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Flash Steam Gallery

OTW has been planning to introduce this new feature for a long while. When material comes our way, it can be anything from a single photograph to a complete article that just needs editing and putting into web format. When we are faced with relatively little information about an item, then its obvious home is in Pitbox, yet we have no similar facility for the designer or builder, which to us is an integral part of the story. If there is sufficient material or leads, then we can research and develop the story ourselves, which has happened many times to date. It is the situations where we have more than can fit in a Pitbox, but not enough for a feature article that the Flash Steam Gallery hopes to address.

The first entry was prompted by one of our trips to Pitsea on a hydro rescuing and photographing mission. In one of the display cases in a different part of the museum was a fascinatingly complex, yet relatively small flash steamer (above). There was no indication who had built it, and neither did the current owners have any idea as they had bought is out of an auction. A challenge for the OTW investigative team? A trawl through the Model Engineers soon had the name of the builder, Fred Lowne, as well as illustrations of some of his other work. Once we had a name, we found that ‘Experimental Flash Steam’ also mentioned him, as well as illustrating the complicated valve gear he used. From there, a long and informative chat with John Benson filled in many of the gaps.

Frederick Lowne was part of the long established Lowne Instrument Company in Lee, South East London. The company had been formed back in 1904 making electric master clock systems for major utility companies, as well as public buildings and the Woolwich Arsenal. For a while the company was taken over by another well-known electric clock manufacturer Magneta until around 1926, when it reverted to the Lowne family and re-established at Boones Street in Lee, where it continued until around 2002.

This master clock from the Lownes Company, along with family letters and provenance appeared at a local auction in 2018 with a guide price of £70-£100. Sharp intakes of breath all round, including from OTW, when the hammer dropped at £3,200 indicating the rarity and desirability of products from that company. 

Knowing Fred Lowne’s background then, one can appreciate the complexity and quality of workmanship displayed in his models.

At the Victoria Club May Regatta in 1939, ‘A brand new flash steam boat, Mr F. Lowne’s ‘Little Otter’ from the Blackheath Club made its debut’. The report in Model Engineer goes on to describe the technical details of the engine and steam plant and allude to the instability of the boat that ‘capsized before it had gone one lap’. The photo shows a very extended afterplane on the hull.

However, it transpires that Fred had been working towards this for many years, having first exhibited the engine for this boat on the South London Club stand at the Model Engineering Exhibition in 1927 and 1928.

In 1941 John Benson published an article in ME under the title ‘Blackheath Carries On’, which features two of Fred Lowne’s engines, for Fred and John were fellow Blackheath members.

 The smaller single cylinder motor is from the C Class steamer ‘Little Otter’ and it is the ingenious valve gear that makes this little motor so fascinating.

The two piston valves, one inlet, one exhaust, are shuttled back and forth by two gear driven cams with ‘complimentary contours’ timed 360 degrees apart. The relatively small motor of just 1.5cc capacity was capable of exceeding 25mph, but ‘the speed being limited by the tendency of the hull to capsize at anything over this speed’.

The 3-cylinder radial motor is even more remarkable with each cylinder having a single piston-valve operated by two rockers and pushrods from a single cam at each end of the motor. In 1941 this motor was not quite complete, but the description infers that it was intended for a C Class boat at some stage.

At the Kent Model Engineering Exhibition in 1945 Fred Lowne’s displayed two flash steam boats, including what we believe to be ‘Little Otter’ and the larger boat that we discovered in Pitsea. Also on display was the three cylinder radial mentioned before, seemingly still unfinished, and a 4cc two stroke motor.

We have been unable to find any further mention of Fred Lowne’s involvement with flash steam or tethered hydroplanes, and John Benson confirmed that he had seen little of him after the end of the war.

We believe that his model engineering interest continued though, turning to steam locomotives. An LNER Royal Sovereign credited to him was on display at the 1974 Model Engineering Exhibition. Fred Lowne died in 1983, little more than a year after the death of his wife Joy.

The boat at Pitsea that we believe to be ‘Otter’ has yet another intriguing valve configuration for its single cylinder motor. The separate inlet and exhaust piston valves lie side by side in the cylinder head with each being driven through a pushrod, bell crank and link. Each pushrod is offset from the centre line of the crank and at an angle and as they do not appear to be jointed in any way, we must assume that there is some form of spring system on the bell crank or valve, keeping everything in place. The entire cylinder head and valve assembly is attached to a pair of steel frames, which are clamped in place by two pairs of tie rods at the front and rear of the motor. These rods are tensioned via a pair of aluminium straps under the bearing housings. As was common at the time, although the motor has an exhaust valve, it also has uniflow ports so there are three exhaust pipes, two from the cylinder jacket and one from the piston valve.

The pumps are all on a separate sub frame driven directly from the crankshaft with the reduction via a worm and wheel. Two water pumps are on the outside of the frames with the oil pump in between. The single acting oil pump also has a lever for manual priming. The water pumps seem to have a lever with some sort of ratchet arrangement for priming, but quite how this works, we have yet to figure out.

As steam generator go, this one is quite small and uses relatively large bore tubing, although it appears that there might be two tubes, each fed independently by one of the water pumps. The two tubes then appear to be joined into a single steam feed for the motor. The single blowlamp is of the conventional vapourising type with air supplied from a pressurised tank beside the motor. The boiler casing we take to be stainless steel with no insulation other than the rear. The complexity of engineering does not stop with the motor, as there are two separate ‘knock offs’ as well, one releasing water pressure from each of the feeds and the other, fuel pressure from the reservoir tank.

The hull immediately attracts attention as it is decked entirely in sheet metal with cut outs for the power plant and narrow steam generator. We would suspect from the size and weight of the boat that it was only just into the B class, and might even have been within the C class limits.

A fascinating piece of engineering that did not have any great racing history, but one of many such projects that were around during that period. Our thanks go to Neville Darby and John Benson for help in preparing this, the first of our ‘gallery’ entries.

Update Oct 2015: Following Fred Lowne's grandson Jonathan discovering OTW he realised that the boat he had in his possession was 'Little Otter'. He has kindly provided photos of the boat and mechanics that clearly illustrate just how complex the plant was. It is a pleasure to know that both of the boats last seen together in 1945 are still in existence.

Flash Steam Gallery 2

If the first gallery entry was down to a ‘what is it’ then the second is much more a ‘where is it’? Amongst the albums of photos from Jim Free were several images of a seemingly well-engineered and modern flash steamer, identifiable by a Cotswold registration number and a name that crops up regularly with steamers, ‘Water Otter’? A quick referral to Stan Poyser identified the boat as having belonged to Colin Harmer, who was unfortunately no longer with us, so that avenue of research was not open. The late Vic Collins’ albums produced some photos of Colin in action, while a trawl of Model Boats produced a brief record of his foray into flash steam. Of the boat, we can find no trace, and attempts to contact his son have been to no avail, but as one of the few ‘modern’ steam men, we feel that recognition is due to Colin for his involvement.

Colin Harmer lived down in Sussex and worked for the Royal Observatory at Herstmonceaux Castle near Eastbourne. He made his debut with an A Class flash steamer in October 1992 but failed to get a run on that occasion. The steam plant was modelled on Bob Kirtley’s well-proven design, whilst the hull was more influenced by Ian Berne’s Steam Machine II, although with a less bluff bow, and no rear aerofoils. It took Colin until July of 1993 at Cerney to record his first complete run, following that with his best run to date of 71.25mph at the August Cotswold regatta. It was reported that the boat was going well at the St Alban’s, but that he did not get his hand up early enough as mechanical breakdown brought both that run and Colin’s first ‘International’ to a premature end.

With the plant repaired Colin beat his previous best by the narrowest of margins at the Southern Area Championships in September. The boat was rebuilt over the winter with a much more pointed nose, more in the style of Bob and Ian’s current models and reappeared as ‘Water Otter’ at Bradwell in April 94. Unfortunately for Colin it was to be a season of continuing frustration, with a series of mechanical failures and mishaps.

The following year was little better, with Model Boats reporting that ‘it was very frustrating as he (Colin) had reached 70 at Cerney two years previously’.

The work done to the boat and plant in preparation for the 1996 season certainly seemed to pay dividends and Colin had obviously started to come to terms with running a flash steamer as he won his class at the July Cerney regatta. At Farnborough in October it was reported that ‘at last (he) had just rewards for his persistence with best ever runs’. A speed of 95.51mph was 24 mph faster than he had ever managed, and this was backed up with an even faster run at 98.03mph.

1997 again proved frustrating, with the boat not finishing the runs when it was quick, yet managing to complete 5 laps at relatively slow speeds.

However, Colin had his ‘best ever start’ to a season in 1998, winning his class at Old Ford in April at 82.30mph, although this would appear to have been his last ever recorded run with his steamer. He did attend the May meeting at Old Ford, but did not get a run, and that would seem to have been the last regatta he entered as ill health brought an end to his racing, with both Colin and his wife sadly dying within a short time of each other.

Apart from the photographs of Colin and his boat, and despite three years of concerted digging, nothing further was known as to what might have become of one of the few ‘modern’ flash steamers? ----Until 23rd Jan 2013 that is, and one of those amazingly spooky coincidences that defies any sort of logical explanation. Just hours after a conversation with Bob Kirtley about Colin, and a conclusion that we had exhausted all possible avenues of research, what should appear on eBay, but ‘Water Otter’. This was the second of Colin’s boats described above and had obviously had a hard life in the intervening period. Although the engine is missing, and the paintwork has suffered badly, it is otherwise complete. The current owner has had it for around four years, having purchased it off ebay, which begs the question as to how we all missed it first time round and of course, where is the motor?

The boat sold for a modest £230, so for the time being it has vanished again and its ultimate destiny is unknown although we would like to think that it will be restored as a steamer. Perhaps the new owner would be kind enough to contact us?

Update June 2013: According to information from ebay, the boat was  sold to a buyer in Italy.

Thanks to Jim Free for photos of the boat, Norman Lara for the loan of the late Vic Collins’ albums, Peter Hill for the race records and Lionel Lawley for the MPBA race certificate.