EMIAC 93: Engineered in Northampton

NTAR, Northampton, 14 October 2017

Conference Details


The programme looks at three Northampton-based companies in the engineering sector from three different centuries. Nineteenth century iron founder EH Barwell’s products can still be found in southern England. In the twentieth century the Express Lift Company’s lifts were to be found across the world and their innovative testing tower is once again being used for development work. Alongside their train care facility, Siemens have recently opened a new training facility for the railway engineers of the 21st century.

This event was based at the newly-built National Training Academy for Rail located in Northampton.


Organised by Northamptonshire Industrial Archaeology Group on Saturday, 14 October 2017 in Northampton.

The conference programme:

09:00 Registration

09:45 Welcome and introduction

10:00 Barwell - Early 19th century Iron Founder

10:50 Break

11:05 The Express Lift Company: Lift Manufacturers and Installers of Northampton

11:55 Mind the Gap: Responding to the Skills Shortages within the Rail Industry

12:45 EMIAC Business Meeting

13:00 Lunch

14:00 Site visits: NTAR and the Traincare facility.

16:00 Tea and depart.

16:30 Close of conference.

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Apprentices working on a unit in the workshop
Apprentices working on a unit in the workshop.
National Training Academy for Rail, Northampton
National Training Academy for Rail, Northampton.

Images courtesy of the National Training Academy for Rail.

Conference Report

Peter Perkins

Although none of Barwell’s own records have survived, other sources, indicating the range and scale of his products, suggest that he contributed more to the county's economy than has previously been given credit for.

In partnership with John Bretell, Edward Harrison Barwell erected an iron and brass foundry, known as the Eagle Foundry, at the bottom of Bridge Street in 1823. The partnership lasted only three years and little is known about their products save for two: they supplied hare fencing for Wrest Park, Silsoe, Bedfordshire together with cast iron wyverns – the family crest of Earl de Grey – for the park gates.

Barwell then formed a new partnership in 1826 with Thomas Haggar, who provided the capital for Barwell to develop his technical expertise. In an advert of 1830 Barwell and Haggar were offering kitchen ranges and stoves, iron fencing, conservatories, hot houses and heating systems for them as well as for churches and halls, agricultural implements and machinery. In 1831 they had completed an iron railing around All Saints churchyard in town centre.

Fireplaces, stoves and fencing were supplied to Earl de Grey at Wrest Park. They built a 45-foot span bridge for the Marquis of Bute at Luton Hoo; at that time its span was double that of any iron bridge. A few years later ironwork for a fernery at Old Warden was supplied.

Shortly before the partnership was dissolved, Barwell opened a showroom in Leamington Spa. Not only was he selling iron railings and coal hole covers but also became involved with the gas works. Having bought the old gas works in 1834 he issued a prospectus for a share issue to build a new gas works of which he became a director.

In the meantime Barwell continued to supply the nobility: architectural ironwork for Earl de Grey’s new house at Wrest Park; a stove and heating system for a pinery at Woburn Abbey, hot houses and heating systems for the Countess of Bridgwater at Ashridge Park, Hertfordshire and Tingrith Estate, Bedfordshire.

Other examples of the foundry's work included the supply of all the ironwork in 1838 for the Hythe, Essex gasworks. In 1842 Barwell was engaged in building St Peter's Bridge over the Nene on the outskirts of Northampton. Two years later the foundry produced the gates for the Old Cemetery, Southampton. Installed in 1864, the cast iron fountain in Northampton’s Market Square was cast by the Eagle Foundry.

Barwell later became involved in lead mining; he became chairman of the Mendip Hills Mining Company in 1842 and remained so for more than a decade. Together with a TS Wright he bought the lease of Chewton Minery; they failed to find any new lead deposits despite sinking new shafts. Barwell remained in Somerset until shortly before his death in 1870; he is buried in St Giles Churchyard with his wife and other family members. Their graves are marked by cast iron blocks on stone slabs.

The Eagle Foundry was taken over by Rice & Co in 1871; early in the twentieth century they moved to South Bridge Road on the other side of the river where they continued until 1997.

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David Thompson

The Eagle Foundry supplied a number of components to the Express Lift Company.

It is widely accepted that Elisha Otis first demonstrated the concept of a safety lift mechanism which prevented the car falling if the cable broke. This was shown at the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1853.

In 1770 a John Smith founded a small engineering company in Leicester Square, London. A century later, Messrs Archibald Smith & Co with an expanding hydraulic and engineering business setup a new factory at Battersea under the name Archibald Smith and Stevens. Their 1880 catalogue listed 126 hydraulic installations, 26 belt-driven lifts and over 400 hand-operated lifts that had been supplied by the company. By the end of the century traction drive had replaced the drum-drive system thanks to the vee-groove rope drive for winding purposes invented and patented by Archibald Smith.

Charles Major was made a partner of the business in 1889. 20 years later with business expanding, it was decided to convert it to a private limited company under the name Smith, Major and Stevens Ltd (SMS) with Major as the chairman. The works were moved to Northampton.

Josiah Easton started making lifts in 1822 in a short-lived partnership with Richard Waygood. Easton and Amos manufactured hydraulic rams utilising French patents; with Anderson, and later with Goulden, he designed and made anything to do with hydraulics. He also started to make use of electrical power. Easton Lift Company installed 100-person lifts for the Mersey Underground Railway; then the first lifts for the Greenwich and Woolwich tunnels beneath the Thames. By 1910 it had installed some 35 lifts of 100 person capacity for the underground railway.

During the war attention was turned to supplying ships' hoists and derricks, hydraulic ramps and small lifts. As a result of this work, for which GEC supplied the electrical drives as the main contractor, The Express Lift Company was formed in 1917 by the two companies.

An expanding industry – taller buildings and faster lifts – meant the company had to tackle new challenges such as floor-levelling systems, automated control systems and multi-phase multi-frequency power supplies. An engineering first was the installation of hydraulic equipment to raise and lower the whole dance floor at the Savoy Hotel, London in 1929. This was repeated a few years later with the swimming pool platform at Earls Court, London. Personal lifts were supplied to the nobility and the famous. During this period the company installed Ward-Leonard equipment for controlling lift speed under licence from Westinghouse.

With an expanding world market, in 1930 SMS merged with The Express Lift Company and Northampton became the administrative headquarters – the largest British controlled lift manufacturer. In 1935 GEC acquired all the share capital ensuring the use of the GEC worldwide sales outlets.

After the war with an increased demand for low-end multi-storey installations of between 10 and 22 floors due to war time devastation, the company's first priority was an improved reliability. The company evolved a specification and design that became the standard throughout the UK. Production reached a maximum of 630 identical lifts in one year and went on to manufacture and install many thousands of lifts in blocks of flats up to 1968.

The 1960s witnessed the installation of high speed lifts and group control systems: 22 high speed lifts (1400 feet per minute), of which five had double-deck cars, in the NatWest tower in London. A decade later it launched the first microprocessor-controlled system in Marks and Spencer's London headquarters.

To aid the further development of lift systems, the company erected a lift-test tower, famously dubbed the Lighthouse containing a number of medium- and high-speed lift shafts. It is still in use today by the industry as the National Lift Tower.

Examples of prestige installations included external lifts for Lloyds of London; the BT Tower, World Trade Centre and the Bank of England, all in London; the Victoria Centre, Hong Kong; Standard Chartered Bank, Singapore and the World Trade Centre, Dubai.

All components were proudly manufactured in Northampton. But ultimately that philosophy was to be the company's downfall: component manufacturers with a larger turn-over had lower production costs.

Established in 1919, Evans Lifts was bought by Otis in 1982 though continued to trade under its own name.  In 1995 Evans Lifts merged with Express Lift; two years later ExpressEvans was taken over by Otis.

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Simon Rennie

The National Training Academy for Rail (NTAR) has the task of providing sufficient engineering skills for the rail industry. Simon's data highlighted the severity, in breadth and depth, of the impending skills shortage brought about by an ongoing lack of investment in infrastructure projects. Comparing costs for different types of road and rail links, he acknowledged that rail infrastructure costs are currently too high.

To counter the skills shortage the government has committed to significantly increasing the number of apprenticeships. Whilst the concept of the academy may have been conceived by Siemens, it is part of an expanding network of railway colleges specialising in traction and rolling stock. It is designed to support all UK rail businesses and has set out to provide a 21st century training facility by pulling together a market-leading group of parties. Delivery of material is by interactive 3D virtual-reality material and a training workshop/laboratory with components and sub-systems from rolling stock. Whilst the emphasis might appear to favour the technician grades, the academy's courses cover professional development of both engineering and management activities at all levels.

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Additional material

The following websites provide additional background to the papers presented:

Please note: Although checked at the time of writing, NIAG cannot be held responsible for the validity of these links or the integrity of these sites.

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Images taken during the visit

Barwell's gates for the Old Cemetery, Southampton
Barwell's gates for the Old Cemetery, Southampton.
Image courtesy of P. Perkins.
Demonstration of the interactive training aids
Demonstration of the interactive training aids.
General view of the 'deconstructed train' lab
General view of the 'deconstructed train' lab.
One of the bogies from the 2007 Grayrigg accident
One of the bogies from the 2007 Grayrigg accident.
A four-car unit can be lifted 'in toto' using these jacks
A four-car unit can be lifted 'in toto' using these jacks.
Discussing operation of the bogie drop
Discussing operation of the bogie drop.
The wheel lathe can profile all wheels on a four-car unit in a single shift
The wheel lathe can profile all wheels on a four-car unit in a single shift.
Three units waiting outside the shed
Three units waiting outside the shed.

Images courtesy of Terry and Jane Waterfield taken during the visit.

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