BUILDING THE WHITELEES ENGINE
At about Christmas 1991 we had the pit ready for the Whitelees engine and a deadline of March 21st to have it in steam for the Total Open day at Ellenroad. We also had a problem in that I was running short of funding. This had been building up for a bit but I had been concentrating on getting things done on the ground more than funding. This wasn’t a matter of policy on my part, it was simply priorities. The Directors were getting restless but I told them I didn’t see any problem, I would carry on working and booking my time but they could pay me when they had the money. They weren’t really happy with this but had no alternative, I just shoved all this to the back of my mind and got on with the job in hand.
I had been laying plans for a while, I knew I had no money for skilled help and had to build the bloody thing myself so I had a word with a firm at Castleton who supplied lifting gear and they gave me eight 30cwt chain blocks and trolleys that had just come out of Lucas’ from long term hire and I installed one on every beam in the roof of the boiler house above the pit and all the way across the floor. I had them tested and insured and so had a way of shifting all the pieces of the engine single handed. Some of the pieces weighed more than 30cwt but I had the beams tested to 3 tons and knew the blocks would stand the overload so that was all right. I bought some nylon slings and won a couple of pull lifts from a friendly engineering works and we were ready to begin.
I had a word with Rochdale Training and they lent me two apprentices for the duration and Cecil Hufton, one of the volunteers said he’d come in and help me full time. Cecil was an old bloke but he was invaluable because apart from giving a hand with the heavy stuff he cleaned all the parts as we got them out of the stack.
At the same time I had a firm of pipefitters working to put the main in to the engine. I had begged a very expensive pressure reducing valve and the money for the pipefitting was already budgeted so that bit was sorted. I think we finally got cleared up in the boiler room by mid-January, there was a lot to do because we had to dig the temporary ramp out and clear all the muck away left over from the pit construction..
At last, we were ready and I quickly slipped into a routine of 14 hours a day building the engine. I’m going to give quite a full description of this because it isn’t a subject you’ll find documented anywhere else as far as I know so I may as well get it out of my head and down on to paper. First of all, a general point. Every time I have stripped or moved an engine under English Heritage supervision they have always laid great stress on the fact that every part has to be identified and numbered. I had no hassle with them over the Whitelees because they weren’t funding it and as far as they were concerned it didn’t exist. They knew what I was doing and had refused to fund on the grounds that it would ‘dilute the concept’ of the project but the funny thing was that nobody ever came back to us and asked for the return of the funding we had already had. They would have been entitled to do this if they had stuck to the rules after they refused to countenance funding because in legal terms, what I was doing was breaking the funding agreement by installing the Whitelees.
I didn’t discuss this with anyone except Peter Dawson, I told him I had an idea I knew what was going on and that EH had got themselves into a position where they couldn’t actually do anything. Besides, I had indications from them that regardless of the Science Museum opinion, they would ‘give a fair wind’ to the installation of the Whitelees. In any case, what could they do? If they asked for the money we hadn’t got it and under the terms of the constitution of the Trust which I had drawn up, if the Trust liquidated guess who had to take control of the Project? The Museums .and Galleries Commission, in other words, the Science Museum. All they could do was allow the volunteers to run it so what the hell! As for numbering every part, this was crazy as it was already done. All engines were erected and fitted in the shop before being dismantled and shipped to the site. The old fitters marked every piece that needed it and the rest just fell into place if you knew what you were doing. I had photographed it all in situ at Holcrofts and I had the Frank Wightman drawing. This was all I needed.
Three months after writing this I have come back to it to revise and check it and I’m struck by how my thinking has progressed about the politics of the Whitelees in the interim. I haven’t any proof that machinations were going on behind the scenes but I have a feeling in my water that this was what had been going on. I was getting fairly proficient at de-coding bureaucratic letters and what I was reading between the lines was that the opposition came from the committee in the Science Museum. I knew enough about the people who sat on that committee and the linkages between them and David Sekers to make some fairly well educated guesses as to what was afoot. There again, I might be being paranoid, I have no proof. But, to quote the old adage, just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t out to get you!
The first thing we needed to do before we could start the erection was make a very strong frame to hold the entablature beam and erect a pillar to hold the outboard end of this. Normally the entablature beam would have sat in the side walls of the engine house and these would be very heavily built to support the weight and the other forces that came on it when the engine was working. In our case one of the side walls was missing and the engine was too far away from the main wall of the engine house to carry the other end. This was because of how we had to site the engine to take into account all the other design considerations. I had no problem with this because the entablature beam was cracked and had been repaired at some time. This is quite common with cast iron entablature beams. If the engine gets a slug of water or there is some other malfunction there can be a lot of lifting strain on these beams and being cast iron they frequently crack. What we were going to do was erect a pillar made of thick wall steel pipe and put in two girders across to the wall which would accept the original entablature beam between them and restrain it. This held the beam in its correct position and strengthened it against any future strain. Even if it broke in two, the engine would function.
My problem was that this was a heavy construction and we had no money! I went down to Rochdale Electric Welding and had a word with Matt Ingoe and his son John. REW had been my boiler repairers at Bancroft and were the bee’s knees. They could do any type of heavy repair on boilers in either welded or riveted construction. They had some wonderful craftsmen working for them and had never let me down. They did all the upgrading on the Lancashire boiler when we re-commissioned it. They had also inserted the replacement pillars in the boiler room for us and in the course of that job John had come up with a slightly more risky but very effective way of doing the job. This had reduced the time needed to do it and he offered to lower the price. At the time, this would have caused more hassle than anybody needed because I had already agreed the funding so I told him the original price stood but that he owed me. I never told anyone about this but in February 1992 it was pay back time! John gave me some terrible stick but the upshot was that the following day Paul Greenwood and Stuart Lomax turned up with a plant wagon and with no drawings started to do the job for me.
They fabricated the base for the pillar, erected the pillar and cut out the wall of the engine house for the two girders. We lifted the girders into place and as they tack welded everything into place I went out to the site hut for a pot of tea. Actually, I started off to go for the tea but on the way noticed Cecil dragging a lump of cast iron out of the heap of engine parts ready to clean it. Now I’ve always claimed to have a crap detector in the back of my head. It whines when I get close to anything that can be described as crap! It started whining as I watched Cecil and my brain suddenly kicked into gear. I looked at the offending lump of iron and said “What the bloody hell’s that?” Cecil looked up, he said he didn’t know but there were two of them. I looked at the lump and I knew what it was, it was a raising block for a pedestal bearing. The problem was I couldn’t think where it fitted, I had no memory of it. As I looked at it I realised that there was only one place they could fit, under the trunnion bearings which sat on the entablature beam and supported the engine beam. If this was true, we had a problem because all my calculations were based on the fact that we only had three inches of clearance between the beam end and the roof when it was running!
I went into the hut and got the working copy of the Frank Wightman drawing out. I saw the reason for the problem straight away, Frank had missed the raising blocks out when he drew the engine. I hadn’t worked off his measurements but had used the drawing as an aide memoir when I was measuring the individual parts to get the dimensions of the pit. I had missed the blocks out of the measurements. A quick trip into the boiler house and a measure up showed me I was nine inches out! Remember what I said about my conversation with Peter when we finalised the drawings of the pit? Was some subconscious mechanism at work in my head? I’ll be buggered if I know but was I ever glad I’d listened to my voices! I went in to the boiler room and shouted up to Paul, “Can you do a bit of a modification for me? Drop those two girders nine inches.” Paul looked at me and asked if I was joking, I told them what had happened and I’ll always remember what Stuart Lomas said after I had apologised. “Don’t worry Stanley, they call it engineering!” Luckily all they had to do was cut out the web of a short piece of girder on top of the pillar and cut another nine inches out of the wall but what a let off!
Our next problem was to lift the entablature beam into place. This weighed about two tons and it was a complicated lift to get it above the girders and manoeuvre it into its place. We managed it and started to weld in the restraints that would hold it firm. Meanwhile I had to address a problem I had identified while we were lifting the beam in. We had just enough room to work but we wouldn’t have enough room to lift the engine beam in over the top especially when the raising blocks were in place. The problem was that there was room for the beam but not enough room for the space taken up by the chain blocks and trolleys which ran on the beams in the roof. I had to retire for another think!
We had some 30cwt pull lifts, these are a useful tool, not really meant for lifting but they take up very little room and are a ratchet winch that has a very short lift. I could do the final part of the lift with these but I hadn’t got a sky hook. A sky hook is the finest asset a fitter can have, it is a mobile hook that you can stick to the sky anywhere you want it and so get a lift! I remember when we were re-roofing the rope race in the early days I looked at Peter’s drawings and the roof was to be supported on substantial wooden joists, perfectly adequate for the job. I told him they were no good, I wanted steel beams 18” deep. He looked at me as though I had gone crackers and said “Do you think they’ll be strong enough?” I told him they weren’t there to hold up the roof, they were there to help whoever had the job in future of hanging something in the rope race or doing a lift below. “When that fitter goes to have a look at the job he’ll look up into the roof and he’ll know straight away that it was a fitter who specified those beams. He’ll be a happy man!” Unfortunately I hadn’t designed the roof of the boiler house with the Whitelees Engine in mind so I had to improvise.
We punched a hole in the concrete roof and put a strong beam across the hole with a wire sling hanging down through the hole. The beam was packed up on bricks until there was just a small loop inside the boiler room. We had a sky hook! This was used for the final lift, we got the beam as high as we could, then inserted the raising blocks and trunnion bearings and sat the engine beam in its place. Job done and we could all go home for some tea!
Now we had the beam in place I could do my final measurements to locate the central pillar and the cylinder base. I thanked my lucky stars that I’d had sense to leave this until I had the beam up. Remember, I’d lowered the whole of the engine nine inches! When we lifted the cylinder out of the engine house at Holcrofts I hadn’t dismantled it, we hadn’t enough time. It had been sat there for two years with its cover on and the piston and rod still inside it. I had to pull this to bits to lessen the weight and also to get accurate measurements of the stroke so that I could get the cylinder at the right height. The cylinder of a steam engine is longer than the stroke and the piston should be mounted so that at mid-stroke the piston is at mid point in the cylinder. This leaves an equal amount of clearance at each end. This is necessary to accommodate any small amounts of water that may be carried over to the engine. If there isn’t any room, the slug of water, being incompressible, stops the piston dead before it has reached the end of its stroke and something has to break in the engine.
When I got the cover off and lifted the piston and rod out I was intrigued by what I found. The bottom of the cylinder had been scarred by deep channels chiselled into it leading across to the outlet for the cylinder drain right in the bottom. I didn’t understand why this had been done but noted it, measured the bore, made my calculations and built a temporary girder frame to hold the cylinder at the correct height, this was calculated to give equal clearance at both ends of the stroke. Next, I went into the workshop at home and made all the holding down bolts out of two inch black bar and cut and threaded authentic square nuts for them. All this took about a week during which Cecil and the lads carried on with sorting and cleaning engine parts. I had told them which we would need next and they were making a good job of them. The place looked like a proper fitting shop as all the parts of the flywheel and the various keys and wedges lined up in gleaming rows waiting for the build.
I marked up the position of the concrete pillar in the pit, adjusted the height of the pocket in the wall of the pit for the outrigger bearing of the flyshaft and mounted the cylinder on its temporary frame. Then I rang John Kelly at MGF and they came down to do the final concreting in the pit.
I did my final measurements before we located the central pillar. This was a very ticklish job and we used far more strongbacks than usual to support the shuttering. We poured it all except the last two feet then I fitted the bed plate for the flyshaft bearing in exactly the right place. At the same time we shuttered round the temporary framework supporting the cylinder and poured the concrete in that. The rest of the concrete was poured in the pillar and we gave it a week to cool down before we struck the scaffolding. The pillar was as near perfect as we could get it. If ever you go to Ellenroad watch the crank as it swings round at the back of the pillar and notice how small the clearance is between it and the pillar.
I was ready now to start on the flywheel. I had been looking forward to this because it was potentially the most challenging job on the engine. If I didn’t get it right it wouldn’t run true and as it was a geared drive, this wouldn’t do at all! With the help of Cecil and the lads I got the main bearing housing on the pillar installed and the outrigger bearing on the side of the pit. One last measure up and check with the level and I was ready. I waited until they had gone home and then set to to lift the flyshaft and flywheel boss into place. I did this on my own because it was a very heavy lift, far heavier than anything else we would have to do and actually was pushing the tackle to its limits. I used two blocks all the time and had to keep the whole lot balanced. Working slowly and with many a pause for thought and inspection I moved it quietly over to its place and lowered it in. I breathed a sigh of relief as it sank into its bearings and there was something about the way it rested there which made me sure I had got it right, it looked comfortable. The nicest part about this of course was the look on the lads faces when they came in the following morning. I told them the good fairy had been busy in the night!
I settled down to some honest fitting from this point. First we installed a chain block directly over the centre of the wheel and then we started fitting the spokes to the boss. The spokes were all numbered and were fitted into borings in the boss where they were retained by double cotters acting as opposed wedges. They were a beautiful fit and the only fitting that needed doing was on a couple of the wedges which I reckoned had been re-made at the time the engine was erected at Holcroft’s in 1957 because they were planed. The great fascination about building something like this for me is that you are following in the footsteps of the old fitters who first erected the engine in Petrie’s shop in 1841. You come across all their difficulties and deficiencies. One thing about the Whitelees which was obvious was that for its time, it was very accurately built. The other thing that was noticeable, as in the keys that needed re-fitting, was that they hadn’t got a planing machine. These had only just been invented then, all the plane surfaces on the engine were either chipped and filed by hand or generated on the lathe which would be the only machine tool they had at that time. It must have been a big lathe as well, the flywheel boss was no lightweight.
Once all the spokes were in the procedure was to fit the rim segments and then finish off by fitting the gear segments to the outside of the rim. This was routine, repetitive work but had to be done very carefully as the wheel was out of balance. This had started as soon as we got one spoke in of course. The cure was to restrain the wheel with a chain block at each side. These had to be re-attached each time the wheel was tuned and it was at this point when only one block was holding the weight that you had to be very careful. Once the wheel was complete we spun it round and I was delighted to find it was actually running nearer to truth than it had been at Holcroft’s. I don’t claim any credit for this apart from the fact we must have been more consistent with our fitting than the 1957 gang because the truth of the wheel depended primarily on the accuracy of the machining and that was superb.
We then mounted the governor on its pedestal above the flyshaft bearing and concentrated on the other end of the beam. I had decided that it would be easier to fit the parallel motion and the piston and rod while the con rod end of the beam was free. The first thing we did was fit the cover temporarily as this gave us a true centre on the cylinder. I hung a plumb bob from the centre of the bearing position for the end of the piston rod and first tried the line for centre on the cover and then on the base of the cylinder. I did this by making a piece of wood that fitted exactly in the bore and marking the centre through the cover. We then took the cover off and transferred the piece of wood to the base of the cylinder and checked the line against it. We made a few minor adjustments with wedges under the base until we had the centre perfect. Finally I did one check with the plumb bob on the mark in the cylinder bottom and the cover installed. As near as I could see we had it perfect. Then we took the cover off, removed the wooden target and did a final check measurement on the equality of the distance from the cylinder ends on both ends of the stroke. I was within an eighth of an inch and that was OK by me. We put permanent packings in in place of the wedges, tightened the holding down bolts, did one final check with the plumb line and then installed the piston, piston rod and cover.
I had fabricated a girder frame and welded it in place above the cylinder. This was put in to act as a stay for the entablature beam and also to give us a sky hook to install the anchor points of the parallel motion. I wasn’t looking forward to setting the parallel motion up as I had never done one before from scratch. I could hear Johnny Pickles telling Newton that on no account was he to alter the parallel motion on the big beam engine at Victoria Mill at Earby because if he did he'd never get it right again! I’d talked to Newton about it and he didn’t really have any specific advice beyond listening to what I thought would be the right way to go about it and telling me to use my head.
I’d given this a lot of thought and had come to the conclusion that the best way to do it was to set the engine beam dead parallel, that is, at mid-stroke and then set the parallelogram of the linkage dead square and level and measure the anchor points of the linkage from that position. There was a certain amount of adjustment on the connections so I thought we would be near enough. In theory it should have been perfect but there was always the chance that I’d get the anchorages slightly wrong. We did it this way, attached the piston rod and barred the engine over to see how we were. We were dead true across the line of the beam and only an eighth of an inch out on the centre line so I left it at that. The packing would tolerate that amount of play. I’m sure we could have fiddled with it and got it better, the basic positioning was good and the adjustments would have fine-tuned it, but I had my eye on my May deadline and good enough was all right by me.
Next, we fitted the connecting rod between the opposite beam end and the crank. This fitted perfectly and when we barred the engine over it cleared the central pillar easily and evenly so that was all right! We then shifted operations back to the cylinder end, we had to fit the valve chest to the cylinder.
The valve chest was a beautiful cast iron construction and was a bit of a puzzle to me. I knew it was made up of separate castings but they were so well fitted that we couldn’t find the joins or even any trace of how it was fastened together! I had no intention of dismantling it but needed to know as much as possible about it before attempting to fit it as I was working at a big disadvantage. I knew nothing about the internal arrangement of the ports in the circular slide valve and they were almost totally inaccessible. I could measure the valve itself with ease as it was out of the bore but the positioning and shape of the seats was a different matter. I knew that they had used the common practice of cut-outs in the seats to give a rudimentary form of lead by allowing a small quantity of steam in before Top Dead Centre and BDC but I had to get measurements in order to set the valves correctly. I reasoned that it was no good relying on the evidence of the old fitting marks on the flyshaft and eccentric as we had rebuilt the engine and these would almost certainly have changed. As it turned out, I was right but not for the reasons I had deduced!
In the end I got the measurements by using a wooden batten with a nail driven through it at the end. I passed to batten up the bore and found the top edge of the port, the bottom edge and the depth and shape of the cut-out. All this was done by feel but I had some clues from the bottom port which I could see and so had a rough check on my measurements at the top. I decided eventually that I had a pretty reasonable set of measurements and could fit the anchor plate for the motion, the circular slide valve and the rod and cover. We were ready to fit the valve chest to the cylinder.
The first thing to say is that the valve chest was a big lump. There was very little difference between its weight and that of the cylinder It fitted on a two small faces about nine inches square cast on to the cylinder and these were the admission and exhaust ports to the cylinder so they had to be steam tight. When fitted, the valve chest was hung on the front face of the cylinder and all the weight was supported by these two faces. This was the reason I had taken so much trouble with the cylinder foundation as, when it was all erected, the cylinder was way out of balance on account of the weight of the valve chest hung on the front of it.
Once I was ready to lift the valve chest I had another set of problems to address before I could attempt to fit it. The first was the condition of the studs and nuts which held the chest on to the faces. They were pretty rough. They hadn’t been perfect when the engine was built and after over 150 years of undisturbed corrosion, both they and the tappings they fitted into on the cylinder had deteriorated. I decided to make new studs and make the threads that went into the cylinder slightly oversize. I was making all new nuts so the outboard end could be standard Whitworth thread. These were fitted and bedded in Manganesite. This is a very old jointing compound made out of double boiled linseed oil and manganese dioxide powder. It is black and sticky and when raised to steam temperature it bakes hard and sets like cement.
You’re working hard here to follow this lot so let’s have a Manganesite interlude! Being an old-fashioned bugger and knowing what’s good for me I am a big fan of double boiled linseed oil. In my experience it is wonderful stuff for preserving, sealing and combating corrosion. I have never known a joint made with Manganesite to fail on account of the jointing, only by reason of bad fitting. I remember working with Newton one day when we were fitting a new cylinder packing on the Bancroft Engine. He cut his hand and I noticed that he dipped his finger in the Manganesite tin and rubbed some into the cut. The joke with this stuff is that if it gets rubbed into your skin it’s no use trying to wash it off. The only way you get rid of it is to let it wear off! I laughed at Newton and asked him what the bloody hell he thought he was doing. He told me that it was the best stuff in the world for protecting a cut and promoting healing! I told him he was a daft old bugger and left it at that. Many years later I heard an item on Woman’s Hour on Radio 4 in which they were talking about the latest treatment for healing varicose ulcers in old people. As you probably know, these can be terribly slow to mend. The new, state of the art dressing was impregnated with manganese dioxide! I went straight round to Newton’s and told him he might not have been as daft as I thought. It just goes to show, don’t dismiss old style cures out of hand. Remember Mother Hanson and my carbuncle?
Back to the valve chest. Once the stud problem was out of the way I had another thorny issue to address. When Duncan and I split the valve chest from the cylinder before removing it from the Holcroft site, we had puzzled over the seal between the valve chest and the cylinder. As far as we could see at the time it was simply metal to metal, two fitted faces. We didn’t bother too much about it then, we had other fish to fry. Once I got the valve chest laid out on the boiler room floor and cleaned it up I realised that it wasn’t two fitted faces at all. The seal had been made with jointing cement which had set as hard as the parent metal and when I tested it, was magnetic. I took a piece home and found it drilled and tapped like cast iron. I decided in the finish that it was a mixture of cast iron filings and, you’ve guessed it, double boiled linseed oil! I took a piece of it down to Edward Keirby’s in Rochdale who made all my packing for me and showed it to Roger and his dad but neither of them had seen anything like it before. My problem was that I could soon make some fine cast iron powder on the lathe and could get the linseed oil but I didn’t know how long it would take to set, neither was I sure that my diagnosis was right. All I was sure of was that we only had one chance to get it right and if we got it wrong there wouldn’t be enough time to strip the whole thing down to rectify it so, once more, Stanley had a decision to make!
I thought long and hard and in the end decided to get Keirby’s to make me two proofed asbestos packings 3/8 of an inch thick. These would be bedded in Manganesite to give the seal. The problem was that these wouldn’t be rigid enough to give me the mechanical strength I needed in the joint so we made the packings an inch wide and filled the remainder of the space with a mixture of ceramic fibre and Manganesite. I reckoned that if we put the valve chest back bedded on to this but only nipped the joints we would have enough strength to make it integral and that we could leave the final tightening down until we warmed the cylinder when we got steam on it. By that time the compound should have hardened a bit and would bake with the rise in temperature. In the end this was what we did and as far as I know there has never been the slightest sign of any leakage on the joints. One thing is sure and certain, if ever there is they’ll need to read this chapter before they strip it down to re-make the packing!
Having made the joints, fitting the valve chest was straightforward but an awkward lift and very stressful. I had this mental image of the tackle failing and us dropping the casting and breaking it. I could have fabricated a replacement but our deadline, budget and the quality of the job would all have gone to the wall, in other words, disaster! As it was it went straight on with no bother and we nipped the fastenings up and stripped the tackle. It was looking more and more like an engine.
We then fitted the valve gear, the twist motion that helped even the wear out on the bore of the valve and the eccentric rod and associated parts. Once we had done this I barred the engine over and at the time thought it was very stiff. This got worse and when I had a look to see what was causing it found to my dismay that part of the twist motion had come loose, displaced to one side and bent the valve rod going up into the valve chest! One of the lads had forgotten to tighten some nuts and I was at fault because I hadn’t checked them. We dismantled the gear, drew the rod out and I took it down to a friendly engineering firm at Castleton, told them what I had done and they straightened it out for me and skimmed the bottom end where it ran in the packing. This was a ticklish job but they did it well and for free! Problem solved, rod back in, nuts tightened properly this time and all was well. In fact, it was better than before and sealed better in the bottom gland because 150 years of wear had been taken out of it.
The next part we had to address was the condenser and air pump which sat in the pit below the cylinder and were connected to the cylinder by a cast iron eduction pipe. This pipe had been sealed into the top of the condenser with rust setting compound. This used to be the standard method of making a pressure tight joint between two cast iron pipes. Mechanically, the joint consisted of a tapering plain end that fitted into a flanged female seating. The joint was caulked with lead wool driven in with a hammer and caulking iron and then the space left was filled with a paste of cast iron borings and sal ammoniac. (The old name for Ammonium Chloride) There was a chemical action between the sal ammoniac and the cast iron which in effect was accelerated corrosion. The paste swelled and set hard and it was a permanent joint. The joint on the condenser had been done like this and the paste had swelled that much that the pressure had split the flange so there was no way I was going to disturb it. The condenser and the air pump sat on a flat cast iron chamber called the ‘coffin bottom’ which had a one way rubber flap valve in between the two sections, access to this was via an inspection plate on the top of the coffin bottom.
We had broken the whole construction down into its separate parts, cleaned them up, refurbished the valves and faces and made packings for all the joints. I got some thick rubber sheet and was prepared to make a new valve but the old one was in such good condition that I left it in place. We had to position the coffin bottom precisely because it was fixed at one end by the eduction pipe and at the other end had to be directly below the air pump rod which drove the pump and was hinged to the engine beam above. This wasn’t as complicated as it sounds because it had all been fitted up before. All we had to do was drop the coffin bottom into the pit. Install the condenser on it making the joint between the condenser vessel and the coffin bottom at the same time. Wedge the coffin bottom up until it was level and at the correct height to make the joint with the cylinder fit, check that the centre line of the opening which took the air pump coincided with the attachment point for the pump rod on the beam and then fit the holding down bolts to the coffin bottom before pouring concrete into the pit to a level slightly higher than the bottom of the coffin. The reason for this was that the coffin was corroded badly and setting it in concrete meant there would be no leakage from that source even if it perforated..
I noticed that the eduction pipe was an awkward fit on to the cylinder but we managed to get it in place and jointed up whilst preserving our relationship with the pump rod. We poured the concrete and went on to do other jobs while this was setting. While we had been building the engine the pipefitters had been hard at work installing the steam main to the engine and I had been busy in my workshop at home refurbishing the stop valve, equilibrium valve and other small parts of the engine.
It was time to fit the air pump. This was a simple job, we dropped the casting into the pit, made the joint, fitted the piston, rod and top cover and connected it up to the beam. No problem. Then we barred the engine over and found we had a big problem, the bucket of the air pump fouled the delivery plate at the top of the stroke and the engine couldn’t turn over. If it had been under steam it would have smashed the engine or the pump or both. I was baffled at first because this couldn’t happen! I took a leaf out of Sherlock Holmes’s book again and decided this was another ‘three pipe problem’! I retired to the site hut, brewed up and to all intents and purposes went to sleep in the corner again.
Diagnosis of problems like these is by far the most satisfying part of fitting. It’s like a detective story, you have to collate all the information and think it through carefully. As Holmes said, ‘If you eliminate all the possible causes or explanations, the answer has got to be the impossible’. This is very often the case, of course the answer is that what you thought was impossible was actually definitely possible. Never eliminate anything until you are certain it’s wrong.
I’m going to do my Stanley as engineering superman bit again. Sorry, but I’ve got to tell the truth. Years before, I had had a part-time job at Hey Farm reconditioning Land Rover engines for a bloke at Crawshawbooth called Walter Johnson. I was sat at home one night and he rang up, he had a problem. They had a Land Rover which had come in because the clutch had failed, the centre of the clutch plate had ripped out of the plate. They repaired it and sent it out but it had come back with the same fault twice in a fortnight and Walt knew they were missing something. I told him I was going for a bath and I’d think about it while I was soaking and ring him back. I went and soaked, identified the problem and rang him back. I told him that the only thing that could break the centre out of a clutch plate like that was metal fatigue, the plate must be flexing while it rotated. The only thing that could cause this was if the gear box was out of alignment with the engine and this could only happen if the fastening between the bell housing and the engine casting was loose. Due to the design of the engine this wasn’t disturbed when you replaced the clutch. Walt went away and had a look and rang back about ten minutes later, he said he’d crawled underneath and found a gap at the bottom of the bell housing where it butted up against the gearbox. I was right, problem solved and Walt went away swearing I was a genius.
When I had my new Bedford TK wagon at Harrisons it started giving problems after I had a day off because I couldn’t keep the securing nuts tight on the right hand half shaft. I told Billy that the axle casing had been bent and nobody believed me. In the end it started breaking half shafts and it went in to Ferrands. They measured it up and the axle was bent back over an inch. It transpired that the spare driver had hit a large stone at Broughton Hall and never told anyone. Even Billy was impressed. The point about this is that it demonstrates Holmes’s point, it was impossible to bend an axle like that. I’ve never seen one before or since, but that driver had managed to do it.
So I sat there in the hut and pondered. I remembered the cuts in the bottom of the cylinder and the fact that we had difficulty making the joint between the eduction pipe and the cylinder and came to the conclusion that they had made a mistake in the foundry 150 years ago when they cast the eduction pipe, it was about two inches too long! When the fitters had erected the engine temporarily in the shop in 1841 they had found this fault but had compensated by raising the cylinder two inches. This meant that the steam piston was almost hitting the bottom of the bore at the end of the stroke and so they’d chiselled the grooves to help it deliver any water in the bore to the drain. This was probably what had cracked the entablature beam all those years ago, there had been too much water for the cylinder to get rid of, the piston had stopped before top centre on the crank end and the momentum of the flywheel had carried the engine on, lifted the entablature beam and cracked it. I had installed the cylinder correctly giving equidistant clearance at both ends of the stroke and so had installed the coffin bottom two inches too low. Therefore, the air pump bucket was short of two inches at the top of its stroke.
There were two cures, I either dropped the bucket two inches by lengthening the air pump rod or I raised the pump itself two inches by inserting a packing ring two inches thick between the pump and the coffin bottom. I remembered seeing some thick Tufnol sheet down at Rochdale Training so I popped down to see my mate Rod. Tufnol is a plastic material made by impregnating layers of linen with resin and then curing the sandwich under pressure. It has virtually the same mechanical strength as cast iron and is not affected by corrosion. Rod had a sheet of Tufnol which had come out of Tommy Robinson’s when they finished. It was two inches thick and big enough to make the packing. He gave this to me. I went back to Ellenroad, made a template of the joint with cardboard and took this and the sheet of Tufnol to Tatham’s the textile manufacturers in Milnrow. They cut the packing out of the sheet for me, again for nothing and I went back to Ellenroad with the solution. We fitted the packing piece, jointed with a thin packing each side and a lot of Manganesite and re-assembled the pump. Problem solved and unless you knew about it you would never see what we had done because when it was covered with oil and grime it looked just like the original casting.
We barred the engine over again, the stroke was all right but the pump rod was catching where it passed through a yoke in the parallel motion. I had no cure for this apart from getting up there with the oxy acetylene cutter and washing enough metal out of the yoke to allow the rod to function with a minimum of distortion. It felt like, and was, vandalism but Time’s Winged Chariot was hurrying near.
All the major elements of the engine itself were in place and it was just a matter of checking all the fastenings, making sure all the cotters were tight, setting the valves and making the connections between the engine and the boiler. There were drains to fit and pipe up and small items like lubricators and other accessories to refurbish and fit. The lads and Cecil helped me when I needed it but they had another task as well.
We had an engine but no connection with the river for water for the condenser. It was a long pull from the river but because the air pump was actually below river level I reckoned that once we had a connection it would draw water all right. There was a nine inch connection via a non-return foot valve into the middle well outside. This had been installed in 1975 as a supply main for the Mather and Platt electric sprinkler pump in the main engine house cellar. I set the lads on to dismantling this pump, shifting it out of the way and knocking a hole through the engine house wall into the cellar from the boiler house. Once they had done this the pipefitters moved in and installed a six inch suction main in between the nine inch connection in the cellar and the inlet port on the condenser. Just as a precaution we put a valve in this line to hold the water in the condenser when the engine was stopped. As a matter of fact I was more bothered about a siphon effect flooding the pit but as it transpired it wasn’t necessary. This wasn’t a problem as it was a useful thing to have in the line for maintenance purposes.
To get water away from the air pump while the engine was running I made a steel trough that ran away to the end of the pit where it dropped the water into a four inch centrifugal pump. This was piped to a hole cut in the top of the main drain in the engine house cellar which dropped the water from the main engines back into the river below the weir. My idea was that this pump would be running all the time and would keep the trough clear of water. We finished this and all the other small jobs by about Wednesday on the week before we were due to steam for the Total Open Day. It was time to fire the boiler and find out if I’d got everything right. I knew in my bones that there would be something wrong but didn’t have a clue what it would be. There was only one thing to do, run the engine in steam for the first time in 50 years. How the hell did I manage to get myself into these situations?
On the Tuesday we steamed the boiler and got about ten pounds of steam, we could set the automatic controls to hold this pressure. We cracked steam through the main and barred the engine round until the steam was passing through into the base of the cylinder. I reckoned there was enough play in the piston to allow circulation to the top so we opened the drains and left the engine warming through for 48 hours. While it was all hot and under very low pressure we nipped all the joints on the pipework and engine except for the connection between the valve chest and the cylinder. The reason for nipping all the joints is that no matter how tight you get them while they are cold you can always get another couple of turns when the metal has warmed up. I always call this following the joints up and it should be done on any piece of equipment when it has been re-built.
On this point, it never failed to amaze me how some engineers running steam plant got away with neglecting things like this. I remember once helping a firm to get a gas burner on a boiler working after it had been repaired. I found the fault and we started the boiler from cold on ‘kindle’ which is a low setting on the burner designed for slow steam raising so as not to damage the boiler by thermal shock caused by too rapid firing. The engineer said they never bothered about this and put it straight on to ‘High Flame’, the top setting. I kept quiet and stood back, awe-struck by his ignorance. At this setting the boiler started making steam after about twenty minutes and I noticed a few wisps of vapour on the top of the boiler. By the time I got up there to have a look it was a full blooded rush and you couldn’t get near it. It was steam escaping out of the top manhole on the boiler which was a mile off being tight. I told the engineer about it and he said it had always been like that since Rochdale Electric Welding had repaired the boiler. He said it would shut itself off as pressure blew the lid up against the seat! It did too, but I suggested it would be as well to tighten the holding up nuts as soon as he had a chance! There is a lesson to be learned from this; never underestimate the capacity of the human race to be stupid!
Back to the Whitelees. I couldn’t put it off any longer, I did a last minute check and then opened the steam valve. It’s very hard to communicate the tension that you feel when you unleash an unknown quantity like that. Starting the main engines had been just the same. I don’t think you ever reach a higher point of awareness and readiness for instant action than when you’re doing something like this. The best way I can describe it is rigidly controlled panic! It’s the best example I can think of to illustrate the phrase ‘Putting your money where your mouth is’. If you’ve made a serious mistake your life expectancy could be extremely low! The Whitelees was worse than some because due to the design of the engine you were literally inside the orbit of the engine when you started it, there was no comfortable separation like there was on the main engine. Not that this would do any good if something went wrong but psychologically, a bit of separation can be a comfort!
There was a whoosh as the cylinder filled and the engine started straight away and ran beautifully. Only one thing was wrong, we were running on the water we had put in the rising main to the condenser to prime the pump and as soon as this was removed by the air pump two things became blindingly obvious. First, we weren’t getting any water from the well and second, the centrifugal pump didn’t seem to be handling the tail water from the pump. The first fault was the worst and we stopped, the scavenging pump shifted the tail water and we filled the rising main and the condenser manually again and then tried once more.
We had exactly the same result and I decided that the problem was most likely outside, in the well. We went out and lifted the manhole cover but this didn’t do us much good because all we could see was the nine inch pipe vanishing into fifteen feet of muddy water. This is the time you need friends so I rang John Ingoe and asked him to send his low loader up as it had a very large hydraulic crane mounted on the back. We broke the joint in the pipe and thanked our lucky stars that Mather and Platt had had the sense to fit a lifting eye on the bend where the pipe turned before diving under the water. Same as a sky hook but the other way round! John brought the sky hook himself and we drew the pipe out of the well.
I opened the chamber which held the foot valve and found the problem straight away. Because the installation hadn’t been used or tested for several years, the rubber face of the bronze foot valve had stuck down on to the seat. I had to give it a clout to get it loose and remove it so we could clean it all up. The valve was wonderfully well made and in perfect condition, all it needed was freeing and re-assembling. I was having a cup of tea while the lads started to put it back together. I was watching them through the open door of the site hut and noticed they seemed to be having a bit of bother. I went out and asked them what was the matter and they said they couldn’t get the valve back in the housing, it was too big! I tried myself and they were right! In the end, everybody had a try and nobody could see how we were going to get it back in. I went and had another look and all of a sudden it dawned on me that when I took it out I must have turned it over in the housing and not noticed because I was more interested in the seat. I turned it upside down, pushed it in the housing, turned it over and it fell into place perfectly. I went back and finished my tea while they re-fitted the cover. You’ll often meet up with this sort of thing especially when you’re tired. A simple matter that should be blindingly obvious becomes a problem. This is always the time for a pint of tea and a smoke! We dropped the pipe back in the well, made the joint, dropped the lid on the well and went home for tea. Tomorrow was another day, we would see how much good we had done then.
The following day we raised steam again, warmed the engine through, oiled round and had another go. This time we did far better, we had water at the condenser and about fifteen inches of vacuum. Wonderful, the connection to the river was working well! The only problem we had now was that the scavenge pump which was supposed to pick the water up from the end of the trough carrying the tail water away from the engine was air-locking and not coping with the water. We very soon had six inches of water in the pit and had to stop. We had a sump pump running in the pit to deal with any spillage and we left this running while I retired to the site hut for another pint of tea, a pipe and a good think.
It was obvious from the speed the scavenge pump shifted the water when it was working that it was man enough for the job. The problem was that it wouldn’t self-prime once it had gulped the first lot of water out. We either needed a new pump with different characteristics or a reservoir to drop the tail water in and have the pump controlled by a float switch. As we had no money and no alternative pump the reservoir option looked the best bet. In addition, with only a couple of days to go, this was all happening on a Saturday, I needed a solution that I could be confident with. I rang John Ingoe again and within a couple of hours he had sent up an 800 gallon hot well tank and Paul Greenwood with a plant wagon. I rang Alex Mill our tame electrician, told him he was working for free as well and arranged for him to come up and re-wire the pump through a float switch.
We set to and by nine o’clock that evening we had the tank installed, piped up and the electrical wiring almost completed. On the Sunday, Alex finished the wiring and we ran the engine again. This time we had a complete cure, the engine ran reasonably, the air pump delivered water from the river and the new arrangements coped with the tail water with no problems at all. We had a working engine and a couple of days to make minor adjustments and tidy up. We ran for the Total Open day and apart from one hitch on the last run when the air pump boiled, had no problems. Everyone was very pleased, as well they should be!
At one point I was stood there with Peter Dawson while one of the lads ran the engine and Peter turned to me and said “It’s a good job we gave it that extra foot in the bottom!” I told him I still couldn’t account for why I had done it, I thought we’d better just put it down to luck. Eight years on, the Whitelees is still steamed regularly with the main engine and seems to get better and better as time goes on. At one point the Trust got the idea in their head that they could make the piston a better fit in the bore. They took it out and made all sorts of plans about it. I told them at the time that the best thing was to leave it alone but they wanted to do it their way. In the end, they put it back and it runs as it did when I first started it. Funnily enough it is far safer like this. Volunteers are splendid people but they haven’t the depth of knowledge and instinct that years of practical working gives you. If someone does make a mistake and gets water in the cylinder, the fact that the piston is a sloppy fit in the bore is a good thing, the water can escape up past the piston. If it was to be made a perfect fit, they would run into all sorts of problems. I always used to tell them that we had no worries, we weren’t running 300 looms and everyone depending on us. We could afford to run uneconomically but safe, the engine only had to run, it wasn’t driving anything.
Building the Whitelees was a wonderfully satisfying job and taxed me to the limit. I made a couple of mistakes and if I could go back and do it again there are a couple of things I would do slightly differently. Having said that, I take credit for a significant achievement, building a full size engine with no drawings or experience and having it running on time was pretty bloody good and the nice thing was that there were a number of people who realised this and told me so. My main joy was to be able to follow the blokes who made the engine and erected it in the first place. I found all their mistakes and appreciated all their good work, I really did feel as though I had reached back 150 years and shaken hands with them.
One last matter. Some time later we had a visitor from another museum and he saw with horror that punched on the castings of the flywheel was the legend ‘Rebuilt 1991, S Graham’. He took me to task about this so I rolled the wheel round a bit further and showed him the names of the fitters who had rebuilt it at Holcrofts in 1957. I asked him if he’d ever looked inside the back of an old watch and seen the initials and date of the watchmaker who had done repairs on it. What we had done was exactly the same thing and part of a long tradition. So, if ever you go down to look at the engine, look on the flywheel for my memorial!
The dust soon settled after we ran the Whitelees Engine for Total Oil and I had to get back to the can of worms which is what the Trust and the project had turned out to be. Truth to tell I was exhausted after three months of unremitting mental and physical work. I had lost over a stone in weight and what I really needed was a fortnight’s holiday. I didn’t really analyse what was going on at the time but hindsight is 20/20 vision so they say and I have a fair assessment to hand now of what the problems were. The internecine conflicts within the Trust had subsided after Horace intervened on my behalf but they had never gone away. Horace was dead so that line of defence was closed. My version of what was going wrong is as follows.
By the way, if you detect a sort of moveable feast in that I sometimes call them the Trustees and sometimes the Directors there’s a good reason for it. They were Trustees when we started but for some reason which I never fully understood, changed their title to Directors so regard the terms as interchangeable!
In the early years of the project I was seen as some sort of miracle worker. I remember John Pierce once referring to me in a speech as “Mr Ellenroad” and I took him to task afterwards. I told him that it was a big mistake to identify the success of the project with one person unless it was posthumously. Even so, I was delivering the goods so fast that I think some of the directors thought I walked on water. Bear in mind that in hard cash donations alone, I brought in over £3,500,000. Add gifts in kind, services and subsidy through MSC and you are getting very close to £5,000,000. This is big money in anybody’s terms and we were showing concrete progress for it. My wage and the expenses of running the Trust were about £20,000 a year. This was peanuts for a project of this size and compares more than favourably with other schemes. However, many of the directors hadn’t a clue as to what was going on or what was needed to run something like Ellenroad and every time the figure of £20,000 was mentioned they assumed it was going into my back pocket.
Another aspect of my thinking which the directors as a body never took on board was what I’m sure they saw as my empire building. Every time I came up with a scheme like the residential block, the exhibition centre, the exhibition building enterprise or the park and ride facility and the link road to Kingsway they dismissed it out of hand. I’m not saying that all the directors were blind to what I was aiming for, but they were ruled by the majority and there were some small-minded people of no great imagination or intelligence sitting as directors and you don’t need many of them to knock the enterprise out of the rest. I’ll give you a couple of examples. There was a big article in the Rochdale Observer one week which tore into the Trust because of the fact it was spending too much and was nearly bankrupt. The situation at the time wasn’t unusual for us. We were taking a lot of money in but spending it on major works. The problem was that the source of the story, and he was quoted by name, was one of our directors! I had to stand up in the board meeting and point out that there was no problem, that even if there was, the directors were party to it because they had full information and accounts and had ratified every action the Trust had taken. Further, did they realise what the consequences of any proof of wrong-doing was? They were under the impression that because we were a Company Limited by Guarantee the directors could only be held liable in the sum of £1 each under company law. I pointed out that if the Trust was found to have traded unlawfully the directors were liable for the whole amount of any shortfall. This caused great consternation as some of them had never read any of the papers given to them and didn’t understand their liabilities. If I remember rightly I had to ask John Youngman to come up and give them a lecture on collective responsibility. Another example which I was able to nip in the bud straight away because I heard about it as soon as it happened was when another director had a couple of beers in a local pub and said the Trust was going to liquidate! Enough of this, just take it as read that the directors weren’t always the most helpful element at work in the project.
As the project found its feet and started to produce concrete results people started to forget how steep the hill had been when we first started to climb. They began to see Ellenroad as a wonderful example of local enterprise which had been very successful up to now and so would continue to be so. What nobody ever realised was the amount of work that I put into fund-raising. I never told them because it would have been seen as simply another ploy from Stanley to get more money out of the Trust. I was looking at some of the old computer files of correspondence and memoranda the other night and was struck by the number of them which were timed before eight in the morning and after eight at night! There are plenty which are after midnight! I told the directors time and time again that the lead-in time to funding could be anything up to five years and that what we should be addressing when we had plenty of money coming in was where the next five years worth of funding was coming from. This never sunk in.
By 1990, we had only one major source of income and that was Total Oil. There was a chance of other funding but it was just at this time that Ray Colley proposed that my hours should be cut down to two days a week. Behind this was the assumption that I would continue fund-raising on the same scale, presumably in my own time! I forget how this finished up but I think it got buried in the hard fact that I had to work full time to get the Whitelees Engine built and running and the Trust hadn’t got any money to pay me anyway. I was keeping it going by working simply on the premise that when they had the money they would pay me what they owed me. To make matters worse, negotiations with the Co-op which I was convinced was our next major funder were handed over to Malcolm Dunphy, one of the directors, and I am certain he never put enough time into it. He certainly never came to me for the materials which I would have considered necessary for bringing in a funder as big as that. My impression at the time that this was something which was best handled by the top men having a quiet word after they had finished their main business. This was the root of the problem, the Trust’s funding was the main business as far as I was concerned and in my book, the best way to get funding was to state a clear, logical case and support it with written evidence. It’s all water under the bridge now but very few of the directors really understood the principles behind funding. They were businessmen and thought like businessmen. In their book the project was tailored to the budget. In mine, you decided what you wanted to do, costed it, added at least 50% and that was the budget you had to fund. I never trimmed a segment of the project to fit a budget, always the other way round.
Early in 1991 I did a paper for the directors which was entitled ‘Why the Trust should sack Stanley’ or words to that effect. My argument was that if they weren’t going to go for the external services and the residential accommodation they didn’t need me and should start to make plans to replace me. I laid out all the things a replacement would have to do and gave them every assistance to do some head-hunting. I knew I was on a losing wicket because the first thing they would try to do was reduce the figure of £20,000 I had always put on the cost of a year’s management and if you pay peanuts you get monkeys!
By May 1992 everything was winding down. We lost the MSC workers and due to my full time commitment to Whitelees no fund-raising had been done for six months and all I wanted to do was to get out. I spent a month tidying up the Trust’s affairs and moving paper from home to Ellenroad and it was not a happy time.
What made things worse was the fact that the directors made up their minds that they wanted to clear up their debt to me. They hadn’t enough money to do this and I suggested that they pay people like Alex Mill our electrical contractor the money he was owed first. Eventually Total and Coates, who recognised my position and sympathised with me, put in I think about £2500 each on condition that it all went to me. I thought this was wonderful and a concrete indication of what they thought about my work. This left about £3,500 owing to me and I was asked to attend a meeting at Malcolm Dunphy’s factory one evening. There were only a few directors there and I knew I was going to get shafted as soon as I walked in. Briefly they told me how much they could pay me and if I didn’t accept it they would declare the Trust insolvent, restart and I wouldn’t get anything. I never argued, I just asked for a piece of paper, wrote a draft of the letter I would send them, got them to approve it and walked out. Peter Metcalfe came out with me and we went for a drink. He didn’t say a lot beyond the fact that I’d surprised him by not losing my temper. “What’s the point?” I said, “They hold all the cards and they are doing exactly what they see fit.” It was as simple as that. I wrote off the £3,500 or whatever it was that they owed me and walked away from them a sadder and wiser man. The directors never even thanked me for what I had done for the Trust.
A few days later I was at Ellenroad for a steaming and the Friends surprised me, they gave me an engraved tankard, a picture of me asleep while tenting the engine and a single red rose. Guess who I remember with most affection.
There is nothing easier than sitting on the sidelines sniping but I think I’m entitled to give my assessment of Ellenroad. As far as I know they are still running on funding which I laid the foundations for. There is no initiative to build the external services, install the disabled access or build the residential and study facility. Until these matters are addressed, or something very similar to them, Ellenroad will struggle on as it does today, an amateur heritage attraction staffed by volunteers which will never gain enough impetus to lift itself into profit. In other words, without major intervention it is eventually doomed to fail. It’s sad but it’s somebody else’s problem now. One thing is sure and certain, if it hadn’t been for me it would never have happened and they can’t take that way from me. There are still one or two people about who hold the same opinion but, as I said to one of them the other day, we’re yesterday’s men, leave them to it.
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