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:
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.
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:
And another view, from people after my own heart.
Walking here now, you could hardly imagine the existence of a coal field…