Cholera was a dark shadow over Victorian British cities. Its cause was not grasped fully until after John Snow’s famous piece of cartography. A cause that demanded the twin solutions of providing clean fresh water, and removing the sewage that contaminated it. William West, by accident, would play his part in removing the deadly disease from our streets. This post is the story of that accident.
It was in December 1838 that the former East Cornwall Silver mine engine made her first strokes in London. This was an important event as it marked the first time a Cornish engine had been seen working in London. Boulton and Watt’s engines dominated the grand halls of the water work companies, and now this machine from the mines of Cornwall was to attempt to break into their domain.
The East Cornwall Mine Engine house
It had not been an easy journey to get to this day. The East London Waterworks engineer, the young and gifted Thomas Wicksteed, had worked long and hard to convince his board that the high pressure Cornish Engine concept was the way forward. He had learnt much about the Cornish Engines from his friend John Taylor, and gathered the evidence needed to sway his board by touring Cornwall visiting the mines, many of which had West’s engines. So on that winter’s day much was at stake.
The impressive hall of the Old Ford engine house was packed with the Company Directors and their grand friends to witness their new purchase glide into life. They stood in great expectation of that massive beam starting its first graceful strokes as it pumped their fresh Lea River water from the cistern up to a stand pipe, and from their out to their many customers. Under the watching eyes of William West and the foundry Nicholas Harvey, the engine driver started his mesmerising dance with his hands of manually operating the valves to bring life to the engine.
But as the engine gathered speed and the gallons of water stated to flow through the pipes it started to go wrong, horribly wrong. The engine started to shudder, the whole engine house started to shake, and soon, with top hats flying, the grand directors and their guests fled the building. Whist the guests stood outside relieved to have escaped with their lives, West and Holman remained inside in a desperate attempt to save their engine and reputations.
With great speed West’s men set to work with urgent modifications. Soon the guests were ushered in to the now near silent hall to see their new engine effortlessly working away. As they out headed towards their sumptuous celebratory dinner, none appeared to have noticed that new engine was just a sham. Not a single gallon of water was being moved.
West and Holman had recognised that it the pump, not the engine, that was fault. Despite of the advanced technology of the engine the pump was reliant on old fashioned, simple clack valves. Down a bottom of a mine they worked well, but here so close to the engine, and with so much water being moved they could not cope. On every closure they sent shock waves throughout the system threatening to destroy the engine and all around it. Their solution was simple, disconnect the valves and the vibrations stopped. But so did the pumping of water.
As the guests ate and drank, West and Harvey worked desperately to find an answer to the problem. Harvey rushed back to his foundry in Hayle with their hastily produced drawings, and by March their new invention was successfully running in Old Ford. It was an invention that did not stop their, soon it was installed in waterworks and canals all over Britain. West’s engines now became sought after far from his original market of Cornish Mining. That day in December, the day that almost ruined his engineering reputation, brought both him and Harvey great wealth. It would also play its part in eradicating the feared cholera epidemics by giving the rapidly expanding cities the pumping power they demanded to bring fresh water to everyone.
Their invention was simple, and not really a new invention. It went under the title of a ‘ double beat self acting valve’. ‘Double beat’ refers to it having two faces, and ‘self acting’ to the lack of valve gear. The trick of its operation lay within its shape, a shape which balanced the pressures on opening and closing.
Like many technical advances this was a result of evolution rather than revolution. West had taken the concept of double beat steam valves developed by earlier Cornish Engineers and made it larger, and self acting.
The steam engine went on to play another important role in engineering history. Now a Cornish engine was working in London, easy to visit by the great minds of the scientific establishment. No longer could the impressive performance being claimed by Cornish engines be dismissed as exaggeration, or that they broke the laws of nature. West’s engine became a showcase for Wicksteed to prove to those outside of the Cornish dominated metal mining industry that the high pressure single cylinder non- condensing engine ( the Cornish engine) was superior to Watt’s.
The old Ford engine would play one last part in the Cholera story, and that was a dark and fatal one. Whilst all those engines pumped their clean healthy water to the urban populations, their impact on Cholera cases was in most cases incidental, because the link between cholera and waterborne infection had not been widely accepted. That link was finally, fatally confirmed in 1866. In that year, Cholera’s final onslaught came through water provided by the East London waterworks, from water in their Old Ford Reservoir, which was fed by the River Lea, which an infected water closet in nearby Bromley on Bow drained its waste. Although many died from the outbreak, the lesson was finally learnt, and no longer would British graveyards become overloaded with bodies of the disease’s victims.
The Last Great Cornish Engineer (paperback)