William Smith and Steam Power

Yesterday I wrote about Edward Hayes, one of Wolverton and Stony Stratford’s steam pioneers. His early associate was a farmer from Little Woolstone, William Smith. Smith came from a well-established farming family in that area and was born at Church Farm in 1814. His father, like many successful 18th century farmers, had expanded his faming interests to include farms at Woughton and Great Linford and young William cut his farming teeth on these farms before returning to Church farm on his father’s death in 1837.


Smith was a man of financial as well as intellectual resources and began to experiment with steam power for agricultural applications and before long he found a fellow traveller in Edward Hayes, who was then working at Wolverton. The problem for Smith and all steam pioneers in the agricultural area was the excessive weight of steam traction engines which quickly bogged them down in the soil while they were in use. Smith’s eventual solution was to design a stationary engine which could haul ploughs and cultivators through the fields through a system of ropes and pulleys.


He had some success with these monstrous machines in the mid century and by 1862 was reported to have 200 customers on his books. Sir Frank Markham describes the efforts of a day’s harvesting in July where a field of wheat was harvested at Linford, threshed by another machine and taken to Little Woolstone Mill to be ground into flour. The effort of days or a week was dramatically cut.


This was not without its social impact. In 1851 his farm at Little Woolstone employed 21 men. By 1861 this number was down to 7 men and 6 boys. By 1877 trade union organisers were speaking at Little Woolstone and finding a ready ear amongst workers who saw their jobs disappearing and their wages stagnating. Smith was not accustomed to this method of dealing with his workers and appears to have been unable to make the adjustment. His response was to cease farming and building machinery. The fields were  left to grass and pasture and he put all his machinery in a barn and bricked up the walls. The machinery was discovered in 1958 and restored. I am not sure where they are to be found today.


William Smith, although married twice, had no children. His first wife, Susannah Williamson, was 14 years older than he and probably about 40 when they married. Likewise his second wife Louisa was in her 50s. So the fact that he had no children to take over the family business may in part have led to his uncompromising position.


The steam engine had a relatively short history on the farm. Once lighter, more maneuverable oil powered engines appeared the steam engine quickly vanished from the farm. Thomas Hardy describes the impact of the steam engine  in his 1891 book, Tess of the Durbervilles.

Close under the eaves of the stack, and as yet barely visible was the red tyrant that the women had come to serve – a timber- framed construction, with straps and wheels appertaining – the threshing-machine, which, whilst it was going, kept up a despotic demand upon the endurance of their muscles and nerves.


The “red tyrant” works remorselessly and agricultural workers in Dorset were now experiencing the domination of the machine, much as their industrial cousins earlier in the century. The natural rhythms of working in the countryside, once governed by daylight and the weather, were now under the rule of an unseen clock.

William Smith’s minor legacy was to be an early adopter of the industrialization of agriculture.


Edward Hayes and the Watling Works

One of the more remarkable men to come to Wolverton in those early railway years was Edward Hayes. He was born in Manchester in 1818 where he did an apprenticeship. Then he found work at the new Engine Repair shop at Wolverton, probably in 1839. We know a little about those years because he was a room mate of Hugh Stowell Brown, who later wrote about him in his own autobiography. They were both serious young men, eager to make their mark in the world and keen on self improvement.

Four of us, Edward Hayes, William Harvey, William Mickle, and myself, drew together. They were journey men, but young, the oldest not more than twenty-five years. We agreed to lodge together with a peasant named Cox at Old Wolverton. Hayes was a little man, a clever, skilful workman ; he came from Manchester, and was great in phrenology, and in Combe’s ‘Constitution of Man.’ Harvey was a Derbyshire man, one of the best workmen in the place, and gifted with a dry and pleasant humour. Mickle was a Scotchman, brought up in London; a boisterous but kindly fellow, whom Hayes pronounced to be a man in whom combativeness and self-esteem were abnormally developed. The four of us slept in two beds placed in one small room. We had our meals in the lower room of the cottage, which was the kitchen, and there was a small room, about eight feet square, which we converted into a study, and in which we tried in the evenings to improve our minds, which, sooth to say, sorely needed improvement. On Sundays, Hayes generally went out into the fields to meditate; Harvey went to the Methodist Chapel at Stratford; Mickle wandered from one place of worship to another; and I went to church somewhere in the neighbourhood, generally to Stratford, because there was an organ there, which, however, was very execrably played. Our studies were various. Hayes went in for philosophy; Harvey for theology; Mickle for mechanics ; I for mathematics. I don’t think we read a novel all the time we were together, and our whole stock of books was not worth £5.

A few years later Edward Hayes found a sponsor, William Smith, a Woolstone farmer, and set up his works at the Wolverton End of Stratford. At first he made agricultural machinery, for which there was a demand in the 19th century. He then used the knowledge he had acquired at Wolverton to develop steam engines to power agricultural machinery. These were successful.

In the late 1860s, when the Watling Works were well established and thriving, he turned his hand to boat building. Apparently he had some knowledge of this from his apprenticeship in Manchester. Boatbuilding in the middle of he country did not strike people at the time and since as a natural fit, nevertheless, Hayes’ energy, engineering know-how and product quality made sure of success and orders came in from many parts of the world. At one time they were building vessels up to 80 feet long.

These vessels, once finished, were transported up the High Street to the canal wharf at Old Stratford. There they were slid into the water and comfortably delivered by canal to their destination. Even though this was one of England’s major trunk roads it was still possible for a slow moving wide load to take up the road without traffic hold-ups.

Edward Hayes died in 1877 and his son (also Edward) took over the firm. Boat building was now the mainstay of the business. The firm continued to thrive into the first quarter of the 20th century but then seemd to lose the drive and energy of its founder. edward Hayes junior died in 1917 and his son only lived to 1920. After this the firm continued to 1925 when it closed down.

Hayes’ commitment was not simply to making money (which he did) but also to spreading his engineering knowledge. In this sense he was also remarkable and quite early he took on apprentices, which he managed to attract from across the country. Sir Frank Markham notes three who went on to distinguished careers after learning the ropes at Hayes: Osborne Reynolds, Professor of Engineering at Manchester University, Sir Frederick Rebbeck, Chairman of Harland and Wolff, who had a hand in the design of the Titanic, and B J Fisher, who became Chief Engineer of the London and South Western Railway.

One of the last boats to be built was acquired by the Milton Keynes Development Museum in 2004. It can be seen at the entrance to the museum.