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Newcomen Engines at Whitehaven, site of
Howgill Colliery and Saltom Pit, Whitehaven, Cumbria, UK
Newcomen Engines at Whitehaven, site of
associated engineer
Thomas Newcomen
date  1715 - 1716, 1731 - 1732, 1734 - 1936, 1737, 1739 - 1740
era  Georgian  |  category  Steam Engine or Locomotive  |  reference  NX963174
photo  © and licensed for reuse under this
Thomas Newcomen had erected his first known atmospheric steam engine for the pumping of water from mineshafts, near Tipton, Staffordshire, in 1712. Soon Newcomen engines were being erected at collieries and mines around Britain. Five were installed at Whitehaven over a period of 25 years. Only the ruins of one engine house survive (at Saltom Pit, pictured) — the engines are long gone.
The town of Whitehaven, on the west coast of Cumbria, owes much of its development to the Lowther family. By 1705 they were exporting coal to Ireland and trading in tobacco with Virginia and Maryland in America. The also owned most of the Whitehaven coalfield.
The Whitehaven field has eight major seams that all dip seaward. It was mined from Howgill Colliery in the Arrowthwaite area and from Whingill Colliery east of Whitehaven. In the 17th century, Howgill Colliery was drained by an adit and horse gins (pumps driven by horses walking a circular track) but by the early 18th century the workings were inundated.
On 5th October 1712, Howgill’s mining agent John Spedding (1685-1758) wrote to Sir James Lowther (1673-1755) recommending Newcomen's engine. But it was another three years before Lowther sought out Newcomen.
Newcomen submitted proposals in October 1715, which Spedding described as "drawn so very clear in every particular that I cannot think of anything that is wanting to be explained or can admit of disputes afterwards". On 10th November, Newcomen, Thomas Ayres and John Meres "covenanted with Mr. Lowther to set up a fire engine with a steam barrel of at least 16 inches diameter within, and 8 feet in length, at the Stone Pit between Whitehaven and Howgill".
The Stone Pit site was chosen because water could be emptied directly into the adit. The engine house was built on a piece of land 23m by 16.5m, and was completed by the end of October 1716 at a cost of £85 9s 9d (£85.49). The engine had a brass cylinder 2.44m long with an internal diameter of 432mm (17 inches) and was supplied with steam by a copper and iron boiler. It was designed to lift water 21m up the mine shaft and 30m along the slope of the coal seam.
Though Newcomen corresponded with Spedding, it's not known whether he visited the site. Most of the work was done by his business partner John Calley (1663-1717) and Calley's son John Calley Jr (d.1725/6). Newcomen’s steam engines were covered by Thomas Savery's (c.1650-1715) patent of 1698, which compelled engine owners to pay annual premiums — in this case the rate was £182 per year.
On 24th March 1717, it was reported that the workings had been drained to 29m below the adit, with only 1.2m of water remaining. However, the pillars of coal left by the miners to support the roof of the cavern had been weakened by prolonged immersion and much of it collapsed. The damage was repaired sufficiently to restart the engine on 11th April. The shaft was lowered by 8.2m and another drainage adit driven.
Perhaps alarmed by the possibility of further incidents, in May 1717 Spedding ordered a spare brass cylinder of 584mm diameter. This would be able to pump at a greater rate if needed.
By November 1717, the engine was working well but a month later boiler troubles began. The boiler was using water pumped from the workings, which was so acidic that it corroded the iron and copper boiler pot, though its lead lid was less affected. The boiler was patched repeatedly with copper, which only accelerated the corrosion. It leaked so much that it extinguished the fire beneath. On Calley’s advice the boiler was lined with lead.
A new iron boiler with a lead top was ordered, which arrived on 8th February 1717/8. This time water from a surface spring was used, but by December this boiler too was leaking owing to problems with the flanged joints in the plating. The old one was repaired and both were in service from 1724.
Another recurring issue was leaky pump rod pipes. These were made from hollowed-out trunks of elm, fir and oak trees, with a bore of 178mm. The Calleys calked the joints and bound the trunks with iron bands, to no avail. By about 1724 many of the pipes had been replaced with ones of Swedish iron. This is possibly the earliest use of iron pipes for pumping.
In 1725, this first engine was observed working at about 14 strokes per minute, pumping 33,390 litres per hour. But by 1726 it was showing signs of wear, and a new 432mm bore cylinder was purchased in 1727. Lowther came to an agreement with the proprietors of Savery’s patent on 22nd February 1726/7 and paid £350 in full and final settlement of the annual rates. The engine was then upgraded with a larger cylinder — possibly the 584mm diameter one bought as a spare in 1717.
Lowther was evidently pleased with his acquisition, and commented in 1727/8, "We have been very successful from first to last in the timing of things about the Fire Engine, which I should hardly have ventured upon if I had not mett with such a very honest good man as Mr. Newcomen who I believe would not wrong anybody to gain ever so much".
Another Newcomen engine was set up nearby in 1734-6, with a 965mm bore cylinder. Both Stone Pit engines worked until 1769 and at least one operated to around 1780.
In 1729, the 110m deep Saltom Pit was sunk, closer to the shore with the workings extending under the sea. It needed a pumping engine, and in 1731-2 a Newcomen engine was erected. Originally intended to have a 432mm bore steam barrel, it was equipped with a 902mm diameter brass cylinder 2.74m long, and cost £1,146 in total.
This engine was replaced in 1737 by another, with a 1.07m diameter iron cylinder. Its pump had a bore of 216mm and it cost £1,201 19s (£1,201.95). A similar engine, again with a 1.07m bore cylinder, was added in 1739-40 and it worked in tandem with the 1737 engine.
In 1782, a single larger engine replaced the pair, but whether it was a Newcomen or a Watt type engine is not known. The roofless walls of Saltom Pit’s engine house (pictured) are still visible on the coast south of Whitehaven.
Research: ECPK
"The Steam Engine of Thomas Newcomen" by L.T.C. Rolt and J.S. Allen, Landmark Publishing, Ashbourne, second revised edition 1997
"'Engines Moved by Fire and Water' The Contribution of Fellows of the Royal Society to the Development of Steam Power, 1675-1733" by Alan Smith, in Transactions of the Newcomen Society, London, 8th April 1992, revised 1994
"Coal and Tobacco: The Lowthers and the Economic Development of West Cumberland 1660-1760" by J.V. Beckett, Cambridge University Press, 1981
"The 1715 and other Newcomen Engines at Whitehaven, Cumberland"
by J.S. Allen, in Transactions of the Newcomen Society, London, 1972
reference sources   BDCE1

Newcomen Engines at Whitehaven, site of