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Sunday, 9 August 2009


It is often popularly supposed that John Loudon Macadam introduced a system of road making using coal tar as the road surface. As noted earlier Macadam was a relation of Dundonald's and managed the Muirkirk Tar Works on his behalf. In London he is listed in 1817 as a coal tar manufacturer working under licence from the British Tar Company.

Macadam’s road surfaces were built up through layers of different sized stones and were not tar based. Tarred roads were to come later and be undertaken by companies who used his name rather than his process - one such was J.H. Cassell's, whose Treatise on Roads and Streets is described in a previous chapter.

There is, of course, a clear distinction between road surfacing and street paving although both were under discussion in the 1830s and 1840s. Main roads were used by horse transport and many were in a bad state. In 1816 a Select Committee on Road Transport had discussed the problem. At this the state of Mile End Road had been described in much detail - the mud, the ruts, and the difficulties had all been given an airing.

The 'Carriage Pavement' was a term used for those areas of town roads which horses and light wheeled transport would share with pedestrians. In 1839 an experiment was conducted in Oxford Street in which a number of different types of bitumen and asphalt were laid to see which was the most resilient.

The composition of some of these paving materials is very far from clear. One of them, 'Aberdeen Granite', seems obvious ‑ Aberdeen is after all known as 'the Granite City' so what was used in its name ought to be granite paving although - as it does not seem to have lasted very long ‑ perhaps not.

Another sort of paving laid down was, 'Val de Travers', the name of a Swiss valley where natural bitumen is found - which makes that one seem clearer but the ingredients of 'Parisian Bitumen' and 'Scottish Asphalt' are not quite so easy to work out ‑and what were 'Claridge's Asphalt’ and 'Bastenne Gaugac Bitumen' ? The likelihood is that they were all coal tar mixtures which came from nowhere more exotic than the Isle of Dogs.

Down in Millwall and other parts of the Isle of Dogs, Mr. Cassell was not the only manufacturer with an interest in both tar and road surfaces. 'Parisian Bitumen’ for instance, was made at Atlas Wharf, Millwall by a Mr. Robinson of whom, Survey of London says 'although using English coal tar rather than the superior natural asphalt... he claimed a particular foreign connection'. Robinson paved the Woolwich Royal Artillery Parade Ground and part of the Strand. The Bastenne Asphalte and Bitumen Co. (proprietor Chas. Fred. Tilstone) was also based in Millwall.

Richard Tappin Claridge at his ‘Seyssel Asphalte Company’ had patented ‘Claridge’s Patent Asphalte’ in 1835. The company had a list of distinguished patrons including the Brunels. It was, however, based at Stangate on the Lambeth riverfront rather than Switzerland - although it may have some connection with Seyssel Street, also on the Isle of Dogs.

After the Oxford Street experiments 'an impression having gone abroad that the work started by this company failed...... that part which had been of Claridge's Asphalte was in a state of superior order'.

It is very difficult to say that the products of these companies were definitely coal tar based ‑there is no proof. It is just rather hard to believe otherwise!

Coal tar in various mixtures for road and pavement surfacing had had its supporters for some time. One of the most vociferous was Colonel Francis Maceroni who, since the early 1820s, had pointed out the usefulness of tar for road surfaces. Maceroni was a flamboyant Italian from Manchester. He had a strong involvement in the promotion of steam carriages, which might explain his interest in flat tarred road surfaces.

Maceroni claimed that the first attempt at a tarred surface had been on the paths 'in Mr. Bell's garden in Blackheath'. Attempts to identify 'Mr. Bell's garden' have led to a Mr. J.R. Bell who lived at Westgrove House in Westgrove Lane, at southeast corner of Blackheath in the early 1800s. The garden has obviously been altered since 1816; and the chance of finding one of his tarred paths is remote! On the other hand, 'Bell' could be a misprint for 'Beale'. In which case a likely candidate is Joshua Taylor Beale the naphtha lighting inventor already mentioned. Beale was to adapt steam carriages for Maceroni at his works in East Greenwich and, although he lived in Greenwich, not Blackheath, he was certainly in the area - a large cinema until recently occupied the site of his Greenwich address. Ironically, his son moved to Blackheath where a portion of his cycle test track of the 1890s can still be discerned in the garden layout.

Another experimental site for tarred surfaces is said to have been Margate Pier. Maceroni claimed that this was surfaced with coal tar at around the same time in the early 1820s. No definite information, beyond one letter in Mechanics Magazine, has been found to support this. Margate Pier, built in 1824, actually consisted of something called the 'Jervis Landing Place', which was an 100-ft. wooden jetty. 'available only at low water.... it was not uncommon for unfortunate strollers to be cut off ... the result was a lucrative business for local seamen who carried the marooned visitors ashore and amusement for the spectators safe on dry land'. However, the chance of investigating the archaeology of early tar there has been lost, because the present pier replaced Jervis Landing in 1851.

Maceroni had his critics - J.C.Robertson, while pointing out the practicality of coal tar as a binder for roads and pavements made the cryptic comment that Maceroni wanted to use 'Dogs meat soup from Whitechapel'. Maceroni was an enthusiast for steam cars and his suggestions are clearly meant not only for foot pavements but for surfaces intended to take wheeled traffic. Steam car promoters are a sub-text to much activity on tar.

Maceroni and Beale played a minor role in the steam car movement compared to Walter Hancock, brother of Thomas the rubber expert. Hancock managed to run what was almost a public transport service using these vehicles. There were many others who tried to do so. One such was David Gordon who patented the portable gas lamp. He built steam cars, and his son, Alexander wrote a book about them called Elemental Locomotion. Frank Hills who will feature very prominently later in this work built a steam car and worked with Beale on it.

Many of these early steam carriages came to grief on muddy and uneven roads. Horses need a surface which their hooves can grip. Wheeled vehicles need smooth tarred road surfaces. Tar did not come into common use for road surfaces until horses were supplanted by motor vehicles with pneumatic tyres. Bicycles needed an even smoother surface - something which, no doubt, was in the forefront of Beale,Jnr's mind when he designed his Facile machine. Thus tarred road surfaces had to wait for powered vehicles to be perfected before they could be used. No doubt, the steam car makers thought, mistakenly, that the reverse was true.

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