Power at Quarry Bank: volunteer research

The Power Project is well under way and the fantastic team of Technical Volunteers have been hard at work researching various power systems from the history of Quarry Bank.

The Technical Volunteers

Some of the Technical Volunteers discussing their research (left to right: John, Peter, Bruce, David, Richard, Steve and Toni)

Normally you will find the Technical Volunteers in the Power Gallery of the mill, deep in discussion with visitors who want to learn more about how things worked during each phase of the mill’s history. These discussions have, on occasion, left the team a little stumped, having been asked specific questions that they have been unsure of due to some gaps in our understanding of what happened when and why. Through our research for the power project, the volunteers have been investigating some of these gaps in order to provide a more complete explanation when the mill reopens in the summer.

What were the daily tasks of the mechanics?

Who was responsible for switching the engine on?

When was the horizontal engine scrapped?

What was the exact date of installation of the first engine at Quarry Bank?

How much more power did the turbines really provide?


As well as some fantastic objects and engine parts which you may have seen during your visit to Quarry Bank, the archive holds a vast amount of paper records. We have ledgers showing what money was being spent and where, wage books to show who was responsible for specific jobs and a whole host of business records, invoices and general correspondence. The team have been trained to use the archive and have spent lots of time filing through some of these documents, such as the 1868 Mechanics Wage Book below, to find the answers to their questions. It has involved a lot of patience as the answers have not been easy to find, but we have made some great progress.

IMG_9332 A3 QB Collection Ledger
1868 wage book showing daily tasks of the Mill Mechanics

The Power Trail

Sometimes the answers lie outside Quarry Bank. Manchester Central Library holds an archive of Quarry Bank records from stock books and ledgers to workers’ agreements and further wage books. In addition, the first engine suppliers to Quarry Bank were Boulton & Watt, who were based in Birmingham and many of their plans, sketches and correspondence reside in the Library of Birmingham.

The Hunt for the First Steam Engine

Before now, it was generally agreed that the first engine at Quarry Bank was installed in 1810. However, references in various publications as well as the Mill Memoranda – a document which gives key dates and events from the mill’s history – suggests there was steam power here much earlier, possibly around 1803. Pete, Jim, John and Alf made it their main objective to uncover the correct date and have travelled from Quarry Bank to Central Library over to Stockport Central Reference Library, down to the Library of Birmingham and back to Quarry Bank to do so. As is so often be the case with archival research, it has required patience, focus and a lot of magnifying glasses to read the faded writing of historic letters, and on occasion they have felt as though they have been pulling out more questions than answers. The search still goes on but they have found some key clues.

For example, 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 and time is a great object to us. Can you strain a point for a friend on that score?’ There are plans in the archive at the Library of Birmingham showing this engine in design, but it does not seem to make sense that such a powerful engine would have been installed at this time when a 10 horsepower engine was erected in 1810. The search continues…


Social histories can be the most gripping – knowing who was responsible for certain things and being able to form a picture of the lives of people long ago is a wonderful thing. Richard and John have spent time digging out the stories of the mechanics of Quarry Bank. From the 1860s they have been able to find out how each mechanic spent their working day, on the engine, pipes, roller-covering and more, and we have been able to combine this with census records to learn about their family lives, where they lived and how many children they had. It is the earlier mechanics who have been more difficult to connect with. At Central Library they were able to find the names of the men and to see that they were the highest earners of the workforce, but the wider picture of their work and home lives are unfortunately much less clear, though we hope to find some stories as we explore deeper into the archives.

Water vs Turbine Power: You Don’t Get ‘Owt for Nowt

Steve investigating water power records at Manchester Central Library

Steve has been concentrating on the water wheels of Quarry Bank, investigating designs, flow rates and repair works. His research emerged out of visitor queries regarding the installation of the water turbines in 1906, and whether the increased power came without cost. He wanted to prove exactly how much power the wheel was able to provide before the turbines were put in, in order for this information to be accurately shared in the future. Steve has enjoyed looking through ledgers, letters and diagrams, with a real pleasure for the old styles of handwriting – even though it can often be difficult to decipher – and while I don’t think he will mind me quoting him saying ‘I find archives a mystery’, he uncovered a document from 1856 which proved his own working calculations to be completely correct, getting him one step closer to answering his question.

Archives certainly can be a mystery, but the team have managed to do some fantastic research to fill the gaps of the history of power at Quarry Bank. Hold tight for our online exhibition Power at Quarry Bank in March to hear some of the stories and facts and to see some of the object and documents that have been uncovered.

If you’d like to find out more about Quarry Bank’s volunteering opportunities please visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/volunteer

Written by Kate Turner

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