TRACTION ENGINES AND BOILERS
I have an idea you might get a flavour of how things improved after 1993 by the subjects we have to cover in this chapter. We can have a rest from weighty philosophical matters now and get down to some straight engineering.
John Ingoe and Rochdale Electric Welding are going to figure very largely in this chapter. From now on the latter is REW. You’ll remember that in 1993 John gave me a job when nobody else would look at me because I was too old! Were they ever wrong! At that time John’s shop was on Bridgefield Street in Rochdale. It was a large, well built building with plenty of head room and the advantage of a five ton overhead crane. You’ll remember what I have said before about sky hooks, this was a Rolls Royce. You could reach any part of the floor and it made shifting heavy weights easy. The workshop had a large roller shutter at one end, a good concrete floor and access to a yard outside. We could handle anything up to a sixty ton boiler with relative ease and were never fast when it came to shifting large weights.
There was a connection between Bridgefield Street and boiler insurance that I didn’t discover until much later. In 1854 a man called Williamson owned Bridgefield Mill and in September of that year the boiler exploded killing 10 workers, one of whom was the engineer, William Taylor. In the subsequent inquest, William Fairbairn, the Manchester engineer who invented the Lancashire boiler, was called as an expert witness and in the course of his investigations found that the cause of the disaster was that Taylor, knowing the engine was always short of steam, had placed weights on the safety valve to raise the pressure. Normally, the boiler never reached this pressure as the engine kept the pressure down but on the morning in question it had stopped unexpectedly. While the plant was idle, pressure rose and the boiler burst.
It was the Bridgfield Mill explosion that finally convinced Fairbairn that boilers had to be better supervised in the interests of profit and safety. On the 19 September 1854 the Mayor of Manchester called a meeting in his Parlour at Manchester Town Hall with some of the of the most eminent engineers and manufacturers in Manchester and they formed the Manchester Steam Users Association which in turn heralded the birth of the great engineering insurance companies that are still supervising boilers to this day.
John Ingoe’s grandfather, William Ranson Ingoe came to Rochdale from South Shields where he had been working in the ship repair industry. He chose the area because of the number of factory chimneys! As Newton was to say later, there was a boiler at the bottom of every one of them! He was an advocate of the relatively new process of electric arc welding, hence the name of the company, and set up business in 1930 to carry out heavy boiler repairs and fabrication. John thinks they were the first firm in the Manchester area to rely solely on electric arc welding. In 1993 when I went to REW, John’s father Matthew was still head of the firm but John was running the business which was just the same as in 1930, heavy boiler repair.
Apart from the usual hand tools and welding equipment, the shop in Bridgefield Street had a good radial drill, bending rolls and, shortly after I started there, the advantage of our own live-in tinsmith on the mezzanine with a guillotine and a bending machine. I decided shortly after I started that he needed a lathe as well and so sold him my Wilson which I had no room for at East Hill Street. We installed it up in a corner of the shop, John complained that they had no use for it and over the next five years I made him thousands of pounds with it!
I had moved all my other tools across to East Hill Street and installed them in what used to be the back kitchen. This was, like the rest of the house centrally heated so I had the best equipped workshop in Barlick and no rust problems! Come to think, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to tell you what was in there. I had a Harrison nine inch lathe, Harrison horizontal milling machine, a vertical miller, a drill press, a Clarkson tool and cutter grinder, Johnny Pickles’s big ornamental lathe and all the usual vices, surface plates and hand tools. In short, I could make anything I needed, size was the only restriction.
When I first started at REW there was no permanence, I went there to tidy the place up, get some order into the spares and generally look after the shop. John didn’t really know what I was capable of and his priority was getting the place somewhere near straight. There was one item that placed some demands on me from the start. John had bought a semi-derelict steam traction engine from a bloke called Johnson at Banks near Southport and had rebuilt it. He had asked my advice on several matters while he was doing it and I had made him some lubricators and small parts for it. We’ll deal with that first and I’ll get on to the boiler work later.
Until I started bothering with John’s engine I had never really taken any interest in traction and portable engines. I got quite attached to it in the end! What John bought was a semi-derelict Davey and Paxman colonial engine, a straw-burner. Strictly speaking it wasn’t a traction engine but a portable engine that was fitted up with gearing so that it could move itself. It was designated a ‘colonial’ because it wasn’t built for this country but for export to the Argentine. The story was that Paxmans got an order for three of these engine, they built one and sent it to Argentina but never got paid for the first one so they stopped work on ours and it languished in a corner of the shop for years. It was eventually sold as it stood to an estate which used it as a stationary engine for barn work.
It was intended for belt work, driving machinery by a long belt driven by the fly shaft. It’s main job was to be threshing and it was made with large boiler tubes and a very big firebox so that it could be fired with straw from the threshed sheaves. The boiler was much larger than on an ordinary engine and it was a very free steamer. All told it was a powerful and useful tool, I once had it on a saw at Harewood and the sawyer said it was the best engine he’d ever had on the belt.
When John first got the engine it had it’s original front axle and two steel treaded back wheels from a Fowler but no gearing or back axle. There were various other bits missing as well but he set to to refurbish it even though he had no drawings. The first time I came into contact with it was while I was at Ellenroad and John asked me what I thought about the gearing. I liked what he had designed but suggested that instead of getting the gears cast and gear-cut he should get them burned out of blank plate with a profile cutter. Flame cutting was perfectly acceptable for this sort of gearing. He did this and they were never any trouble. I told him that he had made the shafts far too close a fit in the bearings but he ignored me and did it his way. I later got the chance to do something about this and cured the troubles that it caused.
Over the next couple of years I made him a lubricator for the crank bearing, made a new valve for the governor and various bits and pieces that were needed. Les, the tinsmith made new lagging for the boiler and John had it all painted up. The end result was a very creditable rebuild. Of course, all the ‘experts’ looked at it when it first went to a rally and said John had got it all wrong! Seeing as how the only other example had sunk without trace and there were no drawings I think John did very well. It still had some faults but he went into his first showing season with a unique and serviceable engine.
The crank brasses had always been a bit suspect and after one trip out in early 1994 John rang me and asked me to come and have a look at the bearing. They had tried to adjust it and got it a bit too tight. Not being used to brass bearings they thought they could get away with it but of course it expanded, this made it tighter and it melted the brass. John was worried because someone had told him that this meant that the crankshaft would be buggered. I had a look and re-assured him, all it wanted was a new set of brasses properly made and fitted and it would be as good as new. Rather than make patterns and get some castings made I just got a solid lump of brass cast big enough to make the brasses and made a new set out of the solid.
When I got the old brasses out to measure the journal and get the other particulars I found that the brasses that had been in were the wrong ones! They weren’t even a match. They were two odd brasses that had been somewhere near the right size and had been made to fit. There was a big improvement when the new brasses were fitted and I went on a rally with them to have a play with it.
I think the first rally I went on was the one at Harewood. I know we won the ‘Golden Bolt’, a prize for the best refurbishment. We were having a problem with the regulator and the engine ran very lumpy but we managed all right. On the second day they asked us if we would drive the circular saw in the afternoon so I trotted off there after dinner, got set up and we got a good fire going and settled into some serious sawing. This was when the sawyer said we were the best engine he had ever had on the saw. I was very pleased and we chucked a bit more coal on!
All went well for about an hour and then, as I bent down to look at the fire, my glasses steamed up. I knew straight away something was wrong and had a look at the water level. It had been well up the glass but was dropping, we had blown a tube and water was escaping from the boiler into the firebox. Now this is every boiler-tenters nightmare and can be very dangerous. I had a big fire, a leaking tube, falling water and about 150 people round the engine watching it working. Not good news.
I called one of the marshalls over and asked him how fast he could run, I sent him off for the water bowser and told him to tell them it was an emergency. I had the feed pump on but couldn’t keep up with the water and couldn’t drop the fire as the ashpan was bolted on. I didn’t want to cry wolf and start a panic so I got the marshalls to move the people round the engine as far away as they could without causing alarm. The bowser arrived and I did what you should never do, I put the fire out with the hose from the pump on the bowser. You have to be very careful doing this because if you cool the boiler plates down too quickly this in itself could cause an explosion. There were tremendous clouds of steam which pleased the crowd no end, they evidently thought this was something traction engine folk did regularly! Eventually I got the fire out and we all breathed a sigh of relief as the pressure began to fall. I was still driving the saw as this was the best way to get rid of the pressure.
We got one of the ploughing engines to winch us back up the hill and left Annie to quietly cool down. I went back with our low loader the day afterwards and we winched her on board and took her back to Rochdale. Dennis Sterricker, one of John’s oldest and most experienced employees and a wonderful boilermaker had a look at it and said that it had blown a tube but that could be expanded up tight again. The real problem was that a seam in the firebox had opened and a pinhole blown through the throat plate. The bottom line was that it was the first time for years it had worked that hard and it had found the weak points in the boiler. Dennis welded the seams up and repaired the pin-hole. We did a hydraulic test and all seemed OK.
Later that winter I was working for John full time and he asked me to go through the engine ready for a test and to see whether I could cure the regulator and the lumpy running. I stripped the engine down, ground the regulator seat and made a new tail rod for it. Then I took a lot of the play out of the slide valve so that it stayed on its seat when running on low steam. I took the cover off and drew the piston out and soon found out why it was running lumpy. I might as well warn you, we’re getting into another episode where Stanley knew more than the makers!
The cylinder had been bored wrong when they made the engine. When you bore a steam engine cylinder you should always bore it out bell-mouthed at each end of the stroke. The idea is to have the piston ring just over the end of the bore when it reaches the end of its stroke. The reason for this is that cast iron rings in a cast iron bore will eventually wear the bore. If the leading edge of the piston ring is still within the confines of the bore at the end of the stroke it will eventually wear the bore where it travels but the place where it stops will have a ledge at the point where it stops. Normally this doesn’t cause any problems but as the crank brasses wear and are adjusted the piston gradually shortens its stroke slightly and if new brasses are fitted this restores the original travel and the ring will hit the ledge before the piston has reached the end of the stroke. This was what was causing the lumpy running at low speed.
There was a very pronounced ledge in the front end of the cylinder so I decided to take it out. Remember that the piston never actually reaches this part of the bore, only the leading edge of the ring so there was no need for a great deal of accuracy. I got a five inch grinder and started to grind the ledge out. Just at this moment John walked through the shop and had a fit when he saw what I was doing! He was convinced for a moment that his mad fitter was destroying his engine! I explained what I was doing and why and he had the sense to leave me alone. I built it all up again and turned it by hand. It was perfect, no obstruction at all. We fired it up later and found that this repair, combined with the adjustment to the valve and the regulator seat had done the trick. It ticked over on low steam like a rice pudding!
Over the next couple of years I chased most of the faults out of the engine and eventually was almost satisfied with it. We did have one major job though in 1995 when John stripped one of the keys in the flyshaft of the engine while he was pushing the engine with the tractor of the low loader. He gave me the job of sorting it out and fitting a dog clutch at the same time which would allow us to drive off one wheel only which would help with the steering. The key had chewed the shaft up and all I could do was pull the gear with my 30 ton puller until I had enough room to get the oxy-acetylene cutter in. We cut the shaft and got it out in pieces. I got the gears rebored and a new shaft made and made all the parts for the clutch and the keyways myself. While nobody was watching me I took the bearing brasses out, got them in the lathe and bored them out 30 thousandths of an inch oversize! When we came to rebuild it John was amazed how easily it all went together and I had to own up what I had done. I don’t think he was best pleased at the time but later, when he realised how big an improvement it had made to the drive he relented but never admitted I had been right in the first place.
There was one rally in the year that I never went to, Masham. I was always teaching Carleton College when that one was on. I remember coming back into the shop after teaching in 1995 and noticed the engine as I came in. I asked John how the rally had gone and he said OK. I asked if they had had any trouble with the flywheel and he looked at me sharply and said “How did you know that? One of the keys came loose but we knocked it back in.” I told him that it wasn’t any better and needed seeing to. He was baffled and asked me how I knew. I took him to the engine and showed him the streaks of red oxide radiating from the keyways on the surface of the flywheel. This was classic ‘bleeding’ and is oxide caused by fretting corrosion when there is play in what should be a tight fit. I told him that it was a sure sign the keys were loose and needed refitting and probably replacing. He told me to get on with it.
I drew the keys and found that one was cosmetic, it was the wrong size and wasn’t doing anything at all, the other was so badly fitted it was only touching the keyway in one place and was no good. I got some key steel and made two new keys. I cut a channel down the top and bottom face of both keys. This is a trick that Newton taught me. You never get a key to fit perfectly especially when you are fitting to a worn bore and shaft. If you cut a channel down the middle of the bearing surface it is relatively easy to make sure that the key is bearing evenly down each side. As the original key was almost certainly fitted to the middle of the key ways, this means you are getting a grip on those parts of the shaft and the gear where there will be no wear. You can get a far better fit and make sure you are gripping each side equally. I also gave them a notch under the gib so that they could be easily pulled using a round-backed drift. I drove them up tight and they will never shift again while I am alive!
Another interesting job was refitting the water gauges. We couldn’t stop them leaking round the flanges and in the end I got John to let me take them off and make oversize studs. I refitted these studs, put the gauges back on and it cured the leaks. This wasn’t just a matter of fitting the next size of stud. I made new ones that were the same as the old ones in all respects but made the threaded end that screwed into the plate a bastard size. I threaded them myself of course in the lathe and put the same thread on the end but about 25 thousandths of an inch bigger in diameter. After cleaning the thread in the hole up with the original size tap, the new studs were screwed in and were an interference fit, they made their own thread. This is an old trick and the replacements would actually be a better fit than the originals because they had 100% contact.
John was taking the traction engine very seriously and he asked me and Paul Greenwood if we’d like to go with him to Holland in May 1994 for a fortnight, he had been invited to take Annie to the big rallies at Utrecht and Dordrecht. Of course we agreed immediately!
STEAM IN HOLLAND, 1994
We set off for the ferry to Holland on May 20 1994 in high spirits but with a very strange cargo. John had an acquaintance called Peter Clare who he had done some work for on his Sentinel steam wagon. This bloke also had a hand-operated children’s carousel which would hold about 15 passengers. He had an invitation to go to Holland but had the problem of getting the ride over there. It was mounted on wheels and, theoretically, could be towed behind a car but was not really fit to be on the road, certainly not for a long journey.
Our low loader was a big trailer and loaded from the front. It had a hydraulic neck powered by batteries which, when the trailer was detached from the tractor, could be lowered down to the ground. As it came down the swan neck unfolded and by the time it was right down it formed a long ramp up on to the trailer. The hydraulics were very powerful as when it was hooked to the tractor the rams had to be capable of lifting the front of the trailer with the load on. Peter Clare had worked it out that there was room on the neck when it was lifted for his roundabout and he asked John if he would take it over for him. John, being a soft touch, agreed, but I have to tell you that when we got the whole outfit loaded up it looked most peculiar with this toytown, garishly painted roundabout perched on the trailer just behind the cab!
We set off for Felixstowe and had decided we would stay for the night in a motel near the port and have a short journey to the ferry the following morning. Apart from the brakes dragging on the trailer and Stanley having to make some adjustments by the roadside, all went well. Good job I had my toolbox with me! There were only two other small things. John had decided to give the tractor cab a good clean out and had disinfected it with Jeyes Fluid, a very strong phenol based disinfectant. As the cab warmed up the smell of Jeyes became intense and we had to drive with the windows open. Peter Clare was travelling with us and to put it mildly, he was a pain in the arse! He watched his precious roundabout every bit of the way and even John got fed up with him enquiring whether it was safe. Eventually we arrived at the motel and booked in for the night. John was paying for Paul and me and finished up paying for Peter Clare as well. I wonder if he ever got the money back? There was no restaurant at the motel so, because I had no Dutch currency, I took everyone out for a meal because they would have to look after me until we found a bank. Funny thing was that even though he was invited Clare vanished. I don’t think he wanted to be put in a position where it was his turn to pay for anything. This didn’t worry us , we had a good night out, a few drinks and got to bed in good time.
There was one funny thing as we were driving down to the motel. We passed a big Foden tractor and low loader on a lay-by with a Fowler ploughing engine on the back. We all waved as we passed and speculated what they were doing on the lay-by. We eventually decided that they must be hard up and sleeping in the cab overnight. What we didn’t realise was that it was a bloke called Richard Metcalfe and his wife Delia from Macclesfield who were on their way to catch the same ferry as us and were broken down! They got going after throwing a lot of money at it and caught the ferry at the same time as us the following morning. We met up with them on the ferry and found out what had been actually happening. There was much comment about the fraternity being supposed to help each other but we made up for it later.
The following morning we loaded the wagon on the ferry and set sail for Scheveningen. This was all new to me. I hadn’t crossed the North Sea on a ferry since I went to Berlin in 1954. It was a good crossing and the food was great. We managed to get a sleep in and disembarked in the early evening just as it was getting dark.
It was then that we hit the first of the roundabout problems. What neither we or Peter Clare had realised was that the loading gauge in Holland is about three feet lower than in the UK. Annie was all right, with her chimney down she was just inside the limit but the roundabout was way too high and there was no way we could lower it. A bloke called Deventer was in charge of the transfer from Scheviningen to Utrecht and he had a Land Rover Discovery so he said he would tow the roundabout to Utrecht if we got it off the trailer. We held everyone up while we dropped the neck and got the roundabout off and hitched, very insecurely, to the back of the Discovery.
We set off down the road in the gathering gloom and were alarmed to see the way the roundabout snaked about as it was being towed. We were laying a shade of odds that it would never arrive in one piece! Eventually, we got to Utrecht, parked up in a main street with a police guard and were all ferried out to a caravan park where we would be staying while we were there. Things started to go pear-shaped for me and Paul, he was sharing with John and I was in with Peter Clare! The problem with John was that his feet smelt terribly and Paul had this to put up with. John was the only bloke I have ever seen since my army days who’s boots marked time all night under the bad! Peter Clare was strange. I shall draw a veil over the first night but he wasn’t too particular about personal hygiene and talked in his sleep! To cap it all, we soon realised the caravans were infested with small black bugs! And so to bed.
The following morning we got ourselves back down into the middle of Utrecht and started to set up for the rally. The event was being held at the Railway Museum and we were part of the overspill in a small public park outside the museum. I’m not sure what the significance of the park was but the turf was hallowed ground. Every area where we ran on to it was covered by large timber rafts made from six inch square mahogany baulks. I wish we could have brought some of them back with us, it was lovely timber.
None of the engines had steam up and we had to nose or tow them in with the tractors. Our ERF tractor was very bad for this as there was so little weight on the back wheels when it was light. Annie weighed about fourteen tons and was not easy to shift. Luckily, Richard Metcalfe’s tractor was very special. It was the only one of its type left running and had been built specially for heavy haulage. It had a 500 hp Cummins engine, double wheel drive and was rated at 150 tons. It was the perfect vehicle for shifting the engines and he shoved us into position on the field when he had got his own engine in. I got a chance to do a bit in this motor and it was perfect for the job. The bottom three gears drove through a fluid flywheel and all you had to do was put it in gear and control it with the brake pedal. Ticking over it pushed Annie as though she was a feather. I should point out here that John was cab happy and wouldn’t let anybody else drive, at least, not until he had to, do but more about that later.
We got settled in on the field, sorted ourselves out, raised steam and sat there with the engine ticking over. Because we had steel wheels that was all they wanted us to do. We would have done too much damage if we’d started trundling about. We just sat there, drank beer, talked to the locals and when we got bored, took turns to wander off and have a look at the other exhibits. It was while I was on one of these peregrinations that I came across Peter Clare outside the museum coining it in with his roundabout. I forget what he was charging but I watched him for a while, timed the length of the rides, did a bit of mental arithmetic and decided that he was making a bomb! I seem to remember that we got to a figure of something like £1000 in the three days we were there and Dordrecht was still to come! I told John about this and Paul raised the question of what he would be doing with the money. We didn’t think he would go to the museum to get his coins changed into notes because he wouldn’t want to advertise how much he was taking in and being weekend, the banks weren’t open. We decided to watch him to see what he did.
We noticed that he had a brown canvas bag which he carried wherever he went and decided that this was the stash! When he went for a meal he took it with him and sat on it. When he was at the roundabout he kept it stowed away underneath the ride and kept touching it with his foot. That night, when it came time to pack up we offered him a lift back to the caravan park in the tractor but he refused and staggered off into the gloom with his sack which we reckoned was getting quite heavy! That night he took it to bed with him and slept with it in his arms! He evidently didn’t trust me at all.
This went on for three days and was a running joke. We pulled his leg about it but in the end he avoided us. I should say that the arrangement we had with him, because we couldn’t carry his ride between venues, was that he found his own transport while he was in Holland and met us at the Hook on the way back where we would reload him before we went on the ferry. There was one slight relief for me, John had to go home on the Sunday night because there were things to attend to back at Rochdale. He had another mission as well. The day after we arrived in Utrecht Richard Metcalfe had found that the alternator on his tractor wasn’t charging so we were keeping him going by charging his batteries from our tractor and jump starting him when he needed it. We had identified which alternator he needed and arranged for it to be delivered to REW in Rochdale and John was going to bring it back with him. Guess who was going to fit it! It was no sweat though, we were getting on well with them especially Delia who was a good sort. We spent all our time together while we were on the field and looked after each others engines.
On the Sunday night we reloaded the engines and got everything ready for leaving for Dordrecht on the Monday morning. I was driver and so I put Paul in charge of the route. He got all the paperwork off Robert Deventer and so we were all set to go. John’s departure for UK had one good outcome, I moved in with Paul for the last night at Utrecht! I have to report he is an excellent room mate and we had no problems whatsoever. That is apart from him objecting to me wearing the shower cap and walking about with my teeth out! We had one last job to do on the Sunday night. We were low on diesel and went to a filling station on a major road near the Bearpit where we were staying. John had wanted to leave me some money but I told him the best way was for me to pay on my credit card and he could square up with me afterwards. I pulled into the filling station and put about 250 litres of fuel in. I went to the kiosk to pay and after the attendant had put my card through the machine he asked for my identification. It transpired that it was illegal to use a credit card in Holland without photographic identification, in our case, a passport. It was back at the caravan so this was a problem. However, we decided we had enough currency to pay cash but that was a problem too! The bloke had swiped my card and in effect this meant he couldn’t process any other transactions until that one was cleared. Unfortunately he didn’t know what the code number was to clear it. To get round this one he had to call the credit card centre and get a cancellation code. Only problem about this was that he had lost the number! Eventually he found it and called them only to find it was the wrong number, he had to ring someone else to find what it was.
While all this was going on, Paul and I were stood there like a couple of dumbbells. I kept apologising to all the incredibly patient people waiting for all the trouble we were causing and the attendant kept saying it was his fault. At this moment a police car came on to the forecourt with blue lights flashing and siren blaring. The officers leapt out, came in the kiosk and started to have an animated conversation with the attendant. Paul and I thought we were going straight to gaol until it dawned on us that we weren’t the cause of the trouble. Because of the incompetence of the attendant the queue waiting to get into the filling station had paralysed the surrounding roads, the traffic was backing up on the freeway and had tailed back to the slip road and onto the major road beyond! The police told us it wasn’t our fault and they helped the attendant sort out the problem. Eventually we managed to pay for the fuel, got a receipt and were very glad to get back to the Bearpit and a quiet drink in the bar!
Came Monday morning and we were all set. Richard and Delia went into conference with Paul and it was decided that since he had the directions, they would follow me, so we set off for Dordrecht. We came to the first roundabout and Paul confidently directed me as to which way to go. One funny thing I noticed was that there was a sign that said ‘anderes richtingen’, I think that was the spelling. I heard later that it meant ‘all other routes’ and the joke was that a foreigner had thought it was a town and had followed these signs all the way round Holland and never actually arrived anywhere! To tell you the truth though, my work was cut out driving the outfit. Apart from the weight, it was a strange motor to me because John never let me drive it. It was a long and very awkward trailer and I had to have all my wits about me not to carve anyone up on the roundabouts. Good job Paul knew where we were going!
All was going well, I was pretty comfortable with the outfit and as long as we took it steady there was no sweat. Richard followed at a respectable distance and we were a pretty formidable sight as 80 tons of traction engine and heavy transport made its way quietly and competently towards Dordrecht and the next rally. The other traffic on the road realised our problems and the unusual nature of the loads we were carrying attracted a lot of attention as we passed.
Paul gave directions in plenty of time and we were soon on a straight road driving through open countryside and there was an opportunity to relax, or so I was beginning to think! I was slightly perturbed when I noticed that the road was getting narrower. The trees on the side of the road all bore marks where they had been hit by the mirrors of large vehicles and it slowly dawned on me that we were on the wrong road. There was nowhere to turn and we went on for miles, deeper into the hinterlands and I had made my mind up that the first opportunity we got we had to turn round and go back to the major road and get some directions from there. We stopped and I had a word with Richard who was in total agreement. Shortly afterwards I saw a wide opening off the road into the drive to a private house. I pulled up and had a look at it and realised that although it was big enough to reverse into and turn round, the surface was soft and we would carve it up if we screwed the trailer wheels round on it with all that weight.
I was stood there weighing the job up and a man came and spoke to me in perfect English. He was the owner of the house and asked what our problem was. I told him but also told him that we couldn’t use his road end because of the damage we would do. “No problem, we are having a new road laid next week!” he said. “Please use my road to turn round!” I think he actually regarded it as an honour that such historic machinery should destroy his drive! We got turned round, straightened his drive out as best we could and started off up the road again the way we had come. I had a word with Richard before we set off and told him that when I got to the main road I’d pull in at the side and could he leave a gap behind me. Half an hour later we pulled in on a big lay-by just before the junction with the major road and parked up.
I stood at the side of the road and flagged down the first delivery van that came along. He parked between us and I explained our problem to him. In case you are wondering, I couldn’t speak any of their language, just a bit of German but they were all incredibly well educated and most could speak English. The driver said he would pilot us to the slip road leading on to the motorway that we needed and when he reached there he would switch his hazard lights on to warn us. I asked him to take it steady, we had too much weight to be sprinters! He waved and set off through the lights. By the time I was on the junction the lights had changed but there was no time for any of the niceties, I just kept going and Richard followed me. I noticed that one of the cars waiting on the green signal was a police vehicle and thought “Oh Christ, here we go again!” However, he must have used his head and decided he had bigger fish to fry. Looking through my mirrors I saw him go straight across the junction and disappear from view. Goodie! Meanwhile our mate in the delivery van had vanished from sight! His idea of taking it steady was about 50mph! Luckily, he realised his error and waited for us when he got to the slip road. We gave him a quick wave and turned up the slip road and on to the motorway.
At last we could relax a bit. Paul broke the coffee out, we both lit our pipes and we cabbied down the road at about 45mph as happy as Larry. Paul relaxed to the point where he got some paper out of his bag and started to do one of the drawings he was famous for in the shop. It was a cartoon of Peter Clare, bent double under the swag bag as he made his way from the rally ground to the Bearpit. Just at this point we started to go down a gentle incline and looking ahead I saw why. The road passed under a bridge carrying a railway line and from our vantage point there was no way we were going to get under it! As I said before, the loading gauge in Holland was about thirteen feet but this bridge looked even lower! I wondered whether we had missed a sign warning us about a low bridge. By this time there wasn’t a lot I could do, there was no way I could have stopped and I just shouted to Paul to watch the safety valve on Annie as we went under. As we hit the bridge I saw a lot of scratch marks along its underside, there was no doubt that this one was slightly undersize! We shot through without touching it but Paul said he never wanted to see a nearer miss! Richard was all right because his loading height was slightly lower than ours. Panic over, the rest of the journey was uneventful and we arrived at the secure parking area outside Dordrecht amongst the first to arrive. A mini bus was laid on for us and we went down to the Belle Vue Hotel in the town where we were to be staying. We booked in, went to our room on the top floor and got settled in. Paul and I were looking forward to our time in Dordrecht because we had no John finding us things to do and plenty of time to explore the town.
The hotel was in the old part of Dordrecht on the side of the river, or, to be more accurate, rivers as three bodies of water met at this point. Two of them were the Waal and the Noord Maas, I’m not sure what the continuation was down towards Rotterdam. We are talking about a big stretch of water, it was about half a mile to the opposite shore. The water was important to the festival ‘Dordt im Stoom’ because on Friday there was to be a parade of steam driven ships past the old part of the town, right where our hotel was. We were in the right place for once! What fascinated me about the water was the traffic and I’ll get that out of my system first.
Apart from my fleeting visits in transit in the 50’s, I had never seen anything of Holland. For this reason alone, the trip was fascinating. All right, I hadn’t got any of my beloved hills but the interest wasn’t diminished by this because there was so much to see. I’ve already mentioned the relatively low loading gauge on the motorways, this was a deliberate ploy by the government to encourage traffic movements on to the river and canal system. I soon found out that if you stood in the bar of the hotel looking northwards, the river to the right led directly to Rotterdam and the open sea and the one on the left gave access to the waterways of Europe. It was possible to take a barge right across Europe to the Baltic from where we were!
When I say barge, forget the small barges we see on the canals in Britain, the standard small barge, usually family owned and in effect a mobile home, was about 1,000 tons. These passed the hotel by day and night. They were fairly standard in design, very low in the water, living accommodation at the stern, window boxes full of flowers round the wheelhouse and the family car perched on the foc’sle with a small derrick to unload it when necessary. These boats travelled all over Europe carrying all sorts of goods. Then there were the big barges. These were dumb lighters, lashed together in twos and pushed from the back by large power units. They could handle up to six lighters at a time and I noticed that many of them had the name Krupps on the side. They were carrying ore into the Ruhr for the German steel industry. I think these lighters could carry about 5,000 tons each, ,so a train of six was moving 30,000 tons!
The power units were impressive to say the least. I reckon they must have displaced about 600 tons and had three propellers. When they were working hard the wake was like a series of hillocks and valleys behind them. They were almost silent and I was vastly impressed by the fact that such enormous weights could be carried so efficiently. Robert Deventer, the man who was running the traction engine component of the rally, knew quite a bit about the barges and I questioned him unmercifully about them.
We were stood on the shore the following morning after we arrived and I noticed that the big Krupps barge passing us had the blinds down in the wheelhouse. I asked Robert about it and he told me that they did it so that the sun didn’t hinder the view of the computer screens! Evidently the barges were on automatic pilot. He said they had three systems, First was a connection to the Geosat network of satellites, second was a radar feed telling the system what else was on the river and last was a feed from transponders mounted on the bank at known points. The software took all these parameters on board, assumed that everyone else on the river was obeying the rules of the road and steered the outfit to an accuracy of I think it was 1.5 metres either side of the centre line of the boat! I asked Robert what happened if anything got in the way. He said that it was hard luck because something that size had to keep going to have steerage way in the current and once they had committed themselves to a bend in the river, they couldn’t stop without losing control. They were also very heavily policed as regards pollution, the slightest trace of oil in their wake meant a large and automatic fine. I never tired of watching the traffic on the river while we were there, the trip would have been worth it just for that. I’d have given my eye teeth for a trip on one!
The barges weren’t the only notable sight from the window of the bar. I was stood there with a beer one day and noticed a little dog on the paved area outside, it was a Papillon toy spaniel. As I watched it it stood on its hind legs and walked across the yard! Then it dropped down onto all fours and did it again, this time on its front legs! I grabbed Robert and told him what I’d seen, I couldn’t believe it. He said that it was quite common, they were originally bred as circus dogs and quite a lot of them displayed this behaviour even though they had never been trained. Funnily enough, as I settled down into East Hill Street I found there was one of these dogs across the road. I asked the lady who owned it if she had ever seen it walk on two legs and she said that it did it sometimes but only on its back legs. I told her that if she set her mind to it she could train it to walk on the front ones as well! I don’t know whether she believed me!
Paul and I explored the old part of the town and found the good tobacco shops and bars! We experimented with some of the excellent Belgian beers, there was one called Mort Subite, it was 14% alcohol! Paul asked me what the name meant and I told him that as near as I could tell it meant ‘Sudden Death’, seemed about right to us, it was powerful stuff. There was another strong beer called Guillotine, we left that one alone. Further down the same street we found a second-hand shop and in it was an old fashioned brass bird cage. Paul decided he wanted this for his parrot Gonzo back in Newhey so we went down one afternoon to buy it. I think I’ve described earlier what happened when I was talking about chimney-felling. One of the ladies at the shop recognised me as soon as I walked in and said she’d seen me on TV. This raised our bargaining power and in the end we got a third knocked off the bird cage and it came back to UK with us.
Back at the Belle Vue the other traction engine owners were settling in and it was getting just like home. One couple, Neal and Ally Lee had their two children with them and I took them off for a walk round the town. They were lovely kids and I think were kept on a fairly close rein by their parents, they didn’t even buy them sweets, I noticed them in the restaurant eating sugar lumps when nobody was watching! I did what all good surrogate granddads should do and undermined the parents by buying them ice cream, sweets and a present apiece. I bought the little lass a pair of clogs and the lad wanted a wallet so that was what he got. On the way back we found a marine chandlers and I bought a barge captains hat complete with foul anchor. We wended our way back to the hotel and I can tell you, those kids would have died for me, it was lovely. Neal and Ally took it well, I think they thought it was all right because the kids wouldn’t expect the same treatment off them!
The rally was due to start on the Friday so Paul and I thought it was about time we did something about getting sorted out. The organisers had arranged for space to be available to us in a telecoms car park about a mile out of the town centre. On the Wednesday we went up to the power station where the wagon was parked, brought the outfit down into the town and unloaded Annie and our tackle in the car park. I took the wagon and trailer back to the power station and came back on the bus. We gave everything a good clean round and oil and made sure we were ready for action on Friday morning.
Richard and Delia Metcalfe had put up a bit of a black by going off to Amsterdam for a couple of days. I think the organisers were pissed off because they’d paid for a double room for two nights when it wasn’t needed. In addition, it was seen as bad form that they didn’t muck in with the rest of us. Personally, I wasn’t bothered but I do think it was a bit undiplomatic of them. Unknown to us at the time, we were being tarred with the same brush because everyone assumed that we were close friends because we travelled together and we were seen helping them. I reckon that if it hadn’t been for this we would have been invited back two years later.
On Friday morning John was back from UK but let me and Paul go up to the car park and light up and raise steam! He had brought the alternator back for Richard’s Foden tractor and I fitted it for them while the steam was building up. This cured his charging problems but we kept jump starting him for a while longer so as to give the batteries time to build up a charge.
I suppose I’d better delve into the mechanics a bit because at some stage, people will be reading this who have no idea of how the traction engine was powered! Basically, the machine derived it’s power from high pressure steam generated by the boiler. This was used in the simple slide valve cylinder mounted directly on top of the boiler to provide reciprocating motion as the piston moved from one end of the cylinder to the other. This motion was transmitted by the connecting rod to a simple crankshaft which converted the reciprocating motion to circular motion in the flyshaft. On one end of the flyshaft was a large flywheel which was used for driving machinery by an open belt drive. There was also a gear and this connected to the back wheels by a train of gears and thus the engine could move itself. Annie was slightly different than most engines in that it had a clutch in the flywheel which transmitted the power to the gearing. If this clutch was disengaged, the engine ran the belt only. If it was engaged, it drove the gearing and the wheels. There were no brakes, the best, indeed the only way of stopping the engine was to throw it in reverse gear. This was done by altering the valve events so that the engine drove the crankshaft the opposite way. This method was also used to drive the engine in reverse.
The heart of the engine was the boiler. This was a large steel cylinder about eight feet long and three feet in diameter. At the back end it was attached to the firebox which was a double walled , square construction in which was the grate which held the fire. The front end of the firebox was formed by the throatplate which was drilled to accept about forty three inch diameter firetubes which passed through the boiler to the front end where they discharged into a smokebox and thence up the tall chimney. When the engine was running the fire was assisted by the blast pipe. This was where the exhaust steam from the engine discharged into the smoke box through a narrow orifice so directed that the steam blasted up the chimney and created draught. When we were lighting the fire we relied on the natural draught of the chimney to get the fire going and to this end we liked to have plenty of wood to get a blaze quickly. Once the fire was established we used coal but the firebox and tube area were very large as the boiler was intended to run on straw or wood. The boiler had to have enough water in to cover the crown of the firebox and the tubes otherwise they would become red-hot and fail with disastrous consequences. The level was ascertained by gauge glasses fitted on the back of the boiler. These glass tubes under boiler pressure were connected through the back plate to the water in the boiler and showed where the water level was. There was an opening in the back plate for adding fuel to the fire and this could be closed by a door when not in use. The other essential items were a safety valve which lifted when maximum pressure was reached and relieved the strain on the boiler. There was also a large steam whistle which I won for John and fitted it to the engine. We had great fun with this frightening passing pedestrians!
So, that Friday morning, Paul and I checked the water level, lit a small wood fire and then carried on lubricating the engine and wiping it down until we had enough steam to move. When the fire had built up we put some coal on and steamed the engine slowly to get some draught and raise pressure. We filled the reserve tank on the engine with water for boiler feed while pressure rose to working pressure, about 120psi. At this point John turned up and we steamed off out of the car park and down the road towards the town centre. The roads were paved with granite setts and because of our steel wheels it was a pretty rough ride! Annie was a very powerful engine and you could soon get her going far too fast for comfort. This was a lot less than ten miles and hour!
We were of course, an object of much interest. More so than the other engines because Annie was so large and unusual. Couple this with the clatter of the wheels on the setts and our habit of blowing the whistle at every opportunity, and you can guess, there weren’t many people on the route to the town who were unaware of our passing! The place we had been allotted was on the riverfront about 100 yards from the hotel so we were handy for the bar, had our own centrally heated grandstand to watch the river parade and were right in the middle of everything that was going on. Richard and Delia were just in front of us with the Fowler. As in Utrecht, we simply sat there with the engine running slowly, we would have done too much damage if we had been tramming about all day.
The only thing that let the show down was the weather, it was cold and windy and there was a shower of rain every now and again. We were OK because of course, we had the heat of the boiler, it’s amazing how much rain you can stand if your back is next to fourteen tons of hot metal!
We took turns to look after the engine and Paul and I went walkabout several times, usually together, and looked at the other exhibits. There was a steam powered grain elevator tied up at the wharf and they brought a barge full of grain to it and an empty barge. It sucked grain from one and discharged it into the other as a demonstration. Just down the road from us was a mobile stand with several steam sirens and whistles mounted on it. It was coupled to a nearby boat for a steam supply and every now and again sounded one of the sirens. We of course replied with our whistle every now and again. However, they had one very large siren which was very impressive. It had originally been on a very large ocean liner and was enormous. When it sounded it was a very deep note and they had it directed across the river so as not to cause to much ear damage in the spectators! What impressed me was the fact that there was a large glass clad office block about a mile away on the other side of the river and when the big siren sounded the echo came back seconds later! Most impressive!
There were all sorts of stalls selling food and one of them was a fishmonger. Evidently it was the start of the eel season on the Ijsselmeer and the stall was smoking eels and selling them straight from the oven in sandwiches. I like anything that’s smoked and those eels were heavenly! I had eaten mine and was stood there watching the crowd and a woman stood next to me said “Ugh, I can’t eat this!” in a broad Lancashire dialect. She went to a nearby bin to throw it away but I stopped her, “If you don’t want it lass, I’ll eat it!” She jumped as though she had been shot then burst out laughing and gave it to me. “Here you are lad and welcome!” We got into conversation and she and her husband were from Oldham, very near to Rochdale of course. They came back with me to have a look at the engine and we got on well.
I know you are all wondering how Peter Clare was getting on with his roundabout. God knows how he had managed it but he was there, near the hotel running his roundabout for the kiddies and coining it in again! He needed an electricity supply to run the small organ on the ride and a wire vanished from under his roundabout into a nearby block of flats. He had evidently come to some sort of an arrangement with one of the ladies in the flat and was running his organ from her supply. We heard later that he had been so obnoxious to her that she had complained to the organisers and they had to come down and smooth everything over. Apart from when he was running the roundabout we never saw him, talk about the invisible man. We weren’t the only people who had been doing sums and everyone agreed that he was going to be the only attraction from the UK that made any money! Perhaps he wasn’t as peculiar as we thought!
On the river, the parade of steam vessels had started and there was a wonderful turn-out. One interesting exhibit was a British Naval tug which had managed to cross the North Sea in order to participate. I was interested in it because I had a look at it the day before when it was tied up alongside the hotel. How the hell it had ever got across the North Sea I don’t know. I’m sure that if it was properly sandblasted they’d find that most of the plating wasn’t metal but rust covered with many layers of paint! When I went on board they had one of the cross heads on the engine in bits and a bloke had the brass in the vice and was filing it out. Paul was with me and he asked the bloke what he was doing. He said they’d had trouble coming over because the cross head kept heating up. They couldn’t understand it because it seemed to have plenty of play. As we left the boat Paul asked me why I had kept quiet, he had an idea I knew what was wrong with it. I told him that in circumstances like that the best thing to do was keep quiet, it was private grief. I knew what was wrong but it was up to them, I wasn’t taking responsibility for their engine. They didn’t know much about bearings, the bloke knew there was plenty of play in it but he was filing it out to make it bigger! What he should have been doing was filing the shoulders of the brass out where it ran in the radius of the journal. What happens is that the brasses deform and spread after much wear especially if running with too much free play and need to be relieved on the sides. Filing more out of the bearing surface was only going to make it worse as it would have more play, a bigger thump and spread even more.
Whatever they had done, they were under steam on the Friday and as it sailed past Paul and I burst out laughing because there, in the bow, looking for all the world as though he owned the boat, was Peter Clare waving to the crowd as he passed!
The next three days passed very quickly, the Dutch people were wonderfully friendly and almost all of them spoke perfect English. I spent much of my time apologising to them because I was so ignorant and couldn’t do them the courtesy of talking to them in their own language. On the last day there was a celebratory meal but the organisers asked us to get our engines loaded on to the low loaders and parked up at the power station before we came back for the meal. Paul and I, being good soldiers, obeyed the instructions. We got a taxi up to the wagon, brought it back down to the engine. We loaded Annie, lashed her down, took the outfit back to the power station and then got a taxi back to the hotel.
At this point we found out that the old hands weren’t bothering about any of this. We noticed the lack of activity at the park but thought it was because we were in front of all the others. In fact they had all gone straight back to the hotel and showered ready for the meal! Paul and I went up to our room and found there was no hot water. We enquired and found there was a fault on the boiler! To cut a long story short we missed the meal and I found out later from the manageress that they had sent for a technician in Rotterdam to come out to the boiler, it was costing them 300 guilders. She happened to mention that a red light had come on on the boiler and it had stopped. I asked her if she knew what Paul and I did in real life, she said she didn’t. I told her we repaired boilers and from the sound of it what had happened was that due to the load on the boiler the burner had locked out and simply needed resetting. I told her how to avoid this next year and save herself 300 guilders! Apart from anything else, we could have had a hot bath and attended the meal.
We came into Holland at Scheveningen but we were to sail back from the Hook of Holland to Harwich. John had spoken to Peter Clare about getting the roundabout to the ferry and told us that he had an idea he was in negotiations with a local builder about towing his roundabout. Paul and I weren’t too bothered about this, he either got there or he didn’t! One thing was sure and certain, he had enough money to pay for the ferry trip.
We set off from Dordrecht with John driving and soon came to the slip road on to the motorway. I need to mention at this point that I was very worried about the way John secured Annie on the trailer. I had been trying to convince him for a long time that nylon web straps with ratchet tighteners were a fine thing but not good enough for lashing lump loads on to the trailer, especially Annie. For a start off, Annie’s only contact with the trailer bed was the point where her iron wheels touched the floor. It only needed a bit of oil or water and she was stood on a skating rink effectively. The nylon straps weren’t a dead hold, they could stretch and when you’re talking about fourteen tons trying to go walkabout this wasn’t enough. Needless to say, I’d had a bit of experience with this but John always ignored me and told me it was all right. I told him that one of these days he would live to regret it.
The day arrived as we swung on to the slip road on to the motorway on the way to the ferry. I was watching Annie through the back window of the cab because I knew in my bones we would come adrift sooner or later. As we got on the slip road I told John to slow down and park up as carefully as he could. He kept going and asked why. I shouted to him “Because you’re engine is hanging over the side of the trailer, that’s why!” I’d seen Annie slide about a foot to the nearside as we were on the bend.
We pulled up and when we got out John saw how lucky we had been. Annie had slipped against the straps so far that only about six inches of her eighteen inch wide back wheel was on the side girder of the trailer. The weight had shifted and the trailer had a list to that side. It took us about 45 minutes to drag her back to the centre line of the trailer using the ratchet straps as winches. We fastened it all down again and got on our way. I didn’t labour the point but later John came to me and told me to sort out a set of chains made specially to fit the engine so that we could make sure the slip could never happen again. As soon as we got back I made a fitting that locked into the back drawbar and could be fastened rigidly to the side of the trailer and tensioned bar-tight. John also fitted two plates in the bed of the trailer that acted as guides for the back wheels and located them firmly in the centre of the trailer when she was loaded. We never had that trouble again.
Apart from entering the town at the Hook through a suburb and blowing a tyre when we caught a kerb, we arrived without further incident. Paul and I made John change his own tyre, he had done it! He then took us for a slap-up lunch in a restaurant in the town.
Came the time to board the ferry. All the vehicles were lined up ready to load and we were told that because of our length and weight the deckmaster wanted us on at a certain time. If we didn’t get on then we had to wait for the next ferry. Our problem was that Peter Clare hadn’t turned up with his roundabout. We were all telling him to forget Peter Clare and join the queue, even Keith Collins, one of the regulars on the rally, was advising John to forget him. Give John his due, much as he had reason to leave Clare, he hung on until the deckmaster said we had ten minutes to decide. John said he didn’t want to go down in history as the man who had abandoned Clare! He had just about made up his mind to get in the queue when a builder’s van came round the corner towing the roundabout.
We had to drop the trailer, draw the tractor out of the way, drop the neck to the floor and load the roundabout and lash it on the neck. While they were doing the lashing I was trying to lift the neck back up far enough to get the tractor hitched up again. We had been having a problem with the hydraulics all the time we were in Holland. I reckoned the level of hydraulic oil was a bit low and that it had water in it as well. It seemed to me that it was foaming as it pumped and we couldn’t get enough pressure up. I had found out that if you lifted it as far as it would go then waited a few minutes, you could get another lift. This didn’t help anybody’s health and temper but in the end I got it high enough and we hooked on and got the locking pin into the neck. We were just in time to board the ferry and could relax. I have to say that Peter Clare wasn’t flavour of the month especially when he wanted to put his suitcase in the already crowded cab! I suppose it had the money in it! We threw it on to the roundabout and told him that was where it was going to ride. If it was good enough for Paul’s birdcage perched on the footplate of Annie, it was good enough for Peter’s case!
We got back to Rochdale without incident and parked Annie up in the shop where she lived when she wasn’t playing out. The first thing I did was make the chains for the back end, I wasn’t going to have the troubles we had in Holland plaguing us again! They were just the ticket and John always used them after I made them. One thing I did notice though was that he put the nylon webbing straps on as well even though he had seen they were no good, some sort of statement I suppose.
We went to a lot of rallies for a couple of years and had some good fun especially where we were on grass and could drive Annie about. On a good surface she was surprisingly nippy and due to her power this was about the only time we ever opened her up flat out. This used to blow all the soot out of the chimney as the exhaust barked in true LMS loco style! We weren’t very popular at times. I think we need a couple of rally stories now before we go on to the meat of boilermaking and repair.
The first incident is a story against myself. One of the things that a lot of people are surprised to find out about me is that in my younger days I had a violent temper. I could be pushed a long way and would keep fairly calm but once I reached my threshold I would snap and go into hyperdrive. As the years rolled by it receded and I never even thought about it. What I have realised since is that the threshold has been raised but the temper is still lurking there. I was to be reminded of this when we went to the Rocket Site event at Bawtry for a weekend rally.
It was a big rally and there were some fine engines there. My eye was taken particularly by a pair of Fowler ploughing engines. They were made right and left handed in pairs for working with each other. They didn’t actually go onto the field when working but stood on the headland and winched whatever machine they were using across the field with a heavy cable coiled on a large drum under the belly of the engine. More about this later when I actually did some steam ploughing with Richard Metcalfe. This pair of engines was owned by an impressive looking old man who had a younger bloke as an assistant. We soon picked him out because he was dressed like a parody of every traction engine operator ever born! Blue overalls, red neckerchief and peaked hat, what really got us was the heavy leather belt outside his overalls which we assumed was for support when lifting heavy weights!
I should say that one of the problems about rallies is that most of the people who are there with engines are in fact, gifted amateurs. This is not to say they weren’t knowledgeable but very few of them had actually run engines commercially and it makes a big difference. We reckoned that we were pretty well qualified, John understood boilers and had done most jobs in the shop, Paul was an expert boiler repairer and I could lay claim to knowing a bit about engines. On top of that, I had had every bit of Annie in pieces at one time or another and knew most of her secrets so we were pretty confident we knew what we were doing. In fact we had enough confidence to break the rules every now and again if it was to our advantage.
A word here about running engines. You have heard me say before that the secret to running an engine well is a routine which you stick to. There is a very good reason for this. If you teach someone to run an engine you can only teach them the rudiments because the complete knowledge needs years to acquire. You teach them a routine and certain rules that if followed, will ensure that they avoid most of the pitfalls. For instance, unless you know exactly what you are doing you should always get full steam pressure up and warm the cylinder before attempting to run the engine. This avoids any possible problems attending a slug of water in the cylinder. If this happens it can cause a lot of damage, a cracked cover, bent con rod etc. The technical name for it is ‘priming’ . However, if you know that the slide valve is set up to lift off it’s seat if there is a slug and the bore of the cylinder is worn enough to allow water to pass from one side of the piston to the other, priming becomes a small matter and, within reason, can be ignored. Annie had another problem. Because she was designed as a stationary engine and had a big, long boiler she was very prone to priming if the land was uneven or the throttle was opened sharply because the water had room to surge in the boiler and splash up on to the outlet through the regulator. Another factor which exacerbated this was that the regulator, due to its design, was very stiff when there was pressure on and couldn’t be opened gradually, it was prone to jump over the seat and give a sudden start.
Anyway, back to Bawtry, it’s a fine sunny Saturday morning and we are all getting steam up in readiness for driving the engines off their trailers and taking them up to our allotted positions in the field. Another area of contention amongst engine owners was the range of opinions as to how fast steam could be raised in a boiler. There was a theory that tubes could be loosened by warming too quickly or even opening the firebox door when there was a strong fire on. I deferred to Paul and John in these matters and they regarded it as a lot of nonsense. As John said to me, “Look at the flame in an industrial boiler when you first fire it from cold, even on ‘kindle’, it’s far hotter than anything we do to traction engines and never causes any trouble.” So, our way of raising steam was to get a good wood fire burning in the firebox, get some coal on top and as soon as we had enough steam, get some steam through the cylinder to run it slowly with no load. This warmed the cylinder and the exhaust blast improved the draught through the fire bed and we soon got enough steam to move. As soon as we reached this stage we knew that the best way to get up to running pressure was to drive the engine about. The increased blast soon brought the pressure up. This was what we did on that morning and we were one of the first engines to be running, all right, we had hardly any pressure but it was enough. We didn’t know it at the time but we were the object of comment amongst the cognoscenti who, because it was the first time they had seen us, reckoned we were a bunch of amateurs who didn’t know what we were doing! So what!.
Later in the day, we were nicely settled in on the field, I had my tent erected and somebody had taken the sign with the headline ‘Strange Survivor’ from next to the engine and leaned it against it which cause a certain amount of comment. It referred to Annie’s history of course but everyone reckoned it applied to me as well. Paul had set off up the field for a trundle round with Annie and, due to the fact that the water level was a bit high, she primed a bit and blew some sooty water out of the funnel. Nothing strange about that and I wasn’t worried at all. I was walking across the field to have a look at some of the other engines when I was suddenly accosted by the strange character with the red neckerchief and heavy belt who was assisting on the Fowlers. “Stop them!” he shouted at me, “Bloody amateurs, don’t they realise they’re going to bugger the engine!” There was more slaver about amateurs who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near an engine and then he turned to walk away. All I had had chance to do was ask him what the bloody hell he was on about. At this point I snapped and grabbed his collar as he was walking away. I told him to stand still while I educated him, he didn’t seem to want to do this but I made it clear to him that if he didn’t, I’d re-arrange him somewhat. I think it dawned on him that he was in trouble and so he stood still while I informed him that far from being amateurs we knew exactly what we were doing. Further I told him that if he wanted educating about the dangers of priming he should talk to me, the last engine I had run had cylinders 48 inches in diameter, not 10 and he didn’t know what priming was until he’d had it on that scale.
There was more, but people had noticed what was going on and we were soon surrounded by marshals trying to quieten us down. John came across and lead me away. He didn’t actually appreciate what had triggered me off and when I told him that I was actually defending him because the bloke had called him an amateur he was all for going across himself and finishing the job off. In the end we went back and had a whisky apiece to calm us down. John said he was very surprised, he hadn’t got me down as having a temper like that. It just goes to show, we all have our limits. I was so pissed off by the fact that this joke of an ‘engineer’ had made the assumption that he was the expert. I must have done a bit of good, the bloke avoided all eye contact for the rest of the rally even though we were right next to each other in the ring during judging.
I have to say that I kept a very close eye on the engine when we were under steam at a rally. The lads would occasionally get more interested in having a beer and a smoke than keeping an eye on essentials like the water level. I remember once at Harewood rally I noticed that the water level was getting down. I mentioned this to them but when I came back later the water was lower still even though the feed pump which pushed water into the boiler from the feedwater tank on the back of the engine, was chunking merrily away. It was obvious that something was wrong. I gave them a shout, got my tools and started to look at all the usual suspects. Of course there was plenty of advice but in the end I said there was only one possible cause, the outlet pipe at the bottom of the feed tank must be blocked. I started to loosen nuts to get it off and I remember Richard Metcalfe saying that if I was right he’s eat hay with a horse. You should have seen their faces when I pulled the pipe off the tank and found it was completely blocked by a piece of rag which must have been floating around in the tank. It was jammed down the pipe to the feed pump so hard that you would have thought it had been rammed in with a stick! We got it out, refitted the pipe and started the pump again. Problem solved, situation averted, very satisfying! The problem had been caused by the fact that when we were running about, the water in the feed tank sloshed from one end to the other and occasionally shot out of the air vent on the footplate and wet your trouser leg. The drivers had got in the habit of hanging a cleaning rag over the top of the vent to stop this and one of the rags must have fallen in the tank. I made a metal cap for it when we got back to the shop and we never had that trouble again.
Until I met Annie, I had never had anything to do with traction engines but I enjoyed it. The rallies were good fun, we all mucked in together and had a good time. It was good seeing the subculture at work, so many people spending so much time caring for old pieces of machinery. All the right motives and a nice, eccentric bunch! Some things I never came to terms with. Worst of all were the Gavioli Organs. These pensioners would turn up with tape recorders and set up their picnic tables in front of the organs and sit there all day listening and recording. Personally I hated it when you were sited near one! William Tell overture can soon lose its charm when you’ve heard it for the fifteenth time! John and the kids liked the fairs that always accompanied the rallies. They kept trying to get me to go on the ‘white knuckle’ rides but I told them I’d had enough white knuckle in my life without paying for it! Talking about the fair reminds me of one occasion when John and I were walking through the attractions down in Cheshire. We stopped in front of the game where you hit the peg with a mallet and try to ring the bell. John persuaded me to have a go and the young lads stood round were very surprised when the Old Fart rang the bell with the third blow! Extremely satisfying!
Paul was, in fact still is, an inveterate practical joker. He got me at Harewood beautifully. I was cleaning the engine and oiling round when one of the ‘enthusiasts’ came across to ask me some questions about the engine. He was dressed in a dirty mack, had the worst pair of ‘bottle bottom’ glasses I have ever seen in my life and had a notebook and pencil. He followed me round the engine pestering me with questions and I think I was pretty good with him until it reached the point where he took the oilcan and started ‘helping’ me! I tried to get the oilcan off him and was just about on the point of decking him when I realised it was Paul! I never heard the last of that.
We used to go to Glossop once a year where we were part of the ‘Victorian Weekend’ which the town put on every year. This was great because many of the locals used to dress up in Victorian clothes and there were some wonderful costumes. We were allowed a bit of a trundle about but basically, except for the parade, we just stopped in one place all the time. The first time we went there they gave us a bad pitch. It wasn’t in the town centre so we were cut off from the action and worse than that, we were on a lope and this meant we wouldn’t be comfortable at any time during the two days of the event. We were sat there getting ready to steam and bemoaning our luck when some people came and started to set up market stalls around us. I went to the organisers and pointed out that there was going to be trouble if they didn’t shift us as we were going to cover all the clothes on the stalls around us with soot within the first couple of hours! The marshalls saw the problem and moved us into the centre where we parked in front of the Town Hall and had a grandstand view of all the proceedings.
The following year we weren’t so lucky and were parked in a back street, this wasn’t as bad as it sounded but we weren’t part of the mainstream and didn’t get many visitors. I think that there was just me and John there that year and I was looking after the engine while he had a couple of beers. A lady in nurse’s uniform came down the road with two old fellows, she had hold of their hands as though they were a couple of kids. I guessed they were in care somewhere and she was taking them round the exhibits. They came up to the engine and she asked if ‘Fred’ and ‘Harry’ could have a look at the engine, I said of course they could and got down to have a word with them. Fred detached himself from the minder and started to look round the engine but Harry was in a worse state and didn’t seem to really know what was going on, I felt very sorry for them.
Just then Fred came round the back of the engine having made his inspection and said “Has it got 3” tubes?” As soon as he said this I knew I was either up against the world’s best bullshitter or he actually knew what he was talking about. “It’s a strawburner isn’t it? I see you have a bird’s nest hole in the firebox.” Now this was fairly esoteric! One of the features of burning straw is that, being so light, pieces of half burnt straw could get trapped on the ends of the firetubes and eventually started interfering with the draught. The cure was a hole through the wall of the firebox on the nearside through which you could get a thin iron rod and knock the ‘bird’s nests’ off the ends of the tubes to restore the draught. This is a very unusual feature on an engine and I was absolutely certain that this bloke knew more than I had bargained for! The minder asked me to be patient with him because “He’s always reading about boilers.”
I got talking with Fred and it transpired that he had been a boilermaker in Doncaster for 53 years and had built strawburners for the colonies. The minder kept apologising for the old bloke and in the end I said to her, “Stop apologising for him, I’m learning from him. He isn’t a nuisance he’s an expert, he’s forgotten more about boilers than I’ll ever know!” I was really upset because she couldn’t recognise that he wasn’t gaga, he was a copper bottomed, genuine expert and if I had more time I could have learned so much off him. She had no knowledge and treated him like an eccentric child. I thought it was so sad but at least he was still reading the books so they hadn’t knocked all the sense out of his head!
Glossop provided John and me with a few memorable incidents. One was when we were coming down a steep slope towards the main road. We had no brakes remember and steel wheels that had very little grip on tarmac surfaces. The only way we could control the engine on a slope was on the throttle. We were coming carefully down the slope when the back wheels lost grip and we started to slide across the road, following the camber, straight towards the front of the bank! We found a bit of grip at the last moment and managed to get round the corner but it was a close run thing! I know John has never forgotten it because we were talking about this only the other day. Normally, we wouldn’t have been on this slope but we had started off in the procession round the town and had realised that the route led under a low bridge. ‘Annie’ was the biggest engine there and there was no way we were going to get under the bridge! We had to leave the procession and go to the left up a one way street to escape. Luckily we had a very friendly police-woman on tap and so we took her with us in case we were stopped! We let her steer the engine so that made it her fault!
‘Annie’ was a lot of hard work but she was also a lot of fun. As I write this, John has her in bits at Rochdale and is putting a new firebox in her and re-tubing the boiler. When she comes out of the shop she’ll be in better condition than when she was new because he’s using modern methods in the re-construction. I look forward to more days out with her now I’ve retired, they are great fun!
That’s enough entertainment. It’s time we had a look at proper work, boiler repair at Rochdale Electric Welding.
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