A Brief History of the Leeds Crane Makers
Ex BR(W) Civil Engineers' crane DRA81458 Built by Joseph Booth, works number 6042, restored to original condition at the Dean Forest Railway in 2016. (Photo Kris Ward)
All | Balmforth | Henry Berry | Joseph Booth | Bramley Engineering | Bray, Waddington & Co | Butler | Thomas Green | Isles | Kirkstall Forge | Benjamin Johnson | Smith, Beacock & Tannett | Smith & Parker | Thomas Smith & Son | Tannett, Walker & Co | Whittaker Brothers
The story of Leeds crane making goes back to a firm established in Calverley in 1820 by Jeremiah Balmforth and David Smith. Just as the locomotive industry in Leeds had begun with firms established to make mill machinery, so did its crane making industry. They were primarily millwrights producing machinery for the woollen industry. In 1833 the firm were joined by Jeremiah Booth. They looked for further markets for their work and this included hand operated cranes from 1840. In 1847 Booth left and established his own crane making company at the new Union Foundry. In 1855 Booth's firm passed on to his son Joseph Booth and the name Joseph Booth & Bros was adopted.
In 1858 Jeremiah Balmforth died and his son William inherited the position, to be followed the following year David Smith's son Thomas. The production of steam powered cranes is thought to have begun around 1860, however the two partners in the company fell out in 1861. Thomas Smith bought out the company and took control. Thomas Smith later brought his sons in to the business and they eventually took it over on his death in 1902. In 1918 the company was incorporated as Thomas Smith & Sons.
William Balmforth established a new firm to manufacture quarry cranes, the Peel Ings Foundry, though this works did not enjoy the same success of those of Thomas Smith and Joseph Booth.
Smith's Old Foundry and Booth's Union Foundry were both situated on a narrow strip of land between Town Street, Rodley and the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. Large demand for their cranes in docks, quarries and construction sites saw both businesses thrive. Particularly popular were the very similar 4 wheel steam cranes that both firms produced. The basic design is often referred to as the 'Leeds type' or 'Rodley type' and has the steam boiler counterbalancing the jib with a tall column pivot, making them very stable machines. These cranes proved so popular that the works both struggled to meet demand and very similar cranes were produced by a number of other firms around Leeds at the time. There continued to be close ties between the various firms in the local crane making industry with key personnel often moving between companies and the crane business of the smaller firms that were wound up over the years being taken on by the bigger firms. In the end a series of mergers saw the local crane makers in the hands of one firm Wellman Booth who continue to design cranes to this day from offices in Yeadon.
With so many firms in this area making cranes we have listed the companies alphabetically. From the menu above you can skip to the maker you are looking for.
William Balmforth / Balmforth Brothers
As mentioned in the introduction, William Balmforth began crane production in a partnership with the Smiths and Booths from which the main players in local crane making emerged. The seperation of that partnership in 1861 saw William Balmforth establish a new firm to manufacture quarry cranes, the Peel Ings Foundry.
Above - Surviving William Balmforth steam crane on Gloucester Docks (photo Kris Ward).
William Balmforth died around 1880 and his executors ran the firm for a number of years until his sons took over in 1897 and the company was renamed Balmforth Bros Ltd.
As well as steam cranes William Balmforth and their successors Balmforth Brothers built a couple of outside cylinder vertical boiler locomotives.
The gravel pits at the south end of Walney Island were operated for many years by Barrow-in-Furness contractor and industrialist Coulton William Hunter. The two Balmforth locos were similar, but not identical, and were used by Hunter on various contracts before being based permanently at the gravel pits from the early 1920s. Hunter died in 1926, the business was continued by his executors until 1936 and in that year the Piel & Walney Gravel Co Ltd was formed. The older of Hunter's two 3ft gauge locos, built by William Balmforth in about 1876. Its early history is unclear but it is believed to have come to Walney from an unknown source in about 1896. It received a new vertical boiler the same as the original in 1936, and in 1956 it was rebuilt with a horizontal boiler from a Burrell traction engine. In that form it lasted until 1960. The second loco at Walney was built by Balmforth Brothers Ltd in 1903-04 and was bought new by Hunter for a quarry railway at Dalton-in-Furness. At this site Hunter had taken over an existing railway of metre gauge, and the loco was built for that gauge, but was converted to 3ft gauge for use elsewhere when the quarry closed. From about 1908 it was used on various temporary contract railways before going to the Walney gravel pits in the early 1920s. Like the older loco the Balmforth Bros machine was rebuilt in the mid-1950s with a horizontal boiler, this time from a Marshall portable engine. When enthusiasts 'discovered' P&W Gravel in about 1950, the older of the two Balmforth locos was preferred by the crews because it had the better boiler. The newer loco had not received a new vertical boiler in 1936 when the older one did.
Below - This side view was taken by Frank Jones in August 1950. This shows the older of the two Walney locos, built by William Balmforth, standing outside the shed with the pier in the background (Frank Jones negative, Peter Holmes collection).
For comparison see the Picture of the loco rebuilt with a Burrel traction engine boiler (Photo Walter Shepherd collection).
The Peel Ings Foundry was a fairly small concern and it only lasted until 1916. It was bought by Samuel Butler & Co who subsequently built some steam cranes in their works in Stanningly and soon closed the Peel Ings Foundry.
Internal Website Links
With some great contributions we are building up a nice collection of archive material of these firms. The Joseph Booth gallery has benifited from a contribution of good quality images dating from around 1914-1924.
Joseph Booth Picture Gallery
Thomas Smith Picture Gallery
Other Crane Manufacturers Picture Gallery
Our database has most records of Joseph Booth's output from the oldest surviving records of 1890 to the end of steam crane and railway crane production in the 1960s, though there are still some records to add. We have scanned a few volumes of Thomas Smith's records, with thanks to Wellman Booth, and are currently in the process of adding these to the database. We have also added details of surviving cranes that are known of around the worls, with thanks to Chris Capewell.
External Website Links
The Yorkshire Group of 16mm Modellers has a good write up about the Leeds crane makers on its website.
Wellman Booth's current website.
www.smith-cranes.nl (in Dutch) Translation This sites has lots of material about Smith's excavators, crawlers and truck cranes.
Wikia page about Thomas Smith.
Graces Guide entry about Joseph Booth.
Graces Guide entry about Thomas Smith.
Graces Guide entry about Bramley Engineering.
Graces Guide entry about Bray, Waddington & Co.
Graces Guide entry about Henry Berry.
Current website for Henry Berry
1972 British Railways cranes manual on Barrowmore MRG website
Wikipedia page about Kirkstall Forge
Archive images on Leodis.net:
Search results for 'Union Crane Works'
Search results for 'Thomas Smith'
Picture of Whitaker hand crane Trans Zambezia Railway No 13 on Flickr
Picture of Bray, Waddington hand crane at Herm, Guernsey.
Much of the archive material relating to Thomas Smith and Joseph Booth is held by the West Yorkshire Archive Service
Railway Steam Cranes, John S. Brownlie, SBN 0 9502965 0 3
Wellman Booth Company History 
Proud Heritage, A History of Thomas Smith & Sons (Rodley) Ltd, Frederick H Smith 1947. Look for this book on Amazon*
Narrow Gauge News August 2007 
Old Glory, Yorkshire Steam Crane Manufacturers, November 2011 - January 2012 
Railway Magazine August 1902 
Bramley, Pudsey, Stanningley & District through the Camera 1903 
Various company catalogues and sales brocures 
Monk Bridge Ironworks, Glyn Davies, Mark Stenton, Ron Fitzgerald and Rob Kinchin-Smith, ArcHeritage 2011, ISBN 978-1-874454-56-4  Look for this book on Amazon*
The History of Thomas Green & Son Ltd, John Pease, ISBN: 9781899889 81 5 Look for this book at the publishers*
Research of David Wood, grandson of Job Isles
Information on the Balmforth locomotives provided by Peter Holmes
Information on the RAF's Airfield Construction Branch supplied by Patrick Honey
* These links are provided to help readers search for often rare books on the subject and to promote any books available, we are under no commercial incentives for this
This article was produced by Kris Ward, any feedback or contributions about the Leeds engine making industry would be greatly appreciated.
With thanks to Michael Woodhouse, formerly of Wellman Booth, for great help in producing this article
Thanks to Chris Capewell for information about surviving cranes here in the UK and all over the world and for help with a lot of the research in to local crane makers, also to Pat Williams for information regarding the 62t derrick in Chile. Thanks to Stewart Liles and Peter Holmes for material relating to the Balmorth locomotives. Thanks to Patrick Honey for information about the Smith crawler machines used by the RAF. Thanks to Alan Moore for information about surviving Bray, Waddington & Co cranes.
Page last modified: 19 June 2021
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