Most people disembarking at Kew Bridge railway station in west London follow a well-trodden route to the famous Royal Botanic Gardens located a few hundred metres away. But if you shake off the hordes by heading down a nearby side street you can take in a far less populated visitor attraction that is very special in its own right.
The Kew Bridge Steam Museum is housed in a collection of Grade I and II listed buildings and contains what is probably the finest collection of stationary steam pumping engines in the world.
Steam power was the driving force behind the Industrial Revolution and the museum has done an admirable job in pulling together a vast collection of engines comprising a multitude of different designs. But it’s far from being a bunch of static displays: the engines are regularly ‘in-steam’, giving visitors a close-up appreciation of their awesome power.
Cornish beam engines, designed to reduce fuel costs of draining deep mines in the region, are well represented. The oldest variant on display is the Boulton and Watt West Cornish engine, built in 1820. This was the first engine to be restored to working condition at Kew Bridge when the museum project started in the mid-1970s.
An interesting progression of the Cornish beam design on show at Kew is the Easton and Amos engine, which was built in 1863 and was developed for use in small, rural waterworks. The engine differed from larger Cornish beam counterparts in that it had one end of the beam connected to a crank to produce rotary motion. While it made the engine simpler to operate and maintain, the main drawback of this type of engine was that it was relatively expensive to install, requiring more engine parts and heavier foundations.
The Easton and Amos engine came to Kew Bridge from the Cliftonville Pumping Station in Northampton. It is a Woolf compound engine, with the high pressure cylinder closer to the centre of the beam than the low pressure, thus resulting in differing stroke lengths. The engine drove a set of three-throw pumps from an extension to the crankshaft, which originally passed through an outside wall.
Also on display is a Hathorn Davey triple expansion engine, which represented the most common type of pumping engine built for waterworks after about 1900. It is usually considered an intermediary stage in the development between beam engines and modern combustion engines. The cylinders were inverted and placed in a line directly over the crankshaft in much the same way as a modern motor car. The engine on display at Kew was built in Leeds in 1910 and was donated to the museum by the Anglian Water Authority.
One of the most striking things about the engines is the aesthetic beauty of their designs. Although their purpose was purely functional, engineers used every opportunity to embellish their engines with decorative details.
Unfortunately, financial considerations restrict the number of days the museum can steam its engines: it costs £300 per day to run the smaller engines, and £500 per day for the larger beam engines. Kew Bridge receives no funding from government sources – so its survival is dependent on people paying to go through its doors.
- The Kew Bridge Steam Museum is open from 11am-4pm, Tuesday to Sunday.
Admission £9.50. For more information, visit www.kbsm.org