Sir Charles Parsons of Birr and his company C. A. Parsons and Company in Newcastle, by Ruth Baldesera

Ruth Baldesera is Quality Engineer at CAP Works, Newcastle, Tyne and Wear, where Sir Charles Parsons (1854-1931), son of the 3rd Earl of Rosse, founded his world famous engineering works. Sir Charles is best-known for inventing the steam turbine which revolutionised marine transportation and the mass production of electricity. Over the past few years Ruth has spearheaded a heritage project in Newcastle dedicated to the achievements of Sir Charles Parsons and in this article she outlines the scope and outcome of the project.

 

The Factory

Sir Charles Algernon Parsons “…the first Engineer to use a steam turbine to produce large amounts of power for electricity generation and driving ships”.

In 1889, Charles Parsons established C. A. Parsons & Company in Heaton, Newcastle, to produce turbo generators to his design. In the same year he set up the Newcastle and District Electric Lighting Company (DisCo) and in 1890, DisCo opened Forth Banks Power Station, the first power station in the world to generate electricity using steam turbo generators.

Aerial View

Aerial view of CAP Works, Newcastle

Parsons designed the world’s first truly powerful steam turbine.  Previously, power stations used reciprocating engines and steam turbines had only been used to power small machines.  The major difference was that Parsons turbines would go on to power entire cities.  He also developed the world’s first steam turbine-generator.  This was the first machine type which could produce electricity on very large scales, sufficient to make it plentiful and affordable for everyone, not just the wealthy. (It was also the first reliable type of steam-powered machine which could do this without breaking down every few days.) He worked out how both turbines and generators could run safely at high speed (up to 20,000 revs/min not just a few hundred revs/min like reciprocating (piston) steam engines). This was an essential step.

The factory started with approximately 48 people in 1889 and still exists today, and engineers at Tyneside still work on machines built to Parsons design throughout the world, although the fleet is diminishing.  It is vital to remember though, that the factory has provided tens of thousands of people with employment over its 130 years, reaching a workforce of some 12,000 at its peak.  Thousands of families benefitted from working at C. A. Parsons, which often employed three generations from the same family.

Algernon George Parsons, the only son of Charles and Katharine, did an apprenticeship at C. A. Parsons Marine division, but was called up  to serve four years as an officer in the Royal Artillery during World War 1.  He was killed in April 1918. 

Sir Charles Parsons

In 1883 Charles Parsons married Katharine Bethell, the daughter of William F. Bethell.  They had two children: Rachel Mary Parsons (1885) and Algernon George Parsons (1886).  The family lived at Elvaston Hall in Ryton, and in approximately 1894 the Parsons family moved from Ryton to Holeyn Hall in Wylam.

In 1915 Holeyn Hall was offered as a convalescent home for WW1 soldiers.  After WW1, Charles and Katharine moved up to the Ray Estate at Kirkwhelpington, where they remained and are both buried in the local churchyard.

Sir Charles and Lady Katharine boarded the Duchess of Richmond, bound for Jamaica on 22nd January 1931.  They were travelling 1st class and Sir Charles was listed on the passenger list as an Engineer.  The inward bound passenger list shows Sir Charles as having passed away on board, listed under deaths on board’ and arriving back in the UK on 6th March.  The cause of death was given as ‘neuritis’. 

When Charles Parsons died, his funeral was at Kirkwhelpington but there were corresponding services held at Westminster Abbey and St Nicholas Cathedral in Newcastle, at the same time.  In the north aisle of the nave of Westminster Abbey is a  memorial window to Sir Charles Parsons.  The window, designed by Sir J. Ninian Comper, was unveiled on 5 October 1950.  In Newcastle Cathedral, St George’s Chapel, there are two large windows, the right hand side one is a memorial to Sir Charles Parsons.  The top of the centre panel contains Saint Christopher holding Turbinia. 

Turbinia

Turbinia 

Turbinia was an experimental vessel built by Charles Parsons to demonstrate the benefits of his revolutionary design of steam turbines.  

Turbinia turned up unannounced at the Navy Review for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee at Spithead, in the English Channel, on 26 June 1897, in front of the Prince of Wales, Lords of the Admiralty and foreign dignitaries, and achieved the world record for speed afloat. 

The ship was eventually restored and is currently housed at the Discovery Museum in Newcastle, along with various other pieces relevant to Parsons. 

Women’s Engineering Society (WES)

Lady Katharine Parsons was a founding member of the Women’s Engineering Society in 1919 (www.wes.org.uk).  She was an engineer of ability and had the distinction of being an Honorary Fellow of the North East Coast Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders.

When WW1 broke out, among other crucial jobs like making steam turbines for electricity generation and marine engines, the women at C A Parsons in Tyneside made the searchlight equipment to produce ‘the beautiful beams of light travelling over the sky in the search for Zeppelin and aircraft’.

Rachel Parsons, the daughter of Sir Charles and Lady Katharine joined the training department of the Ministry of Munitions, instructing thousands of women in the factories of the UK to perform a multitude of mechanical tasks from making periscopes and view-finders, to assembling aircraft parts, and installing electrical wiring on battleships.  Some 800,000 women were recruited into Britain’s engineering works during the war, reflecting a much larger increase of female employees than in any other trade or profession.

The Heritage Project at CAP Works

In 2018 I led a project to restore the final resting place of Sir Charles Parsons.  The reason I took the lead was that there are no close family members in Newcastle any more, so I took on the project with the support of Lord Rosse of Birr Castle.

Currently I am leading another project to collect artefacts and documents relating to the factory founded by Sir Charles in 1889, to enhance the collection at Birr Castle for future generations to learn about the extraordinary achievements of Sir Charles here in Tyneside. 

In June 2019, we will celebrate four important events….

  1. The factory founded by Sir Charles Algernon Parsons in Heaton, Tyneside, will be 130 years old in June.  Formerly known as ‘Heaton Works’, currently named ‘CAP Works’.
  2. Sir Charles Parsons will be 165 years old.  Born in London, in June, he was raised and educated in Birr Castle, Ireland,  later lived in Northumberland and is buried in Kirkwhelpington.
  3. 122 years ago Turbinia’s iconic moment came when it was demonstrated during the Spithead Navy Review in June 1897.
  4. The Womens Engineering Society celebrates its centenary this year.  Lady Katharine Parsons was a founding member of WES which was started in June 1919.

Further information on Sir Charles Parsons can be found in the Science Centre, Birr Castle and in archives held at both Birr Castle and the Science Museum, London. In 2017 the Central Bank of Ireland issued a limited edition coin to commemorate his life and work.