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Who was Edward Hayes?
Edward Hayes was the Fitzcarraldo of Stony Stratford: an engineer who constructed world-beating, ocean-going steamboats in a factory over fifty miles away from the sea. Like some of the teachers in today’s Radcliffe School, Hayes was a Northerner who came to work in Wolverton, building a successful career here and staying on to become an important member of the local community. He is a true local hero and an inspirational figure for those students who are fortunate enough to be in the House which bears his name. Edward Hayes was born in Manchester in 1818 and served his engineering apprenticeship in the industrial NorthWest. In the early 1840s, Hayes was appointed as an engineer in the London & Birmingham Railway’s new locomotive works in Wolverton.
By the end of the decade, Hayes had left Wolverton Works to set up his own engineering business on London Road in Stony Stratford. His factory, the Watling Works, was built on the site now occupied by the Citroen garage. At first, Hayes produced agricultural equipment and machinery for sale to local farmers. The most successful product of the business was a “portable” steam engine which could be wheeled around the fields to provide power wherever the farmers needed it. This machine was Hayes’ own invention and was especially popular because it needed only one person to operate it, at a time when most agricultural steam engines required two or three workers. Hayes branched out into boat-building during the 1860s and quickly earned an international reputation for quality and service. The Watling Works’ order-books bulged with requests for vessels from the governments of Russia, Japan and Egypt. Hayes supplied high-powered steam launches to the Royal Navy, tugboats to harbour boards and steam yachts to wealthy aristocrats.
As the nearest tidal water was in the Thames estuary, over fifty miles away, Hayes’ boat-building successes are rather surprising…and there wasn’t even any access to water in his Stony Stratford boatyard! Completed vessels had to be mounted on a trailer and towed along the High Street to the wharf in Old Stratford. Here, the boats were launched on to the canal and prepared for the journey to London and the sea. The boats would be stripped of their masts, funnels and superstructure so that they would fit under the bridges when they were towed South down the Grand Union Canal. Those vessels that were too big to float in the canal would be dismantled into several separate sections which were loaded on to barges: they would then be reassembled in graving docks when they reached the Thames, ready to sail the oceans of the world.
Edward Hayes understood the value of education: for some years he combined his work at the boatyard with a teaching job at the British & Foreign Bible Society School in Stony Stratford. He lived at a time when the state offered only minimal teaching to ordinary children so he developed a highly effective training scheme for his Watling Works apprentices. Some idea of the effectiveness of Hayes’ educational programme can be gained from the later careers of his Stony Stratford protégés: in 1868, Hayes’ former apprentice Osborne Reynolds was appointed by the University of Manchester as Professor of Engineering (when he was only 26!); another apprentice went on to the Belfast shipyard of Harland & Wolff, where he worked as one of the principal designers of their most famous ship – the Titanic. Edward Hayes died in 1877 but his son, also named Edward Hayes, carried on the work of the firm. Edward Hayes junior died in 1917 and production at the yard ceased in 1925. Two of the company’s British boats have survived into the twenty-first century: the Thames tug Pat (built in 1923) is on display in the Milton Keynes Museum, Stacey Hill, while the Ship Canal tug Manchester (built in 1874) can be seen at the Ellesmere Port Boat Museum, Merseyside.
There are many reasons to celebrate the life of Edward Hayes. His boat-building successes, miles from the sea, remind us that, with the right attitude, difficulties can be overcome and the seemingly impossible can be achieved. We admire his resourcefulness and his powers of invention. We respect his belief in education and his care for the members our local community. He is an inspiration to all of us in Hayes House.