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Lancashire boiler are a type of steam boiler that was developed in Lancashire, England and used extensively in the cotton mills during the industrial revolution and Victorian era till electricity took over.

Lancashire boiler, from Fairbairn's lecture

One of a pair of Lancashire boilers at the National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port used to power steam pumps in the dock

Lancashire boiler in Germany


The Lancashire boiler is similar to the Cornish, but has two large flues containing the fires instead of one. It is generally considered to be the invention of William Fairbairn in 1844, although his patent was for the method of firing the furnaces alternately, so as to reduce smoke, rather than the boiler itself.[1] Stephenson's early 0-4-0 locomotive "Lancashire Witch" had already demonstrated the use of twin furnace tubes within a boiler 15 years earlier.[2]

Fairbairn had made a theoretical study of the thermodynamics of more efficient boilers, and it was this that had led him to increase the furnace grate area relative to the volume of water. A particular reason for this was the so-far poor adoption of the Cornish boiler in the cotton mills of Lancashire, where the harder local coal couldn't be burned satisfactorily in the smaller furnace, in favour of the older low-pressure wagon boiler and its large grate.[3]

The difficulties of the Cornish boiler were that a boiler of any particular power would require a known area of furnace tube as the heating area. Longer tubes required a longer and more expensive boiler shell. They also reduced the ratio of grate area relative to the heating area, making it difficult to maintain an adequate fire. Increasing the tube diameter reduced the depth of water covering the furnace tube and so increased the need for accurate control of water level by the fireman, or else the risk of boiler explosion. Fairbairn's studies of hoop stress in cylinders also showed that smaller tubes were stronger than larger tubes. His solution was simple: to replace one large furnace tube with two smaller ones.

The patent[1] showed another advantage of twin furnaces. By firing them alternately and closing the firebox door between firings, it was also possible to arrange a supply of air past the furnace (in the case of a Lancashire boiler, through the ashpan beneath the grate) which would encourage the flue gases produced by the fire to burn more completely and cleanly, thus reducing smoke and pollution.[4] A key factor in this was the distinctive shuttered rotating air damper in the door, which became a feature from the 1840s.

The use of two flues also has a strengthening effect, acting as two long rod stays that support the end plates.[5]

Later developments added Galloway tubes (after their inventor, patented in either 1848[6] or 1851[7]) crosswise water tubes across the flue, thus increasing the heated surface area. As these are short tubes of large diameter and the boiler continues to use a relatively low pressure, this is still not considered to be a water-tube boiler. The tubes are tapered, simply to make their installation through the flue easier.[8]

Lancashire boilers often show corrugated flues, which absorb thermal expansion without straining the riveted seams. Another development was the "kidney flue" or Galloway boiler, where the two furnaces join together into a single flue, kidney-shaped in cross-section. This widened and flat-topped flue was stayed by the use of Galloway tubes.

Although the Lancashire boiler is considered to be an antiquated design, provided that the flue is long enough it can be reasonably efficient. This does lead to a bulky boiler though, particularly for its length, and this has always limited its use to stationary installations. It was the standard boiler in Greater Manchester and Lancashire cotton mills.

Places with Lancashire boilers

A number of museums with stationary steam engines have Lancashire boilers in-preservation as part of the display some of these work and are used to feed the Stationary steam engines that are on display.

See also

  • Types of boiler
  • Boilermakers

References / sources

  1. 1.0 1.1 GB 10166 , Fairbairn, 1844
  2. (1958) The British Railway Locomotive, 1803-1853. Science Museum. ISBN 11 290152 2. 
  3. Hills, Richard L. (1989). Power from Steam. Cambridge University Press, 103. ISBN 0-521-45834-X. 
  4. Hills, Power from Steam, p. 138
  5. Fairbairn, On Boiler Explosions
  6. "Lancashire Boiler" (pdf). Museum of Science & Industry, Manchester.
  7. Hills, Power from Steam, p. 134
  8. K. N. Harris (1974). Model Boilers and Boilermaking. MAP. ISBN 0852423772. 

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