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October 2004
October 2004

History of the
Crossley Heavy Oil Engine

The oil engine at Saxthorpe Mill
An Industrial Archaeological investigation

The water-driven cornmill at Saxthorpe in North Norfolk is of ancient origins. CJC Lee bought it in 1929, and to supplement the waterwheel purchased a second-hand oil engine. By 1939 the waterwheel and its machinery had been removed. Then in 1947 the mill was sold to DJ Last, and eventually went out of use. When his son Roger Last inherited, he set about restoring and researching the building. The engine, which Roger remembers being started every morning, stood idle for may years; now he wants to know more about it and approached Norfolk I. A. Society for help.

There was an oral tradition in the family that the engine came from Gresham's School in Holt. We recorded nameplate data, and talked to Greshams. We tracked down the Crossley archives, now at the Anson Museum at Poynton, and after a delay due to a burglary, learned that engine no 91866 type OE 117 was ordered on 15 April 1925 for Upton Mental Hospital, Chester, and had moved to Gresham's by 19 August 1927, and to DJ Last before 19 July 1948. We take it that these dates come from correspondence requesting spares or information. It seems likely that Upton never installed the engine but cancelled or resold it as new. Through the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester we obtained a photocopy of the Instruction Book for this model and passed this to Roger Last.

At Gresham's there were no records, nor recollections among retired staff, though something might lurk in archives at Fishmongers Hall. The school buildings were opened on a new Greenfield site in 1904; a detailed prospectus was examined. This spoke of pumping water from their own well, and generating their own electricity. Water came to Holt in 1885, and electricity in 1931, but Gresham's continued to use their borehole, probably until about 1955.

We found a building in which we were told there had once been a Blackstone engine, and filled-in ragbolt holes bear this out. We think this was the generator house. Next to it was a small building, now a canoe store, with modern screeded floor, and a timber trap door set in it. Underneath is almost certainly the borehole and possibly an electric pump. Dimensions were taken, and the Crossley engine would fit in nicely, along with a three-throw pump over the borehole. Confirmation came from traces in the building for lifting tackle, cooling-water tank mounting, exhaust exit and wall-mounted gauge indicating 142 feet (to the bottom of the bore?). The building style appeared consistent with the date of 1925 that was later given to us. We presume therefore that after mains electricity came to the school the engine became redundant and was sold off.

This research was doubly satisfactory because it added to Roger Last's understanding of his possessions, as well as opening a previously unexplored aspect of Gresham's history. It has also thrown up various unanswered questions about the school's first pump and generator.

David W. Durst
Norfolk Industrial Archaeology Society - 14th August 2001

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