Hidden Treasure - Peter Turvey of The Science Museum at Wroughton reveals the Empress of India traction engine

Interview by Chris Broughton | 09 April 2009
a photo of a man in flat cap and glasses next to a traction engine

Peter Turvey of the Science Museum at Wroughton with his beloved Empress of India

In his own words... kicking off a new Culture24 series of features in which we invite curators to talk about some of the treasured items not on show to the public, Peter Turvey of The Science Museum at Wroughton reveals the joys of an 1881 McLaren Traction Engine, ‘Empress of India’.

"I've always been fascinated by steam engines and the engineering skills that built and maintained them. Traction engines are a particular interest. I would have first ridden on one when I was about ten, but I didn't really get to do a lot of hands-on driving until I was in my mid-20s. I've since owned two, so far.

I was fortunate to be taught to handle a traction engine by my friend Ivan Fear, a very skilled craftsman who had driven one for a living in the 1940s. Nowadays I spend most of my time driving a computer, so it makes an exciting change to take an engine out on the road and get one's hands dirty.

I first came across the Empress of India in the 1980s, during visits to The Science Museum at Wroughton, where I’m now Head Curator. I saw her in the conservation hangar and thought, "what a splendid old engine." I used to drive traction engines as a volunteer at Kew Bridge Engines Museum in London, and the Empress made an interesting contrast to the 1892 McLaren model I was familiar with there.

To my mind, bits of engineering like these have a very purposeful appearance, the sort of look that runs through many classic British engineering products, and which you can still see today in specialist cars like the Land Rover Defender or an Aston Martin. However, I’m afraid one of our industrial failings is that we seem to be only really good at the niche products.

The Empress was acquired by the Science Museum in 1985 by Andrew Patterson, then Curator of Agriculture, largely because she came with a unique set of Fowler 'roundabout' ploughing equipment.

a photo of a man in flat cap and glasses next to a traction engine

The Empress was acquired by the Science Museum in 1985 and came with a unique set of Fowler 'roundabout' ploughing equipment.

In many museums and traction engine rallies and so on you see engines divorced from the machinery they drove, towed or operated. Here, though, we have not only what is one of the oldest and finest surviving Victorian traction engines, but also the unique equipment she drove for over 70 years. That makes her of world-class significance. In the acquisition case Andrew wrote, "it is of considerable importance as an example of the early methods to mechanise the cultivation of land."

The Empress' technical file contains a wealth of information. She seems to have spent all her working life on one farm on Romney Marsh in Kent. She was probably in use until about 1950, and in 1956 Pegden Bros, agricultural and general engineers of Elham, Kent, bought her for preservation. This was at a time when engines were usually scrapped.

Then in 1962 the late Commander Baldock of Hollycombe, Hampshire bought her - I suspect this is where she acquired the name ‘Empress of India’. She was in running order until about 1980, when the boiler expired. On her 100th birthday, Empress was given a coal birthday cake - there is a photo in her file of the cake, too. Presumably it was chucked into her boiler.

In 1985 Commander Baldock put her up for sale, and so she came to the Science Museum. Today, Empress and the roundabout tackle she drove are still in storage at Wroughton, in a hanger that’s accessible only for professional research – this splendid thing is just sort of tucked away. On the one hand, it would be magnificent to see her running again, and driving the ploughing tackle as she used to, but from a conservation point of view it's not viable - too many vital parts need replacing. However if I could persuade somebody to build me a half scale model…"

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