Episode 6 of the Archaeotea Podcast is now available free to download. In this episode I look at the archaeology of the early steam engine: and in particular at the extraordinary survival, and later conservation and excavation, of one of the oldest stationary steam engines in the world, the quaintly named Fairbottom Bobs. You can listen to the Fairbottom Bobs podcast here: Archaeotea | Free Listening on SoundCloud or read on.
Stationary steam engines are an iconic piece of technology from Britain’s 18th and 19th century industrialisation. These engines, with their moving pistons, rhythmical back-and-forth motion, and clouds of steam from the boiler chimney, attracted the attention of contemporary commentators, and later Industrial Archaeologists. From the first steam engines of the early 18th century, built in their own engine houses, to the 20th century steam turbine, these objects still exert a fascination for archaeologists and historians of the Industrial era. None more so than the atmospheric steam engine patented by Thomas Newcomen in 1712, designed for pumping water out of deep mines. Such engines were described by Professor Tom Rolt, one of the 20th century pioneers of industrial archaeology, as the prehistoric forefather of the Industrial Revolution steam engine. Surprisingly, one of these early engines stood forgotten and neglected in a field near Park Bridge on the River Medlock, roughly 10km east of Manchester, until 1929. The Fairbottom Bobs engine, as it is known, is now in the Dearborne Industrial Museum in the USA and is recognised as one of the earliest surviving stationary steam engines in the world. Its removal is thus one of the earliest pieces of industrial archaeology conservation in Britain. Whilst most of the engine is now in the States, archaeological excavation has shown that significant elements of the original machine survive below ground.
Before we go any further, it’s useful to know a bit about how early stationary steam engines worked. The earliest mine pumping engines functiond by allowing steam at atmospheric pressure to fill a space underneath a piston in a cylinder, while the piston was lifted by a counterweighted beam. The steam was then condensed to create a partial vacuum, and the piston was then pushed back down by atmospheric pressure acting on the top. In order to transfer this motion a rod attached to the piston was fixed to the end of a horizontal wooden beam which it rocked up and down. The other end of the beam was attached to another rod driving a pump to lift water from the mine. In 1769 the engineer James Watt improved the engine design by condensing the steam separately outside the cylinder. The cylinder could now be kept warm at all times thus saving fuel and more than doubling its efficiency. This innovation also allowed the steam to act as the primary motive power. In the 1770s and early 1780s several engineers experimented with adding a flywheel to Newcomen engines. This could be used to run machinery via a combination of line shafting and belt drives, making steam engines much more versatile. However, it was Watt’s 1783 design for his improved engine which was adapted in the late 18th and early 19th century to power a vast array of machinery that drove industrialisation: from cotton spinning and machine manufacturing, to food production and transport.
Early Steam Engines in the North West
By 1800 over two thousand steam engines had been manufactured in Britain, three quarters of them following the Newcomen design. The manufacturing town of Manchester had at least 44 steam engines installed between 1781 and 1800, most to run textile machinery. This made it second only to London, which had at least 54 engines installed by 1800, as a steam engine town. However, most stationary steam engines could be found in the coal and metal mining districts of Britain. Documentary records indicate that the historic county of Lancashire had 329 steam engines installed during the 18th century, the first probably being a pumping engine at Whiston Colliery, Prescott, working by 1719. The majority of these early Lancashire engines were of the Newcomen design and were located largely within the Lancashire coal field. The pre-1974 county of Cheshire has records for 77 steam engines in use during the 18th century for the coal, salt, and textile industries. The earliest Cheshire engine was recorded in 1741 at Church Lawton Colliery. These were not cheap pieces of technology. The cost of building and housing a single engine easily exceeded the average yearly farm income in North West England of £50 to £100, during this period. Consequently, engines, or parts of them, were frequently re-used or sold on, which makes estimating the precise number built in this period tricky.
The engine at Fairbottom Bobs, was working by the mid-1770s. It was thus amongst the first twenty or so Newcomen engines to be used in Lancashire. When it was abandoned in 1826 the engine was left to quietly crumble: cylinder, beam, boiler, and chimney becoming an overgrown romantic ruin. The first article on the history of this colliery pumping engine appeared in 1894, and during the 20th century the site was investigated on three occasions. The first time was in 1929 when the beam, cylinder, and wagon boiler were gifted to Henry Ford of car fame. It was dismantled and taken for re-erection at his Dearborn Museum in Michigan in the United States. This involved numbering each stone block, wooden beam, and cast-iron gearing fragments before packing and shipping, so that the engine could be precisely re-built. After this removal operation only the brick-built, square-sectioned, chimney attached to the boiler remained above ground. The second investigation came in 1982, when concern for the condition of the chimney led to some restoration work and further excavation by the Manchester Region Industrial Archaeology Society. Their work demonstrated that the dismantling process in 1929 had left significant elements of the engine still in place below ground. In 1999 and 2000 a third series of investigations took place as part of the Tameside Archaeological Survey.
So why did the site attract so much attention? It turns out that Fairbottom Bobs is one of just a handful of 18th century steam engines that have survived into the 21st century. Amongst the better-known examples are the late 18th century pumping engine that can still be seen in the Science Museum in London; the in-situ colliery pumping engine at Elsecar in Barnsley; and the Coventry Canal Engine, now at Darmouth Museum in Devon. Of these, only the site of one, Fairbottom Bobs, has seen modern research excavation and historical study.
The Fairbottom Bobs Site
Fairbottom Bobs stood on the northern banks of the River Medlock west of the village of Park Bridge. At this point in its course the river has gouged a narrow and deep valley, exposing coal seams for several kilometres. These exposed deposits attracted small-scale working. The earliest record of coal digging can be found in manorial papers for Ashton-under-Lyne, within which the Park Bridge area lay, in 1636. By the mid-18th century many of the tenant farmers in this area were digging coal for domestic use. Fairbottom Bobs was in use by 1776 and by the 1790s the mine was being run by the Fairbottom Colliery Company, whose backers included the Lees and Booths families who also ran the nearby Werneth collieries in Oldham, a few kilometres to the north. The colliery at Fairbottom appears to have been their first venture, and the market they were servicing was initially for domestic coal.
The growing manufacturing town of Manchester lay just 10 kilometres to the west and between 1773 and 1801 its population grew from 23,000 to 75,000 people. From the late 1780s coal was increasingly being dug to fire the boilers that drove the new steam engines powering Manchester’s textile machinery. Getting the coal quickly to this market was a struggle along winding and potholed roads, which is probably why John Lees who held the lease for the Fairbottom colliery was amongst the backers of the building of the Ashton Canal to Manchester. When opened in 1797 the canal had a branch that ran to within 200m of the colliery at Fairbottom. Its terminus was a dock and quayside at Fennyfield Bridge on the southern side of the River Medlock.
The excavations by the Tameside Archaeology Survey in 1999 and 2000 revealed two phases of activity on the site. Guided by the standing remains of the chimney and the records of the 1982 excavation, this work uncovered substantial remains of all the key structures associated with the beam engine. These included remains of the cylinder bay, beam wall, ash pit, drains, the boiler walls, and floor. As with many early engines it does not appear that the beam engine was enclosed within a roofed structure: rather, it was exposed to the weather. The foundations for the engine, the beam wall, the boiler house, and the chimney were all built in the same style, using local gritstone and fine ashlar blocks This suggested that they were all built at the same time. The cylinder bay measured 1.75 m by 3.20m and was found to survive up to 10 courses or 2m deep upon excavation. When the engine was dismantled in 1929 the records show that the cylinder had a diameter of 28 inches. The chimney and its boiler house lay immediately south of the engine, formed by an area of brick flooring 2m by 3.3m defined by stone walls. Excavation of the boiler area revealed that part of the foundations in this area were curved, probably because it was originally built around a domed, circular, or haystack boiler. A stone drain took the water pumped from the mine south, towards the river Medlock.
Later, there were major alterations to the site when the haystack boiler was replaced by a wagon boiler. The new rectangular-shaped boiler, essentially a long metal tube with a flat bottom, sat on a brick base with an ash pit and rake area at the southern end of the rebuilt structure. Flues circulated the hot air beneath the boiler before disposing of the waste heat through an adjacent chimney. There were also major alterations to the pumping engine itself. These included new valves and steam pipes associated with the cylinder, as recovered in 1929, converting the machnary into a Watt-style reciprocal stationary steam engine. Taken together, these changes represented a considerable investment, probably in an attempt to modernise and extend the working life of the engine.
It seems likely that this refurbishment was the outcome of a request in 1801 to the Fairbottom Colliery Company for money from the Ashton Canal Company towards the restoration and repair of the ‘decaying’ beam engine. Some of the water from the mine was by this date being pumped along an aqueduct over the river Medlock to the coal wharf at the canal terminus at Fennyfield Bridge in order to keep the canal topped up. The decay of the engine threatened the functioning of the canal – hence the request for money.
To the north of the engine site lay the engine driver’s cottage, a feature of such early engine sites often overlooked. The term engine driver was in use decades before becoming associated with railway steam engines. Mine pumping engines needed a person to run the engine, check on the valves, and fire the boiler: hence the term engine driver. At Fairbottom, the original four-roomed stone-built cottage dated from the foundation of the engine. It was still lived in, as late as 1970, nearly 150 years after Fairbottom Bobs has fallen silent.
Conclusion & Date of the Engine
So here at Park Bridge we can still see the remains of one the first stationary steam engines installed at any coal mine in Britain. But there is still some doubt as to the precise date at which it was built. All the major elements of the beam engine (the haystack boiler, chimney, cylinder pit and beam wall) were constructed at the same time. But when? It was certainly operating in the 1770s as indicated by the excavation of an iron chisel, with the crest of the Earls of Stamford on it, from the ash pit. This object bore the date of ‘1776’ and the documentary evidence for mining in the area shows that income from local rents from collieries in the area soared in the years immediately after that date. The fact that a chisel bore the crest of the Earl of Stamford showed that the land owner had a direct interest in exploiting the site – as did many landowners with coal deposits beneath their fields in the 18th century.
Yet, it has been suggested that the Newcomen steam engine at Fairbottom was re-used from an earlier site. The main evidence for this is an advert in the Manchester Mercury newspaper for the 9th October 1764 referring to the sale of a ‘Fire Engine’ (as steam engines where then sometimes called) at the Norbury Coal Works. This engine had a 28 inch diameter cylinder, the same size as the Fairbottom Bobs cylinder, and since it was well known that colliery pumping engines were recycled throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries the suggestion was made that these were the same engines. To this circumstantial evidence can be added an oblique reference in the Stamford archives from 1765 mentioning a colliery operating at Bardsley in the parish of Ashton which ‘supplied the greater part of Manchester’. Since Fairbottom Bobs lies within the Bardsley area of Ashton and this is the earliest colliery known in this part of the parish, it is possible that this is a reference to the site at Fairbottom. Yet, an estate map for the parish of Ashton-under-Lyne drawn in 1765 fails to show the colliery site at Fairbottom Bobs, or indeed any others within the parish.