It is only after you have been in the whimsical world of steam and traction engines for a while that the subtle idiosyncrasies of the different types of engine and their various makes gradually come to the surface and become more and more apparent. The first engine I had was a 7 nhp red Burrell two-speed agricultural engine. It was a very pretty engine, in fact, it was the archetypal traction engine in most people’s eyes and it was the love of my life, but I began to have a wandering eye for another, the massive, ungainly Fowler ploughing engine! To me this was the engine of engines. The biggest engine on the field, twice as big as the normal traction engine and bigger than the magnificent showman’s engine, it was a brute. For some obscure reason, I always remembered a little motto on the Tate & Lyle Golden Syrup tin as a kid. 'Out of strength comes forth sweetness.’ It had a picture of a dead lion with bees flying round it - well, I think it was dead! I could never figure out the connection with the lion and the bees, but the saying stuck. I think I just liked the tin, but it helped to justify my new infatuation. There was something strong and sweet about the ploughing engine.
Everybody thoughtI was out of my tree to even think of parting with the Burrell, which was quite a refined engine in the pecking order of the steam hierarchy, especially to be replaced for a lowly ’plougher’. In horse terms it was at the bottom of the pack, like swapping a hunter for a cart horse with big furry hooves. I was always told that you have to think in horse terms when it came to traction engines as all those years ago they were the first to take over from the poor, overworked animal. For some reason the functional, plain, big, Fowler ploughing engine did something for me. Only Fred Dibnah showed any sympathy for my new lust. He thought I was bloody daft, but still came up the suggestion: "When are we going to look at some, cock?"
He could see an adventure brewing and he also had a particular penchant for big Fowlers. We did a few surreptitious trips up and down the country into the depths of rural England looking at ploughing engines for sale. It was while returning from one of these expeditions in the Cotswolds that we got invited into a big country house. Fred suggested that the five-inch gauge old working steam model of an ancient locomotive in a glass case in the library would still steam up. To screams from her ladyship of ”Oh my God, Oh my God,” and amid clouds of steam, Fred and the out-of-control loco nearly demolished one of her priceless bookcases.
Our hunt for ploughing engines took us into the most tucked away country places. These forgotten gentle giants of long ago were hidden away in farms and barns, some under bales of hay with chickens running round their broad wheels. One even had chickens roosting in the smoke box and Fred took some eggs back home. Specially hatched in a Fowler smoke box! The love affair deepened. I had to own one! Even Fred was getting immersed with the nobility of this underrated breed of the plougher.
We even tracked one down in the middle of the suburbs of Manchester. It was in a back garden on a housing estate near Oldham. A retired old gentleman had built a wooden shed round it. How he had managed to squeeze the big engine into his back garden was a mystery. The shape of the shed was the outline silhouette of the engine, even to the chimney. It was built so tight around it that was virtually a ploughing engine in shed form. Fred was quite moved as the old man loved it so much that he just wanted to sit in this shed at night and polish it. It was like being in a secret shrine. He would never ever steam it again.
The problem with looking for a ploughing engine was that they were never popular with the revival interest of the traction engine, hence many of them had deteriorated beyond my pocket for restoration. I suspect the love of steam started in most of us from childhood memories of the sheer unadulterated power of the mighty steam railway locomotive. The vision and atmosphere created by a main line passenger locomotive gently hauling a train into a station like York could not fail to stir the emotions of anyone interested in mechanical things. I doubt if there is anything even to this day to which excites the emotions so much as standing beside the engine did, admiring the sheer magnitude of this warm, friendly leviathan, just simmering away as it took a short breather before resuming its long haul north. These wistful memories possibly carried on in the psyche of many traction engine men. The traction engine is the nearest thing to a steam locomotive a man of modest means could possibly own, and to me a ploughing engine was even nearer still! In my imaginative mind it was virtually a slow Black Five on road wheels.
I finally tracked one down, in bits, at Kingston on Thames, a most unlikely place. It had had all the right things already done - a re-tubed boiler, new firebox and recut gears. A Fowler BB1 ploughing engine No 15139. It was absolutely right except it was in bits but it was what I wanted, and Fred considered it 'a reet good buy’. The deal was done and it was mine! The great day dawned when it all arrived on a low-loader. We dutifully laid out the various mechanical bits and pieces on the floor of a shed. It all looked formidable and we soon realised thatI didn’t have the facilities needed to do the job properly. Mind you, Fred had told me that in the first place. Frank Lythgoe, who owned half-a-dozen of the country’s best showmen’s engines came to the rescue and we transferred it to his big yard. ' There it's restoration was completed in the midst of illustrious steam company. The work was done with the help of Frank, Fred, and Will Dakin's dad, Jim, who was an expert on ploughers, knowing all their little intricacies. It was painted in black with the traditional burnt orange lining used by Fowlers. She looked magnificent, but I discovered that dear Frank had got the sign-writer to paint 'The black bastard' in French, in a secret spot. I think she proudly retains that to this day if you know where to look!
When we first tried her out on the road, it was something else. It made the Burrell feel like a Dinky toy. It was so enormous that you couldn’t even see over the front of the boiler but she had a very special characteristic. For all her size, she was a gentle old girl and very laid back, the difference between a wire-haired terrier and a Great Dane in traction engine personalities. On one of our first ventures onto the road Fred was driving, standing on tiptoe trying to peer over the boiler of the monster, and I was steering. We had only been on the road for a few minutes and were coming up to a road junction in a busy village. A girl in a white Mini zoomed in front of us and stopped at the junction. Fred closed the regulator - or he thought he did - to stop the engine, but the movement of the Fowler’s regulator lever was in the opposite direction to that of his Aveling Steamroller, so he had inadvertently accelerated instead. He shouted, ”Oh, shit," grabbed the reversing lever and hauled it back. The massive engine reared up in a cloud of black smoke bellowing from the chimney as we ever so slowly shunted the poor girl in the Mini out into the main road. She nearly had a heart attack at the sight of this steaming monster behind her which had nudged her little car up the butt. The Fowler has a metal tool box mounted between the front wheels and it was the box that came into contact with the Mini, severely denting the boot. Fred never forgave himself, but it was so easily done.
Looking back at this incident, it reminded me of when we nearly ran into the back of a police car stopping in front of the roller on the Cat and Fiddle. Motorists have a habit of trying to nip in in front of you at traffic lights and places, forgetting that traction engines are not so nimble on the brakes. We took the big, gentle engine to many an event, always by road. Fred secretly admitted that big Fowlers were his favourite engines.
He confessed that he especially liked the big road locomotives that were once operated by Norman Box, the road hauliers. They used these engines in teams to haul big castings and transformers and things back in the 20s. His favourite engine of all was Atlas, which he had been privileged to work on. He considered the Fowler cylinder block to be unrivalled in traction engine steam engineering design. It was, indeed, a magical bit of casting. He also felt that it had a kind of godly shape to it, as if it could be in a Greek temple -it must have been Fred’s special artistic eye for these things. As he said: "That Mr Fowler was one of the great Victorian visionaries and was well before his time. Wondrous things came out of those Fowler works’es in Leeds.” For some reason dear Fred always referred to works as works’es.
Just as a note for those of you not so familiar with the workings of traction engines, and what a ploughing engine is: most traction engines were general purpose farm haulers that replaced the horse. They could also work farm machinery by driving a belt from the fly wheel to a threshing machine. The steam ploughing engines were specially designed to work in pairs to pull a big plough from one side of a field to another connected to a cable which wound round a horizontal winding drum mounted beneath the engines' boilers. They created the first reason for making fields bigger as it was more economical to plough big fields than small ones.
Roger's Reminiscences - Fred and the ploughing engine
Copyright © 2011 Roger Murray