Providing a short overview of the first IEEC conference is challenging due to the busy and detailed programme over the three day event. Equally, full details of the conference, including the delegate handbook and information on the publication of the Conference Proceedings can be viewed separately.
Nevertheless for a sense of the event itself this conference report has been prepared.
Please click on a day below to expand the report section and read about the conference sessions:
►Day 1: Thursday 11th May 2017
Welcome & Opening Speeches – Dr John Tanner and John Hamshere
After the morning registration, conference delegates took their seats to hear a warm welcome to the First International Early Engines Conference. Welcoming visitors to the venue at Elsecar Heritage Centre, Dr John Tanner Museum and Heritage Project Manager, Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council, referred to the industrial jewel in Elsecar’s crown – the Newcomen engine of 1795. The world’s oldest atmospheric engine still in situ over its original working shaft.
Joining Dr Tanner, John Hamshere the Chief Executive of Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust, centred at Kelham Island. Speaking of his pride in the Elsecar engine, and of Kelham Island’s own 12,000 HP Don Valley Engine, Europe’s most powerful working steam engine, John welcomed the IEEC and the opportunity for presentation of a range of papers investigating the development of industrial power up to 1812.
Agenda, Logistics and Arrangements – Steve Grudgings
Moving on to the practicalities of the Conference, Steve Grudgings reviewed the 3 day agenda, spoke to the facilities and travel arrangements for visits.
Steve also introduced delegates to the IEEC organising committee members, including himself, Dr John Tanner, Peter King, Prof David Perrett, Richard Smith and Chris Jones. Members of the organising committee were visible throughout the conference, encouraging discussion and connections, as well as assisting in the smooth running of the programme, with members chairing the sessions and keeping to time.
Main conference programme
- Chaired by Professor David Perrett
Geoff Wallis – Restoring the Elsecar Newcomen Engine: high ideals, deep mysteries
It was appropriate that Geoff Wallis CEng MIMechE should be presenting the opening paper to the IEEC Conference. A recent Past-President of the Newcomen Society, Geoff is a well respected conservation consultant and project manager with Geoff Wallis Conservation, and former director of Dorothea Restorations with thirty years experience in the preservation of historical metalwork and machinery.
His paper outlined the history of the engine from its inception in 1794-5 pumping water for Earl Fitzwilliam’s Elsecar New Colliery through the nationalization of the mining industry and on to the closure of Elsecar NCB facilities in the 1980s when ownership was transferred to Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council. Throughout its life it had been preserved and was running until the 1920s. In 1931 and 1951 it was run for visitors, but in 1953 it appears to have sustained damage and could no longer work. Scheduled as an Ancient Monument in 1973 it has been added to English Heritage’s Buildings at Risk register before a partnership of the Heritage Lottery Fund, English Heritage and Barnsley Council enabled £425,000 of work to go forward 2009-2014 for the engine’s restoration in which Geoff acted as engine consultant.
With extensive survey work conservation planning was undertaken and in 2011 a Remote Operated Vehicle was also used to survey the flooded pumping pit shaft. Fascinating footage of this survey was shown after the presentation putting the amount of careful technical assessment into perspective.
Recounting the main stages in the history of the engine, Geoff sought to address several mysteries about the engine, as well as tackling the tricky balance of respecting an ancient monument whilst enabling the engine to be seen as a dynamic exhibit.
Phillip Hosken – Cui Bono? Inventors and the beneficiaries of their endeavours
Phillip Hosken, Chair of the Trevithick Society provided a timely reminder of the absence of reward or historic acknowledgment for the individuals who develop technology. Using references to forgotten steam engine innovators and noted the fates of those individuals, as regards fame and remuneration he reflected on who benefits from invention. Rarely the actual inventors it would seem. From Papin, Savery, Newcomen and Trevithick before Watt, whether the greatest innovations or developments brought the greatest reward was drawn into sharp question.
John Hunter – Pumping Engines at collieries on the north side of the Don Valley in the Rotherham area
John Hunter presented a detailed analysis of the geographical and geological factors influencing the placement of pumping engines in collieries in the Don Valley area of Rotherham, close to the conference venue in Elsecar, South Yorkshire. Through archival research, fieldwork and analysis of the hydrogeology the sites of a number of documented engines were discussed.
Presenting a number of detailed maps, the presentation covered a period from the mid 1730s at Gin House, through to one of the last Newcomen engines to be installed, the Westfield Engine at Rawmarsh in 1823. Using historic and modern photographs, the remains of the various sites discussed were also shown, together with the outstanding questions regarding some of the missing technical details of these engines.
Tony Coverdale – John Padmore of Bristol and his use of a water commanding engine – 1695
Tony Coverdale, Chair of the Bristol Industrial Archaeological Society presented an engaging and fascinating exploration into the possible development, location and use of a water commanding engine by John Padmore of Bristol. But which John Padmore? as more than one appears to have been engaged in a series of industrial developments and inventions from the 1690s to the 1730s, whether father or son.
Investigating the documentary references to the water commanding engine, Tony offered the tantalising prospect of a successful heat engine in actual practical use earlier than the Newcomen engine. Further work remains to be done but would represent a significant addition to the accepted historical development of early engines.
John Kanefsky – Analysis of numbers of UK Newcomen engines built prior to Watt’s first engine of 1776
Dr Kanefsky needed little introduction. His work on the growth of steam engines throughout the long eighteenth century has become a classic reference in economic history, and so his recent work in revisiting some of the previous statistical work based on more recent discoveries was eagerly awaited by many attendees.
Discussing methodology and the variable lifespans of many engines Dr Kanefsky had undertaken to revise he engine figures up to a cit off date of 1778 which is when Watt’s influence on engine design first takes effect. The revision allows more robust consideration of the growth and spread of atmospheric engines in the UK.
James Greener – “Yorkshire’s first engine”: Austhorpe 1714
Presenting an interesting short paper, James Greener chose for his theme the Austhorpe engine, or what was probably Yorkshire’s first atmospheric, or common fire engine c. 1714, very shortly after the successful operation of the engine in the West Midlands. The location of Austhorpe was discussed, together with the few sources which provide information about its origins. The fact the site was close to the home of John Smeaton who later become a prominent and influential engineer has led to many references to this machine, but the actual life and final destiny of this engine remains enigmatic.
John Tanner – A short talk on the host venue, Elsecar
Dr John Tanner, provided an historical overview to the industrial development of Elsecar as part of the aristocratic estates of the Marquess of Rockingham, and later the Earls Fitzwilliam. From humble mining beginnings in the mid-eighteenth century, to the arrival of the Dearne and Dove canal at the turn of the Nineteenth Century, an with it two considerable ironworks – the Elsecar and Milton furnaces, with Fitzwilliam’s ironstone and coal fueling the local transformation. Alongside the industry, came remarkable architecture, significant amounts of which remain in and around the Elsecar conservation area. Most recently, Elsecar’s industrial jewel, the Newcomen type engine has been expertly conserved and is the only Newcomen engine in the world on its original site, over its pumping shaft. The first early engines conference has, therefore, an original on its doorstep, dating from 1794-5. Following the conservation, Barnsley Council’s team have succeeded in securing Heritage Action Zone status (HAZ) from Historic England which will see extensive historical, architectural and archaeological assessment of Elsecar over the next few years.
Tour of Elsecar
Following the historical context, a tour of the Newcomen engine was made (with further slots over the conference days), and later, an impromptu walking tour of the whole area around Elsecar continued in the lovely evening.
►Day 2: Friday 12th May 2017
- Chaired by Richard Smith
Rick Stewart – John Smeaton and the Fire Engine
Friday morning got off to a great start with Rick Stewart’s paper on John Smeaton (1724-1792) and his work on assessing and improving the fire engines of his day. Rick took the audience through Smeaton’s early encounters with engines, from a detailed sketch of his late teens, on to his professional engagements at New River Head, Chacewater and Long Benton. From new innovations in beam structure, to careful tests of effective work, Smeaton had success and failures but his methodical approach meant he was in great demand.
Rick was also pleased to launch his excellent new publication ‘Mine Pumping Engines in Eighteenth Century Cornwall‘, 2017 published by the Trevithick Society for the study of Cornish industrial archaeology and history (ISBN: 9780993502125).
James Greener – Bromsgrove Revisited – The chain of events leading to Newcomen’s 1712 engines
James Greener returned to present a detailed historical paper on the immediate background to the earliest of Thomas Newcomen’s known engine installations. James drew on a wide range of documentary evidence, wills, maps, land records and existing secondary sources to help contextualise what brought the Dartmouth ironmonger to the West Midlands, to the land near Dudley castle, and the 1712 engine.
Suhail Rana – Henry Beighton’s influence on and contributions to Newcomen’s work
Suhail Rana tackled the role of Henry Beighton in the improvement of the early Newcomen type engines. Referring to Beighton’s engraving of an engine in 1717 – the earliest depiction of a Newcomen type engine – discovered in the Library of Worcester College, Oxford in 1925, Suhail reviewed the life and background of Mr Beighton, of Griff, and endeavoured to tackle the longstanding question of whether the engine there depicted was actually real; if so, where could it have been? Was the self-acting valve gear it depicts the invention of Mr Newcomen? How does it relate to the known depiction of a Beighton engine at Griff shown in Desaguliers publication of 1744? Through careful analysis of the Royal Society’s archive Journals of December 1717, Suhail’s clear and compelling theory drew the audience closer to resolving the mystery.
Richard Lamb – James Watt’s analysis of the performance of the Ranter engine, Wednesbury and others
Richard Lamb’s presentation took the audience back into the methods of early engineers – the measurements made by James Watt of the Ranter engine in Wednesbury, but also to the assessments of work, efficiency and basic mechanics as understood and applied by early practitioners from Henry Beighton, to James Brindley, William Emerson, John Curr, as well as the Nineteenth Century engineers who followed them. Referring to modern condenser theory and the mathematics of modern science, Richard explained how close (or far) the early engineers had been in their understanding. Through practical model experimentation he was also ale to show how these measurements would have held true, or ‘good enough’, as the understanding and indeed ‘science’ of engines, of modern engineering developed.
Dr Victoria Owens – James Brindley’s steam engines, 1756-1759
Dr Victoria Owens introduced us to the life and work of James Brindley from his surviving notebooks and diary entries. Perhaps best known from his work on the Bridgewater canal, Brindley was also active in engine work, and this paper focused on the short period of this remarkable man’s life in the mid-to-late 1750s. Addressing head on previous author’s characterisations of Brindley as illiterate, Dr Owens showed his idiosyncratic writings, and gave insights into his working practice. Drawing on contemporary sketches, and referencing surviving industrial sites, we followed the work of Brindley from site-to-site in this period, including the passages of time when no work took place due to pending payments! This presentation gave a unique insight into the man and his work, and the working patterns of the construction campaigns at several significant industrial sites, including Coalbrookdale.
An an essential tool in the study of his work Dr Owens has transcribed and edited ‘James Brindley’s Notebooks‘, published by the Choir Press in 2013 (ISBN: 9781909300187).
- Chaired by Dr John Tanner
Peter King – George Sparrow and the spread of the steam engine in the north Midlands
Dr King’s detailed work in the history of ironmaking and allied industries is well known in historical metallurgy circles. Here he provided a wider regional context to the spread of the fire engine across the north midlands, and the role played by George Sparrow, coalmaster and industrialist whose name had cropped up in Suhail Rana’s earlier presentations. From the colliery, furnace, and other undertakings connected with Sparrow, the source of a firm market for fire engines could be discerned. Dr King covered a number of important colliery pumping engines where Sparrow’s interests were engaged, as well as covering a network of financial interests from Flintshire to Derbyshire, but focused on Warwickshire.
Professor David Perrett – Henry Ford and Herbert Morton’s 1928 engine collecting endeavours
Professor David Perrett, former Preseident of the Newcomen Society took the audience on a journey – following in the collecting footsteps of Henry Ford – yes, that Henry Ford (1863-1947), as he engaged an English engineer to locate, purchase and install examples of the earliest engines from Europe into the Ford Museum at Dearborn, Michigan, USA. Herbert Morton was the engineer entrusted with finding the engines, and Ford’s chequebook was opened – with varying degrees of success from the owners concerned. Professor Perrett recounted the visit of Henry Ford to the UK in 1928 when several sites were visited, including the remarkable story of the Fairbottom Bobs engine, and the shared the unique account of Herbert Morton’s experience of working with Ford to fill an American Museum, and in so doing saving some key pieces of Britain’s industrial heritage.
Dr Mike Nevell – Power and Innovation: Excavating pre-1812 steam engines in the Manchester area
The University of Salford’s archaeology department has a vibrant and active industrial archaeological focus. Drawing together the evidence from a large number of excavations from industrial sites around Manchester, Dr Nevell provided a fascinating picture of the nature and extent of the development of engines in the region, principally associated with textile mills, but also referencing the work done on the remains of Fairbottom Bobs (1999-2000). Focusing on pre-1812 mill sites in Manchester city itself, Dr Nevell gave detailed descriptions of a number of developments, and how the documentary record was often proven from the remains, with different phases of development being uncovered on many sites. Using site photographs and measurements of excavated remains, he contextualised some of the physical challenges of engine installations, noted several innovations which were less well known in the literature, and demonstrated how rapidly mill boiler and engine technology could develop and be replaced on single sites.
John Barnatt – Investigating the 1794-95 Newcomen Pumping Engine at Watergrove Mine, Derbyshire
As a professional archaeologist working in the Peak District for many yeas, and also closely associated with the Peak District Mines Historical Society’s work, John Barnatt brought a wealth of knowledge and hands-on excavation experience to this paper discussing the history of and remaining features of the Newcomen pumping engine at Watergrove Mine in Derbyshire. Contemporaneous to the Elsecar engine, the story of the Watergrove installation was an interesting insight into the working lives of Newcomen engines on difficult sites, and how the industrial archaeologist can interpret the surviving engine house, boiler, ash pit and other features to understand the construction and working of engines. Relating the site to its geological setting, clarified the mine’s drainage needs, and the approaches to water management, sinking shafts and cutting soughs in the landscape. Through careful survey and analysis of the excavated features John provided a clear picture of the features of the engine through at least four separate phases of development. Taken together with Dr Nevell’s paper, these papers provided compelling evidence of the centrality of careful archaeological recording in interpreting industrial sites and in compiling wider pictures of the regional development of engine power in the industrial history of Great Britain.
David Kitching – Hidden in plain sight – Nathaniel Wright’s pirate engine house at Norbury
David Kitching’s short paper on the storyof Nathaniel Wright’s Newcomen engine house at Norbury – near Hazel Grove outside Stockport was a delightful presentation on the joys of delving into the past when mysteries present themselves in the form of supposed engine houses, converted for other uses. through old maps, mining surveys, census records and picture postcards, David traced the evidence for the use of the Norbury engine. It also provided an enjoyable account of the virtues of simply asking when one is curious – from kind access to the remaining features of the engine house by the owners of the day. Norbury is a less well-known engine site, and the evidence presented here drew much attention from delegates who look forward to hearing more in future.
Evening at Wortley Top Forge
Having ended an enjoyable day’s papers, the conference delegates were taken by coach from Elsecar over to the remarkable Wortley Top Forge site, the oldest surviving heavy iron forge in the world, and only a short distance away. At Wortley the delegates were hosted by the volunteers from the South Yorkshire Trades Historical Trust – who maintain the site and care for a remarkable collection of engines and machinery.
Enjoying the forge site, workers housing and working machine tools, the delegates also hopped on the minature railway which was installed in the 1950s and i maintained and managed by the Wortley Top Forge Model Engineers.
During an evening exploring the fascinating site, the delegates sat and shared an evening meal and refreshments before the coach returned them to their lodgings for the night.
► Day 3: Saturday 13th May 2017
Morning concluding session
- Chaired by Peter King
Steve Grudgings and David Hardwick – Discoveries and dilemmas – Excavating the 1791 Serridge Engine House
Bright and early on Saturday morning the final day of the conference was commenced with a tale of derring do and long application: the story of the South Gloucestershire Mines Research Group‘s work excavating the Newcomen engine house at Serridge. Dating back to 1791, SGMRG members Steve Grudgings and David Hardwick told the story of the site, and the many seasons of excavation work since 2005 which have revealed an array of confusing but intriguing tunnels in and around the site, showing an impressive amount of buried archaeology which is challenging the group in its full interpretation, reflecting he real and complex development, adaptation and rebuilding which appears to have taken place on site. SGMRG continue to make new discoveries at Serridge and are fortunate to have such an intriguing site in South Gloucestershire.
David Hardwick – Surveying the UK’s oldest complete Newcomen Engine House, Brislington 1740
Following on from a joint presentation, David Hardwick presented a brief but lively paper on the story of the Brislington engine house. Setting the scene with historic depiction of the Brislington engine house, and discussed in detail the measurements and key structural features of the surviving building, David also kept the conference audience guessing as to the specific date of the engine house. initially thought to be c.1740, recent work on the roof timbers of the house were revealed, breathlessly at the end of the presentation which captured the imagination and also provided some new insights into the typology of early Newcomen engine houses which will prove useful in similar survey work in future.
Les Turnbull – William Brown’s Giant Tyneside Engines
Les Turnbull presented a detailed portrait of the perhaps overlooked work of the great Tyneside engineer William Brown (1717-1782). Engaged in the Great North Coalfield, a prolific consulting engineer active in engine building from the 1750s through to the 1770s, and who has left a range of documentary notes and sketches, available from the archives of the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers (NEIMME). Les’s presentation focused on the large engines Brown constructed for clients in Tyneside – the engines with cylinders of 70 inches and more diameter. He had dealings and studied the work of other notable engineers of his day, including Brindley and Smeaton – both of whom delegates had heard papers on earlier in the conference. Laying out the details of engine installations at Willington Colliery as a study of his work, Les provided context for the scale of the undertaking in the region, but also its contribution to the national coal trade as Newcastle coals were shipped out, whether down to London as sea coal or overseas.
Delegates were pleased to learn that a full picture of the life and work of William Brown had recently been published by the NEIMME, in conjunction with the Newcastle centre of the Stephenson Locomotive Society, entitled ‘The World of William Brown: railways – steam engines -coalmines‘, Newcastle: NEIMME, 2016 (ISBN: 9780993115110)
Ken Pointon – Constructing a Newcomen Engine in the 21st Century
After an array of historical papers, New Zealander Ken Pointon’s practical presentation on the details and challenges of constructing a Newcomen engine in the 21st Century made for a lively and engaging paper. Providing an unmistakable international flavour, his engine was conceived and built in the Southern Hemisphere. Les discussed the project from the first design outline, choice of materials, fabrication of the parts and construction methods Ken provided the engineering and very human story of putting a scaled working engine together. Working together with his son Andre Pointon, and eager engineering colleagues in New Zealand, the paper illustrated the boiler considerations, the cylinder design and build challenges, whilst discussion the more immediate storage, and display issues facing even a reduced size but fully functional engine. Recounting a number of lessons learned in the process (not least the challenges of working with heritage institutions), the talk was rounded off with a fabulous video of the engine working, doing duty with a waterwheel, and currently housed on Pointon’s own land.
Steve Grudgings – “Old Sarah” – A survivor until 1917 at Newmarket Silkstone Pit
Rounding off the conference proceedings with a final short paper, Steve Grudgings referred to a forgotten Newcomen beam engine with a 54 inch cylinder. A longtime survivor from Newmarket Silkstone Colliery in Yorkshire, but one whose story is only just coming to light once more. From some isolated parts in the Science Museum – a piston, rod cap and some chains – it emerged that this engine survived until as late as the Summer of 1917, but was not conserved, or fully removed for museum preservation. “Old Sarah” therefore presents a mystery, albeit one which has measured drawings and a tantalising photograph to suggest further investigation may reveal the full history of the engine. And what of Mr Clarence Becker? time will tell.
Attendees say goodbye to Elsecar
After rounding off the papers for the day, the Conference organisers invited delegates to pose for a commemorative photograph with Elsecar’s very own engine in the background. With new conversations, future publications and new connections already in the air, the organising committee were delighted to concluded the inaugural International Early Engines Conference, and feel sure that a future conference in a few years with attract a further set of new and insightful papers.