Steam Off the Railway By Dr D A C McNeil
It was not raining, nor was it snowing, which was unusual this last Easter. On the Saturday morning Quorn station on the Great Central was host to a steam rally, so, complete with camera and my entrance fee, I turned up. The old G.C.R. had provided Quorn with a relatively large goods yard, which I doubt ever lived up to their ambitions, but all that is another story. Most of the track for the sidings has been lifted, but the building survive; when not playing host to bonfire night parties and steam events, the yard often serves another purpose. The southern section of the G.C.R. is isolated from the main rail network, so any engines or carriages being transferred to or from the railway have to go by road, and are loaded/unloaded onto lorries at this yard. It is also a very good place to park visitors’ cars.
The history of steam powered vehicles goes back several years before Stevenson in 1825, but it was on the railways that it was a success. The reason – the road system at the time was not up to the weight, nor the surfacing level enough to meet the requirements of the first steam-propelled road vehicles. In fact some of the early experiments were road vehicles. The ‘catch-me-who-can’ was basically a steam-propelled cart. It was not until the 1850’s that the road system started to catch up with the requirements of steam vehicles, which, lets face it, were heavy. There were also problems in the early days with smoke and soot, not to mention cinders. Those private citizens who could have afforded those early machines understandably chose not to.
Come the public railways, come the industrial revolution. I ndustry sprung up. It was labour intensive. It sucked the work-force off of the land by the promise of higher wages. As usual, the drawbacks in terms of safety and health would not be mentioned. True there had been a surplus of workers on the farms ever since the enclosures had taken the land off the peasants and formed it into the farms we know today. But farm work is intensive, although seasonal. Now there were more demands on the farmer as city markets grew, and as he lost this seasonal work-force. Steam to the rescue! In the 1840’s and 1850’s a market sprung up for steam driven traction engines that could perform certain routine jobs which would have occupied quite a few farm-hands. The steam engine could be adapted to plough fields – two on opposite sides of the field dragging a plough by a rope system strung between them – thresh grain (see ‘Dad’s Army’ for a sort of demo.) and so on. These machines were not cheap however. So a person with sufficient capital would buy the engines and equipment then hire them out to farmers. This entailed the machines and their crews travelling round the countryside, ploughing up inadequate roads, going from farm to farm. Included in this land train would often be a sleeping wagon, allowing the crew to start early and get a lot of work in.
Certain makers became legendary, and at least 4 were represented in the machine exhibited at Quorn including two manufacturers from Lincolnshire. Marshall, Sons and Co were set up in 1848 in Gainsborough and traded under that name until 1947 when it was taken over by John Fowler & Co. This latter company was set up in Leeds. The complex is now part of the Ben
tall-Simplex group. William Foster & Co started in Lincoln in 1846 and was taken over by W. H. Allen & Co in 1960, and is now part of Amalgamated Power Engineering. Finally Aveling and Porter was Aveling from 1856 to 1862 when Porter joined. It became Aveling-Perkins in 1934 and is now part of the Thomson group. There were others I know I missed at least one, and I omitted to record each against my photographs. I had assumed I would be able to see makes in the prints, but there was always something or somebody in the way.
Fowlers were known for their ploughing engines, whilst it was the 1960’s before petrol road rollers really started to replace the steam roller.
Steam engines were used for other travelling circuses as well. The Circus and Funfair for example used them to drive the rides; the name traction engine implies hauling wagons about; and so on. This forced road re-surfacing up several notches. Of course it was not to last. The petrol engine already existed at the turn of the 20th century but it took World War 1 to perfect it; there after steam went into a rapid decline, especially on the roads. But go back 100 odd years, when nobody who built the canals ever envisaged anything heavier that a hay-wain using a canal bridge. This could have spelt disaster. Though I have not seen one recently myself, even today old rusting Victorian sign stand in memory of the traction age declaring a weight limit for canal bridges.