David Reed visited Niall Byrne and Hannah Bickley to inspect the couple’s latest restoration project, a 1922 Aveling & Porter D type roller.
Niall Byrne and his partner Hannah Bickley are based at Ruabon near Wrexham in North Wales and have displayed a couple of rollers at various events around the country, including Onslow Park, the Great Dorset Steam Fair 2013 Roller Special, Hollowell, Welland, Malpas and Oswestry. These workmanlike engines have been popular exhibits at the shows, although their journeys into restoration were somewhat different.
The first roller in the collection, which is jointly owned by Niall and Chris Bickley, Hannah’s father, is 1922 Aveling & Porter D type No. 10348 Walter, although it has only carried this name in restoration. This roller certainly has an interesting history, escaping the cutter’s torch on a couple of occasions before passing into Niall and Chris’s ownership in 2011. The D Type was built for Essex County Council and arrived with a three-man living van. Although no photographs of the roller at work are thought to exist, it remained with the council until 1955 when it was sold to CH Smith & Sons, which was run by brothers Philip, Douglas and Richard Smith of Sherrington, Bucks.
It seems that it was a quick sale, with Smiths purchasing the roller direct from the council; “They went to see the A&P roller while it was working at Ongar,” Niall explained. “It was being operated by the driver who had driven it from new.” It was something of a surprise to the driver, who had been with the roller from when it was delivered. The story goes that he didn’t know it was up for sale and was very upset to hear that the roller he had driven for over 30 years was being sold, “My daughter has just got married and moved out and now you’re taking my engine, I have nothing left!” he was apparently heard to say.
The Smith’s steam knowledge was rather limited so when the roller arrived, they called in Mr Whiting from Stoke Goldington, who was known as ‘Steamer’ Jack. He was a contractor who ran his own engines, and showed Philip Smith how to operating the roller, completing many repairs on the D Type for Smiths along with Doddy Rodgers who worked for them. Eventually though, Philip Smith himself took over driving the Aveling & Porter and completed many jobs including rolling Dagnall Road in Olney, Bucks.
But after being with Smiths for around five years, the roller was reaching the end of its working life. Retirement was in sight when Philip Smith found himself operating the roller, a struggle after it had dropped the plug a few times. It was hard work, so the decision was made to send the D Type to the scrapyard.
In due course, the local scrap man arrived, and a deal was done, then the roller was prepared for loading onto a trailer. The result was disastrous, although it ultimately saved the roller from being cut up. For some reason, the winch cable was wrapped around the forks to pull the roller onto the trailer, but when the loading began, they snapped off completely bringing the whole process to a stop. As there was no other easy way to load the engine, the decision was made to leave it where it was in the Smith’s yard, the roller was saved!
And there it stayed, quietly being consumed by the growing vegetation, until 2009 when Steve Latham spotted the roller and bought it after negotiating the price with the Smith family. If buying the roller was relatively straightforward, its removal from the yard was not. The problem was that the D Type had to be dug out of the undergrowth that had engulfed it over the intervening years.
Help was on hand though, with Steve being able to call on work colleagues from the LNWR loco works in Crewe, which happened to include Niall himself, to help dig the roller out. After a number of visits, the roller was extricated from the vegetation, but there were still problems to overcome due to the damage caused on its aborted trip to the scrapyard years before.
Temporary repairs were needed, which included a large box section being welded to the barrel in order to support the engine, while the broken forks were welded and then re-fitted to the roller so that it could be loaded up and transported back to LNWR, Crewe. And that’s where the engine stood for the next two years, but it did not go unnoticed, “I admired it every day when I clocked in at work,” Niall said, “And eventually we decided to buy it, as the engine needed bringing home.”
The roller was soon on the move again, with the engine being loaded up again at LNWR with the help from Dave Staton, Will Dakin and Niall’s friend, the late Roddy Swain. “We used a tractor and a lowloader to transport the Aveling & Porter back to Ruabon,” Niall continued, “And then set about restoring it.”
After lots of poking and scraping, gas was used to heat all seized parts so that they could be removed, and the engine was completely stripped down.
It was soon obvious that extensive boiler work was needed. “Because the engine had stood out for so long in all kinds of weather, the barrel in particular was rotten,” Niall continued, “Although the back half of the engine, which had received some protection from the canopy, was in much better condition.” A lot of the repairs were carried out by Israel Newton & Sons of Cromford, “They replaced the firebox, barrel and front tubeplate,” Niall added,” the work was completed in 2011.”
The motion also needed a lot of attention, with the cylinders being re-bored. Some components are original, such as the connecting rods, “But the eccentric rods, expansion links and valve rods are all new,” Niall explained. New pistons were manufactured by a local steam engineer, while other work was carried out by Niall himself, “I assembled all of the components and altered the new link motion as it was being fitted,” he said.
And of course there was the damaged forks to attend to. “They needed a full repair and were sent away to Cast Iron Welding Services UK at Coalville, Leicestershire,” Niall added.
With the roller being reassembled, it was painted and lined by Niall, with the sign-writing being applied by Alan Brindle. “The roller has been named Walter after Hannah’s late grandfather,” Niall explained, “And it attended a number of rallies after it was completed.”
An interesting aspect of the completed restoration was that Niall was lucky enough to meet the previous owner, Philip Smith. “We visited him a number of times, and he attended many rallies to see Walter,” Niall said, “He actually came for a ride down the lane on it shortly after restoration was completed and was delighted to have the chance to steer the roller once again even though he was over 80 years old. Philip sadly passed away in May 2019, but Niall and Hannah still have close contacts with the family through Philip’s grandson Tom, “He often attends rallies with Walter,” Niall added.
As for Niall himself, he has been involved with steam and vintage vehicles for almost all of his life. “My interest started at a very early age when I attended steam and vintage rallies with my grandparents who were showing their stationary engines,” he said. But it was the chance to crew a steam roller at the age of eleven that really ignited Niall’s interest in steam, the engine in question being 1920 Aveling & Porter roller No. 9093 Unbelievable that was owned at the time by Eric Croall, “That started everything off,” Niall admitted.
Over the following years, Niall helped out and crewed on many engines, meeting lots of people on the way. “I was lucky enough to help Roddy Swain with his Marshall traction engine No. 41151 Wandering Star and Aveling & Porter tractor No. 6201 Dougal,” Niall added. He still has many happy memories of this time, and recalled attending rallies all over the country as well as travelling around the roads of Shropshire. “I crewed with Roddy until we purchased our Aveling & Porter roller No. 10348 Walter,” Niall continued, “But even then, I would still go out to rallies on the odd occasion with Roddy on Dougal.”
After spending most of his early life around engines, it was no surprise that Niall sought a career in engineering after leaving school, “At the age of 18 my passion for steam turned into my profession when I started a boilermaker’s apprenticeship with the London & North Western Railway Company (LNWR) at Crewe,” he said. After his four-year apprenticeship was over, Niall moved on to the Llangollen Railway, “Here I was employed as a maintenance fitter/ boilermaker for the next eight or nine years,” he recalled, “I got a lot of experience from working on dozens of different makes and types of locomotives.”
By 2019, Niall was on the move again, “I decided to take the plunge and becoming self-employed to pursue my passion for road steam,” he said. The result was the formation of Niall Byrne Engineering at Ruabon, “I have worked on many different projects since then,” Niall added, “These include boiler work, as well as machining and fabricating all parts for road steam engines.”
His interests are not only confined to steam though, “I like all the vintage vehicles, vintage tractors and stationary engines, which I have collected and restored over the years,” he added.
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