineer” printed the above account. Rickett himself advertised this “car” in “the Engineer” publication with plans to put it into production. This was not to be, steam powered road locomotives didn’t take off and Rickett struggled to sell another of these vehicles.

Presented to the Queen 

   The second vehicle was driven to Windsor Castle for inspection by Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and the Royal family early in January 1860. This occurrence was reported in "The Illustrated London News” edition of the 11th of February, 1860, and reads as follows:

“A steam-carriage, designed by Mr Rickett, of the Castle Foundry, Buckingham, to run upon common roads, was submitted to the Queen, Prince Albert, and the Royal family a short time since. It is built for a private carriage, having ample room for three persons in front and for a stoker behind, and is arranged to run at an average speed of ten miles per hour — indeed, on good roads sixteen miles per hour has been easily maintained. In ascending steep hills, by moving a handle, without stopping, the power is multiplied two and a half times, and the speed consequently reduced to four miles per hour on hills with inclination of 1 in 10. The carriage is mounted on three wheels, each having independent springs — one small wheel in front, which is used for steering, and two behind, one or both of which are employed in propelling, one of them being fixed on the shaft, and the other engaged by a clutch; so that when disengaged the carriage may be turned round in its own length without stopping. It is easily guided, by a handle from the fork of the front wheel, which is central with the outside seat; a brake is applied to each driving-wheel, worked by a lever from the seat, so that the engine is entirely under the control of the driver.
   The engine is built upon a tank, which forms a strong tubular framework; the boiler being placed above; and the whole of the machinery is contained in the space between the boiler and tank, entirely protected from dust and dirt, and within reach of the stoker for oiling, etc. The tank contains ninety gallons of water, sufficient for ten miles' run. The boiler is made of steel, and constructed so that it is not injuriously affected by variations of level, as it is worked at a pressure of 150 lb to the square inch, and supplies steam to a pair of 3½ inch cylinders with 7 inch stroke; it evaporates about a gallon and a half of water per minute, and consumes 8 to 10 lb of coal per mile. The weight of the engine and carriage is 30 cwt, and, with full load of water 12 cwt, coal 3 cwt, passengers 5 cwt, equals 2½ tons.
   Some idea may be formed of the functional resistance on common roads when it is mentioned that as much power is required to draw one ton on a common road as fifteen to twenty tons on a railroad; and in this engine, to convey its full load at fifteen miles per hour on a level, requires an actual development of ten horse power, so that great power and little weight are essentials in these engines. No real difficulty has been experienced in working them: occasionally a young horse shies, when the engine is instantly stopped, and all noise and appearance of steam suppressed till it has passed.
   It is stated that this engine will shortly be taken to Belgium, but others are in course of manufacture at Buckingham.”

   In 1861 the 35-year-old Rickett is recorded as living in the Market Place, Buckingham with his 20-year-old wife Ellen Rickett, who was a Governess.

Steam Coach and Road Train 

   Apparently, Rickett wasn’t the only person trying to improve his steam vehicles. The Duke of Sutherland had the boiler on his machine altered from the horizontal to a vertical layout in 1861; most experts now believe this could not have actually been an improvement!

   Rickett himself was looking at the more lucrative markets of steam coaches and evaluating the idea of the railway style “road-train”. The Steam coach had been proven to be an economically viable idea back in the 1830s, had not railway proponents so vehemently objected; both in the houses of Parliament and by encouraging actual sabotage of the roads (by other disturbed parties such as stable masters and horse coach companies) so as to make the roads impassable to road locomotives. Those who stood to lose out on their heavy investment in the railways made it impossible for road locomotion to thrive in Britain.

   However, Rickett was thinking beyond the British boarders and even demonstrated a steam coach, driving it from Buckingham to Wolverton with the idea of selling them abroad; Switzerland, with all its mountains and valleys was one country said to be interested. Another prospect was a 12-ton road going steam locomotive which was capable of hauling three loaded wagons, weighing 28 tons, the six miles from Buckingham to Mixbury and back; this to impress a party of gentlemen from Spain. In 1864 Rickett did supply such a set of machines to the Spaniards who wished to set up a light goods and passenger service. This set up could haul thirty passengers up inclines of as much as 1 in 12, at speeds of ten miles an hour. It could manage 15mph when pulling lighter loads.

   This 6ton steam locomotive of November 1864, had 8in’ diameter cylinders bolted to the side frames working off of a boiler that could be run at up to 200psi. Rickett also did away with any form of gearing, instead utilising a direct-action approach. Apparently, by operating directly, through cranks on the outside of the 4ft driving wheels, the machine could “…mount inclines of 1 in 10 easily; whether at eight, four, two, or one mile an hour, on inclines with five tons behind them, they stick to their work better than geared engines." Steering was by a pair of front wheels placed just 2’6” apart, one supposes the stability must have been better than we might think at such a narrow track. 

   Word must have got about as a Danish engineer, by the name of Mr Hjorth, inspected Rickett’s work and another of the road trains was sold and went to work in Copenhagen, Denmark.

   Today it is generally agreed that Rickett’s machines, of simple wrought iron and steel constructions were well thought out and thoroughly well built; but that was not going to be enough for Rickett to become a household name.

Financial problems 

   Unfortunately, Britain remained somewhat of a backwater for road locomotion. The Locomotive Acts of 1861 and 1865 were increasingly restrictive, culminating in the “Red Flag Act” of 1865 which made locomotive transport on the roads not just impractical but pretty much pointless.

   Rickett, like Hancock and others before him, was financially hamstrung but their investment in road going locomotion. This was still the era of the railways whose advocates continued to hold sway in the corridors of power. In the February of 1865 the Castle Foundry was put up for let. Rickett’s dream of mass road locomotion was over. But so was much more. The legislation stymied all forms of propulsion for road going vehicles and the government lost Britain the opportunity to be the world leader in automotive technology.

   Within 20 years Germany and France, with their long, wide, open roads, had put the internal combustion engine into carriages and started the revolution that would put everyone on the roads. While Germany, France and then Italy went racing into the future, Britain stood by and watched, waving a red flag and keeping all traffic at a walking pace. 

Historical importance 

   The Rickett vehicles were made in small numbers, but they were made in multiples and exported too, so, we can reasonably say that Rickett gave the UK its first production car. Of course, historically speaking, the company was very short-lived but it has clearly made a very significant contribution to automotive history.

   Thomas Rickett was the first man to sell an automobile to a private citizen, making the Duke of Sutherland the first man to purchase an automobile in Britain. One of Rickett’s machines was the first automobile to completed a long-distance journey, 146 miles to be exact. They were the first automobiles to be put into production, and the first to advertised in a publication, “the Engineer” carried an advert for Rickett’s steam carriages selling at a price of £180-£200; an incredibly low price for the size of the machine and the amount of work that went into building them.

Later life 

   As mentioned in the early part of this biography there is very little information recorded for Thomas Rickett. What is known about his later life is from the UK census records. After the loss of the Castle foundry the 45-year-old Thomas Rickett was still working as a “Mechanical Engineer and Manager of Tube Works” in 1871 but now living in Worcester at 16 Devonshire Place, Northfield, Worcester. His second wife, Isabella H. Rickett was just 24 years old and they had two sons. Charles E. Rickett who was two years old and has his birth recorded in Isabella’s home of Islington. William T. Rickett was just 1 year old with his birth being recorded in Northfield, Worcester. They also had one servant living win house. These things tell us Rickett had moved around a fair bit and despite the collapse of his vehicle dream he had somehow remained wealthy enough to have a servant.

   Twenty years later, in the 1891 census Thomas Rickett was still a “Mechanical Engineer” but now living in 17 Torriano Avenue, St. Pancras, London. The family had also grown to include George Rickett, aged 15 and apparently born in Birmingham, as was the fourth child, and only daughter, Emily E. Rickett aged 13 and also born in Birmingham. This leads us to think Rickett remained mobile for work reasons and must have been doing well enough to consider the expense of more children.


   Nobody seems to know when or where Thomas Rickett died, he is just a forgotten pioneer whose legacy is completely overlooked.

   Rickett was clearly ahead of his time but the circumstances of the era were stacked against him. The general populace saw no need for these noisy automobiles and agricultural locomotives, they had horses and they had their legs, Rickett’s vehicles were just some sort of science fiction. The wealthy who had put their money in the railways were still hostile to road locomotion and they had the ear of parliament who passed incredibly restrictive legislation killing the idea of automotive road transport before it could even be born. The infamous “red flag act” of 1865 stated vehicles could only run at 4mph in the country and 2mph in town. Shanks’s pony could manage those speeds.

   With all that in mind Rickett still managed a set of firsts that need to be told in our time. His incredible steam powered machines were really well designed and built, and he even exported them; possibly making him the first Britain to export an automobile too.

   In short, he had the right ideas, just at the wrong time and in the wrong country.