The Newcomen Engine of Brislington Engine House

In our long-ago epic quest to wander the path of Brislington brook, we walked past a most wonderful narrow house. A stone carved in the wall calls it the Engine House, dated 1790:

Brislington Brook

I was recounting this — I can’t quite remember why — to the folks on the farm where I was working, and oh the happiness in finding they actually knew much more about it. Along with the sheep and the orchards, they also work on mining reports for Bristol, telling homebuyers just what old shafts and workings and mineral deposits might lie beneath their homes. In their possession was a masters thesis on this precise house, though I am ashamed to say I did not note the author.

Very highly ashamed.

I shall continue nonetheless. The Old Fire Engine House! Not built in 1790 after all, but to house one of the first Newcomen Atmospheric Engines, and almost certainly built before 1741.

From a google search, this drawing gives a good idea of what the engine house once looked like.
From a google search, this drawing gives a good idea of what the engine house once looked like.

He argues this based on a ‘report of a visit by representatives of Chelsea Water Works’ come to Bristol to look at water pumps (they call them fire engines) for Hyde Park. They visited an engine house, almost certainly this engine house in Brislington used to pump water from coal pits, on 29 October 1741. There is an amazing document from the London Metropolitan Archives detailing their mission and findings…they said it was too complicated to make ‘an exact Plan of the Construction and Building of the Engines (a Work of great Time…)’ This particular engine was made by Mr John Wise of Coventry, and they describe its workings as follows:

The Fire heats the Water in a Boiler, which Water makes Steam, the Steam rises into a Cylinder of Cast Iron, that Steam is instantly condensed by letting in of Cold Water, whereby a Vacuum is made, which (according to the known Maxim in Philosophy) Nature abhorring, that End of the Beam which works into the Cylindar with a piston, hastens, by the Pressure of the Atmosphere, to fill up the vacuum and thereby the other End of the Beam raises the Water.


Amazing. It uses an immense amount of coal. Bushels and bushels. It was invented in 1712 by Thomas Newcomen (wikipedia has a lovely animated schematic of the engine here), and James Watt’s more famous steam engine was a refinement and improvement upon its workings.

There are also some wonderful pictures from Bristol, which I did not copy, but some of Thomas Rowbotham’s (1782–1853) drawings of the view of the engine house are online, already stripped of the engine by the late 1820s:

Brislington Engine House - Rowbothamthumbnail-by-url.jsonAnd another view, from people after my own heart.

brislington engine houseWalking here now, you could hardly imagine the existence of a coal field…


5 thoughts on “The Newcomen Engine of Brislington Engine House”

  1. I recently attended a very interesting talk by David Hardwicke of the South Gloucestershire Mines Research Group given to the Brislington Conservation and History Society on the subject of Brislington Collieries and the Engine House. I think he was probably the author of the masters thesis. His research is ongoing and he has now definitively dated the Engine House to 1736 after analysis of roof beams.

  2. Hello Angela. I lived in this house 1974 to 1981. Not many memories of it, but some photos. I’ve been trying to remember back and your articles are a great resource!

  3. We lived there from 1975-82 and spent some time trying to persuade people that thie building was of industrial archielogical importance. At that time our words fell on deaf ears. I am so glad that now it is recognised for what it was and indeed is!
    We have so many memories of the house including the great storm of August 1976 when that summer’s drought broke and the storm drain which houses Brislington Brook, beside the house rose to about six inches from the top. We went out at 4.00am amid the tunder and lightening and watched the water thundering by. Scaffolding was torn down by the torrent and stuck against the large pipe across the Brook. We went to bed and when we got up in the morning, the brook had returned to just about normal, just a couple of inches, and you would almost have thought the night was a dream.

    1. Oh wow, this is amazing! This is making me so glad I write blogs like this, thank you so much for sharing and for all your efforts in bringing attention to its amazing industrial heritage, I am sure that moved things along!

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