Steam Rollers in Britain

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Trevor Ellis's Fowler; Tony Goodwin at rear of engine.
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‘Own’, 11 Avenue Road, Chelmsford, Essex, England, CM2

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

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

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,

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.

Farm Collector Magazine
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Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment