Powerful Partnership: Greg, Ewart and the First Engine
In 1796, Samuel Greg found a compatible business partner in Peter Ewart. While it is said that he brought no capital or experience in cotton spinning, Ewart had extensive mechanical knowledge and he used this to expand Quarry Bank, increasing the potential for power from the river and installing the very first steam engine by 1810. Find out more about Peter Ewart and read about our hunt for the first steam engine here.
Ewart had been employed by Boulton & Watt of Soho Foundry in Birmingham, makers of statutory engines, supplying various businesses across the country. He had become their northern agent, visiting sites to evaluate the possibilities of steam installation and was in fact responsible for installing the first steam engine which drove machinery directly, at a mill in Manchester belonging to a Mr Drinkwater.
Ewart was a visionary, writing innovative papers related to the understanding of force, and was involved with key circles and initiatives in Manchester, including the Manchester and Liverpool Railway and The Literary and Philosophical Society, later to become the Mechanics Institute. This Institute later wrote of his character: ‘The memory of that engineer sounded pleasantly in the ears of the elder men who knew him well.’
Once partnered with Samuel Greg, Ewart set about expanding the potential of Quarry Bank, damming the river and building a reservoir to provide water to the mill in times of drought and installing a second water wheel to regulate flow. By 1810 he had introduced the first steam engine, which supplemented water power when water levels were low. To acquire this in time for the warmer months, he used his connections with Boulton & Watt to jump the queue for a 10 horsepower engine. The engine had been intended for a John Rennie, ‘Dear Watt, You will oblige us very much if you can prevail upon Mr Rennie to let us have his turn of one of the 10 Horse Engines. This month of March is generally the time when water falls short, and it will be an important object to us to have it in the course of this month. I shall write to him tonight to request his consent, but I must trust your influence for obtaining it’. In May of that year Ewart wrote to Watt thanking him ‘for your despatch and friendly attention to our wants’.
The partnership was incredibly fruitful and by the time he left the firm the potential of power had grown tremendously with the number of active spindles rising from 1000 to 4000.
But was there a steam engine at Quarry Bank before 1810?
The hunt for the first steam engine
Whilst undertaking research for Power at Quarry Bank, several of the Technical Volunteers encountered an issue. References in various publications as well as the Mill Memoranda – a document which gives key dates and events from the Mill’s history – suggested there was steam power at Quarry Bank much earlier, possibly around 1803.
- A letter was sent from Ewart to Boulton & Watt in 1802, which read: ‘Greg & I have just concluded to have a 30 Horse Engine and I beg you will put us immediately upon your list. I do not mean to trouble you with anything extra about it but we must have a little scheming about it, which I like more as it affords me an opportunity of visiting you… time is a great object to us. Can you strain a point for a friend on that score?’
- There are plans at Boulton & Watt archives showing this engine in design.
- The specification of the 1803 engine at 30 or more horsepower does not match any expectation as the 1810 engine was a 10hp engine.
- The destination of the 1803 engine is given as Manchester not Styal.
- A day book at Manchester Central Library shows that in 1803 coal was being purchased at 15 shillings per week for one cart load; comparing this with later figures shows that this would not have been enough to power a steam engine.
So where did this engine go?
The hunt for the answer to this question is ongoing. Archival research can be like wandering around a maze with more questions arising around each corner. We believe that we are close to pinpointing the destination of the 1803 engine and will be sure to share our findings with you!