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History & CommunityAs Bold As Brass

As Bold As Brass

I was pleased to read in the Bridport News before Christmas that the Great Dorset Steam Fair had achieved a Guinness World record for the largest parade of 103 vintage steamrollers last summer at Tarrant Hinton showground.

I can remember seeing such a steam roller in action, rolling the road tarmac when I was a schoolboy, but I was more attracted to the fairground steam engines, with their gleaming brass and bright bold paint. The showmen used them to produce electricity to power the merry-go-round rides and draw the caravans. Some of the rides had steam organs with robotic musicians. I have frequently enjoyed attending vintage vehicle shows with a variety of steam engines, from those powering farm machinery to showmen’s engines. When I was an engineering apprentice I spent several months in the Drawing Office and was amazed by one of the draughtsmen who showed us a model showman’s engine he had made. It could fit in a small matchbox, but was perfectly detailed and handmade. We asked how he had produced the tiny teeth on a gearwheel, and he said “using a nail file”!

There was a steamroller manufacturer in Dorchester, by the name of Edison.

Steamrollers remind me of the late Fred Dibnah, steeplejack and mechanic who became a familiar face and voice on television, with his lovingly restored engine. Recently I was introduced to a book by David Hall describing “Fred Dibnah’s Victorian Heroes” (the extraordinary life stories of the great industrial engineers). Knowing Fred from his television programmes it was no surprise that they were all mechanical or civil engineers, from George Stephenson, Father of the Railways, to Charles Parsons, who developed steam turbines. Most of these had their main impact in the north of England, but one, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, apart from perhaps being the best known of them all, had more impact on the West Country.

Brunel is a well known image to most of us, with his stove pipe top hat, cigar and watch chain. He promoted and built the Great Western Railway, initially from London to Bristol, later extended further into the west. This included the Railway Works at Swindon, Box Tunnel, Temple Meads Station and the magnificent bridge at Saltash, over the river Tamar. Most of us will have seen this Royal Albert Bridge connecting Devon to Cornwall from the nearby A38 road crossing, and seen the bold legend on its frontal “I.K.BRUNEL- ENGINEER -1859”. Brunel was adventurous in his designs and covered many aspects, from railway tunnels to ships. However sometimes being adventurous became very expensive.

It is not surprising that some of Brunel’s designs failed, for example the atmospheric railway in South Devon. It was not his invention, having been patented by Clegg and the Samuda brothers, but Brunel believed it would be clean, silent, fast and able to climb steep gradients. It was decided to install the system along the 52 mile route from Exeter to Plymouth, with stationary steam engines operating air pumps every two miles or so, connected to 15 inch diameter iron pipes between the railway lines. Each pipe had a slit on top along its length, closed by leather flaps. A piston in the pipe was connected to the railcar, and as the pipe was evacuated, the piston and car were driven along by atmospheric pressure. First trials were successful, achieving 68 mph with a 28 ton load, as Brunel forecast.  Unfortunately the leather flaps needed to be supple to close as the piston passed by, and so were lubricated with tallow. The tallow attracted rats, and the system lasted only a year, resulting in large financial losses to Brunel and his backers. Possibly with modern materials the system could have been successful. Some years ago we visited one of the remaining pumping stations at Starcross off the River Exe and saw it and a section of the pipe, dating from 1846.

A West Country triumph for Brunel was the SS Great Britain. This was commenced in 1839 and built of wrought-iron plates overlapped horizontally and riveted in two rows in the Great Western Dock at Bristol. Brunel had originally intended to use paddle wheels, but in 1840 changed his design to a screw propeller, patented by Pettit Smith, requiring considerable redesign. The ship was the largest fully steam powered ship at the time when completed in 1844. It eventually spent 20 years plying between Britain and Australia. It has been restored and can be seen at Bristol.

These two examples show Brunel’s daring in trying new ideas, but willingness to adopt the inventions of others. Truly “as bold as brass”!

Bridport History Society will meet on Tuesday 11th February at 2.30pm in the Main Hall of Bridport United Church, East Street, when member David Croman will tell us about “The extraordinary life of Robert FitzRoy RN – Darwin’s Commander and Captain of the Beagle”. All welcome, visitors £2.50.

Cecil Amor, Chairman, Bridport History Society. Tel: 01308 – 456876.

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