Williamson Brothers vortex turbine number one

Williamson Brothers Vortex Turbine Number One

Diameter: 91cm
Accessioned into the Museum collection in 1972

The Williamson Brothers Vortex Turbine Number One is a fantastic piece of Victorian engineering and was built in 1856 at Kendal. It powered farm machinery at Holmescales Farm at Old Hutton for over a hundred years needing only minor repairs. It was the first of many Williamson Brothers turbines ordered and the beginnings of a local expertise in hydropower that still remains to this day.


Williamson Brothers was established in 1853 by Henry and William Williamson at Halfpenny Mill in the Parish of Stainton. They sold agricultural and domestic appliances such as straw chaff cutters, washers and threshing machines. They may have manufactured some of this equipment themselves, but other items were probably bought in from other suppliers. The business would begin to have a new focus, however, with the venture into the world of water turbine manufacture. There is the following introduction in one of their early stock books:

‘WILLIAMSON BROTHERS…beg respectively to call the attention of their Agricultural friends to the great advantage of making use of water power wherever it is practicable so to do. A small stream is amply sufficient for all farming operations, especially when a reservoir can readily be constructed, and if applied to drive a “Turbine”, or horizontal water-wheel, the outlay is very moderate. A Turbine is simply a small water-wheel placed at the bottom of the fall and revolving horizontally at a considerable speed. It is usually from fifteen to twenty four inches in diameter, according the power required; and the water being conveyed to it by pipes…’

The Vortex Turbine

The inventor of the Vortex turbine was Prof. James Thomson (1822-1892) of Queen’s College in Belfast, and he patented the design in 1850. The Vortex had the great advantage that it could work on any head of water from 3 to 300 feet, it was relatively small, and had an efficiency of 70 to 75%. If fitted with movable guide blades, it would maintain a reasonable efficiency with a low flow of water.

The first Vortex turbine in England was supplied to James Cropper who owned paper mills in Burneside near Kendal. This was manufactured by a Belfast firm working under the supervision of Prof. Thomson.

Williamson Brothers acquired a license to manufacture the turbines from Prof. Thomson who supplied them with drawings and explained the design principles. Although this license was not exclusive, Williamson Brothers manufactured many more turbines than any other company.


On the 31st July 1856 the firm moved from Stainton to warehouses known as the ‘Canal Iron Works’ in Kendal at the head of the Lancaster Canal. The northern half of the warehouses became a machine forge and blacksmith’s shop, and in 1860, the southern half became an iron foundry. They installed a five horsepower steam engine and boiler, built the limestone chimney that is still in place today and transferred a number of patterns including those for a turbine from the Stainton works.

The Number One Turbine

The order for the Number One Turbine was placed on the 17th August 1856. It was a vertical shaft Vortex developing 5 horsepower under a head of 30 feet at a speed of 300 rpm. It was placed at the base of a deep well and was fed by a 9-inch pipe from a nearby stream. It was bought by W. E. Maude of Holmescales Farm in Old Hutton, and the vertical shaft from the turbine was used to power miscellaneous farm machinery through bevel gearing. The turbine worked for over 100 years and needed one replacement runner wheel and a few other minor repairs – a testament to the engineering skill employed during its manufacture.

Williamson brothers built increasingly more advanced Vortex turbines, supplying some to coal mines, and locally to Gayle Mill in North Yorkshire to drive machinery and later provide electricity. By 1871 there were 64 men and 21 boys employed by the firm. One of the last Vortex turbines was supplied to Sir William Armstrong at Cragside in Rothbury, Northumberland where it drove the generator and provided power to light the newly invented incandescent light bulbs.


The business was sold to Gilbert Gilkes in 1881 for the sum of £5000 plus the book value of the stock, fixtures, patterns, work-in-progress etc. at £1661. The turbine side of the business became the main focus of expansion, with the manufacture of agricultural machinery being scaled back. The Pelton Wheel and Impulse Turbines began to be a speciality and the market for private house electric lighting was opening up. Alongside this was a healthy export business to South America and the tea estates of Ceylon.

The advent of electric power in this area was early due to local expertise. A Gilkes turbine was installed at Troutbeck Bridge in 1893 and provided 50KW of power for electric lighting.

Gilbert Gilkes & Gordon Ltd are still based at Canal Head in Kendal, a fantastic story of continuity and local expertise. Gilkes is a world leader in small hydropower systems for the generation of electricity from water and has supplied over 6500 turbines to over 80 countries to date.

The Williamson Brothers Vortex Turbine Number One, is part of the History of the World, which is a partnership between the BBC and the British Museum that focuses on world history, involving collaborations between teams across the BBC, and schools, museums and audiences across the UK. The project focuses on the things we have made, from flint to mobile phone.

Visit the BBC History of the World website.

Above account mainly compiled from: Wilson, Paul N. (1975) Gilkes 1853 to 1975: 122 Years of Water Turbine and Pump Manufacture – Presidential address delivered at the Science Museum, London, 12 March 1975.


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