Tuesday, 26 January 2016

2 Cylinders Good...

As I always refer to the engine as the beating heart of our narrowboat, it seemed only right that I dedicated a blog to the Gardner 2LW. This lead me to do some research online about the history of the company, which I found really interesting. There is quite a bit of information about the early history of the company on various websites but I was surprised to find a thesis online by a student of the University of Bolton from 2010 (as I was working there as a Student Advisor at that time) which made for interesting reading. 

It seems widely reported that Lawrence Gardner announced his business intentions in 1868 by way of a brass plaque reading ‘ L. Gardner, Machinist’ which he screwed to the outside of the house he shared with his wife in Upper Duke St, Manchester. He had moved there from his native Liverpool in 1862, renting four properties that shared the cellar which was to become his workshop, he lived in one of the properties and let the others to tenants. The location was close to the city centre and (somewhat prophetically) the docks of the Bridgewater canal and from here he began work as a general engineer making machine parts and tools in the main, including parts for sewing machines.

His sons began to join the business as it grew during the next 20 years. However, one of his sons, Thomas, instead chose to study at Manchester Mechanic's Institute and Technical School, going on to win a scholarship to study at Owens College, Quay St. On graduation he joined the Lancashire and North Western Railway Company as a civil engineer until the premature death of his father.

Manchester Mechanics' Institute was founded here on Princess St. becoming The University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST). Best known for the first Trade Union Congress meeting held in 1868 and the birthplace of the TUC. It is also the site where the Co -operative Insurance Society (CIS) was founded,It is a Grade II listed building and currently used as a conference centre.

Thomas then returned to the family business and used his experience to develop electricity generating sets with dynamos of his own design. Interestingly they also developed hydraulic dentist chairs, two of which are said to have been in use until quite recent times. The name L. Gardner & Sons was retained out of respect for their father and founder.

Owen's College, founded in 1851 at Cobden House Quay Street, merged with Victoria University, then Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST), finally becoming The University of Manchester in 2004. Owen's College moved to Oxford Rd in 1873 and the building became Manchester County Court until 1990. It is also a Grade II listed building and now used as chambers.

As the demand for electricity grew so did their development of the first internal combustion engines. Designed by Thomas in 1894, these oil engines fuelled by kerosene could be started from cold. They were so successful that within a year the company had introduced more products including single and multiple cylinder engines. As the century drew to a close, cheaper foreign imports began to affect their sales. They responded by developing a wider range of high quality engines, upping their annual production whilst retaining their high craft based standards to rival overseas mass production. In 1898 they bought the land at Patricroft, on the banks of the Bridgewater canal, where they were to remain for almost a hundred years.


Over the next two decades both their workshops, workforce and engines increased in size. The engines began to be used in boats in addition to powering pumps and generating sets. When the war came in 1914 they began to take orders from the Ministry of Munition as engine production decreased and they could even be said to have benefited financially from the war years. However when this work suddenly dried up as peace was restored, the company suffered and jobs were cut. Remaining positive they put their efforts into developing their diesel engines. Although probably intended for marine propulsion this new engine was used by Lancia, a transport company, for one of their buses and opened up a new market in the motor transport industry.


In the 1930's their customers now included Atkinson, Foden, ERF, Dennis and Scammell, the latter one of their biggest customers. Thomas died in 1937 and there were many changes in management due to more family deaths occurring in the short time that followed. When the second world war came and  they were once again taken over by the Ministry of Supply, production and their workforce once again increased. By the end of the war they were three thousand strong, manufacturing the same number of engines per year. Many were exported to Europe and British Empire countries with representatives in Australia, Hong Kong and Africa,


During the second part of the 20th century the company was still in the hands of the third generation of the founder until they were taken over in 1977 by Hawker Siddley. When the factory finally ceased production in 1994, Paul Gardner, the great grandson of Lawrence was the last family member to work for the company.


The Gardner name still continues today, used by both Gardner Marine Diesels who rebuilt and install engines and parts supplier Gardner Parts Ltd. In addition, Walsh Engineering was set up by the technical service manager of some 35 years at the original factory in Patricroft. They supply reconditioned engines and parts with work carried out by genuine Gardner trained staff from the engine build, engineering and research and development departments at the Patricroft site.

During the 1930s a number of LW-series engines were designed especially for road vehicles but later modified and supplied as a marine engines with factory-fitted bilge pump. Apparently the 2LW (twin cylinder) introduced in 1931 develops 31 bhp at 1500 rpm and has a swept volume of 170 cu ins (2.8 litres). I have no idea what that really means but it certainly has no problem in propelling our 62 feet of steel through the water! The engine in Mervyn is a Gardner 2LW and although we didn't have a lot of information about it when we bough the boat, an email to Walsh's concluded that the engine was built at the Gardner Factory around April 1965. All their engines were ex mine loco engines from South Africa that were shipped back to the UK, fully stripped and reconditioned and converted for narrowboats. It is certainly well travelled and continues to be in service after more than 50 years. That, surely, is testament to the quality of the Gardner brand.

I have thoroughly enjoyed researching the history of Gardner and if you are interested in finding out more, please see the list below of sources of information and further reading.

Sources of Information

Halton, Maurice J. "L. Gardner and Sons Limited: the history of a British industrial firm. A study with special reference to markets, workplace industrial relations, and manufacturing engineering technology, 1955-1986.." (2010). History: Theses. Paper 1. http://digitalcommons.bolton.ac.uk/his_theses/1
Grace's Guide to British Industrial History www.gracesguide.co.uk
Walsh Engineering www.gardnerdiesel.co.uk
TUC History online www.unionhistory.info


  1. Good work Megan, I enjoyed reading that. I wonder if anyone will wax lyrical about the Beta range in years to come? That's what we have in our boat, Sandoy. Keep meaning to get in touch and visit, after all we are only in Billinge, but circumstances, and a dodgy memory get in the way. But I will phone, soon. 2nd cousin (?) Jack

  2. Thanks Jack, you never know about the Beta - if it's still going strong in another 50 years then it's definitely worth a blog! You're very welcome to visit, we are on our travels at the moment so you'll just have to find us!! See you soon, Megan