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Newsletter 126 Autumn 2019   © Hampshire Mills Group



Drainage Engines of Spalding, May 2019



Eleanor Yates
Photos by Ruth Andrews


HMG’s study tour of Lincolnshire included a visit to Pinchbeck Drainage Engine and Land Drainage Museum near Spalding.  A lovely site with birds and other wildlife.

The drainage of Lincolnshire Fens and Marshes is divided into sections, with each area having its own system of engines and cuts.  We were glad to read that the section that was flooded in 2019 was not the one that we visited.

Although we knew about the Dutch engineers working in East Anglia in the 17th century we discovered that the Romans built a bank round what is now Lincolnshire to keep the sea off the land.  Later the land was given to monks and each monastic foundation had its own abbey and associated buildings built on the highest ground in the area.  In 852 the Land Book of Peterborough Abbey records work being done on the Old Fen Dyke.  Later we read of donations of marshland given to new abbeys, dykes and drainage ditches being cut and salt-pans being created in the salt marshes.  In 1297 the whole of Holland in Lincolnshire was flooded.  Maintenance was also interrupted by the Black Death, the Wars of the Roses, and the dissolution of the monasteries.  Not until the end of Elizabeth I's reign was the General Drainage Act passed in parliament and Dutch engineers started to widen rivers and build new dykes and windmills to pump water off the land.



The Pinchbeck Engine is a restored beam engine, built in 1833 by the Butterley Company of Ripley, Derbyshire, an impressive reminder of the time when man relied on the power of steam to drain the land.


It is a 20hp A-frame low pressure condensing beam engine with a single cylinder of 35in (89cm) bore and 56in (1.42m) stroke.  The flywheel is an impressive 18ft 6in (5.64m) in diameter.  The engine ran at up to 30rpm.  Each year the Pinchbeck Pumping Engine lifted an average of 3 million tons of water from the land.  The engine is gear-coupled to a single scoop wheel in an adjacent compartment.  There are 40 paddles around the circumference of the 22ft (6.71m) scoop wheel, which could lift a maximum of 7500 gallons (34,000 litres) of water per minute through an 8ft (2.44m) lift.  The engine is said to be the earliest A-frame engine still in situ, the longest-working beam engine in the Fens, and the last in use.

The boiler dates from 1895 and is a twin furnace Lancashire boiler, delivering steam at 12psi.  It consumed around 1cwt of coal per hour.  Coal supplies were originally brought by barge, but after the land was successfully drained a railway line was laid from Spalding to Boston, and coal was delivered to a nearby goods facility.  It was then transported on a very short narrow gauge railway line in colliery-style tubs.  The motive power for this appears to have been human.  One of the tubs and a metre or so of line is displayed at the museum.  The chimney has been demolished.  The museum includes the original blacksmith's forge.


As drainage technology progressed steam-powered drainage engines were replaced with diesel engines, and then with electric pumps.  However, diesel engines were never introduced at Pinchbeck..  The engine has survived in such fantastic condition because the new electric pumps installed in 1952 were located in a new building.


Following our visit to Pinchbeck we were given a special, and unexpected, visit to Pode Hole Pumping Station which is active, and therefore not generally open to the public.

This pumping station was installed because the cill at Vernatt's Sluice, where the drain discharges into the River Welland above Spalding, was higher than the cill of the precursor sluices at Pode Hole.  The fen drains could not naturally discharge into Vernatt's Drain. The two engines at Pode Hole were the first of the large scale pumping efforts, and an encouragement to later schemes.

By 1815 it is believed that there were some 50 wind-powered pumps assisting with land drainage in the fen, and in 1820 the need for steam power to assist with the pumping at the Pode Hole site was identified.  John Rennie was consulted in 1818, and he proposed diverting the upper reaches of Vernatt's Drain from the Welland to the River Witham to improve the fall.  It is unclear if this would have worked, but the funds were not available and a later proposal for steam engines at Pode Hole was interrupted by his death.  In the end an engineer called Benjamin Bevan appointed by the drainage commissioners placed orders for two beam engines from separate engineers, Fenton and Murray of Leeds, and Butterley of Ripley.  The first was 60hp, the second 80hp.  Butterley supplied both scoop wheels.  The engines started work early in 1825, and continued in use until 1925.

A third steam engine was erected on the north bank of Vernatt's drain to lift water from Pinchbeck South Fen.  This operated between the early 1830s and the end of the century.  The water from the South Drain was tunnelled under Vernatt's drain to the Pode Hole station.  (The idea of a tunnel under a river is not unique.  Not far away at Bourne South Fen Gilbert Heathcote's tunnel was built under the River Glen, and might have been the inspiration for the system at Pode Hole.)

The beam engines were maintained in storage until 1952, but then scrapped.  Diesel engines were already in use across the fens when Pode Hole was modernised in 1925.  The current Ruston diesel engines date from 1964 and vertical axis axial flow Foster Gwynnes pumps are driven by David Brown gearboxes.  The second station alongside uses electric pumps and was built in the 1960s.  There is much more detail about the pumping engines at Pode Hole on the internet.


The original pumping station building is a major feature in the village, and is still in use for workshops and a small museum.  The by-laws of the original commissioners are prominently posted on the outside.

The day of our visit we narrowly missed the excitement of a very tall cherry picker being used to check the aerial as all site workers need reliable two way radios for contact when working in dykes and cuts.




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