The Fern Mill engine was originally installed in the spinning mill of the Fern Cotton Spinning Co, Ltd of Siddall Street, Shaw, Oldham. There are only four engines of this size that have escaped being scrapped. Ellenroad has one, Victoria and Alexandra, the largest and the only engine to be steamed on a regular basis. Trencherfield Mill engine in Wigan is in good condition but only occasional steamed. The Leigh Spinners engine is sadly, slowly rusting in its listed engine house that the owners want to demolish.
The 1884 Buckley and Taylor built engine is a horizontal twin tandem compound engine, with a pair of low pressure cylinders located either side of the flywheel and the high-pressure cylinders positioned in front of them. There is Corliss valve gear on the high pressure cylinders and slide valves on the low pressure ones. They operated at 120PSI boiler pressure. Steam would have been supplied from the mill's four Lancashire boilers.
The Fern engine is unique in having a large geared 21ft flywheel which has 10 spokes, 17.5 inches wide and it revolved at 43RPM. It is rated at 1900 horsepower, with cylinders of 22 inches and 48 inch bore with a stroke of 6ft. It is 63ft long, 17ft wide and a total weight 160 tons, with the flywheel weighing around 70 tons.
After the closure of the mill in 1981 the engine was dismantled with the assistance of preservationists from the Northern Mill Engine Society. It has been stored in various locations and eventually passed into the hands of Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council where it has been sitting behind a recycling centre in Droylsden. Talks between Tameside Council and Ellenroad Trust began and eventually Ellenroad successfully acquired the engine.
In its dismantled state, covered with shrubbery and overgrowth, the Ellenroad volunteers faced several visits to initially clear the site of debris before attempting to move the engine. Eventually, in November, a four day operation to extract the parts commenced. Several loads were made using specialist haulage contractors including one trip just to carry the engine's flywheel hub. The engine is now laid out in the grounds of Ellenroad Engine House so that visitors can have some understanding of how the engine will be restored.
The Fern Mill Engine Project is to rebuild the engine to a running condition. It is likely to to be a large, long term project of at least seven years. It will involve substantial fundraising. Plans to house the engine in purpose built accommodation, including a visitors centre, have been discussed and are underway. The fabrication of essential parts that were unfortunately corroded or missing need to carefully considered in the plans. This presents a unique opportunity for learning and training, to keep alive the engineering skills required for such a task and to pass them on to future generations. This will be hands on training in the best tradition to ensure there are people and volunteers to be able to maintain and demonstrate engines of this size in the future.
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