Lean’ s Reporter, John Taylor and some layers of history

Navsbooks>John Taylor> Layers of history

History is never simple….the story of John Taylor’s involvement  in the ‘Cornish Duty Race’ is an example of the truth of this statement. I will resist the onion skin comparison, instead I will resort to the pile of stones image; lift up a stone of historical fact only to discover another one beneath. Keep lifting, keep digging and more facinating stories emerge. Here’s the first stone.


Steam engine development was accelerated by the duty race in Cornwall.
A simple statement is based on the fact that Cornish engineer’s competed to produce the most efficient engine.  It was the combination of the use of ‘duty’ as a unit of measurement and the public arena of Lean’s engine reporters that drove this desire to compete.

Duty was a measurement of performance against fuel used, its units were a strange mix:Pounds of water  lifted one foot by burning one bushel of coal. Lean’s Reporters were a regular produced publication produced by the Lean family that contained tables of mine engine performance.

In their heyday their was much publicity to be gained from being at the top of Lean’s table, and even more from breaking new records of performance. Taylor played a major part in this duty race;  a race that lifted Cornish engineering from stagnation to world prominence. Here are some significant stages in the battle.

1811 The reporter is started by Joel Lean, and the battle to be top of the tables commences.
The highest duty recorded was 22.3m at Wheal Alfred

1815 Woolf’s compound engine at Wheal Vor is the first engine to achieve 50m.

1827 Grose’s 80″ at Wheal Towan is recorded at 67m.

1827 Taylor’s 90″ was moved from Wheal Alfred to Consol’s, and renamed Woolf’s, where it returned a duty of 67m, a trial is demanded, one is run.

1828 Grose achieved 87m with his Towan engine, trial is demanded, a trial is run.

1832 Eustace’s 80″ at Wheal Darlington achieves 91m. Many of the other top slots in the table is filled with Hocking and Loam engines built for John Taylor.

1835 West’s Austen’s engine s recorded at 90m, a trial is demanded.

1835 in October William West’s Austen’s engine achieves 125m on a 24 hour trial, a record never broken.

1840 Hocking and Loam’s 85″ engine at Taylor’s United mine achieves 107m, the largest figure recorded in Lean’s

1850s onwards-duties decline the battle is over.

1905 last surviving issue is published.

Who won the duty race? This depends on interpretation, Taylor’s Hocking and Loam 85″ was the head of the table for sustainable duty, Austen’s William West’s engine for short term working. History remembers both.

Time to overturn the next stone.-


The Reporter’s were not Lean’s, and Duty was not Duty.

The two foundations of this race are shakey, Duty is far from scientifically sound as a measurement, and the Lean’s did not create the Reporter that bears their name.

Duty had a fundamental flaw, bushels was a far from certain measurement. Its size could vary, and many reports did not define the bushel in use. Even when defined, accurate measurement would be a challenge in many circumstances, let alone the discrepancies introduced by wet coal.

In addition to this flaw their existed many over opportunities for difference between records. Detailed specifications of recording methods, and assumptions made, were not readily available, resulting in a lack of transparency on the derivation of the results. The basics were straight forward, measure the coal, record the stroke length and use a counter to keep tally of the number strokes made. But outside of this existed many variables that could change the final figure.

Even worse was the opportunity for fraud, engine men could perform all sorts of tricks to tweak the duty upwards, such as deliberately short stroking their engines.

These flaws became aired in public disputes, arguments and accusations that eroded the faith in the Reporter’s accuracy. When John Taylor’s engineer, Arthur Woolf, moved his 90″ from Wheal Alfred to Consolidated is increase in duty aroused suspicion. When Hocking and Loam’s engines at Consols did not degrade in performance in time, that aroused suspicions. When West Achieved 125 m that triggered heated arguments. When West withdrew all his engines from Lean’s after being accused of mis-reporting his whim engines’ performance, that definitely dented the confidence in the system.

Whatever the flaws inherent in the derivation of the figures, the concept of Duty created an spectacular improvement in steam engine technology.

Likewise the history of the Reporters is not as simple as their title appears. Although Joel Lean published the first one in 1811, it was Captain William Davey and Captain John Davey who instigated the concept. Joel was chosen to arrange the compiling of the publication, and to put his name to the brand.

On its own,  this fact is not overly significant to the story, but turn over another stone and it becomes murkier.


The vested interests.

I must thank Bridget Howard for shining a light under this stone, her book is an excellent read, and the Trevithick Society sell it.

Behind the Leans was hidden the Davey’s, but behind their involvement was another influence, Arthur Woolf, John Taylor’s engineer. Bridget Howard suggests that Woolf set up the reporter to promote his own engines, using Leans as a cover for hidden propaganda. After Joel Lean dies the corruption gets worse, with Woolf exerting pressure on his sons to distort the figures. Eventually the dishonesty causes a split between the two brothers, with John accusing his brother of being intimidated by :

” The menaces of self made men.”

John to formed his own reporter in 1827, and none of its mines had Woolf as an engineer.

So throughout his period as engineer for John Taylor Woolf was distorting the system that was supposed to be scientifically driving steam engine development. John’s Lean’s revelations left John Taylor in a precarious position. His reputation for honest openness was at threat, to many it appeared that he had colluded in a Woolf’s underhanded activities.

Is response was a campaign of justifying the accuracy of the reporting system, and proving the efficiency of Cornish engines. It was a campaign that resulted in many papers and talks. Its culmination was a book called ‘Historical statement of the Improvements made in the Duty performed by the steam engines in Cornwall.’ This book was published by the Lean’s, but it was Taylor’s concept, Taylor’s money was behind it, and Taylor arranged for the society to endorse it.


And so the stones of history have overturned, there is much more  to explore. But for now this blog has to move on again, after this wander around John Taylor’s life it will return back for a new look at William Wwp-1460413814023.pngest.

Click here for a Kindle edition of one of John Taylor’s papers.


2 thoughts on “Lean’ s Reporter, John Taylor and some layers of history

  1. Pingback: John Taylor, Mining genius- An index of posts | navsbooks

  2. Pingback: Austen’s Engine Trail | navsbooks

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s