The thread about those magnificent Leith men and their steaming machines; or Leith’s surprising role at the centre of early experiments with steam-powered road transport

October 25th 1826. The North Leith steam coach


On the 3d of February, 1824, a patent was granted to T. Burstall and John Hill, of Leith, for a locomotive steam carriage; an account of which was first given in the Edinburgh Journal of Science“. “We think we are warranted in saying, that there is considerable degree of ingenuity, as well as originality, in many of the details, and also in the general arrangement of the machinery.”

Burstall & Hill’s North Leith Steam Coach

Oh it gets better! “By the present improvements, the boiler is to be placed upon an additional pair of wheels, so that the whole machine may run upon six wheels instead of four.”

Patent steam carriage, by Mr. Burstall, Edinburgh, 1827

Isn’t this just the best thing?


Haud the bus! (Well, the steam carriage). There’s more! In an effort to drum up support for their contrivance, Burstall & Hill went on a sales tour with a working scale model. Here’s the handbill (from the University of Glasgow’s Special Collection)

Steam Carriage Model


On Monday, the 7th January 1828 , and Following Days,
From 11 to 4, Afternoon, and by Gas Light, from 7 to 9.
Admittance, One Shilling.

From Grace’s Guide: “When the writer saw this interesting model at work, he was informed by the partner of Mr. Burstall, that it had, during the preceding 8 days, ran as many times round its circular course as amounted to 250 milesand that during all that period it required no fresh packing or repair whatever. ” The best bit of the model of course is that the passengers were provided with complimentary yards of ale to chug”

Glug! Glug!

Despite the sales effort, Burstall & Hill don’t appear to have had much success, it’s clear from just looking at the drawings that their design was impractical, and it was ahead of the limits of boiler, engine and wheel technology. In 1827, while exhibiting in London, the model overturned and injured Burstall’s younger brother. He submitted a design for the Rainhill Trials, “Perseverance” (a nod to his former Leith business partner?). It took 5 days to make it work and only made 6mph, but got a £25 prize.


By 1841, Timothy Burstall is recorded as an “Engineer and Dealer in Patents” in Somerset, with his sons Timothy Burstall (11) and Timothy Burstall (3). It’s not recorded why his sons had the same name or how he differentiated them! He died aged 84 in Glasgow, 1860. Hill moved to England, but what became of him is not clear. But that’s not the end of the story for Scottish experimentation in steam transport. Enter stage left, John Scott Russell (better known for building steamships and describing the Soliton wave).

John Scott Russell, Esq. 1847
John Scott Russell, Esq. 1847

Before he became better known, Scott Russell was a mathematics and engineering prodigy, teaching at the Leith Mechanics Institute at the age of 17. By 24 he was elected professor of Natural Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, although refused to stand for permanent employ. Concentrating on his engineering, Scott tinkered with boilers and steam engines, and came up with a method of constructing a flat-sided boiler (rather than a dome or cylinder) with internal stays. By 1834, success was sufficient that Scott Russell formed the Steam Carriage Company of Scotland to produce his perfected steam carriage. The square boiler can be seen slung under the wheels, with a 2 cylinder vertical engine on top.

A Scott Russell steam coach, rear section
A Scott Russell steam coach, rear section

Russell’s company built 6 carriages “well-sprung and fitted out to high standard“. From March 1834 they offered an hourly service from George Square in Glasgow to the Tontine Hotel in Paisley. An unheard of speed of 15mph could be made (Burstall & Hill could make 6mph). The Mitchell Library describes the machine. “carried up to 40 passengers… a crew of 3 green-uniformed men. The engineer sat above the engine and boiler at the rear… The fireman stood on the step below him… A steersman sat on the front perch …The carriage pulled a trailer which carried coal, water, and more passengers. Mechanically it may have been successful, but the carriages apparently upset the trustees of the turnpike roads, who felt they caused damage in excess of the charges paid.”

Scott Russell Glasgow - Paisely Steam Coach
Scott Russell Glasgow – Paisely Steam Coach

What happened next is a matter of conjecture, either the trustees deliberately obstructed the road to impede the carriage, or it was purely accidental, but in the Glasgow trades fair, a carriage hit an obstruction and overturned. The boiler failed and the explosion of steam killed 2 passengers and injured several more (note, the BBC attributes the below device to Goldsworthy Gurney, but it was a Scott Russell contraption). This is sometime attributed to being the first fatal automobile accident.

The Paisley Steam Carriage explosion
The Paisley Steam Carriage explosion

The service was withdrawn and 2 of Scott Russell’s carriages found their way to London for service there. The man himself quickly moved on to greater things, first the description of the Soliton (standing wave) and later as I. K. Brunel’s shipbuilder on the Great Eastern. He is seen here on the left, with his assistant Henry Wakefield between him and Brunel, at the launch of that ship.

Scott Rusell’s time in Leith keeps up our connection between pioneering road steam carriages and the burgh, and there’s more to come! The next comes via the Kincardineshire town of Stonehaven in the form of Robert William Thomson, an engineer and inventor up there with Scott Russell and contemporaries in his imagination, inventiveness and skill. From a family of the new industrialist middle class, he was to be sent to the Kirk but being unable to master Latin he instead was sent to live with an Uncle in the United States where he apprenticed as a merchant.

Robert W. Thomson
Robert W. Thomson

Returning to Scotland in 1838, in between engineering apprenticeships, he taught himself chemistry, electrics, astronomy and mathematics and engineering with the help of an educated weaver. He settled in Edinburgh and his inventions and patents are a-plenty, including electrical detonators for blasting explosives, a self-filling fountain pen, a reversible washing mangle, a ribbon saw, an elliptical rotary steam engines and a hydraulic dry dock. Thomson also tinkered endlessly with improving steam engines and boilers to the point where they would (unlike the previous examples up this thread) actually be feasible for road transport.

Thomson patented the first pneumatic tyre in 1846. Not the vulcanised rubber tyre perfected by Charles Boyd Dunlop that we recognise now, but the first practical air-filled tyre. Thomson’s tyre was an inner tube of canvas rubberised with India Rubber which was encased in a stout leather outer tyre that was physically bolted to the rim of the wheel. It was ahead of the rubber technology of the time, but it worked in principal.

A Robert Thomson pneumatic tyre

Frustrated by the shortcomings of his tyre, he turned instead to solid rubber tyres, and when he put these together with his advances in steam engines and boilers, he had a winning combination in the Thomson Road Steamer. The “tyres” were solid blocks of rubber attached all around the rim of the iron wheels. This allowed the heavy road steam engine to use the public road without damaging it and gave it the grip to get up inclines.

The Thomson Road Steamer and Train
The Thomson Road Steamer and Train

“But Thomson was a Stonehaven man living in the New Town of Edinburgh” you say. “What’s the Leith connection?” you ask. Well he had his road steamers built by T. W. Tennant at the Bowershall Iron Works in Leith, just off the Bonnington Road at (appropriately) Tennant Street.

Unlike those before him, Thomson’s Road Steamer actually really worked. To prove it, he had a rubber-wheeled Steamer called Enterprise hall a train of rubber-wheeled coal wagons of 40 tons from Dalkeith to Edinburgh. The contraption made about 8mph.

Coal from Dalkeith to Edinburgh

So it could pull coal, so what? Next, Thomson demonstrated its abilities in passenger haulage by pairing it with a bizarre, single-axle, double-decker carriage (with patented rubber wheels) and ran it between Edinburgh and Leith, the “New Favourite”

The "New Favourite" Edinburgh and Leith Road Steamer
The “New Favourite” Edinburgh and Leith Road Steamer

Weighing about 5 tons and with about 8 horsepower at its disposable, the Thomson Road Steamer could pull about 40 tons up the 1 in 18 gradient of Granton Road, or about 100 tons on the flat. “One morning a road steamer was taken down on to the sea sands at Portobello, and ran up and down there at the rate of ten miles an hour, the rain pouring all the time in torrents.

Thomson Road Steamer “Advance”

Thomson’s machines, built by Tennant, were a global hit and were exported across the globe. He had worked for the Dutch improving their sugar refineries in the East Indies and they bought some for Java. The Indian government bought four of them too. Such was the success that Tennant’s couldn’t keep up with demand, and he also had them built by Robey & Co. in Lincoln, Ransomes, Sims & Head in Ipswich and Charles Burrell & Sons of Thetford. Ultimately, the solid India Rubber tyre although a success was an evolutionary dead end. It was extremely expensive and not particularly hard wearing. It was also useless when confronted with mud. But Thomson showed the way, and technology eventually caught up and allowed others to perfect a hard-wearing pneumatic tyre. Appropriately enough he’s commemorated in Stonehaven at a tyre-fitting garage.

The Robert Thomson memorial Kwik-Fit
The Robert Thomson memorial Kwik-Fit in Stonehaven

Thomson died in 1873 and you’d think that would be the last of Leith’s connections with mad steampunk road machines. You’d think, but you’d be wrong! Enter “Mr Nairn, Engineer, Leith” and his patent 1871 steam omnibus!

Mr Nairn's Patent Steam Omnibus
Mr Nairn’s Patent Steam Omnibus

Nairn’s bus is recognisably to modern eyes as a double-decker. Sure it’s only got 3 wheels and it’s got a boiler and pistons instead of a diesel engine, and a chimney that runs along the top deck and hangs out the back, but it’s all there. Nairn stuck with solid wheels, but tackled the problem of ride quality by using a relatively advanced suspension of leaf springs mounted on stacks of rubber washers (ahoy Moulton fans!). His 3-cylinder machine, Pioneer could carry 50 passengers in (relative) comfort at up to 12 mph. Nairn ran it between Edinburgh and Portobello and it could make 11 or 12 trips per day. “It is doing exceedingly well. No horse-drawn ‘bus is more under control than this one; its safety and capabilities of doing excellent work are beyond cavil, and invite investigation. Its general construction is a great step in advance.”

So why did this modern-looking, high-capacity, relatively fast and apparently successful steam bus remain a one-off for a single season? There are two reasons. The first is probably pure economics. In 1871, horse-hauled trams came in to use in Edinburgh. A horse consumed less in feed than a steam bus did in coal, a tram car was much cheaper to produce and horses were more reliable than proprietary steam engines. The second was more fundamental; the tramway had no running powers for mechanical traction.

A Leith Horse Tram at the back of Shrubhill Depot

You’d think that would be the last of Leith’s connections with mad steampunk road machines. You’d think, but you’d be wrong! Enter “Mr Leonard J. Todd, Engineer, of Leith.” and his patent steam omnibus of 1872. Not only does it have 4 (yes, 4, count them all!) wheels, it has 2 funnels (1 a false one). And check out the opulence of the lower saloon.

Leonard Todd’s Patent Steam Omnibus

Mr Todd insited that solid wheels were the way forward and could make a comfortable 20mph journey if they were appropriately sprung. He used a system of leaf springs, rubber washers and “volutes” (vertical spiral springs – not coils). I’m not convinced he was right to be honest. Todd also designed a “Silent Street Tramway Locomotive” which he said would be able to pull a train of two 40-passenger carriages up a 1 in 40 gradient at 10 miles an hour.

Todd’s Silent Street-Tramway Locomotive

And he also designed a 3-wheeled, steam-powered post van called “Centaur”. Again solid wooden wheels and iron tyres. It was designed to pull mail and passenger in a carriage at “high speed” wherever rails couldn’t go. The technology was mainly lifted from railway practice, including such features as the wheels built up from wooden blocks to reduce vibrations.

Leonard Todd’s Patent Mail Steamer

Thank you to Becky Tailor for pointing me in the direction of Leonard J. Todd and his marvellous machines.

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These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur

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