Manx National Heritage has made an important new discovery in the history of the Laxey Wheel.
In January 2023 a selection of watercolours from a gentleman’s tour of the British Isles went on sale in a London auction house. One of these was labelled as the Laxey Wheel. Closer inspection revealed that this was not the much-loved Lady Isabella, though the location in the Glen Mooar valley was accurately depicted. Instead, it is believed that the painting shows the pre-cursor of the world-famous waterwheel.
Curator of Art & Social History Matthew Richardson commented:
“When I first saw this I was immediately intrigued; not wishing to get my hopes up too early I consulted a number of colleagues including renowned Laxey expert Andrew Scarffe BEM. All confirmed what I was thinking, that this was a portrayal of the original wheel, previously only known as a silhouette in the distance in another painting.
This new picture shows us how that first wheel worked in great detail, and it adds enormously to our understanding of the site. Clearly, the Lady Isabella did not arrive fully formed in the mind of the designer Robert Casement. Instead, he drew on certain elements of the previous wheel, but altered and improved others. It may even be that a whole section, the rod duct, was carried over from that first wheel”.
As well as undertaking extensive and painstaking work to preserve the physical structure of the historic sites under its care, Manx National Heritage strives to deepen its understanding of those sites and their place in Manx history. The painting, which dates from around 1840 will now become part of the art collection which is held on behalf of the Manx people by Manx National Heritage.
Designed by Victorian engineer, Robert Casement, the Great Laxey Wheel, as we now know, was built to pump water from the depths of the Laxey mines using water from Glen Mooar to power the wheel. The impressive 22.1 (72.6 feet) diameter structure found immediate popularity and has remained one of the Island’s most iconic and dramatic attractions for over 150 years.
When the Laxey mine closed for the last time in 1929, the Laxey Wheel stopped and was abandoned. In December 1937, Lonan man, Edwin Kneale, felt he could stand by no longer. Recognising the wheel’s value, and with the primary aim of saving it for future generations, he leased the wheel from its private owner and set about repairing and caring for it. Aged 32 at the time, he risked his livelihood to save Lady Isabella from demolition.
The wheel was put up for auction in October 1946, when Mr Kneale stepped in, buying Lady Isabella before the sale. He started a complete refurbishment at his own expense, transferring ownership to the Isle of Man Government in 1965, ensuring that this important piece of Manx history and heritage was safe for future generations.
Saved for the nation, tourists flocked to the world famous waterwheel. Ownership of Lady Isabella was transferred to the Manx Museum and National Trust.
Manx National Heritage has recently completed the first phase of an extensive conservation programme to the Lady Isabella, during which the world famous wheel was carefully studied as work on stone masonry, the wheel housing, handrails, cladding, buckets, viewing platform and wheel structure was completed. The next phase in this momentous project aims to conserve the wheel’s rod duct and T-Rocker.