The next in our Hidden Treasures of Sheffield series features the River Don Steam Engine (nicknamed “Big Davy”), the most powerful working steam engine in Europe, capable of delivering a whopping 12,000 horsepower. Originally built for rolling armour plate for Dreadnought warships in the First World War, the engine now lives at Kelham Island Museum, where it still runs twice per day.
As a team, to put this series together we’ve thought hard about those areas, monuments, buildings and bits of history that help to form what Sheffield means to us. We’ve chosen to include this incredible piece of machinery in this series due to a personal connection to it and a link to the pre-Abbeydale Brewery days… here are the memories of our brewery co-owner, Sue: “It is an incredible engine. I started at River Don Works where it was housed as a graduate trainee in 1977. I was recruited by Hugh Wentworth-Ping, who was responsible for saving the engine, raising the £20K scrap value to pay British Steel and getting the engine transferred to Kelham Island Museum. I remember my interview with him to this day. He was a larger than life character, extremely outspoken and unrelenting in the face of incompetence. But those who were prepared to stand up to him got on very well with him. That’s what I did in my interview. There were 5 people on the panel and he kept talking over them and interrupting them. In the end I said to him rather crossly something along the lines of “I’m sorry but I can only answer one question at a time, do you want me to answer yours or the one posed by the other member of the panel?” He guffawed, subsided and behaved himself. When I took up the job he was always great with me and helped me a lot, though I was always careful to answer him boldly. Most of the rest of the team were scared witless by him!
As for the engine itself, it was mothballed when I got there, since 1974 I think. I was shown over it by the engineer responsible for it. When it became apparent that it was being sold in 1978, Hugh arranged for the news magazine programme which went out daily after the news, “Nationwide”, to come and film it in action. He actually arranged for it to be hooked up to the old rolling mill to it and got some plate to roll, complete with birch twigs to throw on as the metal went through the rollers. The crew spent the day getting background shots around the works, particularly the Melting Shop which was the most spectacular (and dangerous). I was asked to escort the camera crew in the Melting Shop and make sure they got what they wanted whilst also making sure they didn’t cook or otherwise injure themselves.
I was there when they ran the engine for the last time that night. It was spectacular. I still love going to visit the engine, remember Hugh and all the other characters I met in the steel industry. It is a very impressive sight.”
You can see the engine in action for yourself by visiting Kelham Island Museum, it is well worth a trip (and head to their website to learn more about the history of this magnificent and mighty machine)! The beer behind the pumpclip is one of our classic pale ales, a 4.0% easy drinking and sessionable beer with a citrussy body and a gentle bitterness to finish.