I am no expert on this area, which is why I refrained from replying earlier:
1. a boiler for a steam engine for use at the prison in the 1780s seems
highly improbable. Steam engines were until that decade solely used for
pumping. (Except for certain pirates), all non-pumping engines up to 1800
were made by Boulton & Watt; I believe the identify of all of them is known,
and does not include Oxford Prison.
2. What would steam-power be used for during construction? The only
possibility that I can think of is a hoist, but
a. There is no evidence stream engines were thus used
b. The contractor would surely have set it up in a way that would enable it
to be removed at the end
3. It therefore seems much more likely that it was for the provision of hot
water for some purpose.
4. One of the replies refers to the possibility of steel pipes. That is
certainly wrong. Steel was not a readily available material and only used
for certain quite specialised purposes in the early 19th century. If a
ferrous material was in use it would be iron, quite probably cast iron,
though I understand wrought iron pipes were made in Birmingham in the 1820s
using much the same technique as for musket barrels. Was any of the pipe
From: Industrial Archaeology [mailto:[log in to unmask]] On Behalf Of
Sent: 08 February 2004 20:00
To: Peter Wickham King
Subject: Saddle-shaped boiler at Oxford Prison.
<< File: signature.asc >> Paul - Belated thanks for your comments and refs
to Bourne (1861 edn)
and Stephenson, et al (1829) and your second message yesterday
suggesting the Boulton & Watt Collection (deposited in Birmingham
I have indeed had several very helpful replies from Ind Arch and am
copying this back to the list.
a) Boiler pre-dating the prison? The boiler is so integrated with the
1780s structure it cannot reasonably be older, and the historic maps of
the castle show no building anywhere near this.
b) Boiler providing steam power for construction?: I think if the
boiler had related to construction it would have been installed in a
more accessible position.
c) Boiler for a steam powered water pump? This could be, assuming it
was a steam generator, but the obvious water source is at the opposite
corner of the prison beside the river, with tanks surviving in adjacent
St George's Tower, and a capstan arrangement designed to use a different
power source (i.e. the prisoners).
d) Boiler for a laundry? Jason Lucas was first to suggest this, because
he felt this was a water boiler rather than steam generator. He
referred me to Dr. Eleanor Casella at the University of Manchester, and
I'm hoping to hear from her. It looks promising because the later
laundry is on this side of the range. John Ferris notes `Water boilers
didn't start appearing until after c1820, before then they were usually
steam at low pressure, about 5psi', but this could still give it up to
50 years operation before abandonment in 1868.
However John Ferris asks `Are we sure it is a boiler and not a warm air
stove', and I have to say that the bore size of the (?Inlet) pipe seems
extravagant for water (see photo, use hand-shovel for scale, maybe
75-100 mm bore). But the Victorian prison has hot air ducts of massive
scale (1 m square section), and this pipe looks puny by comparison.
Perhaps after all it is about right for a water-hearing system using
Two questions have been raised which I can't answer from memory, so I
will need to consult with the site staff.
1) Pat Achon asks was the "external" tubing made from steel/bronze/ are
they soldered ? any more tubing present around the boiler ?
Provisionally I think a lot of this went as the general contractor was
digging out upper part of the vault, before the significance of the
boiler was recognised.
2) Jason Lucas points out that some indication whether the boiler was
original may come from how the connecting pipe-work goes through the
masonry, i.e. if there is evidence of hacking through it is more likely
to have been a later installation.
Thanks again to all. Incidentally for those of a stronger constitution
there is a forthcoming `Meet the Ancestors' programme on a different
aspect of the Oxford Castle work, which may briefly show the hanging
cell next door, though filmed before the boiler was discovered. Said to
be BBC2 16 Feb, but I can't find confirmation on the Beeb website. -
Brian Durham ([log in to unmask])
also Oxford City Council ([log in to unmask])