Updated: Nov 1, 2021
Posted by Andrew Blow May 4th 2021
In The Ruston in the Blue Lagoon DVD – out now - we follow the chequered life of the world’s oldest working excavator. Steam Navvy No. 306, nowadays known as Hooley, was built in 1909 by Ruston, Proctor and Co of Lincoln.
Having finished the documentary, I was curious to learn more about the Victorian entrepreneur Joseph Ruston whose highly productive company, revered today among steam enthusiasts, made so many early machines.
In one form or another “Rustons” ran in Lincoln for 133 years before the name was dropped in a re-organisation in 1989.
The Ruston spirit lives on today, after several mergers and takeovers, within the multinational Siemens. One of their key Lincoln sites – Waterside South – is one that Ruston himself knew and developed. On part of that site there has now been metal or engineering activity for 185 years. Today it’s the home of Siemens Industrial Turbomachinery Ltd.
Remarkably, if Joseph Ruston hadn’t needed a haircut in 1856 the story might never have happened! He was a 21-year-old apprentice in a Sheffield cutlery firm having left Wesley College in that city.
His barber had a cousin in Lincoln and had learned that Burton and Proctor, millwrights and engineers, needed new investment and salesmanship. He thought of his charismatic young customer and mentioned the opportunity during Joseph’s next visit for a haircut and beard trim.
Ruston visited Lincoln, mulled it over, and perceived good prospects in helping to modernise and re-tool agriculture. In that context Lincoln, in one of the largest agricultural counties, was a good place to be based.
Ruston’s late father had been a prominent farmer - and a Wesleyan local preacher - in Cambridgeshire. Ruston also felt that opportunities were limited in his current job.
With energy and determination he joined Burton and Proctor as a partner on January 1st 1857, aged 21, and made a financial contribution from his inheritance. It then had 25 employees.
His ideas and ambition were too much for Theo Burton who wanted out within months. At first James Proctor supported bold Ruston, but he too appears to have tired of the immense order book that salesman Ruston would bring back from exhibitions and shows, and he sold out to him in 1864.
Ruston lived for two things – his company and his family. As well as MD, he was the chief salesman, travelling the world to win business and appoint agents. He was a non-conformist and looked kindly upon the temperance movement – he seems to have been a classic Victorian entrepreneur.
As the firm grew, so did Ruston’s family with his wife Jane. Eventually there were two sons and six daughters.
The company catalogue expanded to include traction engines, threshing machines, road rollers, railway locomotives, stationary engines for generating electricity and other purposes, and power driven pumps. By 1869 there were 700 employees.
In 1880 Ruston travelled deep into Russia to sell pumps for the drainage of the Pripet marshes. Then, travelling through the night, he carried on to Baku near the Caspian Sea to sell engines for pumping oil.
Incredibly he found time to play a civic role in his home city. He was elected to the Council as a Liberal in 1865 and was Mayor in 1869-70.
In 1884, concerned that agriculture was again being neglected, he stood for Parliament as a Liberal. He was elected, and re-elected the next year, but stood down in 1886 because he could not support Gladstone’s Home Rule bill.
In the mid-1870s Ruston had bought James Dunbar’s patents for a steam navvy and thus excavator production began in Lincoln.
The building of the Manchester Ship Canal between 1887 and 1893, a controversial but ultimately successful project, required 71 Ruston steam navvies. Two of these, coming from either end, excavated the final spoil to link Manchester to the sea. It brought new prosperity to that city - in part by avoiding the dock charges of rivals Liverpool!
“Rustons” contributed significantly to the prosperity and growth of Lincoln. Above all, the firm stood for quality. Ruston did not believe any machine should only last 10 years, particularly ones headed for remote locations.
There are stories in Lincoln today of early machines, built in Victorian and Edwardian times, that worked on in faraway places well into the reign of Elizabeth II.
(Steam enthusiasts are keen to acquire surviving engines and Ray Hooley - the former Ruston and Hornsby librarian who organised the rescue of Navvy No 306 from the Blue Lagoon - helps them with their queries and search for parts.)
Ruston made his firm into a public company in 1889. The share issue was wholly taken up. Some shares were given to leading employees. By now the firm was exporting to 28 countries and had been awarded more than 200 gold, silver, and bronze medals at exhibitions.
At his death in 1897, the firm employed 2,550 men. It had produced more than 20,000 steam engines and nearly 11,000 threshing machines. Hundreds of his workers followed his cortege.
In 1901 his elder son, also Joseph Seward, succeeded him as Chairman and the company continued to thrive.
In 1909, navvy No 306 came from the Ruston boiler works in Beevor Street. As you will see in the film, Ray Hooley has the humble logbook showing its customer and date of departure.
In World War One, Lincoln’s engineering companies made a significant contribution to the war effort. Ruston, Proctor & Co built more aero engines than any other company and more than 2000 planes, many of them Sopwith Camels.
A Ruston plane flown by Lt William Leefe Robinson shot down a Zeppelin over Essex. Forty-eight hours later Robinson was awarded the fastest ever Victoria Cross. See the wreckage of the Zeppelin in the Imperial War Museum films:-
And the good-looking Robinson VC welcomed as a hero at a local school:-
in 1918 Ruston, Proctor & Co merged with Hornsby of Grantham to prepare for a post-war world in which there would be few orders for weapons, munitions, and military aeroplanes.
It was in this period that Ruston and Hornsby flirted with motor car manufacture. In the 21st century I visited the Firth Road works on a Saturday morning to film Ruston enthusiasts lovingly repair one of the surviving cars.
It wasn’t until 1919 that excavator manufacture moved to the purpose-prepared Spike Island works. The Prince of Wales, later (briefly) Edward V111th, visited in 1927 after opening the Usher Art Gallery in the city. From 1930, excavator production came under Ruston Bucyrus, formed from a merger of the excavator interests of Ruston and Hornsby and those of Bucyrus Erie in America.
in 2000 Jon Finch, an enterprising Keeper of the Museum of Lincolnshire Life, contacted the owners of historic Ruston traction engines and steam rollers, and somehow negotiated with Alstom, Siemens predecessors, to allow these incredible machines into the site of their manufacture decades before.
You can see a clip from this day in the film. It was then that I interviewed Ruston‘s descendants one of whom, if I remember rightly, owned one of the traction engines. I remember the delight of the Ruston owners when they met the family.
Sources: Wikipedia, “One Hundred Years of Good Company”, written for Ruston and Hornsby by Bernard Newman in 1957, “Victorian Lincoln” by Sir Francis Hill, plus
some of my own anecdotes.