21 February 1804: Pen-y-Darren locomotive steams into history

Trevithick’s invention pulls 10 tonnes of iron for 10 miles


At the turn of the 19th century, south Wales was in a frenzy. The industrial revolution was in full swing; all the talk was of coal and iron. At night, furnaces blazed in the darkness. Everywhere there was noise and motion, trams, horses and people, servants at the temple of the new industrial capitalism.

At the centre of all this excitement was an Englishman called Samuel Homfray, who had founded the Pen-y-Darren Ironworks in Merthyr Tydfil. Homfray was open to innovation, and in 1802 he engaged a Cornish inventor, Richard Trevithick, to build a high-pressure steam engine to drive a hammer. Trevithick’s real interest, though, lay in building steam locomotives. Under Homfray’s supervision, he tried mounting the engine on wheels.

The 1st Duke of Clarence pays the price for crossing his brother, Edward IV, in this illustration Homfray liked what he saw so much that he bought the patent. Then he made a 500-guinea bet with a rival ironmaster, Richard Crawshay, wagering that his new locomotive could pull 10 tonnes of iron along the Merthyr Tydfil tramway, a distance of almost 10 miles. A date was set: 21 February 1804. And in its way, it deserves to be remembered as one of the most influential moments in history.

By the time that Trevithick’s locomotive had been prepared for its big test, a large crowd had assembled to watch the great moment. The iron was loaded onto five wagons, while 70 men also boarded the train, among them Homfray, Crawshay, various engineers and a government inspector.


Steam went up, the wheels turned – and they were off. Underneath, some of the tramway’s plates buckled and cracked under the weight of the train. But they kept moving. Four hours later, the train eased to a stop. Homfray had won his bet, and the history of transport would never be the same again.

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Julian Humphrys rounds up smaller anniversaries

21 February 1513

Death in Rome of ‘the Warrior Pope’, Julius II. An active defender of the temporal power of the papacy, he led the papal army against the Venetians and vigorously resisted French attempts to dominate Italy. He was also a major patron of the arts: he employed Bramante to rebuild St Peter’s (a work partially financed by the sale of indulgences), Michelangelo to sculpt his tomb and to fresco the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and Raphael to decorate his suite of rooms in the Vatican Palace.

21 February 1660

Under the protection of General Monck, who had marched south with an army from the Scottish border, the surviving moderate MPs excluded by Pride's Purge in 1648 were re-admitted to the Long Parliament in Westminster. This enabled Parliament to override the opposition of the minority of Republican MPs and vote for the dissolution of Parliament in order to make way for new elections – an important step towards the Restoration of the monarchy and the House of Lords.

21 February 1861

Severe gales in Britain caused the collapse of the north wing of the Crystal Palace and the spire of Chichester Cathedral.

21 February 1862

Confederate brigadier-general Henry Sibley defeated a Union force under Colonel Edward Canby near Valverde in what is today New Mexico. After the war Sibley spent some time as a military advisor to the Khedive of Egypt.

21 February 1896

On a sandbar in the Rio Grande, the British boxer Bob Fitzsimmons knocked out Peter Maher to become world heavyweight champion.

21 February 1907

Birth of poet and critic WH (Wystan Hugh) Auden in York.

21 February 1938

Anthony Eden resigned as Foreign Secretary in protest at Neville Chamberlain's decision to open negotiations with fascist Italy over Abyssinia, which Italy had invaded in 1935. He was replaced by Lord Halifax.

21 February 1939

Launch of British ship King George V. In 1941 she took part in the sinking of the battleship Bismarck.

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Dominic SandbrookHistorian and presenter

Dominic Sandbrook is historian and presenter, and a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine