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Thirst for history.

Spectacular steam engines can still be found working away in several old water-pumping stations. IMechE past-president John Wood tours some of his favourites

Moving significant quantities of water requires considerable power, which is why the steam engine was first developed--usually to drain mines. However, water pumping came of age as the Industrial Revolution gathered pace, when the expanding cities were demanding clean water.

Many historic water-pumping stations, unlike steelworks or factories, still survive today as old plant was often kept as a stand-by when a new one was built. Consequently we can still see a good cross-section of these historic pumping stations and their engines, with several being recognised with Engineering Heritage Awards by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

Initially, the beam pumping engine, directly derived from the Cornish mine engine, was the obvious choice for the task of water supply. For bigger cities, large pumping installations were built, frequently with four or more large beam engines. Kew Bridge Steam Museum in west London, awarded an Engineering Heritage Award in July 1997, is one such example and today is home to a remarkable collection of operating Cornish engines, the largest of which has a 90in (229cm) cylinder bore. The museum also houses a unique Bull engine in which the beam is dispensed with, the steam cylinder being placed above the pump and acting directly upon it.

Elsewhere in the country, various attractive beam pumping plants still survive in their original locations. A complete example is to be seen at Papplewick outside Nottingham, which is set to be awarded an Engineering Heritage Award in the coming months. This site illustrates the pride that cities took in their municipal works. Here, a Gothic-style engine house set in attractive surroundings houses a pair of rotative beam engines by James Watt & Co. Opened in 1884, it supplied 3 million gallons of water a day to Nottingham.

By the end of the 19th century, the beam engine was being superseded by more efficient types of steam engine, and these were soon applied to water pumping. Installations with horizontal engines are now rare. But a magnificent pair of tandem compound horizontals in running order survives at Mill Meece near Stoke-on-Trent and can be seen running on open days.

There was another outstanding pair of compounds at Fleam Dyke in Cambridgeshire but, regrettably, these were broken up in the 1980s.

One notable horizontal engine that has survived is in Cambridge's Cheddars Lane Museum of Technology--the Davey Tandem Compound Differential. This non-rotative pump was designed to deliver equal effort to the ram pumps throughout the stroke, by coupling the steam cylinders to the pump rods via a rocking wheel (see page 84 for more on this museum).

From the early 20th century, the water supply for many towns and cities was provided by pumps driven by inverted vertical triple expansion engines. They commonly developed 400-600hp (298.4-449.4kW), and a well-preserved example can be seen at the Museum of Power near Maldon in Essex. This museum is housed in a former municipal pumping station that once boasted three engines. Only one survives--a Marshall engine built by Lilleshall & Co in 1931.

The machine is typical of this class of triple expansion engine, with lift pumps below the floor driven by rods from the cross-head and force pumps driven from the end of the crankshaft. It is well looked after, regularly steamed for visitors and has some interesting features--it was granted engineering heritage listed status last December.

The ultimate in reciprocating steam can be found at Hanworth in west London, with the Kempton Great Engines, which received an Engineering Heritage Award in 2010. These two massive triples, built by Worthington Simpson in 1928, once supplied water for much of north London. Each engine can generate 1,008hp and could pump 19 million gallons a day over a head of 230ft (70.1 m).

One engine has been restored and, when running on open days, is impressive. The engines stand 62ft high and are the largest surviving operating reciprocating steam engines in the world. When the makers of the film Titanic needed to shoot engine-room scenes, they went to Kempton.

This is the first in an occasional series of articles by John Wood, chairman of the IMechE engineering heritage committee

Roles range from canals to waste handling

Preserved pumping stations that were used for purposes other than drinking water can be visited around the UK, usually on specified open days. Better still, many of them can be seen "in steam" and running.

The earliest steam pumping engines were beam engines operating on the atmospheric principle. Two original atmospheric pumping engines survive, but they are not in operating condition. To see one working, you need to go to the Black Country Museum where there is a replica Newcomen engine, which was recognised with an Institution of Mechanical Engineers Engineering Heritage Award in 2012.

The atmospheric engine was superseded by steam engines with separate condensers developed by James Watt. These were usually simple, non-rotative beam engines where the steam cylinder was connected to one end of the beam and plunger or lift pumps to the other. Working examples can be seen at the Thinktank science museum in Birmingham and at Crofton in Wiltshire.

Thinktank houses the Smethwick engine, a Boulton and Watt machine from 1779 used to pump water into the Birmingham Canal Navigation. It is claimed to be the oldest working steam engine in the world and is scheduled to receive an Engineering Heritage Award in the coming months.

A glorious pair of early engines still in their original house can be seen at Crofton. The earliest engine was installed there in 1809. It was joined in 1812 by a Boulton and Watt with a 42in (107cm) bore cylinder, which is now the oldest working beam engine in the world still in its original location. On open days, you can still watch it lifting water into the summit of the Kennet and Avon Canal--the job it was designed to do. The Crofton engines were one of the first recipients of an Engineering Heritage Award back in 1986.

Land drainage is a similar duty although, generally, the height to which the water had to be raised was modest, and a rotative beam engine driving a scoop wheel was better suited to the task. Such engines survive in the Fens and elsewhere. One at Stretham near Ely has its boiler house and chimney stack intact.

The growth of cities during the Industrial Revolution posed more than one challenge. If the provision of clean water was one side of the coin, the other was was the removal of sewage.

East of London lies the Crossness sewage pumping station, a key element in Sir Joseph Bazalgette's London main sewage system and a temple of grand Victorian engineering. Built in 1865, Crossness houses four large James Watt rotative beam pumps in ornate surroundings. It may have been only for sewage, but the Victorians took pride in their achievement. The Crossness pumping station was granted an Engineering Heritage Award in 2009.

Another impressive installation worth a visit is the Clay Mills pumping station at Burton upon Trent. It was built to handle the vast quantities of effluent that Burton, as the centre of the brewing industry, produced. The pumping station was awarded an Engineering Heritage Award in 2010.

Clay Mills' location inside a large sewage works has helped it to survive unchanged. Its boiler house contains five boilers and its two connected, Italianate-style engine houses each contain a pair of compound rotative beam engines built by Grimsons of Leicester. The engines in one house are fully restored and worked on open days, while those in the other are being restored.
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Title Annotation:HERITAGE
Publication:Professional Engineering Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2013
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