Mechanisation of road building – 1920 steam tip wagon

Type FGR steam tip wagon made by Aveling and Porter, of Rochester in Kent, England, 1920. Powerhouse Museum Collection. Gift of W. Duguid, 1962. B1509.
Type FGR steam tip wagon made by Aveling and Porter, of Rochester in Kent, England, 1920. Powerhouse Museum Collection. Gift of W. Duguid, 1962. B1509.

In the early decades of the twentieth century steam-powered vehicles including traction engines, steam wagons, road locomotives, road rollers and steam fire engines were a common sight on Australian roads. Up to the 1930s steam-powered wagons or trucks were much more powerful than petrol ones and were ideal for road building.

This steam wagon in the Museum’s collection is an overtype wagon built in 1920 by the English company famous for their steamrollers, Aveling and Porter, of Rochester in Kent. Of the 292 Aveling and Porter steam wagons built between 1909 and 1925, only four are known to survive worldwide and this is one of them. It was used in the 1920s by Rockdale Council, in southern Sydney, as part of their equipment for making and repairing roads. Its task was to haul rock, blue metal and blocks of sandstone curbing for road building and surfacing within the Rockdale municipality and was a great improvement on the horse-drawn vehicles then in use as it could haul approximately four times the load.

Oil painting of the Aveling and Porter steam wagon at work by Phil Belbin, 1987. Powerhouse Museum collection. 88/417.
Oil painting of the Aveling and Porter steam wagon at work by Phil Belbin, 1987. Powerhouse Museum collection. 88/417.

The wagon was operated by a qualified driver, employed by Rockdale Council, who had both a driver’s licence and steam ticket. He was aided by an “offsider”, usually a labourer, who not only shovelled out the load but helped the driver stoke the firebox and grease and oil the wagon. Daily coke consumption was about five, 70 to 80 pound bags which were carried on the canopy roof. The 150-gallon water tank would last about two to three hours depending on the work. Being a steam-powered vehicle, petrol wasn’t an issue, but the water tank regularly needed to be filled from fire hydrants in the street, if water was laid on, or from creeks if working out of town. The steam wagon was in operation on the road five days a week but on Saturday mornings remained in the council depot where the boiler fire tubes were cleaned out and the oil reservoirs filled.

In about 1924 Rockdale Council ordered two new steam wagons made by the Sentinel Wagon Works at Shrewsbury, England. These were undertype wagons with vertical boilers and were a great improvement on the Aveling and Porter wagon as they used less coke and operated at a higher speed. In about 1926, council sold the steam wagon to Mr W. Duguid for use on his property at Mt Pleasant, near Thirlmere, NSW. It was used for hauling timber, pulling out tree stumps and driving machinery on the farm until 1946 before being discarded for a conventional tractor.

The Museum was informed of the wagon’s location in 1962 and after an inspection by staff members the owners agreed to donate the wagon. However, the problem of transporting it had to be overcome as the wagon had been left abandoned on a hillside which was unapproachable by a low loader as it could only be reached via a narrow unmade road with a hairpin bend. It was necessary to repair the wagon sufficiently to enable it to be steamed down the mountain under its own power to reach the low loader – a solution which is unthinkable these days. Once safely in Sydney, the steam wagon was placed in storage until 1984 when it was restored to steaming condition and displayed in the Transport exhibition of the Museum from 1988 until 1999. It has subsequently been steamed at various rallies in NSW and Victoria.

Specifications:
Type: FGR
Builder’s No. 9247
Boiler Test No. 8273
Cylinders: compound, bores 3.75 inch and 6.125 inch
Boiler heating surface: 52 sq. ft.
Boiler grate area: 2.73 sq ft
Water tank capacity: 130 gallons
Rev. per minute: 300
Weight empty: 6.6 tons (6.6 tonnes)
Working pressure: 200 p.s.i. (1 378 kPa)
Brake Horse Power: 20 .5
Wheelbase: 13 ft 6 in
Track: 6 ft 8 in. (2.0 m)
Speeds: 2.18 m.p.h. & 5 m.p.h.

Post by Margaret Simpson
Curator, Transport

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