Inside the Collection

Wow – a giant exploded treasure chest!

Photograph of end section of 'Day Street Boiler'
B2255 End section of boiler, ‘Day Street Boiler’, iron, England, 1815 – 1840

The other day I was walking through the museum and came across a family visiting the Steam Revolution exhibition. Their young son was racing around in typical fashion when he came to a dead stop in front of the above object and exclaimed ‘Wow – a giant exploded treasure chest!!’

The object in question is the Day Street Boiler and it does have a pretty interesting story. This large end section was unearthed in 1976 during construction of the Western Distributor freeway. It appears to have been used as landfill in the early days of Sydney when land reclamations took place for construction of the dockland area at Darling Harbour, between 1838 and 1848. There were only 6 steam engines operating in Sydney in 1831, which grew to 26 by the end of the 1840s, so the Day Street Boiler is quite a rare piece of metal.

The boiler is of the type developed by James Watt and Matthew Boulton in the late 1700s known as the ‘wagon’ boiler. They were used to supply steam to beam engines during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It is not certain where the boiler was used however research indicates that a likely source was the John Struth foundry near the corner of Sussex and King Streets (the boiler was excavated from 127-129 Sussex Street). Struth set up an engineering works here in the early 1830s. It is not known how long he remained on this site but it seems likely that the site remained in use until the 1850s. An engraving of Struth’s works from the 1830s indicates that he was using a steam engine. It seems more than likely that Struth made parts for steam engines and possibly constructed boilers as well. It is also possible that the boiler was brought to the works to be re-smelted.

Although the boiler looks as though it might have expoded (to the delight of our young visitor), there is no indication of thinning or fraying of the plates as would be expected in an explosion. Also there is no recorded mention of a boiler explosion in the contemporary press. It appears that the plates have been hacked apart as would happen in the scrapping process. It is remarkable that such a large piece escaped re-smelting as there was a serious shortage of metal in the colonies at this time.

I think it is lovely that the thing that stopped our young visitor in his tracks was not the computer screens and interactives or even the fabulous working steam engines but this grey and rather static object and the power of his own imagination.

Post by Lynne McNairn, Digital Media

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