Around 9am on Saturday 15th September 1934 whilst leaving Newhaven Harbour Brighton Belle’s high pressure cylinder cracked.
In his excellent book “The Story of Campbell’s Steamers Volume 2” Chris Collard records that this happened “after the Chief Engineer had forgotten to open the drain valves.”
Whilst drains have a subsidiary role, when open, of helping to keep an engine free during manoeuvring and help prevent it getting steam-locked, their primary function is to remove condensate.
When steam enters a cold, or less than very hot, engine some of it will condense back into water. This needs to be removed from the cylinders and valve chests and hence they are fitted with drains.
Any water retained in the cylinders and valve chests and not removed by opening the drains is bad news for the engine. Effectively any such water becomes a hydraulic ram when compressed by the piston and this has great destructive power.
That this apparently happened surprises me in that, in my experience, cylinders are, and were, usually built with a pressure relief valve on the top of them to get rid of such water pressure in just this circumstance.
Maybe, in this case, there was just too much water in the cylinder for them to be effective. Maybe Brighton Belle didn’t have them fitted. Maybe they were set too high. Maybe the cylinder had an inherent weakness in it perhaps caused by poor alignment of the engine causing it to “work” on each stroke of the piston which over a period had weakened it.
Whatever the reason, the cylinder cracked so that was the end of that. Westward Ho was despatched south from the Bristol Channel to take over and Brighton Belle left Newhaven under tow of the tug Foremost 22 just before midnight on the following Tuesday bound for Bristol where she arrived nearly five days later.
There are two solutions to a cracked cylinder. If the crack is small and fairly superficial you may be able to repair it and stiffen the area around it. Or you can cast a whole new cylinder and fit that. I don’t know which option was chosen for Brighton Belle but I do know that she was back in service again on the Sussex Coast in 1935. So it was fixed.
What happened to the engineer who had apparently forgotten to open the drains I don’t know.
Kingswear Castle returned to service in 2023 after the first part of a major rebuild which is designed to set her up for the next 25 years running on the River Dart. The Paddle Steamer Kingswear Castle Trust is now fund raising for the second phase of the rebuild. You can read more about the rebuilds and how you can help if you can here.
This article was first published on 15th September 2020.