The Magic of Cornwall
Bookmark and Share Subscribe

Sir Goldsworthy Gurney 1793 - 1875

The name of Goldsworthy Gurney is probably little known outside of Cornwall, and certainly is less well known than his contemporaries such as Trevithick and Humphrey Davy, even in Cornwall. However, as we shall see his contributions to science were innovative and significant.

Gurney was born on 14 Feb 1793 in the village of Treator, near Padstow. By the age of 20 he had qualified as a doctor and set up a practice in Wadebridge, where he was also married to Elizabeth Symons, a farmers daughter. He is said to have met Trevithick at this time and it is not unreasonable to assume that some of Trevithicks enthusiasm for engineering and invention would have inspired Gurney to investigate the possibilities for himself.

He soon moved to London with his new wife where they moved in scientific circles, leading to his being appointed to the position of lecturer in Chemistry at the Surrey Institute.

In 1825 he invented his first high pressure ´horseless´ steam carriage, although it was not a great success, due the understandable apprehension of passengers who had to ride in a compartment situated directly above the dangerous steam boiler. He later refined his design to provide a separate carriage which was hauled by the engine, known as the ´Gurney Drag´.

In 1829 this steam driven carriage journeyed from London to Bath, although it´s maiden journey was marred by an accident just outside Reading where it collided with the Bristol Mail Coach. It was later attacked by a Luddite mob outside Melksham and had to be escorted into Bath under guard. The average speed for the round trip was 15 mph and is claimed as the first long journey undertaken by a mechanised vehicle at a sustained speed.

This same year Gurney´s steam injection system was installed in George and Robert Stephenson´s ´Rocket´ for the Rainhill Trials where it attained a speed of 30 mph, a record at that time. However Gurney´s contribution was not acknowledged by the Stephensons, as neither was Trevithicks pioneering work on high pressure steam boilers. Gurney had to later publicly rebuke claims that Stephenson was the inventor of the steam locomotive, an idea which still persists today.

Gurney enjoyed moderate success with this venture but was eventually forced out of business by the coming of the railways. High taxes were imposed on steam driven vehicles by the government as a means of protecting horse carriage owners. He went bankrupt to the tune of £232,000, a huge sum at that time.

Undeterred, Gurney returned to Cornwall and settled in Bude, where he set about building a home for his family. He leased a stretch of the sand dunes, close to Bude Beach and proceeded to erect his ´castle´. Locals jibed at the idea that a house could be built on sand, but Gurneys answer was to build a strong concrete raft directly on to the sand to provide his foundations. This form of foundation is still widely used in modern building construction. The resultant property still stands today, is known as The Castle and home to the Bude-Stratton Town Council.

While in London he had developed a blowpipe which used a mixture of oxygen and hydrogen to produce a very hot flame. When lime was added to the flame it produced an intense light, leading to the discovery of limelight. Gurney used this light together with a series of prismatic lenses to light his whole house, known as the ´Bude Light´. Eventually he was able to light the Houses of Parliament with the use of three light sources and an array of lenses, where previously hundreds of candles had been used.

Gurney also applied his light for use in lighthouses, where he placed the single light source in a revolving frame to provide the now familiar flashing light. The resultant light was hundreds of times more powerful than the candle light used previously and it would not be overstating the case to say that it must have saved countless lives. The use of limelight was also taken up by theatres throughout the land, leading to the phrase ´in the limelight´.

Other notable inventions made by Gurney were a ventilation system for sewers and mines, the ´Gurney Stove´ for heating and adding moisture to the air for use in large buildings. Original ´Gurney Stoves´ can still be found in Chester, Ely and Durham Cathedrals and Tewkesbury Abbey, and also I am told by a correspondent to this site at Peterborough Cathedral where it has been converted to run on gas. He also invented a method of high pressure steam cleaning for use in sewers.

In 1863 Gurney was knighted by Queen Victoria and later died in 1875. He is buried at Launcells near Stratton.

Although Sir Goldsworthy Gurney did not receive the full recognition he deserved during his lifetime, his career has been undergoing a re-appraisal, and he is now regarded as one of the leading scientific minds of his age, and one might say not before time.

As a footnote to this article the reader may be interested to know that Bude has instigated an annual ´Gurney Day´ to celebrate his life and work. There are also plans to develop a heritage centre and to incorporate the present Bude-Stratton Museum into Gurney´s Castle to exhibit more of their collection. The project is known appropriately as ´Project Limelight´. Further details can be found on the Bude Website listed below.


Bude-Stratton Museum