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Posts Tagged ‘Steam Engines’

A guest post by London Historians member Roger Williams.

Screen Shot 2018-03-22 at 08.50.45Regulars at The London Historians’ monthly meetups in the Hoop and Grapes will be familiar with Shepherd Neame’s Whitstable Bay. The beer is dispensed from the barrel, and the label on the pump handle describes it as a being from ‘The Faversham Steam Brewery’. This name was first used to mark the acquisition in the late 18th century of a five-horse-power steam engine, which made the brewery one of the first outside London to join the Industrial Revolution. The engine was supplied by the Birmingham pioneering manufactory of Matthew Boulton and James Watt whose portraits are on the £50 note. This is the last note to be transformed into polymer, and there is even speculation that this note is so unused — or, perhaps, only used for drug dealing and money laundering — that it may disappear altogether.  It would be a shame if Boulton and Watt slipped back into history, for these are the men who drove the Industrial Revolution and brought Britain incredible wealth.

Their headquarters was the Soho Manufactory in Birmingham, in a district named, like London’s West End quarter, after a hunting cry. But you don’t have to go that far to appreciate their work, and the first stop must be the London Museum of Water and Steam at Kew, where one glance at the monster Boulton & Watt beam engine gives an immediate sense of what giants of industry these two men were.  Steam engines were designed initially by the likes of Newcomen and Trevithick to pump water from Cornish mines. By 1800 80 percent of the world’s coal was mined in Britain,  and today 75 per cent of electricity in use in Britain is provided by steam. Built in 1820, the year after Watt’s death, for the waterworks at Chelsea, this machine was moved to Kew in 1840. It is the oldest known working waterworks beam engine in the world, and it still gets fired up. Watching the leviathan 15-ton beam ease into graceful action is a vision of the hand-wrought world of man at its height.

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James Watt’s workshop at his house in Handsworth, near Soho, was a popular place to visit during and even after his lifetime. In 1924, more than a century after his death, his house was due to be demolished so  the Science Museum organised the transplantation of the workshop to South Kensington.  It is still there, behind glass, a glorified shed, which has the oldest circular saw in the world, musical instruments and devices to copy sculpture, early 3D printing machines, which occupied Watt in the last years of his life.
The Science Museum’s Engine Hall also preserves Old Bess, one of the world’s oldest surviving beam engines, built in 1777 and used at the Soho manufactory. Buyers might be shown around Old Bess and could purchase the parts and assemble their machines for themselves in situ, with the help of a manual. David & Charles published a reprint some time ago, and it included the use of olive or ‘Spanish’ oil for lubrication. Soho engineers were sometimes sent out to help build or mend machines. It was this idea that gave me the idea to write Burning Barcelona, an historical novel based on solid fact, that imagined an engine erector installing the first steam engine in Spain for Josep Bonaplata’s textile mill in Barcelona, only for it to be attacked by the mob.

As a result of the novel, I gave a paper at Birmingham University in 2009 at the Matthew Boulton Bicentenary Conference*, which helped to bring the coin and ‘toy’ manufacturer (at his own expense he gave every man serving at Trafalgar a medal) into modern consciousness. I was subsequently invited to Westminster Abbey when a memorial to Boulton ‘Pioneer of the Industrial Revolution’ was installed in the floor of St Paul’s chapel.

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Boulton and Watt built the giant Albion flour mills by Blackfriars bridge, which spectacularly burnt down in 1791, five years after it was installed, The Whitbread brewery in Chiswell Street near the Barbican, also had one of Watt’s first rotative steam engines, built in around the same year, which operated for more than a century. The brewery closed in 1976 and has become a Grade II listed venue with a James Watt Room, while the engine, transported to The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia, is still going strong.

James Watt spent much of his life fighting copyright infringements. In London one of his biggest rivals was Henry Maudslay, who built the first beam engine for the Kew Bridge works in 1838. The company’s main erecting shop was in Lambeth where it ran a training school for a whole generation of engineers. Maudslay was a pioneer of machine tool technology, and he specialised in marine engines, providing the power for Brunel’s SS Great Eastern, launched at Millwall in 1854.

If the £50 note does get issued in polymer form, perhaps Henry Maudslay could take the place of Boulton & Watt.
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London Museum of Water & Steam, Kew, www.waterandsteam.org.uk

* Matthew Boulton & James Watt: Empowering the World, paper from the Bicentenary Conference, can be seen on https://boultonwattpaper.blogspot.co.uk
Burning Barcelona on Amazon: https://goo.gl/5jQ2dR


London Historian member Roger Williams is a London-born journalist and former travel guide editor. His fiction is based on historical events that have caught his imagination (Burning Barcelona, Lunch With Elizabeth David, Hotel Bristol Stories). A tourist at home, he is constantly drawn to the Thames, and his books on London include Whitebait and the Thames Fisheries, The Temples of London, Father Thames and London’s Lost Global Giant – in search of the East India Company. Other London books are The Royal Albert Hall: a masterpiece for the 21st century, London Top 10, The Most Amazing Places to Visit in London and Royal London.

 

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