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Boaters and Bright Sparks

The company history

Old photo of workmen

The firm began as a partnership at Thames Ditton in Surrey in 1880 and manufactured high-speed steam engines for river vessels. The invention by co-founder Peter Willans of the central-valve steam engine was crucial to the firm’s initial success and by 1892 Willans’ engines were driving almost 70% of the turbines generating Britain’s overall electricity output.

This success led to the need for larger premises so the company moved to Rugby in 1897 and it was taken over by Dick, Kerr and Company Ltd in 1917, which then became part of English Electric a year later. English Electric was incorporated into the GEC group in 1968, which also ran British Thomson-Houston, another engineering company that had a large site at Rugby. The Willans site now hosts the thermal power division for Alstom, so steam turbine design and manufacture continues there to this day.

Funding and supporters

The project was funded by the National Cataloguing Grant scheme and the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust and was led by Warwickshire County Council with support from Warwickshire Industrial Archaeology Society, Friends of the Warwickshire County Record Office, Rugby Local History Research Group, Rugby Family History Group, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and others.

The project


Old photo of company building

Cataloguing the records in more detail has opened up access to the collection and highlighted the importance of the company and its innovations, and ensured that this historically important business archive gets the recognition it deserves.

The company was also the first engineering firm in Rugby and one of the town’s biggest employers. The site is still important for local employment and cataloguing this collection has helped to show the impact on Rugby and its social history.

The project has also offered an opportunity to note Willans & Robinson archive material held elsewhere to help fill in gaps in the collection and to show the effect of company sales, takeovers and mergers in the power generation sector.


The National Manuscripts Conservation Trust funding has supported re-packaging and essential conservation work, especially for technical drawings and glass plate negatives.


Old photo of machinery

The records cover the period from the 1870s to the early 2000s and include an extensive photographic archive which volunteers have already made great progress with by indexing and promoting through talks. Local volunteers have also supported the project with research into the fascinating apprenticeship records that start in 1893. One of the firms’ best-known apprentices was Geoffrey de Havilland, who went on to become a famous aircraft engineer and aviation pioneer.

More information

For more information on the Boaters and Bright Sparks project, you can:

Heritage Culture Accredited Archive Service

Warwickshire County Records Office

Opening hours: Wednesday to Friday 9am to 4pm, Saturday 9am to 12 noon.

Address: Warwickshire County Record Office Priory Park Cape Road Warwick CV34 4JS

Telephone: 01926 738959