Grace's Guide

British Industrial History

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Willans and Robinson

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1884.Three Cylinder Compound Engine.
Willans engine at London Science Museum.
JD Sci Mus Willans 1.jpg
JD Sci Mus Willans 2.jpg
Cardboard model from the series 'Working Models for Engineers', designed by T. Jones and T. G. Jones
1894. Engines and alternator at Bristol Electric Light Station.
1900. 2,400 HP engine shown at Paris Exhibition
February 1901. 2,400 HP engine.
1904. View of the Queensferry works, established to produce boilers under licence from J. and A. Niclausse
1904. Ground plan of the Queensferry Works.
1905. 1000 KW steam turbine.
Engines, generators and crane at Rathmines Power Station.


1907. Willans & Robinson steam turbine driving a Dick, Kerr and Co alternator at Islington Electricity Works[1]
1909. 1100 hp impulse steam turbine.
1909. Electrically driven turbine pump.
1912. Willans and Robinson Drawing Office staff. Caption on reverse states that E. R. Briggs, Chief Draughtsman, is in the centre.
November 1912. Diesel engines.

Willans and Robinson, Ltd., initially of Ferry Works, Thames Ditton; relocated to Victoria Works, Rugby; and (briefly) of Queensferry, near Chester.

1880 The company was founded as a partnership by Peter William Willans and Mark Robinson to manufacture a small high-speed marine steam engine at Thames Ditton, Surrey. However, the business appeared to trade as Willans & Co initially (see January 1881 advert below).

As fitted to upwards of 200 Yachts, Tugs, and Launches, and supplied to the English to the other principal Navies of the World.
These Engines, which are made simple or oompound, condensing or non-condensing, as required, have great advantages in respect of
1. Extreme SIMPLICITY and COMPACTNESS and small number of working parts. There are NO SLIDE VALVES NOR ECCENTRICS, and the only moving parts, besides the crankshaft, are three pistons and three connecting rods.
2. PERFECT SELF-LUBRICATION, the cranks working in a closed oil chamber (which requires replenishing only at long intervals), and splashing the oil over all bearings and moving parts.
3. Great freedom from friction, as proved by public brake trials, in which from 90 to 95 per cent. of the indicated power was given out upon the brake.
4. Durability, from the foregoing causes, and from the fact that ALL BEARINGS ARE IN CONSTANT THRUST in one direction only. Hence the few brasses can NEVER KNOCK and NEVER REQUIRE SETTING UP, but may be left to wear entirely through. The wear, however, is very slight, end the engines have run for years without repair or adjustment.
5. Silence, steadiness, and absence of vibration, enabling the engines to be run habitually at very high speeds, with consequent saving in size and weight.
8. Freedom from dirt, smell, and oil, from the working parts being enclosed (though easily accessible).
7. Great ECONOMY OF STEAM, arising from good valve distribution, from high piston-speed, and from absence of friction. These Engines have never failed to compare favourably with the ordinary engines they have replaced.
8. Power of STOPPING AND REVERSING INSTANTLY by means differing entirely from those employed in all other engines, and far more effective and instantaneous.
9. Power, in the compound form, of changing while rnnning from "simple" to "compound," and vice versa. When going astern the smaller engines always work simple, ensuring great power of stopping in emergencies.
WILLANS and COMPANY are Builders of Steam Yachts and Launches of every type, for Sea and River service in Wood (carvel or diagonal), Iron, or Steel.

1884 A single-acting central valve engine was developed specifically to drive dynamos, which ultimately became famous. Single-acting allowed the engines to be operated at high speed without the problems of bearing knocking associated with double-acting engines (problems which were overcome by Belliss and Morcom's with their pressurised lubrication system).

The London Science Museum have a sectioned compound engine on display (see three photos above). This engine clearly shows the elegance of the design, and also indicates the importance of accurate machining. Referring the the third photo of this series, note the absence of top half bearing 'brasses' for the crankshaft. None were necessary, because the pressure thrust always acted downwards. Note also that the eccentric is attached to the crankpin, flanked by the pair of connecting rods. These rods are connected to the trunk crosshead. Bolted to the top of this is a long sleeve, or rather stack of sleeves, which acts as both the piston rod and as the spool for the central piston valve. The piston valve controls the admission and release of steam to and from the HP and LP cylinders. Despite the small number of moving parts, it is difficult to figure out the sequence of opening and closing of the admission ports by looking at illustrations. Help was available in the form of a series of cardboard 'Working Models for Engineers', designed by T. Jones and T. G. Jones (see illustration).

The Willans engine quickly became popular for electric power generation. The Kensington Court Electric Light Co started operations in early 1887 with a launch-type engine driving a 35kW Crompton dynamo, running at 500 rpm. This marked the beginning of a period in which the Willans engine was the dominant prime mover in central UK power stations.[3]

1888 Supplied three 170 ihp 350 rpm engines for the Whitehall Electric Supply Co, and four for Charing Cross.

1888 became a private limited liability company

1888 Took limited status with £200,000 capital. Described as mechanical and electrical engineers, boilermakers, iron and steel founders, launch and ship builders. [4]

1888 H. Farmer, Thames Ditton was the Secretary. [5]

1889 Six engines for the St James and Pall Mall Electric Lighting Co (two 80 ihp, four 210 ihp).

1893 Reconstituted as a public company.

1894 Supplied equipment to Bristol Electric Light Station with Siemens Brothers. Illustration. [6]

1894 The company was registered on 8 March, to take over the business of engine builders of the private limited company of the same name. [7]

1895 Three engines for electricity generation for the Herrison Mental Hospital, Charminster.

1897 Moved to Willans Works, Rugby to satisfy the need for expansion and better railway facilities.

1900 Engine displayed at Paris Exhibition. Normal rating 2400 HP at 200 rpm, 3000 HP maximum.[8]

c.1900 Supplied two engines driving Mather and Platt dynamos for Rathmines Power Station, Dublin (see photo)[9]

1901 Comprehensive article in the American Machinist describing aspects of production [10]

c.1900 A modern boiler works, the Ferry Works, were built on the banks of the Dee at Queensferry near Chester[11]. This was equipped to produce water tube boilers under licence from J. and A. Niclausse of France. Facilities included plant for producing vanadium steel. Described at some length in 'The Engineer'. See 1904 illustrations [12].

1901-1916 of Victoria Works, Rugby. Annual reports held at Coventry Archives[13]

1902 Engine for electricity generation for Avonbank power station.

1902 Made engines for the Duryea car

By 1902 the company had facilities in Rugby and Queensferry[14]

By 1903 Westminster Electric Supply Corporation had 49 Willans engines in its three stations, with an aggregate capacity of 9330 kW.

1904 Engine for electricity generation for the Herrison Mental Hospital, Charminster.

1904 Started production of high-power diesel engines [15]

1907 Supplied a steam turbine driving a Dick, Kerr and Co alternator to Islington Electricity Works (see illustration)[16]

1907 Supplied a steam turbine driving a Dick, Kerr and Co alternator for a power station in Sydney [17]

1908 After unsuccessful attempts to dispose of the Queensferry Works, it was decided that they should be closed because they did not make enough profit[18]

1911 335 bhp Diesel engine. [19]

1914 Installed several large steam turbines for various municipal corporations; increased orders for diesel engines; licensed the Muller-Jones condensing plant[20]

1916 Part of Dick, Kerr and Co.

1919 They became part of the English Electric Co.

Became the steam turbine department of English Electric.

Licensees for the Salmson engines with Dudbridge Iron Works. These were fitted to the Henry Farman F.27.

1968 English Electric became part of GEC, initially trading as English Electric-AEI.

1990s Became GEC-Alstom. Inevitably capacity at Rugby was reduced in favour of plants in France.

2014 Willans Works, Rugby, continued to undertake land and marine turbine work as part of ALSTOM Power.

Willans Works, Rugby, is now part of GE Power of the USA.

See Also


Sources of Information

  • 'Power from Steam. A History of the Stationary Steam Engine' by Richard L. Hills, Cambridge University Press, 1989/1993
  • 'The Steam Engine in Industry' by George Watkins, in two volumes. Moorland Publishing. 1978. ISBN 0-903485-65-6
  • AA. [3] Image courtesy of Aviation Ancestry
  1. The Engineer 1907/06/07
  2. Field, 1 January 1881
  3. 'Power from Steam. A History of the Stationary Steam Engine' by Richard L. Hills, Cambridge University Press, 1989/1993
  4. The Engineer of 27th January 1888 p69
  5. The Engineer 1888/12/28
  6. The Engineer of 24th August 1894 p169 & p172
  7. The Stock Exchange Year Book 1908
  8. Engineering 27th April 1900
  9. 'The Engineer' 7th Sept 1900
  10. [1] American Machinist, June 6, 1901, pp.613-623
  11. The Times, Sep 17, 1908
  12. [2] The Engineer, 1 July 1904]]
  13. National Archives
  14. The Times, Apr 19, 1902
  15. A-Z of British Stationary Engines by Patrick Knight. Published 1999. ISBN 1 873098 50 2
  16. The Engineer 1907/06/07
  17. The Engineer 1907/06/07, p.583
  18. The Times, Oct 7, 1908
  19. The Engineer of 20th October 1911 p430
  20. The Times, Jan 28, 1914