The Wanlockhead Engine

Beam Engines and waterbucket pumps were introduced in Wanlockhead in 1745. The famous Wanlockhead Beam Engine is a survivor of this technology.

No certain history of the Wanlockhead Beam Engine has been found to date but descriptions of similar engines have survived from 1745 and one is recorded to have been used on a coal mine at Canonbie, Dumfriesshire in the 1790’s.

The Wanlockhead Beam Engine was built, it is believed, in the mid 19th century and is the only remaining example of a waterbucket pumping engine to be seen on a mine in the United Kingdom today.

Waterbucket pumping engines had their origin in an attempt to create a ‘perpetual motion’ machine.  The Wanlockhead Beam Engine allowed miners to continue working in the Straitsteps mine.

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Where topography made it possible, a drainage level on similar lines to those designed by the famous Dutchman, Cornelius Vermuyden in the 1630’s, was used to drain underground workings by the use of gravity alone.  When mines became so deep that the water could not be removed in this way, powerful pumps were employed.

Hand rag-pumps were employed by Sir James Stampfield at the Straitsteps Mine between 1675 and 1684.  In the late 17th century water was used at Wanlockhead to work the drainage pumps and in 1710 two waterwheel-powered pumping engines, known as ‘bab-gins’ were used at the Straitsteps Mine. As late as 1816 water was being raised by teams of 24 men working round-the-clock with hand pumps on the Lochnell mine.

Bobbin johnsThe waterbucket pump engine is very cost effective to operate as it requires only water power and as long as there is water to fill the bucket the pump will work continuously. The simple ‘nodding’ action earned them the name of ‘bobbin’ johns’ in Scotland.  Beam Engines were mainly constructed from wood and when they fell into disuse they quickly disappeared, because of the advent of steam pumping engines. Only a few are recorded in the mid 19th century.

The beam is made up of two baulks of pitch pine and is 26′ 4″ (8.03m) long, 2′ (61cm) deep and 11″ (28cm) wide. Wrought iron straps bind the two baulks together and there are carved reinforcing pads at the centre and ends. The Beam is mounted on a pillar of dressed freestone 14′ (4.27m) in height and measuring 7′ (2.1m) by 3′ (91cm) at the base. It has a carved cornice and is similar in style to many 19th century railway bridge piers.

Many of the iron parts are held together with wedges and cotters, which are traditional fastenings used by early millwrights. However on close inspection that a number of small locking screws have been used and bearings have been turned on a lathe which suggests the use of 19th century machine tools. A mine report of 1883 mentions an ‘auxiliary pump’ being used at the south end of the vein and this may refer to the present Engine. It is also possible that the Engine had previously been erected elsewhere.

The problems of removing water from the lead mines brought some of the most famous engineers of the time to the area including Watt, Boulton, and Symington.

In 1779 the second Boulton & Watt steam pumping engine to be built in Scotland was erected at the Straitsteps Mine and was then replaced by a larger Watt engine. In 1900 Wanlockhead returned to steam provided by three Babcock & Wilcox steam boilers.

William Symington (1763-1831) the younger brother of George Symington the engineer, built an atmospheric beam engine  which replaced the Boulton and Watt pump engine in 1789. William was born in Leadhills, but lived and worked for most of his life in Wanlockhead.  He is the inventor of the first steam powered ship, the engine for which was built at the Old Manse, Wanlockhead.

Exactly how his ideas were taken up by Henry Bell and Robert Fulton, who are credited with the invention of steam navigation, is shrouded in mystery.  William returned to Sanquar in Dumfriesshire where he continued to make pumping engines but he died in London an impoverished and embittered genius.

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