The west country has been home to several innovative designers of powered road vehicles in the last 200 years. 

Cornish born Richard Trevithick is perhaps best known for early experiments which led to his building of a high-pressure steam carriage, which he successfully drove up a hill in Camborne on Christmas Eve 1801. 

Such experiments inspired a 19th century vehicular revolution, opening a prolific period for go-it-alone inventors with fertile imaginations, who by 1840 had shown that steam powered engines moved much more efficiently on rails than on the unsurfaced tracks that then generally passed for “roads.” Ten years later – with attention focussed on rapid expansion of passenger-carrying railways – stifling legislation began to ensure, in Britain at least, that some time would pass before powered road vehicles would be permitted to improve on horse-power. Some inventors, however, were not dissuaded.

In the Somerset village of Butleigh, a stone’s throw from Glastonbury town, Butleigh Court was completed around 1850, replacing the local Manor House as home to Ralph Neville-Grenville and his family. Ralph was known locally for a pioneering approach to agricultural development, though his son Robert, born in 1846, appeared more mechanically inclined,. reputedly gaining the first engineering degree from Cambridge university in the 1860’s. After graduation he acquired various steam powered implements, including tractors, ploughs, and stationary engines, for use on the Butleigh estate. 

Probably through a common interest in this field, he came into contact with south Devon born George Jackson Churchward, who, having showed early mathematical aptitude, left school at 16 in 1873 to begin an engineering apprenticeship in the south Devon railway’s nearby workshops. The pair became firm friends, though quite what persuaded them to embark on their 15 year collaboration, begun in 1874, to design and make a steam-powered road carriage, is unknown. 

It was surely a spare-time labour of love, for, following the Great Western Railway (GWR) takeover of the south Devon Railway in August 1878, Churchward began climbing his new employer’s seniority ladder, eventually becoming it’s chief mechanical engineer. Meanwhile, Neville-Grenville managed his father’s – later his – very sizeable estate. The pair’s enduring friendship was confirmed in 1911, when Churchward arranged for GWR’s new “Saint class” locomotive, number 2934, to be named ‘Butleigh Court.’ It also endured, staying in service until 1952.  

Understandably given its creators’ interests, railway influences abound in their steam carriage’s design, with a 4 inch by 2 inch (100mm by 50mm) steel girder chassis carrying most major components. Considerable weight thus falls upon its three leaf- sprung wheels, each made up of sixteen solid teak sections, tightly banded with iron rims – a design known as the ‘Mansell wheel’ after its inventor, and used after 1860 on some railway rolling stock. 

The carriage can seat seven – three of which qualify as “crew.” The driver, on the left, operates the tiller steering and regulates steam power, while the brakesman, on the right, controls whatever braking force can be mustered via wooden blocks to the wheels. An engineer/fireman sits behind the boiler, keeping it stoked and maintained. Four passengers can be seated centrally. 

Following completion, Neville Grenville reportedly used the steam carriage intermittently around Glastonbury. According to Bristol City Museum, one trip, in April 1896, was noted in his diary.

Mr. Pinney came at 9.30 a.m. and we started with steam carriage at 9.45, George Mildred with me in front, and Noble firing, Mrs. N.G. and Mrs. Audry with us as far as the Horse and Lion; went on through Glastonbury and to Polsham; stopped there for five buckets of water, and on to Wells, arriving at the Palace at 10.50 – ten miles in sixty-five minutes including stops for horses, water, and a railway level crossing. Called on the Bishop (of Bath and Wells – ed) as I promised, and took him and some friends for a run round the Palace. One of them thought I was a bagman come to try and sell the carriage to the Bishop for him to use in inspecting the diocese!”From 1898 its known the carriage sat on blocks on the Butleigh estate, adapted to drive a cider mill until 1902, after which the story fades away until after Neville-Grenville’s death in 1936. Then, perhaps recognising its historic significance, the family sent the carriage to an Oxford-based contractor for refurbishment. It emerged  in full working order, reportedly with a replica boiler, undergoing successful trials before World war II.

The carriage featured in the 1946 Motor industry Cavalcade at London’s Regents park, one of several events celebrating the British motor industry’s 50th anniversary. Soon afterwards it was presented by Neville-Grenville’s nephew, one Captain P Neville, to Bristol City Museum, where, after static display for many years, it was extensively overhauled in the 1970’s to run in steam for Bristol’s 1977 Lord Mayor’s Jubilee Procession..

A particular career highlight was completion of the 2000 London to Brighton run – probably the carriage’s longest journey, covering about 57 miles in just over 8 hours. In July 2004 it was transported to Merthyr Tydfil in south Wales to participate in the 200th anniversary celebrations for Richard Trevithick’s “Pen-Y-Darren” locomotive, which gave what’s widely regarded as the first convincing demonstration of a steam engine running on rails -.hauling a 15 ton train 9½ miles from the ironworks after which it was named to Abercynon, reaching almost 5mph in the process. 

After Neville-Grenville’s death Butleigh Court and its estate were sold, and the building eventually became derelict. In 1978 it was partly demolished, though more recently the remainder has been sympathetically converted into residential properties. Since 2009 the steam carriage has been part of the National Motor Museum collection, maintained in running order – and believed to be the world’s oldest working self-propelled road vehicle. Fittingly, it returned to its birthplace during 2019 for a day centre stage and in steam during celebrations to launch the new Butleigh Heritage Trail. 

© Image Chris Allen at Bus Station, Merthyr Tydfil

The Neville-Grenville Steam carriage – technical specification

(As tabulated by the Bristol Industrial museum)

Overall length – 11 ft. 6 in. (3.5 m.) 

Overall width – 5 ft. 7 in. (1.7 m) 

Overall height – 8 ft. 3 in. (3.2 m.) 

Weight of vehicle (in working order) – 2.23 tons (2.33 tones).

The coal-fired boiler powers a small 2-cylinder horizontal steam engine which drives the rear wheels through high and low gears. 

In high gear, on the level, top speed is about 20 mph (32 kph) and the carriage uses 8-10 gallons (40-50 litres) of water and 6-10 lbs (2.7 – 4.5 kilos) of coal per mile.

Boiler- vertical water tube type with 50 in. x 1 in. (25 mm.) diameter inclined tubes, working at 120 p.s.i. (8 bar). 

Heating surface: 29 sq. ft. (2.7 sq. m.); 13 sq. ft.(1.2 sq. m.) in the firebox, and 16 sq. ft. (1.5 sq. m.) in the tubes. Grate area: 2.5 sq. ft. (0.23 sq. m.).

Water capacity – boiler: 35 gallons (158.7 litres); water tank: 50 gallons (227 litres).

Engine – twin cylinder simple horizontal type,  5 inch. (127 mm.) bore, and  6 inch. (152.4 mm.) stroke.


References and further reading

The recently launched Butleigh Heritage trail is detailed here:

The National motor museum steam carriage listing is here:

The Museum’s blog has some details on the steam carriage here:

A pdf of a drawing and general specification of the carriage is on these pages:

A General history of steam powered road vehicles can be found here:

Lots of Butleigh history, focussing on its past citizens, can be found here:

Some details of Butleigh Manor House occupancy and the building, history and occupancy of Butleigh Court are here:

Information about George Jackson Churchward and the locomotives he designed can be found here:

More about the life and work of G J Churchward is on these sites:

Information on the “Mansell wheel” design, with pictures, is here:

More on the Mansell wheel is available here:

The story of Richard Ttevithick’s Pen -Y- Darren engine is told here

…and here, with a map of the tramway route on which the Pen-Y-Darren ran in 1804

Dave Moss
Dave Moss

Dave Moss has a lifetime connection with the world of motoring. His father was a time-served skilled engineer from an age when car repairs really meant repairs: he ran his own garage from the 1930’s to the 60’s, while Mum was the boss’s secretary at a big Austin distributor. Both worked their entire lives in the motor trade, so if motor oil’s not in Dave’s blood, its surely a very close thing.

Though qualified in Electronics, for Dave it seemed a natural step into restoring a succession of classic cars, culminating in a variety of Minis. Writing and broadcasting about these, and a widening range of motoring matters ancient and modern, gathered pace in the 1970’s and has taken over since. Topics nowadays range across the modern motoring mainstream to the offbeat and more arcane aspects of motoring history, and outlets embrace books, websites national and international magazines, newspapers, radio programmes, phone-ins and guest appearances. Spare time: hard graft on the garage floor attending to vehicles old and new. Latest projects: that 1968 Mini Cooper S has finally moved again after 30 years, and when the paint is finished, the 1960 Morris Mini 850 will also soon be ready for the road again…

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