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Logo: Tom Bates, Derbyshire Local Histrory writer  
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The Power of Markham's of Chesterfield

Posted Saturday, July 7, 2007

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The Power of Markham’s of Chesterfield:

`Chesterfield: The Centre of Industrial England'

The town of Chesterfield was long heralded as a major industrial centre, it’s numerous nineteenth century coal and iron foundry’s gradually diversifying into both heavy and light engineering works, which, along with the collieries provided employment for the majority of the town’s workforce for the best part of two hundred years. Indeed, up until a decade ago the road signs on the approaches to the town declared, Chesterfield – The Centre of Industrial England – and the engineering company of Markhams was firmly at the centre of industrial Chesterfield.

Founded by one the town’s most celebrated sons, Alderman Charles P. Markham in the late nineteenth century, Markhams were one of Chesterfield’s leading exporters for almost a hundred years, largely from their Broad Oaks Works beside the River Rother.

From here, within sight of the town’s famous Crooked Spire, completed precision engineered goods were sent all over the world; there was a Markham-built piece of precision engineering manufactured and supplied to almost every major engineering project in the world throughout the twentieth century.

`a proud record of always delivering on schedule'

A remarkable statistic to emerge from a hundred years of supplying precision-engineered equipment to such diverse projects as submarines and landing craft for the Admiralty, Tunnel boring machines for the Channel Tunnel, and gigantic water-turbines for hydro-electric power stations in New Zealand, Australia, Tasmania, Canada, Africa, India, and all over Europe, is the fact that Markhams never once over-ran a contract – they maintained a proud record of always delivering on schedule!

For over sixty years until 1998, a major part of the company’s output was the production of water turbines, and indeed, as former Markham Engineering director Ken Wort points out;

“Water-power machinery accounted for around 30% of Markham’s turnover in the period from 1960 until the works closed in 1998, and owing to the nature of the construction of the hydro-electric power station sites it was absolutely essential that the turbines were delivered at exactly the right time”.

Markham’s were in at the birth of the hydro-electric power era, as Mr.Wort explains: “In 1928 Markham and Company entered into an agreement with Boving & Co.of London for the manufacture of Boving designed water turbines of all types and sizes, together with the associated valves, water control gates and other equipment associated with water power generation.

The first turbines built under the agreement were delivered in 1929 and in the following sixty years around three hundred turbine units were constructed at the Markham Works in Chesterfield. The total output of the turbines built at Markhams exceeded 11,000 MW (eleven thousand mega-watts – equivalent to one third of the electricity used in the UK during the year 2000). Of the 11,000 MW, 3,000 MW was installed in the UK and 1,000 MW in the continent of Africa”.

“Turbines built by Markham included designs such as Francis, Kaplan, and Pelton, Francis mini-turbines, propellor and bulb types and complete pump storage units. The principal pump storage contract was for six Francis turbine installations at what is known as the Electric Mountain, in North Wales. This acts as a gigantic rechargeable electric battery with a total output of 1,900 MW.

Other pump storage schemes were supplied for Foyers hydro-electric power station at Loch Ness in Scotland, Porabka-Zar in Poland, and Villarino in Spain. We also supplied conventional hydro-electric machinery for power plants at Owen Falls in Kenya, the Murray River in Australia, El Chocon in Argentina and in Brazil, Indonesia, the Victoria Dam in Sri Lanka and at Videlia in the USA – all on schedule, of course”.

One of the water-turbine projects undertaken by Markham’s was the construction of the gigantic turbines for the hydro-electric power-station units at the Kariba Dam, itself one of the world’s largest civil engineering projects, which spans the Kariba Gorge in the Zambezi River Basin along the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe in South Africa.

The Dam was built in two stages; the first stage between 1955 and 1959 saw the construction of the double curvature concrete arch dam wall and the Kariba South Power cavern, ready for housing the giant turbines deep underground.

Final construction and the addition of the Kariba North Power Cavern was not completed until 1977, mainly due to the political unrest at the time. Following completion the dam was the largest of its kind in the world, with the crest of the curve being 420 feet high and 1, 899 feet in length, with a total volume of over one million cubic metres of concrete used in its construction, along with ten thousand tons of reinforced steel.

During the course of it’s construction, 89 workers were killed, eighteen of them by falling into the wet concrete to be entombed forever in the wall of the dam.

The building of the dam created Lake Kariba, almost an inland ocean some 175 miles long and 25 miles wide, and a new fishing industry and numerous holiday resorts have sprung up alongside the lake in recent years.

The seventy five feet thick dam wall stands atop the two massive power chambers at either end, each carved out of solid rock, which house the turbines and alternators of the hydro-electric power station.

The power chambers are connected to the surface by hydraulically operated vertical shafts which enable the purpose built turbines and turbine runners to be lowered into place. Not an easy task, given the size and weight of each unit, for as Ken Wort points out;

“The six Francis turbines for the Kariba project were of considerable size and weighed around fifty tons each, each turbine having individual intake and pressure shafts on the upstream side, with draft tubes discharging into individual gate chambers on the downstream side, leading to a surge chamber where the two turbines outflow combined before traversing a common tailroad to outfall in the Zambezi”.

He also pointed to the fact that at maximum capacity, the turbines each produce 104,444 KW per unit, and the six units produce a massive 625,000 KW in total, and can handle a mindblowing nine thousand cubic metres of water per second.

Such is the volume and force of the outflow that the water has eroded a crater almost two hundred feet deep in the riverbed rock below!

For Markham’s, the Kariba Dam turbines order was a five year project which required both meticulous planning and perfect timing.

Civil Engineering on such an immense scale involved high costs, including the employment of over ten thousand construction workers, thus the optimum timing of delivery of the vital components like the turbines, turbine runners, transformers and electrical switchgear was essential.

The turbine runners and all the parts were completed at Markhams Works and transported first by road, and then shipped to Cape Town, where they were loaded onto a specially constructed cradle and transported a thousand miles by rail to Bulawayo, and then three hundred miles by road to their final destination at the Kariba Gorge, four hundred kilometres downstream from the famous Victoria Falls.

The fifty ton monsters were lifted by giant crane and lowered onto the hydraulic platform that was to take them deep into the underground caverns beneath the dam wall, where a team of engineers from Markham’s supervised their installation.

On May 17th 1960, thanks to Markham’s of Chesterfield, and bang on schedule - the giant turbines throbbed into life, providing electric power for both Zambia and Zimbabwe, and helping to lay the foundations for a future economic stability, and to cement a new bond of brotherhood between the emerging nations of what was to become a united South Africa.

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