New exhibition celebrates Yorkshire engineering genius

The Joseph Bramah Exhibition


An un-pickable lock more than 200 years old; the world’s first really efficient flushing toilet; the world’s first fire engine that delivered constant, effective hose pressure; and the world’s first hydraulic press.  They all changed the world; they were all the work of one man – and they all feature in a major new exhibition at the Hawley Collection, Kelham Island Museum in Sheffield.

The genius behind all these revolutionary inventions was Joseph Bramah, born in Stainborough near Barnsley in 1749.  The son of a tenant farmer and former coachman on the Wentworth Woodhouse estate, he trained as a carpenter, and tramped to London where he was employed by a master carpenter making surrounds for the then-new water closets.  Finding that the WCs he had to work with were poorly made and didn’t function well, he vowed he could do better – and went on to become an engineer and inventor whose lock-manufacturing shop was the cradle of the British machine-tool industry.  Between 1778 and 1796, his ‘golden period’, Bramah re-wrote the rulebook of the engineering industry.

Bramah treasures on show in the new exhibition include both one of his biggest hydraulic presses, supplied to the infant Ordnance Survey in around 1795, and one of his smallest, used by Michael Faraday to isolate benzene in 1825.

Visitors can see one of only three Bramah fire engines still in existence; the other survivors are in a Rouen museum and in Warrington.  And while there isn’t a Bramah toilet at the exhibition, a largely unaltered, early 19th century Bramah WC survives in nearby Sheffield city centre, and can be visited in situ; sadly, it is no longer in use.

But it first and foremost as a locksmith that Joseph Bramah is remembered today – in fact the revolutionary ultra-secure lock he invented more than two centuries ago is still being manufactured by Bramah Security Equipment Ltd today.  The exhibition includes a wide range of Bramah locks, including his magnificent 1787 brass commemorative lock, plus its original iron key, together with an eclectic selection of historic Bramah locks and related artefacts, and a selection of modern Bramah locks.

The exhibition also recognises the work and influence of Bramah’s foreman and collaborator, Henry Maudsley (1771-1831).  Bramah’s innovative lock mechanisms and their equally innovative keys had to be made to extremely accurate specifications, and it was Maudsley’s machines that turned the lock business into an economic production-line success.  And Maudsley went on to great things on his own account, as an engineer and inventor, and also as the employer and patron of some of the early 19th century’s most important engineers.

The special exhibition runs until April 2020, and was made possible due to generous support from the Newcomen Society in its centenary year; from the Royal Institution, from Barnsley Museums; and from Bramah Security Equipment Ltd.  The exhibition is open every Monday-Thursday from 10am to 4pm; and every Sunday from 11am to 4.45pm.  For more information, go to