Paxman and Refrigeration Compressors

For many years a substantial proportion of Paxman's business was the building of refrigeration compressors for the Linde British Refrigeration Company (LBRC) and its successor, the Lightfoot Refrigeration Company. Professor Carl von Linde of Weisbaden (one of whose students was Rudolph Diesel) had built his first ammonia refrigeration compressor in 1873. The British arm of his business, the LBRC, was formed in 1885 and placed its first orders with Paxman in 1890. The initial order, in February of that year, was for a Paxman tandem compound steam engine to drive a compressor. The following month, on 10th March 1890, the LBRC placed an order for four horizontal compound steam engines and compressors. So began the history of Paxman building compressors for Linde.

By 1890 Paxman had acquired over twenty years experience of building reciprocating machinery, in the form of steam engines. The Company now possessed a sound understanding of the technology together with the necessary skills and facilities for the manufacture and assembly of components such as cylinders, pistons, connecting rods, crankshafts and valve gear. This combination of knowledge, skills and manufacturing facilities made the Company ideally qualified to take on the work of building reciprocating compressors.

Thomas Bell Lightfoot and James Paxman

A key factor in Paxman's long and fruitful association with the LBRC was the close relationship that developed between James Paxman and Thomas Bell Lightfoot who was appointed Managing Director of the LBRC in early 1890. It was Lightfoot who, a few weeks after his appointment, placed the first order with Paxman. James Paxman carefully cultivated the relationship, actively making friends with other members of Lightfoot's family and extending a good deal of credit to the LBRC. It helped that Paxman's London office was only over the road from Lightfoot's office in Queen Victoria Street. Such was the closeness of the partnership that James Paxman appointed Thomas Lightfoot as one of the executor's of his will. In the event, Lightfoot withdrew from the task on grounds of his ill health shortly after Paxman died.

Ammonia and Carbonic Acid Compressors

Paxman's business with Linde grew rapidly. By 1893 Paxman was supplying Linde's British operation with about 60% of its refrigeration compressors. These were ammonia compressors, both horizontal and vertical, as were all those built for LBRC throughout the 1890s. In 1901 Paxman worked with the LBRC on the design and development of carbonic acid compressors which Paxman started to manufacture sometime between 1902 and 1905. The carbonic acid type did not carry the risks which accompanied the use of ammonia, a highly toxic and corrosive substance, and was sometimes specified for marine installations. However, ammonia compressors continued to predominate as the type built by Paxman. They were offered in a wide range of sizes and variants which was not entirely to Paxman's advantage. The LBRC required Paxman to build for stock which involved tying up capital, finding storage and waiting for payment. In addition, storage had to be found for the large number of patterns necessary to manufacture the big range of different machines.

By 1904 the main markets for Linde compressors were breweries, cold stores for meat and other produce at large ports and distribution centres, ice making plants, and refrigerating ships' holds. In the early years of the 20th century the export and import of meat was a fast growing trade. As is evident from the Paxman copy order books, the LBRC achieved healthy sales both at home in Britain and overseas. India, Australia and New Zealand were major export customers. Sales were not restricted to compressors and could include steam engines to drive them, ancillary refrigeration equipment or complete refrigeration plants.

Engine and compressor No 11179 at Wilderspool Brewery
Steam engine side (left) and Linde ammonia compressor side (right) of refrigeration plant built by Paxman
and installed in Greenall Whitley's Wilderspool Brewery, Warrington, in 1902.   more > >
Photographs by courtesy of and © Colin Bowden.

Paxman Steam Engines to Drive Compressors

Some of the orders LBRC placed with Paxman for compressors were accompanied by orders for steam engines to drive them. Paxman did not have a monopoly of this associated business as in many cases Linde or its customer specified an engine from another manufacturer. Nevertheless, a useful number of engine and boiler orders did accompany those for compressors, providing a welcome additional source of profitable work. Most of the Paxman steam engines supplied to Linde customers in the early days would have been Class B girder types, such as the tandem compound version of the Class B. There are also examples of 'Colchester' compounds being supplied for the purpose. From 1901 a number of Paxman's own Drop-Valve engines were supplied. Relatively few of these were built and most were ordered by Linde. A more advanced engine was the Paxman-Lentz. Between June 1909 and May 1930 the LBRC and its successor business, the Lightfoot Refrigeration Company, ordered a total of thirty Paxman-Lentz engines to drive compressors. All except five were horizontal tandem compound types. Eighteen of the thirty were for Vestey Brothers, the powerful meat-trading family, for their plants in Britain, China, Australia and New Zealand.

The Lightfoot Refrigeration Company

Because Britain was at war with Germany, the LBRC severed ties with its parent company in July 1916 and became the Lightfoot Refrigeration Company, taking its name from Thomas Lightfoot who had been the business's Managing Director for over quarter of a century. Paxman took a major shareholding in the reconstituted company, acquiring £4,755 ordinary shares and £1,885 preference shares in the new Lightfoot business. (1)  Paxman continued to build refrigeration compressors on a regular basis throughout the First World War. After the War this work assumed even greater importance. During 1919, 1920 and 1921 over 40% of all Paxman product orders were for Lightfoot compressors. (2)  The regular flow of these orders must have contributed substantially to Paxman's ability to survive during the difficult years of the early 1920s.

Ice Moulds

Whilst the most important part of Paxman's business with the LBRC, subsequently the Lightfoot Refrigeration Company, was the building of compressors, and the supply of engines to drive them, a related element was the manufacture of steel ice moulds for use with their refrigeration plants. Before the First World War these moulds were supplied direct from Germany. With the outbreak of war this ceased and orders for them were placed with Paxman. The first order, entered in the books on 1st September 1914, was for 1,511 moulds for Grimsby, at that time a major fishing port. By the end of 1918 Paxman had received orders for a total of at least 5,724 ice moulds.

The numbers of ice moulds ordered from Paxman by Lightfoot in the immediate post-war years were as follows:


Included in the 1922 figure above are 2,664 corrugated ice moulds ordered in October that year. The surviving copy order book shows that in 1927 orders were received for a total of 442 moulds, the last order being entered on 13th May. No further orders are shown in the book, either during the rest of 1927 or in succeeding years. By this time the Germans had come back into the ice mould market and were able to severely undercut prices being charged in the UK. The moulds were ordered for both home and overseas customers, with substantial numbers being for India.

Moulds were ordered in a variety of sizes and were of tapering horizontal cross-section as is evident from the order book descriptions. One popular size, for example, is specified as 23½ / 20½" x 8¾ / 7¼" x 48" which indicates a mould 48 inches high with the width and depth tapering from 23½" x 8¾" to 20½" x 7¼". A popular larger size was 28 / 26" x 10¼ / 9" x 60" and one of the smaller sizes was 14½ / 13" x 7½ / 6½" x 43½".

During the First World War the demands of Paxman's war production led to facilities at Standard Works being fully stretched. The Company therefore acquired a small, self-contained works occupying a one acre site in Hawkins Road, close to the Hythe in Colchester. This works had been laid out earlier for the production of small oil and gas engines by the Pasley Engineering company which had failed in bankruptcy. When the War ended the Hawkins Road Works was turned over to the ice-mould making department, and in time became devoted entirely to the manufacture of steel ice moulds. (3)

Compressor Manufacture Pre- and Post-World War 2

In the latter part of the 1920s sales of Lightfoot compressors declined after the running of the Lightfoot business passed from Thomas Lightfoot to his adopted son Kenneth. During his time the firm failed to keep up with new technology and business was lost to competitors making more advanced and smaller machines. Shares in the Lightfoot Refrigeration Company plummeted in value and Paxman, which held a good number of them, lost a lot of money. The fortunes of the Lightfoot business were restored after the appointment of a new manager who turned the company round.

In 1930 a new range of vertical, single-acting, high speed ammonia compressors was launched, designed for two, three or four grouped cylinders, driven by oil engine or electric motor. These compressors proved highly successful and were still being produced by Paxman for the Lightfoot company in the 1950s. At that time they were being supplied to a variety of undertakings such as nylon and ice cream manufacturers and skating rinks. (4)


1. Steam and the Road to Glory, Andrew Phillips, Hervey Benham Charitable Trust, 2002, p. 463.
2. ibid, p. 479.
3. The British Engineers' Export Journal, June 1926.
4. Ninety Years of Engineering - The Story Of Davey, Paxman & Co Ltd, Peter Woodall, c.1955 (unpublished).

© Richard Carr 2009

Page updated: 12 MAR 2009