There's more to the Dover Victorian Fairbairn Crane than meets the Eye, Kent, UK

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John Latter on April 12, 2011

This third 19th Century illustration relating to "The Mystery of the Victorian Fairbairn Tubular Crane on Esplanade Quay, Dover Marina" (see below) is taken from the 1860 book, "Useful Information For Engineers: Being A Series Of Lectures Delivered Before The Working Engineers Of Yorkshire And Lancashire" (1) by Sir William Fairbairn (19th February 1789 – 18th August 1874), the Scottish civil engineer, structural engineer, shipbuilder, and 1st Baronet of Ardwick.

Accompanying text (abridged):

These structures (wrought iron tubular cranes) are identical in principle with the tubular bridges over the Conway and Menai Straits (ie the Conway or Conwy Railway Bridge, both built by Robert Stephenson), and present additional examples of the advantages which may yet be derived from a judicious combination of wrought iron plates in constructions requiring security, rigidity, and great strength (wrought iron is an iron alloy with a very low carbon content in comparison to steel).

About ten years ago the first design for a wrought iron crane was submitted to the Admiralty for their approval. It was a crane calculated to afford greater security and facility in the embarkation and disembarkation of heavy stores, and was in other respects better qualified for raising heavy weights than the cranes previously in use. The design was placed in the hands of the Surveyor of the Navy (a civilian officer in the Royal Navy and a member of the Navy Board, from 1848-1859/1861 it was Sir Baldwin Wake Walker) and Mr. Lloyd the Inspector of Machinery, who were so well satisfied as to the superiority of the construction that an order was given to erect six of them, in different positions along the line of quays of the new docks at Keyham and Devonport.

These cranes were all of the same size and strength, and were intended to lift weights of 12 tons to a height of 30 feet above the ground, and to sweep them round over a circle of 65 feet in diameter; so that the projection of the jib was 32 feet 6 inches from the centre of the stem, and the extreme height 30 feet above the working platform.

The cranes were composed of wrought iron plates riveted together, and so arranged as to give the back or convex side an adequate degree of strength to resist tension, and the front or concave side, which in these cranes was of the cellular construction, a corresponding power to resist compression. The form was similar to that of the prolonged vertebrae of the bird, from which the machine takes its name; it was truly the neck of the crane (a family, Gruidae, of large, long-legged and long-necked birds in the order Gruiformes), tapering from the point of the jib, where it was 2 feet deep by 18 inches wide, to the level of the ground, where it was 5 feet deep and 3 feet 6 inches wide. From this point it again tapered to a depth of 18 feet below the surface, where it terminated in a cast-iron shoe, forming the toe on which the crane revolved.

The lower or concave side, which had to resist a force of compression, consisted of plates forming three cells, varying in width in the ratio of the strain at each part; and on the other hand the convex or top side, which has to bear the pull or tension due to the suspended weight, was formed of long plates connected together by the system of "chain-riveting," first applied in the tubular bridges in Wales. The sides were of uniform thickness throughout, the joints being covered with T-iron internally, and on the outside by strips 41 inches wide.

The form of the jib is shown in fig. 61 (the above photo), with a portion of the side removed from A to the foot, in order to show the cast-iron cylinders built into the masonry; and the rollers which encircle the body of the crane and support the jib vertically, permitting, however, free motion of revolution as they roll against the large circular plate a a (the second "a" on the right looks more like a "u"). Immediately above the rollers is a platform A, 12 feet in diameter, attached to the jib, on which the men stand to work the crane; b is one of the winches connected by gearing with the barrel in the interior of the crane, on which the chain is coiled, and d a wheel connected by gearing with a spur segment wheel fixed on the masonry, by which the crane may be revolved in any direction at pleasure.

Fig. 62 (not yet uploaded) is a plan of the crane and platform, showing the upper flanch (a variant of flaunch and flange) of the large ring a a, with the holding down bolts cc c. Fig. 63 (the above photo) is a section of the jib of the crane, showing the cells on the concave side of the jib.

There's an 1868 Fairbairn swan-neck tubular crane (2) similar to the one in the above drawing located on Esplanade Quay, once called Ordnance Quay, on the southern side of the non-tidal Wellington Dock in Dover Marina - it certainly came as a surprise to discover, that in terms of height, a third of the crane is embedded into the dockside!

Wellington Dock is a Grade II Listed Building (3). The following extract is © Crown Copyright and reproduced under the terms of the Click-Use Licence (PSI licence number C2010002016):

CRANE: The crane is a small hand-driven rotatory crane with swan-necked jib of riveted box frame construction. It was built by the Fairburn Engineering Co. of Manchester in 1868. It was once used by the Ordnance Department and was originally capable of lifting 50 tons. It was later de-rated to 20 tons and used for lifting yachts out of Wellington Dock. (Source: English Heritage)

A minor mystery concerns whether or not this Victorian crane is a "small hand-driven rotatory crane", as described above, or a decommissioned steam-powered crane whose performance specification was downgraded ("de-rated to 20 tons") at some unknown point in the past, perhaps as a result of the power unit being removed.

The questioning of the crane's original power source arose as a result of resolving a discrepancy in the spelling of the manufacturer's name: English Heritage state, "It was built by the Fairburn Engineering Co. of Manchester in 1868", while the nameplate is inscribed with, "The Fairbairn Engineering Company, Limited. Manchester" (ex-William Fairbairn and Sons).

The way the story unfolded is described in the caption to:

Mystery of the Victorian Fairbairn Tubular Crane on Esplanade Quay, Dover Marina

Which contains links to the first two 19th Century illustrations (4):

Victorian Diagram comparing Ordinary Cranes with Fairbairn`s Swan-neck Tubular Crane

Victorian Drawing of Large Steam Crane built on Sir William Fairbairn`s Principle

Having come to the conclusion in the first of the above links that the Dover Fairbairn Crane had probably been originally powered by steam, it had been my intention to upload the side view, or elevation, shown at the top of this page, followed by a plan view for "completeness", and then move on to other things. However:

To be honest, I barely glanced at the "Accompanying Text" to the side view and almost missed the clue it contains - which ought to teach me that if a job's worth doing, then it's worth doing well, but after 60 years on this planet, I doubt whether the lesson will stick any better this time than it has done in the past!

Anyway, digging just a little deeper has solved the "mystery" completely, and the definitive answer to the question of how the Dover Fairbairn Crane was first powered will be described in the caption to the plan view photo (see subsequent Comments for the links).

A Dover Harbour Industrial Archaeology (Archeology) and History photo.

(1) Full title: Useful Information For Engineers: Being A Series Of Lectures Delivered Before The Working Engineers Of Yorkshire And Lancashire: Together With A Series Of Appendices Containing The Results Of Experimental Inquiries Into The Strength Of Materials, The Causes Of Boiler Explosions, Etc." by Sir William Fairbairn, Geological Society of London and dedicated to Major-General Edward Sabine, an Irish astronomer, geophysicist, ornithologist and explorer.

The text quoted is from "Lecture VII: On Wrought Iron Tubular Cranes" from the copy held by the University of Michigan, Department of Engineering (now College of Engineering).

(2) See the Wikipedia entries for Fairbairn steam crane and Cranes

(3) Grade II: buildings that are "nationally important and of special interest".

(4) Taken from "The Life of Sir William Fairbairn, Bart": Chapter XVIII - The Manchester Manufacturing Business. An autobiography and biography by Sir William Fairbairn, edited and completed by William Pole (1877).

Click to see all photos of Dover's Fairbairn Crane, Listed Buildings, and English Heritage sites.

John Latter / Jorolat

Dover Blog: The Psychology of a Small Town

This is the Images of Dover website: click on any red or blue "John Latter" link to access the Entry Page.

John Latter on April 13, 2011

Click to see the Solution to the Victorian Fairbairn Crane Mystery, Dover Marina, Kent, UK:

"...Four men, each working a winch of 18 inches radius, act by two 6 inch pinions upon a wheel 5 feet 3 and 3/4 inches diameter..."

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  • Uploaded on April 4, 2011
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    by John Latter