Make do and mend

‘Make do and mend’ is an old saying that can certainly be applied to the Newcomen Beam Engine at Elsecar New Colliery, which was built in 1795 and remained in use until 1923 when it was replaced by electric pumps. It was designed to extract water from underground to allow for exploration of deeper coal seams and, at its peak, could draw up to 600 gallons per minute. This Newcomen Beam Engine is the only one of its kind in the world to remain in its original location. Henry Ford did try to buy it and take it to his museum in the USA, but was unsuccessful.

After extensive restoration, the building and engine are open to visitors and I attended one of the tours, which anyone with an interest in big lumps of historic engineering would probably find enjoyable. The engine now runs but not with steam, so the smells and heat are missing along with most of the noise. All of the actions are in place, however, and with the rods and valves in motion it is very impressive.

As is my way, I began with an unofficial visual inspection of the engine and the building and it was apparent that the engine had been repaired over time. The most recent
repairs/renovations looked to be the most sound in terms of engineering, but many of the historical in-service repairs had the appearance of being carried out by the on-site blacksmiths in a heavy engineering fashion. If you look at the photograph of the beam (right), you will see where the now unused pivot mountings have broken and been repaired. I asked the guide whether any NDT had been carried out and was assured that it had been crack tested by a specialist, but no further information on what methods were used was forthcoming. Apparently, a crack was found in the main cylinder that was too difficult to repair, which is why it no longer works with steam. Looking at the cylinder, it is very uneven on the outside and was probably originally cast and had stood for many years unused, so any inspection would be challenging. The advantage is that there is access to the inside bore and this is much smoother. The main inspections over its working life would have been visual, with the oil and chalk dust a possibility due to the proximity of the railway workshops. With current inspection methods and techniques it would be possible to gain much more knowledge about the materials and components, but this would involve an amount of dismantling and disturbance and could damage the parts. It is probably sensible to leave the engine as it is and enjoy it in its partial working state. No water is pumped, so there is limited stress on the movements.

The building had open fireplaces, which were not for the comfort of the operators (typical of the period) but to stop any water from freezing and damaging the machine and therefore needed tending 24 hours a day in winter.

It is a fine piece of industrial engineering that is now providing education and entertainment for visitors to the site. There is also a heritage steam line, which runs some small saddle tank steam trains and diesel shunters at the site, but there is no access to the sheds for the general public.

Comments by members

This forum post has no comments, be the first to leave a comment.

Submit your comment

You need to log in to submit a Comment. Please click here to log in or register.

<< Back