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.
Joseph Booth & Bros
Since the original crane making partnership split in 1847 the two key firms in this story, Thomas Smith and Joseph Booth, had been operating successfully side by side. With the large number of construction projects taking place around the world large numbers of cranes were needed, notable examples supplied by Booths being London's Tower Bridge and the financial disaster that was the aborted Wembley Park Tower project, London's answer to the Eifel Tower. In 1902 the Railway Magazine commented "If the Wembley Tower Company could have raised the money as quickly as these cranes raised the girders, the growth of the tower would not have ceased so abruptly."
Joseph Booth advert from 1888 (image Graces Guide)
Like Smiths, Booths began using electric power around the turn of the 20th Century and in 1902 The Railway Magazine recorded "This branch is rapidly extending, electricity being capable, under modern conditions, of applications in many directions cognate to the business of the firm, who, of course, make electric cranes." Producing the electric motors for their electric cranes in house, Booth's went on to use these motors in other applications. A number of battery locomotives were made under the Union trademark. The range included small battery shunters and mine locomotives.
Standard gauge Booth RAF battery locos 130 and 131 (Image Bob and Nikki McDonald)
From 1875 onwards Booths made large numbers of overhead cranes for use in factories. In 1903, a local newspaper article recorded "The noted Booths Bros. Self-Contained Steam Overhead Cranes and Goliath Cranes are largely used the world over by Railway Companies, Contractors, Government Works, &c., and they build these wonderful lifters to suit various spans, with a capacity of raising from 5 to 100 tons." In later years, as demand for rail mounted cranes dwindled, this company turned more to the production of overhead cranes.One unusual use for a Booths product was the supply of a crane to the Sultan of Morocco to lift stills used in the production of perfumes, much of which was being produced to supply the palace harem.
One of the most impressive of the firm's steam powered products was a 62t steam powered travelling derrick ordered by Weetman Pearson for constructing an extension to Valparaiso harbour in Chile in 1914. With the engine towards the centre of the structure, drive to the rail mounted bogies was supplied by shafts to the three bogies.
Publicity material for the 62t steam travelling derrick (Image Bob and Nikki McDonald)
Remarkably the remains of this machine can still be found at Vina Del Mar in Chile, just along the coast from Valparaiso. At some point it was converted in to a stationary derrick. The boiler was removed around 1986-87 and restauraunts built on the pier, these burnt down in 2007. The crane survives as a local landmark, though in somewhat deteriorated condition. Picture
Joseph Booth & Bros went in to liquidation in the 1920s depression and was bought by John Baker (1920) Ltd. John Baker was part of the Rotherham steel making family behind Baker & Bessemer. The new ownership saw Booths produce a lot of material for the steel industry, particulally for Baker & Bessemer's Kilnhurst works in Rotherham, the company diversified a long way from being a crane maker, fabricating everything down to the structural metal work for the works.
Clyde Crane & Booth Ltd
1864 established Gateshead engineering firm Clarke Chapman bought significant shares in both Joseph Booth & Bros and Mossend based crane maker Clyde Crane. Both companies were merged to form Clyde Crane and Booth Ltd in 1937.
One of the new company's more high profile projects was the 1957 built 'Bradwell Goliath', a massive 200 ton crane used to construct Bradwell nuclear power station. Then the biggest crane of its type in the world it was featured in the British Pathe newsreels.
British Pathe newsreel clip of the Bradwell Goliath (Click to open)
A similar crane was also employed at Dungeness power station. Though the crane was designed so it could be dismantled and re-used it in fact had a spectacular decomissioning when it was finished with at Bradwell, being blown up on the BBC news.
Booths also built some large rail mounted cranes for use as breakdown and civil engineering cranes. In 1958/59 Booths produced a series of ten 8 wheel Civil Engineers’ cranes for BR Western Region. Some might be familiar with the Airfix kit that was produced of these cranes, Booths having assisted the model manufacturers by providing various plans used in the production of the kit.
In the 1960s another series of mergers began to take place. In 1961, Clyde Crane and Booth Ltd also acquired the Carlisle crane maker Cowans Sheldon. Following the aquisition of Cowans Sheldon this was chosen as the brand name for Clarke Chapman's railway crane business. Booths designed railway cranes were advertised in the Cowans Sheldon catalogue and the works in Leeds concentrated on overhead cranes. 1961 saw the opening of a new head office for the Clyde Crane & Booth group 'Woodeson House' adjacent to the Rodley works.
In 1969, three of the giants of the crane industry merged, Clyde Crane and Booth Ltd, Sir William Arrol and Co Ltd and Wellman Cranes becoming the Crane and Bridge division of Clarke Chapman Ltd. In 1977 Clark Chapman became part of Northern Engineering Industries Plc and in 1978 they took over Thomas Smith In effect the group now owned most of the UK's crane making industry. The Clarke Chapman group was taken over by Rolls Royce in 1989 and by Langley Holdings in 2001. The Booths name can still be found on cranes from Clarke Chapman subsidiary Wellman Booth. The company now operates from an industrial unit in Yeadon where the in-house design work takes place, manufacturing being contracted out. Booths original Union Foundry has now been demolished and housing has been built on the site. The firm still specialises in overhead cranes and still carries out a lot of work for the nuclear power industry.
A Wellman Booth overhead crane at Scunthorpe steel works, though this is rather small compared to some of the cranes produced for the nuclear industry (but easier to take a photo of).
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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