Isaac Watt Boulton

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The following comes from Alfred Rosling Bennett's introduction to The Chronicles of Boulton's Siding. The founder of the engineering business at Ashton-under-Lyne, with which the alteration, hiring and vending of second-hand locomotives and the far-famed "Boulton's Siding" became identified in the eyes of railway men and users of railway engines, was Isaac Watt Boulton, who was born at Stockport in 1823. He was the son of Mr. John Boulton, a native of Glossop, and a relative of Mr. Matthew Boulton, who had taken up and financed the celebrated James Watt at a critical point of his career and had afterwards become the senior partner of the world-renowned Boulton and Watt, of Soho Foundry, Birmingham. Mr. I.W. Boulton was always proud of this connection, to which he owed his second baptismal name and which he endeavoured to perpetuate in the family record by passing on the distinguished cognomen to his fourth son, Mr. James Watt Boulton, to whose affectionate remembrance of his father and good offices in furnishing and collating information this present volume is primarily due.

Mr. John Boulton, who had been brought up as a millwright, removed to Ashton in 1830, having obtained the management of the Flash Hall Mills there. His stay was brief, however, as in 1833 he was appointed to a more important post at Middleton. In 1835 he came again to Ashton as partner in Peter Platt & Co. In 1839 he took over the Egret Mills, but this enterprise ended in disaster and the loss of all his savings. In this dilemma Mr. John showed himself a man of initiative and energy. On the opening of the Sheffield, Ashton and Manchester Railway in 1841 it soon became evident that a considerable traffic must spring up between Ashton and Guide Bridge in connection with the new route and Mr.John succeeded in raising sufficient capital to put a number of horse-drawn passenger boats on the canal between those places, and this time his enterprise was rewarded with success. The packet- boats, as they were called, "went' and soon became prize ones. Later on Mr. John established a similar Service on the Peak Forest Canal between Dog Lane Station, Dukinfield, on the S.A. & M.R. and Marple and Macclesfield, a distance of some twenty miles, for which undertaking he purchased six or seven of the disused passenger boats of the Glasgow and Paisley Canal, then recently turned into a railway. These boats, which were 75ft. long and 6ft. 6in. beam, carried one hundred passengers and travelled at eight to ten miles an hour, made several trips a day. ... In connection with this traffic Mr. John erected the Queen's Hotel at Marple and laid out .forty acres of pleasure grounds. In the meantime young Isaac Watt had been to school, first at Ashton and then at Macclesfield, and had not failed to make good use of his time and opportunities. When the S.A. & M.R. was opened he was eighteen years of age and almost immediately began an apprenticeship at that Company's newly-erected works at Newton Station, near Hyde, under Mr. Richard Peacock, the locomotive superintendent he was the first apprentice of that noted gentleman who, later on, became a member of the celebrated firm of Beyer, Peacock & Co. This early connection bore good fruit in after life. Relations between the Boulton Works and Beyer, Peacock & Co. always remained cordial, and if Mr. Boulton wanted anything in a hurry, such as an injector or a pair of wheels, Beyer, Peacock & Co. invariably did what they could to oblige. This faculty of making friends never failed Mr. I. W. Boulton through life. He was on the best of terms with the officials of both the L. & N.W.R. and M.S. & L.R., and many were the obligations he was under to them for permission to run trial trips over their rails, try his engines in their shunting yards, the loan of enginemen, etc. And if those Companies happened to want an odd engine for a temporary job it was to Boulton they turned.

The Canal packet service developed and after a time young Isaac was recalled from locomotive work to help his father in the management. This remained his occupation until 1845 when the S.A. & M.R. opened a branch line from Staleybridge to Guide Bridge and knocked the canal traffic at that point on the head. In the same year his father lost one hundred and twenty horses through glanders, which greatly handicapped the rest of the service and finally led to its extinction.

When this happened young Isaac commenced on his own behalf for the first time. He constructed a steam- coach and astonished the Ashton natives one day by running it through their streets and to Manchester and back. In 1849 it plied for passengers between the two towns and met with considerable patronage. The engine of this coach was ultimately utilized for a steam launch.

He next got an order from the North Staffordshire Railway for a steamboat for pleasure trips on Rudyard Lake near Leek. Boulton built it with a locomotive type boiler and non-condensing engine and it made a successful, if somewhat noisy, debut on the lake at Easter, 1850. After some years Boulton re-purchased the steamer and under the name of Princess Royal ran her on the Irwell between Albert Hotel, Manchester, and Pomona Gardens. Later still he took her to the Humber and established a passenger service between Hull and Grimsby. In 1853 she was once more removed, this time to Hollingworth Lake, near Rochdale, where, the lake becoming popular with visitors, he for a time made a profit of £40 per month. Finally the little vessel was sold to a Company formed to exploit the lake as a pleasure resort and it ran there until worn out.

In 1854 Mr. Isaac joined the locomotive department of the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway at Gorton, where he gained varied and valuable experience, learning amongst other things to be a competent engine driver. He remained until well on in 1856, and then started as an engineer on his own account in Portland Street, Ashton, in premises that were destined in after years to expand to many times their original size. Here he built and repaired portable and stationary engines, made lathes and did miscellaneous work for other firms. Amongst his early customers were Ruston, Proctor & Co., Craven Brothers and Robev and Co. He also constructed and engined steam vessels up to 75ft. in length, many such being turned out during the life of his firm, including the first tourist steamers to ply on the river Conway to Trefriw near Snowdon, a service which has never lacked patronage and is still one of the attractions of the Welsh summer season. These boats were sent by road to Manchester, launched on the Irwell and thence navigated to Conway. One of Boulton's old workmen was very proud in after years of being the only known man who had ever gone through the great Woodhead tunnel in a steamboat; he was busy completing the fitting of the engine while the M.S. & L.R. were hauling the craft from Ashton to Sheffield for service on the river Don.

During the whole of Mr. I. W. Boulton's career he took an interest in road steamers and built a good many of them of different designs and sizes. In 1887 he patented an improved wheel for traction engines calculated to give better adhesion with lessened destructive action on the roads. It had a cast-iron rim with two rows of recesses in which were fitted wood blocks backed by thick india-rubber or felt pads. When in motion four of the blocks touched the ground at' the same time, yielding much greater tread than does the ordinary wheel, with comparative noiselessness and lack of vibration. The invention was approved by road surveyors and came into extensive use. It is still to be found on the larger class of traction engine. Boulton created a market for these wheels in France, Germany and Russia as well as at home.

Locomotives engaged his attention at an early date, for in 1858, or certainly in 1859, he bought three 2-2-0 Bury passenger tender engines from someone in Chester and with them commenced the business of hiring out locomotives for temporary jobs, which he afterwards developed to such a remarkable extent. This was not, perhaps, an entirely novel idea in 1858, but it was one that had not been extensively put into practice. Several locomotive builders kept different sizes of small engines in stock ready for delivery, but they were for sale, not hire, and being new were too expensive for a small contractor who might require an engine occasionally, but could not afford to lock up his money in a permanent purchase.

At this early period of his career he seems to have possessed an ancient locomotive which unfortunately cannot be identified to-day fitted with the primitive hand gear. It had a foot lever and two hand levers, all of which had to be worked when starting or reversing, the hand levers bobbing to and fro all the time the engine was in motion. It required knowledge to operate them effectively, as each cylinder had to receive steam in its proper order; and Mr. Boulton on more than one occasion found gentlemen of position in the locomotive world and who were supposed to know everything about locomotives, quite unable to get her to move even with a full head of steam blowing off from the safety valves, an experience he often laughingly referred to in after life.

It was in 1856 that Boulton built his first new locomotive, a tiny machine weighing nearly four tons, for a Grimsby Coking Company. The second, on the same model but somewhat smaller, came in 1860, when, through his friendship with the M.S. & L. R., he was induced to tender for the haulage work in connection with that Company's coke ovens at Great Grimsby and, obtaining the contract in competition with the existing contractor, Mr. T. Wheatley, he designed and constructed a standard gauge engine for the job which he called Little Grimsby. This first engine, at a later stage of her career was described and favourably commented upon by Zerah Colburn. Wheatley, having no further use for Perseverance, the engine he had used, sold it to Boulton, who brought it to Ashton and added it to his staff of helps for hire.

In the early 1860's the bevy was further reinforced by the purchase of 0-4-0 Burys; 2-2-2 Sharp Roberts tender locomotives; 2-4-0 engines attributed to Mr. Dewrance, of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway; the Grand Junction Railway's Shark, etc., and by the building of Rattlesnake. The firm were then well launched in the locomotive hiring line and as a great point was made of meeting customers' requirements as thoroughly and as promptly as possible, contractors and others soon acquired the habit of applying to them for what they wanted before troubling anybody else. There were then many small independent . railway companies possessing only a few engines, which not infrequently required to be supplemented by extra power or replaced during repairs, and these proved good patrons of the Ashton firm. Even considerable companies, like the M.S. & L., Taff Vale and Rhymney, were not above enlisting the firm's help on occasion. In several cases, too, Mr. I. W. Boulton supplied the whole of the motive power of small railways, for instance, the Girvan and Portpatrick, when first opened; the Cheadle and Stockport and the Lincoln and Barnetby.

By 1864 the original Portland Street Works had extended into North Street, but with the increase of locomotive business great inconvenience was experienced owing to the separation from the railway, engines destined for repair or alteration having to be conveyed by one means or another through the streets of Ashton for the distance of a mile. So in 1864 it was arranged with the M.S. & L.R. to construct a siding for Boultons on their Oldham branch, in which the firm could both store and work upon standard gauge engines. This was the celebrated Boulton's Siding, so well known to railway men of the period and afterwards so often referred to by those interested in railway history. A workshop was erected alongside the siding and thenceforth the locomotive business proceeded under easier conditions. The frames and motion of new engines continued to be made at Portland Street and were transferred to the siding for fitting and completion.

When it was necessary to test narrow-gauge machines a track of the required width was laid along North Street outside the works. The Ashton Town Council bore in mind the desirability of fostering local industry and raised no objection, a liberality of attitude somewhat surprising in view of the narrowness of many Corporations.

In 1872 an important extension of the siding works was finished at a cost of nearly £5,000. The new shop was 360ft. long by 45 wide. It was designed by Mr. I. W. Boulton and erected under his personal supervision. When this was in full swing, and it soon proved none too large, the lucky star of the firm may be said to have attained its zenith.

In 1879 a series of misfortunes commenced by the burning down of the pattern shop of the Portland Street works, consisting of three stories full of valuable material. In February, 188o, Mr. I. W. Boulton and the business sustained an irreparable loss in the untimely death of his eldest son, Mr. Thomas Boulton, who, at the early age of thirty-six, died on the mail steamer Kinfauns Castle while on a voyage to the Cape for the benefit of his health. Mr. Thomas had been works manager and his father's chief assistant and right-hand man, and Mr. Boulton never recovered from the effects of this sad event.

The decadence of the firm set in soon afterwards, for the 1880's had not proceeded far when it became evident that the erstwhile prosperous business had fallen on evil times. Permanently depressed by the loss of his first-born, Mr. I. W. Boulton no longer pursued the undertaking with his old energy, keenness and earnestness. A contributory cause was the fact that many new builders of small tank engines had by this time sprung up who were quite willing to hire their machines out for temporary jobs. The former demand for old or re-constructed engines, so brisk in the 1860's, and on which was based a large and profitable part of the Ashton business, had, in the 1880's, seriously fallen off.

Mr. Boulton met this new condition by building new engines himself, but unfortunately these, after 1873, were chiefly of his patent water-tube type. Now, in spite of the acknowledged facts that they were excellent steamers and economical as fuel burners, and although some of them worked long periods without giving trouble, they did not lend themselves easily enough to repair. A faulty flue-tube in an ordinary locomotive can readily be plugged and a convenient opportunity awaited for renewal; but when a cross-water tube cracked or burst, unless it was quite near one of the ends, the engine was done until the big flue had been withdrawn and, after repairs had been effected, restored. To small hirers with elementary appliances this proved more than they were able or willing to face. Several instances occurred of engines being returned to Ashton from distant parts of the country simply to have a defective tube set right; and the same sort of thing. happened with stationary boilers on the cross-tube principle.

Mr. I. W. Boulton was nevertheless unwilling to abandon his patent, trusting that improvements in design or construction would eventually abate the prejudice, as he considered it. This did not happen, however, and the time at last came when Boultons' ancient popularity as locomotive hirers waned and the business fell off.

The story of these water-tube engines, to be told later, is very interesting notwithstanding and the perfection to which their inventor and advocate brought them, in every respect except facile repair, stands out as a remarkable instance of talent and persistence. It tells, probably, of the most extensive and earnest effort in the water-tube for locomotives direction ever made.

The firm had, however, a wide connection for stationary engine work which might have been maintained if energetically pushed; but the chief was apparently unwilling to proceed with the business and by the time the 1890's had arrived there was little of it left. Practically nothing was done in the works after 1894 although the last portions, the original Portland Street shops with their extensions, were not disposed of until 1898.

Mr. I. W. Boulton died in June, 1899, leaving a daughter and four sons, to one of whom, Mr. James Watt Boulton, the writer, as already noted, is indebted for the major part of the information utilized. Mr.. Boulton, senior, was a many-sided man, and took an active interest in numerous subjects outside his profes sion. Thus he was an antiquary of acknowledged standing, and an expert in geology, ballooning and folk-lore. His energy and perseverance in pursuit of an object once resolved upon were remarkable. James Worrall, one of his oldest employees said, after his death: "Anything he set his mind on doing had to be done." On one occasion he traced a stolen canine favourite all the way from Ashton to Paris, and,. although ignorant of the language, triumphantly recovered it there. He enthusiastically supported the Volunteer movement of the 1860's, and was a member of the earliest Ashton corps.

One of his strongest prejudices was against Trade Unions. Although he haa commenced life himself practically as a working mechanic he thoroughly dis believed in Trade Unionism and would never tolerate a member of the craft in his shops. And yet he was a kindly and just man, endowed with such a faculty for attaching workmen to him that many of his staff remained with him during the whole of his career. As may be supposed, he was, in consequencef no favourite with the Unions and many were the annoyances he had to suffer from them. Several are alluded to in the following pages, but the most remarkable outrage and, at the same time, the least excusable although it is but fair to state that Trade Union complicity was never clearly established was in connection with a monument he erected to Mr. Thomas Boulton in the churchyard of St. Peter's, Ashton-under-Lyne. This consisted of a huge glacial boulder, weighing four tons, discovered during some excavations near the borough, which Mr. I. W. Boulton acquired and at the expense of much labour and money, placed on an ashlar pedestal with a suitable inscription to his lost son. Shortly after the novel memorial had been erected, an attempt was made to blow it up with dynamite, fortunately without graver result than an insignificant injury to the base.

Mr. I.W. Boulton sat on the Ashton Town Council for many years and was an alderman and Justice of the Peace. He took an active part in promoting the Manchester Ship Canal and gave evidence in its favour before several Parliamentary Select Committees. He assisted at the cutting of the first sod and brought a piece of it home with him. Probably he was the only person present at that noteworthy ceremony who had also been at the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830.

Lowe gives a list of locomotives constructed by Boulton, including the 0-6-0STs Stamford, Ariadne, Black Knight and Raven which incorporated parts from Sturrock's steam tenders and water-tube boilers. According to Norman Groves Locomotives of the Great Northern Railway Vol. 1 Raven was supplied to Vickers & Cook of Lydney who used it work the Severn & Wye Railway. Black Knight was hired to the MSLR who used it for shunting at Manchester London Road..