Forncett Steam Museum visit - 15th May


For our May meeting, the History Group visited Forncett Industrial Steam Museum at the kind invitation of its founder, Rowan Francis. In the course of the evening Rowan took us around the museum and used the exhibits to tell us the story of the development of industrial steam from 1698 to 2024. Whilst there are other steam museums in the UK, the Forncett museum is very special in having such a wide range of working steam engines.

Rowan's story of the engines was also the story of his life and love of steam. Rowan began collecting steam engines when he was a young medical student and it was, by chance, the perfect time to start such an endeavour. Steam engines were beginning to be replaced by diesel or electrically-driven machines and in many cases this meant that the steam engines were being given away for free, providing that Rowan could transport them.

We began with the pulsometer pump that was invented in 1698 to pump water from flooded coal mines. The pump in the museum was built in 1880 and came from a London hotel where it was used to pump water out of the basement until the late 1930s. The oldest engine in the collection, the Hick Hargreaves, was built in 1873 in Bolton, Lancashire and spent Its long working life powering a lace factory in Nottingham.

Rowan entertained us with many amusing stories, including the closure of Tower Bridge in 1974 so that he and his friends could remove one of the three steam engines that generated hydraulic power to raise the roadway sections which weigh over 1000 tons! The largest engine in the museum is the Dover Engine. Built in 1937, it pumped water for the Folkestone and District Water Company until 1977. Owing to its size, the engine house had to be built around it! The last engine on our tour was the beautiful Hopwas Beam engine which pumped water at Hopwas Pumping Station near Tamworth from 1879 until 1962. 

Rowan tells one of his many stories
Rowan tells one of his many stories

However, whilst magnificent steam engines like this are no longer in daily use across the UK, Rowan was keen to remind us that steam engines are far from redundant, and that the propulsion of today's nuclear submarines is achieved using highly efficient modern steam turbines. The atomic reactor merely heats water to provide the steam!

Our extremely enjoyable visit was rounded off with a viewing of the Soame Steam Cart. The cart is a unique machine built in 1897 by Samuel George Soame who was an agricultural engineer with a workshop at Marsham in Norfolk. 

The Soame Steam Cart
The Soame Steam Cart

Our new Chairman, Richard Ball, gave the Vote of Thanks to Rowan for a fascinating evening. If you've never visited the Steam Museum do go along to appreciate what a gem we have in the village. Steam Days are the first Sunday of each month (11am to 4pm) until October.

Photos – Phil Whiscombe