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Bonham’s Steamer

OTW is a great fan of ‘engineering’ and can appreciate that there can be a variety of approaches to the same problem. In crude terms it is the effectiveness of the solution that matters and often that is achieved through simplicity, elegance and efficiency following the diktat of Colin Chapman, ‘simplicate and add lightness’. At the other extreme is the ‘bigger is better’ lobby, which ends up with excesses of everything to achieve the same end, or sometimes not, despite the ‘numbers’ advantage. The boat we are featuring here has been around for a while, but all we really knew about it was that it represented a wonderful example of excessive engineering.

This intriguing flash steamer has made several appearances over the last 25 years or so, yet nothing of its early history had so far come to light. It was first featured in the editorial in Model Boats for September 1988 under the heading ‘Wanted, a good home’. Rob Vincent from Poole was offered the boat around 1983 by the porter in an auction house in Hampshire who had taken it in lieu of a debt of something like £35. Rob restored it completely, including repainting the hull. Despite its complexity he was able to get it running on its original burners, but not with the level of reliability that he wanted. It was also taken to several regattas, ‘where it generated considerable interest’, according to contemporary reports. It was on such a visit to Victoria Park in July 1984 that the plant was run up by utilising a gas burner from ‘a gentleman’s destroyer’.

In the comments, it was noted that Rob’s interests had moved on by 1988 so he was offering the boat for sale via a classified ad with a photograph. Apart from a description, the only other information was that it ‘is believed to have been built in the 1930s by an engineer involved with the Schneider Trophy races.’

Offers were invited for the boat and in 1989 it appeared again in the pages of Model Boats having been bought by Richard Gillingham of Parkstone, Dorset. He was also enquiring as to its identity, but did add in the description that it weighed a scarcely believable 105lbs.

There arises something of a conflict of information in Model Boats as a subsequent item records that the boat did not reach its reserve price when offered for sale the previous September so 'Mr Gillingham is keeping it'. Peter Hill offered some possibilities as to the origins of the design, concluding that it could be a double sized version of Edward Hobbs metre plan.

On 2nd July 1989, Mr Gillingham took it to the Steam Rally at Victoria Park, where Don Hewitt commented "Richard Gillingham brought along his monster - and it looks even more awesome in the flesh than in photographs. A true plumber's nightmare." The intention was that it would be converted to gas firing and, hopefully, run it at the following years rally. (Richard recently told OTW that this statement was not true as he fully intended to keep the boat as it was built.)

How it came to be on display at an engineering museum on the south coast is somewhat hazy at present, but there it seemingly remained until that venture failed. The entire contents of the museum were due to be auctioned by an international auction house, but this was stopped in controversial circumstances on the very morning the sale was due to take place. Again, whether this boat was part of the sale, or how it escaped is not known at present. Hopefully this article might enable some of the gaps to be filled in?

In 2008 the boat came on the market again, being offered for sale by Bonhams at their Henley sale on the 19th July. The lengthy description finishes with the slightly tongue in cheek comment about the hull that ‘it must float, or the model wouldn’t be up for sale.’ With the final hammer price around £850 it represented a lot of boat for the money, although without any real provenance.

A year later, several people reported seeing it for sale again at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, although the price had inflated spectacularly from the total of £1020 paid at Bonhams. Thanks go to Anthony Morini for taking that opportunity to take some detailed pictures of ‘the works’.

At 62 inches long and a beam of 16 inches it is something of a monster. The single step hull is no lightweight either at over 100lbs, being made of copper sheets riveted together and then soft soldered to keep it watertight. Although the hull is stepped, the existence of two rudders would indicate that it was intended for free running. Like many early flash steamers, there is a great deal of complex engineering on view.

The vee four motor is entirely fabricated and unusual in that the valve chambers are entirely separate from the cylinders requiring long intake tubes from valves to cylinders. The feed and oil pumps represent a true ‘plumbers nightmare’ scenario, each being chain driven from the propshaft with jockey pulleys for tension. One pump feeds water to the boiler, while two more supply oil to the valve chambers via a manifold and to each cylinder with a separate feed. Apparently there are eight separate needle valves to control these various feeds as well as a manual priming pump and some way of pressurising the fuel tank that is not immediately apparent.

With the four cylinders of the motor adding up to something around 120cc, the steam generator with its twin paraffin blowlamp type burners and small reservoir looks woefully inadequate for the size of the motor and all that it has to power. Fuel tank below the burner box and water tanks on either side of the boiler complete this remarkable piece of engineering. Combining the length of the steam pipe from the boiler to the valves and then the individual feeds to the cylinders, the heat loss and dead steam volumes must be considerable?

Given the elegance and performance of the Supermarine S5s and S6s, one can only assume that the builder of this steamer did not incorporate any of the design principles of these aircraft into his boat? Well, as it transpired, all was not quite as it seemed, and through the power of t’internet we have been able to add a little more information, and here I must thank Rob Vincent and Richard Gillingham for all their help.

Rob obtained the boat via an auction for the princely sum of £50, and recalls that his "Investment resulted in lots of fun, a few hairy (or almost loss of hair) moments messing about with blowlamps, and the satisfaction of seeing it go at Victoria, and culminated with a reasonable profit when I sold her." As his original ad in Model Boats intimated, his interest had turned to full size boats ‘so it seemed a shame to let her deteriorate in my garage’.

During the five years that Richard Gillingham owned the boat, he managed to unravel its origins, which date it twenty years later than previously thought. The entire boat and plant had been fabricated from stock materials and whatever was available, with the exception of the flywheel that started life as a pendulum bob from a clock. The builder put down the excessive size and weight to the construction ‘getting out of hand’. He added to the description by pointing out that he had also provided a feed-water pre-heater and that the oil tank was built into the bilges of the hull. He had come to the conclusion that a smaller engine was needed, which, in the end he never got round to constructing, so passed the boat on to his son, who eventually put it into the auction in Poole.

When Richard decided to part with the boat in the early 90s, he was led to believe that it was of significant value, but as is often the case, what someone might say it is worth and what the market is prepared to pay can bear no relationship. In the end, it was sold to someone from a nearby training establishment for something like £550, but again, this is where the trail goes cold until the sale in 2008. (Richard noted that the twin rudders seen above with their complex adjustment system were so small that there were totally ineffective. He also added that the pitch of the two blade prop was enormous.)

So, this is what we know so far about this intriguing piece of machinery. The escalation in price from £50 in 1984 to an asking price of £4,500 twenty-five years later is quite staggering, yet as a flash steam boat, it is certainly not effective either through simplicity, elegance, efficiency or appropriate design, which begs the question as to where the value lies?

Post Script:- Dave Whelan has kindly forwarded some photos from the Beaulieu Autojumble this year, where the boat was being offered for sale at a mind bending £7,500!!! See photo right.

The final word must surely go to Rob Vincent. "Little did I realise that my coat of maroon paint would make seven grand difference to the price!!!"

Update from Richard Gillingham, Dec 2011.

I have read with much interest the article about the large "V" 4 steamer that I owned. Just to clear up a couple of points, I didn't put it up for sale where it failed to reach a reserve that must have been the chap I sold it to. The reason for me wanting to install gas fired burners was because the engine speed was controlled by the amount of steam and pressure pumped into it. Obviously, but the amount of steam produced was controlled by a feed water pump (fitted on the starboard side, aft of the engine) and also a fuel pump (also fitted on the starboard side aft of the feed pump) and the rate at which both these pumps supplied water and fuel. The speed at which these two pumps ran was controlled by the engine RPM as they were driven by chains and gears from the propellor shaft. So therefore you had a sort of vicious circle where each part controlled the speed of the other which in turn controlled itself. Therefore the power plant either ran very very slowly only just working or flat out and uncontrollable. The reason for the gas burners was to break the vicious circle so the the heat/steam supply could be controlled independently of the engine RPM by adjusting the gas burner heat which wouldn't be affected by the feed or fuel pumps. I reasoned that I was going to keep the original paraffin burners because I personally like to keep all the original components of a machine, even if they don’t all work properly. I also remember, having read your article, that a Model Engineer from The Mid Thames Model Boat Club had told me that the teeth on the gears driving the various pumps were far too small and would probably strip with the engine torque. Therefore, they wouldn't last very long.

The article has bought back a lot of memories and I would love to know where the boat is now. (I won't be buying it back at £7500, even for nostalgic reasons)

Update September 2015

Richard has alerted us to the boat being listed on eBay for a 'buy it now' of £6250!

I am grateful to all those who have helped put this article together. Peter Hill for original photos, Rob Vincent for photos and memories of the boat, Richard Gillingham for his very detailed help and information and to Anthony Morini for recent history and photos from Goodwood. Thanks also to Dave Whelan for bringing the story up to date. OTW would be interested to know the current owners of the boat and the circumstances surrounding its display in the Brighton Engineerium, if indeed it was there?