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Power Shift

Historical Profiles: NarrowBoat, Autumn 2016

Mike Clarke

Mike Clarke looks at the early internal combustion engines used on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal and the progression from steam power in the 1880s to gas and diesel engines in the early 1900s.

William Robinson was typical of steamers and on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal

Steam power was well established on canals by the 1880s and was only challenged when the internal combustion engine became reliable enough for use in commercial boats at the start of the 20th century.

In the 1900s, gas engine technology was more advanced than petrol, paraffin or diesel. In 1904 engineer John Edward Thornycroft presented a paper on the subject to the Institution of Naval Architects. He followed this up the following year by installing a gas engine in the former steam narrowboat Duchess at his Chiswick works, using gas from an onboard producer plant that burned anthracite.

Early gas trials

On 3rd January 1906, the boat, fitted with a two-cylinder 35hp gas engine, left Brentford loaded and towing two ordinary canal boats. It gave demonstrations at Birmingham and then Manchester, returning to Chiswick via Oxford at the end of February. The boat used a reversing propeller, which was damaged by rubbish, and a gearbox was suggested as an improvement. Because of the size of the engine and gas plant, there was a small gain in cargo space over steam power. The gas plant and engine also created little smell, a significant consideration as it was believed that oil installations could damage cargoes by their odour. Five tons 1cwt of anthracite was used.

A newscutting showing Thornycroft's boat, annotated by William Wilkinson, the designer and builder of steam engines used on the L&LC. “Now then the problem is solved at last, only they don’t know what they have undertaken.”

Thornycroft’s boat as illustrated in an April 1906 issue of Engineering magazine.

However, the first trial of a gasengined canal boat seems to have taken place four months earlier. On 10th August 1905 the Manchester Courier reported that the previous day a 60-ton barge, converted by Colonel R. Wilson Thom, had undertaken a trial trip from Barton to Monton. The conversion was carried out by L. Gardner & Son, supervised by Walter W. Wiswall, the Manchester Ship Canal’s engineer at Runcorn. Colonel Thom’s system required gas to be compressed and stored in high pressure cylinders, and it was considered that enough cylinders could be fitted in a boat to produce 20hp for 12 hours, taking a boat towing an additional two boats some 50 miles at 2.5mph. Among those at the demonstration were Wigan accountant John King; F. Morton of Fellows, Morton & Clayton; general manager of the Rochdale Canal C.R. Dykes, and possibly R.H. White, engineer for the Leeds & Liverpool Canal (L&LC). The Manchester Guardian reported that the equipment only took up 6½ft of the boat’s cargospace. Gas was supplied at 200psi, though this could be raised to 600psi, and was stored in 12 tubes, 15ft long by 10in diameter.

Gardner gas engine

Trials on the Rochdale Canal were undertaken in October 1905, when Humber was fitted with a gas engine by Gardners, working with Colonel Thom. The boat could carry 35 tons and towed a second boat loaded with 50 tons, the engine producing around 12hp. The propeller was incorrect for the engine speed; presumably they used the original steamer one.

A note from the L&LC “re: Canal Barge fitted with Suction Gas Engine”, stated: “With ref to your letter of the 7th inst. I am afraid you are undergoing a similar experience to ours in connection with the Diesel engine we tried in one of our ordinary wooden hulls as built for steam – but had to be taken out on a/c of theextreme vibration due to the 12 inch stroke of the engine and the dia. of the fly wheels reduced in order to drive direct on to the propeller shaft. We now find that engines suitable for our class of light barge should not have a stroke of more than 8 inches.”

Colonel Thom was in discussion with the L&LC about the use of gas engines from January 1906. It was agreed that he could erect gas supply stations on the canal’s off side, pay the L&LC 10% of any profit from the gas, and sell it to them at a fixed rate. Boats were to be lent to Colonel Thom and Gardners, but no further expense was allowed. Colonel Thom’s company was the Wilson Thom Canal Power Syndicate.

A letter of 14th March 1906 suggested having gas production stations, where cylinders would be charged and changed, between Burscough and Liverpool and between Chorley and Adlington, allowing boats to work between Accrington and Liverpool or Manchester. By 5th April 1906, the suggested size of the cylinders was 30in diameter and 6ft 9in overall, holding 1,000ft3 of gas at 500psi, or 1,200ft3 at 600lbs. It was thought that the best propeller would be 1ft 11in diameter, so it could work at the higher speed of an internal combustion engine and in shallow water. However, nothing further seems to have happened.

First diesel trial

Prior to this, in December 1903, it was proposed to install a diesel oil engine in a boat; the cost was expected to be £400, exclusive of oil tank and propeller. In the event, a diesel engine, built by Sulzer in Winterthur, Switzerland, was installed in a new steamer hull, 35, built at Wigan. The engine was a conventional twin-cylinder four-stroke rated at 30bhp, though it produced more. The reversing clutch was made by the Consolidated Engineering Co Ltd of Slough, and the propeller was cast iron, 3ft 3in diameter and 4ft 6in pitch (the same as the steamers). The clutch was designed to allow slip in case the engine could not run at low speed, but it was found to work effectively between 60rpm and 270rpm, so it was replaced by a more suitable one.

The engine’s first test was on 31st August 1905, with 35 towing 215 and 213, the boats loaded with 28.5, 38 and 40 tons respectively. They covered 20 miles from Bootle, with fuel consumption being logged for 14 miles at half a gallon per mile at 3.28 mph. It is possible that the clutch was altered after this test, as further trials were not undertaken until 9th July1906, after the boat had been at work for some time. This time the trial was from Burnley to Nelson, with 35, 235 and 239 loaded with 7, 37 and 21 tons, respectively, and then from Nelson to Burnley, with 35 and 239 loaded with 7 and 21 tons. It was noted that even with this light load and the propeller fully immersed, there was considerable thrashing of the water. The company had hoped to make a deep water test in Liverpool Docks, but was prevented from doing so because of the Dock Board's concern about the risk of fire.

The time taken to stop using reverse, some 58 seconds, was compared to that for a steamer. As the diesel installation was not really designed for reversing, it took 12 seconds longer, though it was thought this could be rectified by improved reversing gear. Exhaust fumes were also considered, it being noted that the steamers’ fuel had changed from coke to anthracite because of the pollution in tunnels, and that a diesel engine only produced around one-eighth of what a steamer did. The whole diesel installation was similar in weight to that of a steam engine, though with advances in design, the weight was expected to halve. However, the main drawback was vibration, the engine being designed for land use, rather than marine, and for this reason it was removed from the boat and transferred to Finsley Gate maintenance yard where it then drove a saw mill.

Gardener diesel engine

Although Sulzer offered a new marinetype engine, on 20th June 1906 L&LC agreed to take up Gardners’ offer of atwo-cylinder engine for trial, at a cost of £290. It was also agreed that if the unit proved unsatisfactory Gardners would remove it for no charge. After installation, 35 entered service on 10th October 1906, with the Gardner engine operating at 400rpm and generating 27hp. This was found insufficient, so the engine was returned to the manufacturer in January 1907 for alteration – the speed being raised to 500rpm, geared down to 225rpm, and the revised unit generating 34hp. The boat was back at work on 18th April, with additional exhaust cooling and improved lubrication. The following day the engine was tested towing two boats to Burnley, the loads being 30, 45 and 40 tons, resulting in a speed of 3mph and a fuel consumption of 1.5 gallons per mile.

For the first six trips, a man from Gardners accompanied the boat, and on inspection afterwards the improvements to the lubrication were found to have worked well. Comparison with a steamer showed that fuel and lubrication cost 5.26d per mile for the diesel, compared to 3.11d for the steamer, though it was noted that the diesel boat had a higher carrying capacity. The tests were considered successful, though John Ross, in charge of the steamers on the canal, was worried about increased costs for maintenance: “The repairs from the increase in the number of parts will be heavier and I am doubtful if our class of men will make a success of the adoption of this type of engine.”

The engine was thought suitable and was purchased in June 1907, its running costs being very similar to the steamers, “…which for hard and constant work, coupled with simplicity are bad to beat”. However, the canal minutes for 1st April 1909 reported that the oil motor boat 35 was laid up after the engine broke down in Gannow Tunnel, and it was taken out of service and a steam unit installed instead.

Independent carriers’ tests

A 1904 plan and section of the engine installation.

The 1903 installation plan for a diesel unit, annotated with details for Thom’s proposals.

The Sulzer diesel engine after transfer to Finsley Gate Yard, where it drove a saw mill.

As the L&LC gave up carrying in 1921, it was left to the bye-traders to take up the challenge. The Clayton Carrying Co of Morley, near Leeds, fitted a 13hp Kelvin to its boat Ina in 1921. It had been a square sterned boat but was converted to a rounded stern when motorised. The same year, the Universal Sliding Propeller Co of Brighouse fitted one of its products to a boat working on the L&L, powered by a 20hp Brit engine, manufactured in Chard, with further installations on Calder & Hebble Navigation boats. Ben C. Walls converted his horse-boat Theta to diesel power by installing a single cylinder Widdop in 1921, and Alpha followed in 1924.

Lancashire Canal Transport began looking at diesel power in February 1924 as it would make working in the docks easier, though it was a year before the idea was actually taken up. Commander Dean, one of the directors, requested the dimensions, speed etc, of boats on the canal, suggesting to company secretary, L.B.Hawsthorne, “Having regard to the antiquated shipyards on the canal, I doubt you will get this information from any of the people who build or repair our barges; but I have no doubt that you will be able to ascertain these particulars from Davidson of the Canal Company.” Some work on Walls’ boats may have been done by J&J Crook of Riley Green, as they provided Hawsthorne with a blueprint of a Widdop Invincible engine installation in one of its boats.

By July 1925, Morgan & Co of London had been asked to look into using an internal combustion engine by LCT Ltd, and J.D. Morgan visited Blackburn and Hodson’s boatyard at Whitebirk. The boatyard owner Jack Hodson suggested installing the engine forward of the cabin bulkhead and extending this by 3ft to cover the engine. He also advised using an iron rudder, rather than a wooden one, both suggestions being approved. By September, plans were far enough advanced for Hawsthorne to contact Mr Graham, the local canal boat inspector, regarding any possible problems with registration of a converted boat, who responded positively. The last letter in the surviving LCT Ltd correspondence is from Jack Hodson on 20th October 1925 regarding the cost of iron work. No boat seems to have been converted, and the firm continued to rely upon its three steamers for towage.

It was left up to Ben C. Walls to develop diesel-powered boats on the canal. As mentioned, he converted Theta in 1921, Alpha in 1924, followed by Psi in 1927 and Kappa in 1929. The last may have been the first new build, rather than a conversion of a horse-boat, though Hunt & Page had Orb built in the same year. John Banks & Sons, a ship’s block manufacturer from Liverpool, approached Lancashire Canal Transport in 1929 suggesting the company use the Elto outboard motor, for which it was an agent, though it was hardly suitable for commercial vessels, despite its advertising. Gardners also quoted for the supply of a 3T4 diesel in 1928, contacting LCT Ltd again in 1930 to offer one of its new L-type fourcylinder high-speed engines.

Conversion begins in earnest

Engine and drive developed by the Universal Sliding Propeller Co of Brighouse, where the propeller could be raised or lowered to suit the load being carried.

Theta moored outside Ramsey’s Dockyard at Shipley where the Widdop was installed.

Kappa of 1929 was the first short boat to be built specifically as a motor boat.

After Canal Transport Ltd was set up in 1930, with Ben Walls in charge of the boats, conversion of horse-boats to diesel power was more widely introduced, with steamers sold off, often to coal carriers, where several survived into the 1950s. The diesel engines were always Widdops, built in Keighley, and they remained the main engine used on L&LC boats until after World War II when Listers and other engines began to be used. In 1936, the National Gas & Oil Engine Company did offer engines, as supplied to the GUC, but this came to nothing, with Widdop diesels and the Wilkinsondesigned steam engines remaining the mainstay of mechanical power on the canal until the 1950s.

Widdop Invicta engine as fitted to Theta.

A 1925 blueprint showing how a horse-boat would be converted to a motor boat, as designed by Morgan & Co. Note the transverse motor driving the propeller through a worm drive located in front of the existing stern cabin.

The stern of Denise, formerly Pluto. Built as a motor boat in 1939, the hull design was very similar to that of the horse-boats which were converted to motor boats.