David Reed recounts the amazing story of how Thomas Fields-Pattinson rescued a 1923 Aveling & Porter from Loch Ness, after it had languished there for 60 years!
Nessie is owned by Thomas Fields-Pattinson, who has undertaken most of the engine’s fine restoration. “It was new to road construction contractor AM Carmichael, of Dunblane, Scotland, in 1923,” he said, “and was a convertible that would have been used for hauling stone.” It appears that the engine worked all around Scotland on road construction.
By the early 1930s, a lot of work was taking place on the A82 alongside Loch Ness, with some engines travelling to the construction site under their own power; a journey that could take anything up to three weeks! In 1931, though, an incident occurred that resulted in the engine falling into Loch Ness itself, although, it wasn’t the only engine to find its way into the water. “This was the second engine that ended up in the loch,” Thomas explained, “The same thing had happened about six months earlier to another engine, just a short distance away.”
The accident that resulted in the other engine falling in was well documented at the time, with even the driver’s account of what had happened being recorded. But, when it came to this engine, nothing seems to have been recorded.
“The other engine was all complete,” Thomas said. “On the other hand, this engine was in bits.” It was a strange situation. “Although the boiler and tender were there, together with the back wheels and the cylinder, everything else had been dismantled and was missing,” he added.
The circumstances that led to the engine falling into the loch are unclear, but some components were removed from the Aveling & Porter at some point. “The cylinder had been taken off the engine, but the nuts on the studs had been replaced,” Thomas said. Over the years, other possible explanations have been suggested; one being that those old steam rollers that had broken down were cannibalised to keep others going and that, at the end of the contract, the partially-dismantled machines were simply pushed into the loch.
But whatever the truth behind the watery disposal, this one languished in the shallows for more than 60 years, until the late David Crapper from Clayton West, in Yorkshire, recovered it in 1992. He was on holiday when he spotted an object on the shoreline, about 70 feet below the road on a pebble beach near Urquhart Castle. David knew that an engine was rumoured to have been abandoned in the loch so, the following day, he scrambled down to the water’s edge to have a closer look.
He described how the boiler had been completely stripped, while the cylinder block stood nearby, and how they were in very good condition considering where they lay. It wasn’t such good news for the rest of the engine, though. That was evidently in very poor condition, with the tender and belly tank both rusted through and, while there were many parts missing, David calculated that retrieving the engine for restoration was a viable project. So he set about obtaining permission to begin the rescue, contacting the owners of Loch Ness – Glen Moriston Estates – who were very helpful and, eventually, granted the necessary permission for the project to go ahead.
“He also wrote to the original engine owners, AM Carmichael, who were still trading at the time,” Thomas continued. “They said he could have the engine if he was able to get it out of the loch, although I think he paid a small fee for proof of ownership.” Because it wasn’t possible to retrieve the remains of the engine from the road, David and his friend, Nick Netherwood, constructed and launched a small raft from Foyers, on the opposite side of the loch. After taking two hours to cross the loch, the cylinder block and belly tank, which was full of silt, were retrieved with some difficulty.
However, it was obvious that a larger raft would be required to rescue the rest of the engine, so a large pontoon was constructed from scaffold tubes and plastic drums, and was fitted with a lifting frame. The boiler was eventually rescued, and divers retrieved some of the smaller parts from the water. “He had squirted expandable foam into some of the holes in the boiler and firebox, to give the engine as much buoyancy as possible,” Thomas explained, and the engine was saved.
It was such a successful operation that the apparatus David had used to recover the engine was later employed to retrieve another engine that had suffered the same fate as No. 9435. David then focussed on the engine’s restoration and, although he did do some work to the boiler, he concentrated on collecting as many parts as possible to replace those that had been removed from the engine. “David stripped the boiler and removed the inner fire box and barrel,” Thomas continued. “He then started the restoration and fitted a new ‘Deepdale’ boiler barrel, with a new horn plate being fitted on one side.”
Unfortunately, illness prevented David from continuing with the renovation work and, following his death 2014, his widow, Celia, decided to sell the engine. “It was never re-assembled,” Thomas added. “David’s widow put Mike Walters in charge of selling it. He owned a Garrett steam lorry, and put an advert on Traction Talk.”
Thomas rang him up after seeing it advertised, and asked if he could go and have a look at it. “I’d always wanted to buy a full-sized engine,” he said. His interest in steam began when he was given the plans of a four-inch Savage ‘Little Samson’ traction engine for his 11th birthday. That was the moment that ignited his interest in steam. “I saved all of my pocket money so that I could buy castings for the model,” he said. “I got other components for my birthdays and at Christmas.”
Thomas’ plan was to complete the model and, eventually, to sell it to buy a derelict roller. “But then the Aveling & Porter came on to the scene in Traction Talk,” he explained. “It was in pieces, but I decided to go for the tractor.” He knew that restoring the tractor would be a big project: “It would be more work than a roller, but would be a bit more of a usable engine once it was completed,” he said. “It would also be quicker on the road, too, being capable of 10-12mph.”
Thomas and his girlfriend, Danni, went to see the tractor one evening with Jack Dibnah. “I wanted to see if it was going to be a worthwhile project,” Thomas stated. He needn’t have worried though. “I decided there and then that, although it was going to be a big project, it would be worth it when it was finished. After all, where would you get another one like that?”
So, a couple of weeks later – on December 23rd, 2014 – the tractor was collected and taken to Thomas’ home at Burton-on-Trent. “We used a friend’s low-loader that was fitted with a Hiab, to bring it home. It was at that time that I also named the engine. It didn’t have a name during its working life, so I decided on ‘Nessie’, which seemed appropriate, and the plate was designed by AJ Cook, then made by Madeley Brass.
“We began the renovation process with the boiler, fitted a new tube plate and completed all of the work that had been done to the shell of the boiler by David.” By then, Thomas had moved to new premises in Uttoxeter, where Nessie’srestoration continued. “To move Nessie to her new home, we were helped by Chris Arrowsmith, who used his Foster steam tractor under steam power,” Thomas explained.
“After the move, we still had to complete the work on the boiler by fitting a new firebox, which represented a major step forwards. After that, I turned my attention to the engine’s front end. “We had to fabricate new front wheels, and that process began with the casting of new hubs. Once that was done, new spokes were laid to the hubs and welded into place, after which new rims could be made.”
Then the search began for a new front axle. “Luckily, I found out that Roger White had a spare one, and was able to buy that,” Thomas added, “although I had to machine the ends to true it all up.” To complete this part of the restoration, a new front fork and perch bracket was fabricated, with the new castings being engineered by David Ragsdale, of Retford. The engine was now starting to be put back together.
After a new belly tank had been fabricated, Thomas set about sorting out the motion. “I started to assemble parts on the cylinder block,” he said, “but there were still some components missing. We had to source a new, right-hand-side trunk guide but, luckily, I found one at a Cheffins auction, which fitted perfectly. As there was no jig, the cylinder and the motion had to be set up from scratch.”
There were still other components that were missing, too, including the crankshaft. “Fortunately, a friend – Trystan Jones – had a spare and we managed to reach a deal over it, which helped with the build considerably.” Once the crank had been centred, Thomas started building the motion and lining it all up and, although some parts had come with the engine, others had to be made. “New bearings were fitted throughout,” Thomas added, “and new piston rods were made in-house..”
Once all the motion was built-up, Thomas got the engine running on air, to test it all out. This was successful, after which attention turned to making and repairing the back wheels. “We were able to use the original rims,” he told me, “but had to fabricate new spokes and hubs.” Once the wheels were made and the axles fitted, Thomas decided to build a new tender. “The original had deteriorated beyond repair after so many years under water so, using old drawings, I fabricated and riveted a new one myself in the workshop.”
Nessie was first steamed in August 2019 and, almost immediately after that, made an appearance at The Great Dorset Steam Fair, where she enjoyed the honour of being displayed in the National Traction Engine Trust’s marquee, despite still wearing plain, grey undercoat. It certainly got a lot of attention, not many engines have survived the waters of Loch Ness for 60 years, then been returned to full, working order.
But there was still more work needed to complete the restoration, as Thomas explained. “When Nessie was first steamed, it became apparent that the gears that had come with it were very noisy, so I made the decision that, when the engine was stripped down for painting, I’d fit a full set of new gears.” And that’s precisely what happened; Thomas’ friend, Will Woodward, made the new set for Nessie, and they totally transformed her.
Other work also took place while Nessie was stripped down for painting. “I got a new canopy which was built by Jack Carbutt,” Thomas said, “I’d done some work for him, including making a new set of bearings for his Aveling & Porter roller so, in return, he built the canopy for Nessie.”
The paint job for the engine was all done by Thomas, although the lining and the signwriting were completed by his friend, John Skidmore. “Overall, the painting and the re-assembly stages took about a year, the work being done during evenings and at weekends,” Thomas added.
Once finally finished, Thomas was understandably keen to exhibit Nessie at The Dorset Steam Fair. ”I wanted to drive her to the 2020 event, and show people what we’d done to complete the restoration,” Thomas explained. “As things turned out, though, that couldn’t happen due to the Covid-19 restrictions.”
Thomas’ efforts on Nessie have generated some national recognition, though. “The Transport Trust gave us a grant of £2,000 to fit rubber to the wheels,” he said. “They came out to look at Nessie and judged her to be The Restoration of the Year!”
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