Grace's Guide

British Industrial History

Thomas Aveling

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1863. Traction engines.

Thomas Aveling (1824-1882) was the founder of Aveling and Porter and is known as the 'father of the Traction Engine'.

Antecedants Pear Tree Hill Farm, near Wisbech offered for sale and is currently leased to Thomas Aveling until 1828 [1] Note: Possible his father.

1836 July 7th. Marriage of Anne, relict of Thomas Aveling of Eaton Socon, Bedfordshire to the Rev. John O'Urban, Curate of High Halstow, Kent. [2]

1838 Marriage of Hamilton Georgina daughter of the late Rev. Thomas Aveling. [3]

1844 Mentions animals attacked at the farm of Thomas Aveling of Parson's Drove. [4]

1850 Thomas Aveling of March, Isle of Ely wins prizes at the Smithfield Show for his cattle [5]

General 1824 Thomas Aveling born at Elm, Cambridgeshire in September 1824 but moved to Rochester when his mother remarried. Not a happy childhood due to a strict clergyman father.

Thomas was apprenticed to a farmer Edward Lake of Hoo St. Weburgh.

1850 Later farmed at Court Lodge in Ruckinge in 1850.

1851 Living at Court Lodge Farm, Ruckinge (age 26 and born at Elm, Cambridgeshire), Farmer of 298 acres employing 16 men and 6 boys. With wife Sarah (age 24) plus two house servants. [6]

1851 Letter regarding threshing trials where he claimed to have been the best with his Clayton and Shuttleworth machine. Of Ruckringe Court, Ashford. [7]

1855 He is listed as a Brick and Tile Maker and as a Farmer at Ruckinge, Ashford [8]

1856 He set up a agricultural repair business produced a steam plough that won him an award.

1858 He acquired premises in Rochester High Street.

1858 He is listed as a Brick and Tile Maker and as a Farmer at Ruckinge [9]

1861 Thomas Aveling, agricultural engineer of Rochester is an expert witness at inquiry in to a fatal accident of the London, Chatham and Dover Railway. [10]

1861 Living at 24 High Street, Rochester (age 36 and born at Eton, Cambridgeshire), Engineer and Irin Founder employing 82 men and 14 boys. With wife Sarah (age 34) and daughters Ellen (age 9) and Charlutte Brice (age 2) and Mary (age 6) plus three servants [11]

See Aveling and Porter.

1868 Thomas Aveling, Mayor of Rochester [12]

1871 Living at Margaret Street, Rochester (age 45 and born at Whittlesey, Cambs), Engineer employing 300 men and boys. Living with wife Sarah (age 43) and daughters Alice (age 17) and Charlotte (age 12) plus three servants [13]

1881 Living at Boley Hill House, Rochester (age 56 and born at Whittlesed, Cambs), Agricultural Engineer employing 260 men and 61 boys. With wife Sarah (age 54) and children Thomas L. (age 24 and born at Ruckinge), a mechanical engineer, and Charlotte B. (age 22) plus a visitor and a servant. [14]

1882 March. Died. Eminent agricultural engineer and head of Aveling and Porter. [15]

Succeeded by his son Thomas Lake Aveling.

1883 Obituary [16]

THOMAS AVELING, to whom more than to any man is due the improvement and development of the modern traction-engine and steam road-roller, was born at Elm, near Wisbech, on the 11th of September, 1824.

His family was one of the oldest in Cambridgeshire, in which county it had been settled for between four and five centuries. His grandfather was high sheriff for Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire in 1802.

Mr. Aveling’s father died while he was very young, and his mother subsequently removed to Rochester, where she was married a second time to the Rev. John D’Urban, who for more than twenty years was in clerical charge of the parish of Hoo Saint Werburgh. It was in the Hundred of Hoo, and during the latter part of the above named period, that Mr. Alreling first gained practical experience in agriculture, while later he became a farmer at Ruckinge, in Romney Marsh. In appreciation of his exertions in this direction the farmers of Kent presented him with a piece of plate and a purse containing three hundred guineas.

He was, however, in many ways more fitted for an enginecr than a farmer, at all events as farming was carried on in those days, and he was impressed with the fact that a great deal remained to be done to adapt steam-power thoroughly to agricultural requirements. Soon after this he gave up farming and established small works at Rochester for the manufacture and repair of agricultural implements.

One of the points to which Mr. Aveling early devoted his attention was the rendering of agricultural engines self-moving. The anomaly of a steam-engine being drawn to the site of its work by six horses he compared to 'six sailing vessels towing a steamer.' Mr. Aveling did not at first build engines, but applied his improved chain-gear to ordinary portable engines constructed by Messrs. Clayton and Shuttleworth.

He commenced building on his own account about 1860, when he exhibited his first engine at the Royal Agricultural Society’s Show at Canterbury, while in 1862 (he having been then joined by Mr. Porter) the firm of Aveling and Porter exhibited an engine at the London International Exhibition. Mr. Aveling’s earlier engines were not traction-engines in the ordinary acceptation of the term, but were simply self-moving agricultural-engines not intended to haul after them a heavier load than a thrashing machine. Later on, however, Messrs. Aveling and Porter took up the manufacture of traction-engines for haulage purposes, as well as that of steam-ploughing engines, their works steadily developing in size and productive power, until they reached their present important position.

In Mr. Aveling’s earlier engines the power was transmitted from the second-motion shaft to the driving axle by a pitch-chain, and for many years Mr. Aveling was a strong advocate for this form of gear, and did much to perfect its manufacture. Thus, by the employment of a duplex drilling-machine to insure accuracy in the pitch of the links, the use of core-anneaIed steel for the pins, and by the choice of good proportions, he secured for this chain-gear a durability far beyond that which it possessed before his improvements were introduced.

He also devised convenient arrangements for tightening the chain when stretched, by moving the bearings of the second-motion shaft, at the same time maintaining a constant distance between that shaft and the crankshaft, so as not to interfere with the action of the toothed gear. The introduction of steel-castings, however, and cast-steel gear, may be said to have revolutionised traction-engine construction, and it led Mr. Aveling to abandon the chain-gear for all ordinary engines.

Mr. Aveling was a thorough believer in the benefits of steam-jacketing, and upwards of twenty years ago he patented his well known arrangement, in which the cylinder is surrounded by a capacious jacket forming the steam-dome, the steam traversing this jacket on its way to the valve-chest, which it enters at the top. This has now been generally adopted by traction engine builders.

Mr. Aveling was, it is believed, the first to build a traction-engine with a single cylinder, and for many years he had to uphold its advantages against great opposition. The sufficiency of the single cylinder for all ordinary conditions is generally acknowledged, whilst its simplicity has led to its extended adoption.

A feature connected with Mr. Aveling’s earlier practice was the arrangement of the steering wheel, which he devised about 1860, and which was fitted to the engine exhibited at the International Exhibition of 1862. According to this plan, which was for some years adopted by his firm to the exclusion of other arrangemcnts, the leading axle had attached to it a light frame projecting forwards, this frame carrying at its front end the vertical axis of a forked spindle, in the fork of which was mounted a sharp-edged wheel bearing on the road. This wheel could be readily diverted by a tiller to either side, and, when thus diverted, it led off to the side towards which it was pointed, taking with it the front end of the light frame and so locking round the leading axle. The engine thus followed the pilot-wheel as it might be named.

During later years Mr. Aveling’s attention was devoted to improvements in detail rather than to the introduction of any radical changes in traction-engine construction. Amongst these improvements may be specially noticed the plan of carrying up the side plates of the firebox-casing to form the brackets for the crankshaft- and countershaft-bearings, and in steam-ploughing engines for working on the double-engine system, the introduction of right- and left-hand engines, so that the rope when hauling should in both engines lead on to the side of the drum next the driving pinion, thus relieving the drum-spindle of by far the greater part of the strain.

The combination of a traction-engine and crane - an arrangement which he exhibited at the Royal Agricultural Society’s Show at Leicester in 1868, when it received a 'commendation' from the judges - although not originating with Mr. Aveling, was one which he did much to bring into a practical form, and it was one which materially increased the usefulness of traction-engines. The amount of work possible by one of these handy crane-engines can only be appreciated by those who have seen it handling exhibits in a show-yard, or employed under similar conditions.

Another combination of Mr. Aveling of much promise, and really a development of the crane-engine, although it is one which has not yet been fully developed, consisted in the attachment of a traction engine to a reaping-machine, the latter being propelled in front of the former, and the reaper-mechanism being driven by a belt from the engine, so that the adhesion of the reaper wheels had not to be relied upon. This novel machine was tried at Leamington, in connection with the Royal Agricultural Society’s Birmingham Show in 1876, when it performed wonders in ordinary crops, and afterwards Mr. Aveling demonstrated the ability of the engine to climb up a greasy incline without burying the wheels, carrying the reaping machine with it.

Up to the time of his death it may be safely said that no man had such a practical knowledge of steam-haulage on roads as Mr. Aveling, or such a thorough appreciation of the requirements which traction-engines ought to fulfil. A firm believer in the great future of steam-traction, he combined with exceptional experience, keen powers of observation, abundant energy and good common sense, which served him in overcoming failures and opposition under which most men would have given way. Of the success which attended his efforts, the great number of traction engines now in use forms the best record; amongst these being the numerous military engines (adapted for either rail or road service) which he constructed for the Royal Engineers at Chatham, and on the perfection of which he bestowed much attention.

Another matter with which Mr. Aveling was most prominently connected was the introduction of road-rolling by steam. The idea of employing steam power for this purpose originated with the late Mr. William Clark, M. Inst. C.E., when chief engineer to the municipality of Calcutta, and a steam road-roller was then designed by Mr. Batho, M. Inst. C.E. It was not, however, until the construction of such rollers was taken up by Messrs. Aveling and Porter that they came into use in this country.

As in the case of traction-engines, so in that of steam rollers. Mr. Aveling carefully studied the requirements to be fulfilled in practical working, and he introduced successive improvements from time to time as experience showed the weak points of the earlier designs.

Mr. Aveling soon appreciated the serious objections which existed to the employment of the heavy rollers at first thought to be necessary, and he devoted himself to the perfection of machines of comparatively light weight and capable of being readily handled in any thoroughfare.

A great point was that, in his traction engines, Mr. Aveling had obtained an economical motor, and by combining this with the parts requisite for road-rolling, he produced a machine which would do the work at an exceedingly moderate cost for fuel and maintenance. As a result, Messrs. Aveling and Porter’s steam road-rollers are now to be found in nearly every important town in the kingdom.

Mr. Aveling was elected an Associate of the Institution on the 7th of February, 1871, and was transferred to the class of Members on the 4th of December, 1877.

In 1869 he was elected a member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, and he also belonged to the Iron and Steel Institute.

In 1875 he was elected on the Council of the Royal Agricultural Society, and was nominated a member of the Implement Committee, afterwards becoming associated with the Chemical, the Educational, and the Showyard Contracts Committee. In each of these spheres he manifested great activity, but his name, in connection with that Society, will be most distinctly associated with his successful efforts to establish a chemical laboratory at the Society’s house in Hanover Square.

On the Education Committee he was almost equally energetic. He hit a great blot in the system of primary education, by showing that the farm-labourers’ children were taught a great deal that would be of little use to them in after life, with comparatively little that would serve them in the vocation of their fathers. He was an earnest advocate for replacing the reading-books and diagrams in use in rural schools by others illustrating agricultural subjects. On one occasion he exhibited a series of diagrams taken from a Board School wall, showing that an idea of zoology was sought to be conveyed by means of a picture of the Duck-billed Platypus; the structure of a cow or a horse by a picture of the skeleton of an extinct elephant, and so forth. Similarly he showed the inapplicability of the existing text-books to the education of children in agricultural districts, and asked why a dog, a cat, a cow, a sheep, and a horse should not be as good illustrations of natural history as lions, bears, and other exotic animals.

In the various International Exhibitions of England, France, Austria, America, and other countries, Mr. Aveling took a most active part, and he received from the French Government the dignity of Chevalier of the Legion of Honour, while the Emperor of Austria conferred on him the knighthood of the Order of Francis Joseph. He was a member of the executive committee of the Peasant-Farmer’s Seed Fund in 1871, after the Franco-German war, and he took a leading position in the introduction of steamcultivation into France.

In the city which he had long made his home, Mr. Aveling’s decease has been severely felt. A thorough Liberal in politics, and an active and earnest worker in the cause of his party, Mr. Aveling never allowed his political feeling to interfere with his aid to schemes of public utility. Few but those who have been intimately associated with him either know, or ever will know, how much Rochester owes to his energy and liberality. A warm advocate for bringing the advantages of a thoroughly good education within the reach of the masses, Mr. Aveling devoted much time to the organisation of the public schools of Rochester. Since his death a fund has been raised to establish an 'Aveling Scholarship'for Sir Joseph Williamson’s school. In the establishment of baths and other public improvements he also took a leading part, and he was a member of most of the local public bodies, while he had also filled the office of mayor. Of late he had taken an active part in the development of the Farmers’ Alliance, and in the dissemination of its principles, and he was the Chairman of the Mid-Hent branch of the Alliance at the time of his death.

In private life, Mr. Aveling was much beloved. Strict as a military martinet in business-hours, and exacting to the utmost as to the manner in which work should be done, yet outside the workshop he was never tired of giving those in his employment opportunities for healthful and improving recreation. As is so frequently the case with engineers, he was very fond of yachting; but with him, even this was not a mere idle amusement. There was always something to be done; fishing, or racing, or wild-fowl shooting; chess, draughts, cards, and an infinity of other devices, always made life on board the 'Sally' (so-called after his wife), anything but monotonous. It was on board this yacht that he caught the chill which produced his fatal illness, and to the great grief of all who knew him, he died of pneumonia on the 7th of March, 1882, in his fifty-eighth year.

1883 Obituary [17]

THOMAS AVELING, of Rochester, was born on 11th September 1824, at the village of Elm near Wisbeach, Cambridgeshire, in which county his family had lived for many generations, and where his grandfather was High Sheriff in 1802.

Mr. Aveling's first occupation was farming, which he followed under the late Mr. Robert Lake, of Milton Chapel near Canterbury. Whilst so engaged he was brought face to face with the fact that the few agricultural implements of that date — some forty years ago — were crude in design and often bad in workmanship; the corn drill, the reaper, and the horse threshing-machine were in their infancy, and the steam plough had yet to be invented. In all the implements then in use on Mr. Lake's farm he took the liveliest interest; and possessing a natural bent for mechanics and a remarkable faculty for understanding at once what would work and what would not, he was able, in effecting repairs, to make improvements at the same time.

At about twenty-five years of age he took a farm on his own account at Ruckinge on Romney Marsh, and on this farm he placed one of the earliest portable engines and threshing machines made by Messrs. Clayton and Shuttleworth. With the construction and working of the engine he soon became quite familiar, effecting all minor repairs and adjustments with his own hands; and in the early days of portable-engine construction, in out-of-the-way districts such as Romney Marsh then was, such repairs might well tax the ingenuity of a practical engineer.

Whilst using this engine on his own farm and hiring it out to neighbours, he was struck with the mechanical absurdity, now generally admitted, of allowing so ponderous and at the same time so powerful a machine to be drawn by four horses, when it possessed in itself a power ten times that of the horses which, with more or less risk of serious injury to themselves, were laboriously dragging it.

In 1856 Mr. Aveling introduced the steam plough into Kent, in conjunction with the late Mr. John Fowler of Leeds and Messrs. Ransomes and Sims of Ipswich. This so well pleased some of the leading agriculturists of the county that a handsome testimonial and a purse of 300 guineas were presented to him.

At this time a small millwrighting and foundry business was for sale at Rochester. This Mr. Aveling and his father-in-law, Mr. Lake, bought; and here Mr. Aveling (besides carrying on the former business) developed a considerable trade in the repair of portable engines, and in the conversion of new portable engines into self-moving engines by the substitution of a revolving road-shaft for the ordinary axle, wider and stronger wheels, and the addition of a pitch-chain to transmit the power from the crankshaft. The earlier engines were without steering gear, a single horse in shafts serving to steer them.

The first patent for pitch-chain driving-gear was taken out in 1859, the object being to take up the slack due to the wear of the chain, without affecting the pitch-line of the gearing. This object his invention effected in a simple manner; and it is not too much to say that the great success his engines met with from the first was due to the faith he had in pitch- chains, which are more suited for the rough usage and crude repairs of country districts than cast-iron geared wheels.

In 1860 he exhibited for the first time a self-moving engine at the Royal Agricultural Society's Show at Canterbury; and in 1861, at the Leeds Show of the Society, he exhibited for the first time an engine entirely of his own manufacture. It was at this period that he was joined by Mr. Porter, who, with Mr. Aveling's only son, Mr. Thomas Lake Aveling, is now carrying on the business at Rochester. By this partnership, which was only terminated by Mr. Aveling's death, a thorough commercial knowledge was added to Mr. Aveling's practical abilities, thus contributing largely to the success and repute of the Rochester firm. From the date of the construction of Mr. Aveling's first self-moving engine he always aimed at simplicity and strength. He never put two cylinders where one would do. By placing the crankshaft aft, and the cylinder forward, he secured two advantages: first dry steam when most wanted, i.e. when pulling up hill; and secondly, the fly-wheel within reach of the driver, should he carelessly let the crank stop on the centre.

Seeing that one of the most important elements of success in road locomotives was a supply of dry steam to the cylinder, he arranged a steam-jacket in such a way as to serve for a dome; and in later years he substituted wrought-iron brackets (formed by continuing upwards and backwards the side plates of the firebox) for the cumbrous cast-iron brackets previously in use, thereby greatly increasing the strength of the engines and their immunity from breakdowns. It is this rigid adherence to simplicity and strength which entitles him justly to be called the "father of traction engines," as George Stephenson was of locomotives.

By his invention and introduction of steam road-rollers, the condition of the macadamised roads of our towns has been entirely altered, and an economy of from one-fourth to one-third in material has been effected, whilst the saving in wheel-tyres, horse-shoes, horse-flesh, and time cannot be computed. He was one of the first men in this country to see the importance of hydraulic riveting; he put down one of Tweddell's riveters at Rochester in the spring of 1872, and the hydraulic plant there is now very complete, comprising fixed and portable riveters, shearing and punching machines, and hydraulic cranes.

Mr. Aveling demonstrated that on dry land it was possible to plough by direct traction, though the system cannot compete successfully with wire-rope traction, so large a portion of the power being absorbed in propelling the engine itself. Experiments on the same principle with a reaping machine were more successful; and by attaching a large side-delivery Bell-Crosskill reaper to one of his crane engines, pushing it in front, lifting it off the ground by the crane at the turns, and driving the cutter-bar by a pitch-chain from the crank-shaft, a most successful machine was made, which took a Gold Medal at the Royal Agricultural Society's Show in 1876.

Previously to the introduction of the present worm-wheel and chain-barrel steering-gear, Mr. Aveling invented an ingenious and simple appliance which gave very good results for many years; and as it is now nearly extinct it will be interesting to record it hero. By this arrangement the leading axle of the engine had attached to it a triangular frame projecting forwards, and carrying at its front end the vertical axis of a forked spindle, in the fork of which was mounted a sharp-edged wheel bearing on the road. This pilot wheel could be readily diverted by a tiller carrying a quadrant with handles at intervals; and when thus diverted it carried round the front end of the light frame, and thus led round the leading axle which was compelled to follow the pilot wheel.

Mr. Aveling was also concerned in the introduction of steam for purposes of war; his "steam sappers" are well known in the Artillery and Royal Engineers, and have rendered important service in recent campaigns.

By the combination of a traction engine with a jib and chain-barrel a most effective crane-engine was constructed by Mr. Aveling, and exhibited at Bedford in 1868, and in 1870 at Oxford. Engines capable of lifting six tons and moving with that load have been made on this principle. At Agricultural Shows and International Exhibitions they have proved invaluable, notably at Vienna in 1873, and at Paris in 1878. It was probably largely due to the honorary work performed by the engine at Vienna in 1873 that Mr. Aveling received from the Emperor of Austria the Order of Franz Joseph, and after the Paris Exhibition, from the French Republic, the Legion of Honour.

Mr. Aveling was a Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers; and was elected a Member of the Council of the Royal Agricultural Society in 1875. Here his energy and ability were much felt in all things relating to showyard contracts and other matters involving technical knowledge. Ho became a Member of this Institution in 1869. He was an active member of the Farmers' Club and of the Society of Agricultural Engineers. In the town of his adoption, to the prosperity of which he so largely contributed, ho took the most lively interest in public affairs, more especially in all matters connected with education and rational recreation. The opening of the Corn Exchange, the Castle Gardens, Public Baths, &c., are all clue to him.

He died from congestion of the lungs, caught whilst yachting, on Tuesday, 7th March 1881, at the comparatively early age of fifty-seven.

A memorial fund to his memory has been set on foot in Rochester, with the object of founding an "Aveling scholarship" at Sir Joseph Williamson's School.

1882 Obituary [18]

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. The Morning Chronicle (London, England), Monday, August 16, 1824
  2. The Bury & Norwich Post, & East Anglian: Or, Suffolk, Norfolk, Essex, Cambridge, and Ely Intelligencer, Wednesday, July 13, 1836
  3. The Standard, Friday, April 06, 1838
  4. The Bury and Norwich Post, and East Anglian (Bury Saint Edmunds, England), Wednesday, August 21, 1844
  5. The Morning Chronicle (London, England), Tuesday, December 10, 1850
  6. 1851 Census
  7. The Morning Chronicle (London, England), Tuesday, December 10, 1850
  8. Post Office Directory of Essex, Herts, Kent 1855
  9. Melville & Co.'s Directory of Kent, 1858
  10. The Morning Chronicle (London, England), Wednesday, January 9, 1861
  11. 1861 Census
  12. The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 11, 1868
  13. 1871 Census
  14. 1881 Census
  15. Reynolds's Newspaper, Sunday, March 12, 1882
  16. 1883 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries
  17. 1883 Institution of Mechanical Engineers: Obituaries
  18. 1882 Iron and Steel Institute: Obituaries