Britannia Steam Engine Is a World Traveler

1911 Marshall Britannia steam engine settles in U.S. after jaunts to Chile, England and Ireland

Britannia Portable Steam Traction Engine

The Marshall, Sons & Co. Britannia portable steam traction engine may be the only one of its type left in the world.

Photo by Nikki Rajala

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A 1911 Marshall Britannia portable steam traction engine owned by brothers Shane and Patrick Skelton has covered a lot of ground in the past century: It’s traveled approximately 20,000 miles and is still going strong.

Rated at 16 nominal horsepower (nhp), the Britannia steam engine was built by William Marshall, Sons & Co., Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, U.K. (Marshall later built Field Marshall tractors and Bristol F2B biplane fighters.) Now owned by brothers Shane and Patrick Skelton, Burnsville, Minn., the Britannia steam engine is the star of an impressive collection. The Skeltons own 12 steam traction engines, including a 1913 Case 75 hp and a Nichols & Shepard 20-70 dating to about 1909. “But my first love is English-built traction engines,” Shane admits. “I’m constantly looking to expand the collection. I spent a couple of years trying to track down steam engines in central Africa, in the Congo, which was quite interesting.”

A family influence

The brothers learned about steam engines from their father, Patrick Sr. (“Paddy”). “My father’s interest in steam began in his youth, when steam was the only motive power available in any quantity on Irish roads and rail,” Shane notes. Later, in the 1940s, Paddy developed an interest in vintage motorcycles and old cars. “A long-time friend of his who collected motorcycles and cars visited my father at our home in Dublin, Ireland, in 1965 and asked if he was interested in buying a traction engine,” Shane remembers. “When my father answered, ‘I am indeed,’ it was the beginning of a lifetime of collecting all things steam.”

The two men bought a 1919 No. 4 compound haulage engine manufactured by Richard Garrett & Sons, Suffolk, England. In the ensuing years, Paddy purchased several engines in quick succession, as they were still plentiful in rural Ireland then. “I think my father was aware of the need to preserve a part of Ireland’s heritage that was disappearing under the gas torch at a great clip,” Shane says.

Shane’s uncle worked as a contractor, traveling from farm to farm with his steam traction engine and thresher, harvesting wheat, barley and oats. Between that and Paddy’s growing collection, Shane and Patrick grew up in close proximity to steam engines. “They were in the backyard of our house in a Dublin suburb. I think the neighbors thought my dad was a crackpot, which was probably quite true,” Shane says with a laugh.

With that early exposure to the intricacies of steam power, the boys played with traction engines the way other youths might start and drive a farm tractor. “English agricultural steam engines have a standard winch drum and rope on the rear axle which can turn independently of the wheels,” Shane explains. “It could be used to extricate the engine from sticky positions or pull trees into position. When we were kids — 10, 11 and 12 — we’d steam up the engines and do all kinds of crazy stuff. It was fun for us to be asked by neighboring farmers to pull down trees or sheds or buildings using the winch.”

Back around the Cape

Shane found the Britannia steam engine through a combination of luck and computer savvy. While surfing the Internet in 2001, he saw an advertisement for a Britannia steam engine. He responded by email, but the message was returned as undeliverable. Looking closer at the address, Shane realized it contained an error. He resent the message using what he guessed was the correct address and hit the target. “Details came back shortly, telling me the engine was in South America,” he says. “I did the deal right there over the phone.”

Having seen only a photo of the engine showing it surrounded by weeds and brush, Shane had the Britannia shipped from Santiago, Chile, to Nottingham, England. “Shortly afterward we took a trip to England to see this very small portable and handy engine that could be pulled by a team of oxen or horses,” he says. “I knew big, awkward portable engines are anything but portable and are difficult to move around, so I was happy to have this nice small engine.”

But not everything was as it appeared in the photo: The engine was huge. “We were aghast to see that it was maybe four times as big as it appeared in the photographs,” he says. “All I could think was that they must have big weeds down in South America. Moving it would present some interesting challenges.”

Restoration in England

Late in 2001, Shane shipped the engine to Galway City on Ireland’s west coast and from there to the family farm nearby. Soon after, the Great Dorset Steam Fair, sponsored by the Beamish Museum in England, invited the Skeltons to display the Britannia at the steam fair. Fair organizers sweetened the deal by offering to pay all shipping costs associated with the display — so back it went to England. While the engine was in England, Shane decided to have it restored there.

The Britannia steam engine had been used continuously from 1911 through 1998 inside a Chilean sawmill where it drove the saw and powered wood-processing machinery like planers and chippers.

When the engine was retired in 1998, it was abandoned to the elements. Rainwater entered the chimney and rusted out the smokebox, so the restoration included a new smokebox, smokebox door, new tubes and fire bars. “The boiler had been fired on wood and soft water used for feed water, so there was almost no deterioration on the boiler plate,” Shane says. “I had boiler experts take a look at it in England, and it passed with flying colors. I was very, very fortunate to get it in the condition it’s in.”

Across the pond

For the next few years, Shane and Patrick made occasional visits to England to display engines. “We took them to shows around southern England, driving our 1921 Marshall 3-speed Road Locomotive on the main roads while pulling a camper,” Shane recalls. “At the end of the day, we’d park the engine and camper in a friendly farmer’s field or a lay-by beside the road to retire for the evening after the boiler was filled, the fire banked and the wicks drawn — only to arise the following morn at the crack of dawn to do it all over again. What fun! But one day I decided to bring the machines over to us in Minnesota.”

The Britannia and Road Locomotive were loaded into a 40-foot shipping container that was trucked to Southampton, England, where it was loaded on a ship bound for Nova Scotia. There, the container was loaded onto a flatbed railcar bound for an international freight terminal in Chicago and from there to St. Paul. For the final leg of their journey, the relics traveled by truck.

Simple but elegant design

Shane is drawn to the Britannia’s design. “It’s very, very simple,” he says. “You put water in, light the fire, oil it up and sit down in a little armchair with your feet up on the wheel. It’s just a nice, simple engine and it turns over ever-so-slowly. It’s one of my favorites. You don’t have to break a sweat with it, unlike the Road Locomotive, for example, where you are constantly on the go. With that one, it’s hard work.

“Marshall, Sons & Co. came up with this terrific idea and patented it as the Britannia boiler,” he says. “It’s a cylindrical firebox, essentially a barrel within a barrel for their Britannia engines. They did away with the traditional crown and the stays that would typically be needed. It’s a simple design, but sturdy.”

The Britannia is unique in several ways. “It’s a duplex cylinder machine and several experts have said it’s probably the only one of its type,” Shane says. “I don’t know of any others. It’s unusual too because there wasn’t a lot of interest in the engine when it was on the market in 2001.” At least, not the kind of interest that transcends a flawed email address.

Another unusual aspect of the Britannia is the way the engine transfers heat. After the fire has been lit for an hour and a half, the bottom of the boiler remains cold to the touch. But halfway up the boiler, at a temperature exceeding 200 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s too hot to touch. “It has to do with the circulation of the water,” Shane explains. “As soon as the boiling point is reached, the heat suddenly races to the bottom of the boiler within seconds.”

The engine runs on almost zero pounds of steam per square inch. “The cylinders are so large (a couple hundred square inches total) that at literally zero pounds per square inch registering on the gauge, it will turn over,” Shane says. “It is deathly silent, and all you can hear is ‘click click click’ from the automatic oiler and the soft but rapid exhaust.”

The machine is oiled automatically with a Manzel automatic oiler; all other bearing surfaces use worsted wick oilers. “It’s a very effective oiling system,” Shane notes.

Built for the long haul

Shane says people in the U.S. are interested in English engines. “When we arrived on the scene with this English stuff, I suppose there was a lot of curiosity and awe, especially in respect to how heavy the English engine designs are,” he says. “The philosophy is that they are built to last forever, rather than wear out and be replaced like many American engines, which are built a little lighter.”

The Britannia, for instance, has 3/4-inch thick boilerplate and an outer wrapper of 1-inch thick horn plate (an extension of the firebox end of the side of the boiler, used to carry the bearings of the crankshaft. Previously, crank bearings had been bolted to the boiler barrel, so that stress on the connection is negated with the horn plate extension.). “It’s overkill really, designed not to break, because English engines were shipped to all four quarters of the world: Africa, New Zealand, Australia, South America and a few to Canada and the U.S.,” Shane explains. “If you broke a crank you couldn’t go to Sears, Roebuck & Co. and order a new one, so the engines were designed to be robust and take all manner of abuse from unskilled drivers.”

Maintenance on the Britannia is a full-time job. Each winter the engine is washed out and completely drained. “Come springtime, we’ll pull the engine out, clean it, replace all the wicking in the oilers, take out the bearings and take them up to keep it running nice and smooth,” Shane says. “It’s a constant and ongoing job to keep the machine somewhat clean-looking, with polishing brass and so on.”

Somewhere along the line, the Britannia appears to have suffered an accident. Originally, two identical flywheels were fitted at either end of a 5-inch-diameter crankshaft. On close examination, the brothers discovered a replacement flywheel had been made in Santiago. The right-crank plummer block showed an old repair and the water pump’s eccentric drive had obviously been straightened at some point. “We’re not sure what happened,” Shane admits, “but evidence points to a mishap at some time in the engine’s past.”

Bridging the generation gap

Today, a new crop of Skeltons clambers over vintage steam engines. Shane’s son and daughter, Christian, 9, and Emily, 6, are very interested in engines, the Britannia in particular. “Any chance that Christian has to come and spend some time with the machines, he does,” Shane says. “All he wants to do is burn himself, putting wood in and so on. From now on I’ll start teaching him how it’s done. But he’ll take any chance to drive the Road Locomotive or open the regulator on the Britannia.”

The Britannia steam engine was also Shane’s mother’s favorite engine. “It was parked in front of her bedroom window,” he says. “I think she became quite fond of this now very well-traveled engine. The Britannia is just filled with great memories.” FC 

For more information: Shane Skelton, 13647 Oakwood Curve, Burnsville, MN 55337; email: roadloco@usfamily.net  

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; email: bvossler@juno.com