Monday, 15 March 2010

A Dark and Desperate Place

Harwich has a number of interesting and unique buildings and the Treadwheel Crane is one of them. As far as I know this is the only existing example of a two-wheel man operated treadwheel crane in the country.

It is known that the Romans used treadwheel cranes in 25 BC. And they were widely used in the Middle Ages.

It was built in 1667 when Samuel Pepys (who as well as writing lots in his diaries was also in his time MP for Harwich, Master of Trinity House, Naval Administrator and a bit of an all round naughty boy with the ladies) was charged with expanding the naval dockyard at Harwich ready for war with the Dutch.

1667. That is a year after the Great Fire of London when Mr Pepys famously buried his cheese. The year that John Milton sold the copyright of Paradise Lost for a tenner and the Dutch sailed up the River Medway burning Sheerness and raiding the Chatham dockyards before making off with the royal barge.

Charles II was on the throne fathering children willy nilly, posing for pictures with his spaniels and yet to meet the actress Nell Gwyn.

It was still in operation during WWI. The naval dockyard closed in 1928 and the crane was moved to Harwich green to stand on the site of the Queen’s Mount Battery.

It cost £392 to build and was in service for more than two and a half centuries. That’s pretty good value for money I’d say. But what about the other costs, the hidden ones?

The two wheels inside are made of oak and 16ft in diameter. They are attached to an axle around which the lifting chain is wound. The chain goes along the jib.

But what do I find most interesting about the crane? The fact that there is no brake. They had a piece of wood – a piece of wood! – to act as an emergency brake if required.

Of course this depended upon there being someone handy to use the piece of wood if needed. If the load took command – well you don’t need much imagination to realise what would happen to the man in each wheel.

When I was a child there was no fence around the crane – or if there was, it was easy to get inside (I was very young and can't remember if there was a fence or not). You can go in there now by prior arrangement with the Harwich Society, but the time I got in there as a child has lived with me and I have no wish to go inside again.

I still shudder when I think of it. And when I was there this morning taking photos for this blog, I still had the overwhelming feeling of darkness around it despite the bright sunshine.

Being blessed with an over-active imagination all those years ago I thought I could smell the sweat, feel the heat and hear the shouts of the men that used to work in the wheels. I still can.

It is an interesting thing, but for me it is a menacing place, the stuff of nightmares.

And for anyone with eagle eyes, you will see a tall lighthouse and a short lighthouse lurking in the photos. They are another pair of “leading lights”. The wooden predecessor of the short lighthouse was immortalised by John Constable in 1820 – that would be some 150 years after the treadwheel crane was built and more than a hundred years before its final retirement.

And the big cranes in the background of the first picture are at Felixstowe. How times have changed.


  1. Wow! I feel as if I've just been on a guided tour.
    Know exactly what you mean about the atmosphere of places. There are some places that fill me with dread and I guess this might be one of them if I ever got close enough to it.

  2. I am often glad we live in modern times!

  3. Fascinating, Kate - yet another piece of Essex history I was completely ignorant about! (I'm afraid there's no limit to my ignorance where history is concerned. How did I even scrape an O-level??). But I did read Pepys' Diaries and enjoyed some parts of them! - without knowing, needless to say, that he was once an Essex MP! I wonder what expenses he claimed for travelling from Harwich to the House?! x

  4. Fascinating post. I completely agree about atmospheres. I'm not sure if I believe in ghosts but I think in some places you can definitely feel the spirit of the people who lived there before, particularly if they were unhappy. It can be, as you say, very menacing.

  5. I wouldn't want to spend a night in there, Lynne, that's for sure!

    We're very lucky I think, Joanne. It wasn't that long ago was it really.

    I read Pepys' diaries too many years ago, Olivia. Fascinating stuff.

    I believe in ghosts, Lydia. Most definitely. And I think places can soak up misery and sadness like a sponge.

  6. What an informative post. First, you introduce me to 'leading lights' and now this. Fascinating stuff, and yes, this crane certainly was value for money.

  7. Sorry, Teresa - why did I call you Kate? Am I cracking up??? It's quite worrying!

  8. Thank you, Martin. I feel encouraged to nip round with my camera and find a few more gems!

    Don't worry, Olivia - I've been called worse! Seriously it's the kind of thing I do - I blame it on having a creative mind off doing its own thing half the time ;-)