What is Boaters And Bright Sparks?

Welcome to the blog for the Boaters And Bright Sparks project, an initiative that is cataloguing the records held at Warwickshire County Record Office of engineering firm Willans & Robinson and its successors. The company pioneered the manufacture of steam engines and turbines for electricity generation and the project will highlight its innovations and the historical importance of the archive which is not widely known about.

The Record Office received £50,000 to catalogue and conserve the archive from two sources – the National Cataloguing Grants Scheme and the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust. Project cataloguer and archivist Gary Collins started work in August 2013 and he was joined by Project conservator Kaori Hilton shortly afterwards. The main project aim is to have a catalogue of the records available online. Although we are over halfway through the project we now aim to give frequent updates until it finishes in June 2015.

Willans & Robinson began as a partnership between Peter Willans and Mark Robinson in 1880 at Thames Ditton in Surrey and manufactured high-speed steam engines using Willans’ design for river launches. Willans invented the central valve steam engine that was crucial to the firm’s initial success. Limitations at the Thames Ditton site and the need for more room led to the company building the Victoria Works at Rugby in 1897. The town was chosen because of its central location, good transport links, and a workforce skilled in manufacturing and power generation because of the railway industry.

By the 1890s Willans’ engines were driving almost 70% of the turbines generating Britain’s overall electricity output – hence the project title reflecting the move from boats to electricity. Despite this success and developments in steam electric locomotives, motorcar parts production, boiler manufacture and steam turbines, the firm struggled with its finances and was taken over in 1917 by Dick, Kerr & Co., which then became part of the English Electric group a year later. English Electric was taken over by GEC in 1968 which meant that the site (now called the Willans Works) joined former rivals British Thomson-Houston, another GEC company that was also located in Rugby. Today the Willans site hosts the thermal power division for Alstom.

The collection includes an extensive photographic archive which volunteers had already made great progress with and other volunteers are supporting the project by working on staff and apprenticeship records.

Watch this space for more project posts soon…….