An engine as old as Ireland: the Irish Naval Service restores a 1922 Vickers Petters
24 April 2017
PO/ERA Duggan, PO/ERA O'Hara and Paul Evans
Haulbowline Island, located in the centre of the second-largest natural harbour in the world, where the River Lee flows down to meet the sea, is a place of rich history. Tucked away in an unassuming corner of a disused building, a historical gem had being waiting rediscovery.
In 2012, while passing the Seamanship Bay in the island’s Naval Base, Petty Officer/Engine Room Articifer (PO/ERA) Alan Duggan chanced upon an old collection of engineering parts and machinery during some renovation works. These has been abandoned many years ago and, being an avid old-engine enthusiast, he recognised that there just might be gem or two of historical value tucked away in the rusting jumble.
He spotted what he thought might be a type of ‘hot bulb’ stationary engine, which looked very interesting, and he began to seek out information as to how it came to be there.
How was he able to identify this so readily by just passing by? Well, because he has a similar engine of his own, which he overhauled and currently maintains. PO/ERA Duggan is the proud owner of many historical engines and he has in his collection a ‘Blackstone, Type W 1920, hot bulb stationary engine’ in full running condition.
There was a hiatus of nearly two years in PO/ERA Duggan’s interest and there were a lot of nautical miles under the hull before he rotated ashore to the Fleet Support Group from his seagoing unit.
Investigating the treasure trove
Never a man to stay still, PO/ERA Duggan renewed his investigations of this treasure trove. When he was selected to serve as an engineering instructor with the Technical Training School (TTS) of the Naval College – now co-located in Ringaskiddy, Co Cork, with the National Maritime College of Ireland (NMCI) – he considered that “the classes of technical trainees would benefit from some hands-on instruction in two-stroke technology, as well as the opportunity to instil in them some appreciation of the historical engineering involved”.
The TTS and the NMCI have a wide range of both running and ‘cut away’ or ‘sectioned’ engines on which the young civilian and military, both tradesmen and engineers, learn operations, watch-keeping and maintenance. However, these are primarily four-stroke engines and PO/ERA Duggan thought that this old engine would provide a ‘living classroom’, where the two stroke could be brought to life and used as a classroom aid.
In fact, it was not just an engine that was to be brought back to life, but it also provided a link back to a rich history back. The hands of the youngest tradesmen in the Naval Service would work on a machine installed by skilled craftsmen in 1922, when Haulbowline had yet to fully throw off the yoke of British rule and in what modern sailors call the ‘Old Seamanship Bay’ (then called ‘Storehouse 13’).
Having sought sanction and approval from Lieutenant Commander Clodagh McConnell OiC TTS, and from the officer commanding the Naval College and Associate Head of the NMCI (CNC) Commander Steve Walsh, this project was brought to Support Command HQ to Captain (NS) Mick Malone to help PO/ERA Duggan gain access to the engine. Commander William Roberts visited and gained assistance from Naval Dockyard’s civilian employees, which was of huge benefit.
Singular example of a Vickers Petters engine
The first part of the task was to correctly identify what was in front of the TTS staff. Having had its nameplate removed at some point, the casted block revealed that it was a Vickers Petters engine. Using the power of Google and his contacts in the restoration world, PO/ERA Duggan reached out to the curator of the Internal Fire Museum in North Wales, Paul Evans, who directed PO/ERA Duggan to locate the maker’s marks on the crankshaft, head and bearing caps.
These vital pieces of information lead to the identification of the engine; a Vickers Petters Model VE2, two stroke, hot bulb, semi-diesel. It is marked as being rated to 70 horsepower and is a rare historical item indeed. In fact, it may well be the only one of this model still in existence; certainly, it is the only one of its kind in Ireland and the EU.
Trolling through the tomes of information in the archives of the Internal Fire Museum was a journey back in time and efforts were rewarded by the successful location of a manual for the engine and some records of its manufacture and delivery to Ireland. On 29 June 1922, the Cork Electric Tram & Lighting company took delivery of the Vickers Peters Model VE2 onto the dockyard side of Haulbowline.
Haulbowline had been spilt by the British in half, with a dockyard on the east and a military side on the western half. The dockyard side was handed over to the Board of Works in 1923 and the military side and Spike Island remained in British hands under the handover of the Treaty ports in 1938.
This is the only written record located and PO/ERA Duggan was unable to glean much information about the following years. Naval draftsman Neil Rasmussen has said that when he investigated some of the drawings from many years ago, “the Model VE2 stationary engine was driving a dynamo which supplied electrical current to the massive capstans located at the head of the slipways that run adjacent to the long stone buildings”.
It was by this means that the small boats were removed from the waters and were used to haul the boats up the slips for maintenance and repair. On this southern side of the island, the sea bays were the long workshops where generations of craftsmen of many trades worked to keep all the smaller boats that did not require dry-docking in ‘ship shape and Bristol fashion’.
The last known report of the engine being fired up was discovered by Senior Chief Petty Officer/Engine Room Articifer (SCPO/ERA) Mick Kennedy who, on hearing that the project was under way, put out a call on social media via the ‘Irish Navy Friends Connection’ page on Facebook. Reports back indicated that the engine had possibly been run as late as the 1970s by Naval Dockyard personnel from time to time.
SCPO/ERA Kennedy led the restoration of a cannon in 2015, which was cast between 1700-1715. This 6/9lbs cannon is thought to be one of the oldest items on Haulbowline Island. “The Naval Service wider Defence Forces should invest more in preservation project of this nature,” he said. “A future project might be the restoration of the Lister engine and generator from one of the Flower Class Corvettes, which is installed in the building across the slipway in which the Vickers Petters engine is currently located.”
How the engine works
This engine is known as a semi-diesel engine due to the method of its operation. It starts off its the internal combustion process by the use of kerosene-fuelled burners to heat the ‘hot bulb’ or ‘vaporiser’ mounted on the cylinder head, into which fuel is sprayed. This bulb is connected to the cylinder by a narrow passage called the ‘hot tube’.
This kerosene is pressured and mixed with air so the burner acts as a heating torch, which raises the temperature of the hot bulb and hot bulb tube until the iron is red hot. The fuel is ignited by coming into contact with a red-hot metal surface inside a bulb, followed by the introduction of air (oxygen) compressed by the rising piston.
There is some ignition when the fuel is introduced, but it quickly uses up the available oxygen in the bulb. Vigorous ignition takes place only when sufficient oxygen is supplied to the hot-bulb chamber on the compression stroke of the engine.
The control of the gases produced by the internal combustion is where the major difference in power production takes place. In four-stroke engines, the flow of gases is controlled by valves and in two strokes, these are controlled by the covering and uncovering of ports in the cylinder wall.
A heavy oil-fuelled engine would have a compression ratio of 3:1 or 5:1, where a more typical diesel engine compression ratio would be between 15:1 or 20:1. Most hot-bulb engines were produced as one-cylinder, low-speed two-stroke crankcase-scavenged units, while this Vickers Petters Model VE2 is a two-cylinder configuration.
Then it is turned over by compressed air supplied at 150-170 lbs per sq inch, which is directed into the cylinders while a sprayer is used to introduce diesel fuel into the chamber once the engine is rotating. The correct timing of this fuel spray being very important so it is as the piston approaches 10º before top dead centre.
Once combustion is achieved, the engine will run with great reliability once fuel is continuously supplied. Connected to the engine is fuel oil storage tank which is separated in two, one 20-gallon chamber of Kerosene and one 35-gallon chamber of diesel oil.
Of course, getting the engine back into running condition took a huge effort and no small amount of skill. The engine was seized, it had parts missing and even all its bolts (which were old imperial Whitworth sizes) had to have the correct spanners located.
Putting it all back together
Many long days were spent and hundreds of hours where logged in the process. PO/ERA Duggan introduced many TT/ERA or mechanicians classes to the engine for practical classes. The trainees helped strip the engine down, learning valuable lessons in basic skills and the importance of respecting heritage.
The various classes tackled all the different jobs required, from cleaning back years of exterior grime to helping to fabricate guardrails for around the flywheel. The massive exposed flywheel would be lethal if an unsuspecting student was to get snagged on it while running. All the while, students were learning about the mystery of the two-stroke cycle.
The skills and knowledge acquired in the restoration of a two stroke have commonality with nearly all internal combustion engines, as they have the same basic components and layouts. Inside most engines, you typically find a piston within a cylinder, connected to a crankshaft via connecting rod and, located at one end of the crankshaft, a flywheel.
PO/ERA Duggan managed to get a loan of a suitable period air-compressor and air receiver from a civilian fellow enthusiast, which goes to show that hanging on to old that item in your shed (which ‘will come in handy some day’) could be the key piece of the puzzle for someone else’s restoration project.
The project was a major success and the noise of this museum piece must be appreciated at close quarters for full effect. A traditionalist when it comes to restoration, PO/ERA Duggan feels that the original surface finishes and patinas should be left in place, if they need not be removed for engineering purposes.
Having cleaned the engine overall, a special oil was applied to the exterior parts to keep them the way they would have looked. The brasswork and copper tubes are now clean and shine brightly against the dark cast surfaces. Paul Evans and wife travelled to Haulbowline in February 2017 to view this masterpiece and they were amazed at its condition, re-iterating its historical importance to no end. A token of appreciation was presented to them (see photo).
Preserving the past for the future
OIC TTS is very proud of PO/ERA Duggan’s personal achievements in this project and is grateful to his team members PO/ERA Dave O’Hara and TT/ERA classes (class of 2013) for their hard work and dedication. The Internal Museum of Fire has considerable queries regarding this engine since Paul Evans’ visit and even suggested a new project for the Technical Training School.
BEng Marine Engineering students from NMCI have requested a tour also, so we hope that this legend lives on – whether it be in the classroom or the enthusiasts’ school. The official opening will happen in late March/April – DF PO are welcome to attend.
PO/ERA Duggan hopes that many more generations of ERAs will come in contact with this old workhorse and develop their knowledge while receiving an appreciation for the skills of those who will have worked here in the past.
There is still some work to be done and let us hope that the Vickers Petters Model VE2 is kept running and that the facility around it continues to improve with extra investment of interest and hard work, so that future generations of sailors can help maintain a living piece of history.
Ruairí de Barra is chief petty officer/engine room artificer, Fleet Operational Readiness Standards and Training, Irish Naval Service