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.
Thomas Smith & Sons Ltd
Above - Video clip of a Smith steam crane in action at Didcot
As mentioned in the introduction, Thomas Smiths were formed from part of that early partnership of Balmforth, Smith and Booth that produced much of the local crane making industry. From Thomas Smith going his own way in 1861 the company's history follows a similar course to that of their next door neighbours Joseph Booth, in fact they ended up part of the same group at the end as they had done in the beginning.
Picture of a Thomas Smith Steam Crane in the Slate Mining Museum at Llanberis (photo Kris Ward)
Smith's cranes found their way on to many docks and canal sides as well as railway yards and construction sites. Some of the largest construction projects to use Smith cranes were the Manchester Ship Canal, the Mersey tunnels, the Aswan Low Dam, the Lower Zambesi Bridge and the Sudan Barrage. As early as 1894 Thomas Smith were producing electrical powered cranes. The first electric crane was an overhead crane for use in the John Fowler works.
Thomas Smith were one of the pioneers of excavator development. In 1887 the firm fitted a shovel attachment to one of its 3 Ton steam cranes and soon after fitted another with Jubb's patent trenching equipment. In later years such machines would dominate the firms output. Eventually the internal combustion engine would replace the steam engine as the power source in their cranes and Caterpillar tracks fitted versions were offered as an alternative to moving around on railway wheels, these became more popular in later years as the railway industry lost its dominance.
Above - One of Smith's C28 crawler cranes at Embsey on the Embsey & Bolton Abbey Steam Railway. (Photo - Kris Ward)
One large customer for Smith's crawler equipment was the Royal Air Force's Airfield Construction Branch who used a number of the 5-20 and 21 examples in their excavator, back-acter, dragline and grab forms repairing airfields in the UK and overseas. Post war this included operations in Germany including infastructure for the Berlin Airlift. Other post war operations took the RAF Airfield Construction Branch, which went on to become part of the Royal Engineers, all over the world. Though the RAF used many Smiths machines, the Army prefered the popular Ruston Bucyrus machinery.
Below - Smith 5/20 Back-Acter in use for runway repairs at RAF Lyneham in 1957 (Photo - Patrick Honey)
Patrick Honey, who worked with the Smith's machinery employed by the RAF recalls;
The [Smiths 5/20s] the RAF had were from about 1946 time, they all had Crossley 6 Cylinder Diesel engines. These were started by using compressed air, possibly because they would be deployed anywhere on earth and as battery power was in its infancy it made them independent units. Two tall cylinders of compressed air were charged up by a small petrol donkey engine. When these cylinders were fully charged to about 200 lbs pressure the decompression lever was set at the half position and main engine throttle to full. The air was then used to turn over the main engine and when turning over steadily the decompression lever was switched to closed position in the hope it would fire up! If I did not do so, then it was shut down and the sequence re started.
On every machine in the RAF ACB there were NO SMOKING signs but this was ignored when starting the heavy Plant (Cat D6 and D8 dozers and Excavators etc) as a lump of rag, soaked in diesel fuel, was lit and when turning over the main engine with air etc the lit rag was shoved into the main engine Air intake to assist the main engine to fire up! This was accepted practice in the U.K and other cold places but not needed in the Middle East though where ambient air temperatures were good enough to make starting easier.
The Smiths 21s though arrived with Leyland engines and battery start, a big improvement.
A Smiths 5/20 face shovel was sent over to St Kilda (the Atlantic island that time forgot?) in 1957 / 58 and used in the quarry on the island to load the Goodwin Goliath stone crushers, it was the heaviest piece of Plant sent there on that detachment.
When it came to transporting the equipment he recalls; "If the load was a Smiths 5/20 or 21 excavator, maybe with its 40ft jib still attached, the route had to be carefully planned ( pre motorway days) and on short journeys between depots it was common practice to - and I have done this myself - leave the engine running and for the operator to ride in the excavator cab - 16ft above the road - and rotate cab and jib as needed to negotiate obstacles. Imagine doing that today!"
"As expected though where possible these 40 ft long jibs were removed and to carry these we had Bedford R "donkeys" on loan from Fighter Command and they towed the 50 ft "Queen Mary" trailers - normally used to carry aircraft fuselages and wings - and as we found out at RAF Halton these 50ft trailers were also ideal for carrying 6 of our Thwaite dumpers - all driven in over the lowered tailgate - however at RAF Halton I had occasion to return a jib to Depot and they sent me a Bedford/QM unit but no lifting slings as I had requested."
Much of the crawler production would have gone in to quarry use. The Threlkeld Mining Museum in Cumbria has a large collection of former quarry machinery of numerous manufacturers which includes many of the various Smith models.
|Key Thomas Smith Crawler Crane and Excavator Models|
|Smith Eurocrane 35C|
The company was taken over by Thomas W. Ward shortly before World War II and a bit of a reorganising took place. Overhead cranes were produced by TWW company John Smith (Keighley) with Thomas Smith concentrating on the various forms of travelling cranes and excavators. In 1978 Thomas Smith were taken over by Northern Engineering Industries. NEI had taken over many big manufacturing companies which by this time included Cowans Sheldon, Clyde Crane, Wellman Cranes and Joseph Booth. Eventually both the Smith and Booth works on Rodley's Town Street closed as Wellman Booth moved to smaller office premises in Yeadon from where they continued to design overhead cranes but contracted out the engineering work. The Booth works was redeveloped as housing but Smith's former Old Foundry buildings still survive in industrial use.
The former Old Foundry of Thomas Smith & Son.
Tannett, Walker & Co
Thomas Arthur Tannett, son of Thomas Tannett, established another company to manufacture plant equipment, Tannett, Walker & Co. The company made boilers, pumping engines, forging presses, rolling and bending machinery, parts for docks and canals and hydraulic machinery. Cranes were also amongst the products advertised by this company. A steam powered hydraulic engine used to power a crane survives at Armley Mills
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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