Sir William Allan, M.P. (1837-1904), of William Allan and Co
General Manager of North Eastern Marine Engineering Co
1874 Developed weighing machine with W. Stobart
"...William Allan, M.P., the world has lost a remarkable man. He was born in November, 1837, in Dundee. His father was James Allan, of the Seabraes Foundry in that town; a man well to do when his son William was born. Subsequently things went wrong; speculations failed, and the boy had to seek a living as best he could when but ten years old in an engineering shop in Dundee. Of the next few years of his life very little is known. We next hear of William Allan at Paterson, New Jersey. Again there is a blank, and his recent history begins with the year 1861, when he was chief engineer of a blockade runner during the American Civil War. As the rule was, the boat was captured after two or three successful trips. We have heard Allan tell the story of what followed in the graphic language which he so well knew how to use. The blockade runner was a paddle steamer with oscillating engines. The American engineers of the Stettin, the capturing cruiser, had never before seen oscillating engines, and were quite unable to use them. They insisted that Allan should enlist in the Federal navy, which he flatly refused to do. Then, they declared, he must take charge of the engines; that he must take charge of the engines; that also he refused to do. Threats, backed up with a revolver only evoked the remark that he was a British subject and his captors had better be careful but he added that if they would like to pay him he would take the ship into port. This was agreed to and the price fixed at 30 dols. Allan went into port as a prisoner of war, and "I just treated the boat's main bearings to a touch of emery oil can before we reached port." He was confined in prison in Washington for six weeks, during which he and other prisoners suffered scandalous privation. At last, by the good offices of the British Ambassador, he was liberated on condition that he left the country at once, and promised never again to take part in the war. The promise presented no difficulty, but the Federal Government owed him 30 dols., and without that sum he was not going to leave. He so worried the authorities for some hours that at last they paid him, and he returned to this country.
All his life boiler engineering had been a favourite pursuit of his, and he now found work in a boiler shop in Carlisle. We next find him employed in the North-Eastern Marine Engine Works, Sunderland. It is unnecessary to say much about what had proved an unfortunate speculation for a great many people. Mr. Allan found his opportunity, and, by the sheer force of his personality he convinced a weak board of directors that if they would trust him he would make the place pay. They did trust him, and he was successful. There were many ups and downs, but at were (sic) last the works transferred to Wallsend.
In 1887 he left the North-Eastern Company, returned to Sunderland, and started the Scotia Engine Works, of which he was managing proprietor up to the time of his death. At a by-election in 1893 he was elected member of Parliament for Gateshead. In 1895 he was elected once more.
William Allan never had any teaching beyond the rudiments which can be acquired by a child. All that he knew he taught himself. He possessed no knowledge of mathematics. Thermodynamics and the laws of heat were sealed books to him. Of theoretical engineering or physics, save in the most general fashion, he knew nothing. Yet he was in the very forefront as a builder of marine engines, and boilers, which attained in his hands an economy unprecedented save in a very few isolated cases. Engineering was with him an instinct. He seemed to know intuitively what was right and what was wrong in proportions. His machinery never broke down. What he said it could do it did. He invented and patented various improvements in the marine engine. 0ne in particular, in which the condenser is placed under the engine and the pumps, driven directly off the cross heads, was very successful, and much in favour for cargo steamers. He was among the very first to reduce the consumption to about 1·5 lb. of coal per indicated horse-power per hour; and this was in great measure the result of his persistent advocacy of plenty of boiler power. For him there was but one marine boiler, the Scotch: and it is not to be disputed that his own experience with his own boilers justified the faith that he had in them. The modern subtleties, of rate of heat unit transmission per square foot per hour, and such like, he utterly disregarded - probably he did not understand them. In his engineering work he seldom made any mistakes, never any serious mistakes.
Nor was he less successful in the shop, than he was at sea. He introduced into the works a system of laying-off at that time little known, though now very generally adopted. In the erecting shop he had large bed-plates laid truly level, and on these the engincs were erected by the plumbline and set squares. His scribing tables were elaborate and most carefully attended to, and he always maintained that accurate work was cheap work. With the aid of the secretary to the comptuay he devised a system of cost price book-keeping which told him every morning what every engine, or part of an engine, had cost up to the evening before.
Sir William Allan was, in one sense of the word, a Radical; but, unlike many so-called Radicals, he had an intense sympathy with the working man, tempered by an exceedingly judicious repugnance for the idler, the ne'er-do-well, and the blatant labour leader. He was among the very first to introduce an eight hours day, which he maintained was necessity in the North, where the climate was hard. He did not press it for the South. He stated without the least hesitation that while it was good for the men it was still better for the master. In the winter he found by careful investigation that his men averaged only seven hour, a day, instead of nine, so that he really got more done by the eight hours' day than by the longer day.
Sir William Allan wrote a great deal of verse and some poetry. A Southerner misses the point and excellence of his writing becase of the broad Scotch dialect which he used. He was a powerful man, who would have been very handsome but for the effects of an accident in early life. He had a rich, deep voice, and was a very ready and trenchant speaker. He wore a great deal of hair, and we have heard him laugh heartily at the effect his leonine aspect had on strangers. His fierceness was all on the outside, however; and those who knew him best also knew that he was a thorough good fellow and a most sincere and constant friend. His memory will live in many heart; and to the end his career will teach the old, old lesson that men make or mar themselves, and that, after all, the engineer is born not made.
Mr. Allan as a member of Parliament made himself a name in the House as the most uncompromising foe of the water-tube boiler. It was very commonly supposed that his antipathy did not extend beyond the Belleville boiler; but this is not the case. It was only of recent years, indeed, that he could persuade himself that Express boilers must be used in torpedo boats; and he always held that the utility of these craft must be reduced almost to vanishing point because they could not get on with Scotch boilers. It is largely to his criticism that the appointment of the Boiler Commission was due. In 1902 Mr. Allan was knighted; he thoroughly deserved the honour.
He died at his residence, Scotland House, Sunderland, on the evening of Monday, the 28th inst. He had long suffered from disease of the heart, and his death was almost sudden. He leaves a widow and a grown up family. His death will be regretted by hundreds of persons who understood and valued his sterling qualities.
Sources of Information
- The Engineer 1904/01/01, p008.