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Taskers and Steam

Living far from the northern factory towns, Robert Tasker may never have gained any practical knowledge of steam power, even though as a businessman he probably realised his potential. 

For nearly 30 years his retirement, the only machines made at the Waterloo Ironworks were ones powered by men, horses or the engines of other manufacturers. Nevertheless, by the 1850's railways were being built everywhere. A line from London to Andover opened in 1854, and in 1859 the Andover-Redbridge Canal, without which the Ironworks would never have existed, was closed. As if to confirm the sovereignty of steam, after a few years a railway line was built along the route of the old canal. Taskers wharf at Upper Clatford was transformed, magically it would seem, into the company's private railway siding.

Although they made none of their own in the 1850s, by the end of the decade Taskers were supplying portable and stationary steam engines made by Clayton, Shuttleworth & Co of Lincoln. This change may well have had to do with the retirement of George Fowle, who had run the company for 20 years in partnership with Robert's brother William. Now it was time for William's sons to take over.

The first steam engines made at the Waterloo Ironworks were three portables in 1865. A portable was an engine meant to drive other machinery. Its own wheels did no more than allow it to be drawn around by horses. Many parts for these first engines were supplied by other manufacturers. To design and assemble them, Tasker & Sons even needed to "headhunt" a man from Clayton, Shuttleworth & Co - the company whose engines they had been selling for several years. Another man came from Blackstones, also in Lincoln. These men from the industrialised east midlands may have been surprised to find the ironworks amongst the green fields and trout streams of Anna Valley.

It may also have seemed strange to them that most of the workforce belonged to families that had lived nearby for generations. It was rare then for the sons of farm workers to be able to work in industry without having to leave the countryside. In a way, although it was not something that they ever planned, it is Taskers' most original achievement

None of the first few hundred engines were "built to drawings". New plans were drawn up for each one and standard parts modified, with the result that every finished engine was unique. However intuitive and craftsmanlike these methods were, they were clearly inefficient. In 1891 a class of closely-related engines was at last established with the 8 horsepower traction Economic.

Progress was marked by Economic in one other way - whereas all previous Tasker & Sons engines had boilers made of wrought-iron, the boiler of this one was entirely made of steel. As a practical alternative to cast or wrought iron, steel only became available in the 1860's. Far more steel than wrought iron could be made in one go. Large components, like boiler plates, were therefore easier and cheaper to make in steel.

In typically Victorian style, William Tasker named his first two sons after himself and his brother. So, in 1858 after Tasker & Fowle became Tasker & Sons, it was again a Robert and a William Tasker who had charge of the business. Robert jnr would never have more than a financial interest in the firm. He turned to farming instead. But William jnr. proved to be the most inventive member of the whole family. Between 1858 and 1873 he lodged at least nine patents; four for improvements to threshing-machines, three for hay elevators and two for ploughs. However, none of William jnr's patents was for a steam engine. There was one more brother left at home. Henry Tasker, seventeen years younger than William jnr. was apprenticed to steam engineers Clayton, Shuttleworth & Co in 1864 and afterwards bought his knowledge of steam back to the family firm.

With Henry's help there were technical advances, but no dramatic rise in the number of engines made - perhaps due to a lack of capital. TIn 1883 William jnr died, leaving Henry to run the business alone, and now with only a one-third say in its finances. When he had to pay £6,620 to buy-out his brothers' heirs a few years later, the company was deprived of still more capital and began a decline that would not end until the 1930s.

The end of Steam
Then came the First World War, followed by a slump in which the only steam engines called for were road rollers. The very last steam engine built by Taskers was a road roller completed under the shadow of a second company liquidation in 1926.

Above: Staff of Tasker & Sons Ltd gathered in front of the company's last steam vehicle, a C Class road roller, in 1927. The man third from the right in the front row is the company receiver

The new company, Taskers of Andover Ltd, made no effort to revive steam. At some time in the 1930's a last relic of it, a note book with drawings used for making spares, came somehow to be burned in a heating stove, and with that the age of steam at Taskers ended.

The boiler shop in the Waterloo Ironworks in about 1910

Detail of Tasker & Sons engineering drawing showing construction of a wheel for a 7 hp traction engine, dated 20 August 1891.

William Tasker Jr.'s second patent folding hay elevator (used for building ricks and to feed threshing-machines) c1871.