On Friday 27th September, I attended the North West Industrial Archaeology Society Conference at the Bolton Museum and Art Gallery (and aquarium!).

I have been increasingly excavating industrial sites at my time with Wessex (including Sylvester Gardens and Marshalls Mills), so the theme of ‘excavating the stream engine’ promised to be educational as well as interesting.

Signage at the Bolton Museum and Art Gallery, venue of the NW Industrial Archaeology Society Conference 2019

The day began with a welcome and introduction from Dr Michael Nevell, and an appreciation of Richard Hills, the ‘Founder director who amassed a hoard of mechanical marvels for the Science and Industry Museum, Manchester’ given by Neil Davies. Richard Hills sadly passed away earlier this year.

David Lewis from the Northern Mill Engine Society gave an incredibly comprehensive run through of typical types of steam engine we might find in the north of England. This was followed by a discussion on the Fairbottom Bobs & Rocher Vale pumping engines from Michael Nevell.

An introduction to steam engine technology at the NW Industrial Archaeology Society Conference

Fairbottom Bobs is perhaps one of our most well-known engines as it was given to be preserved in the Henry Ford Museum, Michigan in 1927. As such, the upper machine workings have gone but the foundations remain and have since been excavated.

Dr. Tegwen Roberts spoke about the recent excavations at Elsecar, at the site of the boiler house associated with the on-site Newcomen engine (believed to be the oldest, in-situ Newcomen engine in the world). A particular highlight of her talk was the project’s focus on engagement and making sure that the members of the local community were involved in every step of the process.

Elsecar Newcomen Engine Boiler House Excavation Elsecar Newcomen Engine Boiler House Excavation

Images courtesy of Dr Tegwen Roberts

Volunteers took part in the excavations themselves, and amongst other activities, local school children spent time imagining the Newcomen as a character in a comic strip and bringing it to life. Imagine a Newcomen, in a superhero cape, saving us all from evil aliens who were trying to flood the planet, by pumping away all of the water!

Ian Miller from Salford Archaeology spoke about engines he has excavated, and the often-challenging task of completing this work successfully within an urban environment. Working around existing mill buildings and modern developments is something we can empathise with at Wessex!

Steve Grudgings gave an enthusiast’s perspective of excavating steam engines found in mine,  and David George rounded up the morning with a talk on the Reelfitz Pit engine in Cumbria.

After lunch the conference moved to the Bolton Steam Museum for a tour of some working engines. 

Visiting the Bolton Steam Museum as part of the North West Industrial Archaeology Society Conference A single cylinder Barraclough engine at the Bolton Steam Museum

The staff and volunteers at the museum had all of the engines running for our arrival, and although they were not ‘in steam’ the sound and sight of the machinery under power gave a real sense of how they would have operated. It was nice to see a single cylinder Barraclough engine built just up the road in Barnsley amongst the exhibits. There was time at the end of the tour for a question and answer session with the speakers who remained.

As my first foray into Industrial Archaeology Conferences, it was a bit of a surprise to be probably one of the youngest people in the room, and one of only a handful of women attending. My experience with Wessex is that interest in our industrial heritage spans most of my colleagues (male, female, older as well as younger) and I’m looking forward to challenging any stereotypes to the contrary going forward!

By Emily Eastwood