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Post by Stanley »


[This article was originally published in the Journal of the International Stationary Steam Engine Society in Autumn 2001. Volume 23, number 3.]

The Society was kind enough to print my tribute and obituary to Newton Pickles in 2001 and when I said I had a good story about bringing an engine back into steam they asked me to write a piece for you on it so here’s the story.

I have a very good friend, Robert Aram, who has had an interest in mills and their associated equipment for many years. If ever you want to see just what can be done by one determined man with a redundant mill, go to Masson Mills at Matlock Bath! Sometime round about 1980 Robert was doing one of his usual walkabouts round sites of interest and was in Rochdale. He decided to go and have a look at Ellenroad which was lying derelict and under security guard. His interest was the Ellenroad Engines, the biggest textile mill engine surviving in the country with all its original plant.

While he was having a cup of tea in the site cabin, the security guard mentioned that Ellenroad was the biggest mill in Lancashire and extended to 2,500,000 square feet. Robert knew this was wrong but the security chap insisted he was right. They had a bet and went round to have a look at the sale notice on the front of the mill facing the M62. Sure enough, in letters twelve feet high, the notice said 2,500,000. This was wrong of course, the sign-writer had added an extra nought on the end but Robert gave the guard £10 because he said he’d won the bet.

Three years later when a man called Gavin Bone called in to assess the suitability of the site for a new factory for Coates Brothers Inks he mentioned to the guard that the only problem was the engine, they wouldn’t know what to do with it. The guard reached up and took Robert’s card off the board and said ‘This bloke knows all about them!’ The tenner had paid off, the guard had never forgotten and I was to be the beneficiary.

When Coates contacted Robert he pointed them at me and after checking me out with a few people I was asked to go to the mill and ended up with what was to be the best job in the world. I had sole charge of the Ellenroad Project, including getting the funding, and this was to occupy the next eight years.

Over the next couple of months I did a complete assessment of the site and came to the conclusion that the task was going to be expensive but was possible. The only thing that bothered me was that I didn’t actually know what the condition of the engine was. I decided that the best way to find out was to run it.

You’ll have to forgive me if I go on a bit here but I am going to deal with one of the high points of my career as an engineer. What I was proposing to do was to run the biggest textile mill engine in the world for the first time since 1974 with no insurance and several serious faults in the system. I didn’t do it lightly, I knew the risks but I also recognised that nothing would enthuse Coates more than seeing the engine in steam. There was an element of risk but I decided it was worth it. Besides, I had the biggest Meccano set in the world to play with and I wasn’t going to pass this chance up!

I had a 3,000hp double tandem engine with an 85 ton flywheel connected to a boiler and about ten tons of coal in the bunker. I also had the last inspection report on the boiler and had satisfied myself by internal inspection that it was in good condition. What I didn’t have was a feed pump that would work against pressure because of a frost damaged main. I also had no electricity supply or water main. I started by giving the engine a thorough oiling and injecting a mixture of diesel and oil into all the cylinders to soak into the rust and the rings. I kept on doing this for a week until I was sure I had got as much lubrication into the bores and moving parts as I could. Then I took the lid off the boiler and put about 3,000 gallons of water in with a fire hose from the nearest fire hydrant. When I had it full to the top I put the lid back on and fired up by hand through the tiny aperture in the Bennis Stoker doors. As soon as I had steam I got the big Weir three legger steam pump in the pump house going and tested the feed line. As I suspected it was cracked by frost and this meant we couldn’t put any water in while there was pressure on the boiler. I went home that night leaving a crack of steam going into the engine to warm it through against a very hard frost. I had already warned Newton Pickles and the next day in February 1985 he and I went to Ellenroad and had a real play out!

While Newton did last minute oiling, essential because we had hardly any lubricators on the engine and would need all the initial lubrication we could get, I fired the boiler until we had 140psi on the clock. I should say at this point that there was an additional problem with the engine as in its last year of running, the right hand connecting rod had been removed and the engine was run on the left hand side only. We had no knowledge of how well the connecting rod had been re-installed. The parts of the engine are so large that you couldn’t just go and shake a bearing to see how much play there was in it, I had inspected it and as far as I could see it was safe enough to run. We would know more about it when we got it moving.

We had reached the point where we had to go for it. We couldn’t put any more water in the boiler and so had to gauge the fires against the water level. We locked the engine house door, Newton took station next to the valve gear and held the back steam valve on the cylinder wide open and I opened the 18” stop valve. Nothing happened. There were surprisingly few leaks but even so, the engine house started to fill with steam. My heart was dropping into my boots when there was a grunt from the engine and Newton shouted “It’s away, the seal has broken!” He meant the grip of the rusty piston rings on the cylinder bores had been overcome by the pressure. By this time I couldn’t see anything at all because of the steam, I was blind and running on sound alone. I heard a groaning noise as the pistons scraped their way through ten tears accumulated muck and old oil in the bores on the first stroke and then there was a tremendous shudder ran through the air and seemed to shake the engine house. “What the hell was that?” I shouted, I was really worried. “Thar’t all reight, it was only the pigeon shit falling off the top of the flywheel!” shouted Newton. There was about two feet of pigeon muck on the top of the flywheel and as it took its first turn this fell 40 feet into the cellar. There was some thumping from the bearings but the engine started to gather speed, I cut back on the steam in case the governor didn’t get hold but it was OK. As we got up to about 50 rpm the governor came in and the engine settled down to a noisy but relatively steady running speed. The only draw back, but this was temporary, was the foul smell from the cellar as the four air pumps delivered thousands of gallons of stagnant water into the drain back to the river.

As the seals established themselves the fog started to clear and we saw a glorious sight, the Ellenroad Engine in full flow for the first time in ten years! It was a wonderful moment but we didn’t have a lot of time to appreciate it because we had to start running round pouring oil into the bearings, there were no aquariums on the flyshaft, I’d put them into store in case of theft. It was a wonderful quarter of an hour, the engine was badly out of adjustment both in terms of the valves and the bearings but was running and as far as we could see there was nothing fundamentally wrong with it. We decided we had pushed our luck far enough and Newton went to shut the steam off. I told him I wanted to do an experiment as he shut down, I wanted to block the governor open and see how much effect the vacuum had after the steam was turned off. I jammed a brush head under the governor rod and Newton shut the valve down. The engine didn’t slow, it started to speed up and the brush head was stuck fast under the rod. It was getting really serious before it eventually began to slow down. Newton and I agreed afterwards that it must have been doing near enough a hundred revs a minute, far faster than it had ever run in its life before. This was very dangerous as the main danger with these engines is that overspeed increases the tension in the castings of the flywheel so much that they break and the wheel explodes. We got away with it but I made a mental note to do something about it.

This all sounds dangerous, and you’re right, it was. What has to be recognised is that we were in unknown territory here. Nobody had ever run the Ellenroad Engine at full speed with no load, not even ropes on the wheel. Even with the low pressure we were using we were dealing with tremendous forces and we had to know how the engine would react, especially if someone made a mistake. Neither Newton or I ever imagined that there was enough vacuum in the condensers to make it pick its feet up like it did, it surprised even us, but we had to find out and what I did was the only way to do it. I remember reading a memoir by a very famous American engineer and builder of steam engines in the 19th. century, Charles T Porter. In it he said that the faster you run an engine the less movement there is in any loose bearings. He demonstrated this by deliberately slackening bearings off and running his engines at high speed to demonstrate how quietly and well the bearings ran. I never quite believed this until we ran Ellenroad that day at 100rpm. I can assure you it ran like silk even though there was a quarter of an inch of play in both the right hand cross head and crank brass! Porter knew his stuff but how else would we have found out?

Eventually, 300 tons of iron came to a stand still and we brewed up, had a pipe and did the inquest. The first thing I asked Newton was why he didn’t run when it overspeeded. “I was waiting on thee!” he said. Now that really is slit trench material! We both agreed that it had run a bloody sight better at 100rpm than 50 because the bearings hadn’t time to knock but we weren’t going to try it again! All told we were like a couple of dogs with two tails apiece. We had reason to be because we’d just made history and proved that the Ellenroad Engine, though it might need some TLC, was a runner! Now we knew we had an engine, we agreed to run it again for Coates. I arranged it with Gavin and he and a few others turned up the following week and we ran one more time in semi-public just to whet their appetites. I think that if any encouragement was needed, this steaming did the trick. None of them had seen anything like it before and they were all suitably awe-struck. Newton and I passed among them in nonchalant manner as if this was something we did every day of the week!

The second time we ran was less eventful of course because we had no dramas on starting or stopping. We ran it for about half and hour this time and almost put a polish on the rods. There was however, one thing different. When we came to light the boiler the day before, the chimney wouldn’t draw. In other words, there wasn’t enough natural draught on the flue to get hot gas drawn into the chimney and gain artificial draught due to the difference in temperature between the flue gases in the chimney and the exterior air. Actually this isn’t quite accurate. The draught on a flue is the product of the difference in weight of the column of gas in the stack and the air outside. This difference in weight because the flue gas is hot reduces the atmospheric pressure in the furnace below the ambient pressure and it is this difference that drives air in to the furnace and supports combustion. The flue is under a disadvantage when you first start up with coal because the black smoke, loaded with carbon particles because of incomplete combustion, is heavier than clean air and so as it fills the stack you have to have quite a differential to get it lifted 70 yards to the top. It worsens as the smoke cools in the cold stack. Even the forced draught fans won’t lift it and so extraordinary measures have to be taken. In Newton’s words, “You have to larn the chimbley to smook!”

To do this we opened a door in the main flue at the back of where the old economisers used to be and built a wood fire in there to further raise the temperature of the gas. After a few minutes you could feel the air being drawn into the chimney and the wood started to roar as it burned. At this point we shut the door, and shovelled some more coal in, we were away. Another point to mention is that at this time we didn’t have any automatic stokers, we had to fire by hand direct into the furnaces.

A couple of days after we had steamed the second time I was up on the chimney top with Peter Tatham my steeplejack and there was a strong smell of sulphur. I asked Peter about it and he said he had noticed it since the second firing. We went down and opened the flue door and had a peep in, the whole of the flue was on fire, we had set fire to the flue dust which was actually partially burned coal. We shut the door and left it to it. There was nothing we could do, it wouldn’t do any harm and in the event it did a good job because it burned for three months and kept the flue dry all winter. It also reduced the level of dust in the flue from five feet to about a foot of proper flue dust on the floor. This was the industrial equivalent of mother sweeling the flue at home in my childhood!

While we are talking about flues I’d like to recount one incident that happened much later when I was running the engine each weekend for the public. We started doing this as soon as we had a viable engine, properly insured and this was before I had trained the volunteers so I ran the engine every weekend by myself for 18 months. I got it to a fine art and knew that if I got to Ellenroad at about four o’clock in the morning I could fire up, warm the engine and be ready to run at ten o’clock. It may sound strange but I often used to think as I drove over to Ellenroad first thing in the morning that it was nice to unique. I was the only man in the whole world setting off to run a 3,000 hp engine on my own. There must be thousands of people who would have given their eye teeth to be doing this.

On this particular morning it was very cold and foggy. I lit the fires as usual but had no draught and the products of combustion were blown back by the fans on the underfired stokers into the boiler house. I knew I had to shut the stokers off and open the flue door at the bottom of the chimney in order to light a fire at the chimney base to get the column of air moving in the stack. There was no wind and when I opened the flue door the smoke fell out of the chimney and gathered in the yard like a big black pool! I’ve seen smoke fall from the top of the chimney down to the ground in similar conditions but I’d never seen it as bad as this. It intrigued me and I tried an experiment. I lit a piece of oil soaked rag and threw it into the smoke just to see what happened. There was no danger of explosion because it wasn’t confined. The rag was extinguished immediately it hit the smoke, there was no oxygen at all in the mixture.

Curiosity satisfied I waited until the smoke had run away along the ground and the chimney base was clear and then I hung an old raincoat soaked in diesel in the flue entrance, lit it and waited for a minute. It soon started to pull and was roaring away. I went into the boiler house, turned the stokers on and then went outside and shut the flue door. That did the trick and the draught soon built up to normal as the hot flue gases warmed the flue. The point about this story is that it shouldn’t have happened because a flue doesn’t normally lose it’s draught in a week, it takes much longer than that. In this case, I reckon it was my fault because I’d started a green fire on coal too soon, I should have burned wood or very small quantities of coal to keep the smoke down on starting. However, I was in a hurry and careless and what I’d done was try to get the chimney to lift heavy smoke, heavy enough to overcome the draught and literally choke the flue. I’d never seen this before and it just goes to show that we can always learn from our mistakes.

By the time this incident happened we had completely renewed the brickwork settings and flues round the boiler. I had taken the opportunity to put some of my own ideas into effect while we had it down and did things like incorporate sliding expansion joints in the side walls. Seventeen years later there is no sign of movement in these walls and I have never seen a boiler setting side wall that didn’t move when built in the conventional way. Another thing we did was pay particular attention to the sizing of the side flues. I made them as narrow as I possibly could and paid a lot of attention to sealing them against leakage. All this showed up when we first fired the boiler. We raised steam from cold to working pressure with only 30cwt of coal. I’ve never seen it done with less than four to five tons before. One reason for this that I worked out later was that because we had such a large chimney for a single boiler we had plenty of draught with the side flue dampers only open about four inches. Normally, with a cold boiler and flue the dampers have to be wide open to give enough draught to get a good fire going. If you think about it, the hottest, and therefore the most useful, gas is in the tops of the side flues. When the dampers are wide open this is all going to warm the flue. At Ellenroad with the dampers almost closed we were only allowing the coolest gas from the bottom of the flue to escape up the chimney, this was cold in comparison with the gas higher up in the side flue and so the boiler ran more efficiently. None of the formulae in the old reference books take account of this and I really do think we discovered something significant about flueing a Lancashire boiler by these modifications at Ellenroad. That’s prime source industrial archaeology for you but unfortunately, by the time I worked it out the industry was dead!

It took eight years and approximately £5million to complete the refurbishment of Ellenroad and I was pleased to see that they won an award against stiff competition last year. Somewhere, I must have got something right! Needless to say, it was an incredible learning curve as well as being the best job in the world. Before I was finished I had moved the Whitelees Engine into Ellenroad and rebuilt it with the help of two apprentices and one of the volunteers, we put that back in steam in May 1991. If anything that I learned can be of use in other projects, I’ll be glad to give any advice and help I can. Thanks for taking the time to read about one of the best days in my life.

SCG/15 December 2001
3616 words.

[Biographical note. Stanley Graham is retired and lives in Barnoldswick on the Lancs./Yorks. border. He has spent his life with machinery, was the engine tenter at Bancroft Shed in Barnoldswick for six years before closure and has worked on many projects connected with refurbishing old mills and machinery. He has been researching the social and industrial history of his home town for 50 years and published every week in the local paper until 2020 when the local edition was discontinued.]
Stanley Challenger Graham
Stanley's View
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"Beware of certitude" (Jimmy Reid)
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