Bude’s gentleman scientist, Sir Goldsworthy Gurney

By Dawn Robinson-Walsh:

One of Bude’s most celebrated, distinguished – and multi-faceted –  historical figures was ‘gentleman scientist’ Sir Goldsworthy Gurney, born on St Valentine’s Day, 1793, who perhaps deserves to be better known than he is, for he made significant contributions to innovation and science. 

He died on February 28th, 1875, at Reeds in Poughill, having lived a packed, inventive life in between. Sadly, he was ill and cared for by his daughter for some years towards the end. He was the son of one John Gurney who married a farmer’s daughter, Isabella Carter, and he also had a brother called, rather more ordinarily, Sam. The couple were well to do having illustrious ancestors with links to land in Norfolk and banking.

It is an unusual first name, which he allegedly earned from his godmother, daughter of General Goldsworthy, who was maid of honour to Queen Charlotte, though it was also his grandmother’s surname.

Born in Avon Cottage, Treator, near Prideaux, Padstow, which was a very busy port in 1793, the young Gurney spent his childhood being educated as a ‘gentleman’ at home where he was fascinated by farming; he was later educated at Truro Grammar School.

Gurney was heavily influenced by  local culture and events, but also by the work of Richard Trevithick, the visionary Cornish mining engineer and inventor with whom his relatives had contact. Trevithick sadly died penniless, as did so many inventors in those times. Goldsworthy was said to have encountered Trevithick’s work on holiday when staying with a relative, the rector of St Erth, but he also had other family who were within his social group. Trevithick (born 1771), originally from Illogan, was a mechanical engineer who successfully constructed the world’s first railway locomotive in 1803, a time of great engineering progress,  and Industrial Revolution. He was a great inspiration to Gurney. 

It is said that Gurney always remembered the shabby way in which Trevithick was treated by others, including engineers. The village schoolmaster had described Trevithick as “disobedient, slow and obstinate” while his mine manager father thought him “idle”. He was, indeed, scarcely literate, but had a genuine and real talent for engineering problems, a genius which perplexed many. 

Trevithick had married Jane Harvey from a prominent engineering family, in 1797, and fathered six children borne by her. Despite being a brilliant man, he was not a worldly one, so was exploited contemptibly by others, including fellow engineers of the time who stole his ideas, leaving him to die in poverty in 1827. Gurney had followed Trevithick’s inventions with some fascination, and kept in contact with him, even when Trevithick went to South America to work, leaving his family behind living in penury in Cornwall.

Gurney, however, like Humphrey Davy, was not educated to be an engineer. The plan was for a medical career not an engineering one, although it is thought that a new headmaster at school, Thomas Hogg, a disciple of the Scottish Enlightenment, was interested in a more modern curriculum (laboratory sciences, philosophy, and practical mechanics) and less in classics, which gave him a foot in both occupational camps. What is amazing is how much he learned and how much he innovated. 

He started his career apprenticed as a lowly surgeon (not a profession back then, more the status of a low-ranking barber or mechanic), practising under a Dr Avery in the then sleepy backwater of Wadebridge. Gurney also trained in chemistry, so he could act as an apothecary, too. Cornwall was considered a healthy place for people to visit, away from the miasma of the cities, enhanced by refreshing sea air, so he had a steady flow of patients. Gurney took over the medical practice at the age of 19 and treated patients for 8 years. However, he grew increasingly interested in chemistry and mechanics, a man of true versatility and some would say, genius. 

We know little of Gurney’s everyday life, but he certainly spent a good deal of time thinking, experimenting and inventing. 

By the age of 21,  he had married Elizabeth Symons, who hailed from a prosperous farm at Cann Orchard, Launcells. She was by then 33 years old (and probably accustomed to life as a spinster), but came from a respectable family of landowners (for over ten generations), and importantly, with a substantial dowry. She went on to bear two children, a daughter and a son. Elizabeth’s parents had died and her five brothers/sisters were all married, so she was probably pleased to no longer be the only one unwed in the family. The couple married in her family church at Launcells in 1814.  It would be interesting to know more about their marriage and family life, which his biographer, Sabine Baring-Gould was less voluminous about than his inventions. 

Elizabeth was the sister of a Wadebridge solicitor, Richard Symons, and Gurney was an eligible bachelor being introduced, as was the fashion of the time, to single women seeking husbands. Porter et al seem to suggest she was “skittish and fretful” but that trait was linked to Gurney’s rather dangerous interest in steam engines. She genuinely thought he might harm or damage himself. Compared to Elizabeth, Gurney was considered well-connected, gregarious and intelligent, able to converse on many subjects. The couple had a daughter, Anna Jane, in 1816, born at Egloshayle (who died in 1895) and a son, Goldsworthy John Gurney, born in 1822 (who died quite young in 1847). Gurney himself is buried at Launcells in a grave just under the south wall of the nave.

He received no adequate recognition in his lifetime but his prestige has grown posthumously, despite his family line dying out. Anna is one of the main reasons we  remember Goldsworthy Gurney, for she championed his rights to inventions other steam engineers were (inadvertently) accredited with.

Cutting a long story very short (largely because of my poor knowledge/understanding of his inventions) he grew discontented with rural life which was under pressure from thousands of returning soldiers from the war with Napoleon, so moved to London in 1820, where he used his lecturing skills to educate, but also designed a steam apparatus for propelling carriages; he moved on to build a steam-powered vehicle which could travel from London to Bath at around 15 miles per hour, the start of modern transport. Their journey to London wasn’t especially easy: coach to Bodmin, then from Lostwithiel to Fowey, by ship with baggage and furniture to Margate and up the Thames, to a rather different life than he had experienced in Cornwall, full of hustle and bustle, and more intellectual rigour. It was in London that their son, Goldsworthy John was born in 1822. By 1826, Gurney had bought a manufacturing company but by 1832, he had serious money problems.

The Gurneys leased number 7, Argyll Street, near Hanover Square, where he continued practising as a surgeon, and later 154, Albany Street, near Regent’s Park, which was larger and perfect for his family and work on steam engines. London was a dirty, unhealthy place at this time so his skills were in high demand. Soot, vermin, sewage, noise and squalor added to the all round stench which made it pretty unpleasant. Gurney could not join the Royal College of Surgeons as he lacked a medical degree, so turned instead to chemistry.

Along with his surgery, his series of lectures at the Surrey Institute attracted good numbers, with chemistry especially popular at this time, as befitted the new industrial and agricultural methods, but also because of its perceived  intellectualism. “Gurney claimed that his freelance lecturing prior to 1822 earned him between £300 and £400 a year, in an age when £150 could establish a person comfortably in the middle classes”, according this website, a veritable mine of information on his life and inventions,  The Motor Museum.

Indeed, chemistry became an easier way to gain public recognition and prestige than surgery. It was also a way to attract prospective patients. He always took great care with the presentation of his talks, managing to include the practical application elements. He not only enjoyed inventing, he also enjoyed excursions on his steam engine carriages to Hampstead, Highgate, Edgware, Barnet and others, though other less adventurous/knowledgeable people were understandably concerned about travelling by steam boiler. Grace’s Guide noted: 

His daughter Anna, in a letter to The Times newspaper in December 1875, notes that “I never heard of any accident or injury to anyone with it, except in the fray at Melksham, on the noted journey to Bath, when the fair people set upon it, burnt their fingers, threw stones, and wounded poor Martyn the stoker”. The vehicle had to be escorted under guard to Bath to prevent further Luddism. 

Pleased with his successes in London and anticipating greater wealth than he actually achieved, he decided to build a country house in Cornwall in 1830, near to his wife’s country home, though it is thought he personally found provincial life difficult.  It seems that Elizabeth probably missed Cornwall. 

Perhaps it was his return to Cornwall that made him a “forgotten scientist”, yet his inventions and innovations changed many people’s lives. However, they also failed to make money. In 1831, for example, changes to the law and tolls charged on steam carriages, led to his bankruptcy with debts of £232,000, not an inconsiderable sum. He could no longer build carriages or protect his work by patenting. 

There is a great deal more information about his inventions here. There are many of them. Gurney’s knowledge and interests were wide-ranging.

To build the house, he chose land leased from a friend, Sir Thomas Acland, a sand dune site, where he built the middle section of Bude Castle Later extended), still in existence today, testimony to his brilliance. His design drew inspiration from the Romantics who enjoyed castellation, towers and turrets, but he continued to experiment and invent. It is said that people told Gurney he could not build a house on two acres of sand but he was the kind of man to enjoy proving people wrong, it seems, and he managed to build it based on foundations of a concrete raft. The moral of the story is perhaps never to use the word “can’t” to an inventor. The house was a form of laboratory for Gurney, who tried his inventions there, most notably the Bude Light, when he switched his interests to lighting and heating, due to economic demands. This was later adopted in the House of Commons. 

He was believed to have lit the entire Castle building with one Bude Light (used in theatrical lighting) directed into each room with lenses and mirrors. The 2000 Millenium Bude Light sculpture was built to celebrate it. Using coloured concrete and fibre optic lighting, it was created by Boscastle painter and sculptor, Carole Vincent, with Anthony Fanshawe, the concrete said to represent the colours of the sand, sea and sky.

Having built the Castle, it seems his wife did not much like it there (we know not why), so he sold the lease to one Canon Maskell, buying instead the smaller Reeds at Poughill. His wife died shortly after in 1837, so never really had much chance to enjoy her new abode. She was buried at St-Martin-in-the-Fields, London.

He married again at around the age of 61, having bought a house in Boyton called Hornacott Manor, where he could look into practical farming methods as farming had interested him as a child. His new wife was a 24-year-old, the daughter of a farmer from Sheepwash, Devon, called Betty. The marriage was not successful. Not too surprisingly, it is said that daughter Anna never took to her much younger stepmother, who was removed from Gurney’s will, so there was obviously some family animosity. 

Gurney was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1863,  and then cruelly struck by illness, a form of paralysis. This did not kill him but severely curtailed his life activities. He died at Reeds, but not until 1875, and was buried at Launcells, having been cared for by his devoted daughter, Anna, who was his loyal companion, taking a deep interest in his work. There is little mention of his son, Goldsworthy John, who died at 25, without heirs.

As engineers go, he was rather forgotten and unacknowledged. His inventions included the oxy-hydrogen blowpipe, the Gurney Stove (still to be seen at Ely, Chester, Hereford and Tewkesbury cathedrals), and, of course, the Bude Light (limelight). So, if anyone has more information to fill out the Gurney story, that would be well received.

His daughter Anna, his constant companion in later life,  wrote a tribute:

He originated the electric Telegraph, High Speed Locomotion and Flashing Light Signalling. He invented the Steam Jet and the Oxy-Hydrogen Blowpipe.

His obituary in The Engineer, 12th March, 1875, read:

With regret, we record the death of Sir Goldsworthy Gurney, a man of considerable eminence as an inventor …  and more besides.


Gurney’s plentiful inventions included the:

  • “oxy-hydrogen” blowpipe, credited to Robert Hare, where an intensely hot flame was created by burning a jet of oxygen and hydrogen together, underpinned limelight.
  • an instrument of musical glasses.
  • the construction of a steam carriage for use on the common roads.
  • the high-pressure “steam-jet” for road or rail vehicles; which could also be used to extinguish fires in coal mines, but also could be applied to blast furnaces for the making of iron; and for purging underground sewers, helping to eradicate cholera. 
  • The “limelight” for theatres, with his “Bude Light”. Using a standard flame producer such as an oil lamp and by adding oxygen directly into the flame he produced a dramatically increased bright white light. Such lights were fitted in The House of Commons and also in Trafalgar Square where replicas of the two styles originally used can still be seen. 
  • The “Gurney Stove”, another invention which he patented in 1856, was extensively used to heat a wide variety of buildings. Many of these stoves are still in use to this day, in cathedrals such as Ely, Durham and Peterborough.
  • Gurney was associated over many years with the heating and ventilating of the Houses of Parliament. His stoves were used in the original heating and ventilating of both Houses of Parliament, and later in 1852 he introduced a new method of lighting and ventilating to the new Houses of Parliament, replacing 280 candles.


There is so much more that could be added, but we might be in danger of writing a book. Please feel free to add your knowledge in the comments.

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