Britannia Steam Engine Is a World Traveler

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

| May 2012

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.”