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The Ruston in the Blue Lagoon

Updated: Oct 22, 2021

The Ruston in the Blue Lagoon – a new documentary

Lockdown gave Producer Andrew Blow the chance to create his streamed documentary and DVD about the world’s oldest working excavator.

On a hot day in August 2020 - between Covid-19 lockdowns - I ventured with video camera and tripod to the site in Lincoln where “Hooley”, Ruston Proctor & Co’s steam navvy number 306, had been built in 1909.

Lockdown number one had given me the chance at last to return to a documentary project about the remarkable story of “Hooley.”

Earlier last summer I carried out a long interview with Ray Hooley, the engineering conservator who organised the rescue of 306 from a watery grave in 1976-77 - and named it after his grandfather who had briefly been a navvy.

I wanted to cover the ups and downs of “Hooley” since Ray’s remarkable 18-month rescue campaign at Arlesey chalk pit in Bedfordshire where the navvy lay for 47 years in 25 feet of water.

I also wanted to look into Ruston Proctor history to put “Hooley” and excavator development in context. I was encouraged by the availability of terrific early still images of Ruston machines and the Ruston Proctor Boilerworks where 306 was built. I intended to film or scan these images and weave them into the story.

Also, from my own family, there was a little film of excavators at work in 1935 on a river project in Ireland. … 9.5 mm cine taken by Joseph Blow, an employee for the successor company Ruston-Bucyrus and the grandfather I never knew.

Soon after his Irish trip Joseph died of carbon monoxide poisoning as he slept in a boarding house in Northamptonshire. Once again he was away working for RB – at an ironworks site nearby. His early death left my grandmother in Lincoln with four children to raise.

So there I was, just south of central Lincoln, where 306 had been built. These days, at the corner of Beevor Street and Firth Road, a drive-in shopping centre is there. You could get a new tyre fitted at Halfords.

There was nothing to commemorate the sweat and tears of the Boilerworks. An immense effort in navvy production went on there from 1905 until the new Spike Island works opened nearby in 1919. Machines that were built that were literally and metaphorically ground-breaking. A sales log for the period, owned by Ray, shows that navvies were exported all over the world.

I knew the landscape well from previous filming. In the foundry next door, William Foster and Co built the world’s first fighting tanks in 1915-16. With Presenter Richard Pullen, a Military Historian, I had trudged around here to film the “Birth of the Tanks” DVD for the Centenary year.

I have briefly included in the Ruston film rare local footage of Foster’s tanks. Behind the tanks, one can see a railway known as the “high” line, or avoiding line. Behind images of the Ruston Proctor navvy test ground, you can see the same railway.

Today, on a nearby roundabout, Fosters are remembered by the Lincoln Tank Memorial. Foster’s MD, Sir William Tritton, one of the two acknowledged inventors of the tank, has Tritton Road named after him, a major route through this locality. The Boilerworks site is known as the Tritton Retail Park. (See our DVD "Lincoln Tank Weekend")

Sir Joseph Ruston and his vast contribution to world engineering is remembered by Ruston Way nearby. Elsewhere in the city, Siemens, the eventual successor to the Ruston companies, still work on a key site – known back in the day as the “Sheaf Ironworks”--- that Sir Joseph first developed in Victorian times.

Now that the tank men and women are memorialised, maybe there should be an information board about the Boilerworks – especially as one of its products, ”Hooley”, can still be seen in action, pandemic permitting. As Ray will point out, Lincoln was the key British engineering city of this period.

It was in 2011 that Ray’s call led to my own introduction to 306. The gist of his message was that the oldest excavator was being moved its static display position in the Museum of Lincolnshire Life to a new home in Cumbria. He was kindly giving me a tip in case I wanted to film it.

It’s often best in filmmaking to get the shots while you can and worry later about budget so I went twice to the museum with their kind permission….. once to film the navvy in its final days at its museum location, again to film the lifting of the 30-ton main frame by a modern crane on to a low loader bound for the Vintage Excavator Trust’s quarry at Threlkeld near Keswick.

I met the late Adrian Patterson, a much respected Trustee of the VET, who had travelled to Lincoln to assist in the removal. I am pleased to say I interviewed him on video.

I talked also to another VET member, Lincoln-based Derek Broughton, who had worked for both Ruston and Hornsby (Ruston, Proctor & Co successors) and Ruston-Bucyrus, and he made a lively contribution.

The navvy would be subject to essential works at the VET before it could be displayed and this was subject to a Heritage Lottery Grant.

Intermittent contact with Ray, and occasionally with George Chambers of the VET, continued. In 2017 I learned that the works were complete, the navvy was going to be demonstrated, and Ray was heading north so he could see it.

At short notice my wife and I loaded the video gear and whizzed to Cumbria….and were so pleased that we did. It was our debut at the Trust and we found it to be a filmmaker’s paradise!

From the flatlands of Lincolnshire, it was great to be in the hills, and to see Skiddaw again. We thought the site was amazing – we’d never seen anywhere like it. So many camera angles, so much excavator movement, and such interesting characters. And it was so friendly!

Again the footage was captured to our PCs, backed up…..and left. To shorten a long story, come the lockdown, cometh the opportunity and – still with little funding – I was at last able to begin writing and editing.

Roll on into 2021 and I am delighted to report that I have ticked all my boxes and a 48-minute documentary, “The Ruston in the Blue Lagoon”, is now out on DVD, and available for streaming

(so is our terrific second feature “The Lincoln Trams.” )

The project brought me into renewed contact with Peter Robinson, author of four specialist and much sought-after volumes on the Lincoln Excavators, and I must thank Peter for his encouragement, and for burrowing into his archives to make available facts, photographs and drawings.

Most of all I must thank Ray Hooley for his kindness and patience in my dealings with him. Never once did he hassle me over the slow pace of this work. His own collection of Ruston images and photos of the 1977 rescue have been invaluable.

I’m pleased that our City recognised Ray’s contribution to our engineering heritage by the presentation to him of the Lincoln Civic Award in 2017. When the pandemic eases our country faces an uphill climb and in Lincoln we’ll do well to remember what our forefathers achieved.

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