Roaster Restoration – Part 2

Bishops’ Hats and Scally Caps

For over twenty years, I’ve longed to get my hands on a Whitmee coffee roaster. Due to their extreme scarcity and cost - whenever one did come onto the market in the UK, it carried a price beyond my means - the dream eluded me. I contented myself instead by diligently researching and collecting heavy-duty ‘Monitor’ roasters built here in the U.S. and amazing open-drum and open-flame ‘Uno’ roasters manufactured in England.

Why Whitmee? I fell in love with their design - especially their gothic “Bishop’s Hat” profile, and their über-cool cast iron combination charge/discharge chute that projects out and downward from their face plate like a ski-jump – many years ago after seeing my first photograph of a Whitmee coffee roaster. Taken somewhere in Britain, and first published in 1922 in William H. Ukers’s seminal book “All About Coffee”, the photo shows one of the larger Whitmee Simplex roasters (their 168 lb batch machine) in action.

I love the roaster chap standing proudly next to his belt-driven Whitmee machine, with his working-class ‘scally’ cap perched squarely on his head and his white shirt and tie protected by a long shop coat - sleeves rolled up and ready for action. (You have to respect a man wearing a hat and tie whilst roasting coffee – very proper and professional, and very British.) What I wouldn’t give to be able to chat with him for a few hours about roasting coffee with his Whitmee – ideally over a pint or two of ale at his favorite pub!

I discovered my Whitmee last winter, while searching on-line in the UK for interesting roasters. The fellow that was selling it had a couple of roasters for sale; an older, mid-sized Probat that wound up being acquired by a roaster in Canada, and the smaller Whitmee shop roaster that I eventually acquired. I contacted the owner, and grew quite excited when I saw the pictures he e-mailed me. I learned the roaster wasn’t currently operational because of a fire, but otherwise he claimed it was in pretty good shape, relatively speaking (aside from someone painting it a vibrant - and completely inauthentic - shade of blue at some point in its past). He believed the roaster to be from the 1960s, but I suspected upon seeing the photos that it was much older, as its splay-legged style and Gothic-arched design resembled the post-WWI Simplex-class Whitmee roasters I had seen in old photos, not the Romanesque-arched Whitmee roasters I’d seen from the post-WWII era through the 1960s, after which the business appears to have folded.

There was one other clue about the age of the roaster in the photos that the English fellow sent me, which I’m not sure many other people would have discerned. His photos showed that his Whitmee’s drum was not driven by a V-belt connecting a pulley on the drum to a smaller pulley on the shaft of an electric motor, as I would have expected in a machine from the 1960s. Instead, it was powered by a complex off-set chain-drive system, with a huge circular sprocket on the back of the drum that struck me by its resemblance to the chain-drive systems once common on pre-WWII motorcycles, such as the American-built Indian or the British-built BSA and Norton bikes. But what was this chain-drive - common on early motorcycles - doing on this coffee roaster?

The answer I arrived at actually gave additional support of my supposition regarding the early post-WWI vintage of this roaster. In my research into Whitmee (or, more properly, ‘The Whitmee Engineering Co., Ltd.’, located at the ‘Alecto Works, Grove Road, Balham, London’), I learned something very interesting. I’d discovered that the Whitmee company in the 1920s and 1930s – in addition to manufacturing coffee roasters and tea equipment – also manufactured a line of touring and sporting motorcycles that were sold under the brand-name ‘Alecto’! How crazy was that?! ‘Today, lads, we’re assembling coffee roasters, but tomorrow come ready to build motorcycles!’ But with some further investigation, it turned out that it wasn’t such an unusual idea after all. I uncovered the fact that in that era there were literally dozens of brands of motorcycles produced by many different manufacturing companies in Britain – all rivals for a strong domestic market for ‘cycles, plus a lucrative export market that existed at that time throughout the British Empire for inexpensive transportation. So perhaps designing and building coffee roasters and motorcycles with the same team of engineers and fabricators under the same roof wasn’t as crazy as it sounds, being instead simply a prudent diversification of manufacturing resources in uncertain times – while incidentally creating another puzzle for a steampunk roaster enthusiast to try and solve someday.

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