My Birmingham Dribbler by Canon Jim Foley

My Birmingham Dribbler by Canon Jim Foley

By Canon Jim Foley

Having put on display my Penny Red (1864) and my Presentation Box of Queen Victoria’s chocolates (1900), I feel obliged to add to my collection of objets d’art my Birmingham Dribbler, another family heir-loom from the distant past (circa 1850). Such model locomotives were evidently produced in large numbers in Birmingham when the age of steam was in the ascendancy in the mid-nineteenth century and were intended to be sold as children’s toys. The ‘Dribble’ was added to the name to take account of the fact that the locomotive left a dribble of water behind wherever it went!

The technical specifications are easily described. They consist in a brass boiler that can be filled with about a quarter of a pint of water. Beneath the boiler there is a detachable container for an inflammable liquid which can be ignited to heat the water in the boiler. The water, when boiling, then circulates through a pair of oscillating cylinders which turn the wheels and off the locomotive goes around the room at break-neck speed. I say around the room because the wheels in my model are fixed in such a way as to persuade the contraption to go round in a circle. More versatile models were capable of being adjusted to travel in a straight line or in increasing or diminishing circles. They were, however, never intended to travel on fixed rails.

The trajectory comes to a halt when the fuel or the water is spent or an obstacle blocks the way ahead or the boiler blows up. My model has a feature, admired by collectors, which allows a strident whistle to blow by the simple movement of a lever. There is also a safety-valve to diminish the threat of an explosion. The whistle and safety valve, however, are to be treated with caution as both become red hot as the Dribbler gets up steam. Few parents today would be happy to provide their children with this particular range of Victorian toys.

My Birmingham Dribbler was created as a children’s toy, inspired by the steam locomotives that drove the industrial revolution forward. Yet more children were condemned to coal-faces in the bowels of the earth that kept these giants moving, than were free to play with them as toys.

The brave new world of the French Revolution had recently proclaimed a new trinity: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. This egalitarianism would now have to compete with another kind of trinity proclaimed by the railways: First, Second and Third class. All men may have been born equal as claimed by the French Revolutionaries, but when they travelled on the trains some were more equal than others and they soon discovered their rightful place in society and were issued with a ticket to prove it. Any attempt to move up the social ladder was met with a fine.

The distinguished German philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) is probably to blame for everybody thinking in triplicate in those days. Had he been in charge of the railways, passengers would have been issued, not with tickets, but with a thesis, an antithesis or a synthesis. The railways, with their first, second and third classes, were simply a practical demonstration of a dialectical progression with its wheels firmly on the rails.

My Birmingham Dribbler may now be a silent prisoner in a display cabinet alongside the crystal and the good china but it can still let off steam. When I inherited it, it was black with soot and looked really forlorn. However, I had it re-burnished and lacquered some years ago and it now looks brand new. Little wonder that there are those who lament the passing of its mighty proto-type and it is not at all surprising that transport museums have lost none of their attraction and these great monsters from the past can still be admired.

Such a museum exists in Rome with a special section tracing papal transport, beginning with the Sedia Gestatoria on which the Pope was carried the length of St Peter’s on the shoulders of six stalwarts, till it fell victim, either to the reforms of  Vatican II or to the diminishing market of stalwarts. One of them is quoted as claiming that ‘the Papacy weighed heavier on their shoulders than it did on the Pope’s’. The first Pope to travel by rail was Pius IX in 1849. This was a dramatic departure from his predecessor’s judgement on the railways. He is credited with the following disapproving couplet: ‘Chemin de fer, chemin d’enfer’, ‘A railway track is a fast track to hell’! (Gregory XVI). Gregory also objected to the provision of gas lamps to light up the streets of Rome. Respectable citizens should be indoors by dusk! In mitigation, however, it must be said he was a strong champion of the abolition of slavery.

Another exhibit has, however, survived in the Museo di Roma and that is the first Papal train. It was used by Pius IX (1850-1890) and was almost certainly built in Glasgow. A feature of this train is the cast-iron inscription on the front which reads, quoting Mark 15.16, ‘Ite in universum mundum’, ‘Go out into the whole world’. It got as far as Frascati, about fifteen miles south of Rome.  Pius IX was also the first Pope to have his picture taken. The attached photo brings Pope and his train together with full supporting cast!

Pope Pius IX and his train

Pope Pius IX and his train

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