Crofton Beam Engine in 2023

Crofton Beam Engines

Hungerford Historical Association loves a talk on a local subject and members and visitors turned-out in their droves on 26 April to hear Jon Willis talk about the Kennet & Avon Canal and the Crofton Beam Engine.

Jon is a past chairman of the Crofton Trust and spent much of his working life developing the new railway serving London Docklands and as Head of Planning for Crossrail.

The re-run of a film from 1950 about Crofton, with voiceover by John Betjeman, was a great nostalgic start to the evening, after which Jon outlined the history of the building of the Kennet and Avon canal.

Many in the audience will have felt they knew this history but several of its twists will have been new even to them. The debate at the time balancing the benefits of tunnelling versus extra locks and a pumping station was very intriguing. This eventually came-down to money; times don’t change …

Maps always tell their own story and Jon produced a series to illustrate the importance of the east-west canal route for trade in the early 19th century. The benefit that the canals brought were of course short lived with the advent of the railways, particularly notable at Crofton which itself influenced the line of the GWR route to Exeter as it passed close by. The subsequent and inevitable deterioration of the canal was halted with the restoration of the K & A in the late 20th century, finally reopening in 1990.

The idea for a pumping station at Crofton may have won the debate but in the early 19th century, steam power was still being developed. Newcomen’s atmospheric engine had given-way to Watt’s much more efficient machine, and it was a Boulton and Watt engine that was first installed at Crofton in 1807. This was joined by an improved model in 1812, and it is this machine that is still at Crofton, now the oldest operational engine in the world.

The beam engine became the responsibility of British Waterways in 1948 and it gradually deteriorated. In 1968 the Canal Trust bought it for £75 following an abortive attempt to sell it for scrap. An enthusiastic group of apprentices set-about restoring the engine and by 1970 it was in working order.

Jon’s engineering background helped him to explain clearly how a stream engine works and the nature of its component parts. It was evident from his descriptions that keeping it operational is a constant effort for the many volunteers in the Trust. Unsurprisingly, it is not only the engine that needs attention; the buildings are also Grade 1 listed and themselves suffer from water ingress and deterioration.

It is clear that Jon and the team are well in tune with the need for a sound future for Crofton. Simple questions like will coal be available in the future and, if not, what fuel could be used.

At a more complex level, how much longer can the major components of the pump last. To help with this, the Trust has enlisted materials and electronics expertise to develop an understanding of the stresses in the engine when it is working. This has never been done before and uses some of the techniques used in high end technologies such as Formula 1 racing cars and NASA.

The future of the Crofton Beam engine depends on volunteers like Jon Willis to keep it operational. He clearly recognises that this depends on its constant nurture, an understanding future of the canal itself, the need to source acceptable fuel and encouraging interest in younger generations.

Remaining Programme 2023
24 May 2023 ‘Littlecote Roman Villa’, Dr Hugh Pihlens
28 June 2023 AGM & ‘History of Thames valley Police’, Ken Wells
New Season begins 27 September 2023, talks TBA

All talks in the Corn Exchange, Hungerford, 7.30pm. Membership £15 per annum, visitors £5 per talk.



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