Inside the Collection

225th birthday of our Boulton and Watt engine – and a search for two birthday buddies

Boulton and Watt engine in the Museum, Object No 18432. Collection: Powerhouse Museum
Boulton and Watt engine in the Museum, Object No 18432. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

We plan to steam our engine on 22 July to celebrate the 225th anniversary of its installation in Whitbread’s London brewery. The only known reference to its first steaming is a letter dated 1 August 1785 from engine erector James Law to his boss, James Watt, and held in the Boulton and Watt Archives, Birmingham City Council:

‘Sir I thote it proper to let you know wat I was about the millwrites say the will finish nexte week I set the engin to moofe the 22 of the last month I colde a set on the weeack before but I hoped for the copper smiths worck and set on with out it at last the clarkes and the engin house was full but thank god I found very lille defects sir I think a are vessel of a good sise is better than a small one a engin will set an better Mr Witebread and a Lord and Ladys came to see the engin stand and do see me ow soon I colde set it to worke which we did very well…’

Without pausing to draw breath, let alone start a new paragraph, Law goes on to complain about the cost of living (‘washing, mending and vitles’) in London. He requests a wage rise so he can clear his debts and support his family, who probably stayed in Birmingham while he travelled from place to place to erect engines (from parts made by several suppliers) and to troubleshoot for Boulton and Watt.

It seems Law erected the engine but did not start it immediately for two reasons: he was hoping Whitbread would give him some coppersmith’s work; and the millwrights had not finished installing the new gear wheels and shafts through which the engine would drive the existing brewery equipment. I guess the reference to coppersmith’s work means his bosses let him earn extra money on the side to help pay for his washing, mending and other necessities.

Law says he only started the engine when Mr Whitbread arrived with some dignitaries and asked to see it working. However, he must have had the boiler warmed up to be able to do so at short notice, so he was probably about to give it a test run. Perhaps his earlier statement that ‘the Engin house was full’ means that the brewery’s clerks and other staff were also present, which would have been an appropriate way to mark the event.

In 1887, after a long working life, the engine was dismantled and sent by sailing ship across the world to Sydney’s Technological Museum, where a new engine house was eventually built for it (after years of lobbying the NSW government for funds – and a suggestion, by the professor who had requested its donation from Whitbread, that it should be given to Melbourne as it seemed Sydney did not really want it). The drawing shows the engine at the end of its working life.

Drawing of the Boulton and Watt , object no 18432. Collection: Powerhouse Museum
Drawing of the Boulton and Watt, Object no 18432. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

In the 1920s an electric motor was installed to turn the engine’s flywheel, giving visitors an idea of how it looked in motion. In 1984 the engine was dismantled again, trucked to Castle Hill and re-erected. A tall shed was built around it to house it during restoration. The photo below shows Bert Bruin, mechanic, and Bill Bannister, project manager, with the engine in its temporary home.

18432 Steam engine, double-acting beam type, cast iron / wrought iron, made by Boulton and Watt, Birmingham, England, 1785, used at Whitbread's Brewery, London, England, 1785-1887. Collection: Powerhouse Museum
18432 Steam engine, double-acting beam type, cast iron / wrought iron, made by Boulton and Watt, Birmingham, England, 1785, used at Whitbread’s Brewery, London, England, 1785-1887. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

The engine was later dismantled one more time and re-erected in the Powerhouse, where we will celebrate its 225th anniversary by running it on steam at 11.15 am, 12.15 pm and 2.15 pm. As they do each day, volunteers will present talks about the engine and answer visitors’ questions.

Celebrations of the engine’s 200th birthday were held on Sunday 21st July 1985 with hundreds of steam buffs, plus Museum staff and Patrons, on hand to watch Bob Debus (the NSW Minister assisting Premier Neville Wran in the Arts portfolio) wave his hand to signal the raising of the roller shutters of the Boulton and Watt shed and reveal the engine running on steam.

While no Lords or Ladies were present, two actors in dress coats played the parts of Matthew Boulton (Ernest Butchard) and James Watt (Doug Ramsay) in a ‘charming and instructive colloquy’, to quote a newspaper report by Leo Schofield.

The invitation to the event had been worded:

‘Come and see Mr Watt’s stupendous Steam Engine steaming once again and enjoy fine English fare.’

Schofield served up the following riposte:

‘the deep fried chicken seemed to owe more to Kentucky than to Birmingham or London.’

Perhaps this dish was selected in homage to the Scottish-born James Watt, as it’s been suggested that the Scots introduced fried chicken to the southern USA. At least haggis and clapshot weren’t on the menu!

An article in a Mollymook newspaper also covered the event, as Butchard lived there. It carried a photo of the actors with two girls, aged about 3 or 4, who were also celebrating their birthdays. We are hoping to make contact with those young ladies, who would now be in their late twenties and most likely had parents who were steam buffs. Can you help?

One response to “225th birthday of our Boulton and Watt engine – and a search for two birthday buddies

  • Hi There Not sure if this is an active website but I tried to contact Powerhouse before to no avail .
    I am volunteer in the Robert Steele Marine Engine Collection at Fremantle Maritime Museum [W.A.M.M.]
    We are trying to write a training and Safety procedure for traing new volunteers in working on Unfenced Machinery .and I wonder if you have adocument for the same purpose at Power House with your magnificent Boulton and Watt sun and planet engine plus others
    Any help or advice would be much appreciated Thankyou Best Regards Eric Coates volunteer Robert Steele Marine Engine Collection Fremantle Western Australia

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