The Real Steam Crane
The Real Steam Crane is located on the harbour side and to ensure it is protected for future generations, has been declared a Scheduled Ancient Monument by English Heritage.
The Fairbairn Steam Crane was patented in 1850 by Sir William Fairbairn.
Around the world are a number of hand powered versions but Bristol is home to the only Fairbairn Steam Crane. It is located in Bristol docks on the quayside at Princes Wharf.
In the 1870s, Bristol docks was going through a period of modernisation. Iron-hulled ships were becoming larger and cargos heavier. Crane capacity was limited though – none of the harbour’s 17 cranes being able to lift more than 3 tons.
In 1875 a powerful steam crane was ordered, to be capable of lifting 35 tons directly onto a railway wagon. In August 1878 the crane had been completed at a cost of £3,600.
The crane weighs 120 tons. A vertical boiler inside the cab operates at 100 psi and supplies two twin-cylinder steam engines: one for turning and one for the lifting chain.
The crane extends below ground for 25 feet (7.6 m).
Although mechanically capable, the crane was not a great success commercially. In 1890 it was only used for 16 days of the year, for a profit of just eleven shillings and six pence. Ships had increased in size by this time and the jib could no longer reach far enough.
In 1892, hydraulic machinery, including cranes, appeared in the docks. In 1906 electric cranes appeared too. The steam crane was required less and less often; for a whole year between April 1905 and April 1906 the crane went unused. From 1903 to 1909 it made a total of 143 lifts. It remained useful for heavy loads, however.
During World War II the crane’s heavy capacity came into its own. A Landing Craft Flotilla Unit was stationed on Princes Wharf, and over 1000 new assault landing craft were delivered by road for adaptation for use in the Far East. The crane was used to unload the lorries and to launch the craft after completion, a total of over 2000 lifts in three years.
With the gradual closure of the City Docks, in 1973 the crane was passed to Bristol City Museum. In 1976 it was made a Scheduled Ancient Monument, as the last surviving Fairbairn steam crane. From 1988, it was restored to operational condition as part of the Bristol Industrial Museum. The crane operates on special museum days. It is now in the care of the M Shed.
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The Steam Crane Pub
4 North Street