This article first appeared in Old Glory Magazine
The heritage steam boiler specialist HA McEwen (Boiler Repairs) Ltd is this month celebrating its 50th anniversary. Established in August 1968, the company operates from its base in Cowling, North Yorkshire, and over the decades has undertaken a vast range of projects from new boiler builds to steam boiler repair and restoration projects on all types of vintage shell, locomotive, traction engine and steam launch boilers.
Working with some of the country’s leading heritage organisations, including the National Railway Museum in York, Beamish Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, McEwen’s longevity is in part down to being able to provide traditional boiler-making skills and techniques that are no longer widely practiced.
These traditional skills, such as hot-riveting and specialist plate forming along with the capability to manufacture all types of fireboxes and hot flanged components means that heritage organisations can outsource entire restoration projects.
As it reaches its half century the business is continuing to grow and at McEwen’s base in Cowling, works are nearing completion on a new purpose-built facility. Constructed on a 5000sq ft plot adjacent to the existing workshop, the new facility is a 2500sq ft industrial unit that includes a 20-tonne overhead crane.
Alasdair McEwen, Managing Director, is excited about the move into the new premises: “To be honest, it’s something we’ve needed to do for a long time. The existing workshop is a bit small and means we have to do a lot of moving equipment around when we have several jobs on the go. The new facility will enable the engineers to work on larger projects such as locomotive boiler rebuilds with relative ease.”
While a large part of the company’s work is modern industrial boiler installation, repair and servicing, working on heritage projects offers a different challenge for the team of engineers at McEwen’s.
“Returning vintage equipment to steam is especially rewarding,” explains McEwen. “And working closely with steam enthusiasts and volunteers on historic sites is very different to installing equipment on a modern site. It’s something that me and my team really enjoy.”
Over recent years the company has completed several important “return to steam” restoration projects on vintage boilers situated in historic industrial sites.
Most recently McEwen’s were commissioned to carry out both the initial evaluation and full restoration of one of the three Babcock & Wilcox water tube boilers at Twyford Waterworks in Hampshire.
One of the most complete boiler houses left in existence, the Edwardian pumping station received Heritage Lottery Funding in 2014 for the full restoration and operation of the 1906 boiler and associated steam plant. The project also included a complete refurbishment of the main buildings, the cosmetic restoration of the 1903 boiler, and the utilisation of the 1916 boiler as a backdrop to a new visitor ‘discovery zone’, that will enable visitors to explore and discover how Twyford Waterworks has operated since Edwardian times.
The boiler restoration was a large project for McEwen’s that spanned several years. Works included stripping-down the boiler, partial re-riveting and structural repairs, the complete removal and replacement of water tubes and superheater tubes, and the manufacture of new ancillary equipment such as the hotwell tank and blowdown receiver.
After completing much of the refurbishment works in Yorkshire, the boiler plant was returned to Twyford and fully reinstalled at the Waterworks, with work completed in 2017 and the boiler successfully returned to steam.
Graham Feldwick, volunteer Project Director for the Twyford Waterworks Trust, said of the restoration project: “It was a great day on 23 rd August this year when the team from McEwen’s stood with TWT’s team of volunteers celebrating the successful steaming to the satisfaction of the Zurich boiler inspector, paving the way to returning to public steamings in 2018. Alasdair and his team can be justifiably proud of this fantastic achievement, which many thought was not possible.”
In recent times McEwen’s have also completed the return to steam of the historic Lancashire Boilers at Crofton Pumping Station, near Malborough in Wiltshire and the Cornish boiler at Bancroft Mill in Lancashire. The project carried out at Crofton involved significant rivet replacement on the underside of the boiler shell, the team travelled to the Wiltshire countryside in the early part of 2017 and using traditional hot-riveting techniques replaced some 350 rivets.
Over the decades locomotives and traction engines from across the country have passed through McEwen’s yard and Alasdair is keen to continue and build this side of the business. “We have invested in the infrastructure of the business to allow us to handle a greater number of boilers at any given time. We have always struggled for space and the new workshop facility will see this all change, we are very excited to get moved in.”
While many of the skills McEwen’s use to restore vintage boilers are similar to those practiced 100 years ago, the company has also embraced modern design and fabrication techniques for use on heritage projects. Recognising that repairing the boiler of an old locomotive can be prohibitively expensive for a lot of heritage organisations or trusts, the company’s design team has produced a new flanged and butt-welded J94 boiler design that has been passed by a leading insurance company.
The new boiler design offers a different option to return a locomotive to steam. Alasdair McEwen explains: “Of course we recognise that for many organisations a restoration needs to be completely authentic and returned to its exact former state. That said, for those who want a different and longer-term alternative, we feel that this design could be a viable option for heritage railways across the country.
Reflecting on the last 50 years, Alasdair went on to say: “I’m very proud our company has reached this milestone, we have had our ups and downs along the way, but we’ve built a solid customer base and a well-earned reputation for high-class workmanship. It’s my intention to build on this in the future. Here’s to the next 50 years!”