The world's oldest steam traction engine found buried in an English coal mine
This incredible survivor is probably a traction/tram railway locomotive from 1865.
The Historical Background
Every Summer, the English countryside rings to the clamour of ancient steam engines, rescued from oblivion by thousands of dedicated enthusiasts, at countless steam rallies and private railways throughout the land.
The British fascination with steam is understandable - the technology was invented and developed here, and spread from these shores to change the whole world for ever. Today, the 5,000 plus preserved engines in Britain are a source of pride to their operators and delight to almost everyone else. They are also a powerful symbol of British industrial supremacy in the past and an inspiration for the future. Through the spectacle of these great machines, the magic of industry often enters young minds for the first time.
Although mobile steam engines were manufactured from about 1805 onwards, almost all of our preserved engines date from the late 19th and early 20th century. This is because the Victorians themselves did not share our interest in preservation and happily sent almost all of their work for scrap when it was no longer needed. Even the great engineer George Jackson Churchward condemned the last two of Brunel's broad gauge Great Western engines to scrap simply to make space at Swindon. (In fairness, Churchward did try unsuccessfully to find North Star and Iron Duke a museum home.)
The result of all this is that we now have very few engines from early and mid-Victorian times, and almost none in working order. This situation is especially clear in the case of steam road engines, which did not appear in any case until after the Great Exhibition of 1851. Today, the oldest known road engine is the Science Museum's 1870 Aveling & Porter traction engine, which was presented to the Museum by the Road Locomotive Society in 1950.
It was Thomas Aveling who made most of the technical innovations that are incorporated in every 'modern' traction engine and steamroller. Aveling, a Kentish farmer, was dissatisfied with the portable steam engines then used to power farm machinery because the engines had to be hauled from site to site by teams of horses. He set out to make the engines self-moving, and in the process became known as the "Father of the traction engine".
Aveling began manufacture of his own engines at Rochester, Kent, in 1862 and quickly built up a commanding position in the field which his company never really lost. In 1867, Aveling introduced the first production road roller, sending the first example to his agent in Paris. Subsequently, rollers of this type were sent all over the world. Two of them became the first steam rollers in the United States, helping build amongst other projects the roads in Central Park, New York.
Aveling & Porter (later Aveling-Barford) continued to manufacture steam rollers until after the second world war, producing more than any other builder. Many of these rollers remained in service well into the 1960's and today outnumber all other kinds of preserved steam engines. Some people even regard them as commonplace! This is unfair, because all surviving traction engines, road locomotives and steam rollers are more or less based on the Aveling patents and are therefore in reality Aveling designs!
Without question, it was Thomas Aveling's designs which made possible mechanical road transport and created the modern highways which we take so much for granted today. In this respect, Aveling's innovations must rank as some of the most important ever made in the history of the modern world.
In January 1993, British Coal's Opencast Mining Executive were working out the site of the former Brindley Ford Colliery, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire. It is difficult now to imagine the scene, at the foot of a vertical cliff almost 200 feet high and very close to the mine's boundary. They had reached the bottom of what they new to be one of the old colliery's vertical shafts. In the base of the shaft itself, a hole appeared.
Peering in, they saw an underground room, and inside, ancient machinery.Set on brick piers were a single cylinder steam engine and a cable winding drum. It is not unusual to discover old machinery in opencast workings, but this find seemed different. The decision was taken to recover the larger part of what had been found. The process of removal, which had to be done quickly in order not to hold up production, resulted in the destruction of the winding drum. Happily, the steam engine escaped with only light damage despite being weakened by the savage corrosion that it had suffered during its century underground.
The engine was recovered, now upside down, by suspending a strop from the excavator's bucket. This strop appears to have run under the connecting rod, taking the full weight of the engine and causing the bend in the rod that can now be seen. The fact of this recovery is a tribute to the workers involved and to British Coal for letting them do it. Usually, old machinery is simply tipped back into the opencast.
Once recovered, the old engine was placed, still upside down, in the mine's car park. The story goes that some observers thought that that the flywheel was actually a road or rail wheel, and described it as "an old engine with three wheels missing!". By a series of remarkable chances, the oldest Aveling had escaped from eternal darkness and now lay, identified only as 'some sort of winding engine', parked in a row of Ford Sierras.
British Coal offered the engine to the nearby and now sadly closed Chatterley Whitfield mining museum. Chatterley Whitfield took some persuading that they should take the engine, and reputedly one member of the museum staff suggested that it be sold for the scrap value! However, the museum's director and chief engineer had a feeling that there was more to this extraordinary survivor, although they could not identify it. Now, events took another remarkable turn.
A photograph of the find, upside down in British Coal's car park, appeared in the excellent 'Old Glory' magazine. In a turn of events hardly less amazing than its initial discovery, the old engine was at last identified by a 18 year old steam enthusiast, Paul Viewing. Alone amongst the many who saw this picture, Paul realised that the engine was not a winding engine, but an Aveling & Porter chain engine.
Paul has helped operate his family's 1922 Aveling & Porter roller, No. 10372, for the last ten years, and he knows his subject. Paul had no doubt of his identification, comparing the 'Old Glory' illustration with the official photograph of the first steam roller in the world, taken in 1867. Even more striking was the similarity to a view of the Wooton tramway locomotive, Aveling & Porter No. 807, which appeared coincidentally in the same edition of the magazine!
It is not too hard to understand how the experts of the steam world overlooked this particular find. Of the original engine, all that remains is the boiler barrel (in two pieces), cylinder, flywheel and motion. There are no frames, wheels or running gear. The condition of what does exist is grievously poor, though astonishingly complete for a machine that has been lost in an abandoned mine for 120 years. The next day, telephone enquiries showed that no-one else had offered identification. Paul and his Dad, David, decided to go to Stoke on Trent at once.
They will never forget the sensation as they walked across the museum site toward the engine, which was out in the open. Even from a long way off, it was obvious that Paul was right. Walking up to it for first time, they were intensely aware that they alone knew that this was an Aveling & Porter chain engine, and probably the oldest Aveling in the world.
They had come armed with virtually all the known material about early Aveling engines. One source is Derek Rayner's reproduction of Thomas Aveling and William Batho's 1870 paper "On a steam road roller". This contains sectioned views of the 15 ton Batho roller, the last of which had disappeared in the 1920's. The prints showed a unique reversing lever, operating directly on the weigh-shaft without a reach rod, because the driver stood beside the boiler, not behind it. Scaled from the drawing, this lever was three feet long and had a characteristic Aveling pointed handle.
Lying on top of the boiler now was a broken off reversing lever, three feet long, with an Aveling style pointed handle and the boss still attached to the weigh-shaft.
Identification of early engines is notoriously difficult. The practice of stamping engine numbers on parts did not come into vogue (for road engines) until the 1870's.
Engines of this type were called 'chain engines' because drive to the wheels was by chain rather than by gears. The same basic design was used in early Aveling & Porter traction engines, road rollers and in chain drive tram locomotives, built during the 1860's. The design was quickly abandoned as technology advanced (in the same way that computer technology does today). However, several hundred of the various types were built, and sent all over the world.
Of all of these, only one was known to still exist before Paul's discovery. This is London Transport's Aveling 0-4-0 tram engine No. 807, built in 1872, and now kept in the Covent Garden museum. There are many similarities between No. 807 and the new discovery, although the latter appears much older. (There are no cylinder drain cocks, for instance.) The old engine is very similar to the 10hp tram engine illustrated in 'The Engineer' and 'Engineering' in 1866. However, rows of studs lining the boiler sides and rivets in the smokebox sides cannot be seen in the engravings or contemporary photographs of the tram engine.
Since the first 10hp tram engines date from 1865, our survivor could only have been 14 years old at most when 'cannibalised'. Notwithstanding the harsh treatment of locomotives by contractors like Thomas Brassey, who bought several 10hp Avelings, this is a very short life for such a useful engine. Many of the Aveling chain drive tram engines survived well into the present century, with even the 1865/66 10hp engines surviving until about 1905 in several cases. (London Transport's No. 807, a later machine, was used until the second world war.)
In the list of 10HP tram engines given here, two are highlighted. Nos. 235 and 314 were both sold to railway contracting firms controlled by Thomas Brassey. (Ian Hutchinson believes that the B.O.Harrison referred to is Brassey, Ogilvy and Harrison).
No. 235, and possibly No. 314, were used on the construction of the Great Western and one of them was offered for sale by auction at Wednesbury, Staffordshire, in 1872. Could this engine have been sold to a Staffordshire mine owner ?
Information extracted from 'Traction Engine Locomotives', I K Hutchinson, Pub. Road Locomotive Society.
On the other hand, Thomas Aveling's first road rollers shared the design of motion and boiler with the tram engines. Both used the very heavy flywheel that can be seen in the illustrations, quite different to anything used in chain drive traction engines. These early rollers were built in collaboration with the inventor William Batho and usually known as 'Batho' rollers.
The best known picture of the Batho roller is that of Aveling & Porter No.1, the famous 'Liverpool Roller', the first production road roller in the world, built in 1867. The wonderfully clear print, from a glass negative, shows an engine superficially very similar to the one now discovered. No.1 was quite different in appearance to later steam rollers, a massive machine weighing 30 tons with 7ft diameter leading rolls. It must have been amongst the most impressive vehicles ever to move on the public highway.
Interestingly, research by Jeremy Viewing at the Lincoln Museum archives shows that No1 was not the first steam roller to be delivered, as has always been supposed. In fact, there was a second 30 ton roller, No2, which was delivered a month earlier to a French customer, according to Aveling's own dispatch book!
It is known that the early rollers proved too heavy for the roads of the time and were quickly abandoned in favour of lighter machines. Aveling's dispatch book shows only two 12HP and two 8HP rollers actually sold, and nothing is known of their fate at present. All later Batho rollers were of 15 tons, with 6 hp engines, much smaller than the new discovery.
No.1 was of 12hp and had it's flywheel on the right, not left, side. However, Aveling himself referred to having built a slightly smaller 25 ton roller for Sheffield in the famous paper that he and Batho presented to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 1870. (Reputedly, this paper was presented on two separate days because the two men, who had by now fallen out, would not be seen together!) A 25 ton roller could have used the 10hp engine size, although surviving Aveling records at Lincoln museum give the engine size as 8 nhp,.
An even more striking possibility is the idea that the engine might actually be from Aveling's first prototype, known as the 'Hyde Park Roller' from contemporary press accounts of the first test of steam rolling in Britain. An evocative paragraph in the Aveling company's official history, written in 1965, refers to the disappearance of this machine, Aveling himself seeming to disown it. Had commercial expediency caused him to consign it to a coal owner on condition it never be seen again, lest it affect the sales of his later products? Again, there are problems: the Hyde Park roller is said to have been 12hp, not 10, and was not side driven.
Of course, there may be other explanations, of which nothing is known at present. Whatever the final outcome, this chain engine is likely to prove to be the oldest Aveling in existence and possibly even the oldest traction engine in the world.
It is now clear that the Aveling was used as a haulage engine, working an incline to lower levels in the pit. Mining records suggest that these levels may not, in fact, have been developed. It would certainly be plausible that the Aveling had never been used, in view of the excellent condition of its bearing surfaces. It appears that the chain engine was used initially on the surface, because the 'Colliery Guardian' of July 1886 carries the following advertisement:
"Dismantling of Turnhurst Colliery, Goldendhill railway station, Stoke-on-Trent. Sale includes tank loco, 4 wheels coupled, also Aveling & Porter locomotive engine with drum gear". It is known that Turnhurst Colliery had closed in 1879, but that the plant was not auctioned, and presumably laid idle, until the 1886 sale. There can be little doubt that the strangely described Aveling is our survivor, since Turnhurst and Brindley Ford collieries were within sight of one another.
The workings where the engine was found are believed to have opened in 1881 and are shown as abandoned on maps revised in 1898. In view of this, it reasonable to suppose that the Aveling had already been converted for surface winding work prior to the 1879 closure of the colliery. It is possible that the engine was used on the surface with its original boiler. However, when it was sent underground, the boiler was reduced to a shell. The entire firebox and all fittings and projections that might have impeded its movement were removed. The motion was then re-assembled once the boiler was in place, mounted on substantial brickwork supports. Traces of this brickwork still cling to sides of the boiler.
There is no question of the boiler having been steamed once underground. Instead, steam was piped down from the surface (We now know that quantities of lagged steam pipe were found in the workings). The winding drum was placed beside the engine and was driven by gear reduction directly from the crankshaft pinion. The original second shaft, carrying the chain sprocket, was discarded although the bearings are still in place, showing considerable wear. This was definitely a self-moving engine at one time in its history!
The process of restoration will be taken slowly and with great care. One hornbracket is cracked at its base, as is the corner of the cylinder flange. However, the bore and valve chest appear to be in remarkable condition, with no serious corrosion or damage. Similarly, the crankshaft, connecting rod and massive flywheel appear capable of further use. Restoration of the lighter wrought iron components will be more difficult and the custodians would be delighted to hear from anyone with experience of building up this type of material.
An initial phase of restoration as a light engine, using a strengthened original boiler shell as a bed plate, is planned. Beyond this, a new boiler will be needed. It is possible that a discarded portable boiler of suitable size (3ft dia by 10ft long) might be found. More likely, an entirely new boiler will will have to be fabricated, with all of the financial implications that that entails.
Finally, there is the question of the engine's final form. The chain engine group are acutely aware of the need to preserve the old engine's historical identity, especially bearing in mind that the last hands to work on it were firmly in the Victorian age. There are bolts in the chain brackets that have clearly not moved since they were last used in anger, perhaps 120 years ago! However, because of Aveling's modular design, none of this precludes the use of the engine to drive a reconstructed vehicle.
Such a reconstruction would provide an ideal home for the old engine, where it could not only be seen, but be seen to work, and a lasting tribute to its creator, the Father of the Traction Engine. The reconstructed roller would resemble the Sheffield roller shown here, complete with ship's wheel (with indicator!) for steering and the unique side drive and firing position. The new boiler would retain the original's 80 lb Sq in pressure, but the complete machine would be built for lightness to avoid unnecessary strain on the old engine.
In the reconstruction the rolls would be fabricated, not cast, with a major saving in weight. Even so, the completed engine would probably be as heavy as the largest preserved roller, at about 15 tons or so.
There is no question that the appearance of an Aveling-Batho roller, a design almost beyond living memory (the last were broken up in the 1920's), would be an impressive and stirring sight on any rally field. As the only extant representative of the very first production road roller design, such an engine would be of great historical importance as well.
The steam road roller quite literally paved the way to the modern world, and it is Thomas Aveling's name that can still be seen on road rollers almost everywhere.
The chain engine group would like to hear from anyone interested in helping with the turning of this dream to reality.
For further information, please contact me:
Many individuals and organisations have helped the Aveling chain engine project so far. To them, sincere thanks. To those who I have unintentionally omitted, sincere apologies.