The John Dewrance Rocket

I was responsible for a bit of a kerfuffle at work. Poor Nick at Work suffered at the hands of a huffy curator when he suggested that, perhaps, some chap called Dewrance built the Rocket. That’s the famous Rocket that George and Robert Stephenson designed and had built.

I’d better explain since, not only did John Dewrance occupy quite a bit of my time a few weeks ago but he continued to occupy it today as well.

John Dewrance was an engineer. A very good engineer who, it appears, was put in charge of the Engine Shops at Edge Hill on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway back when it first opened. (For those unaware of the fact, the L&MR was the first purpose built railway line in the world to have trains running on steam power rather than being hauled by a horse.)

The railway was opened in 1830 and John worked there, it seems, almost from the beginning (maybe even from the beginning but I can’t find any exact dates). The Rocket was built in order to run on the L&MR – it won the Rainhill Trial competition – and was completed in 1829, just before the railway opened.

This is all very well and good and John could easily have not only known the Stephensons, he could also have been there in his capacity as knowledgeable and respected engineer, however…there’s no proof. The other thing is that John Dewrance, in 1835, was entering into a partnership with Joseph Woods in an engineering firm in London. Joseph died in 1842 and John did the obvious thing. He took over the partnership and called it Dewrance and Co.

And so it remained for many years. After John died, the company was run by his son, John (he was knighted so we can call him Sir John to avoid confusion). It was the company of Dewrance and Co that set me on this wobbly road. They gave the museum a few handfuls of valves, meters and packed asbestos cocks.

And it was Sir John who provides a link to the early railways with a letter on file which came from him regarding two framed drawings of his father’s design for the Bird class (2-2-2) of locomotives used in the north. (This should not be confused with the Bird class 4-4-0 locomotives used on the Great Western railway which used the more comfortable wide gauge of Brunel.)

This sort of thing is a bit of a minefield. I know next to nothing about trains (except for the Rocket which I often stop to admire as I walk through the museum) and was hesitant to mention as contentious a claim as the Rocket being built by someone called John Dewrance, especially given it is, possibly, the most important locomotive in the world. But I know it’s important to relay this sort of discovery to Nick at work and he gets excited enough to Ask an Expert when I do.

The Expert was very dismissive and asked for any proof of the assertion. So, today I typed up a short essay and sent it to Nick at Work so he could forward it onto the Expert. I guess I’ll find out his learned opinion at work next week.

Oh, and before I forget, John Dewrance actually lived at Greenhills House in Tilford, not far from us. In fact, we pass it every time we walk at Hankley.

UPDATE: Peter Dewrance (see comment below) wrote up a short history of the Dewrance connections as promised. The entry on his blog is here:

Note: It annoys me when people make broad claims on the Internet then fail to back it up with references…so here are mine.

Donaghy, TJ 1972, Liverpool & Manchester Railway operations, 1831-1845
Hastings R 1843, The Chemist, Volume 4
Knight J & Lacey H 1844, The Mechanics Magazine, Volume 41
Dewrance Sir J 1912, letter to Science Museum, Nominal file 565
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:
Thomas, R.H.G. 1960, The Liverpool & Manchester Railway, Batsford, London
Transactions 1938, Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland, Volume 81

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10 Responses to The John Dewrance Rocket

  1. Mum says:

    Well didn’t know the trains were going that early very interesting.
    Love mum xx

  2. My name is Peter Dewrance. I think I am a descendant of Sir John’s Dewrance’s brother. I have inherited some (unpublished) letters written by Sir John to my grandfather, apparently replying to his begging letters. I intend to write about this connection on my blog

  3. Geoff Thompson says:

    Very interesting article. The M & L was, however, the second railway to use steam locomotives, but the first to do so from the outset. (Stephenson may have persuaded them in this.) The Stockton & Darlington used steam locomotives, and was opened 5 years earlier.

  4. admin says:

    Thank you, Geoff. I’ve amended the post to say the first ‘purpose built railway’ which I think is more accurate.


  5. Jim Norman says:

    While not doubting your sources I have several of these also and ALL state that Rocket was built by Robert Stephenson. The real source to consult is Michael R Bailey and John P Glithero 2000 The History and Engineering of Rocket published by NRM. This gives a lot of detail of Stephenson’s problems to be overcome, and the letters detailing these and the solutions found, as detailed in letters the George Stephenson and Henry Booth.

    John Dewrance definitely built the Bird class, though – over ten years after Rocket.

  6. A minefield indeed. Pity the builder didn’t sign the boiler or something. What museum are we talking about by the way, and who is “Nick at work”?

    “The real source to consult is Michael R Bailey and John P Glithero 2000 The History and Engineering of Rocket published by NRM.” Fact or opinion?

  7. admin says:

    The Science Museum in London. I work with Nick and also have a friend called Nick so… Nick at Work.

  8. Jim Norman says:

    “The real source to consult is Michael R Bailey and John P Glithero 2000 The History and Engineering of Rocket published by NRM.” Fact or opinion?

    Read it yourself and make up your own mind!

  9. I was brought up to say “please”. Personally I am not that interested in railway history so I’ll copy the gist of this thread on to my blog and leave my readers to obtain the book if they so wish.

  10. Jim Norman says:

    It was a suggestion, not a request. I find it strange that someone is happy to post information when there is strong evidence to the contrary, and isn’t even prepared to check the evidence Presumably, you realise that you probably won’t like what you find there. However, history records that Robert Stephenson built Rocket, not John Dewrance, although the latter did go on to build many other fine engines.

    It’s your blog so you can post whatever you want, irrespective of its accuracy.

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