Around the 1960’s it was not uncommon to find relics of a former era relinquished to a peaceful life of serenity in play parks. Tavistock had its own example, a steam road-roller named ‘Stumbles’, a part of the town's history which now needs your support to keep it steaming for future generations to enjoy!
Stumbles basking in the sunshine at last year's Torbay Steam Rally.
Stumbles, a tandem steam road-roller designed for tarmacadam patch repairs, was built in 1923 by Robey & Company Limited, in Lincoln. The engine worked in a fleet of other Devon County Council steam vehicles, including a Foden steam wagon used to construct the Tavistock-Princetown road, although Stumbles was predominantly based in Tavistock. The engine was worked hard by the council and subsequently, when retired in 1963, put to one side in the Tavistock Town Meadows, the children's play park.
Stumbles, seen in the Tavistock Meadow’s playground in 1975.
The engine stood still for several decades until removal in 1983, when the extent of corrosion and wear exposed hazardous asbestos lagging. The engine was donated by the Tavistock Town Council to the newly-founded Robey Trust, a heritage engineering charity operating in Tavistock to this day. The Robey Trust is dedicated to the preservation, restoration, operation and display of steam vehicles and other historic engines, especially items manufactured by Robey & Co Ltd, of Lincoln.
Stumbles with members of the Robey Trust, sporting the full boiler suit range.
The restoration back to her former glory took seven years, involving a dedicated host of volunteers and students from local educational institutions. One major supporter was Beale Industrial Boilers (BIB) who took over the former Robey Globe Works, in Lincoln. In 1991, BIB sponsored the economical restoration of the boiler, the beating heart of every steam engine. This included recycling the old firebox, the furnace which produces the blistering heat to turn water into steam.
This is a diagram of the tandem roller’s pistol boiler, the firebox (red) is pressed from half-inch thick steel and the major expense in the restoration.
Stumbles has been a regular performer over the last thirty years, offering children both past and present a chance to explore a part of Tavistock’s rich history. The engine is synonymous with a generation of people in Tavistock who have vivid memories of playing on her; most steam engines being affectionately known as she! The engine has attended countless Tavistock carnivals, steam fairs and other regional events, covering many hundreds of miles offering steam-hauled trailer rides at a brisk 3mph.
Stumbles happily tending to community duties in Tavistock.
Unfortunately, putting an iron in the fire, further corrosion to the original 94-year-old firebox has taken place. The boiler inspector, who legally inspects the engine every year to check the boiler is safe to operate, has indicated Stumbles’ firebox is very close to being condemned, potentially in the next 12 months. This job will put the engine out of service for a few years, although this will present a timely opportunity to allow other substantial jobs to be addressed at the same time as the firebox, including the renovation of components in the worn mechanical drive system (gears, valve-gear, brakes) and a fresh lick of paint. The total restoration work will cost about £20,000, supported by hundreds of volunteer hours in the process.
Stumbles will also need some critical repair work on the mechanical drive system, seen here from the original restoration in the late 1980s.
The name ‘Stumbles’ comes from the humanised steamroller portrayed in the Ladybird book ‘Tootles The Taxi & Other Rhymes’, written in 1956 by Joyce B. Clegg and illustrated by John Kenney. The name was adopted by children who used to play on her, which has stuck to this day! The book has been described as ‘charming and colourful’, a similar perspective the Robey Trust aims to put back into the real engine, the flagship artefact in the collection.
We want to continue growing Stumbles’ legacy by continuing her prolific impact in the community of Tavistock since the 1920s. Your support would be gratefully appreciated, thank you.