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Historic Hydro 'Evil Spirit'

Tethered hydroplanes have a hard life at best, and none more so than flash steamers, so finding survivors is rare. The oldest is H.H Groves ‘miniature hydroplane’ built around 1912, but a photo from Jim Free set me on the trail of another early example. The photograph was of a steam powered boat with the name "Evil Spirit" emblazoned across it’s stern and thought to be from the mid 1920’s. MPBA historian Peter Hill revealed that a Fred Westmoreland built "Evil Spirit", not in the 20’s, but in 1915. Further, the boat was a record holder, and the first to break the 25mph barrier, having beaten the 24.25mph set by HH Groves in 1914 with Irene IV, a record it was to hold until 1922. Knowing that the boat was still in existence, I had to find out more about this vintage hydro.  I discovered that 'Evil Spirit' had been described extensively in early Model Engineers and that its history up until 1934 was well documented. Subsequent, access to the Groves and Westmoreland archives has enabled me to produce a more accurate profile of Fred Westmoreland and his activities, which included the building and running of 'Evil Spirit'. 

It transpires that 'Evil Spirit' was not Fred's first hydroplane or even the first to carry the name. By 1914 he had achieved 16.9mph with the IC engined 'Fairhope' but he admitted to being shocked by the speeds being reached by the flash steam powered craft. The Noble brothers ‘Bulrush’ had taken the record at 22.77mph in 1913 and H.H Groves 'Irene IV' increased the record to 24.25mph in 1914. The superiority of the flash steam hydroplanes provided the  motivation for Fred to build himself a similar boat, using the plans and constructional details for Irene III that Groves had published in the Model Engineer.

Work on building the power plant started at Easter 1915 with the engine. It was, he claims, built principally of scrap, except for the pair of steel bevel gears to drive the rotary valve, which were made for him, and cost 3 shillings the pair. Only one screw was used this being a grub screw for adjusting the crankshaft centre bearing. The engine was a horizontally mounted twin cylinder with a rotary valve between the cylinders. The valve controlled both the steam admission and the exhaust, with a set of auxiliary ports at the bottom of the stroke giving a semi uniflow configuration.

Once the engine was assembled the cylinder was wrapped in asbestos sheet and lagged with a piece of Russian iron. The boiler had 20ft of solid drawn steel tube, and was heated by a single vaporising petrol blowlamp fed from a pressurised copper fuel tank.

Thin brass reduction gears activated the oil and water feed pumps, although these were criticised by the editor of ME for using incorrect pinions.

With the power plant finished, it was inevitable that he wanted ‘to see the wheels go round’, so having fixed it to a suitable surface, and connected a pot boiler that he had borrowed, it was given a trial run.

With no load and about 40 psi, the engine ran like a turbine, but the test ended when the rotary valve seized. Fred declared himself satisfied both with the test and the engine.

 This had taken to early September and the next task was to build the hull, but before that Fred took a trip to London to see HH Groves and took the finished engine with him.

A decision was made to temporarily fix the new engine into the hull of Irene IV. Fred described the trial, "A few hours were hastily rushed into the work, and things were soon in shape. We could not quite get the new engine into perfect alignment with the propeller shaft, so we decided to leave the rest to chance and make our way to the Victoria Park Lake. All being in order, the hydroplane was fastened to line, and things were soon humming merrily. On being released, it was soon in its element. After covering two and a half laps on the circular course it pulled up dead. We wondered if any rival had stolen a march on us with a submarine. However after towing into port we found we had not been torpedoed at all." The engine crankshaft had broken yet again, the rotary valve had seized and the driving shaft was twisted. When they worked out the speed it was 24.5mph over 250 yards from a standing start, Fred declared himself well satisfied with that result, and had enjoyed a great days sport into the bargain.

After the engine was rebuilt a start was made on the hull. Sticking to the published plan of Irene III, but incorporating Groves' suggestions from Irene IV, Fred built a metre long, single step hull, with a beam of 7⅞". He used ⅛"mahogany for the sides and 22swg aluminium for the bottom and transom.

Fred commented that he should have made the width 8⅛"as it would have made fitting the pipe-work easier and avoided later having to cut a hole in the hull and insert an aluminium plate where the superheated steam had burnt and warped the side.

Very little glue was used during the building of the hull, just shellac in the joints, and steel wood screws 1" apart holding it all together. After finishing the hull, it was given three coats of thin shellac inside and out.

Left: Layout drawing of Evil Spirit by T Hindle.

The drive was a single straight shaft from the flywheel with the thrust bearing screwed to the side of the skeg so that the complete drive train could be removed without disassembling the boat. A set of hand made two and three bladed propellers completed the construction of Evil Spirit.

Everything was now ready for a bench and tank test. The bench test proved to be successful with the engine achieving a peak of 6,000 revs so the boat was put into a large tank, where a spring balance tied to the transom with a length of cord showed 11lbs of pull.

Although a successful trial Fred decided to give it another bench test. At the conclusion of this a big end was found to be broken, and after much scrabbling around under the bench he found the remnants, and another rebuild took place.

Now well into December Fred planned to run the boat on Trafford Park Lake Manchester, but on the morning chosen the lake was frozen over. Fred couldn’t resist giving the assembled members a demonstration, and started the engine. It initially ran at high speed then stopped, with yet another broken crankshaft.

It was the week before Christmas and Fred spent every evening working on the boat, finishing it on Christmas Day, working he claimed from 10am till 4pm. The Spirit of Christmas must have been a bit strained in the Westmoreland household.

Left: Fred with 'Evil Spirit' in 1915.

Boxing Day saw a further trip to Trafford Park and this time everything worked perfectly. The boat completed 37 laps, with the fastest individual lap being recorded at 26.9mph.

This earned Fred the world record, and a silver medal and certificate from The Model Engineer in recognition of his achievement. The certified speed was 25.06 mph.

Hoping to improve on this time another attempt was made in January 1916, but things did not quite go according to plan. With the boat’s speed estimated at 25mph, the pole started to move and to avoid the hull hitting the landing stage, urgent action was needed.

Right: Original certificate confirming the record.

Fred provides us with this dramatic description on his attempt to avert disaster. "I plucked up courage and moved as quickly as I could (in waders) to stop its mad career, and with luck I caught it by the bow. I got a bad cut above my knee, also a finger badly knocked up, and in catching the hydroplane the bow was stove in. The cowl came into contact with the pump wheel and shifted the pump brackets out of place. The blowlamp was torn off its fastening bracket and was still roaring merrily.

I now had a few moments of real excitement" Fred decided that he still had fuel left and he didn’t want to waste it so he spent the next 2 hours patching ‘Spirit’ up.

Amazingly she then went on to complete 32 laps, about two miles non-stop at around 18mph which must have lessened the pain from Fred’s cuts and bruises somewhat.

Left: Fred at Belle Vue, Manchester.

Further experimental speed runs were made, but the crankshaft broke again, and Fred decided that the 11˝ oz engine had done what it was designed for and a new design was now necessary. The power unit was rebuilt with a new and strengthened bottom end but 'Evil Spirit' was never again raced seriously, and following Fred’s return from war service was put into semi-retirement.                               Right: 'The scrap'

Three days after the armistice in November 1918 'Model Engineer' published an article that claimed a new speed record of over 30mph for an American boat called 'Elmara'. Fred joined in the lengthy correspondence that followed questioning this claim. The builder Mr J Fawcett Rapp readily acknowledged that 'Elmara' was a close copy of 'Evil Spirit' and that although the boat had exceeded 30mph, this was for just a portion of a lap and not a measured distance. Further claims from America for speeds over 70mph were dismissed as a total exaggeration. Fred accepted that speeds in excess of 30mph were perfectly possible as he had achieved this regularly, but never over the regulation distance required

He was firmly of the opinion that flash steam was always going to be superior to IC engines and to this end Fred did build a new flash steamer, named ‘Mystery’ but that’s another story.

Over the next 20 years the boat made demonstration runs at a number of regattas such as 1928 when the boat give a ‘fine exhibition run’ in the International and at Victoria Park in 1929. Fred produced four cartoons for the 'Model Engineer' illustrating events of the day.

Left: Original cartoon showing 'Evil Spirit'

In 1934 Fred was invited to the Grand Regatta at Brockwell Park Dulwich to present the prizes. He took ‘Evil Spirit’ with him and, with it being the only flash steam powered hydroplane entered, generated a lot of interest.  It also gave those present an opportunity to see a piece of history in action.

The following year Fred wrote in an article about the Altrincham Club’s trials on Jubilee Day "Evil Spirit still lives, and did several good runs during the day". By this time however, a long term illness was severely restricting Fred's activities and sadly, in October 1935, he died.
                                                   Right: Fred at Brockwell Park in 1934 with 'Evil Spirit'

Following his death, Fred's son Frederick ran 'Evil Spirit' on occasions before passing it on to David Roberts, the son of one of Fred's many friends. It remained in David's safe keeping for several years before it was offered to its present custodians, the Northern Association of Model Engineers  in the hope that people could once again see this record breaker. 'Evil Spirit' has been with N.A.M.E for around forty years, and it was on their stand that the heading photograph was taken that prompted my interest in Fred Westmoreland.

A decision has been made to keep the boat in exactly the condition it was found. It is complete and would almost certainly still run with very little work. A split in the hull side is the only sign of any damage after 91 years. ‘Evil Spirit’ is now the second oldest tethered hydroplane in captivity.

'Evil Spirit' photographed in 2006.

Reduction gear and pumps. Steam generating coil. Cranks and valve drive gears.

  Sheet aluminium and a lot of screws!

True to Mr Roberts' intentions, 'Evil Spirit' is regularly displayed at exhibitions and events around the country by the Association, and continues to generate huge amounts of interest.

Our thanks to Jim Free for setting this whole thing in motion, to Frank Cooper and Alan Budd of N.A.M.E for allowing us access to Evil Spirit and providing information about its recent history and to Peter Hill, Ken Lawton and Jim Hampton for early archive material.