THE SOAME STEAM WAGONETTE

I haven’t seen the Soame steam wagonette for many years. It left Norfolk for the south of England many years ago, where it was part of the private collection of Sir William McAlpine. I gather that it has now returned to its home. At one time the Soame Steam Cart made frequent public appearances in Norfolk. It was a common participant in the East Anglian Steam Rallies of the 1950s and 60s, as this picture shows. Beyond East Anglia it had a drive-on part in the 1953 classic film Genevieve, which starred Kenneth Moore and had music by the mouth organ virtuoso Larry Adler. The film concerns a veteran automobile rally, in which the Soame wagonette was one of the entries. I recently saw the film again for the first time since the 1950s, and sure enough I spotted the steam wagonette putting in its cameo appearance. The wagonette would reach a top speed of 25 miles per hour, although a more comfortable speed (given the iron tyred wheels and primitive suspension) was 15 mph.

The Soame Steam Wagonette

The Soame Steam Wagonette

Samuel George Soame (born 1837) was an agricultural engineer with his workshop at Marsham, just outside Aylsham in Norfolk. The building in which he operated (Perseverance Works) is still there, slightly modernised in having new windows, and now by-passed by the main road, but basically just as it was in the 1890s when the wagonette was built. He was something of a pioneer in automotive production. In construction terms the wagonette was basically a wooden cart, of the same type that he would have produced for horse-drawn transport only smaller, and it was fitted with a steam engine. The steam wagonette was made in 1897. Samuel George Soames died in 1918 and his son George Samuel (b. 1875) died in 1937. The firm was sold by the founder’s grandson Frederick in 1940.

Agricultural engineers had an important part to play in the rural economy. In the same period that Mr Soame was experimenting with new forms of propulsion, just down the road at Cawston the agricultural engineer William Bush was making traditional horse-drawn carts for the Royal estate at Sandringham. As agricultural engineers they would have employed the specialist craftsmen of wheelwrights and blacksmiths. Besides a forge Soame also had an iron and brass foundry and a machine shop. The average number employed at Marsham was about 15, but at busy times it could be double that.

During the first eight years he used the steam wagon to travel all around North Norfolk and even had a special place to park it undercover when visiting Norwich, at the White Horse in Magdalen Street (where Anglia Square now stands). After 1904 when his son opened the motor garage in Marsham he did not use it so much. No doubt the family preferred the more modern (and comfortable) motor car. The wagonette was stored in a lean-to in Marsham and was eventually sold by his grandson in 1946.

Besides producing this early form of motive powered road transport, about forty years earlier he had been the first to make a steam engine to drive a fairground roundabout.  This was a portable engine, and Sidney also produced a number of small vertical engines to power fairground organs. The idea was taken up avidly by Frederick Savage who saw the Soame powered roundabout at Aylsham fair. Savage was born in the next village of Hevingham and was still living there at the time. Savage later made the production of steam powered fairground equipment a principal part of his business in Kings Lynn. The Venetian Gondola Switchback ride preserved at Thursford is a Savage’s product as is their Gallopers Roundabout. Although he became famous for this type of machinery he too began his business as an agricultural engineer, and continued to produce farm machinery as well.

My wife Molly on the gallopers at Thurton.

My wife Molly on the gallopers at Thursford

Fairgrounds must have been very popular in the 19th century, when the rural population were becoming more prosperous, but had precious little to entertain them apart from a game of shove ha’penny in the local pub. The fact that roundabouts and other rides were able to use the latest (and relatively expensive) technology suggests that they were very profitable enterprises at the time.

Soame made some traction engines although none now survives. His son opened what was among the earliest motor garages servicing motor cars, petrol lorries and motor cycles in Marsham. Father and son were both early exponents of many kinds of road vehicle, when most people in the county were still using the horse to get around, but this firm is largely forgotten today. There is more information available in Ronald H. Clarke’s Steam Engine Builders of Norfolk (1988).

The fine thatched pump in Aylsham was erected to commemorate John Soame who died in 1910. He was obviously a relative, although he came from Aylsham not Marsham. He was a farmer from Spratts Green.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE

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3 responses

  1. Hello apparently my mother has told me that this car was built by my great great grandfather. I have an original photo with him in it. I hope one day to go to England and see it. The Internet is a powerful place. Thanks Marc

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    1. Hi Marc

      Google for the ‘Bygones Collection’ at Holkham Hall (Norfolk) which is where the Soame Steam Cart now resides, still alive, well and steamed and driven from time to time.

      Also, look out for a copy of Steam Engine Builders of Norfolk by Ronald H Clark where Soames Father & Son are mentioned and some of their steam engines pictured.
      Congratulations on your Ancestry

      OEH Rick at Bogside on Bure

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  2. Soame steam cart now back home at Marsham . Loaned to Bob Parke Collection at Orchard Cottage Allison Street Marsham.

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