Originally, it was one of two engines used to pump water back up to the 491 foot (150 m) summit level of the BCN Old Main Line (Birmingham Canal) canal at Smethwick, not far from the Soho Foundry where it was made. The other engine, also built by Boulton and Watt, was at the other end of the summit level at Spon Lane. In 1804 a second Boulton and Watt engine was added alongside the 1779 engine.
The engines were needed because local water sources were insufficient to supply water to operate the six locks either side of the canal's original summit. The locks could have been avoided if a tunnel had been built, but the ground was too unstable for James Brindley to build a tunnel using the techniques available at the time. In the 1780s, a cutting was constructed by John Smeaton, enabling three of the six locks on each side to be removed.
In the 1820s, Thomas Telford constructed a new canal parallel to the old in a deeper cutting, at the 453 ft Birmingham Level, creating the largest man-made earthworks in the world at the time. It was spanned by the Galton Bridge. The engine was still needed, despite both these developments, and Thomas Telford constructed the Engine Arm Aqueduct carrying the Engine Arm branch canal over his New Main Line so that coal could still be transported along the arm to feed the Smethwick Engine.
In 1892, a replacement engine was built in a new pumping house, now Grade II listed, next to Brasshouse Lane, as the original Smethwick Engine was considered uneconomic to repair. The original Smethwick Engine was then removed to British Waterways Ocker Hill depot where it remained until acquired by Birmingham City Council. It is now part of the collection of Birmingham Museums and is on display at the Thinktank science museum at Millennium Point in Birmingham. It is the oldest working engine in the world.
The engine house was demolished in 1897. Its original site and foundations can still be seen on Bridge Street North in Smethwick, just north of the junction with Rolfe Street. Tours of the site can be arranged through the Galton Valley Canal Heritage Centre which is based in the New Smethwick Pumping Station and regularly opened by Sandwell Museum Service and The Friends of Galton Valley.
Points of interest
(Links to map resources)
|OS Grid Ref||Notes|
|Smethwick Engine original pumphouse||SP025889||Bridge Street North, Smethwick|
|Engine Arm Aqueduct||SP022889|
|New Smethwick Pumphouse||SP018889||Brasshouse Lane, Smethwick|
- Birmingham's Canals, Ray Shill, 1999, 2002, ISBN 0-7509-2077-7
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Smethwick Engine.|
- Model of the Smethwick Engine
- The Smethwick Engine at Thinktank, Birmingham science museum
- English Heritage. "New pumping house, Grade II (219213)". Images of England.