Steam Tactics

(notes edited by Alastair Wilson)


This entertaining story of early motoring first appeared for the general public on December 1st 1902 in the Windsor Magazine. It thus came out before ‘The Bonds of Discipline’ and ‘Their Lawful Occasions’, and by way of introduction it was preceded by a letter from the author to Petty Officer Pyecroft, who figures in all three stories.

The story and letter also appeared in the United States in the Saturday Evening Post of 6th December 1902, accompanied by the poem “The Necessitarian”. In the United States, it was preceded, for copyright purposes, by a twelve-page, ten cent edition by the Curtis Publishing Company.

There are many petty textual differences between the Windsor Magazine version and the collected one, but they do not affect the story. They are set out in the attached note.

The story was collected in:

  • Traffics and Discoveries in 1904
  • Scribner’s Edition Volume XXII
  • the Sussex Edition Volume VII, page 179
  • the Burwash Edition Volume VII.

Since the collected stories appeared in chronological order of events, the letter preceding the magazine version was omitted as being unnecessary.

The illustrations

In the Windsor Magazine there were six black-and-white illustrations by C H Jalland. This Editor has been unable to find anything about Jalland, and can only say that his style is similar to the better known illustrator and artist, G.L Stampa, who was a contemporary, and also worked for the Windsor Magazine. Stampa’s illustrations also appear in the various collections of Kipling’s dog stories.

The story

The narrator, a barely-disguised Kipling, and his chauffeur-engineer are driving through west Sussex in his steam car, en route to a luncheon engagement, when they meet Petty Officer Pyecroft and Mr Hinchcliffe, Engine-Room Artificer 1st Class. The narrator forgoes his lunch engagement and offers Pyecroft and Hinchcliffe a lift. Hinchcliffe takes the controls, and they suffer a series of mechanical mishaps such as Kipling himself had experienced with his Locomobile steam car.

They are stopped for speeding (unjustifiedly) by a plain clothes policeman, and agree to take him, it may be assumed, to the nearest magistrate to pay the fine.
But it appears that the constable is not carrying his warrant card, and on the pretext that he might be an impostor, they ‘kidnap’ him, to show him what the alleged speed of twenty-plus miles an hour was really like.

After a cross-country diversion to avoid another police trap, the car breaks down, but luckily they fall in with the narrator’s prospective luncheon host, Kysh, in his big petrol-engined car. He, too, is out of charity with the Sussex constabulary, having just been stopped on a trumped-up charge, and so the unspoken message is that they will have their revenge on the constable, who is treated to a circular tour of Sussex, and finally is left at dusk, close to where the story started, in the middle of a private zoo-park.

Incidentally Kipling had used the name ‘Kysh’ in two poems of 1887, “The Sacrifice of Er-Heb”, in which he was one of the ‘little gods but very wise’, and the unpublished “Itu and his God”, in which he is a powerful and vengeful deity. Here he is a friendly soul, though also – in a modest way – an instrument of vengeance.


Kipling was one of the earliest serious motorists in England, acquiring his first car, a hired petrol-engined “Embryo”, which at times could cover eight miles an hour, in December 1899. Despite its many shortcomings, he made some journeys which, for pioneer motoring and given the state of the roads, were quite long. However, throughout his life, he never drove himself, always employing a chauffeur, who became a member of his household staff.

After a year, he bought an American-made ‘Locomobile’ steam car, and it is this car which features in “Steam Tactics”. He put up with her foibles for over a year (though, since the family spent the winters in South Africa at this time, never through an English winter) before buying a new Lanchester petrol car. Frederick William Lanchester was a self-taught engineer, who built well-engineered cars of superior quality. His company lasted from 1894 to 1933, when it was taken over by Daimler-BSA. Lanchester cars continued to be produced until 1955.

The “Octopod” rescue car in the story is possibly based on the new Lanchester car, of which Kipling had taken delivery in June 1902. Its fictional driver, Kysh, is thought to have been based on Max Lawrence, works manager of the Lanchester factory. As regards the route taken through the Sussex countryside, a number of attempts to identify the various places have been made: these are summarised by the ORG Editors in the attached note with the addition of some map references to help readers to identify some of the Sussex place-names. We have also included a further note on Kipling as an early motorist, from the ORG.

Early motorists, like many today, had little reason to love the Law, whether in the form of the legal restrictions which Parliament imposed, or the police, whose zeal in enforcing those restrictions was resented by all right-thinking motorists. (See “The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat”, in A Diversity of Creatures, and the comment in “The Vortex” (A Diversity of Creatures), which speaks of: ‘the mustard-coloured scouts of the Automobile Association; their natural enemies, the unjust police’. So the revenge on the policeman would have appealed to many motorists, being, one might think, the fictional realisation of their dreams.

In fact, it was based on an actual occurrence involving F.W. Lanchester at a rally of the Midland Automobile Club in 1902, when a policeman who was exceeding his duty was carried from Solihull to Stow-on-the-Wold, some 40 miles, and back again. An account of the incident will be found in Kipling’s Sussex, by Michael Smith, (Brownleaf, Rottingdean, 2008):

Fred and George Lanchester both attended a rally of the Midland Automobile Club in 1902, with a luncheon party at the George Hotel, Solihull. The former drove a car on final test for a customer and George was in a car ready for delivery to the War Department. It was painted in glossy khaki and had the King’s cipher emblazoned on one of the panels. During testing it had almost certainly exceeded the speed limit of 12 m.p.h. George asked Fred his opinion of the car as he climbed in [to the driver’s seat] with a passenger, Sidney Pinsent, a draughtsman employee.

As he did so a police constable waiting nearby asked F.W. for his name and address. After some altercation, and within his rights to refuse giving his name, Fred drove off, saying “You can come and fetch it.” The PC scrambled over the side, bending one of the rear wings and scratching a panel with his boot. Instead of driving home Fred took the Stratford-upon-Avon Road, and continued through Moreton-in-Marsh and Stow-on-the-Wold. At each village they passed, the policeman stood up and shouted “Stop him!” at which Pinsent also stood and shouted “Are we right for – ?” naming the next town. The passers-by signalled them straight on, assuming that the constable had commandeered the vehicle to chase a miscreant.

Fred and Pinsent talked in French about what they ought to do. Driving at a speed over the limit, Fred stopped beyond Stow and told the constable that having exceeded the limit he must stop for an hour so that the average speed in m.p.h. could be reduced to within the legal limit. The officer was getting very nervous but after a while they agreed to take him back to Solihull. Arriving in Stratford, they stopped for a meal at the Shakespeare Hotel, but as the policeman was on duty he couldn’t be entertained. He had to remain outside and mind the car until the two motorists had finished their leisurely dinner.

Back at Solihull Police Station at about 11 p.m. Fred returned the notebook in which the constable had asked him to write his name and address and enquired what offence had been committed. The officer replied “Exceeding the speed limit between Olton and Solihull”. “But I did not drive the car on that road, nor as my friend here is a witness, was I in the car. Some other driver was in charge before I took her over.” The constable escaped being charged with failing to report back at the correct time and no charge against Fred could be made.

There is a fuller account in Lanchester Motor Cars (Anthony Bird and Francis Hutton-Scott, Cassell, 1965)
Kipling as an early motorist

In Kipling’s autobiography, Something of Myself, the references to motoring reveal his early enthusiasm for this new and liberating technology:

A friend cried at our door, Mr. Harmsworth has just brought round one of those motor car things. Come and try it. We returned, white with dust and dizzy with noise. But the poison worked from that very hour…

…Somehow an enterprising Brighton agency hired us a Victoria-hooded, carriage-sprung, carriage-braked, single-cylinder, belt-driven, fixed-ignition Embryo which, at times, could cover eight miles an hour. Its hire, including ‘driver’ was three-and-a-half guineas a week…

…Once the proud designer – she was his newest baby – took me as far as Worthing where she fainted opposite a vacant building-plot. This we paved completely with every other fitting she possessed ere we got at her trouble. We then reassembled her, a two hours job. After which she spat boiling water over our laps, but we stuffed a rug into the geyser and so spouted home.
[This last refers to his second car “Amelia”, in the letters dated 17 October and 30 November 1902 quoted below]

There are also many references to motoring in Kipling’s letters (edited by (Thomas Pinney (Ed.) Letter)s ), mainly in volume 2.

[20 July 1900, to John St. Loe Strachey]
We came home to find our motor (the “Embryo”) suffering from acute gastritis and a few other things. When they go wrong they go wrong horrid.

[4 July 1901 – to John S. Phillips]

As to the Locomobile herself, she is at present a Holy Terror. If ever you meet Amzi Lorenzo Barber” (the president pf the Locomobile Company, makers of the Locomobile steam car) “you may tell him that I yearn for his presence on the driving seat with me.

I suppose she will settle down some day to her conception of duty but just now her record is one of eternal and continuous breakdown. She disgraced us on June 26th when I took two friends over 13 miles of flat road. The pumps failed to lift and we had to pump dolefully every few miles home. Also she took to blowing through her pistons.

We overhauled her on June 27th (all the day). She did some run-about trips on June 28th … On June 29th we laid out a trip 19 miles out and back. I took the wife. She (the Loco) betrayed us foully 12 miles out. – blew through her cylinders, leaked, and laid down. It was a devil of a day. It ended with coming home by train. The wife nearly dead from exhaustion… On June 30th I telephoned up to town and got the London agents to send down a man to overhaul. She needed repacking throughout, and the main steam valve leaked. (Another day off.) I left her alone on the 31st” (being Monday) (he meant 1st July) went up to town on the 1st. Came down on the second July. She covered the five miles from the station to my home in fine form.

Yesterday, July 3, I went for an evening trip – a few miles only along the road. Her steam was beautiful, but she shut down her fire automatically, and amid the jeers of Brighton we crawled to the Brighton repair shop, where we left her. The explanation was that her petrol pipe was choked. She apparently must be taken to pieces every time anything goes wrong with her. She is today in the shop being cleaned, and I shall be lucky if I get her tomorrow night.

I tell you these things that you may think once or twice ere you get a Locomobile. It is quite true that she is noiseless, but so is a corpse, and one does not get much fun out of a corpse.

Is McClure’s open to a story of her performance – say 5000 words under caption “Locoed”? If the worst comes to the worst I may reimburse myself that way for the cost of her repairs during the past ten days.

It isn’t as if we wanted her for long tours. – isn’t as if we ever tried to get more than 10 miles an hour out of her. We got her for a carriage – a refined and lady like carriage – and we treat her on that basis. He lines are lovely; her form is elegant; the curves of her buggy-top are alone worth the price of admission, but – as means of propulsion she is today a nickelplated fraud. I guess Amzi Lorenzo goes about the world in a B(road)way surface car.” (a New York tram).

[5 July 1901 – to Mrs Anna Balestier (his mother-in-law)].

The news is Motor, nothing but Motor and now I believe in a personal devil. You won’t know Brighton or Brighton seafront so you will never know the joy of breaking down for lack of fuel under the eyes of 5000 Brighton Hackmen (cab-drivers) and about 2,000,000 trippers. We were taking Aunt Georgie for a little run and – but it’s no use talking. We had to run her, or crawl her (the Locomobile) to the Repair Shops. This happened on Wednesday. She has just come out with her innards rejuvenated and for the time being goes like a dream…

I don’t know if Carrie gave you any details of our trip to Crowboro – about 25 miles N of here. Coughing Jane lay down on a hill and dissolved into clouds of steam and water. She did everything vile that a motor could do and we wearily tramped the roads until we found a cottage and a kind Irishman who fed us chicken and ham sandwiches and beer and was an angel unto us. We came back by train from Crowboro. Altogether it was an awful day ….”

[17 September 1901, to W.E. Henley]

Yes – I have a motor. I have a hell and a half of a motor. She has been in London for four weeks having her tripes repaired and she is in London still and my chances of seeing her before Monday are “precarious and by no means permanent”. I wish I could tell you all I thought about motors.

If she turns up by Monday I’ll send you a wire to let you know when she is coming over. She is a bitch but I don’t suppose she will have the face to go sick again after her holiday in the Lock Hospital.

[13 May 1902 – to John St. Loe Strachey]

Could you tell me how I could belong to the Automobile Club? I have had to chuck my Locomobile which was a gay and meretricious swindle from first to last and now I want to get a decent motor (there must be some type that can go) and good advice on that head. I think one could learn more about the business at the Automobile Club than anywhere else.

[17 October 1902 – to Henry James]

Touching motors – and Amelia specially – (“Amelia” was his name for his new petrol-engined Lanchester car) it’s not as easy as it looks – a sick motor. The wretched engineer laboured with her all that night and next day wired that he could do nothing but would return and explain all. Late on Wednesday evening he came home and I wired to Birmingham where Amelia was born and bred that she lay comatose at Rye, and please would they do something.

They sent a man from Birmingham to Rye (two towns that are fairly remote) and he had a smack at her and on Thursday evening wired that our engineer should come over and help him. But our engineer, who had been helping saw wood on our circular saw, was at that moment in bed with two fingers rather cut (this comes of saying nothing and sawing wood) and so we had to tell the Birmingham man to wrestle on alone.

He (the Birmingham specialist) brought Amelia back yesterday morn and vowed that the accident which had befallen her was unique in all mechanics and motoring. (I know about fifty similar accidents – all unique.)

[30 November 1902, to Charles Eliot Norton. This letter refers to the incident mentioned above.]

We went down to see him in our new motor (Amelia is her name) some six weeks ago and because we swaggered and boasted about Amelia (she being a virgin) and told him how we would drive him all over Sussex in two hours, Amelia was took with a cataleptic trance then and there – opposite a hotel – and she abode in Rye, stark and motionless till we wired to the place where she was born (it happened to be Birmingham) for an expert mechanician or obstetrician or whatever the name is and after two days Amelia came back to us. But Henry James’s monologue over her immobile carcass – with all the machinery exposed and our engineer underneath growing progressively blacker and blacker – would have been cheap at the price of several wrecked cars.

Critical responses

Although critics are now inclined to class ‘Steam Tactics’ amongst Kipling’s stories with a ‘revenge’ motive, it must be remembered that when it was written, civility and service could still be confidently hoped for from most employees of Government; two world wars had not yet occurred to make the public docile, humble and ready to put up with petty tyranny from jacks-in-office, and more emphasis was still placed upon individual responsibility than upon collective guilt. Punishment for aggressive bad manners could then be held to be simple justice, untainted by revenge. In any case, the story, as an imaginative extravaganza, is not to be taken too seriously.

On the whole Kipling’s biographers and critics have not taken much notice of this tale, regarding it as a lightweight humorous tale with overtones of revenge. Charles Carrington merely mentions it in connection with the chapter entitled ‘A Home in Sussex’. In it, he remarks that the coming of the motor-car “released them from restraints that were beginning to bear heavily”. He adds that, having bought the Locomobile, for two years they:

…drove it from end to end of Sussex, in a world still unprovided with petrol pumps, spare tyres or repair shops. Every motorist had to be his own mechanic and had to learn how to do running repairs as new problems arose. Two or three times a week Rudyard and Carrie set off for long drives with the ‘engineer’, and her diary gives the impression that few outings were completed without mishap…

Motoring misadventures play a large part in his stories during the next few years, and, once or twice, dominate the scene. The ‘Locomobile’ is faithfully described in ‘Steam Tactics’ a complex tale of sailors ashore, officious policemen and Mr. Loder’s private zoo; the machine alone draws these diverse elements together.

In her Chapter II, ‘Laughter’ J M S Tompkins discusses those tales which, although farcical, have a hard core of bitter revenge. In particular she cites “The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat”, concluding that: ‘To be able to break so noxious an insect’ (the reference is to Sir Thomas Ingell, the ‘villain’ of the story) ‘on so huge, glittering, vibrating and maddening a wheel as modern publicity, is no simple joke; it is really not a joke at all.’ She goes on:

It is unnecessary to take the flouting of police authority in ‘Steam Tactics’ so seriously. The tale is compounded rather than developed, and the ingredients are the antics of the narrator’s incalculable steam-car, naval characters on leave, the Sussex countryside with its landowners, cottagers and police, and the black twenty-four-horse Octopod, humming uphill into the future at a ‘resonant fifteen against the collar’. To confound the politics of the police and frustrate their knavish tricks [the reference is to the second verse of the National Anthem] – those who think that the plain-clothes officer was merely doing his duty should look again at what is said about Agg the carrier and the measured quarter-mile – chance puts fantastic weapons into the motorists’ hands; indeed, the last page reads like one of the Brushwood Boy’s dreams. The victim is not much the worse; his quandary cannot be equated with the ruin of Major Kniveat in ‘Beauty Spots’ or Sir Thomas Ingell in ‘The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat’; but the element of resentment and malicious triumph in his instructors brings ‘Steam Tactic’ nearer to ‘Brugglesmith’ in tone than to ‘Aunt Ellen’, though it is much more loosely constructed.”

Later, in the same chapter, Professor Tompkins discusses how Kipling ‘examines the achievements of orgiastic laughter and begins to set it in what came to be almost mystical relations with the powers that rule life’. A page further on, she remarks:

And who or what is the Power of whose mysteries he is so richly rewarded to minister? We cannot expect a categorical answer in so sportive a medium. . . . In ‘The Necessitarian’, however, the verses prefixed to ‘Steam Tactics’, we meet the suggestion that, like all Kipling’s ultimate powers, this Power too is outside man. Time, Chance and Circumstance are merely the instruments of the unknown Jester, the culmination of whose play is called the Sacredly Absurd, as if a manifestation so excessive, so unaccountable and so complete must, like lunacy in former ages, somehow belong to the divine.

Andrew Lycett makes brief, but not unimportant, references to the story, saying that it ‘tells of his pleasure in the temperamental, two-cylinder, ten-horsepower, air cooled car’; this is emphatically NOT the steam car, but the ‘Octopod’, which rescues the narrator, and carries him and his hostage round Sussex in one long summer’s afternoon.

Later, Lycett remarks that ‘Boundaries of space and time are broken down with motor-cars and telegraphy in ‘Steam Tactics’ and ‘Wireless’.’ He also comments that Kipling had ‘referred (in ‘Steam Tactics’) to the healing power of laughter (or mirth, as Rudyard archaically called it)’ And finally, he comments that in this story and “The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat” Kipling was satirising ‘the flat earthers who wanted to hold back the progress of mechanical transport’.


©Alastair Wilson 2008 All rights reserved