Thomas Newcomen
introduction  •  early years  •  ironmongery and steam  •  first atmospheric engine  •  engines everywhere  •  Baptist faith  •  final years  •  legacy  •  sources
Family and early years
NOTE ... In England before 1752, the first day of the year was 25th March, not 1st January. So Newcomen, who was born on 24th February, was born in 1663 Old Style and 1664 New Style. This is usually written 1663/4.
Thomas Newcomen was born on 24th February 1663/4 at his parents' house on Foss Street in the Devon town of Dartmouth. The exact location of the house is unknown. He was baptised four days later at St Saviour's church in the town. However, his ancestors came from a quite different part of the country — from the village of Saltfleetby on the Lincolnshire coast. They had lived at Saltfleetby since at least the 12th century, when Hugo le Newcomen (born c.1165) fought in the Third Crusade under Richard I.
The family had lands and a manor house there, until 1536 when Bryan Newcomen (b.1492) was implicated in the Lincolnshire Rising against the dissolution of the monasteries. In punishment, Henry VIII confiscated his property and the clan dispersed. Bryan's grandsons Elias (1547-1614) and Robert (c.1570-1629, created baronet in 1623) founded branches of the family in Devon and Ireland respectively.
Elias is Newcomen's great grandfather. He had been educated at Cambridge University, matriculating from Clare College in 1565 and graduating from Magdalene College with a BA (1569) and an MA (1572). In 1588, he was ordained a Protestant deacon and on 19th March 1593/4 moved to Devon to become rector of Stoke Fleming near Dartmouth. Here he remained until he died on 13th July 1614.
Somewhat confusingly, the names Elias and Thomas feature regularly in the family tree. Newcomen's grandfather was called Thomas (1603-53) and his father Elias (1633-1702). Thomas senior was a merchant in Dartmouth. He married Bathsheba Philpott (1605-70) and they had six children — two sons (Robert and Elias) and four daughters (Thomasine, Dorothy, Elizabeth and Austice). They lived in a house (demolished in the 18th century) in South Town.
Newcomen's father (Elias) was also a merchant. He married Sarah (or Ailsa) around 1660. By 1661 they were living in the abovementioned Foss Street. The house was rated as three dwellings, and one of the other tenants was Philip Carey (1636-1710), Baptist minister of Dartmouth from 1685. The family had become followers of the Baptist faith in the time of Newcomen's grandfather.
Elias and Sarah had five children — John (c.1661-1725/6), Rebeccah (b.1662, died young), Thomas, Bathsheba and Louise. Sarah died when Newcomen was just three years old and she was buried in Dartmouth on 24th May 1667. Elias remarried in Halwell, Devon, on 6th January 1667/8, less than eight months later. His new bride was Alice Trenhale from Kingswear, daughter of Thomas Trenhale (d.1689).
The family moved to another house in Foss Street, at Nos.18-20, where they shared the lease with Walter Jago, who was also a merchant, from 1671 to 1678. This house later became the London Inn. No.18 is now a brethren chapel and No.20 a shop.
Elias must have decided that his sons should learn a trade, for they were both apprenticed. As Baptists, the boys' apprenticeships were not recorded, since religeous non-conformists were excluded from being freemen of Dartmouth. It is thought very likely that the boys were educated by the Baptist preacher John Flavell (c.1630-91) in the 1660s and 1670s, until they took up their apprenticeships.
Newcomen's elder brother John was sent to Chard in Devon to be an apothecary. He remained there, marrying Margaret (d.1701), who bore him six children, two of whom, sons Elias and George, feature later in this article later as steam engine builders.
Newcomen himself was apprenticed to an ironmonger in Exeter around 1678, when he was a teenager. At that time, ironmongery involved much more hands-on work than it does today — it was more akin to blacksmithing. He returned to Dartmouth in 1685 or 1686 to trade as an ironmonger in his own right. Accounts of the Dartmouth Borough Receiver show he was trading by 1688.
From about 1694, Newcomen obtained his iron from West Midlands ironmasters (and brothers) Paul and Philip Foley. By 1698/9 he was buying at least 25 tonnes per year from the Foleys, and he continued using them as suppliers until 1700.
Around this time he met fellow Baptist John Calley (1663-1717), a plumber and glazier who lived at 20 Duke Street. The two men joined forces as business partners and would go on to build steam engines together.
introduction  •  early years  •  ironmongery and steam  •  first atmospheric engine  •  engines everywhere  •  Baptist faith  •  final years  •  legacy  •  sources
All items by Thomas Newcomen  •  Everything built ... 1664 - 1729
main reference  Transactions of the Newcomen Society

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Foss Street, Dartmouth
Foss Street, Dartmouth, as it looks today. Thomas Newcomen was born in the street but it's not known in which house. In the background is St Stephen's Anglican church, where he was baptised on 28th February 1663/4, despite the fact that his family were followers of the Baptist faith. The family later moved to Nos 18-20 Foss Street.
Photo: © Roy Hughes and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
St Stephens, Dartmouth
St Stephen's Anglican church, Dartmouth
Photo: Eleanor Knowles
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