Steam Rollers in Britain

Fowler Compound cylinder

Content Tools

'Own', 11 Avenue Road, Chelmsford, Essex, England, CM2 9TY

This is the nameplate installed on a Fowler road roller, registration number IA 6195, engine number 15965. The roller, owned by Tarmac Roadstone of Poole, Dorsetshire, England, is a compound cylinder eight ton engine built in 1923. The photo was taken by Pat Freeman at the Great Dorset Steam Fair in September 1989. For Freeman's story on British road rollers.

Fowler, registration number SR 9484, engine number 19546. Compound cylinder, 10 ton, built in 1932, owned by Trevor Ellis of Chelmsford, Essex.

'The area was in an uproar. Shopkeepers closed their stores, children ran crying to their mothers, horses bolted and dogs barked themselves into a frenzy. The world's first steam roller had made its appearance.' ' Those were the headlines of a Kent County newspaper in the year 1865. However, they were in correct, as the world's first steam roller had been demonstrated in 1860 in France, built by Monsieur Louis Lemoine; the first British built roller appeared in 1863. This latter was the result of a joint design by Mr. William Clark, Chief Municipal Engineer of Calcutta, India and Mr. Batho of Birmingham, England.

The roller referred to in the newspaper was an experimental machine made by Aveling & Porter Ltd. of Rochester, Kent; they became the most successful manufacturer of road rollers in Britain, eventually producing a total output of about 20,000 rollers of both steam and internal propulsion engines.

In 1866, Aveling & Porter took one of their standard 12 NHP traction engines and to it fitted rear wheels 7 feet in diameter and 3 feet wide and also fitted larger wheels to the front, to which attached a chain and pinion type steering controlled by a ship's wheel. It weighed 20 tons overall and provided a ground pressure of three tons per square foot. This roller was worked extensively in Hyde Park, London.

Aveling & Porter, registration #TA 2657, engine #7024. Single cylinder, 6 ton built in 1910. Owned by Mr. and Mrs. Hood of Fording bridge, Hampshire, it has a water carrier in tow, and a living van can also be seen.

In 1867, they produced what may be called the first true road roller. Again, it was basically a 12 NHP traction engine with a cylinder diameter of 11 inches and a stroke of 14 inches. This time the driving wheels, 7 feet in diameter and 2 feet wide, were at the front. A 5 foot diameter, 2 section rear roll adequately covered the 4 foot 9 inch space between the front rolls and it was controlled by a ship's hand wheel mounted amidships, operating a chain to the rear rolls by a worm and worm gear. The whole roller weighed an enormous 30 tons but could still be turned round in about its own length. Proving trials in Hyde Park preceded delivery to the City of Liverpool and there the borough surveyor reported that it performed very well indeed. Machines of a similar design, though not so heavy, were made and exported to India, France and the United States of America. The two shipped to the U.S.A. in 1868/69 are reputed to be the first rollers ever to be operated there. The chief engineer of New York was quoted as saying about one of the rollers, 'in one day's rolling at a cost of 10 dollars, as much work was accomplished as in two days' rolling with a 7 ton roller drawn by eight horses at a cost of 20 dollars a day.

Fowler, registration number TK 6488, engine number 19049. Single cylinder, 8 ton, built in 1931. Photo taken at a Road Rolling Association road-making demonstration in 1988 by Bernard Bertram.

In 1870, Aveling & Porter introduced a new design incorporating improvements covered by various of their patents. Perhaps the most important was to use 'Hornplates' which were extensions of the fire box side plates. These gave rigid support to the motion work, so overcoming the problem where steam leakage was caused by operational stresses distorting the holes through which brackets holding the motion work were bolted. Also the machine took the form as we know it now with steer able split rolls at the front. These were, however, conical as it was thought that this would aid compaction on a cambered surface. In 1880 the now conventional cylindrical rolls superceded them. Aveling & Porter was one of two manufacturers who, at the Royal Agricultural Show of 1881, introduced a machine with a compound cylinder where steam exhausted from the main high pressure cylinder was passed into a secondary, larger cylinder to be reused. This was one of the most far reaching developments in the history of steam power, as it enabled steam pressure to be used more efficiently thereby making the engine more economical to run. It also made the operation of the roller very much quieter and smoother and the position of the crank when starting the engine ceased to matter.

Although the basic design concepts of road rollers may have originated from Aveling & Porter (later to become Aveling & Barford Ltd.), there were many other manufacturers in the field from an early date, each of whom contributed improvements and refinements. Such manufacturers included Wallis & Steevens Ltd. of Basingstoke, Richard Garrett & Sons Ltd. of Leiston, John Fowler & Company of Leeds, Marshall Sons & Company Ltd. of Gainsborough, Charles Burrell & Sons Ltd. of Thetford, Thomas Green & Sons Ltd. of Leeds, and Clayton & Shuttleworth Ltd. of Lincoln.

A particular design worthy of mention was the Wallis & Steevens 'Advance' roller which was designed to cope with finer and lighter road materials such as asphalt and bitumen. On these hot materials the conventional roller left depressions as it stopped for a while whilst changing from forward to reverse and vice versa, so quick reversing was a necessity. The Advance roller, having a double cylinder compound engine, could be reversed almost instantaneously and it also had smaller and wider rear wheels, which were independent of each other and therefore adapted to the road camber a lot better than the standard roller. It also had very positive steering operated through bevel worm and rack gearing working directly onto the front rolls.

Somewhat earlier, Aveling & Porter had also introduced a roller to deal with the same problem when working with asphalt and for this they used a tandem machine having a full width roll both at the front and rear. A tandem principle was not new, having been used in 1863 on French rollers and also by Andrew Lindelhof in 1873 when he produced the first roller to be built in the U.S.A.

One of the earliest design concepts was the 'convertible' which enabled the change from a traction engine to a roller or vice versa by having sets of wheels and rollers which were interchangeable. The reason for the convertible was, and I quote from Patent Specification No. 3463 dated 1888 by Sylvanus Eddington and John Evan Steevenson (of Chelmsford, Essex), 'to enable a traction engine to be readily adapted for use as a road roller so that during the winter season when the services of a traction engine are not required for agricultural purposes, the engine may be temporarily utilized for road mending instead of standing idle'. With the coming of the internal combustion engine it was not long before this source of power was incorporated into the road roller and such a roller, the Barford & Perkins 'Pioneer', made its first appearance in 1905. The power source was a Simms 8 HP 1,200 RPM single cylinder petrol engine with low tension ignition and it was water cooled by thermo-syphon action. In 1917 the same firm built a couple of experimental crude oil rollers but soon discarded them in favor of their petrol and paraffin engined models. In 1923, after many trials, Aveling & Porter manufactured a roller using a single cylinder, horizontal solid injection engine built by Blackstone of Stamford which ran on crude or residual oils. Initially these engines were started by the hot bulb method which required the use of a blow lamp and manual turning of the flywheel. In 1925, this starting process was superceded by using compressed air, with the air pump being self-contained within the engine.

In effect the diesel roller had arrived in Britain.

In the latter half of the 19th century, the responsibility for the upkeep of the roads was vested in local authorities and they were not slow to appreciate the advantages that the steam roller could bring to their own road maintenance requirements. However, there were a lot of these authorities spread throughout the country and many of them were quite small and could not afford to buy their own roller. They therefore used the services of specialist road roller contractors who could cover a wide area embracing several local authorities. It was a common sight to see a steam roller towing its own living van from site to site. This van was the temporary home for the driver, and sometimes for his wife and family, whilst working on various contracts away from his base.

Steam rollers were being built in reasonable numbers right through until the 1930's, when their manufacture declined, but some were still being made in the 1950's. They were, however, being used commercially for many years after that and today there are about 1,000 in preservation, generally in working condition, in Britain. This is due to the dedicated efforts of individual collectors, to specialist clubs and to industrial museums. From about April through September each year, numerous rallies, or shows, take place at venues all around the country. These attract not only the steam enthusiasts, but also interested members of the general public and their families. These rallies, which started in 1951, may range from the small village fete at which there may only be one or two engines, to a show such as the Great Dorset Steam Fair where over 150 engines of all types are displayed, attracting at least 125,000 visitors. There are some specialist rallies where perhaps only steam plough engines are on show, but the majority consist of a wide ranging selection of vehicles such as rollers, traction and showman's engines, steam wagons and portable and stationary engines as well as ancillary equipment such as threshing drums, stone crushers, tar pots and living vans.

Aveling & Porter, registration number KR 477, engine number 14000. Single cylinder, 8 ton, built in 1930. Owned by Vic. Wheele of Shoreham, Sussex; driven by Norman Flexman.

Marshall tandem roller, registration number VE 5715 , engine number 87125. Compound with piston valves, 10 ton, built in 1933. Owned by Andy Melrose of Clevedon, Avon. Note direct steering on front roll.

The individual collector takes great pride in his engine and devotes many hours keeping it in first class running order. A typical British collector is Trevor Ellis, a college chief technician who lives in Chelmsford in the county of Essex. Trevor had for many years been interested in steam engines and initially devoted his spare time to making models, culminating about nine years ago in the completion of a pair of Fowler ploughing engines made to one-third full size. A year or two later he decided he would like a full-size engine and the sale of the Fowler models gave him the finances to buy a steam roller. After much searching he purchased a 10-ton compound cylinder Fowler serial number 9484, manufactured in 1931, which for many years had worked for the Angus County Council in Arbroath, Scotland. The roller needed a lot of restoration work and Trevor stripped it all down and completely rebuilt it, including making a new chimney with a cast brass top and cutting out the rusty tender floor and welding in a new one. He made a new flywheel brake and many more minor items. His final job was to give it a gleaming new coat of paint. From that time on, during the rally season, he has driven it many hundreds of miles to various shows in the counties of Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk.

During the winter it is 'laid up' in a friend's yard and various maintenance jobs are carried out, the last of which was to fit a new covering to the canopy.

There are many industrial museums throughout the length and breadth of Great Britain which, besides displaying old countryside tools and implements, also have steam engines either on static display or, perhaps at set times, in steam. One of the most picturesque is the Amberly Chalk Pits Museum situated in the county of Sussex quite close to the town of Arundel. Here a magnificent castle, owned by the Duke of Norfolk, dominates the town and surrounding countryside; for an overseas visitor interested in steam vehicles it is an area which should not be missed. As its name indicates, the museum occupies the site of what was a very active chalk pit which was worked from 1840 until the 1960's. In 1979, the museum was established to reflect the industrial heritage of the south of England and the existing buildings, after being repaired and extended, house the various exhibits which now go to make a fascinating and informative display. There are, amongst many other things, blacksmiths, bag-menders and cobbler's shops, a brickyard drying shed, a pottery, a timber yard, a printing works and a wireless and communications exhibition. This latter features a display of wireless equipment tracing its history from the spark-emitting transmitters and crystal receivers of the first World War through to the transistor age of the 1960's. The museum has also a collection of industrial narrow gauge locomotives and has its own railway line on which visitors can enjoy a train ride in the old unsprung quarrymen's coaches!

Marshall, registration number PX 2690, engine number 79669. Single cylinder piston valves, 8 ton, built in 1925. Owned by the Amberley Chalk Pits Museum.

For the steam enthusiast there is a lot to be seen ranging from stationary and portable engines through to traction engines, steam rollers and all their associated equipment.

The stationary engine display traces the development from early horizontal open-crank designs to the vertical enclosed varieties of later years.

Many of the items are shown working and one of the highlights for the children is to have a ride in an open trailer towed by a steam roller, which could be either a Marshall, an Aveling & Porter or an Aveling & Barford. The 8-ton Aveling & Porter serial number 14000, built in 1929, was the prototype for the manufacturer's last major design, the Type AD machine.

A contrast in design is the 1946 Aveling & Barford 6 ton roller, serial number AG758, which was one of the very last steam rollers to be built by them. The Marshall, an 8 ton roller, serial number 79669, built in 1925, was owned from new by the local West Sussex County Council and was worked by them into the 1970's making it the last steam roller in regular use by a local authority. Its living van, made by John Alien & Company of Oxford, is also on display. A Marshall portable, serial number 86161, is to be seen belt coupled to a rack saw bench which was made in January 1852. Another Marshall is a steam traction engine, serial number 46276, a 7 NHP machine built in 1906 which in the past was used for road haulage work.

The internal combustion engine is well represented in the museum with a variety of rollers and a full range of commercial vehicles and omnibuses. Another industrial museum, but based on a completely different layout from the Amberly Chalk Pits Museum, is to be found at Leiston in the county of Suffolk. It is on the site of a forge which was owned by Richard Garrett over 200 years ago. Initially implements such as sickles, hoes and knives were made there but the business gradually expanded and early in the nineteenth century threshing drums (separators) were being built. The first Garrett portable steam engine appeared in 1848 and in 1858 they made a self-propelled version by means of a pitch chain which transmitted power from a sprocket mounted on the crankshaft to a larger sprocket bolted to one of the rear wheels. Thereafter, in due course, traction engines and steam rollers were manufactured there, as well as a variety of other products such as steam wagons, omnibuses, trains, etc.

The museum consists of a complex of buildings of which the focal point is the 'Long Shop'. This was built in 1852-53 immediately after Richard Garrett III had returned from a fact finding tour in America. It is thought to be one of the first flow line assembly halls in the world and in it engines, portables, tractions and rollers were assembled to completion on production line principles. Engines were constructed in the centre aisle, moving along on their wheels as assemblies and machined parts were fed in from the benches and machines on either side and from wide galleries above. Two gantry cranes ran on rails the length of the building, lifting and lowering the heavy sections.

Amongst the many exhibits is a road haulage tractor, serial number 32944, built by Garrett in 1916; an Aveling & Porter 12 ton steam roller, serial number 8796, built in 1917; and a diesel roller type DY, built in 1936 by Aveling & Barford.

This latter roller is fitted with a Blackstone single cylinder four stroke engine. Both Aveling & Blackstone were associated with Garrett, as at the first World War they were three of the companies that formed a group called The Agricultural and General Engineers Ltd. Also on display is a Garrett thresher (separator), a portable engine and a stationary 255 BHP engine as well as many other artifacts, including examples of the hundreds of thousands of shells produced there during both world wars. Close by the Long Shop is the Restoration Workshop. At present, work is progressing in repairing and refurbishing a Garrett 10 ton steam roller which was recovered in derelict condition from Spain to where it was exported in 1923.

An organization specifically for those interested in the preservation of road rollers, powered either by steam or the internal combustion engine, is the Road Rollers Association of Great Britain. It has a wide membership, not only in Britain but overseas as well. To become a member you do not need to be a roller owner; it is open to everyone who has an interest in these memorable machines. The annual subscription is $14.00 and all members receive, post free, our journal 'Rolling' four times a year. This is packed full of interesting articles and photographs of rollers and associated equipment as well as reports on shows, museums and the like. Should you wish to join, please send your subscription to: Membership Secretary R.R.A., Mrs. Alison Arrowsmith, 7 Worcester Close, Lichfield, Staffordshire. WS13 7SP, England.

If you would like to know more about the Association or wish to inquire on any aspect of the roller scene in Great Britain, please write to me.