Dig this, dude
It’s fair to say many of us would like a go on a digger. Perhaps not a prominent desire, but the thought of moving large piles of earth at the touch of a joystick or smashing concrete into oblivion with a deft swipe of the controls is quite tempting.
Sadly, it must remain a wish and not become a reality, for us at least – because the joy of excavating massive holes would lead to a temptation to lift things that shouldn’t be lifted, like people or cars, or even other diggers. That’s a very good question: can a digger lift another digger? Well, for as long as we’re not allowed to play with diggers, we won’t find out. We think it probably could though.
So why all this talk about construction machinery? Well, it’s because we’re awash with it at our Alvin Street premises in Gloucester: diggers, excavators, dump trucks and all manner of large and powerful machinery that we are (sensibly) banned from having a go on. But we have fun watching them in our breaks, seeing them go about their destructive and constructive business to create new facilities for Gloucestershire Heritage Hub and build three more specialist storage rooms for the Archives’ collections. You’ll probably know all about this if you’ve been following our Blogging a Building posts or visited recently.
Unfortunately, none of the machinery on our site is made by the old Gloucester firm, Muir Hill Ltd, which moved from Manchester to Gloucester in 1962. The firm was based at the site of the Gloucester Railway Carriage and Wagon Company on Bristol Road and specialised in the manufacturing of dumpers, loaders and shunters. Gloucestershire Archives holds a significant amount of this firm’s business records: collection D4557 contains photographs, slides, publicity material, artwork, administrative, financial and property records; and D14248, a smaller collection, contains similar items.
Looking through some of the Muir Hill catalogues, and judging by the range of dumping tractors featured in them, it seems dumping was a popular activity. The company also manufactured high lift shovels, tractors, scrapers and, surprisingly, standard gauge locomotives used for light shunting work. The locos are notable for being pre-diesel machines, powered by petrol or paraffin. They were advertised with the same advantages over steam power as diesel and electric locos (though the latter two came along years later): “instant operation and always ready for duty” – just like the Archives’ staff.
Muir Hill machines were exported around the world. One of the sales information sheets quotes an Australian distributor calling the firm’s 161 model “This Beaut Tractor” and ends with the conclusion “there seems to be no doubt that the 161 is a far better tractor than the existing big yanks”. This could be a comparison to another type of tractor, or confirmation that Gloucester engineering was far superior to anything the US could produce at the time. We think the latter and, regardless, it’s nice to have some Aussie praise.
One of the photographs in the collection shows a peculiar high lifting shovel machine, rather like a rickety wooden shed on tracks, with a window and protruding lifting arm. Intriguing! Especially since most of Muir Hill’s machinery was manufactured from far sturdier material. Perhaps the boss was away when this quirky contraption was produced, leaving the workers free to knock something together quickly on the Monday and spend the rest of the week betting on horses or getting to know the local bar staff? Thankfully not – a closer look at the photo reveals the words ‘Ruston and Bucyrus’, the name of a rival manufacturer, painted down the shaft. Evidently they didn’t produce such quality machinery. It’s certainly a relief to think the engineering designers of Gloucester didn’t expect a worker shovelling heavy boulders, coal and soil to be protected from a stray falling rock (and almost certain death) by a few thin strips of processed tree. Instead, they thoughtfully encased them in the safety of metal – so the descendants of these operators can say “Thank you, Muir Hill people”.
Many of the machines produced by Muir Hill seem similar to the tractors and dumpers used today, so it’d be great to compare them and see if the old Gloucester technology could match today’s efforts. Could a Muir Hill pick up a JCB, for example? Or could it go faster? And which would be best at lifting tractors? If there are any Muir Hill digger, dumper or shovel owners out there, we’d love to host a competition to find out (who knows, if we promise to operate the shed on wheels carefully, the site manager might even allow it!). We could all wear high vis jackets and give the machines a fluorescent makeover – it’d become a high vis historic digger race off. Imagine that!
…and we wonder why we’re banned from building sites.
Anthony Phillips and Jenny Rutland, Archives Assistants