Page revised 21 August 2001




Edward J Law

The Leeds Mercury of 24th October 1769 carries the following news item:-

We hear from Huddersfield that Mess. Atkinson and Eastwood of that place, are constructing a machine to go without horses. It will, it is said, be in the form of a common waggon, and is expected to be at London with goods for the merchants before Mr Moore's arrives in Yorkshire. Some say it has been up Almondbury Bank, by way of trial, with a tun weight; but the neighbours were all so fast asleep that we cannot find any person either heard or saw it. At present the gentlemen are very busy making improvements.

It is not easy at this distance in time to assess the plausibility of the report. Whilst it was the practice of the Mercury to feature unusual items of a local or national nature, it does not appear to have been part of their policy to pursue practical jokes, and it may be assumed that the paragraph was presented as a straight news item. They may, however, have feared a hoax, for a caveat is implicit in the humorous reference to the sleeping neighbours.

The statement that they could find no one who had seen or heard the road trial strikes at the credulity of the report. However, the Mercury does not appear to have had a regular correspondent in Huddersfield, the number of items in 1769 which relate to the town are very few, certainly a good deal less than for Halifax, and it is very unlikely that the paper made any effort at all to find witnesses.

An advertisement1 which appeared in the Mercury in 1773 throws some light on the subject. It announced that there was an exhibition in Leeds at which the star attraction was the "self moveing phaeton" which travelled the turnpike roads, without horses, at six miles per hour, ascended hills with ease and descended them with safety. It needed no winding up, weighed five hundredweights, and was "the original from which Mr Moore and all other pretenders to mechanics have copied." The fact that visitors were charged one shilling for entry indicates that the exhibition was in a confined space, and that the machine was probably a gimmick rather than of practical application.

The principle of the steam engine had been known for centuries, but this was a period when experiments were being made in improvements and differing applications; in that very year, 1769, a Frenchman had designed a steam carriage, though it proved to be a failure. It may well have been that the "self moveing phaeton" was steam powered and thoroughly impracticable from the quantities of coal required. Impracticable as the machines then were, one can imagine how they fired the imagination, and it was presumably the machine of Mr Moore, mentioned in both reports, which inspired the Huddersfield experiment

The most notable Atkinsons in Huddersfield at that time were the family who worked Bradley Mills; Joseph, the father, in his 60s and five sons in their 20s and 30s. As millers and fullers they would be expected to have an interest in, and knowledge of, motive power; they were also prosperous and would be well able to finance an inventive interest. That the outcome of that interest was also aimed at a mercantile objective, the speedy transport of goods to London merchants, may be an indication that it was indeed one of these Atkinsons. No such promising candidate comes to mind for the Eastwood half of the partnership, but possibly a practical man, a carpenter, millwright or similar. An entry in the day-books of John Turner2 an eighteenth-century Huddersfield attorney, perhaps gives a good indication. Under 25 September 1750 is noted "Had Joseph, Jno & Danl Eastwood setting stoops & rails in bottom of Priest royd. John Eastwood went of to Josh Atkinson's half a day." So we have an Eastwood family in the town, practical labouring men, quite possibly carpenters, and with a proven connection with the Atkinsons.

The pursuit of faster transport was a continuing process and the Leeds Mercury of 2 February 1773 carried an advertisement of "Flying Waggons" plying between Halifax and London in five days; the run included a stop at the Rose and Crown in Huddersfield to take in goods. No doubt the service was to meet a mercantile need, and it is pertinent that the waggons are said to have been purchased by a subscription of gentlemen and tradesmen.

It seems certain that the local Atkinson/Earnshaw enterprise was without success; had a machine been produced that reached Leeds, never mind London, there is little doubt that its memory would have been kept alive, and Yorkshire, rather than Lancashire, might have been the home of Atkinson's lorries.

1 Leeds Mercury 15.6.1773.
2 Yorkshire Archaeological Society MS 757.

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