A Lincolnshire family is united by a passion for a vintage steamroller, which looms large as it slowly moves across the landscape
In the flat countryside around Coningsby in Lincolnshire, a steamroller makes its ponderous way along a straight, quiet road. The gentle rumble of iron wheels on the road surface contrasts with the birdsong that fills the air.
It is many years since this 91-year-old machine rolled any hot tarmacadam. Today, its gleaming brass work is testament toits current role as the passion of the Hurley family. They proudly display the steamroller at fairs, revelling in its sheer presence and mechanical beauty.
Keeping this 14-ton engine in working order is an all-consuming hobby for the whole family. Today, husband and wife David and Jo, their 18-year-old son Will, 22-year-old daughter Becky, and Becky’s boyfriend, Nick Bosworth, are crowded onto the footplate. All are enthusiastic about their steamroller, spending hours keeping it going and looking good.
David’s love of steam started at the age of eight, when his parents were selling plants at a steam fair. He persuaded his mother to go in for the traction engine steering competition for beginners. She did, and asked if David could have a ride on the engine too. It was only a few short yards, but he was hooked.
He met Jo at a steam fair where her parents were exhibiting vintage tractors. They married 26 years ago and, with their children, remain passionate about steam engines. Every member of the family, together with Nick, spend virtually all their spare time running the steamroller or working on it.
“The attraction comes from the fact that steam engines seem somehow alive,” says Jo. “There is something elemental about making a vast machine move simply using fire and water.”
Both Jo and David are members of the National Traction Engine Trust. Jo is the trust’s secretary, while Will and Becky are steam apprentices, the name for junior members of the trust. They all enjoy the social element.
“The steam community is our bigger family,” says Jo. “All the members of the trust enjoy each other’s company and help each other out.”
The Hurleys started out by crewing other people’s engines, before they were left a half share in their current roller. This was in recognition of the time David had spent on the engine over many years. Nine years ago, they were able to buy the other share and are now the sole owners of the Marshall, Sons & Co of Gainsborough-built steamroller. They take it to steam fairs across the country, including the Great Dorset Steam Fair, 240 miles from their home. Once there, they join other steam engines of all kinds, taking part in parades.
Until 1960, their steamroller was one of three used by Leicester County Council’s Highways Department for rolling out newly-surfaced roads. Abandoned in favour of diesel, the three rollers were saved from the scrapyard by enthusiasts
who bought them.
David and Jo’s engine has basically never been altered, but a lot of hard work goes into keeping it in perfect running order. “People see the engine looking magnificent at shows,” says David. “What they don’t see is me lying under the engine doing work with ash from the ash pan falling on my face.”
It is not just David who does the hard work of maintenance and repairs. Sometimes this involves no more than providing a little care and attention. On other occasions, there is major work to be carried out. In the near future they expect to install a new firebox, which will involve heavy engineering work and welding. Jo is equally competent and does her fair share of the hard work. They have learned their skills over the years, originally by helping out other owners. Becky and Will also get involved, unsurpringly given their upbringing. “Both have been around steam since birth,” David says.
“It is not buying an engine that costs the money,” he explains. “A similar engine to this sold recently for less than £10,000. It is the cost of keeping it going. And that, as far as we are concerned, means doing everything ourselves.”
It is difficult to calculate the running costs, which depend on many factors, including any repairs needed. The most important cost is the £200 annual boiler test. This involves applying pressure to the boiler to ensure it is safe. If it fails this, the roller is not allowed to move until it is fixed.
As well as this, there is the cost of up to 25 bags of coal a year. Fortunately most rallies provide coal for the engines.
The roller has a maximum legal speed of 5mph, but, in practice, on a long run it averages no more than 3mph. The water tank holds just over 100 gallons, which will last for approximately seven miles. An extra 45 gallons can be taken along in a trailer. The longest journey the Hurleys have made was approximately 30 miles. It took 10 hours, and at the end all were exhausted. “We didn’t get down, we fell off,” says David.
Shovelling coal and steering a heavy machine takes a lot of physical effort. On top of this, the long journey is spent standing up. The family will drive under their own steam on the Lincolnshire roads to local events. However, if the distance is further than an hour’s drive, the steamroller goes on their 38-year-old low loader. This is kept with the engine at their home near Coningsby.
Attuned to the engine
When they are going to take the roller out, Jo gets up at 6.30am to light the fire. This is done in the same way as lighting a fire at home. The system has to be allowed to warm up slowly, taking approximately 2½ hours to reach working pressure. “For me, this is the best part of the day,” says Jo.
“I love being alone with the engine. It speaks to me as it gradually warms up.”
“You have to be able to listen to the engine and understand its language,” says David. Just as a pan of water on a stove or a kettle make different noises as they are heated up, so too does a steam engine. The difference is that, in the engine, a new set of sounds are heard as the pressure mounts.
Preparations are at their most intensive at the start of the season. At this time, everything has to be tested to make sure it is all in good working order. Before any outing, there are many hours of work to do. The brasses have to be polished, especially the proud emblem that goes on the front of the engine. All the moving parts need to be oiled, the tank filled with water and the bunker on the footplate filled with coal. The two old oil lamps are brought from storage and fixed in place.
Running a steamroller is an expensive and time-consuming hobby, so enthusiasm and passion are needed in huge quantities. More than anything else, the Hurley family are aware they are preserving a precious heritage. Recently, they took part in what was an emotional reunion. At a rally at Quorn, all three former Leicester County Council engines were together for the first time in 50 years.
“It put a lump in the throat,” says David. “It just goes to show these old engines are making history, even now.” Thanks to the enthusiasm of families like the Hurleys, they will continue to do so well into the future.
How te steam roller works
A steamroller works in a similar way to a railway locomotive. At the back of the engine is the footplate for the crew and the firebox with its coal fire. In front of that is the barrel. This is the boiler, containing 28 tubes, 2in (5cm) in diameter. These run from the firebox down to the smoke box below the chimney at the far end of the vehicle.
The hot gases from the fire pass down the tubes to heat the water in the boiler. They act in the same way as the elements heat an electric kettle. The pressure inside the boiler steadily builds up. Eventually, it reaches a level where it has enough power to make the engine work. For the Hurleys’ steamroller, the normal working pressure is 130lbs per square inch.
In comparison, a 10st (63.5kg) woman standing on both feet exerts approximately one tenth of that pressure on the ground.
Once working pressure is reached, the steam is released to push the piston inside the single cylinder on the engine. Valves ensure that steam alternates between one side of the piston and the other, driving it backwards and forwards. The piston connects to a crank that turns the wheels to drive the engine.
The driver of the steamroller shovels the coal and manages all the controls. There are two main ones, the regulator and the reversing lever. The regulator governs the amount of steam passing from the boiler to the engine. As well as being either fully forward or back, the reversing lever can be placed in intermediate positions. This adjusts the time during the piston stroke that steam is admitted into the cylinder before being cut off. It makes for more economic running.
The driver is in charge and must have an appropriate G driving licence for road rollers. David is the driver in the family, although Jo plans to apply for a licence eventually. She does drive, but at the moment can only do so on the road accompanied by David.
Jo can, however, steer the 19ft-long roller, a separate job to driving it, and no easy task. The massive iron front roller is connected to chains wrapped round a cylinder. This in turn is connected to the steering wheel. The engine has a tendency to wander to one side of the road or the other, depending on the camber. Jo has to constantly adjust the steering.
Each time she wants the steamroller to change direction, she has to take in the slack on the chain at that side. She does this by turning the steering wheel four or five times. To make a full turn takes 40 turns.
While the engine is running, Jo is constantly turning the wheel, first one way, then the other. There is a real skill to this. “You don’t get an instant response from the roller because you have to take up the slack on the chain,” she explains. Getting that just right takes a lot of practice.
Words: Anthony Burton Photography: Rob Scott