A Brief History of the Leeds Crane Makers
Ex BR(W) Civil Engineers' crane DRA81458 Built by Joseph Booth, works number 6042, restored to original condition at the Dean Forest Railway in 2016. (Photo Kris Ward)
All | Balmforth | Henry Berry | Joseph Booth | Bramley Engineering | Bray, Waddington & Co | Butler | Thomas Green | Isles | Kirkstall Forge | Benjamin Johnson | Smith, Beacock & Tannett | Smith & Parker | Thomas Smith & Son | Tannett, Walker & Co | Whittaker Brothers
The story of Leeds crane making goes back to a firm established in Calverley in 1820 by Jeremiah Balmforth and David Smith. Just as the locomotive industry in Leeds had begun with firms established to make mill machinery, so did its crane making industry. They were primarily millwrights producing machinery for the woollen industry. In 1833 the firm were joined by Jeremiah Booth. They looked for further markets for their work and this included hand operated cranes from 1840. In 1847 Booth left and established his own crane making company at the new Union Foundry. In 1855 Booth's firm passed on to his son Joseph Booth and the name Joseph Booth & Bros was adopted.
In 1858 Jeremiah Balmforth died and his son William inherited the position, to be followed the following year David Smith's son Thomas. The production of steam powered cranes is thought to have begun around 1860, however the two partners in the company fell out in 1861. Thomas Smith bought out the company and took control. Thomas Smith later brought his sons in to the business and they eventually took it over on his death in 1902. In 1918 the company was incorporated as Thomas Smith & Sons.
William Balmforth established a new firm to manufacture quarry cranes, the Peel Ings Foundry, though this works did not enjoy the same success of those of Thomas Smith and Joseph Booth.
Smith's Old Foundry and Booth's Union Foundry were both situated on a narrow strip of land between Town Street, Rodley and the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. Large demand for their cranes in docks, quarries and construction sites saw both businesses thrive. Particularly popular were the very similar 4 wheel steam cranes that both firms produced. The basic design is often referred to as the 'Leeds type' or 'Rodley type' and has the steam boiler counterbalancing the jib with a tall column pivot, making them very stable machines. These cranes proved so popular that the works both struggled to meet demand and very similar cranes were produced by a number of other firms around Leeds at the time. There continued to be close ties between the various firms in the local crane making industry with key personnel often moving between companies and the crane business of the smaller firms that were wound up over the years being taken on by the bigger firms. In the end a series of mergers saw the local crane makers in the hands of one firm Wellman Booth who continue to design cranes to this day from offices in Yeadon.
With so many firms in this area making cranes we have listed the companies alphabetically. From the menu above you can skip to the maker you are looking for.
Kirkstall Forge can trace its history back to 1151 and the need for materials for the construction of Kirkstall Abbey. The "modern day" Kirkstall Forge began in 1779 when the historic forge was taken over by the Beacroft and Butler families (seemingly no relation to the Butlers of Stanningly who ran a couple of metal working firms mentioned elsewhere on this page). For much of their history the core of their business was axles and shafting, however they also manufactured all manner of machinery including stationary steam engines and steam cranes.
Kirkstall Forge 40 Ton Steam Forge Crane for the Russian Government of 1868 (Graces Guide)
Kirkstall Forge operated at the site until it was taken over by Dana Corporation in 1995, who over the next 6 years shifted production overseas and closed what was England's oldest forge. The site is being redeveloped with homes, offices and shops, however a small number of the most historic buildings have been retained. The part of the old works which was referred to as the "museum" by works staff includes a rail mounted hand crane the company had supplied to the Isle of Wight railways that they brought back to the works to become a display item. Though the area is currently fenced off, this can be seen from trains passing the new Kirkstall Forge railway station built to serve the development.
Internal Website Links
With some great contributions we are building up a nice collection of archive material of these firms. The Joseph Booth gallery has benifited from a contribution of good quality images dating from around 1914-1924.
Joseph Booth Picture Gallery
Thomas Smith Picture Gallery
Other Crane Manufacturers Picture Gallery
Our database has most records of Joseph Booth's output from the oldest surviving records of 1890 to the end of steam crane and railway crane production in the 1960s, though there are still some records to add. We have scanned a few volumes of Thomas Smith's records, with thanks to Wellman Booth, and are currently in the process of adding these to the database. We have also added details of surviving cranes that are known of around the worls, with thanks to Chris Capewell.
External Website Links
The Yorkshire Group of 16mm Modellers has a good write up about the Leeds crane makers on its website.
Wellman Booth's current website.
www.smith-cranes.nl (in Dutch) Translation This sites has lots of material about Smith's excavators, crawlers and truck cranes.
Wikia page about Thomas Smith.
Graces Guide entry about Joseph Booth.
Graces Guide entry about Thomas Smith.
Graces Guide entry about Bramley Engineering.
Graces Guide entry about Bray, Waddington & Co.
Graces Guide entry about Henry Berry.
Current website for Henry Berry
1972 British Railways cranes manual on Barrowmore MRG website
Wikipedia page about Kirkstall Forge
Archive images on Leodis.net:
Search results for 'Union Crane Works'
Search results for 'Thomas Smith'
Picture of Whitaker hand crane Trans Zambezia Railway No 13 on Flickr
Picture of Bray, Waddington hand crane at Herm, Guernsey.
Much of the archive material relating to Thomas Smith and Joseph Booth is held by the West Yorkshire Archive Service
Railway Steam Cranes, John S. Brownlie, SBN 0 9502965 0 3
Wellman Booth Company History 
Proud Heritage, A History of Thomas Smith & Sons (Rodley) Ltd, Frederick H Smith 1947. Look for this book on Amazon*
Narrow Gauge News August 2007 
Old Glory, Yorkshire Steam Crane Manufacturers, November 2011 - January 2012 
Railway Magazine August 1902 
Bramley, Pudsey, Stanningley & District through the Camera 1903 
Various company catalogues and sales brocures 
Monk Bridge Ironworks, Glyn Davies, Mark Stenton, Ron Fitzgerald and Rob Kinchin-Smith, ArcHeritage 2011, ISBN 978-1-874454-56-4  Look for this book on Amazon*
The History of Thomas Green & Son Ltd, John Pease, ISBN: 9781899889 81 5 Look for this book at the publishers*
Research of David Wood, grandson of Job Isles
Information on the Balmforth locomotives provided by Peter Holmes
Information on the RAF's Airfield Construction Branch supplied by Patrick Honey
* These links are provided to help readers search for often rare books on the subject and to promote any books available, we are under no commercial incentives for this
This article was produced by Kris Ward, any feedback or contributions about the Leeds engine making industry would be greatly appreciated.
With thanks to Michael Woodhouse, formerly of Wellman Booth, for great help in producing this article
Thanks to Chris Capewell for information about surviving cranes here in the UK and all over the world and for help with a lot of the research in to local crane makers, also to Pat Williams for information regarding the 62t derrick in Chile. Thanks to Stewart Liles and Peter Holmes for material relating to the Balmorth locomotives. Thanks to Patrick Honey for information about the Smith crawler machines used by the RAF. Thanks to Alan Moore for information about surviving Bray, Waddington & Co cranes.
Page last modified: 19 June 2021
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