Next Saturday 30th April 2016 – 7.00 pm I am giving a presentation at the Par Old Cornwall Society, and as that date approaches this blog will continue to wander around the key events in the life of the subject of the talk, William West, the last Great Cornish Engineer.
Whilst the public’s eye was focused on the magnificent Austen’s engine in 1835, and its controversial headlining performance, there was a smaller West engine making its quiet debut across the border in Devon.
This small horizontal cylinder engine was installed above big loop the river Tamar makes as it sweeps around the site of South Hooe Mine. Its was destined to undertake a mundane, but crucial task, capstaning.
Pumping shafts were crammed with heavy equipment and fittings. This equipment needed maintenance, it needed extending, it needed repairing, and that is where capstan was required. Timber, pumps, pump rods and balance bobs all needed to be lowered and raised in the shaft. It was an important task required to sink the shafts and keep the pumps running.
Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection. Click here
Before West introduced his engine at South Hooe, these capstans were manual powered winches, resembling the anchor capstans of sailing ships. Men would gather around the capstan, pushing on large capstan bars to wind the rope in our out. All these men were miners and other workers taken off other work. Every minute spent pushing on a capstan bar was a minute not spent breaking down the ore, it was hated non-productive time.
West’s concept was simple; install a small horizontal engine near the shaft, attach to to gearing to allow slow control, and use the steam supply from the nearby pumping engine. A simple, obvious use of the steam engine in a new role. Simple maybe, but he was the first to use it. The innovation was liked by the miners, and liked by the shareholder, so unsurprisingly was widely adopted throughout Devon and Cornwall.
The steam capstan’s role in the Cornish mining industry is overshadowed by the history of the large pumping engines. Likewise the remains of these small engines are often overlooked, their cylinder beds laying forgotten besides the massive pumping engine houses. But they are there to be discovered, descendants of that small West’s engine that clattered into life on the banks of the Tamar in 1835.