Full steam ahead

Mill Meece Pumping Station, Staffordshire

Few preservation groups are invited to take on a historic site in complete working order.

When the steam engines at the Mill Meece Pumping Station, south of Stoke-on-Trent, were finally decommissioned at the end of 1979 the then owners, the Severn Trent Water Authority, invited enthusiasts to form a Preservation Trust to preserve the historic waterworks intact while the modern machinery did the work of supplying water. 

The Trust took over the site in 1981 and promptly opened it to the public.

Mill Meece Pumping Station (1914) represents one of the latest preserved examples of steam-powered water-supply pumping installations.  It is in effect the penultimate chapter in the story of steam and water-supply, a little earlier than the Kempton Great Engines, west of London, which were completed in 1929. 

The Trust website emphasises why this late example of steam pumping engineering is historically important:

[Although] beam engines abound, the Mill Meece horizontal tandem compound steam engines are the only ones of their type still capable of being steamed.  Along with all the ancillary equipment of boilers, economiser, Weir pumps, steam winch and weigh bridge the station forms a complete example of an Edwardian water supply pumping station.

The Staffordshire Potteries Water Works Company was founded in 1846 and spent the following three-quarters of a century trying to keep up with demand from the rapidly growing industrial Five Towns and the borough of Newcastle-under-Lyme. 

The Company opened a succession of waterworks and repeatedly extended them and their supporting networks of mains and reservoirs.  For much of the time further installations were planned even before the new ones were operational.

Indeed, when the land for Mill Meece Pumping Station was purchased in 1899, the Hatton Pumping Station, two miles further north, was incomplete.  The original pair of beam engines of 1892 at Hatton were supplemented by a horizontal engine completed in 1898, and a further horizontal engine was added in 1907.

Though diesel or electric power was available for water pumping by the beginning of the twentieth century, the Company, based in a coalfield, was content to rely on steam.  The Hatton engines were considered efficient, reliable and economical, so the Mill Meece engine house was built to accommodate two engines, powered by three boilers.

Mill Meece was the last of the Company’s waterworks, initially completed in 1914, though it didn’t begin pumping to supply until 1919. 

Half the engine house was occupied by a horizontal compound tandem rotary steam engine by Ashton Frost & Co of Blackburn drawing steam from two Lancashire boilers, pumping to the same reservoir at Hanchurch as Hatton. 

In the empty half of the engine house the Company’s municipal successor, the Staffordshire Potteries Water Board, installed a second engine by Hathorn Davey in 1927, broadly similar to its companion, together with a third Lancashire boiler. 

The two engines were built to the same specification, though they are not identical, and they are laid out in mirror image so that they can be controlled from a single central operating position.

All the other Company water works were converted to pump by electricity in the 1930s, but despite talk of scrapping them, the relatively new and powerful Mill Meece engines were kept for stand-by use after the station was electrified in 1949.

Indeed, the last time they pumped water into the public supply was December 22nd 1979, and within two years they formed the centrepiece of a working museum: Mill Meece Pumping Station.

In 2013 structural problems with the boiler house flues prevented the engines from steaming, and the remedial work took until November 2020. 

After years of frustration when visitors have been invited into a cold and silent works, the Covid pandemic precluded a quick return to steam.

The engines eventually moved again over the weekend of August 14th-15th 2021, and there’s every reason to hope that there will be a full programme of events at Mill Meece in 2022: What’s On (millmeecepumpingstation.co.uk)

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