Uses of Steam around Bristol

Talk by Paul Stevens
Wednesday 11th February 2009

Our Chairman, John Coneybeare opened the well-attended meeting by explaining the absence of David Hutton, one of our long-serving "tea boys", in a very entertaining and roundabout way. Starting off from a mention of Elizabeth Blackwell, whose name drew murmurs of recognition from some members, he outlined her achievements. Nobody except John could see where he was heading! The eventual upshot was that David's daughter had presented him with a grandchild, and David had taken off hot-foot to Newcastle-upon-Tyne. We wish him and his family well.

John also gave notice that he would be standing down with effect from the AGM, and that this time there would be no last-minute capitulation. He also stated that Malcolm Williams would be standing down as Secretary, so we will be faced with two significant vacancies on the Committee. Volunteers are urgently required if the Club is to survive.

He then introduced our speaker, Paul Stephens, and here I borrow shamelessly from John's previously circulated introductory note, "During the day Paul is the IT Manager for the Portbury factory of DS Smith Packaging, a manufacturer of corrugated boxes. His great passion is the history of the stationary steam engine and he has spent over thirty years photographing surviving examples in various parts of the world. This includes Western Europe, United States and Canada plus the island of Java. He has been chairman of the International Stationary Steam Engine Society for many years. Details of the society may be found at" Paul opened by telling us that his interest in stationary steam engines was sparked by seeing one on a visit to Cornwall in his mid-teens, and that Bristol and its immediate environs has seen examples of just about all the uses of stationary steam engines, from mining to the docks. The first was in fact in S. Gloucestershire and was a 1712 Newcomen reciprocating engine. A Hornblower compound engine was installed in 1782 at Radstock, but suffered from too low a steam pressure. Although more efficient than the original Watt design it also used a condensing system that Boulton and Watt successfully claimed infringed their earlier patent. By 1860, at the Frog Lane colliery, Coalpit Heath, there were two separate engines, one for de-watering the mine and the other for driving the winding gear.

It became apparent that we were not going to go in to the minutiae of how these engines differed in design and operation, but were on a whistle-stop tour of photographs of engines in the area, as already we had seen an interesting selection. Paul told us that as well as his own photographs, he would, again I quote John's flyer for the meeting, "use pics from the late George Watkins [1904 - 1989] who spent [most of] his entire life travelling the length and breadth of the British Isles photographing stationary steam engines" ["from the 1930s to the 1970s" according to an article on the 'Project Muse' website]. " his collection of pics is now held in English Heritage's Research centre at Swindon. ISSES have already produced one edition of our annual Journal (Stationary Power) dedicated to George and two others are in course of production." Paul believes that if Watkins had not suffered from poor health the NMR collection, already large at over 10,000 negatives and 1500 prints, would have been several times larger. Because of the bulk of his equipment and the cost of quarter-plate photography he usually limited himself to five pictures per engine. Compare this with a modern photographer with a digital camera.

Broadly speaking, the use of both horizontal and beam engines continued in the Bristol area until around 1934. From the 1860s, an Evans of Paulton horizontal engine, believed to be the only survivor of its type is now believed to be in the Bristol Industrial Museum. [A member of the audience expressed concern that the remodelling of the Industrial Museum, with its removal of exhibits to store, may well result in some of these important but bulky items being quietly scrapped.] Paul showed an extensive list of known Boulton & Watt installations. Bristol had some very early rotative engines [a B & W 1788 development "the single greatest steam-engine improvement" (Science Museum, Energy hall web-site)]. A windmill at Winterbourne was functioning until 1900, but a chimney was clear to see in the photograph of the complex, so the presumption was that it had been superseded by steam.

This led into specific applications.
The first was Mills: At Snuff Mills there is still the egg-ended boiler and some remains of the engine, a B & W "wibbly-wobbly" design, which is known as a "grasshopper" in the USA, from its configuration. The Great Western Cotton mill [1838], at Barton Hill, looking as if it really belonged in Manchester, had B&W beam engines installed in an integral engine house.

Breweries etc.: The engine from Holton Street, where beer wine and vinegar were processed, was installed in 1860 and is now in the Bristol Industrial Museum. Over in Wiltshire, at Arkell's brewery in Swindon, a Marshall's engine was installed in 1934, a relatively late date.

Factories: In 1880, Sheldon Bush, lead shot manufacturers, installed an engine by J Mole of Chester that was in operation until 1947.
Lockyer & Co, bone charcoal refiners, had an engine that drove grindstones until 1938.
A pottery*, whose name was unfortunately missed, had a Paxman's engine running from 1908 until 1965.
At the Robinson's oil-seed mills at Avonmouth a Greenman and Bailey engine ran from 1904 to 1963. It was illustrated with a very impressive rope drive. Apparently this form of drive was very popular in the UK, whereas flat belt drives were more the norm on the Continent.
Both of Bristol's major chocolate manufacturers employed steam engines - we saw a photograph of a model of a Donkin engine used by J S Fry, and Carson at Mangotsfield opted for uniflow engines from Switzerland designed from about 1908.
Donkin engines seemed to be favoured by gas works, and an example survives at Westonzoyland.
Docks: The 'Fairbairn' crane [a scheduled ancient monument from 1976] is still operational. Made by Stothert and Pitt of Bath it is the only survivor of its kind in the UK. Apparently it was used more in WW II than at any other time in its life. There is an informative article on the internet at

At the Underfall Yard, steam engines were used for planning, punching & shearing, and hydraulic pumping. The bascule bridge near the General Hospital was also steam driven.

From the Docks it was a logical step to Ships with a Bristol connection, and there were slides of the SS Great Britain, with its reproduction of the 1843 1000 HP engine, and the propeller, "BD 6" the steam dredger/scraper [technically a "drag-boat"] of 1845, the steam tug "Mayflower" of 1861, now unique [and on the National Historic Ships Register], which used to work on the Sharpness canal, and the Admiralty water tender "Freshspring", powered by a standard 3-cylinder [triple expansion] engine. [According to the National Historic Ships Register she was built in 1947, the last of the series.] Electricity: This involved Willans and Robinson reciprocating engines from 1899 at Avonmouth, other machines at Temple Back, and Willans' engines at Feeder at the Counterslip, and steam turbines came in to use at Portishead 'A' in Road. For some unknown reason American steam engines seem to have been in use 1930. The tramways had their own steam-driven generating plant at Beaconsfield Road, as did W D and H O Wills. In 1890 Bellis and Morcom engines were installed at Glenside, and are now unique insofar as they are still on their original site.

Paul closed with a look at Water Supply: The Black Rock pumping station was commissioned around 1870, with Bull engines which were transferred to the later Victoria pumping station, where they had some use until 1960 driving water pumps. At Chelvey there were beam engines by James Watt & Co., and late examples from 1904-8 were the four engines at Blagdon, where two of the original engines still survive. [These were Woolf compound beam engines, using a Watt's linkage, which according to 'Wikipedia' "were built by Glenfield & Kennedy of Kilmarnock between 1900 and 1905" and were all in use until 1949.] After a range of questions, including reference to the pumping stations for the Severn railway tunnel, the vote of thanks was given by the Club President, Michael Clinch.

*As a footnote, John Coneybeare later commented, "This talk was a real roll call of Bristol industries almost none of them surviving. I think the pottery was Pountneys who moved to Cornwall as a much smaller operation I expect. Some of their buildings survive at the rear of the Morrisons supermarket on Fishponds Road."
Andrew Smith

Editors Note:The Bristol Tramways and Carriage Co. Ltd the owners of the Beaconsfield and Counterslip power stations purchased their trams and steam engines with direct drive generators from America who where well ahead of Britain in the development of trams at the turn of the century. BTH who were employed in this had not yet established their factory at Rugby. A similar setup was provided afterwards in the Clontarf tram power station in Dublin.