Boats and bells

The Willans Works engineering site at Rugby, now part of the Alstom group, has not only been involved with land-based power generation, but also with sea vessels. Willans & Robinson, the company that opened the Rugby site in 1897, started as a partnership at Thames Ditton in 1880 specialising in steam engines for boats and as a result boat-building as well.

The boat Sprite, built in the 1880s by Willans & Robinson at Thames Ditton

The boat Sprite, built in the 1880s by Willans & Robinson at Thames Ditton – CR4031/4/453/88 (reproduced by kind permission of Alstom Ltd)

The archives of the Willans Works site, being catalogued at Warwickshire County Record Office as part of the Boaters & Bright Sparks project, includes material relating to work on boats, yachts and submarines by Willans & Robinson and successor companies at the Rugby location – English Electric, GEC and Alstom. This includes Ministry-designed diesel engines built for HMS Tireless, a ‘T’ class submarine that entered service in 1945. What was then English Electric’s Willans Works sports and social club ‘adopted’ the sub and its crew and held a reception for them in early 1944. A Tireless adoption committee raised funds to buy items for the sub’s crew such as board games, books, magazines, playing cards, radios, record players and records. English Electric also donated material to the crew and this continued until the 1950s – another visit was made in 1952.

Balance sheet showing how much was raised by the Willans Works in Rugby in 1945 for the crew of submarine HMS Tireless

Balance sheet showing how much was raised by the Willans Works in Rugby in 1945 for the crew of submarine HMS Tireless – CR4031/7/373  (reproduced by kind permission of Alstom Ltd)

When HMS Tireless was taken out of service in 1966 the Works Manager EM Price managed to get the sub’s bell and he then presented it to the sports & social club to mark his term as the club’s president. The bell was mounted above the club bar and was used to ring time to indicate that the bar was closing.

The bell from the first HMS Tireless submarine, which was presented to the sports & social club at English Electric's Rugby site and subsequently given back to the second HMS Tireless

The bell from the first HMS Tireless submarine, which was presented to the sports & social club at English Electric’s Rugby site and subsequently given back to the second HMS Tireless – CR4031/7/373 (reproduced by kind permission of Alstom Ltd)

A new HMS Tireless (SSN class sub) was commissioned in 1985 and this also had Willans Works involvement – the site, now GEC’s Industrial & Marine Steam Turbine Division, provided two naval steam turbines and condensers. The sub’s crew discovered that the Willans Works had the old sub’s bell and asked if they could come to Rugby to see it. During their visit in September 1985 the sports & social club presented the old sub’s bell and a plaque to the new HMS Tireless crew, who gave GEC a replacement because the company was adopting the new sub as well.

A brochure about the visit was published by GEC and noted that the company had first been approached by the Navy during the Second World War because of poor fuel consumption on British ships and the need to get access to the research and development expertise of specialist turbine builders. The brochure also has a list of Navy ships fitted with GEC steam turbines.

A starboard naval turbine ready for despatch from the GEC Industrial & Marine Steam Turbine Division at the Willans Works, Rugby in 1985

A starboard naval turbine ready for despatch from the GEC Industrial & Marine Steam Turbine Division at the Willans Works, Rugby in 1985 (reproduced by kind permission of Alstom Ltd)